The Language of Burns Lives On

16 Jan 2015
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The Scots language still flows from the mouths of children and adults alike, kept alive in no small way by Burns, and many other Scottish media icons.

Written by Billy Kay, author of Scots: The Mither Tongue

One of the ironies of Ayrshire education in the 1950s was the fact that on one day a year you received a certificate from the Burns Federation for reciting the bard's poetry, while the rest of the year you got the belt for speaking his language! Yet speak the rich Ayrshire dialect of Scots we did . . . it was 'aye yer hame' not 'your home', 'brig' for 'bridge', 'kirk' for 'church', 'mither' for 'mother'. . . the weather was 'gey dreich' rather than 'dull and miserable', and if you fancied someone at school she was a 'braw lassie' rather than an 'attractive girl'. Last year I made a radio documentary on Burns' continuing influence and one wee lassie from Sanquhar on the Ayrshire/Dumfriesshire border summed up the survival of her Scots words succinctly when she said . . . "ye don't actually ken ye're sayin thaim, they jist come oot yer mooth so they dae, ye jist say thaim automatically" (you don't actually know you're saying them, they just come out of your mouth, so they do, you just say them automatically).

It was pride in Burns that gave us pride in our Scots tongue. The general anglicising trend in Scottish society was balanced by the knowledge that in Burns we had produced a world class poet who wrote by far his greatest poetry and songs in the Scots tongue that we still spoke. Burns was part of popular culture. At parties in my home in the '60s for example, someone would sing a Burns song like 'O aw the Airts' then someone else would sing something by Elvis or the Beatles! The Burns ones though had extra resonance, because the surrounding, familiar landscape was touched by the poet's presence . . . "The risin sun ower Galston muirs wi glorious licht wes glintin" . . . "ye banks and braes o Bonny Doon, how can ye bloom sae fresh and fair" . . . "flow gently sweet Afton among thy green braes".

The emergence of Scots

Scots and English share the same relationship as Spanish and Portuguese or Dutch and German languages which come from the same roots but develop differently because of political history. Scots emerged as the national language of the Stewart kingdom in the middle ages but its proximity to English meant that its distinctiveness was eroded when English language and culture gained huge prestige in Scotland following the Unions of 1603 and 1707. Burns himself was affected. A contemporary review by Henry Mackenzie in The Lounger stated ..."One bar indeed, his birth and education have opposed to his fame, the language in which most of his poems are written." Like many critics since, Mackenzie got it totally wrong! Had Burns forsaken his native Scots and written only in English, he would have been yet another obscure Augustan versifier instead of one of the world's greatest poets whose Scots words have become part of the heritage of the English speaking world . . . 'O wad some pouer the giftie gie us, tae see oursels as ithers see us' . . . 'the best laid schemes o mice an men gang aft agley' . . . 'we'll tak a cup o kindness yet for auld lang syne'. These sayings now come out the mouths of people from Canada to Australia automatically without thinking, and often without knowing that they are the words of Robert Burns. On the other hand, two great American writers who certainly knew their Burns were J.D. Salinger the title of whose novel The Catcher in the Rye is based on Burns' song 'Comin Thro the Rye' and John Steinbeck whose masterpiece Of Mice and Men echoes that famous line from 'To a Mouse'.

Scots media icons

Back in Scotland, Burns was not the only influence that kept the language going. Every Scot grew up with the cartoon characters, Oor Wullie and the Broons from The Sunday Post newspaper. The vernacular too has been the medium of hilarious comedy from the days of music hall performers like Harry Lauder to stage comedians like Billy Connolly. The folk song revival also gave us popular singers like Matt McGinn and Hamish Imlach, and songwriters like Hamish Henderson and Adam McNaughtan. Finally, the literature is thriving with writers like Janet Paisley, James Robertson and Matthew Fitt using Scots to great effect, with Robertson and Fitt producing Scots material for children in their vibrant Itchy Coo imprint. With this Scots revival in schools, children are realising their potential fully as bi-lingual Scots, and gaining personal confidence because of that.

A proud linguistic heritage

Perhaps re-gaining confidence would be more accurate because in the past Scots lived by the old saying - "thaim wi a guid scots tongue in their heid are fit tae gang ower the warld" those with a good Scots tongue in their head are capable of ranging across the world. That has certainly been my experience writing about The Scottish World, where so many of the great Scots of the past were proud of their linguistic heritage. When Robert Louis Stevenson arrived in California's Napa Valley, for example, he discovered that one of the vineyards he visited was owned by a man from Greenock, called McEckron . . . 'we exchanged a word or two of Scotch, which pleased me more than you would fancy'. Stevenson himself puts wonderful Scots in the mouths of his characters in novels like Weir of Hermiston and Kidnapped. He saw himself following very much in the tradition of Robert Burns. So too did writers from beyond Scotland. As late as 1907 the poet laureate of North Carolina, John Charles McNeill, wrote poetry in Scots which recalls the history of his people.

I been banished an whipped an warstled an flogged
(I belang tae the Democrat party)
But in gaein owre quagmires I haena been bogged
An am still on my legs, hale an hearty.

In the English spoken all over the Southern United States, many Scots words are in every day use and I myself have recorded people who used words like 'galluses' for 'braces', 'pokes' for 'bags', 'redd up' for 'clear out', and expressions like 'no worth a haet' for 'not worth a whit'! So Scots survives!

I will end with one of my favourite quotations about the Bard in which another American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sums up the lasting, universal appeal of Burns' songs and the guid Scots tongue in which the greatest of them are written:

"people who (normally) care nothing for literature and poetry care for Burns . . .The Confession of Augsburg . . . the Declaration of Independence, The Rights of Man . . . La Marseillaise are not more weighty documents in the history of freedom than the songs of Burns".

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