Writing in Scots: the honest voice

Last week, Sheila Templeton introduced us to the idea of getting started writing in Scots. This week, she tells us about her early experiences of writing and how she got started writing poetry in Scots, using the words that were familiar to her from her native Aberdeenshire. Sheila’s been kind enough to share some of her fantastic poems with us and show us how our local languages help us to get at the best and most honest version of the poem we’re trying to write.

I’m often asked questions such as How do you make the decision to write a poem in Scots? Does Scots feel like the natural language for some poems? Does writing in Scots affect the rhythm, the structure? What is the experience of being a poet in more than one language? Are there are subjects that feel more natural to write about in one language than the other? 

People also often ask me when I began to write, and if I have always written poetry. The earliest I can remember writing for myself was when I was about fourteen and began to write a journal. I still have it! It’s a very battered-looking hard-cover science notebook, which I must have filched from school. It’s fascinating to read through it and see what I was recording from my life then; what was important to me. Mainly it’s full of teenage loves and hates … feeling misunderstood by just about everybody … anguished ponderings about boys … betrayals of one kind or another. It’s both embarrassing and poignant to meet my teenage self in these pages and I have a lot of affection for that fourteen-year-old, trying to make sense of her world by writing it all down.

But what about poetry? Was I writing poems? Not exactly, I’d have to say. But now and again that childish writing becomes lyrical: a description of a sunset, a minute observation of beech buds in spring, trying to write about water, its shape, its mystery. I know that I worked up some of these descriptions to hand in as ‘extra’ work to my English teacher. Which may seem like a curious thing to do. But remember this was the 1950s. I had not thought of writing for publication. And I associated any kind of writing with school. That was where I’d learned writing and reading skills; that was where I’d been introduced to literature. And of course, apart from Robert Burns and Charles Murray (I was brought up in Aberdeenshire!), every poet, every writer, was English. And the language was English too.So, after an interval of more than thirty years, when I began again to write, to ‘record my life’ again, this time I found myself writing poetry. I even wrote a sort of blank verse keeping a journal.  Poetry had become the way I wanted to express myself. And everything I wrote was, of course, in English. I didn’t know how to write any other way. At first, it didn’t occur to me that I might want to express myself in Scots. I suppose a ‘bridge’ in that direction for me was the very first poem I ever had published – in New Writing Scotland (1998) – called ‘Beeswax Remembered’, a poem about childhood memory, centered on my grandmother’s kitchen, my childhood home. I wrote it in English, but with several Scots words in it. I’m not sure I realised that press and lobby were Scots!

Beeswax Remembered

My nose is greedy
grasping for the fix
of buttery rich beeswax.
Yellow cream order
brings a comfort
of scratched key-patterned 
lino, mixed up with
sharp smells from
the press in the lobby
where I first breathed in
the dark rich blood
of a hare draining
into an enamel bowl …

But the first poem I did write in Scots was in a kind of Glasgow Scots. It’s called ‘Hot Chick’. The reason I wrote it in Scots was that I had a picture in my head of the woman in the monologue. I was going through the menopause myself and I wanted that irreverent, cheeky, ‘I’m my own woman’ voice you might hear in Glasgow. I could hear her in my head! So, English would never have suited this poem.

Hot Chick

Ma man sez
Yer … HOT.
Ah sez
In his ear.
He sez
Ah mean sizzlin hen
could fry an egg
oan yer back.
Whit’s wrang
Ur ye no weel?
It’s no verra comfy
fur me.
Yer lik a toasty
hoat watter bottle
a the time.
Iz this whit thon
Germaine Greer
cries The Change?
Ur you huvven
a hoat flush?

Naw ah sez.
Ah’m huvven
a Power Surge.
An you can sleep
oan the flair.

Writing ‘Hot Chick’ then emboldened me to write in my own native Doric. I entered a competition for poems written in the Scots language, the annual McCash Scots Poetry Competition run by Glasgow University. I wrote a poem called ‘Hairst Meen’. It came third. This was back in 2006.

