2007 - 2022

Forked Tongues

indexRabbie Burns, Elephant Man, Sheena Easton, Bob Marley, Louise Bennett an Liz Lochead walk intae a pub in Dunfermline…

The rammys aboot the Scots edition o The National an Stephen Daisley loupin on a few typos on the Scottish Government website got me thinkin aboot the power o language in Scotland an Jamaica. Ah try tae no get too involved in the argument aboot whether Scots is a ‘real language’ cos as far as Ah’m concerned that’s maistly settled by linguists an, much mair importantly, it’s spoken by maist o the folk Ah ken, so there’s nae point in gettin riled up aboot it an chokin on ma (newly politicised) Tunnocks teacake. Scots is as real as it gets.
Ah’m a Fifer, but Ah lived in Jamaica for aboot three an a half years, an ma wife’s Jamaican. We baith came hame tae live in Scotland in 2014. Nane o this maks me an expert in Scots, in Jamaican Patois, or in the relationships between language, culture an identity, but it might gie me a different angle on things.

Ah dinnae ken every Scots word an Ah dinnae speak the same Scots as ma grandfather spoke. Whether it’s ‘diluted’ or ‘enriched’ by different influences is a matter o debate, but it survived gettin throttled by ma school an it’s intelligible tae maist folk Ah meet in Scotland, so for me it’s alive an valid an Ah’ve a right tae speak it an tae write it. Ma wife’s ‘proper’ English is better than mine, but she also speaks Jamaican Patois, which has Scottish, Irish, English an African words an phrases in it, as well as a hypnotic lilting cadence that is distinctly Celtic. At hame, Ah try tae speak as much Patois as Ah can tae her because Ah ken she enjoys me makin the effort, ah ken she misses hame an Ah believe that her Patois is closely tied up wi the things an folk that are dearest tae her hairt. When Ah wis in Jamaica, Ah’d often hear someone on the telly in another room, an cos Ah couldnae distinguish the words, the accent sounded Scottish. Til Ah got used tae it, Ah’d run ben the room only tae discover that it was a news report fae Clarendon an no Coatbridge. Maist Jamaicans thought Ah wis Russian or German at first, an lots o them didnae immediately recognise that Ah wis talkin a language that was in any way similar tae theirs, despite the fact that they definitely kent that ‘many a mickle maks a muckle’ and said ‘gie him it’ much mair than ‘give him it’.

There are similarities in the way chattin Patois in Jamaica an spraffin Scots in Scotland are regarded by the high heidyins though. Although every real Jamaican kens Patois, in the main it’s discouraged in the classroom an is definitely no preferred by maist ‘uptown’ Jamaicans. As an aside, Ah cannae ignore the part ma forefathers played in engenderin this snobbery, or the painfully divisive legacy of British Imperial brutality that sowed the seeds o much o the divisions that persist in Jamaica. An although the majority o Scots arrived in Jamaica after the Darien debacle an post 1707, an can therefore perhaps be conveniently regarded by some as British at that point, that disnae get us off the hook. Maist Scots were violent an opportunistic in Jamaica, Scotland’s coffers got fat off the blood o slavery, an we filled oor boots over there tae such an extent that there are mair Scottish surnames per heid o population in Jamaica than anywhere else in the world. This permanent link is consanguineous, but wisnae consensual. There’s a great group called Flag Up Scotland Jamaica that are tryin tae get the Scottish Government tae recognise the historical and cultural links between these two Saltire nations an mak Jamaica a priority country by the bye: have a gander at their website here :

One way Scots an Patois differ is that Patios has developed tae a stage noo where, in its spoken form, it’s jist aboot standardised. There are wee dialectal differences but no tae the same extent that we have in Scotland. If ye compare Patois tae Standard English there’s a bigger difference than when ye compare the Scots spoken by maist folk in Scotland tae Standard English. Along wi elements o Jamaican music, Patois has also been a vehicle for preservin African words, phrases, traditions an folklore. In this way, it has moved fae a language o liminality tae one o resistance an unity.

