A dangerous thing wi style

Tae dae a dangerous thing wi style is whit ah caw airt — Charles Bukowski

As a scriever ye’re no meant tae read ablo-the-line o yer ain airticles, gang gallus intae yon dour Apache laund o Unicode emoticons an racist GIFs an illíterate comments bi fowk wha micht mean ae thing an micht mean anither but neither thing maks ony sense. Ye’re no meant tae dae it, ah say, but ye dae it onywey; an as a scriever o Scots ye can be gey shuir that a smaw but faithfu minority o commenters (ah’ll no say readers — wha’s got time tae read onything these days but heidlines?) are giein ye a hefty shirrackin for writin the wey ye dae.1

Sae tae be treatit like a scriever o English — that is tae say, tae tak a skelpin for whit ye actually scrievit, raither than the leid ye chose tae scrieve it in — is kind o a tonic. Somebody’s taen the time tae disagree, repone tae ye like ye war a plausible human bein raither than some wee bauchle shoutin the odds outside the Sports Direct on Argyle Street. Anither ane o Adam’s bairns is pure ragin at ye, wad tak a flier richt at ye, if they coud — an, in short, ye’v duin no bad for yersel.

Like, twa-three weeks syne, sowt ah scrievit got somebody’s back up a bit, an they got wired intae the comments section wi a dissentin opínion. It wis awfu polite, ye ken. Weel-trickit, ye micht even say. Ah mean, they war talkin out their hint-end, but the thocht wis there. Ah’d hiv felt quite chuffed wi masel, if they haednae obviously got me mixed up wi ma guid fere an colleague Rab Wilson.

Weel, awricht. There’s mony a makar out there — masel includit — wha wad hae a celebratory dram gin a scribblin o theirs wis miskent for ane bi the Bard o New Cumnock. Yon’s nae calamity.2 But whit got me doun a bit wisnae the subject o the unkennin identity fraud ah’d cairit out, but the fact that a perfectly mensefu reader3 coudnae tell the odds atween twa awfu different scrievers — seein Scots, in effect, as a kind o linguistic tredmerk, like e e cummings an his lower case or David Foster Wallace an his fitnotes.4

Acause that’s whaur we are richt nou, like it or no. Scots disnae hiv styles; Scots is the style. Whether ye’re Rab Wilson or Matthew Fitt or Irvine Welsh or Hugh MacDiarmid, tae a substantial subset o the population it’s aw ane. Scots, as is, is juist a genre; which micht, dependin on the laziness o the reader, be chairacterised as ‘kailyard’ or ‘folksy’ or ‘earthily humourous’ or whitiver, but is still mair or less identifiable as a discrete tradítion, an a tradítion whase individual contríbutors are as anonymous as the compilers o the New Testament or the scrievers o auld Punch an Judy shaws.

In the same wey that Hollywood films uised tae recycle the same auld sets ower an ower again — the palace yetts, the hotel lobby, the soon tae be cowped ower saloon — ilka scriever o Modren Scots is stuck daein their wee pairty piece in front o the same exhaustit bourach o deid or deein ímages. That’s chyngin — a bit — thanks tae outlats like The National an Bella Caledonia an Mak Forrit, whaur sic hithertae virgin subjects as economics an current affairs an gender politics are nou bein scrievit about in braid Scots. But whit Scots needs — whit ony leid needs, an whit the current state o Scots is a cautionary tale regairdin — isnae juist new things tae scrieve about; it’s new weys o scrievin them.

Saul Bellow ance glaikitly speirt whaur the Hemingway o the Zulus wis. G. K. Chesterton lauched aff the notion that the Chinese micht iver produce a Wordsworth.5 Lat alane the cultural insensitivity o the question for nou, an speir yersel: whit about Scots? Whaur’s our F. Scott Fitzgerald? Whaur’s our Virginia Woolf? An, mair importantly, hou will we find them? Hou dae we bend the leid awa fae its present gate; a gemm-chyngin makar ilka twa hunner year, an naething but saund inatween?

