How do we learn to write in Scots?

We’re now just past the halfway mark in our poetry month here at Autumn Voices and you still have almost two weeks to enter our annual competition. This week’s blog will whet the appetite of anyone who’s ever written in Scots, or wanted to write in, and it comes to us courtesy of Sheila Templeton, one of the able judges of our recent Living Our Dying competition. Sheila treated us to a reading of her Scots poem, ‘Vilomah’, during the live event, and has some tips for you in her blog.

About Sheila

Sheila is a poet based in Glasgow, writing on all aspects of life in Scots and English. She is an engaging performer/reader of her own work, happy to talk about her process of writing. She often does a combination of talk and poetry reading at writers’ groups and is often asked to judge poetry competitions, such as SAW and the Wigtown Festival Poetry Comp.

She has won several poetry prizes, including the McCash Scots Language Poetry Comp, the Arran McLellan Poetry Comp, and the Neil Gunn Writing Comp, Adult Poetry Section. Sheila has also been published in several literary magazines and anthologies. Her own collections are published by Red Squirrel Press and Tapsalteerie Press.

Sheila has done readings at StAnza International Poetry Festival, Wigtown Book Festival, Edinburgh Libraries Festival, Aye Write!, Ayrshire Tidelines Festival, and more. She’s involved with the Luminate Festival and the Autumn Voices project, celebrating creativity in the older age group. She’s done readings and other events at the Glasgow Womens Library and is also deeply interested in their work. Her writing subjects are eclectic and she’s happy to fit in with whatever an organiser needs in any suggested reading or talk.

No one of my generation was taught to write in Scots. All our education in school was in English, both spoken and written. Spoken English in school, of course, with a Scots accent, is nowadays described as Scottish Standard English (SSE). But on the page, completely English. 

So, when I began to write poems in Scots, it was a challenge. How to write in Scots? My first language was Northeast Scots, or Doric as it’s now known. I grew up in Aberdeenshire, where just about everyone spoke in Scots. And those who didn’t certainly understood it just fine. At some point, by the time I was five and started school, I must have assimilated Scottish Standard English, because that is how I would speak in the classroom. 

I don’t remember ever being told off for speaking in my natural broad Scots, though I’ve encountered plenty of folk who did have that experience. The poet, Sheena Blackhall, has a chilling story about being assessed for the Girls High School in Aberdeen when she was five … and failing the assessment, because she spoke in Scots. The teacher assessing her describd her as ‘a moron’. There’s no doubt that the use of Scots was discouraged and seen as an inferior language. 

Yet everybody in my world spoke Scots freely … even my grandmother, a primary teacher. She spoke SSE in her classroom and immediately switched back into Doric the minute she was out of the school gate, unless of course, she happened to meet the minister, the local GP, or maybe another teacher. 

Because that was the underlying rule. We all spoke in Scots, but changed to English in formal situations: education, medical appointments, the voice from the pulpit, government, business etc.

Scots has survived in its different dialects and as a spoken language, for over 300 years, with its demise forecast regularily, but never actually coming to pass. Of course, it has changed over the centuries. Speaking in Scots has evolved differently in different areas. There’s quite a difference now, between say, the urban Scots of Glaswegians and the rural Doric of the Northeast. And maybe that difference would not have been so great 300 years ago.

But writing Scots down is a different matter. The only written Scots I ever saw as a bairn in school, or later, at university, was Robert Burns’ poetry, the Border ballads … and of course, growing up in Aberdeenshire, Charles Murray. I think every bairn in Aberdeenshire schools learned Spring in the Howe o Alford and The Whistle! They probably still do.