It’s also worth mindin that resistance (as rebellion) in the Jamaican consciousness is no as far removed in time an space as it is here in Scotland: next time ye go tae Jamaica go up tae Accompong an ye can talk tae descendants o the Maroons; rebel slaves who fought a successful guerrilla war against British Empire forces an still bide in an independent enclave tae this day. If ye’re doubtful, ye can volunteer tae try collectin taxes in Accompong: ye’d bolt doon the hill as quick as the Redcoats did when they saw the machetes flash in the sunlight. Can ye imagine descendants o William Wallace’s armies still occupyin an independent stronghold somewhere in the hairt o Scotland? ‘Braveheart’ might never hae seen the light o day.

Jamaican bairns are taught aboot Miss Lou (Louise Bennett) in school mind you. Her well-kent poems an performances in Patois offer a controlled demolition of linguistic an cultural snobbery, as an excerpt fae ‘Bans a Killin’ shows:

Dah language weh yuh proud a,
Weh yuh honour an respec –
Po Mas Charlie, yuh no know se
Dat it spring from dialec!
Dat dem start fi try tun language
From de fourteen century –
Five hundred years gawn an dem got
More dialec dan we!
Yuh wi haffi kill de Lancashire,
De Yorkshire, de Cockney,
De broad Scotch and de Irish brogue
Before yuh start kill me!
Yuh wi haffi get de Oxford Book
A English Verse, an tear
Out Chaucer, Burns, Lady Grizelle
An plenty a Shakespeare!
When yuh done kill ‘wit’ an ‘humour’,
When yuh kill ‘variety’,
Yuh wi haffi fine a way fi kill

This is echoed in the sentiment o Liz Lochead’s bairnsang:

…to the place I’d learn to forget to say
it wis January
and a gey dreich day
the first day Ah went to the school
so my Mum happed me up in ma
good navy-blue napp coat wi the rid tartan hood,
birled a scarf aroon ma neck,
pu’ed oan ma pixie an’ ma pawkies
it wis that bitter.
Oh saying it was one thing
but when it came to writing it
in black and white
the way it had to be said
was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead

Miss Lou is a bit o a Burnsian figure in Jamaica but although she wis a bonnie fechter for her culture in many ways, she’s no regarded as dangerous by the Establishment. Bob Marley, who translated domestic and geopolitical politricks intae Patois for a population that was (conveniently for those in power) maistly illiterate, was certainly dangerous. His maist militant, international and influential anthems mixed and switched codes in the same way as those o Burns, and this allowed him tae speak truth tae power, no jist tae the man in the street. If ye want tae ken jist how dangerous he became, ye can dae nae better than read A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James; it’ll blow yer heid right aff. A prophet is never welcome in his ain land, an that’s true for Bob; he has never been gien National Hero status in Jamaica, no that Ah expect he’d care a jot. He wis a real living threat tae the system o privilege in Jamaica at a time when it was also a second front for the Cold War. If ye go on a package holiday tae Jamaica an dinnae venture beyond the chain fence o the hotel compound, the nearest ye’ll get tae this genuine power is a cheap plastic keyring o a Rastaman smokin an oversized spliff or some bland mainstream reggae performed at a variety show by the entertainment staff. Ye’ll hear ‘no problem mon’ an ‘Irie mon’ aplenty in they places, cos laidback Jamaica is what maist tourists expect. Ye’ll no hear much real patois spoken and ye’ll leave nane the wiser. In this environment rebellion is reduced, packaged, controlled and sold. Limited use of Patois is tolerated as a commercial tool, but no as the language o rebellion or cultural expression. In Scotland, Scots is only tolerated by the mainstream media as long as it’s couthy, cute, an associated wi Kailyardism an tartanry. If it’s accepted an respected as a livin leid, the folk that talk it have tae be respected an accepted as valid an equal: that’s a step too far for folk whose existence an livelihood is dependent on an unchallenged sense o entitlement an superiority.