The central tension o Modren Scots is that, for want o ony ither viable authority, the responsibílity for representin an codifyin its scrievit form haes fawin tae the verra fowk wha are in the warst posítion tae dae it: the scrievers.6 The writers wha shoud be stormin the tours insteid hae been left mannin them; airtists wind up as advocates; an makars are laundit wi the psychic cost o scrievin warks that act príncipally as their ain glossars. The pressure on ony Scots writer tae conform tae a uniform ideal o the leid is enormous7 tae the pynt that it drives out aw ither consíderations. The Faulkner o Fawkirk wad niver hiv been alloued tae scrieve ‘The Sound and the Fury’, nor Glesga’s Ginsberg ‘Howl’, nor the Joyce o Johnstone ‘Ulysses’. It coudnae hiv happent, acause fowk wad hae duin their bunnets8 about whit it meant for the Scots leid. Currently, the primary function o a wark in Modren Scots is tae evangelise for Modren Scots — an ettlin at which nane o the scrievers abuin wad iver hae strived or succeedit. ‘Ceptin mebbes by producin somethin o lastin vailue in the leid, if that counts for owt.9

A fair bittie o whit ah’m mumpin about, ah jalouse, is juist the sílencin effects o capitalism, scrievit about mony pairts elsewhaur bi thinkers cantier than masel. Mercat forces hiv pit the leid’s airm up its back, for shuir, but there’s as much pynt girnin about that as there is complainin that the air’s no got eneuch oxygen in it or the muin’s no a muckle chocolate orange. If there’s onything we can dae tae keep the leid alive, it’ll need tae stairt a wee bit smawer than social revolution, a wee bit muckler than ‘Downfall’ memes.

Scots scrievin is hingin on in there, but it’s in intensive care. The first team squad is as strang as it’s been in a while; the forementioned Welsh, Wilson an Fitt, Liz Lochhead an James Kelman an Stuart Paterson an Chris McQueer, Ally Heather an Ashley Douglas an Antonia Uri, Itchy Coo an James Robertson an Matthew Mackie an Michael Dempster an Hamish Macdonald… an that’s aff the tap o ma heid an nae dout lea’s out a hantle o fowk.10 That’s a group that shoud provide style eneuch for onybody. But ah’m aye mindit how guid the Leeds United squad wis juist afore they went bust.

The talent is there, an mebbe ayeweys haes been. Whit’s needit nou, aye, is tae support these fowk; an tae dae that, amang sindry ither weys, bi lattin them the hell alane. Lea them tae get on wi pushin the limits o the leid, an stap thristin ontae them the burden o preservation forby. We cannae hae a meaninfu leid wi’out a meaninfu líteratur; an we cannae hae a meaninfu líteratur wi’out scrievers wha are alloued tae be scrievers first an language activists a distant saxt. There’s a wheen o fowk out there wha’v got muckle ideas about whit they’d dae if they war in chairge o Scots — weel, guid. Here’s their chance. It’s past time for the makars tae muive up an muive on. As lang as the scrievers are stuck playin Gatekeeper an Keymaster baith, the maist we can howp for is that the leid steys juist whaur it is, a tradítion; no quite in assistit lívin, but no faur aff it; wi naething tae come but a couple mair generations o Scots Language Power Rangers, colour-codit scrievers distinguishable fae each ither anely bi shade an action pose.11

Niver mind the Creative Scotland definítions; tae dae a dangerous thing wi style is airt. An whit coud be mair dangerous tae ony scriever than tae thraw ower the hale global jingbang, this readership o potential billions that we’v aw got access tae, an scrieve anely in this disreputable, deein leid o ours, for a haundfu o radges an a skailin o bawbees? Stephen King coud write for a hunner years an niver rin the thing close — but scrieve in Scots, ma fríends, an ye’re haufgates tae maiterin. Aw ye need than is a wee bit style, an that’s a thing ye can pick up juist about onywhaur. Check out the outlaws, check out the dugs. Check out the tramps an the ticket inspectors, the fowk wha’v got somethin at stake. Than get up on that bollard at Sports Direct an staund an sing yer hert out.


Thomas ClarkThomas Clark is a makar an scriever fae the Scottish Borders. He is praisently editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia, an poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC. He gabs awa at www.thomasjclark.co.uk an on Twitter: @clashcityclarky.

