2007 - 2021

Burns Nicht


By Daibhidh Rothach

“Well, I know he wrote something about pomp and ceremony being bad, but how about we celebrate him every year with some pomp and ceremony anyway? We can even wear kilts.” Whatever crossed the mind of those who first sent Robert Burns on his road to national deification, it clearly wasn’t irony. The nineteenth century though, when Burns clubs sprang up worldwide, was a century much given to reinventing cultures for its own ends, and humanity’s reinvention of the past has always been commonplace. In this management of history for personal or national cause, faults are forgotten, misdeeds rewritten, skills of alchemy concocted and attributed as divine, and so cults, and ultimately religions, spring, the passage of time augmenting genuine qualities with those celestial. Thus, each January, Scots and their diaspora embark on the annual pilgrimage to the work of Robert Burns, Ayrshire Buddha, animal-loving humanitarian, would-be plantation owner, and nobility-patronised socialist.

The poet’s status and popularity ensures the establishment of today continues to scramble and fawn over a man who rejected, in poetry at least, the puerile ritual and duplicity of the British state of his own time. In plucking Burns from glaury-kneed working class Ayrshire and laying claim to him, they are – in particular those from the world of media and politics – merely doing what they can to secure their station. As well they know, the patronage of the dead can be more powerful than that of the living. However in doing so, they continue to reject a core element of Burns’ work which cannot be denied or reshaped – his use of the Scots language, and on an occasion when it should be at the forefront of the nation’s conscience, it side sidelined by officialdom.

There is of course no greater vehicle of British soft power, no greater tool for enshrining Standard English as the prestige language of these islands in the psychology of its inhabitants, than the BBC, and the esteemed national broadcaster couldn’t possibly let a year’s propaganda go to waste by giving serious respect to the speech of an uncouth Ayrshire ned by normalising it. And so out trot the usual BBC Scotland grandees for the annual White Heather Club Robbie Barnes Special – a Kay Adams or Jackie Bird, aided by the likes of Jamie MacDougall or Nicola Benedetti who, despite being skilled in their fields (hating the SNP, hating the SNP, opera singing, and playing the fiddle, respectively), can’t speak Scots, and are as far from the working class ethos of Burns’ poetry as the BBC can manage.

If the linguists’ mantra of You speak like who you speak with tells us anything, it is that the working class – by and large the sole remaining inheritor of Burns’ tongue – is utterly alien to BBC Scotland. This is not an issue concerning an ability to host a television program, but rather one of linguistics and class identity and, at a more malevolent level, how the editorial policy of BBC Scotland attempts to control and manage them. To control how a language is perceived by a people is to hold great power, but convincing them that they don’t actually have one is even greater.

Perhaps, though, the BBC could be given the benefit of the doubt: Burns did after all write much of his work in English, and given that Scots has no official status (not the fault of the BBC, but rather the current government), it is possible that their researchers and producers simply lack the understanding and learning to know that it is a language and, just as is the case with Welsh, French or English, for it to work in poem and song it must be pronounced correctly. Whatever the reason, it leads to the loss of simple rhymes, such ‘Johnny/crony’ and ‘road/abroad’ in Tam o’ Shanter, and the title of Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin seems never to have been pronounced correctly by anyone, ever, in the public eye.

The closest the working class get to Burns in any form of official capacity is via Burns clubs themselves, which, despite cultural peregrinations, have at least given Scots a semblance of status. There is however something about them that doesn’t quite fit. Their image is, to this mind’s eye at least, interminably entwined with old school Unionism: guest of honour small-town councillors of blue, and later red, the local Kirk minister, too many men patronising the lassies or, quite incredibly, refusing them entry. Then of course there is the abject gall of toasting the reigning monarch at a republican’s birthday bash, a reinvention of such immense undertaking that it would have made even Jim Murphy baulk.

It must also be questioned whether Burns clubs have contributed to the maintenance of the Scots language itself. Indeed their relationship with it is similar to that of the Royal National Mod – also a product of Victorian Britain – to Gaelic in the last century. Before the extension to Gaels of human rights by the Scottish education system, the Mod was an annual pat on the head for a language murdered on the tongues of Highland children, and whilst bearing links to a legitimate cultural past and being presided over by people with a palpable love for the language, it was, by way of Royal patronage, always under establishment control. Gaelic was then, like Scots now, only to be represented in a way which would not offend its colonial masters, and many Burns clubs seem more concerned with the preservation of internal tradition rather than the broader scope of the Scots language.