Nooadays, the influences o American language an culture in Jamaica is stronger than the same influences fae these Isles. So, while in the past an ordinary Jamaican might hae laughed at a neighbour affecting upper class English Received Pronunciation, it’s mair likely noo that they’ll crease themselves at a neighbour newly returned fae America who’s started ‘twanging’. Ah was laughin at this wi ma wife the other day when we were watchin an interview wi the dancehall artist Elephant Man, whose Jamaican accent seemed tae hae got lost somewhere on the way back fae Miami, only tae be replaced by a weird American drawl. This minded me o listenin tae Sheena Easton gettin interviewed on telly in the 80s. Maist Jamaicans would regard twanging in a similar way tae Scottish folk listenin tae Easton; they’re no the genuine article an they’re no the fu shillin.

Modern Jamaican music maks full use o Patois, although the same code-switchin an code-mixin Marley used is also common. Folk still listen tae it all over the world though, it transcends barriers, an folk as far away as Japan are interested enough in the culture tae find oot what the mair unfamiliar Patois words mean. Local is international, an national is parochial, as Tom Leonard says: makin the effort tae learn the languages of the majority folk o other cultures gies ye a unique insight intae that culture, an one that isnae filtered through the twisted kaleidoscope o mainstream media. It taks effort, but preservin yer ain leid can be empowerin ootside yer ain borders as well as inside them.

Havin the front page o the National in Scots this January was brilliant, but it scunnered me how negatively it was received in some quarters and how quickly something sae innocuous was regarded as threatenin. Ye’ll no see many front pages in Patois in Jamaica, an the broadsheets will mainly eschew it for Standard English, but Ah used tae love readin Ragashanti’s agony uncle column in raw Patois in the Daily Star. What would be ‘wrong’ wi printin mair articles in Scots aboot any subject? Maist articles in Scots are still aboot Scots; we need tae start printin articles in Scots aboot anythin, after all, we use it tae talk aboot anythin! It looks unfamiliar written doon in black an white, but that awkwardness will fade in time.
The resurgence o the Scots leid has coincided wi the development o a mair conscious, informed an confident electorate an a Scotland that is askin itsel some tricky questions. This has been fuelled in part by the Independence movement, but of course that disnae mean that Scots is the preserve o Nationalists any mair than English is the preserve o Unionists. Scots belongs tae us aw. But it’s oors an it’s precious. It’s somethin tae be treasured. If it’s ‘wrong’ or ‘inferior’ or ‘bastardised’ then by default we are tae. When a language is belittled, invalidated an held in disdain so are its speakers. This insidious form o social engineerin has tae be challenged. Ye dinnae tell bairns that the way they talk aboot the folk they love is ‘wrong’. Teach them standard English aye, but let them keep an develop their Scots tae.

The mainstream media’s erses squeak aboot Scots because its existence an acceptance is a challenge tae their increasingly precarious positions. They’re biscuit-ersed an their coats are on shoogly pegs. In years tae come bairns will express themsels confidently, fluently, powerfully an persuasively in Scots an in Standard English, an the world will want tae hear what they’re sayin. Deniers like Daisley are livin in a parallel universe an will soon disappear up their ain jacksies.

We should feel sorry for the cringers and self-loathers rather than bein angry at them though; they’re hingin tae the tattered remnants o decayin privilege while the rest o us are busy spraffin aboot the fairer, mair equal an respectful Scotland that’s in oor grasp. Through livin an lovin oor leid we naturally mak daily declarations o dignity, self-respect and independence o mind. That sounds guid tae me.

Comments (35)

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  1. Peter Burnett says:

    What yuh ah seh is perfect 🙂 Thanks

  2. Pietro_McM says:

    Wrote this a while back. An experiment in what a web page might look like. Back in the Nineties. Didn’t get the chance to proof read it as I wrote the text and the HTML code together on Windows notepad.


    West Coast.

    Tegenwoordig weet ik beter dan Schots dialecten bijna de verschillen tussen die van Nederlands.

