Matthew Fitt

12th October 2012 at 01:00
The author, champion of Scots and former education officer with Itchy Coo publishers discusses the impact of government policy on reviving the language, a parallel with Friesian in the Netherlands and the long-term prospects for Scotland's Mither Tongue. Interview by Henry Hepburn

Why did Itchy Coo's decade-long Scots education project end in 2011?

Because of the pressures of being the only provider for Scots in education across the profession - the impact on health and personal life.

What are you doing now?

I'm a freelance writer, writing for myself for the first time in 10 or 11 years. I've moved to Prague, for family reasons.

Has the Scottish government done enough to support Scots?

No. It hasn't done enough in schools. While saying Scots is important, investment doesn't support those statements. Investment in Gaelic - which is absolutely necessary - seems more of a priority. Scots is in a very fragile state in schools.

Do you feel frustrated that many people don't see Scots as a language?

I wonder if the problem is not so much with folk generally, but higher up the scale. There's been really good work by the Scottish Book Trust and Education Scotland, but resources are limited. Without what's available to other parts of the curriculum, it's impossible to challenge the sense that Scots isn't a language.

Alasdair Allan, minister for Scotland's languages, is a noted proponent of Scots. Has that helped?

There's a greater expectation among teachers than at any other time that resources will be made available for Scots. If the minister applied the same dynamism to Scots as is applied to Gaelic, I think those expectations would be met.

Should official documents be translated into Scots?

No - that comes way down the line. The situation would be far better addressed through education.

And the 1+2 languages policy - should Scots count as a language within that?

Yes. It's a language recognised by the Scottish government - it would be strange if it didn't.

What is your view on Scottish studies?

Scottish studies is a great thing, but I fear it might bury Scots, that if Scots is just simply one option folk will bypass it for things they're much more comfortable with.

What is the main thing that must happen to keep Scots alive?

The recommendations from the Scots language ministerial working group should be implemented as soon as possible. The government seems to have committed itself to creating a network of Scots language coordinators in education, but it appears to be taking a long time. More online teaching resources would make a massive difference, too.

Are there models from abroad that Scotland should explore?

In the Netherlands there's a guarantee from the Friesian federal government that about 60 per cent of schools will receive two or three hours of teaching in Friesian every week.

How would you sum up the educational benefits of Scots?

In terms of developing confident individuals, the first capacity of Curriculum for Excellence. Children told the way they speak is incorrect feel something is wrong with them. Responsible citizens, too: there are children who speak Scots but are often looked down on. By valuing their language in the classroom, others who perhaps don't speak Scots also see value - there's tolerance and awareness.

What is your most memorable experience of working with Scots?

I was working in Lanarkshire with a P7 boy, five or six years ago, who was seen as a troublemaker and less than able. He told me his German homework was full of Scots words - that's undergraduate level. The school offered him more Scots, he got back to what he was: a good learner, a good laddie. He was included and his confidence went up, his relationships with other children improved.

Is there still a strong stigma around Scots?

I recently spoke to a third-year pupil who said he and his friends were corrected in secondary school, told that they speak slang, not a language. I put up some Scots words at an educational conference in Glasgow and asked 200 people how many thought this was slang - 200 hands went up. That's amazing. A national language, that Burns wrote in, that we celebrate once a year, is seen as inappropriate and not good for our children.

Has Scots been hamstrung by class issues?

Yes. It's amazing that various political parties, who always defend the working class, never pick up that it's those who speak Scots who are in the most deprived communities.

Would independence help Scots?

I don't think it would make any difference. An experienced education officer told me recently that the situation for Scots has actually been regressing for the past couple of years.

What's your long-term prognosis for Scots?

I remain optimistic, but without action Scots is going to be under much more pressure. With the digital revolution, children are no longer as engaged with Scots speakers. They're getting a lot more language and communication from the States. That's going to have the same devastating effect as television in the 1950s.

How close are we to the point of no return?

Fifty years. I'm meeting children who've never heard basic Scots words, like "lug". It's a very short time before Scots could become just a few words, whereas at the moment there is such rich Scots across the country that could be tapped into.

Why would it be a bad thing if Scots disappeared?

Because it's a unique way of seeing the world. Iain Crichton Smith, the Gaelic writer, said, "He who loses his language loses his world." And it's about understanding our own literature - Burns and other writers would become artefacts rather than texts that are living.


Born: Dundee, 1968

Education: Grove Academy, Dundee; University of Edinburgh, MA Litt and PGCE (secondary)

Career: Writer in residence at Hugh MacDiarmid's former home, Brownsbank Cottage in South Lanarkshire, 1995-97; secondary English teacher, South Lanarkshire, 1997-2000; freelance writer from 2000, including sci-finovel But - Ben a-Go-Go and The Eejits, a Scots translation of Roald Dahl's The Twits; Itchy Coo national Scots language education officer, 2000-11.

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