Because I speak Doric, I have vocabulary, grammar and idiom all there. It is easier to write in Scots if you’ve grown up speaking it. Really, the only thing I had to do when I began to write poems in Scots, was to decide on the consistency of spellings. I know that poets who have not grown up hearing and speaking Scots do find it harder, in that they have to figure out grammar, tenses and idioms, as well as spelling. But it’s perfectly possible to do that. I have several non-Scots speaking writer friends who write well in Scots. It just means a bit more attention to a Scots dictionary or reading a lot. There’s no shortage of literary work to choose from. Hugh MacDiarmid for a start; and contemporary writers like Liz Lochhead, Kathleen Jamie, Rab Wilson, Donald Adamson, Stuart Paterson, Tom Hubbard, Derrick McClure, Ann Mackinnon and William Hershaw. Check all the prizewinning poems in the last fifteen years of the McCash Scots Language Poetry Competition.  Subscribe to Lallans, the Scots Literary Magazine. And listen to the speech around you. There’s plenty of Scots being spoken every day in Scotland!

I realised recently that I often think in Scots, even though I speak in SSE. I spent a lot of my childhood with my grandparents, who were Victorian, so their Doric speech was rich indeed. Because I don’t speak in Scots very often – 30 years of teaching and 50 years not based in Aberdeenshire have affected me – my own Doric vocabulary has probably diminished a bit. 

But I find it comes back to me when I’m writing in Scots and looking up one word in the Doric Dictionary will often remind me of another word. Or I’ll read some written Doric. Nan Shepherd’s novels have great Doric dialogue; Johnny Gibb o Gushet Neuk takes me back to participating in the annual Doric Speaking Competition in Aberdeen Academy, which I won in 1956. I’m sure because my grannie sat and read it with me, and I therefore knew that nowt meant cattle! So, when I was reading my alloted page, I was able to give it meaning. Mary Johnston has wonderful work in Doric. Another contemporary poet, Jo Gilbert, based in Aberdeen, writes and performs sensational work in her native tongue. And of course, there are older poets like Flora Garry, George Bruce, Violet Jacob and J C Milne.

I don’t find it easy to break into broad Doric unless I am visiting up north, or meeting with other Doric speakers. I was asked the other day to say a sentence or two in Doric Scots for the benefit of a young German woman who was visiting Glasgow. I just couldn’t do it … and felt very foolish. A friend of mine in Glasgow who grew up in Huntly as a child, suggested to me recently that we should form a group for ‘Doric conversation’ and I think that’s a super idea. It’s good to consciously find ways to nurture our Scots language.

It is possible to learn Scots even if you’ve not grown up speaking it.

I have poems in a recent collaboration, Norlan Lichts (Rymour Books 2022), all in Doric Scots, with Sheena Blackhall and Lesley Benzie. The three of us grew up in Aberdeen or Aberdeenshire, all speaking and writing English at school, but also speaking in broad Doric. So, we all had to learn by ourselves how to write in Scots. Currently, there is the beginning of courses in Scots, in different levels of education, right up to higher education, but this is all pretty recent and mainly all happening up in the Northeast. I’m not aware of similar initiatives elsewhere in Scotland, but there may be. There’s certainly much more support and interest in Scots, especially in the writing world.

I vividly remember an audience member at a reading in Glasgow about 15 years ago, asking me ‘But where can I learn Scots?’ And I didn’t have an answer then. I had grown up in a place where Scots is still spoken freely and richly. That is how I know Scots. And I didn’t know how to help her.

She was looking for something like an evening class, the same way you’d learn any new language. And it didn’t exist. Still doesn’t exist. But there are other ways to learn Scots if you want to speak it or write in it.

I’d say to her now: ‘Listen to the Scots you hear around you in Glasgow. It’s not slang, like so many people think. Write it down. Get a Scots Dictionary. Or write it phonetically. Like many writers do … think about James Kelman, Tom Leonard. Find a group to join. There’s an organisation called Oor Vyce which nurtures and promotes Scots. There are online forums too, and lots of Scots writers and speakers on social media.’ 

It is possible to learn Scots even if you’ve not grown up speaking it.

Sheila Templeton

Annual Poetry Competition

Theme: ‘The Environment’
Deadline: 31st October 2022 – Entries now closed

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