  3. Kevin Brown says:

    Good article, enjoyed it, thank you.

  4. Ewan Macintyre says:

    William Grant writes the following in the Introduction in A Scots Dialect Dictionary published in 1911:

    “Shortly after 970 A.D., Kenneth 111, King of Scots, came into possession of the Lothians, and one of the conditions of his occupation was that he should permit the province the use of its own laws and customs and Anglian speech. Henceforth we have a Scottish [Gaelic-speaking] dynasty ruling over an English-speaking folk, and adopting the language and customs of its new subjects … and henceforward the kings are Scottish only in name.
    “Later on, Gaelic was contemptuously styled Yrish or Ersch, and as national pride demanded a separate name for the national language, the old Inglis tongue of the Lowlands began to arrogate to itself the title of Scottish.”

    Does than not mean that the title of Scottish was stolen from Gaelic?

    1. James McDonald says:

      Ma biodh thu spam-bot, cha bhiodh mi ag aithneachadh.

    2. Danny McTavish says:

      Sin agad e. Mar a tha mi air sgrìobhadh àitegin eile channainsa “Scottish” anns a Bheurla Ghallta an àite “Gaelic” air a son (ged nach robh an righ Seumas cho meusail oirre) air sgàth gu bheil da chànan Albannaich ann an diugh fhathast ach chan eil ach aon leis an t-ainm Albannach bhuapa anns a Bheurla. ‘S e an fhacal “Albais” a tha an t-ainm ùr airson a Bheurla Ghallta an diugh a reir Uicipeid is ‘s e deagh facal a tha seo nam bheachdsa. Carson nach chan na luchd labhairt na h-Albais ruidegin leis an fhacal Scots cuideachd airson an cànan ionadail nas sìne? Neo a bheil iad toillichte gu leòr leis an status quo far nach eil ach aon cànan Scots an diugh.

      1. Ewan Macintyre says:

        Danny McTavish – I agree with your last sentence.
        I shall never forget a native Gaelic speaking professor of Celtic (now deceased) insist that the ‘Beurla Ghallda’ should continue to be called ‘Scots’. He did not elaborate but perhaps he was sending out a signal warning us just how precarious was the very existence of Gaelic departments in ‘Scottish’ universities three decades ago.

        1. Danny McTavish says:

          If they just accepted both languages as Scots and Gaelic as the older one, it would help a great deal in supporting both. What Scots needs isn’t more names blockading with the refusal to allow for any language to be called Scots aside from the Scottish English one, and history lessons about how it was so different from Chaucer (which is dubious as the oldest Scots poetry was written in a language referred to as Inglis by its own writer!) but some structural work to maintain it as a form of what I would define as English with its own grammar and character. I say form of English because even when it was for a brief period a fully fledged state language, it was on occasion still referred to as such and has both an ambiguity and nebulousness to this day that isn’t helped with the “whas lik us” approach to language planning.

  5. Jim Morris says:

    Many Scots ended up in the slave plantations as slaves, not masters, which accounted for a large proportion of scots surnames.

    1. Fionnghal says:

      Aye Jim, Yer right, a load ae us did land up in the Americas as slaves but that doesnae mean that Scotland didnae produce a load ae Scots slave maisters an aw’! We did!

    2. Danny McTavish says:

      That’s possibly because they had Scottish white ancestry that was n the slave owning or brutalising side. The serfdom that whites suffered in North America is not comparable to the lifelong property subjectivity that black slaves suffered in the slave system they had to endure.

      1. Danny McTavish says:

        “on the” as opposed to “n the…”

  6. James McDonald says:

    Sae far as A can tell, Marley spiks a fair feck mair Inglis nor the maist o Jamaican musicians, some o his bairns amang thaim.

  7. Bernahrd says:

    “Ah try tae no get too involved in the argument aboot whether Scots is a ‘real language’ cos as far as Ah’m concerned that’s maistly settled by linguists …”

    That is often claimed but nobody ever names those linguists. Who are they?