By the end of next week, as the establishment’s tartan-clad misappropriation of a poet whose language they won’t acknowledge comes to an end without a hint of shame, his anthologies will be tossed back into classroom cupboards for another year, working class children will be punished for speaking Scots, and those chosen to recite Burns at the school play will return to the polished English of their parents and academic acceptance. This, and many other negative perceptions of Scots and its speakers could, by giving it central place during Burns Nicht, be at least partially alleviated. However with the political will of the government increasingly in the hands of politics graduates who, despite having the best interests of their country at heart, are less in tune with the cultural and linguistic complexities of social advancement than those they have affected, this won’t happen any time soon.

The cult of Burns will easily live on for another year, while thousands more Scots speakers will pass, many of those unaware of the priceless and irreplaceable treasure they take with them. A language culturally adrift, socially unviable, it is now in desperate straits. That Burns’ legacy has been successfully managed and adapted to fit the shirt of those from all walks of life and political hue is perhaps as much a factor in his lasting popularity as is that of his genius itself. However on one count Robert Burns was wrong: to look and laugh isn’t always enough, and if his language is to be saved, his poetry must somehow be removed from the clawing grasp of an establishment which while so desperate to make him their own, has contributed so much to the failure of his culture.

Comments (33)

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  1. Monty says:

    I don’t want to see the Scots language embraced by the state or the establishment and I am never too sure what this kind of piece want approval and support by the state and Academy for the language or to celebrate its outsider status. Personally I think hands off its ours and it does not need the suffocating and often patronising embrace of Scots language activists, academics and politicians without the efforts of whom it has not only crossed over from being a spoken language and one for poetry and song but also a very popular language for prose fiction where it is used for description not just in quoted speech. Official status does as much good as bad and all establishments whether Scottish, British, English need an alert eye kept on them.

  2. Optimistic Till I Die says:

    As someone brought up in the slums of Edinburgh, I always found it difficult to speak naturally outside my family habitat. At school, it had to be proper English, when traveling it made sense to speak as others spoke in order to be understood, but, eventually, after becoming a University lecturer, working mostly in England, I had to live with a forced means of communication, all the time knowing that this was not how I ‘wanted’ to speak. Having said that, in recent trips home, I have been impressed with the number of individuals on TV who do speak naturally in their local Scots dialect and this seems a marked contrast when I was a youngster. I hope once independence is gained and the focal point of Scots media becomes Scotland and Scots and not the south of England that received pronounciation and its variants will die a natural death. In the meantime all I can anticipate is more of the same slow death of local dialects, as the widespread assumption in the 1960’s that local accents were ok seems to have succumbed to the Oxbridge concensus.

    1. IAB says:

      I think the dialects will survive and this is a sign of a living language – it will make it more difficult to have an ‘official Scots’ language but that I can live with. I work in Asia and students prefer Scottish accents as they like the way we talk and the country has a great reputation. Saor Alba

  3. Nathan Gunn says:

    Absolutely spo(a)t o(a)n.

  4. Kenny says:

    Wonderful article. I’ve often thought that one of our key problems as a nation is that we don’t even recognise our own language as a language and ignore the extreme “cultural cleansing” that has gone on since the very start of the union. The Scottish accents that appear on “national” TV in the UK are either Kirsty Wark and Jim Naughtie or thugs, drunks and layabouts in soap operas and comedy shows. Our language has been deemed the language of the gutter (sadly often by Scottish establishment figures) by portraying all those who speak it as uncouth, unreliable and unlikeable.

    I see some evidence that things are changing. In popular music, for example, there are now many, many more artists working in broad Scots accents than there were 20 years ago. But there’s still a long way to go.

    1. Frederick Robinson says:

      Kirsty Wark, Jim Naughtie, yes; but also Eddie Mair, Billy Paterson, David Hayman, Dennis Lawson, Kirsty Young, Armando Ianucci, Ian Jack and Deborah Orr (Guardian), etc.,etc. Interesting, too, that both the article and the Comments are in Standard English.

