Alan Bissett: Is writing in Scots an act of resistance?
I’m often described as someone who writes in ‘Scots’, but I’m not sure if that’s true in the strictest sense. If what’s meant is the heritage language which dates back to the 15th Century, deriving – but also distinct – from the northern form of Old English, with all its ‘hoolets’, howfs‘ and ‘houghmagandies’, then no, I’m not a ‘Scots’ writer.
Reading that archaic language still connects me to a country which, in the main, is gone, a victim of English linguistic imperialism and marginalisation. Scots and Gaelic were eradicated violently, we shouldn’t forget, by centuries of school-teachers with belts, since the powerful are aware that language houses the consciousness of a people. When I make the effort to experience Auld Scots, then, I feel my cultural roots roll and birl off my tongue, my mind clothed in ancient fashions, placed inside a lost history.
But I can’t write in that language. I don’t want to. It isn’t mine. What excites me is Scots as it has survived, as it’s spoken today in pubs, at bus stops, at the bingo, in taxis, as it was spoken by me and my family and my friends when I was growing up. While I’m aware that this contemporary language is formed from the older one, that doesn’t matter in the moment of writing it, as that moment is not about historical fidelity. It’s about present-day truth. To write about Scottish people authentically, especially Scottish working-class people, you have to write the way they actually talk, not the way you wish they talked had the Act of Union not happened. I’m more with Tom Leonard than Hugh MacDiarmid on this: language is a living thing. Writing ‘Scots’ for me is about trying to capture something which flits through the air between ordinary people as they speak, rather than distilling something which once existed but for which we still yearn. It’s the difference between a menagerie and a museum.
If there’s a politic to this contemporary Scots it’s implicit, submerged, felt, not entirely ‘nationalist’ as it’s bound up with class. The ‘language of the street’ just happens to be that of a street which Scottish people walk up and down. This is why in Scotland class, nation and language are inextricable, as for generations Scottish people who aspired to be upwardly mobile had to anglicise themselves, smooth the rough edges off their accents, lose the glottal stop, dump the ‘slang’ and all its attendant cultural baggage. If language is consciousness then writing in Scots is an act of resistance, of defiance, of summoning ourselves. In order to be taken seriously, however, we are forced – as I am here – to perform as though we are imagined members of the Southern middle-class, using Standard English: the ‘dialect’ of people in power.
It’s a tightrope, Spud. It’s a f**kin tightrope.
For the UN’s International Mother Language Day on 21 February, we're running a series of blogs from authors from around Scotland. Check out our #AneYinWan Scots tag on your favourite social network for more Scots celebrations.
Photo credit, Sean Purser