    1. Gibby says:

      Gin ye werna jist trollin: Robert McColl Millar, Caroline Macafee, J. Derrick McLure, David Murison, James Costa, A. J. Aitken, Pavel Iosad- naebdy ye’d ken yersel, I dout, but ony linguist wi ony darg ti dee wi Scotland widna tak ower lang ti jalouse the fack o’t.

      Hae a keek at this: http://www.anghyflawn.net/blog/2014/a-nynorsk-for-scotland/

      1. Berhard says:

        Those linguists have certainly dealt with Scots in various ways. Have they treated Scots as the varieties of English spoken in Scotland or have any of them explicitly stated that they conclude that Scots is a separate language autonomous from other varieties of English?

  8. Alf Baird says:

    Braw airticle Robbie.

    English shuid be oor ‘administrative’ language, nuthin mair, juist like it is in maist ither ex colonies fi Singapore tae Kenya an Jamaica an aw.

    We shuid hae a ‘Scots Language (Scotland) Act’, juist like Gaelic haes. Whit wid thon gie us?

    – Scots language taught in schuils
    – Scots language degree
    – Scots language TV channel
    – self respect (nae mair kultural discriminashin)

    Wir heid bummer joabs shuid hae fowk whit can spik Scots an aw, so they can communicate wi abody. At the minute maist o thon heid bummers irnae really qualified if they canna spik Scots.

    1. Ewan Macintyre says:

      By referring to the various dialects of English which masquerade as the Scots language great damage has been done to the true Scottish language – Gaelic.
      The writer of this article claims to be writing in ‘Scots’. He is not and William Grant explains why in his Introduction in A Scots Dialect Dictionary.

      Sir James Miller does the same in his book entitled Lowland Scotch. In the Introduction he writes: “My object in compiling this book has been to present a fairly complete and accurate account of one of the various dialects of Lowland Scotch, which are really dialects of English speech …”.

      Study A Scots Dialect Dictionary and Lowland Scotch at evening classes as I did on several occasions including one class at the Extramural studies department of Glasgow University.

      The place to study northern Middle-English as written in Scotland is in all the departments of English in all the universities.

      1. Gordie says:

        the latin languages seem to manage fine

      2. Danny McTavish says:

        Yer richt and I wuild gang further and say thit the text above is wrutten in a wie thit demonstrates the problem wae claimin Scots as an unthirlt leid frae Inglis the day. Its hauf wiie atween the twa wae “right” insteid o “richt” and thons been enabled bi the unwillingness tae thole a shared stannart orthographie. Gin it wis tae be an unthirlt leid again, it wuild be an Inglis yin which is the reason fur the creaton o the wurd “Anglic” maugre the fowk thit spak the langage cryin it Inglis but nivvur Anglic afore they stairtet cryin it Scots and Scots “Ersche” in the Reformation (a time whin ironicallie the Northumbrian byleids wae thur Scots lang vouls thit aiblins wur effectet bu contact wae the ither Scots leid Gaelic stairtet tae be unnermined bi fowk sic as John Knox luikin tae the dialeck o Lunnon an the South as thur model fir skreivin.

        The wie fowk spik in Fife the day is nae mair separae and unique frae BBC Inglis nor the wie fowk dae in Yorkshire and Somerset and thons aiblins ayeways bin the case syne Inglis wis frst brocht tae Britain and the ainlie difference thur wis, thit Scots yins hid thur ain stannart which the ither Inglis byleids didnae aside frae Southren in the pre global Inglis era is nou nae mair the case.

        1. Alf Garnett says:

          Aye right ye are. An sine ye thirl yirsel the great spiker can ye no tell is the why saw mony linguists tell is Scots is a language and no a dialect? Or ir ye anither that disnae hae the baws tae stand up to whit yir ‘English’ teacher ir mebbe yir mammie telt ye was the ‘proper’ way tae talk?