  5. kate says:

    A complete silence re gaelic . what are the politics of gaelic’s relationship to scots? scots is a form of english, whereas gaelic draws in its roots from ireland, and evokes religious and cultural differences. gaelic was supplanted by scots/english. it is strange to forget so entirely the more serious suppressions related to scottish gaelic, gaelic culture and catholicism and the sense in which scots is itself a colonial language

    1. Tamas Marcuis says:

      Ra maitters a thir screvins war nae annent wir auld Celtic liede.
      Now tell that sentence was just accented English. If you speak any other language you will know perhaps something of Occitan or Low German or Gallego or Norsca or Bokmal. If you don’t then you will be at a loss. Scots is older than modern English so by your measure it is degraded Scots. Again Scots is closer to Anglo saxon and Frisian so is the less corrupted language. But such statements are meaningless in linguistic terms. You can’t say Scots is a kind of English any more than you can say Dutch is a kind of German. They can be related but one is not somehow a real language while the other isn’t. Or do you think that since international newspapers published in the far east print in American English and virtually all foreign students of English language use American texts and learn their pronunciation, that your regional English is just a form of American? Americans are already known for thinking English people speak in a quaint old fashioned manner. How long before most English speakers just think you can’t speak properly? Computers already default to another spelling system, what happens when they don’t recognise your speech and pronunciation as English?

      1. Frederick Robinson says:

        Tamas: with your first sentence you trumped my earlier post about Comments being in Standard English; but then went on to prove my point, whether you mentioned American English or not (as a matter of fact, I, in common I suspect with many folk in the British Isles, spoke a kind of American English in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it became less the fashion as US films, plays and books became more self-critical, what with Vietnam and the Middle East).

    2. deewal says:

      Please don’t ask such awkward questions and make such relevant observation’s kate.

    3. IAB says:

      I would agree with you – it’s my great regret that I never had an opportunity to learn (neither did my son) and the great ‘multiculturalism’ experiment excluded Gaelic. The Scottish government need to make moves to have it recognised as an official language of Scotland and to give all school children exposure to it. Gaelic is Scottish just like Scots.

    4. Gordon Murray says:

      Not that I can claim any great expertise on the subject, but I am reliably informed that Scots gaelic is in fact a Latin tongue, whereas English is Germanic in origin. At the time of the Union of the Crowns in 1603 the official language of the Scottish royal court was Scots. As I explained to friends and associates while working in London, I do not speak bad English, I speak bad Scots!

      1. Mark Ó Domhnaill says:

        Scottish Gaelic is in no way a Latin tongue. it is related to Latin in the sense that they both derive from the Italo-Celtic branch of Proto-Indo-European. But they split long, long ago. they are both distant relatives to each other but not derived from one another. take it one step back and you have Proto-Indo-European which is the ancestor of all languages in Europe from Greek to Gaelic to Scots (except Finnish, Estonian, Hungarian, Basque and the Sami languages).

  6. Darien says:

    It should be rather obvious to Scots that our language and our culture has been severely constrained and racially discriminated against for as long as any of can remember. Our rights have been fucked around with too long. Its time tae tell them where tae go, in nae uncertain terms.

    1. Frederick Robinson says:

      Darien, there are more Scottish voices on radio, actors and presenters in films and on tv and writers topping the charts now than before in my 75 years. I come from Nottingham (East Midlands), which had brief exposure with Allan Sillitoe and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, D.H. Lawrence, and perhaps Stanley Middleton; but do you hear Nottinghamians/East Midlanders making a fuss about it?

      1. Darien says:

        Scottish voices maybe, but speaking ‘proper’ English, not Scots. Our language is suppressed.

  7. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Interesting article. As one sent to elocution lessons at a young age I now understand how language and identity are entwined. Thanks to the great resurgence of Scottish politics culture I’m learning more and more the complexities of language, When you erase a language as happened with Gaelic you end up with a colonised society. I agree with so much of the article as well as the comments and thank all of you on this special day our Bard’s birthday. I received my first certificate for recitation from the Burns Federation at 8yrs. old and have managed to keep it after sixty odd years and many miles from my birth origins. As an expat it’s alway interesting to hear other’s views on this great poet who was my first hero and have still kept the faith: It’s coming yet for a that ….

