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.