Stuart Letford: Mind your language

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Stuart Letford

It was, was it not, pleasing to learn that the Irish language – Irish Gaelic – has received full status as an official language of the European Union? What a tremendous boost for the language of that fine country. Language is the principal method of human communication and this time of year inevitably brings many Scots words into wider use. We Scots are used to non-Scots asking us about why we refer to the last day of the year as ‘Hogmanay’ and enjoy belting out a song full of words which even most Scots don’t know the meaning of. “We’ll tak’ a right guid willy-waught …”

What’s a ‘willy-waught’? I hear you ask.

Well, it’s simply an obscure 18th century Scots word for a hearty swig of ale. It must be said that in his poetry, Robert Burns used many such words that were in reality not used even by his time. They had gone out of common usage. He used them in his poetry as a way of trying to ensure they didn’t die out completely. We owe Burns a huge debt in rescuing melodies and words from oblivion.

For most non-Scots, ‘Hogmanay’ and ‘auld lang syne’ are probably the only Scots declamations of the year. However, Scots words are used throughout the world by people without them realising they’re doing so: ‘bard’, ‘blackmail’, ‘shindig’, ‘trousers’, ‘cosy’ … even ‘wow’ are all Scots words, for example. Conversely, some words which have long thought to be quintessentially Scottish actually derive elsewhere (such as Old English): ‘couthie’, ‘gloaming’, ‘burn’ … even ‘haggis’, which I believe is a mixture of French and Old English.

Jukkasjärvi Kyrk in Swedish Lapland. It’s the oldest church in the region.

Despite there being plenty of other examples, this is not exactly wide-scale cultural appropriation. English has stolen more from India. Many Scots words – and Scots Gaelic words in fact – have origins in the countries of Scandinavia, such as ‘kirk’. (Incidentally, I’m not someone who believes Scots should be classed as a language. One of the areas of Scottish history I studied at university was the country’s literary tradition and from that I conclude that Scots is a dialect and that it stemmed from mediaeval English, or rather Inglis as it was called formerly.)

There remain plenty of Scots words that deserve greater currency: ‘scrieve’ (scamper), ‘stramash’ (a fight), ‘stooshie’ (a commotion), ‘yestreen’ (last night), ‘outwith’ (outside), ‘puckle’ (an indeterminate small quantity) and ‘bawbee’ (a small amount of money). I once bet a Piping Times reader that I could get the word ‘anent’ into an editorial. Thanks to the Reid brothers of Auchermuchty (a great placename!), at least ‘haver’ is used more widely.

Scots – and Scots Gaelic, of course – is a peculiarly powerful vernacular speech in its use of vowels. The following dialogue, which my grandfather insisted took place in his childhood (1920s) in a Stirlingshire mining village, is genuine. It’s between a shopkeeper and a customer. The conversation relates to a kilt:

Customer (inquiring as to the material): “Oo?” (wool?).

Shopkeeper: “Aye, oo.” (yes, wool).

Customer: “A’ oo?” (all wool?).

Shopkeeper: “Aye, a’ oo.” (yes, all wool).

Customer: “A’ a’e oo?” (all one wool?).

Shopkeeper: “Ou, aye, a’ a’e oo” (oh, yes, all one wool).

A dialogue in vowel sounds – surely a thing unique in literature!

For pipers, most piping terminology derives from the Scots Gaelic language. The main exception, I think, is the word ‘birl’. Was it Lt. John McLennan – G.S.’s father – who included ‘barluadh’ in his glossary of piping terms? This always puzzled me because I don’t recall it ever being included in any Gaelic dictionary I’ve possessed, including Dwelly (I’d be grateful if readers could confirm this as I lost my copy of Dwelly years ago). In pibroch, and in what could be termed historical Highland piping, there was no birl. The birl came from the Lowland piping tradition and the term is a Lowland Scots word for a spin. There’s nothing Gaelic about it. Therefore, the hiharin movement, a cornerstone of pibroch as it’s been played for over a century, is a relatively modern movement. It seems obvious that it used to be played as distinct rhythmic pinky taps.

As we face the year in a world gone tapsalteerie (topsy-turvy), the use of Scots is still mostly unco braw (remarkably pleasing).

Lang may yer lum reek (I wish you a long and healthy life).

Oh, and dinnae fash yersel‘ (don’t worry).