    1. Darien says:

      gaen yersel hen!

  8. IAB says:

    I have heard a great deal of pessimism about the continuation of lowland Scots and I’ve even seen it on an endangered languages list. However, walk the streets of Scotland and there is Scots everywhere and even dialects like the Patter and the Doric (I have grammar books and I also own an Alexander McCall Smith book written in Scots). The language may not be encouraged in official settings but was it ever seen as formal? It thrives in comedy settings such as Rab C Nesbitt, Chewin the Fat, Still Game, etc. It is also represented in literature in stories such as Smeddum and in classic movies such as the Kidnappers and Whisky Galore. We have Oor Wullie and the Broons and many YouTube channels and websites. I have taught English abroad and it is common for teachers to demonstrate our own dialects to show the diversity within the language. I think we must recognise that standard English will be the channel for official communication but, with Gaelic, communications could be offered in three ways. We can put together writing and recordings in Scots for school children and keep the language alive. I am less concerned about Scots than I am for Gaelic as a lowland Scot whose mother spoke Irish and whose father spoke Gaelic and who never had an opportunity to learn.

    1. Frederick Robinson says:

      Not forgetting (still going strong on Radio 4) Stanley Baxter and his Parliamo Glasgow.

      1. Darien says:

        gies peace!

  9. Paddy says:

    Guid piece. Weel written. Burns was obviously a Republican so all the glass lifting tae the hanoverian crown at the ritual suppers is sumthin I hae never din, much tae the chagrin o top table folks. Disny matter if yer a biographer o Burns in Scotland – every second ither person kens far better than peasants like me. Here’s a wee poem wi some Scots also on Bella a few days ago:

    The People’s Protest Against Fracking – Standing in the Breach, recited on Burns Day at Grangemooth 2015

    When activists tak tae the street
    An’ activists at Grangemooth meet;
    As Janwar days are wearin’ late,
    We bring oor rally tae this gate:
    Oor expose on Tory lies
    Tae steek their plans as unwise
    They say ‘Cheap gas’ an’ jobs for a’
    Like manna fae the Heaven’s fa’!
    ‘T’s fact, Lord Browne has paid them weel
    ‘Flat out for shale’ an’ a’ that spiel.
    Five hunner grand’s a bribe, corrupt
    We’re here tae protest, no’ disrupt.

    Let’s examine the Evidence
    Tae see if what they say maks sense.
    There’s plenty ‘experts’ oan yin side
    So are they takin us for a ride?
    Are geologic survey’s done?
    Whar, underground, dis water run?
    And – seismic data o’ fault lines?
    Or ‘subsidence’ fae auld coal mines? –
    Are these risk factors a’ array’d
    When risk assessments judgements’ made?
    Na! this data isny gether’d
    Science ’s run awa’ untethered!
    Ken this, absence o’ evidence
    Isny evidence o’ absence!
    Whun evidence yon ‘experts’ shun

    Noo let’s examine drilling wells
    Tae see whit myths the facts dispels?
    Guid evidence that’s peer-reviewed
    Proves safety claims are hyped an’ skew’d
    The percentum o’ wells that leak
    Is exposed in ae fine critique
    By Professor Ingraffea
    Wha, on this subject, has nae peer.
    Fools talk o’ well ‘int-eg-ri-ty’
    But wells leak whar we canna see
    Disturb its source and up it comes
    Like smoke oot o’ yer reeking lums.
    Methane gas is invisible
    Toxic tae, it can burn or kill;
    Through complex geologic ways
    An’ aquifers it finds ae space
    Drill horizontal thru coal seams?
    Is takin’ risk tae new extremes!
    There’s mony auld coal-mines unlisted
    CBM must be resisted.
    Wi risk ye canny be blasé!
    A sink-hole in a motorway!
    Or ‘water water everywhere’
    But no’ a drap tae drink or spare!
    So, gas will leak whar nae-wan knows
    Cos water flows whar water goes.

