Scots language workshops help students to come to terms with their national literature, writes Eleanor Caldwell
Huv ye ever bin tae wan o' thae jujitsu classes? Geed me the boke!" recited Janet Paisley to an audience of sixth-year pupils and their teachers. She was reading from a selection of her poems and short stories at a recent Scots language conference.
The poems were written in the Scots of her native Avonbridge, near Falkirk, and the conference at Lauder College in Dunfermline was to encourage sixth-year pupils to appreciate and celebrate their own language in and out of school.
The Certificate of Sixth Year Studies English course has Scottish literature options, Higher Still has a compulsory element of Scottish literature, and it is understood there will be options in both Scots language and literature in the new Advanced Higher.
The conference audience was entertained with readings from poet and playwright Janet Paisley and novelist and playwright Carl MacDougall. The stories by Paisley were of wee six-year-old Sarah talking to her Mammy: "Ah said ah need a pee, ah goat lines, an' ah wet masel' ", and 16-year-old Charlene who has confidence problems: "See me, ahm shy ... but there'll be nae beemers the nicht."
Fifty well-kent synonyms from MacDougall included "warstit, fleein', stoatin', foo ...". He progressed into Glasgow-speak with tales from a housing officer in Castlemilk: "ahm watchin' the racin' when a lavvie passes the windae ... an' ahm 26 storeys up ... he's aff his heid ...!" In workshops, pupils were encouraged by Paisley to think of Scots phrases which their mothers would say to them. There was a lot of hesitation before "ah'll skelp you roon' the lugs", "awa' an' bile yer heid", "haud yer wheesht" and "when ah wis a wee lassie" were offered, mainly from the boys.
Then they were asked to write a few lines in Scots. After one pupil suggested "we dinnae speak Scots", reluctance was overcome and they accepted the challenge. Passages were read out and obvious regional variations discussed. Paisley pointed out the uneven spelling system in Scots, likening it to the early English of Chaucer.
Writer and primary teacher Andrew McNeill worked with pupils on translation from Scots and English: "sneaky" was "sleekit", "dreamy" was "dwam" and "bogle" was "monster".
Pupils from Dunbar Grammar said the day had made them think about the influences in their own regional language, many of which come from the north-east of England. One girl said the conference helped her to understand Burns, whose work hitherto had been "like a foreign language".
Teachers Calum Stewart, from Balfron High, and Richard Lucchesi, from Auchinleck Academy, felt the day was helpful for developing pupils' creative writing skills.
At a workshop for teachers, Allan MacGillivray, honorary lecturer in Scottish literature at Strathclyde University, presented Scots texts from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The Scots language, he pointed out, had come to be regarded as slovenly or common, and teachers had to address the "powerful inhibitions" of parents. Texts such as a 1549 letter from Maryon Lady Home to the Queen Dowager could be taxing in terms of historical knowledge, and the roots of modern Scots were often ungrammatical: "my men an' me we has burnt the toon of Berwick."
Liz Niven, the conference director and education officer at the Scots Language Resource Centre, encouraged teachers to ask their pupils what makes them uncomfortable about their own language. "You can see the pupils are just beginning to enjoy using and listening to Scots today," she said. "It would be better to have a weekend for a conference like this."
At the end, pupils read extracts from their writing, enjoying "performing" in Scots. A piece by Tony Smith, from Bo'ness Academy, was especially moving: "Mammy, when ur we gaen tae see Granny? She's no weel, son. Wis it like when ah hud the chicken poxes an' ah wis bokin' aw ower the place? ... Mammy why're ye greetin'?" It was all the more incredible to hear him speak with a broad English accent.
Scots Language Resource Centre, A K Bell Library, York Place, Perth PH2 8EP, tel: 01738 440199