  1. Fowk mebbe hinnae the time tae read airticles ony mair, but they’ll ayeweys hae a couple o mínits gaun spare whan it comes tae giein some puir sowel a kickin.
  2. ‘Cept mebbe for Rab.
  3. Seein as the verra first wirds o the airticle in question war ma name, it’s mebbes a bit generous tae caw the chiel a ‘reader’ in ony meaninfu sense o the wird. But raither as keepin on clarifyin whit ‘reader’ means in the context o Internet tae-an-frae, lat’s juist agree here tae uise the wird wi a muckle dose o irony.
  4. Which he’d hiv been the last fella in the warld tae hiv claimed as an innovation o his ain — but, ken.
  5. They’d haed about a hunner o the chiels afore we’d even got around tae turnin out juist the ane — tho nane o theirs ever perpetratit sic a deithless line as “I’ve measured it from side to side / ‘Tis three foot long, and two foot wide’.
  6. This, maist obviously, is acause o the absence o a government-fundit, government-sanctioned Staundart Scots an associatit body. Ah ken ah’ve kind o set ma stall out agin Staundart Scots in the past, but whit ah really object tae isnae the notion o a staundart per se but the fact that sic a notion tends tae get waffed around bi purists mainly as a muckle stick tae batter lairners an scrievers wi. Whit ah’ve realised ower time, but, is that the purists are gettin totally gubbed, leavin the forementioned vacuum o authority which is nae dout a muckle pairt o aw the braider problem wi Scots.
  7. No juist fae ither Scots spikkers, ken, but fae a braider society that, like Lisa Simpson, wants a challenge, but anely a challenge they can dae.
  8. Which they did onygates — but than, English wis a toun big eneuch for baith o them, the creators an the tradítionalists. Ah ween Scots is an aw; but richt nou we’re heidit for a showdoun at the auld corral which the makars will win but awbody will ultimately lose.
  9. Tho ah suppose even Virgil coudnae manage tae keep Latin on the go.
  10. As weel as sangsters, movie-makars, comedians an, o course, Billy Kay, wha exists in an entirely separate category o his ain.
  11. Forby bein individually null, the Power Rangers coud anely ever get onything done bi jynin up intae ae big soulless automaton cawed the Megazord. Ye ken whit ah’m gettin at here.

9 Replies to “A dangerous thing wi style”

  1. The eternal struggle atween the creative—”tae dae a dangerous thing wi style is airt”—and the transactional—”codifyin its scrievit form”.

    Thare’s thaim that embraces Scots as a ubeequitous alternative tae written Staundart English—the transactional—sae thaim that writes it can be “treatit like a scriever o English” or writer o ony ither codifee’d leed—and thaim that for creative raisons rejects Staundart written English. And ony ither staundart forby. If the wey its written is pairt o the airt form—fowk will comment on it. Houaniver, whaur sic “airtists wind[s] up as advocates”, it caws the feet fae unner ony ettle tae codifee it. Sae wha the deil is in ony poseetion tae pit “pressure on ony Scots writer tae conform tae a uniform ideal …”?

    Weel, no a sherrockin, but wis it poukin at whit ye actually wrate or the wey ye wrate it?

    1. Cheers for yer repone, mun. Wha puts pressure on Scots writers tae conform? Weel:

      1) Fowk wha should be wirkin on whit ye caw the “transactional” side o things, but for wan reason or anither arenae, an insteid are jist girnin aboot scrievers dingin doon the leid etc. This in turn leads tae…
      2) Ither writers wha tryin tae find weys we can aw collectively compromise, which then results in..
      3) You, yersel, feelin guilty aboot lettin the leid, its uisers, an yer brither an sister scrievers doon for nae awfy guid reason.

      An aye, ah dout we could aw jist ignore the girners, which is whit maist scrievers dae. But tae ken afore ye’ve set pen tae paper that ye’re gonnae get a kickin for it – could time yer watch tae it, gin ye’d a mynd tae – weel, gin that’s no pressure, ah dinnae ken whit is.

  2. A hink ah’m maistly oan yer side Tammas, an fer sure we shuld be screivin in scots nae bangin oan aboot scots as the topic. Sae apologies fer this, which if ahm nae canty may cam across as juist anither chib againgst staundardising scots. Its the use o the word leid. Niver in ma puff hae a yaised it,nor heard ony ither cheil yaise it, we’ aye cry it wur mither tongue. Ah went tae luik it up ben a scots dictionary an it suggested that as fer meaning language it wis only yaised archaically in poetry. Ahm nae a poet. Ah hate the word. Its pure alien tae me…an here’s ma gripe. Ah’ve screived scots fer mony a year. First they ignored me, some gied me strange luiks whan a submitted scripts in scots, but lately, post indy ref ( may be a coincidence) if ye dinna screive accordin tae the rules ye’re scorned bi scots an englis baith. Ah’ve hud a wheen o fechts wi theym wha tell me that fowk shuld yaise a dictionary ower simply screivin fae their hert. Sae a decided ahhm no gonna screive in scots forbye a this pish aboot daein it the richt way is by, if a live tae see that day. Ma serious question is…why should we be forced tae yaise a word we’ve never heard o’ ower the yins that we grew up wi? Why should we be taught scots and treated as illiterate if we rebel agin hings we fin wrang. Ah will niver yaise the l word!

