The importance of using Scots language in the classroom

Scots speakers must be encouraged by teachers to use and celebrate the much-neglected language, says Bruce Eunson

Bruce Eunson

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The 2011 census reported that over 1.5 million people in Scotland speak Scots language. If we were to say that roughly a third of adults speak Scots, could we also say that a third of Scotland’s children and young people speak Scots?

That might be going too far. Scots is a minority language and one that many believe is dying out. We would be able to measure that more accurately if the 2001 census or the 1991 (or any previous census ever recorded) had asked all adults living in Scotland if they could speak, read, write and understand Scots. The 2011 census asked the question for the first time because Scots language has for so long been seen as either something of the past, or as a dialect of English, or as being simply “wrong” or “bad” or “slang” – or many other derogatory terms that led to Scots being marginalised from both education and wider society.

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If you work in a school, do a third of the weans or bairns there speak Scots? Think beyond the classroom. Because Scots has suffered so many years of low status, neglect and of being undervalued, there are a huge number of children and young people who are using Scots in the playground with their friends, at the front gate of the school with their mam or their grandad in the morning and afternoon – but who do not bring that wealth of vocabulary and creativity with them into the classroom.

Scots is a language that was used by kings and queens of the past. It is the language Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott wrote in, and it is still alive and vibrant today. Go onto Twitter and search for @Historic_Ally to see Alistair Heather’s Scots language videos, read the posts he writes in Scots, find out about the work he does with the Elphinstone Institute at the University of Aberdeen. Go onto YouTube and search for Michael Dempster. Michael is the national Scots scriever – a role established in 2015 to support Creative Scotland's Scots language policy – as well as an auditory neuroscientist. There is a TEDx video which has been viewed over 60,000 times of Michael delivering a gripping presentation – in Scots – on how the mind reacts when we talk freely with the language we grew up with. People like Alistair and Michael are doing lively, exciting and fascinating work to promote Scots language across Scottish society today.

When in your school do the learners get a chance to learn in, or learn about, Scots language? Whether a third of children and young people currently speak Scots is irrelevant. If a teacher in any school in any part of Scotland has just one Scots speaker in just one of their classes, they need to make sure and encourage that learner to bring that language into the classroom and explore the educational benefits together.

Part of my work at Education Scotland has been to gather evidence of the educational benefits of Scots. Teachers who know they have Scots speakers in their class but aren’t sure how to start using Scots in their lessons can visit the National Improvement Hub and search Scots language to find resources and activities for all ages and levels of Curriculum for Excellence. I am from Shetland, so I understand the need for dialect diversity to be respected within the promotion of Scots: wherever possible you should find resources that will mirror the Scots used in your area of the country.

Whether you have been using Scots in your lessons for many years, or whether you have only just started thinking about what your first lesson on Scots might involve, it would be great to hear from you.

Bruce Eunson is Scots language coordinator at Education Scotland. He can be contacted at

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