By Graham Grant
GUESS who once said ‘the chaos and the fiasco of the last couple of years have shown that the worst thing for Scotland is to be thirled to Westminster’.
It sounds a little like a certain former First Minister, who was fond of the odd Scots reference, and styled himself as the ‘Richt Honourable Alex Salmond’ in official government literature.
In fact, it was Nicola Sturgeon who recently used the word ‘thirled’ – an old Scots term broadly meaning ‘bound’ or ‘yoked’ – no doubt hoping to bamboozle English commentators (and indeed a lot of Scots).
Highlighting the fact that we speak different languages north of the Border underlines the injustice of preserving a political alliance that allegedly seeks to marginalise our unique culture.
That’s the Nationalist thesis, anyway, and yet how many of us truly feel ‘thirled’ to an oppressive UK state – particularly as the Tories cut taxes south of the Border, while in Scotland they’ve risen?
You might feel more than a little scunnered to find guid Scots words being misappropriated for political reasons, in the same way that the SNP has tried to hijack the Saltire for its own ends.
But frankly it’s also ridiculous, and downright bizarre, to present Scots – as many of its supporters do – as an entirely distinct language, with its own vocabulary, grammar and rules of syntax.
There’s a rich treasure trove of highly evocative Scots words and expressions, but attempts to formalise those as a language which one can learn in the same way as French, Spanish, or Gaelic, are hare-brained, or, if you prefer, glaikit.
Now we discover that some within the SNP are keen to promote Scots – which they have always seen as a poor cousin to Gaelic – by setting up (what else?) a quango.
Quangos are the ‘go to’ solution for any perceived ill in public life under this administration, but even by its standards creating a bureaucratic organisation with the specific aim of encouraging greater use of Scots is beyond certifiable.
A motion has been pencilled in for the SNP’s autumn conference demanding the language plays a bigger part in public life and education, arguing that it must be ‘more widely’ taught and learned.
This would be spearheaded by a new quango, similar to the Bòrd na Gàidhlig, which promotes Gaelic and costs the Scottish Government more than £5million a year.
Scots enthusiasts, some of whom spend much of their time translating English classics, including Roald Dahl children’s novels, into Scots (The Eejits rather than The Twits, for example), claim that almost a third of the population speak a form of Scots.
The provisional conference motion – signed by MSPs Alasdair Allan, Stuart McMillan and Richard Lyle, as well as MP Martin Docherty-Hughes – insists the party ‘recognises the importance of the Scots language’.
One particular bugbear of the Scots lobby is that, for many years, children were told off for using Scots (such as ‘aye’ rather than ‘yes’) in the classroom, as it was seen as slang.
The official campaign to breathe fresh life back into the language, or dialect, is an over-the-top response to those long-held concerns, as children are now widely encouraged to write and learn in Scots.
Back in 2012, the Scottish Qualifications Authority observed that in Higher English there was a ‘small, but often impressive, submission of imaginative writing partly or wholly in Scots’.
In one primary school project, pupils named body parts – or ‘boady pairts’ – using Scots words such as ‘oxters’ for armpits and ‘keekers’ for eyes.
According to school inspectors, children ‘respond very positively to opportunities to communicate in Scots’.
But most parents would settle for their children mastering basic English – which they’re more likely to use in, say, job interviews.
After all, recent Scottish Government figures show one in four primary school children is failing to achieve expected standards in reading and numeracy skills.
Even if you believe there is a burning need for Scots usage to become more widespread, it’s far from clear that a quango is the best method of achieving that aim.
With expensive tiers of management and administrators devoting most of their time to costly Scots translations, it would surely reduce – rather than bolster – public support for the project.
Scots is already recognised at Holyrood, with the official website making clear that ‘ye can write til a Memmer o the Scots Pairlament (MSP) in ony leid’.
‘Gin ye hae a question anent the Scots Pairlament or the MSPs,’ it states, ‘ye can speir at the Public Information Service in ony leid bi post or e-mail.’
Roughly translated, this means you can get in touch with the parliament in any language – ‘ony leid’ – but isn’t it telling that I had to reach for Google to double-check what some of this meant?
From the context, it’s reasonably clear that ‘gin’ is ‘if’ – but there aren’t many Scots who would use the word ‘gin’ for anything other than ordering the drink you traditionally have with tonic.
Those who do use it to mean ‘if’, and expect to be widely understood, are daft, and likely to be bores – if you were to ‘speir’ (ask) them about Scots, you’d rue your decision, and within seconds would be reaching for the gin – possibly a double.
We can be entirely confident that a new quango would lead to an explosion in this kind of nonsense.
One wonders what it would be called – perhaps the Scots Development Authority?
According to a reputable online dictionary, in Scots this would be ‘Scots Development Authority’ – which may not have quite the desired ring…
Once instituted, there would be no limit to its interference, as it pressured councils and health boards to ensure they had devised Scots language development plans, and perhaps imposed financial penalties for failure to comply.
Scots language road signs would be a priority: ‘Stap!’ for ‘Stop!’ and ‘Ca’ Canny!’ for ‘Drive With Care!’
Perhaps what we really need is a quango to monitor the growth of needless political vanity projects that eat into scarce public funds, and take civil servants away from their core duties.
The heid bummers – bosses – at the top of government, and its associated bureaucracies, are likely to oppose such a scheme (at least until they were offered well-paid jobs running it).
In old Scots, my trusty online lexicon advises that they might be branded ‘sloongers’ (‘loafers’) – leaching funds from the taxpayer as they issue draconian diktats in a bid to ‘normalise’ the Scots tongue.
Scots words should be cherished, but beware of linguists, and politicians, bearing gifts: the very last thing Scotland needs is to be ‘thirled’ to another quango hectoring us about how to live our lives – to further a political agenda most of us have rejected.
*This column appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on August 6, 2019.