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A language on the precipice

News | Published in TESS on 29 July, 2011 | By: Henry Hepburn

The elevation to Government of one of the most vocal defenders of Scots was a boost to the Mither Tongue’s recent renaissance - but experts warn that only radical action can save it from oblivion.

Alasdair Allan is enjoying the last laugh. In 1999, as a researcher in the recently-opened Scottish Parliament, he heard 15 MSPs ridicule the Scots language. Twelve years later Dr Allan is the Learning and Skills Minister, with a special remit for Scots and Gaelic - and he wants to put Scots on a par with French, Spanish and German.

Scots has had several landmark moments in recent years, one of which was down to Dr Allan. As a Glasgow University undergraduate in 1994, he fought successfully for the right to submit all his exams and essays in Scots, the first student to do so in Scotland.

Since then, Scots has been officially deemed a language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages - although much of the public does not see it that way - and had its status elevated by Curriculum for Excellence.

The position of Scots Makar was created by the Scottish Parliament in 2004, a national poet who would write in various kinds of Scots. Edwin Morgan was the first incumbent until his death in 2010, followed by Liz Lochhead - both revered exponents of Scots poetry.

This year, Scots featured in the Scotland Census for the first time, and 12 teachers were awarded professional recognition by the General Teaching Council for Scotland for work with Scots.

But many warn that the foundations remain fragile. A national survey of teachers found that provision of Scots “remains very limited and depends entirely on the goodwill of teachers or on small-scale arts and education projects”. Teachers deemed training opportunities and resources for Scots “inadequate”.

The profile of Scots is “still very far from having the recognition or the status which is its due,” said Aberdeen University’s Professor J Derrick McClure, in his chairman’s foreword to a Scots language working group report, submitted to the Government late last year. It was commissioned to lay out a clear vision for the development of Scots, and warned of a rapid decline that needed to be stemmed.

The Government agreed in its response in March to

  • put funding of the Scottish Language Dictionaries and Scots Language Centre on a secure footing;
  • create a new online resource for studying Scotland, which would put Scots on an equal footing with other Scottish elements of the curriculum; and
  • create a network of Scots language co-ordinators.

The SNP manifesto for the parliamentary elections duly promised to advance “Scottish studies”, a strand of learning that would include Scots. That and the introduction of a national system of “Scots language co- ordinators” are priorities for this five-year parliament, Dr Allan told TESS.

The recently-appointed minister is wary of bold pronouncements just yet, preferring to wait and see how many people declare themselves Scots speakers in the census, whose data will start emerging in the second half of 2012. He expects a “very substantial” number, creating “an impetus for the Government to act”.

Dr Allan spoke at a recent languages conference of his support for the “1+2” European model, which encourages children to learn two languages as well as their native tongue. Gaelic could be one of the additional languages, he said. So, in theory, could Scots, but its less-developed place in classrooms makes that a more distant prospect, he cautions.

The minister, who wrote his PhD on and in Scots, points to a Scots literary heritage stretching back to the 12th Century. He believes Scotland should “see itself as a country that promotes languages and linguistic awareness from a very early age, and part of that is about developing the place that Scotland’s languages have”.

Dr Allan, who is also fluent in Gaelic, believes Scots is well behind Gaelic “in the trajectory for language revival”. He references American linguist Joshua Fishman’s book Reversing Language Shift, which sets out 20 stages for reviving minority languages. The final chapter involves a television station and a civil service, but Scots, Dr Allan estimates, is only on stage two or three.

He does not pooh-pooh any of the loftier ambitions of Scots enthusiasts, but stresses that these are for the very long term, including: Scots- medium schools following the Gaelic model - “There’s no reason prima facie why there couldn’t be”; exams in Scots, if a standard form can be derived from its many dialects; perhaps even the whole curriculum delivered in Scots in certain cases, although he underlines that Scots should complement, not displace, English.

“But we have to begin at the beginning,” said Dr Allan. “We’re starting from pretty close to a standing stop.”

Not quite, given the progress since the 1999 parliamentary debate on including a question on Scots in the 2001 Census.

“There was a queue of MSPs wanting to ridicule the idea - there must have been 15 who stood up and laughed their heads off at the whole idea of Scots being in the census, of Scots having any cultural value at all,” he said.

“There was a suggestion that this was giving status to neds - this was the level of debate. It would be virtually impossible to imagine that debate taking place now, because there have been the beginnings of a recognition that, actually, Scots is part of our cultural heritage.”

