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Battle to bring back neglected language

Burns' Week brings tradition to the fore in most schools, but some are determined to reinvigorate Scots language permanently.

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Burns' Week brings tradition to the fore in most schools, but some are determined to reinvigorate Scots language permanently.

It's not yet nine in the morning in Muirkirk and a pale sun shines through low clouds clinging to the hills. But already the primary school office staff are solving problems.

"Where can we get a clootie dumpling before the minister's visit on Monday?" wonders Elizabeth Smith. "Not from me," says headteacher Sally Wittet. "My dumpling cloth has a hole in it. Somebody suggested a pillowcase, but the water seeps through and the dumpling goes soggy."

It is a depth of preparation detail that Adam Ingram, Minister for Children and Early Years, would not have been exposed to, when he made his Burns' Week visit on Monday to the East Ayrshire village school recently highlighted for its innovative efforts in Scots language and literature by a Scottish Government working group.

Years of neglect mean that words like "cloot" are vanishing from homes, streets and playgrounds, and are more often heard now inside the schools that for years were the mainspring of their suppression.

"As pupils we used to be made to speak standard English," says Mrs Wittet. "Now they are keen for teachers to promote Scots as a language."

The tension between recent recognition (by Scottish, European and UK governments) that Scots is a language and its widespread perception as a mark of class and cultural inferiority is one of the major themes of the Scots language working group report, published last November. This can only be eased, it says, by "far-reaching educational reforms".

Political will is the engine for these, but Curriculum for Excellence is a great vehicle, says Mrs Wittet. "It's now in black and white. You are looking at Scottish culture, language and heritage. It's giving us permission to teach Scots in the classroom."

Burns' Week is one focus in most schools. But at Muirkirk Primary there are many others. Scots language and culture, as well as local history and heritage, have been promoted around the village by the efforts of Muirkirk Enterprise Group (MEG) to reinvigorate a community that languished after the collapse of coalmining.

"We work closely with the MEG on projects," says Mrs Wittet. "This is the fourth year of the Lapraik Festival. The school was involved almost from the start. The idea was a weekend for adults, with poetry, songs and heritage walks. They came to us and we suggested a poetry-speaking competition for children too."

The summer festival celebrates the life and times of John Lapraik, an amateur poet who lived near Muirkirk and was a friend of Robert Burns and inspiration for three of his poetic epistles.

"We have had funding from Muirkirk Enterprise Group for Scots language books and resources to help us take part in it," says Mrs Wittet. "Children across the school volunteer to speak at the festival. You see them getting more confident with the language and poetry every year."

Beyond Burns' Week and the Lapraik Festival, Scots language and culture make their presence felt across the curriculum, says Mrs Wittet. "It's evolving, as teachers follow the children's interests and their own. They try to bring Scots language and culture into lessons whenever they can.

"One teacher did castles recently, with a focus on those in Scotland. This term's topic for Primary 23 is Robert Burns. Primary 7 is doing the Scottish Wars of Independence."

It is almost playtime, so the Primary 7s take a little persuasion to stay and demonstrate some of their Scots poetry reciting skills, but very little. Adam Kelso stands up and launches into Burns' weel-kent creation:

When chapman billies leave the street,

And drouthy neibors, neibors meet .

An impressive 36 lines of the rollicking tetrameter later, Adam stops and accepts the animated applause of his classmates.

Asked if the words and accent they use change from classroom to playground, many of the P7s think not. Teacher Lee Wallace disagrees.

"They are very different," he insists. "Remember we were speaking about this and saying it's fine to talk in your own language. If you want to communicate with the outside world you need to change a bit to be understood. But there is nothing wrong with the way you talk normally. It's not slang. It's a language in its own right."

Along the corridor, Aynsley Connor's Primary 45 class has been working on a variety of songs and poems in preparation for Burns' Week. Ruairidh Airlie stands up and gives a spirited, expressive rendition of Street Talk, a poem that plays humorously with the meanings of words in Scots and English:

"Jist tell me whit's ado," she cried, "And nane o' yer gab," cried she.

"D'ye no ken a doo's a pigeon, missus? Noo haud yer wheesht, a wee.

"Ah want tae ken whit's up," she cried. "Nae mair o yer cheek, ye loon."

"It's only yer windae that's up, missus. For guid's sake pit it doon."

"You did that very nicely," Mrs Connor tells him. "Now, who can help with the words?"