          1. Danny McTavish says:

            cos fowk dinnae want tae be telt thit it isnae an they tak tent o thin when decryin it differentlie nor ither Inglis byleids thit are jist as auld an jist as divergient frae the stannart leid uised bi aw Scots spikkers the day.

        2. Danny McTavish says:

          thon no “thin”.

          1. Tam says:

            Must say I’m bemused by the attitude and strategy that sets up Scots and Gaelic as in some sense competing for respect/status/money in modern Scotland. The truth is both are vulnerable in a population already completely fluent in perhaps the world’s most dynamic and culturally powerful language. The real goal is to get Scottish people and the Scottish state to value language and culture – and that makes Scots and Gaelic speakers and activists allies. At this juncture, an advance for one is almost certainly an advance for the other because it normalises appreciation of and support for our homegrown languages.

            In particular Ewen, I think your comment above is counterproductive – and I say that as an English-speaking learner of Scots and Gaelic. Scots is clearly not standard English and we DO refer to ‘what it is’ as ‘Scots’; which is underscored by the goverment signing the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages referring to both Gaelic and Scots. That horse has bolted. There’s no credible way one could rebrand Gaelic as ‘Scots’, and, honestly, why would you want to try? The problem for gaelic is mainly people (incorrectly) thinking that Gaelic “was never spoken here” or that it’s pointless to learn and a waste of money to support (I’m sure we’ve all seen such comments on tinternet). It doesn’t seem wise of you to risk turning potential natural allies (people who’d like to see space made in education and public life for Scots/Doric/Shetland) into competitors because you want to tell them that the ‘true language of Scotland is gaelic’.

            If we want to see Scotland become a progressive and modern country that supports indigenous, surely the best approach is to have a generosity of spirit that recognises, values and embraces Gaelic, Scots and SSEnglish.

          2. “The real goal is to get Scottish people and the Scottish state to value language and culture – and that makes Scots and Gaelic speakers and activists allies. At this juncture, an advance for one is almost certainly an advance for the other because it normalises appreciation of and support for our homegrown languages…”

            – precisely Tam, thank you

          3. Tam says:

            *apologies for some typos in there (it’s a bit late for this chat)

  9. Redgauntlet says:

    Para estar libre de Inglaterra, a mi juico, hay que hablar otro idioma que no tiene que ver con los malos nacidos vocales del Sur. Asi se ve el mundo de forma distinta.

    Allí está el español, idioma de toda América Latina……¿a que esperais?

  10. Gordie says:

    Shite-hot piece of writing Robbie

  11. Gordie says:


  12. Brus MacGallah says:

    Of course Scots is taken very seriously 12 miles east of Kintyre, as the Ulster Scots, BBC website and a’thing.


  13. Redgauntlet says:

    Robbie, you´re so right, we need to give something back to Jamaica. Well done to you for flagging the issue. A great read mate. Slainte.

  14. Josef O Luain says:

    You’re piece certainly worked for me, Mr H. A great read.

  15. The Glasgow Clincher says:

    Great article. Thanks.

  16. Danny McTavish says:

    The reason people believe that Gaelic was never spoken in Scotland is because of the masquerading as the only Scots language of the English one which in various loosely related forms is also indigenous or native or whatever word is the least controversial to Scotland. If Gaelic was to be called Scottish, then there would be no problem with Scots being called Scots but the term Scots is used in Scots to mean Scottish, ie Scots fowk, Scots politics and Scots tatties. If its the Scots language, then its the Scottish language by implication and this has been emphasized by many haters of Gaelic over the last few centuries though not necessarily by most Scots/Inglis speakers.

    1. Ewan Macintyre says:

      Talking about “haters of Gaelic”, here is an example (if the link below is allowed) of the views of the usual suspects in the Inverness area. One even uses his real name. This man has been posting anecdotes about negative attitudes towards Gaelic, beginning for him (he is over 70) in his childhood, which are both truthful and useful. They are useful because they also help inform the youth of today. So, keep posting Mr MacGregor along with the anti-Gaelic brigade up here who are too cowardly to use their own names. …..

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