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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Radical breakthrough in the Census

4th February 2011

This article by leading Scots language expert, Derrick McClure, first appeared in the Leopard and is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor.

An important event this spring will be the decennial Census.  Most of us are used to this and know the procedure; but this time round we will find something we’ve never seen before: a question on our competence in Scots.  Campaigners have been pressing for this for decades to no avail; but finally their efforts have paid off.  And make no mistake: this is a radical breakthrough.  Every census in the twentieth and the first in the present century had a question on Gaelic: by including one on Scots, the government has at last given official recognition to the fact that Scots too is one of our country’s languages, deserving of the same active support from both national and local government as Gaelic rightfully claims.

Why has this taken so long?   It is instructive to look at the response of Jim Wallace, then Deputy First Minister, to the detailed and persuasively-argued case for the inclusion of a question on Scots in the 2001 Census which was presented to him and his government.   According to Mr Wallace’s reasoning, since the word “Scots” means different things to different people, it would be too difficult to devise a question which could be relied on to elicit accurate information.   Patently this was a mere excuse to mask the then government’s simple lack of interest in the issue.  A census question on Scots would — and now will — make it possible to measure the extent to which Scots is used in different regions and among different social groups,  thus allowing for policies in support of the language to be tailored to the needs of individual communities; it will provide data on the success (or otherwise) of current attempts to give Scots a place in education and in the media, and thus allow policy-makers to determine what further measures need to be taken in its support; it will provide some solid evidence for the ongoing but inconclusive debate on the extent to which Scots forms part of our perceived national identity: vital issues, surely; but the government which Scotland had at the turn of the present century did not consider them to be worthy of attention.  Now, fortunately, we at last have a government which recognises its obligation to the ancient mither tongue of hundreds of thousands of Scottish citizens.

Nonetheless, Mr Wallace’s excuse is not entirely specious.  It is indeed the case, as we considered in these pages last year, that the meaning of the word “Scots” — or more precisely, the question of which of the many speech forms heard in Scotland should come under the heading of “Scots” — is surrounded by uncertainty; and since we are all going to be asked about our personal use of it very soon, it is essential that we know how to answer the question.  According to the specimen Census paper which is available online, for this question there will be three columns headed “English” “Scottish Gaelic” and “Scots”, each column containing four boxes to be ticked if we can “understand”, “speak”, “read” and “write” the  language.

Now let us all be entirely clear about this: Leopard  readers in Buchan, Angus, the Moray Firth coastal strip, the Banffshire hinterland or the Black Isle all have different native dialects; but they are all equally forms of Scots.  If your mither tongue is one of these, then you speak Scots; so tick the box.  Perhaps you don’t speak it as well as your granny did, or does?  The form only asks whether you speak it at all, not whether you speak it perfectly; and there is no space for you to say just how well you speak it.  If a phrase like Faar dis e bide comes naturally to your lips then your answer is yes, you speak Scots: you are not necessarily claiming that you could hold your own with the characters in Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk.  (Maybe you could, of course: if so, so much the better!)  What about Aberdeen city speech?  It’s not pristine traditional Doric, certainly; but still less is it standard literary English: the development of urban dialects, related but not identical to those of the rural hinterland, is a well-known linguistic phenomenon, Aberdeen in fact providing a fascinating case-study here and now; so never mind if anybody considers your city dialect to be “affa coorse” (which is not a judgement with any linguistic status): it is another form of Scots, so again, tick the box.

Why do the ability to understand the language and the ability to speak it get two separate boxes?  This feature of the census probably was originally introduced for Gaelic: nowadays it is sadly common to find children of Gaelic-speaking parents who can follow their elders’ conversations perfectly well but are so unpractised in speaking the language that they are virtually unable to form coherent sentences in it.  This can readily occur for Scots too; but another difficulty may arise: what if you can converse perfectly well with your family and friends in Forfar but would have to listen much more carefully to comprehend a speaker from Keith?  Again, note how simple the question is: claiming to understand Scots does not necessarily imply that you understand all forms of it equally well.  If you understand the dialect you hear around you every day, you understand Scots.  Another tick.

Reading and writing Scots: again, the same applies.  Can you read a Rabbie Burns poem, a Robbie Shepherd column, the monthly Doric story in your favourite magazine?  Then you can read Scots, even if you would find Hugh MacDiarmid’s A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle heavy going.  The ability to write Scots is probably the box which will get the fewest ticks; but if you have ever submitted a story or poem for a competition you have claimed an ability to write Scots; so claim it for the Census.

The findings of this Census question will shape the Government’s policy towards Scots for the next ten years.  The more positive the response it gets, all over Scotland, the more confident we can be of active measures being introduced and followed through to support the mither tongue.  There is a lot at stake here: think carefully as you tick your boxes.