Last year the Kinross-shire born actor/writer/director Ishbel McFarlane won The Arches’ Platform 18: New Directions Award for emerging directors with her fond and playful piece about the Scots language, O Is For Hoolet. The show now returns to the Arches as part of their Behaviour Festival, before transferring to the Traverse Theatre. Ahead of the show, she spoke to our editor (and former Linguistics student), Robert James Peacock, about words, wisdom and linguistic prejudice…
Why did you choose to do a piece about Scots?
My parents brought me up speaking Scots, but, like many immigrants to the UK, I refused to speak the language that my parents used. As a three-year-old I corrected them when they used it. But I wasn’t an immigrant. I am Scottish, as are my parents, and we all live in Scotland. As I grew up, it seemed increasingly strange to me that my experience of speaking an indigenous language should be so politically fraught and personally difficult. The more I have explored the subject, the more I see the ramifications of this issue across so many areas of our lives – who owns the culture, who owns the language. That’s something that everyone, whether they speak English, Gaelic, Scots or Mansim, should explore.
But what makes Scots a language rather than a dialect? Isn’t it all just politics?
There are strong linguistic differences between Scots and Standard English – in terms of vocab, syntax, discourse differences. You could add those differences up and say, ‘this difference constitutes a language’. But it is also a political move to call Scots a language. Since we humans have this thing where we read the word ‘dialect’ as really meaning ‘shit version of a language’, it’s an important thing to do. Politics makes French a language, makes Japanese a language, makes Mansim a language. It is also politics that means that there are about 220 million French speakers, 123 million Japanese speakers and, back in 2007, there were 5 Mansim speakers left in Papua.
The show has been in development for ten years. How do you think the appetite for work in Scots has changed over that time?
Ten years ago the Gaelic Language Act came in and cultural and political bodies started thinking more visibly about the way they were celebrating and supporting the Gaelic language. After ten years of that, they are finally coming round to thinking, ‘wait, there’s another minority language here to consider’. With the new Scots Language qualifications from SQA, which just started this academic year, we have the first time that there has been institutional acknowledgement that Scots is something people might want to learn. SHOCK! Scots work isn’t just for an older generation of speakers who speak or spoke Scots in the past, it is something that people speak now and want to explore now, just as they engage with other cultural experiences.
How do audiences respond to the show? Do you ever feel Scots acts as a barrier?
Audiences at the development version of the show were pure stottin aff the wa. It was great! I think many people haven’t fully considered their own prejudices as regards language. People who would baulk at the idea of judging someone for the colour of their skin, might unthinkingly judge them because they say, ‘Do youse want onythin else?’ The show is a mix of Scots and English, with a bit of British Sign Language (Scotland’s other indigenous language) and French. If the audience pay attention, I don’t think they’ll miss a single word. But if they do, it doesn’t matter, there’s blimmin loads of words.
What are the issues that you think Scots faces?
Jingso. Many and varied. One of the issues we have in Scotland is the lack of education on what Scots even is. I was speaking to my cobbler (he’s just a man who owns a shoe repair shop that I take my boots to when the shochly!), who is a broad Scots speaker and he was asking what I was up to. I told him about the show, and he said “Oh, like Gaelic?” to which I explained no, when I said Scots I meant, for example, saying ‘hoose’ and not ‘house’. Next he suggested, “Aye, like, sortae slang?’. Well, I mumbled, some people would call it slang, but it’s got a long history and I would call it a language. He had it now: “Ah, right. Like old-timey language?” This three part journey represents a lot of what Scots language campaigners have to face. If a speaker of the language thinks ‘Scots’ is Gaelic, slang or historic, how can you even count the percentage of the country who are speakers? And, in the economics of culture, percentage points means prizes.
How do you see the future prospects for artistic works done in Scots?
There’s loads of it about. Though there’s maybe not been that many works recently explicitly about Scots language, many of the most successful pieces of the last decade have been in Scots, at least in part. Think about the incredibly successful tours of Dunsinane or Black Watch, very Scottish and fairly Scots. Hopefully artistic bodies will realise the power for the audience in seeing work which speaks to them as they speak to their friends, and saying ‘this is valid art’. I think many already do. I think the future’s bright.
You interviewed linguistics legend David Crystal. What was that like?
Waaaaaaaaah! Did not keep my cool. I met up with him in London after he did a conference for A-level linguistics students and he was being mobbed by pupils wanting selfies and screaming his name. I was all, ‘Wow, look at them. How odd!’ and inside I was all, ‘OH MY LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY, I AM MEETING DAVID CRYSTAL RIGHT NOW!’
Are you basically just a language geek?
Finally, give us a word/phrase/saying that you think captures the beauty of Scots best…
First, Scots doesn’t deserve to be supported because it is beautiful. It deserves to be supported because people speak it. But, sayin thon, A’m makin guid yaise o the word ‘trauchled’ the noo, being sae clapt oot bi aw ma wark oan the shaw. A’m fair forfeuchan, but A’m no jiggered yit.