‘Dinnae talk like that, ye’ll no get aheid in life if ye use slang.” 

“He soons like a total ned”

“Dinnae speak oary.” 

We Scots Speakers have heard it all. Wir language may be fine on the terraces at the fitba, maybe, but ye widnae use it in a job interview. Roch men might get awa wi it on a building site, but it’s no a way for nice lassies to speak. It’s a couthy hame language, no a public one, we’re telt.

I’ll no kid on that it was a shock, then, when ­Glasgow Uni researchers flagged up just such an ­incident in the life of Rabbie Burns. A letter fae a pal in ­London was found amongst our bard’s ­correspondence, ­letting Rabbie ken he’d better use less of his ­“Provincial Dialect” in his future writings. After all, why “should you by using [Scots] limit the number of your admirers to those who understand the Scotish [sic], when you can extend it to all persons of Taste who understand the English language…” 

This is laughably silly, and folk have been ­mocking it all week. Being caught bonnie telling the writer of Ae Fond Kiss, Tam o Shanter, Auld Lang Syne  no to write in Scots is an embarrassment so severe I bet the fella’s rotting bones cringed in their coffin these last few days.

Yet, in this, the land of Burns, it’s this daft pal and his bad advice whose cultural legacy has been the more secure. 

Scots speakers continue to bear the ­thousand ­little cuts to their confidence, administered by ­well-meaning friends, colleagues, peers and ­anonymous online commentators. For a long time now I’ve ­cheerily upheized my language and its speakers, and get ­constant hassle fae folk for it.

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But we’ll get to the present and the future in a bit. First, let’s take a quick glance at the past, and try to understand the linguistic culture war around Scots Language in Burns’s day. 

“The function o poetry is to bring to be/at lang, lang last that unity …” 

Back in Burns’s day, Scots was getting drummed oot of the professional classes. The Union of crowns then parliaments had cowped Scots fae its position as a royal language and a language of state.

Bibles, newspapers, court documents were all in English by the mid 1700s.

The Jacobites weaponised Scots as a ­nationalist symbol in their propaganda, and Scots poetry ­flourished instead at street level. Two men can stand as useful examples for us here.  

Mussel Mou’d Chairlie was a travelling minstrel that was out in both big Jacobite risings. He ­incubated radical sentiment by singing and spreading Jacobite songs. Charlie would walk miles of heath and cattle track daily to bring rebellious Scots song to and fro.

The National Wales: Mussel Mou’d Chairlie was a Jacobean minstrel who ‘incubated radical sentiment’Mussel Mou’d Chairlie was a Jacobean minstrel who ‘incubated radical sentiment’

A flavour of the songs: after the Jacobite’s ­routed the British at Prestonpans outside Edinburgh, the ­English leader Johnnie Cope fled to Dunbar, ­abandoning his troops. Scots minstrels roved the land singing a song recounting that battle which ­concluded with the lines 

When Johnnie Cope tae Dunbar cam,
They speired at him, ‘Where’s a’ your men?’
‘The de’il confound me gin I ken,
For I left them a’ in the morning.’

The palaces of the early 1700s may have been ­echoing with English, but the Scots was strong on the streets. 

Just after the Jacobites, and just ­before Burns, the outstanding poet Robert ­Fergusson did something important: he wrote powerful poetry that celebrated the Scots folk and tongue of his Auld Reekie closies. 

Here’s part of his Auld Reekie poem, about Edinburgh, which talks about morning breaking over the city and the servants warming up their tongues for the day. 

Now morn, with bonny purpie-smiles, purple
Kisses the air-cock o’ St Giles; weathervane
Rakin their een, the servant lasses
Early begin their lies and clashes; gossip and havers 

Burns loved this guy. He said ­Fergusson was “by far my elder brother in the muse”. Burns even funded a headstone for ­Fergusson after the latter died too poor to be buried in a marked grave, and wrote a poem for its inscription. 

Burns emerged as a talent into a ­divided Scotland, with a hastily Anglifying elite and a solidly Scots working populace. 

It is absolutely to be expected, therefore that a friend would caution him away from Scots.

But what about today? What has the legacy been of the transcendent Scots of our national bard? 

As I alluded to at the outset of the ­article, every one of us ­today that was born and raised in one of ­Scotland’s many Scots speaking areas will have had to make a choice when and where and to what extent we should use Scots. 

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When I started at a call centre in Dundee at the age of 17 along with much flotsam my own age, we policed ­ourselves. “Dinnae speak oary like” we advised each other over a smoke ahead of the first day’s training. Speaking in our own voices, we knew, wouldnae cut it indoors. None of the high heid yins that trained us needed to even say a word. We all left our Scots in the smoking shed. 