    Tae fracking fluids, noo turn yer ee,
    And in the toxic mix, ye’ll see
    A wheen o known carcinogens
    Then zoom in further wi the lense
    Tae see, endocrine disruption
    In the toxic brew eruption:
    They blast it in, they know not where
    And whar it gans, they just don’t care!
    So by ae route o’ pathways rent
    Bi leak an’ seepage, fluid spent,
    It gets intae the watercourse
    An’ tae oor reservoir it pours.
    Then fu’, intae the gless ye drink
    Fae water-tank tae kitchen sink.
    Turn on yer tap an’ licht yer flame
    If it builds up, it’s Boom! nae hame!
    The laws o’ probability
    Increase risk wi’ volatility
    Extreme conditions wull exist
    When unkent variables persist.
    Nae scientific test regime
    Fir radioactive NORMS doonstream!
    So, water it may burn or glow
    Fae flowback waste fae doon below.
    Lang took fir grant’t, noo we fear
    Fir drinkin’ water, pure and clear.
    Rules allow the corporation
    Self-reporting regulation
    So whun things gang wrang, as they must
    Tae private greed we place oor trust?!!!
    Na, ae best Civil Action Plan –
    Avert disaster – if WE can
    Keep toxic poisons fae oor water!
    Oor health an’ safety DOES MATTER!
    Nae birth defects or cancers spread!
    Stop fracking HERE and NOW! Instead.

    ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
    Gang aft agley’, time an’ again.
    So whun the environment’s assessed
    Some water an’ fauna they test –
    Otters an’ badgers are surveyed
    On line, or face-to-face, it’s said
    Ae badger said the ither nicht
    ‘Whits hapent tae yer human richts’
    The otter said ‘It’s upside doon
    Im wi the humans this time roon’ –
    That Human health assessment’s missed
    Health an’ safety’s a game o’ twist;
    EIA’s are a paper-chase
    They’re no’ upon the real world based.
    Oan paper, every theory’s grand
    It’s the real world ye can’t command.
    Hence, ‘Gold standard regulation’
    Is a rouse upon oor nation.

    Lang syne, the states had rights held dear
    What’s over there is coming here!
    A hunner thoosan’ ill or harmed
    So why should we be sae alarmed?
    At least o’er there, ae tide his turned
    Concerned communities hae learn’d
    Pressure oan they politicians
    Can curb corporate ambitions!
    Like Florida or New York state:
    Stop it here – before it’s too late!

    Underground gasification?
    Hell’s-furnace ablow oor nation!
    Psychotic vampires’, slash-and-burn
    Scotia’s ashes – pit in an urn!
    Nae carbon capture tae restrain!
    E’en Satan isnae sae insane!
    Mammon’s venal slaves turn hither
    Ye’ve tint yer Reason a thegither!
    Beyond the Gates o’ Hell they’d dare.
    Is naewhar sacred ony mair?
    Greed’s hellish legions pour an’ gore
    They’d buy and sell the earth’s core!
    Investment shares and dividends
    Oor assets in their pockets end!
    See it! hear it! an’ smell its breath:
    The Neo-Liberal kiss o death!

    Beneath the Heaven’s perfect blue
    There’s energy we can renew:
    Ae greatest source is licht an’ heat
    Fir solar rays oor sun’s replete
    It’s free, it’s oors, sae panels build:
    The jobs await – oor people skilled.
    There’s birnies row an’ river’s flow
    There’s tidal waves an’ winds that blow
    A’ this energy IS FOR FREE
    The win’, the river, tide an’ sea
    Its time tae harness Nature’s power
    An’ gauge her kilowatts per hour.
    Enhance electrification
    Scotland’s wind an’ hydro-nation
    Invest in what is safe an’ green
    Fir climate justice, carbon clean.

    Scots politicians, hear this plea
    For you who shall decide – must see –
    (The Airth Inquiry you called-in
    Oor People’s interests must win)
    Review evidence fae baith sides
    Let a’ the evidence decide
    True caution is wise and simple
    A precautionary principle
    Err oan the side o’ human health
    No’ oan the side o’ private wealth
    Yer public duty, don’t neglect
    Square yer conscience an’ intellect –
    Protect us fae this Tory plan
    A moratorium or BAN.

