On 26th March 2018, Bella Caledonia reported the launch of the North East Scots Language Board, a new organisation dedicated to promoting the Scots language. The Board is based at the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen, but its executive includes representatives of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeenshire Council and a member of the media. Its purpose is to champion the Scots spoken in the North-East of Scotland, but not, apparently, to the exclusion of the Scots spoken in other areas.
In the publicity surrounding the launch of the Board, the concept of a Scots ‘Hertland’ has been invoked, on the basis that the greatest concentration of Scots speakers are to be found between the River Tay and Moray Firth. Bella’s Scots Editor, Alistair Heather, has highlighted similarities to the Gaeltacht in the West. The comparison is revealing. This should not be seen as an advance for the Scots language movement, but rather a retreat. It is the last circling of the wagons around some notional defensible dialect ‘Hertland’ or ‘stronghold’. However did we get to this sad place?
In December 1921, Christopher Murray Grieve wrote a letter to the Aberdeen Free Press in response to a lecture by Dr. J.M. Bulloch to the Vernacular Circle of the London Robert Burns Club entitled The Delight of the Doric in the Diminutive. He dismissed it in the following suitably pithy terms:
“Dr. Bulloch’s plea for Doric infantilism is not worthy of the critical consideration of nursery governesses. A critic capable of referring to ‘Mr. John Mitchell’s delightful crack with his grandson’ is capable of anything – and nothing. Most contemporary grandchildren would take steps to have us examined in lunacy if we afflicted them with such talks in Doric.”
Grieve continued his scathing critique of the movement for a Doric revival in the columns of the Aberdeen Free Press and the Dunfermline Press during 1922. Yet, in the first issue of his The Scottish Chapbook, published in October 1922, we find him introducing us to the work in Scots of the poet, Hugh MacDiarmid. MacDiarmid is interesting, Grieve believes, because:
“He is, I think, the first Scottish writer to address himself to the question of the extendability (without physical violence) of the Vernacular to embrace the whole range of modern culture – or, in other words, tried to make up the leeway of the language. It is an exceedingly difficult task and I envy him his enthusiasm. What he has to do is to adapt an essentially rustic tongue to the very much more complex requirements of our urban civilisation – to give it all the almost illimitable suggestionability it lacks (compared to say English or French).”
Grieve’s initial scepticism about the potential for a revival of the dialects of Scots was based on their limitations as media for the full range of modern cultural expression. He believed that if Scots was to have a future it needed to move beyond the humble and couthie virtues of the cottar’ fireside, to which he believed it had been confined by the Burns cult. It was this belief which led him, in the persona of Hugh MacDiarmid, to embark on the creation of ‘Synthetic Scots’.
In 1951, in his essay A Short Introduction to Scottish Literature, Sydney Goodsir Smith wrote:
“When MacDiarmid spoke of ‘Synthetic Scots,’ he merely referred to another aspect of this necessary revolution; that we should forget the whole poverty-stricken ‘dialect’ tradition that Burns and his predecessors had unconsciously been responsible for, and use again all the rich resources of the language as Dunbar and the Makars had used it, as had Burns and Fergusson, Scott, Galt, Stevenson, and George Douglas Brown. In fact to make a synthesis where for too long there had been “disintegration”.
In 1951, Goodsir Smith was able to reflect with satisfaction that while “in the early days there were only a few adherents to the cause. Today there are a host of them.” Sadly, in the decades since, the Scots language movement has regressed intellectually, and now seems intent on geographical retrenchment. Balking at the creation a standard Scots orthography as being ower dreary a darg, it has, in recent years turned its back on MacDiarmid’s Modernist manifesto, retreating once again into nostalgia-driven dialectism. Thus, in response to the article on the North-East Scots Language Board, Alistair Heather can write:
Stannart spellin. This ane’s tricky. Basically Scots screivers warkin the noo (masel includit) hae spend years pittin thegither an orthography that seems tae them best tae express their thochts in Scots. It can be idiosyncratic. Stannarts dae exist, sic as the fine ane https://www.makforrit.scot/scots/stylesheet/. Gin ye want a stannart tae follae, follae that ane. But dinnae expect ilka screiver tae ging oot an re-learn hou tae spell owrenicht.
There ye hae it! Learnin hou ti spell is ower muckle a fash, tho oo expect it o oorsels wi English, French, German or Italian. In Scotland it’s ti be each til their ain private Pitsligo.
Sae, tak awa Aiberdeen an twal mile roon, an faur are oo? The Barnyards o Delgaty a wheen afore lowsin time in April 1922, A’m thinkin. It’ll be a blythe day oo leave the ferm – at lang an last.