Yous will hae your ain moments of self- policing your accent, what words to use and when. Maybe even telling your weans no to use words like “yous” or “haver” or “aye” because they are not “proper” words. 

If Burns was born today, if he was fae modern Ayrshire, or Buckie or Yell or wherever, and started pumping oot ­superb fun rhymes in earthy regional Scots, would his cronies suggest he switch to the Queen’s English? 

Have we got any mair comfortable with one of wir national languages in the twa hunner year syne Burns drapt doon deid? 

To get a clue, I spoke to Victoria ­McNulty, a performance poet and ­winner of a number of awards, including the ­accolade of 2021 Scots Writer of the year. She’s based in, and fae, Glasgow. 

“So when I first started performing, I really utlised my voice, cause I wanted to make people uncomfortable,” she says.

The National Wales: Victoria McNulty is an award-winning poet who has been belittled for speaking in her own tongueVictoria McNulty is an award-winning poet who has been belittled for speaking in her own tongue

Victoria speaks with a normal East End of Glasgow accent, and uses Scots ­grammar and lexicon that you’d expect. She reckoned folk in poetry audiences would be unaccustomed to hearing ­people with voices like her. Reckoned they’d react badly. 

“My thinking,” she continued, “Is that if there’s folk made uncomfortable by your voice, then you should make them uncomfortable. I seen it as part of ma art. And ye could see that there were people that really judged ye.”

Mental to think, that even in the ­permissive world of performance poetry a Scots voice still attracted snobbery. It cut both ways, though, as Victoria explained.

“There were people that responded ­extremely well to the voice too, to the representation [of working class voices on stage] and warmed to me. It resonated much further than I’d thought. 

“My voice, something I’d thought would be controversial, turned out to be an advantage and not a sticking point.” 

I asked if anyone had suggested she avoid using Scots in her work, as ­Rabbie Burn’s eejit pal had suggested in the ­letter. Victoria laughed. Going to Uni ­really caused a tension around her ­language to emerge. 

“At uni, well-meaning people made assumptions about who and what you were fae yer voice. I felt in seminars and things, that I sounded stupid. No one told me that, but I felt it.”

I dug a wee bit deeper. Where would an award-winning poet, excelling in ­languages at Uni, have got the idea that she “sounded stupid” for using her ­language and her voice?

“At home ye get told to speak properly, to pronounce your ‘T’s. And at school ye only heard Scots when it was like ­Donald Where’s Your Troosers. But there wis a message the hail time that ‘ye need to speak a certain way’. 

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“Ye didnae want to be, like, The ­Glasgow Keelie, folk would say ‘you sound like a mad glasgow ned’. Ye’d get ‘speak proper, its Windows, no ­Windaes’ an aw that.” 

“Ye never saw it on TV, yer teachers wouldnae speak it. 

“It was clear fae when I was wee, the Scottish voice, like, ‘This is not the ­language of capable people’.”  

Scots not the language of capable ­people. Brutal. 

So how the hell do you get from this language suppression at school, home and uni to being Scots Writer of the year? For Victoria, and potentially for Burns, the answer is, partly, the pub, and the people.  

Victoria performs her work, on stages, in videos, more than she publishes it. It is to be taken to a living audience. She thinks Burns was likely the same.

“Some [of Burns’ work] is so simplistic and repetitive, because it’s no supposed to be read, it’s supposed to be spoke and heard. His audience at the early stages of his writing would’ve been drunken folk in pubs, market traders or wandering types that you’d get in these inns that you’d see in these pubs.” 

So Burns had no choice but to work in the Scots of his Ayrshire compatriots if he was to find an audience and develop a style. 

Charlie the Jacobite minstrel, Fergusson the young poet of Edinburgh, Burns the bard, and Victoria McNulty all share a lineage, and an audience. 

They all had to communicate, first and foremost, to Scottish working folk. 

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Chairlie had to sing songs people ­wanted to buy the songsheets of, so he sang in their language. Fergusson wanted to create poetry of his place, and the folk in it spoke guid braid Scots. Burns was a performance poet who needed to ­create work that resonated in the pubs of ­Ayrshire, not the reading rooms of Pall Mall. Victoria needs to climb up on ­stages in 2022 Glasgow and speak in a way that people can hear. 

Scots remains a language of high art, and it remains for many of us a language of the heart as well. 

Not much has changed, then, since Burns’ pal sent that well-meaning advise to ditch the provincial dialect. Scots is still seen as a handicap by many. Wir ­language still struggles against prejudice.

But just as Burns flourished by ­rejecting the Anglophone ascendancy, ­poets today are still rebelling against that ­globalised tongue and finding a way to speak to audiences, in guid braid Scots.  

This article originally featured in our sister title, The National in Scotland. 

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