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Building a passion for Scots

Sheila Douglas believes the Scottish Office could do more about classroom materials

It is hard to believe that it is now nearly two years since we launched the Merlin Press to supply Scots language materials to schools. The idea came about through a combination of circumstances. First, the Scots Language Resource Centre in the A K Bell Library in Perth, while it was constantly receiving pleas for such material, was unable to satisfy the demand because of constraints of time, finance and personnel. Second, as a Scots language activist and long-serving member of the Scots Language Society Committee, a retired teacher who had taught Scots language and literature in the classroom and a published author I was able and willing to create such material. Third, my elder son, trained in computer skills, layout and design, but lacking full-time employment, was able and willing to typeset and print the material in a professional format. My other son works as an accountant, so the business side of the enterprise could be kept under professional scrutiny, very necessary for the success of any commercial initiative.

We were able to do a considerable amount of market research in schools and among educationists, because of my contacts in that sphere. I had already compiled a local anthology for Tayside schools, made up of poems, songs, prose, drama and history, "from James IV to Dougie McLean". Its title was Fair Upon Tay.

From Alastair Horne, my local educational development officer, I got information that enabled me to send samples to his colleagues across the country to be looked at and commented on. I also visit schools as a writer and storyteller under the Scottish Arts Council's Writers in Public Scheme, and could show samples and discuss the idea with a large number of teachers.

One of the most helpful was Liz Niven, then Scots language development officer for Dumfries and Galloway. She recommended the materials to teachers in her area and followed up schools who tried it or later bought it to see how they used it and whether it was satisfactory. I received some very good feedback. One of the discoveries I made was that pupils of all ages and teachers are more or less beginners in learning Scots in any formal way, and the materials designed for the youngest children on basic topics like the human body, food and drink and clothes were equally suitable for secondary pupils.

I also attended some in-service days. The teachers immediately wanted photocopies of the materials to try out. Two schools in Perth also tried out the scheme and gave it the thumbs up. In addition, I had the material vetted and approved by educationists and linguists. Robbie Robertson of the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, who was largely responsible for the Kist, gave me generous encouragement, and Catherine Macafee of Aberdeen University vetted my teacher's starter pack, with its background information on the language and its history, vocabulary and usage.

Then my sons and I took our idea to our local enterprise company which commended our extensive market research, which also included findings on the most suitable format, pricing and distribution. We thought it most useful to produce packs of material that would be flexible, photocopiable and affordable, important considerations in the current financial climate. We designed a leaflet which was distributed to schools through the regional authorities' internal mail, giving them information about what we had available.

A steady stream of orders began and continued right through to the changeover in local government in April of last year. In the resultant chaos, the stream of orders dwindled but hopefully will increase with the change of government and the prospect of a devolved Scottish parliament. Our last piece of publicity was a newsletter, reporting on our progress and detailing our plans. We now have some schools subscribing to receive four packs of material in the year for Pounds 70, with 20 per cent discount on other products.

Our list includes, as well as the teacher's starter pack, three sets of 20 Scotsheets, which are double-sided A4 sheets on different topics, with information, dialogue, poems, songs (with music), stories and history, with a glossary and accompanied by a cassette, and a larger resource pack on the Fower Saisons. This also includes plays, as well as all the other sorts of material, and also has a cassette tape. The cassettes are recorded in the studios of Heartland Radio in Pitlochry, for which I record a lot of programme material.

We also have laminated Scotscairts for the classroom wall, with Scots phrases, sayings and short rhymes. In the coming months we intend to produce another resource pack on Work: Past and Present. Writers have been generous in allowing me to use their work and I have also contributed some of my own. The spelling used follows the Concise Scots Dictionary, and the Scots School Dictionary, which every school should have.

In autumn 1995, I did a presentation to the Inspectorate's English panel. It was heartening to feel that I was working along the right lines and also to know that members of the panel were knowledgeable about Scots and in favour of its being included in the curriculum. The teaching of Scots as a language in our older universities' degree courses, and in the Royal Scottish Academy's new Scottish music degree course, shows that things are moving in a positive direction. Teacher education institutions are also covering this field, which means that teachers in future will have more knowledge of Scots than in the past.

The Merlin Press applied for but was refused funding from the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages, whose criteria we certainly met, and we have not received any financial backing from anywhere else, although we are helping to supply a genuine educational need for officially approved courses in a majority of schools. It seems that, while schools are being encouraged by the Scottish Office to include a Scottish dimension in their 5-14 courses, no one wants to fund it.

As far as Merlin Press is concerned, we are not looking to make a fortune out of jumping on a bandwagon, but we do need to get out of the red. Powermacs, laser printers and photocopiers cost a lot but are necessary to produce material to standard. We are optimistic, however, as we know that there is room for us in this rapidly expanding market, as teachers strive to implement Scottish Office recommendations to include Scots in the curriculum. I have spoken to many teachers who are in favour of this, but who lack the resources which we, among others, can supply. There is a significant movement towards the raising of the status of Scots, so long neglected and despised, yet with 600 years of history and literature behind it.

The Merlin Press can be contacted at Merlinwood, 12 Mansfield Road, Scone, Perth PH2 6SA (01738 553954).

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