Edging towards a cultural black hole

10th December 2010 at 00:00

In a week when astronomers announced that they had observed for the first time the formation of a black hole, can it be that another one is forming much closer to home, at the heart of Scottish education, language and culture?

My unvarying morning walk takes me past a tiny, boarded-up schoolhouse. It gazes blank-eyed out over the loch, in the direction where its last headmistress, who was moved out of the one-room school more than half a century ago, remarkably still lives - and still remembers the tiny, mostly farming, community she served.

Seven miles further down the road is the slightly larger village school which my son, a P2 pupil, attends. Presently, because it is now scheduled for closure, like a significant number of low-roll rural schools across the county and country. He will move a further two miles away, to a slightly larger but still undersubscribed primary, the new-build successor to the two-teacher school I first attended 40 years ago.

Local parents have been mostly fatalistic about the decision, understanding of the economics but, in many cases, disguising the absence of a clear political position - or rationalising a resistance to activism - with concern that a campaign would be "unsettling" for the children. Most of them also claim to be preparing for a greater fight when the local authority - Argyll and Bute - fulfils its long-term desire to consolidate all the area's primary schools on one super-campus in town.

This is the once-mythical black hole that now hovers on the edge of actuality. One aspect of the situation hasn't been explored or discussed: what might finally be sucked into oblivion by that centralised vacuum are the last vestiges of cultural localism.

Thirty years ago at the University of Edinburgh, I fulfilled a dissertation requirement by drawing up a model for research into localised accent and dialect in rural Scotland. The aim was to discover whether primary-age children - who had smaller social circles and less mobility than those of secondary age and who were living in areas or households where there was no television (TV being the favoured object of moral panic of the time) - showed a greater use of dialect words and local variations of accent than those who lived in town. It was only ever intended as a model - and, as the examiner suggested, it would have been possible to drive a horse and cart (very rural!) through holes in the methodology. But in the two summers following graduation, I tried to put it into action, aware that one wave of rural school closures was just past and another threatened.

The results were surprising, and gratifying. Our playground instinct at the `big school' - I was moved into town for my P7 and secondary years - was that kids coming up from rural primaries were distinguished by country accents and the use of "strange" words that clashed with our wannabe Americanisms.

It was clear that primary children at small rural schools, and particularly those without older siblings who had already gone on to secondary and larger social lives (this was the "cart" part of the gap in my original methodology), showed a markedly wider use of "dialect" forms for familiar things. The "horse" part, appropriately to do with transport, was about whether the local teacher (and main authority figure) was a local person or an incomer with an unfamiliar accent and exotic lexical forms. These days, our children's teachers commute bewildering distances to work.

The results were gratifying, and perhaps a little wishful. Even as a schoolboy, I had experience of conflict between a herd mentality and some genuine commitment to a vivid older usage. My schoolteacher father was a passionate, sometimes self-conscious, supporter of Scots as a literary language and educational vehicle, so Scots words were used at home more frequently, perhaps, than was usual for an "educated" family at the time.

I was marked down as "country" myself for saying "cushets" rather than "doos" and "corbies" rather than "craws". I was once given a shilling by a man in a park in Paisley (an unthinkable gesture nowadays in my birthplace) for pointing out an injured "cushet" to my aunt: "You never hear the old words any more," he said.

The recognition that some of our peers inhabited a different kind of environment, kept ferrets, knew where pheasants hid their eggs and how to lift the hen bird off unruffled, and how to guddle a trout (that ultimate test of authenticity) was mutually enriching. It was exactly the kind of experience, reinforced by absence, that has brought me back to the area and our children to small, local schooling.

What will they get from watching raindrops run down a school bus window on the long trek into town? Or down the vortex into that undifferentiated black hole from which nothing - matter, light, old-fashioned voices - can escape?

Brian Morton is a writer and broadcaster.

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