Notes for a Manifesto
Given at the launch of the Parliamentary Cross-Party Group for Scottish Writing and Publishing, 7 June 2005
Are we the only people in Europe who need to be educated about ourselves? Nothing about us is good enough. Our language has been consistently undermined and denigrated and our literature is not considered suitable or distinguished enough to be taught in our schools, despite the fact that in Robert Burns we have the world’s most celebrated poet.
Burns begins a litany which is as depressing as it is familiar. James Hogg’s Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a masterwork of world literature. Walter Scott invented both the historical and romantic novels. Conan Doyle gave the world its most famous detective. Robert Louis Stevenson invented the psychological novel. Hugh MacDiarmid was considered one of the greatest European writers of the 20th century, and for more than 10 years before his death in 1978, two of Europe’s leading writers were native Scots, living in Scotland: Hugh MacDiarmid and Sorley Maclean. And Muriel Spark is surely a candidate for the Nobel laureatship.
Liz Lochhead has properly instructed us that Anon was a great woman writer, and according to Edwin Muir, ballads, which is the nearest we have to a specific female form, contain the greatest poetry Scotland has produced: “They bring us back again to the Scottish people and its part in the making of Scotland,” he said, “for it was the people who created these magnificent poems. The greatest poetry of most countries has been written by the educated middle and upper classes; the greatest poetry of Scotland has come from the people.” Muir’s continual reference to the ballads as poetry presupposes he hadn’t heard them sung, or that he considered tunes unimportant.
Firstly, we should stop giving prizes for Burns recitation, then tell the weans to speak properly, or to call it slang when they use the words they were rewarded for saying so well.
Artists want people to see their works and musicians enjoy playing to an audience. Writers would like to be read. We should therefore make this as easily accessible as possible, and not just for the benefit of the writers.
The present thinking implies that since reading standards have fallen it is a pointless waste of money sending books by Scottish writers or books about Scottish writers into Scottish schools. The fact that our present generation of writers grew up without exposure to the work of any Scottish writer and it has done them no harm should also be dented.
Books by Scottish writers should be in every Scottish primary and secondary school. We not only need books by dead Scottish writers, male Scottish writers, women Scottish writers, middle class Scottish writers or even the muddled crass Scottish writers, we need the works of living Scottish writers to be made available so that pupils can make informed choices, based on understanding rather than hope. Again, not just for the writers’ benefit.
We have a language which for more than 250 years has been disparaged by the people who speak it, yet its literature is internationally distinguished. And now supernational forces threaten our voice because language is the last stand against globalisation. Spoken and written Scots has miraculously withstood a cultural onslaught from generations of schoolteachers, but may not survive this present global onslaught. Globalisation cannot deal with differences, it cannot tolerate a separate identity and, as the folk of Catalan and Norway can testify, language is a potent tool of resistance.
This is because it is a collective thing, capable of being shaped to an individual’s needs while retaining its communicative value and relevance to the place where it originated; which, in a sense, defines the act of writing itself.
But the real reason for using our own voice and for promoting literature which uses a variety of these voices, is not that it should articulate everything, but that it can articulate things which cannot be articulated in English, or in any other language, that it articulates its own meanings, which are often beyond translation. Glaikit doesn’t just mean stupid, thrawn does not mean stubborn, nor does scunner simply express disgust, and driech certainly does not mean dull.
Language groupings are no longer national, even for those of us who write with a Scots accent. Language’s function is being redefined and it is possible that somewhere in the future societies will be formed to preserve language which is non-national and non-family based, such as gangsta rap and management speak. Mission statements, sound bites, blue-sky thinking and even smart objectives are under threat because of their ubiquity.
Which could mean a closer relationship with English, which has been happening in literature for quite some time. Most Scottish writers I know are at least bilingual, and the lesson of the Scots accent is that writers often mirror earlier developments, for, as we know, the ability for people to renew their spoken language is astonishingly creative.
No less an authority than the former editor of Scottish National Dictionary tells us the Eskimo or Inuit peoples have more than 50 names for snow. Consider then the following list of Scots words, in common everyday usage:
There are, you will notice, more than 50 words here recorded, and there are many others I could mention, mashed, rubber-leggit and wreckit spring to mind, nor have I even considered the lexicon of phrases in everyday parlance, such as Daein the stiff-leggit walk, or Waltzin the alkie two-step, a variety of words and phrases which not only describe the condition, but states of that condition.
How can a language with such precision be useless? And it can describe a lot more. Wouldn’t it be good if we could find 50 words for success or more than 50 ways of raising the profile of an underused and underdeveloped resource, our national literary talent?
The first duty of this or any other committee should be to help Scottish children to be comfortable using and developing their own confident voice, and to give them the understanding that where a Scottish accent or dialect is concerned there is neither left nor right nor wrong.
And there is no more direct route towards achieving this than by raising and in some cases restoring their birthright, which is the raw material that is and has been the legacy of every Scottish writer.
Copyright © Carl MacDougall 2005
Last updated 24 August 2010.