What I remember most about writing that poem, and also reading it at the awards ceremony, was my own deep delight in diving into my native tongue. Rolling words around my mouth which took me home. It was like reclaiming home – a fusion of that first language, and all the years of education and working in English. I found myself glorying in it! A poem about childhood, about the naughtiness of all country children, making their own secret world in the parks o corn … or fields of oats. (I didn’t know that corn was oats for many years!)

Hairst Meen

Sleekit stoats, we slippit ower i dyke
throw coorse thistles, reeshlin stalks,
boo’t twa-faal lik half-shut knives, mowdied
a labyrinth faar nae minotaur cud roar …
A warld o fusperin pathies, swirlin
green corn, far we jinkit an ran
caa’d wirsels deen, sprauchlin lik pups
in beaten halla chaumers, breathin
in each ither’s hert hemmer, fyle
i hairst meen’s wyme swalled gowd …

And suddenly, there I was, using Doric as a language to write in. It felt entirely natural, and it opened up ways of saying what I wanted to say which I could never achieve using English. I’m even making up words! Mowdie is Scots for a mole. So, I’ve coined a word, a verb, mowdied, meaning tunneled, as a mole does. I’ve gone for ‘i’ rather than ‘the’, because that is Doric. (In later poems now, I more often use ‘the’. I’m not sure why? Maybe it feels more accessible?) I don’t think that using Scots has meant great changes in meter or line or length of poem. The big impact of Scots for me is description, vocabulary. Take boo’d twa fall. That simply means bent over: literally bent double. It doesn’t have the impact in English. Or beaten halla chaumers…in English beaten hollow chambers. Which is okay, but by using chaumers, the line not only references the chambers of the heart – the hert hemmer of the next line – but also makes a nod to the chaumer, the bothy that unmarried farm workers, or fairm servants, slept in, on Aberdeenshire farms. 

I’m often asked But, how do you know whether a poem will work best in Scots or in English? And my answer is usually that the poem chooses for itself! In general, I find that anything I write about nature works best in Scots. That’s because I grew up in the country and it was in Scots that I learned language for understanding its sights, smells and sounds. But sometimes, if I’m struggling with a poem in English, I have found that translating it into Scots gives it life and energy. 

A good example would be ‘Nae Answer’, a poem I wrote about the first Christmas during World War 1, when there was a temporary peace which shocked the commanders on both sides. I had the idea of writing about a meeting between two soldiers over that reported game of football in No Man’s Land: a young German and an Englishman. The poem wasn’t working at all: no life no energy. But as soon as I turned to Scots, it took on its own life, found what it wanted to say. Maybe it helped that my own grandfather was a sapper in WW1 … and survived.

The poem is in the voice of the Scots soldier, remembering the meeting, remembering how he’d come across the corpse of the young German … and recognised him by the ring he wore.

Nae Answer

Gowsty starfish finngers beached
oan glaur lik aa the rist. But aat ring
it wis his. The eagle, raised prood …
Scrattit ma han thon nicht, 
fan starnies exploded
in frosty peace. An we daured luik up,
kicked a clootie baa ower mune hard grun.
I gied him a Woodbine an lichtit it. Danke.
Danke. That’s fit he said. I unnersteed.
Shook hans. An wissed een anither
A Gweed Yuil …

By changing the language of the poem, it was as if I could enter more fully into the characters. I could hear them, see them, feel them.

I am writing completely from my own experience. It will doubtless be different for everyone. I have several English friends who love to write or translate into Scots. They simply love the language! As do I. But also, by writing in Scots, I can reach an honesty that maybe isn’t so available to me in English.

Sheila Templeton

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.

A final reminder that our poetry competition closes at midnight on Hallowe’en, so make sure you send in your best version of the poem you’re submitting to our judge.

Annual Poetry Competition

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

One thought on “Writing in Scots: the honest voice”

  1. This story Sheila writes about her journey through writing in Scots is absolutely fascinating!
    Thank you so much for putting it here for us to read.
    I am now off to review all my writing in Scots… since I have not really been taking any of it very seriously. That’s what comes of making myself teach English for years. You leave the importance of your first leid alang the road. Time to discover it all again.


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