COLUMN: LEN PENNIE
Oor Rabbie and the Guid Scots Tongue*
Performing the work of Robert Burns as a youngster awoke a passion for Scots in poet Len Pennie, whose own work is helping a new generation appreciate a neglected and even derided language. As she writes, the Scots language did not die with the Bard – but it needs to be treated with respect
For someone who spends their time making content about the Scots language, I never really get the chance to sit down and write about it. I was swithering about writing this article in Scots, but in the interests of accessibility, I think English will suffice.
It’s a common misconception that I’ve tried to dispel with my videos, ie, the belief that one must always speak Scots in order to be a valid speaker. I think it comes from an insecurity that people have in classifying Scots as a language; it must be an inherent, innate trait that is inextricably linked to the speaker or else it is an affectation, something put on and shrugged off just as easily. Interestingly, nobody says the same when I speak Spanish.
One of the questions I’m asked the most is when did I start to ‘get into’ Scots, but my exposure to the language was immersive and very much not a big deal. As weans, we breenged, wheeched, and cooried before we knew how to articulate these concepts in English; my earliest memory is sitting on my papa’s knee while he cut wee-lassie-sized scliffs ae aipple. My nanny made sure there were pieces, tatties and stovies shovelled into mouths that never knew the ‘right’ words and we never stopped to consider that there would be any situation where we might not be understood.
Scots was important to me in the same way as air: unconsciously essential. The kind of thing you barely notice when you have it, and sorely miss it when it’s gone. One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t eulogise my grandparents in Scots. I hope wherever they are, they see the linguistic legacy they left, and I eagerly await the day I cut wee-lassie-sized scliffs ae aipple fur ma ain weans.
BEYOND THE CRINGE
My first exposure to Scots outwith the home came from one infamous Mr Burns. From the ages of 8-18 I competed in poetry competitions across the country and as a result spent most Januaries fully booked. I only signed up for the Burns stuff because my mum told me to and as a painfully anxious youth I found the performances excruciating. However, as the years progressed, it became one of the only times throughout the year when I could genuinely see the Scots language represented in a highbrow setting. There was respect, there was enjoyment, and there was a language so full of historical and cultural importance that it had a whole night dedicated to it every year by millions of people – all with one man at the centre.
Robert Burns is a controversial figure – a flawed man, shrouded in mystery. As a young woman researching him, I have had to come to terms with the fact that the sanitised version of my hero that I learned about in school and in the Immortal Memories glorifying every aspect of his life might not be an accurate reflection of reality.
And yet, every January, I continue to go to Burns Suppers to experience one of the only aspects of Scottish tradition and culture that has yet to fall victim to the cringe. And what a cringe it is.
I see first-hand the extent to which we cannibalise our culture in reactions to my work; the way that the repression of language has been internalised to the point where what once was commonplace is now a curiosity. Stick a few inoffensive words on a tea-towel, but don’t dare imply that anyone actually speaks that way; we speak properly here. Regardless of your political affiliations, a celebration of one culture is not an attack on another, a language is not a weapon, and if you’re happy to celebrate the work of Burns on every 25th January, consider the context of his work. Oor Rabbie doesnae exist in a vacuum, and the language he used did not die with him.
Every time I meet a class of weans and let them know that yes, the way they speak is valid and no, they’re not talking in slang, I’m inspired to continue, despite the snash. This 25th of January, if you’re a Scots speaker, I hope you enjoy one of the only nights of the year where Scots is respected outwith the community, and if you’re not, I recommend the online Dictionary of the Scots Language (or a trusted droothy crony) to help decipher any unfamiliar words.
Hae a guid Burns nicht, an lang may yer lum reek.
*The online Dictionairs o the Scots Leid or Dictionaries of the Scots Language at https://dsl.ac.uk provides information about Scots and can help you translate Scots words to English