    It pains me tae read it ither than in a poem. Ah wid screive in ma mither tongue, an spell hoo it souns sae ithers can read it oot, rather than try tae be somehing ahm no, which is cried standard. Diversity in wur mither tongue is surely a strength? Bit whit dae ah ken,ah’m juist yin o they wee voices. Seems like a new academy is on the rise…an they’ll cry me kailyaird cus ah’m nae macdiarmid. Scotland is bigger than renaissance poetry,nae offence intended tae ye poets, bit ah’m pure wabbit fae fechting tae be allooed tae screive fae ma hert wi’oot needing tae gang back tae scuil tae learn ‘pure’ scots. Ahm no gonnae learn the scots leid,when ma mither tongue has aye been guid enough fer me. An a realise ma screived scots here the noo is weyward, bit this is a cry frae the hert, no tae win prizes in purity.

    1. Ah dinnae disagree wi ye at aw, Jenny. Ah 100% recognise an unnerstaun whit ye’re on aboot, an maist o the Scots scrievers ah ken wad say the same. Like ah said in yin o ma fitnotes, ah unnerstaun an accept the case for Staundart Scots as a wey o educatin lairners an settin oot oor stall for government fundin an support. But ah’m personally gey suspicious o fowk wha are mairrit tae dictionars. Ah scrievit a wee bittie aboot aw this ower at Bella Caledonia a wee while syne: http://bellacaledonia.org.uk/2016/12/06/a-scots-manifesto/

      1. Thanks fer the link tae that ither article. A wis fair buzzin’ gin a read that. Guid tae see… ah juist git ma dander up wi the thocht o’ a definition o’ Scots lairners wha actually are natives… whit dae ye need tae lairn theym? Bit ye dealt wi’ that, an’ other grand hings in that ither post an’ I’m pure chuffed that ye did. Heads up wee man! An’ ah’m totally wi’ ye oan the ither points o’ how we need tae stop gang oan only about the ‘l’ word etc an’ focus mair oan juist being Scots writin’ Scots as pairt o’ wur life. ah heard a piece oan the news the day aboot the new NE Scots Language Forum where the reporter proudly stated the aims as ‘making Doric mair visible in ordinary situations’ Ah choked on ma toast – uh, if ye gang doon ony street bi here ye’ll hear Doric spoken by the ‘ordinary’ fowk. An’ how exactly are the learned wans gonnae teach their grannies tae sook eggs? Plenty fowk spik Doric – ah guess makin’ it mair ‘acceptable’ is a somewhat worthy aim, bit ah’m wonderin’ wha it will really serve – an’ whether the money it will cost fer ivory tower meetings an’ forum groups will really achieve onyhing mair as simply gang intae the local shoppies, or doctors, or hairdressers an chattin’ wi fowk. If a wis gang tae the meet, which ahm nae, ah’d suggest a poster campaign – DORIC SPOKEN on a’ the doors o the toon… noo ahm sure that’d mak a huge difference… rant ower for the day. Keep us straicht an’ sane Tammas an’ keep oan giein’ yer opinion wi’oot fear or favour, but oh, boy, keep awa’ frae the ‘l’ word forbye it be in a poem.

        1. Haud forrit wi the Scots, Jenny – a livin tongue for livin fowk is whit we’re needin, no a deid yin for the dictionars! Ah dinnae ken wha’s ettelt tae pit ye aff scrievin Scots in the past, but ah’ve fair enjoyed readin yer comments, an ah howp ye’ll no let a haunfu o radges stap ye fae keepin on keepin on. There’s a wheen o ootlets for Scots scrievers oot there, an ye’ve obviously a lot tae say – gaun aheid an get it said!

          Aw best,
          Tam

  3. Weel, we aye hae Rabbie Burns an in the Renaissance there wis Davie Lindsay an mony ithers. But the leiteratur sud be better kent. Lyndsey wis awmaist contemparous wi Shakespeare, an no naur sae weel-kent in Scotland thir days. An it’s richt true that we need tae continue producin siclike braw leiteratur.

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