    Whit wad Burns say, if here, this day?
    ‘I pray wi holy fire!
    Lord send a rough shod troop o Hell
    O’er a wad Scotland buy or sell
    And grind them in the mire!!!’
    ‘Then let us pray, as come it may’
    Oor People’s richts, fir a’ that.
    When Greed trumps need Oor People bleed!
    We’ll win this fecht for a that.

  10. Bob Ardler says:

    The biggest enemy of Gaelic is its consistent yet crazy spelling: (1) a quarter of the Latin alphabet not used (2) the broad and slender sandwich fetish (3) bundles of vowels or consonants for single sounds.
    Daft English spelling keeps kids illiterate. Was daft Gaelic spelling devised by cunning monks to restrict
    literacy to the priesthood?

    1. Mark Ó Domhnaill says:

      At least it’s consistent! English orthography doesn’t go much in the way of actually showing you how to pronounce it. what with it’s infamous silent ‘gh’ in ‘night and tight’ except it’s sometimes pronounced ‘f’ in ‘cough and tough’. or the t’s that sound like ‘sh’ or the c’s that fancy themselves as s’s. was dadt English spelling devised by cunning monks to restrict literacy to the preisthood?

      1. Bob Ardler says:

        The inconsistently daft English spelling evolved over the centuries, and is now defended by those rich enough to afford extra education. The consistent nightmare gaelic orthography has stopped me learning the language of my clearances-expelled grandparents. School was kilt-wearing and bagpipe-playing, with a gaelic motto but not a word of gaelic taught. We read Shakey and Shaw. Still don’t know Doric from Lallans. Whit tae dae?

    2. maxi kerr says:

      Hud yerwheesht ya eejit.

  11. This is an interesting article that opens up a much-needed debate. I can understand the sentiment expressed in some of the comments here along the lines of not wanting/needing official status or for the media to appropriate Scots. But there is a question of equality and with regards to the latter point, the fact is that broadcasters have a significant impact on how a language is perceived and spoken. Radio nan Gàidheal is an example of a broadcaster that has engaged with its audience to the point of becoming a part of the linguistic community it serves. Scots should have a similar service, where the speakers Daibhidh Rothach points out have been neglected are given a voice. I was fortunate to study Burns at Glasgow Uni’s excellent Scottish Lit department, and to have been able to consult a Scots speaker when I was trying to learn Tam o’ Shanter off by heart a couple of years ago. But given I’d heard something about the man at least once a year growing up, I shouldn’t have to go to uni (or try to learn Tam o’ Shanter) to get an understanding of Scots as Burns spoke it.

  12. Jeanie Deans says:

    How few folk seem to realise that the Scots were multilingual. Time was when Gaelic, Scots, Doric and Lallands (have I left any out?) all co-existed, each dominant in different parts of Scotland, and Scots traded and communicated in combinations of all of these. Some, bejasus, even spoke English and French.

    When it came to ‘crushing rebellious Scots’, Gaelic was the obvious choice for banning. The others were closely enough related to English for them to be contemptuously treated as corruptions of it and the schools were where that message would be thrashed home. So began the two-pronged attack, and within a few generations we were buying into the ‘speak properly’ drive.

    I’m a linguist. I recognise the value of speaking other languages and yes, speaking English is useful, but so is speaking all the varieties of our own Scots tongues. Thankfully they all survive even if some folk would call them ‘dialects’.
    In fact they’re the thriving remnants of a rich linguistic treasure that ought to be equally valued and nurtured.

  13. JBS says:

    Note tae Self: eftir Williams, aw, an Leonard, eh

    This is just tae say, like,
    thae cans ae
    that wur in the fridge,

    an that ye wur definitely
    fur next Setterday’s shindy,

    well, Ah’ve drunk thum.
    And Ah’ve goat tae tell ye
    that eftir
    a portion ae pakora
    an a beef vindaloo
    they wur
    that coolin
    that refreshin

  14. Cassandra says:

    Over the last 40 years there has been a huge amount of very poorly informed material written about the Scots Language, much of it having as its prime source Hugh McDermiot whose lifelong persistence embedded his (mostly inaccurate) beliefs in the Scottish mindset. Happily the genuine historical facts can be found on-line in James Murray’s 19th century definitive investigation into the subject: The Dialects of the Southern Counties of Scotland. Burns I’m afraid does not come out too well.

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