She picks out the Scots words in the poem, and the class readily translates for her, then she focuses on the double meanings that make the piece work. "Now let's have a go at the song we have been practising," she says.

It is time to move on, Mrs Wittet says, and as grainy black and white images of street life in Scotland appear on the whiteboard, the strains of The Jeely Piece Song, performed by the whole class, follow us along the corridor.

Oh ye cannae fling pieces oot a twenty-storey flat,

Seven hundred hungry weans will testify to that.

The children in Primary 23 have been looking at all aspects of Robert Burns for this term's cross-curricular topic, they explain.

"We have been making shortbread," young Morgan says. "That is like a biscuit with sugar."

They have also been doing poems, says Jacob. "The Twa- Leggit Mice. We saw Robert Burns' house on the Smartboard. His dad made it."

Who knows what the roof of Burns' Cottage is made from?


And what's the word for a roof made of straw - it starts with a "th".

"Bamboo," a lad suggests, and the class laugh.

"Burns had to sleep on a bed made of wood and hay," young Morgan volunteers. "I wouldn't have liked that. I think it would have been jaggy."

The children in the class have been drawing a statue of Robert Burns, Kyle offers. "It's in New York, in Central Park."

They got this information and a photo of the statue from the LTS website, says teacher Lesley Tweedie. "We have been bringing Burns and Scots into every lesson we can - even maths, by getting them to put shapes and patterns together to design their own tartan.

"We are making a Scots dictionary for words we find in poems. They can often tell what the words mean before I can, because it's how they talk, even if they are not used to seeing them written. I'm from Douglas, a few miles along the road. But it is Lanarkshire, so it has different words and accent."

Such local differences in dialect can be divisive, according to the working group's report, with much of the "ignorance and confusion" surrounding Scots as a language arising from "a failure to understand that the term includes Buchan, Border, Fife, Ayrshire, Galloway, Shetland and all other dialects."

It is a situation by no means unique to Scots, the report says, having been solved by other countries, such as Spain, by settling on a standard form of the language for "governmental and other official purposes". This could readily be done with Scots, it suggests, "and would be if a government directive to this effect were issued".

Striking differences between dialects should be seen as a source of educational opportunity, it recommends: "Children in schools could be taught about the distinctive features of their own local dialect and how they compare and contrast with those of other areas."

Back in her office, Mrs Witter points out that most classes have pupils who have moved here from England. They retain their accents for a while and find Ayrshire Scots a struggle at first, but soon adapt by talking to classmates every day.

"They are as keen to learn Scots as anyone else," she says. "Some even go in for the Lapraik reciting competitions. It's like any other language work - some kids are interested, others would rather be doing science or PE. The difference with Scots is that it's more familiar, and for most of them it's part of their heritage."

So what about the dumpling? Could the minister look forward to this delicious Scottish dish and maybe find a sixpence in his?

"We managed to track down a supplier," says Mrs Smith. "We had to go to Ayr to get it, but that is all part of the job."

So yes - the minister was able to have his clootie dumpling.

Report of the Scots Language Working Group, November 2010.


Reading fairy stories in Scots is a great way of catching younger children's interest, says Rosemary Jones, who teaches several classes at Muirkirk Primary during teachers' McCrone time.

"Snaw White is a good one - `Wha's the brawest o' them a'? When we've finished that, I'm going to read them Paddington Bear in Scots. I like to bring it into RE as well, using the Scots version of the Bible. The kids love that, especially at Christmas time."

Pupils make word lists in Scots and try to use these in sentences and poems, she says. "Sometimes I'll do a whole gym lesson in Scots. `Sit on yer bahookies and haud up yer richt hauns.' It's hard work. You're so used to speaking English in class.

"I'm from Mauchline, where Burns spent much of his life, so I have always been interested in Scots poetry and language. But they don't recognise now a lot of the words that we used. The children are losing their Scots language."


The Report of the Scots Language Working Group makes the point that there is an "enormous body of readily-accessible information" on Scots language and literature. But these have "hardly been recognised, much less exploited". They include the Dictionary of the Scots Language ( and the website of the Scots Language Centre (

Other resources used at Muirkirk primary include children's books in Scots published by Itchy Coo: www.itchy-coo.comalltitles.html as well as online Learning and Teaching Scotland resources, such as:

The Scottish Poetry Library has a substantial online presence, with a large education section: It includes a bank of ideas for teachers.

  • Original headline: Great Scots: Battle rages to bring back neglected language

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