While public opinion is still split on many issues around Scots (see box), it is harder now to find public figures who will be critical. One sceptical newspaper relied on Conservative MSP Liz Smith to bolster its argument against the use of Scots in the Scottish Parliament, but she was not “anti-Scots”, she told TESS; a distant relative, Kate Bone, had been an authority on Scots in the 1950s and 1960s.

“I do have an issue with an over-emphasis on Scots language teaching in schools at a time when I think resources need to be spent on improving the teaching of the basics in English and on modern language teaching, where Scotland has fallen short in recent years,” said Ms Smith.

“I have absolutely no objection to pupils learning a little about Scots and its literature, but this must be kept in perspective in terms of the other, very pressing curriculum demands.”

That Scots is worth defending is an argument largely won, prompting Dr Allan to declare himself “fairly upbeat” about its future. Now, the question is what teachers do with it in the classroom, and where they get help.

Since 2002, small Scottish publisher Itchy Coo has become synonymous with Scots language in classrooms. Education director Matthew Fitt, who founded the company with novelist James Robertson, has worked with hundreds of schools.

The battle for recognition of Scots in Curriculum for Excellence has had a “massive impact” on its status, said Mr Fitt, who has seen objections to Scots from teachers and parents become much rarer.

But it is the next year, he believes, that will prove the true “watershed moment”, one way or another. Itchy Coo is still publishing but could not carry on its educational workshops. Unless a nationally-organised system of teacher support, resources and training is set up soon, he believes Scots will decline rapidly.

Those were roles he fulfilled almost single-handedly for nearly a decade. He had hoped that local projects would take off; instead the two-man operation of Itchy Coo became the place to go for advice about Scots. “I felt we were ticking the box for a lot of people,” Mr Fitt said.

Even though teachers widely agree with the teaching of Scots, he knows of few with the confidence to go it alone. Around 10 authorities were particularly receptive to Itchy Coo training - particularly in primary schools - but only Falkirk “took it on and ran with it”, he said, creating a potentially self-sustaining system of “Scots co-ordinators”.

Falkirk is cited in the Scots Language Working Group Report as a potential model whereby local authorities should have at least one primary and one secondary Scots language co-ordinator. The Government agreed to look at Falkirk’s progress.

Katrina Lucas, a P4 teacher at Falkirk’s Comely Park Primary, grew up in the west of Scotland but was not steeped in Scots. She was sceptical about its use in the classroom before a training session with Mr Fitt in 2007. Now she is researching how Scots can boost literacy levels, particularly among boys.

Most marked is the effect on children who might have struggled with other work and believed they were less capable than their peers, she said. “They’re getting another crack at things from a different angle. All of a sudden they’re becoming a bit of an expert, and that’s giving them a wee bit of status.”

Shy children are getting up and addressing the class: “The whole idea of speaking in English would have frightened the lives out of these children, but in Scots they were a wee bit more blase,” she added.

But Miss Lucas fears that much of the good work done at primary level fades away at secondary, where “the emphasis is on whether things are examinable”.

That is backed up by the national survey of teachers’ attitudes to Scots last year, which found strong feelings among some secondary teachers that there was not enough time, money or reason to teach Scots, although the picture was not uniform: one secondary teacher argued that Scots should have departmental status.

Falkirk education director Julia Swan - who went to a bilingual teacher- training college in Wales and has seen the long-lasting impact of suppression of Welsh - believes educators should take “any opportunity you can find to show learners that there’s more than one language”.

That ethos is clear from the moment one arrives at Nethermains Primary, to be greeted with signs - alongside their English equivalents - reading “Weelcom tae oor schuil”, “Heidie’s Office” and “Cludgie”. Last year’s nativity play was in Scots, written by P6s; walk into a classroom and you might have to duck under a washing line that is reinforcing vocabulary such as “seemit” and “trews”. Scots is not used all the time, but neither is it restricted to annual celebrations of Burns and St Andrew.

Teachers say reading and writing grades in English have improved as a direct result of Scots, while children have gained in confidence more generally. But outwith school, children still encounter older generations who recoil at the sound of Scots.

“Some children, who will speak amazing Scots at school, are not allowed to use it at home because their parents feel that it’s not proper English,” said headteacher Mary Connolly.

“We’re still battling against that type of background. For a few generations, it was actually knocked out of people.”

The Scots language working group found a strong inclination to keep Scots at bay: “Due to the traditional and still deep-seated prejudice against the language and the historically inadequate resourcing of it, only a small number of children in Scotland are currently benefiting from high- quality Scots language teaching and from the many examples of good practice which are in evidence across the profession.”

