What does the Scots language have to do with Scottish identity?

The pro-independence National newspaper has published an edition partly in Scots. Why?

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It can sometimes seem like hardly a day passes by in Scottish politics without a social media storm. Yet the occasion of the latest disturbance may have seemed puzzling as the independence-supporting National sported a front page describing Labour’s latest “stairheid rammy” and calling the SNP “underdugs”. The occasion? A column by writer Matthew Fitt.

The reactions were numerous – and perhaps surprising. According to widespread opinion, Scottish identity is a (if not the) major driving factor in support for independence. Something as Scottish as the Scots language should surely find broad support in that camp? But no – widespread derision followed from all sides. “Jings and crivvens, help ma boab”; “My parents never left Angus but don’t speak that”; “This isn’t even Scots, just broken English”; and that most damning description of all, “slang”.

The consensus among academics, if maybe not among laypeople, is that historically Scots is indisputably a sister language of English, sprung from the same Old English root, with a liberal admixture of Scandinavian speech, through the dialects of what is today the north of England. Scots spread through the Lowlands (and Northern Isles, and not to forget the north of Ireland) as Gaelic consolidated in the Highlands, becoming elaborated into a language of literature and law at court and throughout the country’s burghs. After the Union, as English became the language of getting on, the tradition waned as Standard English displaced it – an unmistakably Scottish variety of it, but not a direct descendant of Older Scots.

Who even speaks Scots today? That question is both easy and devilishly difficult. Easy, because a question on Scots was included in the latest census, with over a million people stating they had at least some skills in the language. Difficult, because drawing hard lines in among the rich variety of current Scottish speech is not a task for the faint-hearted. And, more to the point, is there such a thing as Scots still, or has it merged with the sea of English stretching from Wellington and Lagos to New Delhi and Anchorage?

Certainly there are places in Scotland where people are proud of local speech, such as the Borders, the north-east with its “Doric”, and the Northern Isles. But, you will hear, that has nothing to do with the artificial Scots of the occasional parliamentary publication, or Hugh MacDiarmid’s “synthetic Scots”. Similarly, everyone recognises the existence of distinctive varieties spoken in Scotland’s cities: but you probably won’t find people outside the academy calling Glaswegian or Dundonian “urban Scots”, though many of their distinctive features go back to traditional Scots speech.

The Scots language is trapped in a confused identity. Local speech is thriving, and it is understood to be authentic and rooted in a community, but precisely for that reason it resists being used as a common vehicle of communication (unless the local colour is part of the point), and so “no one speaks the standard”. Well, reply the advocates, that’s what a standard is — people don’t really speak English as if they were writing it, either. Yet that does not appear to convince. Why?

Scottish nationalism is not driven by or even widely associated with language rights. Unlike Wales, where Plaid Cymru has always been a pro-Welsh language party, or Catalan and Basque autonomist movements, the SNP does not distinguish itself on the language policy front – for instance, it continues the policies of the Gaelic Language Act, passed under Labour with cross-party support, but does not preside over a sustained push for the expansion of Gaelic; and unlike Northern Ireland, where language has become enmeshed in community divides, it is not generally a battleground for party-political contention.

Attitudes to written Scots culture are shaped instead by the overall marginalisation of non-standard varieties, pushed as they are on the one hand into the twee tartan world of the Broons and on the other hand strongly associated with the speech of the urban working class and therefore seen as having little cultural value. Criticism of language rarely has to do with language itself: it acts, most of time, as a proxy for social attitudes. In Scotland, it still remains to be seen whether written Scots becomes an instrument of democratic empowerment, conferring prestige on hitherto marginalised voices, or whether it does get finally relegated to an intensely local medium of communication.

Editor's note, 11 January 2016: This piece originally stated that Matthew Fitt was the Scots scriever; this has now been corrected.