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Annual column for Shetland Life

It's January - that means it's time for my annual column in Shetland Life. 

It was great to be ‘hame’ in Shetland in May. It’s the first time I’ve been in the islands since 2011. Then it was February, the days were short and the weather coorse. In May it was warm and as the clouds broke the blue North Atlantic light revealed the many and varied beauties that Shetland can offer. I and my colleague from the Scots Language Centre were in Shetland for three days. We had a packed schedule. We met volunteers from Shetland ForWirds at the Shetland Museum, attended a meeting of the campaign group in Lerwick and enjoyed a dialect concert at the Garrison Theatre. One of the highlights of our trip  was a visit to Voe where we saw Bruce Eunson give a dialect lesson to pupils in the primary school there.  Interestingly many of the pupils were not local but that didn’t stop them from engaging with the dialect, speaking it and writing in it.  A new initiative by the Scottish government to appoint Scots language co-ordinators in schools should enable the excellent work carried out by Bruce to be extended to the rest of Scotland.     


The Shetland dialect is alive and well, that much is certain. There’s nowhere in Shetland that you don’t hear it – or for that matter, read it. It’s in shop names, house names, signs and even in the lavvies at Sumburgh airport due to the success of the Bards in the Bog initiative which I’m pleased to hear is being revived this year. The visibility of Shetland dialect in what experts call the ‘linguistic landscape’ is evidence of the vitality of the dialect because in order for shop signs and so forth to be effective you need to be certain that people seeing them can understand what they say.  When a sign in a shop declares, ‘Haein a foy, hing oot da bunting.’ you need be sure that potential customers can understand what's being said.


The prevalence of dialect in the linguistic landscape confirms the data that was released in September about the responses given in the 2011 census.  It indicates that there exists in Shetland a large and active community of speakers. The census results show that Shetland has the highest proportion of ‘Scots’ speakers of any local authority in the country. Moray, Orkney and Aberdeenshire were the communities with the next largest percentages of speakers. None of this is unexpected of course. After all these are the communities where we would expect to find large numbers of Scots speakers (in the case of Shetland this means Shetland dialect speakers and Scots speakers who have moved there from other parts of the country). So it was disappointing that the National Records for Scotland undermined their own professional reputation by pretending that the census results were not credible.  The opportunity to develop policy on the basis of detailed information is now at risk because NRS has attempted to hide the data and call into question the validity of the statistics. It’s not as if the NRS position represents a novel view, mind. Scots speakers have been told for centuries that their language doesn’t exist. We can only hope NRS takes on board the criticisms of academics and language experts because to miss out on using this data purposefully and for the benefit of Scots language communities would be unfortunate and a misuse of unique and exciting statistics.


This year Shetland ForWirds is organising a Year of Shetland Dialect to celebrate the widespread use of the speech form in the islands.  The census and the visibility of dialect in the linguistic landscape tell us how prevalent it is. That’s what the Year of Dialect is intended to mark, the everyday use of the language all over Shetland. There will be more information about events on the Shetland ForWirds web site. Shetland ForWirds celebrates its tenth anniversary this year. The volunteers who have given time and energy over the years to the cause of encouraging the dialect have made a huge contribution to the culture of Shetland. It’s great to be celebrating their successes this year.


Of course 2014 is a historic year not only because Shetland ForWirds is ten years old. In September voters in Shetland will take part in the Referendum on independence. Culture and language won’t be at the top of the politicians’ agendas but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make a case for support for linguistic diversity. Any new constitutional settlement must make provision for linguistic minorities and communities remote from the main centres of population. At the time of writing the Scottish government has set out its plans in November’s White Paper. Would an independent state starting from scratch give us the chance to accord language a more secure position? What do the anti-independence parties have to say on the subject and will their plans stand up to scrutiny? Let’s hope we hear more over the next nine months. History beckons, this is a year none of us will forget.