Mr Fitt, who like Dr Allan was one of the working group’s 12 members, added: “There are still children who are going to be told that the way they speak is unacceptable. And the effect that this has on self- confidence, particularly boys’, runs completely counter to CfE’s four capacities.”

He recounts tales of children banned by parents from speaking to grandparents in Doric, the north-east dialect, and a P5 girl bewildered by a headteacher’s pep talk that her way of speaking would have to change for her to get on in life.

“The well-remembered stigmatising of all forms of Scots in the classroom is much reduced, but prejudices remain,” found the working group.

Newcastle University researcher Karen Lowing has been exploring Scots and the Northumbrian dialect, uncovering the pernicious legacy of their long- term suppression in classrooms.

This had the “unforeseen result of alienating the very people who were to be educated, by excluding the language through which they expressed themselves and understood the world”. She also believes barriers may have arisen between schools and communities.

“Social inclusion and Scots language go hand in hand,” said Mr Fitt, who points out that Scots is the predominant form of expression in the country’s more deprived communities. “It’s not some academic exploration of medieval texts - this is everyday speech, by everyday people in Scotland.”

Education’s decision-makers would pounce on any other project with such an impact on social inclusion, he believes; but they seem not to grasp the wider benefits of Scots education, preferring the middle-class sensibility of, for example, the Sistema classical music project in Stirling’s Raploch estate.

The Government, in its response to the Scots language working group, did state that the merger of HMIE and Learning and Teaching Scotland could “drive the role of Scots in social inclusion”. But members of the working group - which highlighted the greater financial backing afforded other languages - fear there is a lack of urgency about Scots, that it may become a relic within a few decades

“We’ll have lost, like with the death of any language, a unique way of seeing and experiencing the world,” Mr Fitt said. “The writing of Robert Burns will simply be of historical interest. It won’t have any meaning at all. We’ll be walking up braes, through glens, past kirks, and they’ll just be names.

“We’re very good at getting rid of languages in Scotland. We’re not so good at keeping them.”

The Association for Scottish Literary Studies holds annual school conferences. This year’s is on 1 October at Strathclyde

The education section of the Scots Language Centre website includes information about projects, research results and examples of good teaching

‘Just a way of speaking’?

In 2010 the Scottish Government published the results of a survey of around 1,000 adults on the use and perception of Scots. Later in the year, a complementary survey explored the attitudes of 206 teachers and other education professionals.

General public

  • 55 per cent believe Scots should be taught in schools; 29 per cent do not;
  • 56 per cent agree that Scots has educational benefits for children;
  • 85 per cent say they speak Scots, 43 per cent “a lot/fairly often”;
  • 64 per cent agree that “I don’t really think of Scots as a language - it’s more just a way of speaking;”
  • 63 per cent disagree with the statement that Scots “doesn’t sound nice - it’s slang”;
  • 86 per cent agree that Scots is an important part of Scottish culture.

Education professionals

  • A large majority believes Scots is an important part of Scottish culture (82 per cent primary, 76 secondary);
  • 64 per cent of primary teachers were confident in teaching Scots, but only 44 per cent of secondary teachers were;
  • A small minority thought Scots should play no part in Curriculum for Excellence and was confusing for children.



The island authority’s approach was viewed by the Scots language working group as a source of possible guidelines for the rest of the country. Success was largely attributed to regular consultation between teachers and council staff on materials required and a graduate placement post charged with producing materials for pre-school and lower primary.

West Lothian

“North Sea Neebors” twinned pupils from Inveralmond Community High, Livingston, with peers in Denmark. One of its chief aims was to explore the etymology of Scots by identifying similarities with Danish. For example, the respective words for “church” and “know” are kirk/kirke and ken/kende.

South Lanarkshire

Tak the Leid, written by local teachers, broke new ground by providing a resource for secondary English departments to work with S3 pupils and upwards, using literature to build on previous study of Scots through literature. It uses Hamish MacDonald’s novella, The Girnin Gates.


Senior pupils took part in Scots “masterclasses”. A project for younger pupils involved translating traditional fairytales into Scots. The lottery-funded Time Tram Dundee project charted the city’s history in both English and Scots.


A series of anthologies of Doric verse written by children have been published, the first - designed as a curricular resource for pupils aged 8-14 - sold more than 11,000 copies.


Anne Jardine, learning and community director of the newly-formed Education Scotland, has been commissioned by Education Secretary Michael Russell to work on Studying Scotland, an online resource to be “underpinned” by the “promotion and ongoing development” of Scots and Gaelic.

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