Scotticisms in our Precious Union or Michael Gove and Sconglais

Perhaps Gordon Brown’s political career would have been more successful had he spent less time trying to reinvent himself as an Englishman. This unfortunate individual suffered from what is known as the Scottish cringe –a state of shame and denial over ties to their homeland and its native tongue.

If any Scots were in doubt before the union with England there was none after it just how much contempt was felt towards them by their new political partners. With the union signed and sealed following a couple of years of scheming by the monarchy and England’s government’s pussy-footing policies such as classifying Scots as aliens and preventing the nation trading with English colonies the gloves were off. Scotland had been emasculated and would no longer pose a threat as a potential backdoor to England’s enemy, France. But this was a union of two very different nations – separated among other things by a common language.

Scots spoke Scots (in a host of dialects) but political discourse with the new partners meant compromise. Let’s be clear – not compromise exactly as that involves give and take on both sides – the kind of compromise you get from an unequal partnership or union where one side dictates and the other complies. To a large degree Scots abandoned their language while the English didn’t. The union or as we now have to call it – the precious union expected those Scots in prominent positions to adopt English as the lingua franca (if you’ll pardon the expression) as the official language of the combined nations. Sometimes it was English with a Scottish frill – let’s call it Sconglais.

Even in areas of cultural life where Scotland was pre-eminent, specifically the Enlightenment, some of its greatest luminaries such as David Hume and James Beattie* sought to eradicate Scotticisms (Scottish words) from their works – possibly to appeal to a broader audience – not England but Continental Europe where the dynamism of the philosophical and medical Enlightenment movement was closest to Scotland’s. Refining the Scotch tongue was regarded as necessary for many an ambitious Scot whose natural way of communicating was regarded as an impediment to advancement.

I was conscious as a child how many Scots sounded clumsy when talking to an English person in English and always felt obliged to adapt their natural flow of speaking to accommodate the visitor, to help their understanding, never the other way round. Scots have long been taught to despise their own tongue and until more recent years were ‘corrected’ at home and school and encouraged to speak ‘proper’ English. It’s often said Scots speak two languages – one among themselves and another in mixed company.  Imagine being led to believe your own language is inferior to someone else’s?

While universities and polite society in the 18th century weaned themselves off broad Scots this didn’t happen among working people whose communications tended to be localised – so they had no need to interpret their words; everyone understood them.

With the union Scotland became North Britain. Was there ever a South Britain?  The language (s) spoken in North Britain were derided as barbaric, like their peoples. Highlanders with their indecipherable Gaelic were regarded with greatest suspicion and loathing. The people were described as savages.  Ironic it was then that the leisured classes included Highland Scotland in their Grand Tours, in search of experiences (tame savagery) and education (if not enlightenment.) During these pre-Victorian years the brutality of Culloden was a well within living memory, Scots were being cleared off their lands and Highland Scotland was in a sense a million miles away from cosy metropolitan life as lived in London or even Edinburgh.

The lexicographer, Dr Johnson, and his side-kick cum translator, James Boswell, ‘did’ the Highlands. He didn’t like it – couldn’t understand the people and through his dictionary he did his bit to regulate the English language which further relegated broad Scots never mind our rich dialect words and expressions to this country’s savage past.

There was no place for uncouth Scotticisms in the brave new world of the precious union of equals – no matter that broad Scots was more akin to the language of Chaucer than Johnson’s tarted up modernisms. For all that the impact of standardising English, and therefore Scots, was felt more in the homes of the upper and middle classes than among the working classes who could read English but continued to communicate in their own tongues.

Which brings me to Michael Gove. Gove is a hybrid; a Scot/Anglo whose mellifluous vocal acrobatics have resulted in an accent and form of speech that is part Aberdeen (miniscule) but mainly Estuary English – Sconglais. Despite his best efforts Gove absorbed Scots words as a child, yes indeed he was once a child, albeit one who had more in common with 30s-somethings than 13s-somethings. When he spoke of a ‘dunt towards the workplace’ in 2013 his use of the word ‘dunt’ – an everyday term here – created uproar among Britain’s narrow metropolitans. I doubt he picked the word deliberately for effect as Gordon Brown might have done but wouldn’t because that would have highlighted his Scottishness.  Gove was probably as taken aback as we were in Scotland over the reaction created among England’s press.

With radio, television, film and the internet languages across the world are being altered at a terrific speed. Here in Aberdeenshire the unique Doric is fast disappearing – I should say Dorics because there are as many variations as there are communities. The move towards English that began in Scotland with the professional classes continues. You can still hear Scots being spoken where working class folk get together and in farming areas, though not among today’s lairds and lairdesses – though once they spoke as everyone around them did – and would have been proficient in several other languages as well. 

Henry Dundas who more or less managed Scottish political affairs in the late 18th century – a guy on the make who delayed the abolition of slavery and confused public money with his own – that kind of person; I think the technical description is, a piece of shit. All beyond the point, he was Scottish and brought up speaking Scots and one day he asked the PM, Pitt, for the loan of a horse for ‘the length of Highgate.’ Now any Scot would understand that to mean a horse that could cover that sort of distance but the Englishman that was Pitt replied he didn’t have a horse quite so long. Och but those quaint Scots are a constant source of amusement.

It was to avoid such confusion that Johnson compiled his dictionary. Deliberately misconstruing someone’s meaning might have been the case with Pitt. It certainly was by the Provost of Edinburgh who when asked by the Duke of Newcastle following the Porteous Riots of 1736 what kind  of shot the town guard under Captain Porteous used in their muskets, replied -“Ou, juist sic as ane shute dukes and sic like fules wi.” (Oh, just such as ones that shoots dukes and such fools with.)

His comment was condemned as an insult in the House of Lords (which it was) but the provost’s neck was spared when the Duke of Argyle argued it was merely a funny remark that when translated into English meant ducks and water-fowl not Peers and Idiots. As if!

 Scotticisms will linger on for a long time yet but as sprinkles over the cream of the Scots tongue. There should be no shame felt in our unique and descriptive vocabulary and institutions such as Aberdeen’s Elphinstone Institute provide an important service to our language in celebrating it and collecting examples of our mither tongue.

I grew up knowing that a hog was a sheep and a pig was a coarse earthenware jar but a Scottish servant a couple of centuries ago caused consternation when she set out from her employer’s London home to find “a great broon pig to haud the butter in.”

No self-respecting Scottish butcher would have offered a leg of pork, only a gigot. Gigot is from the French for, well, gigot, and evocative of Scotland’s ancient close relationship with France. There are lots of similar examples – caraff/carafe; gooseberries/groseille; perticks/perdix (partridge); Ashet/assiette; fash – very familiar today through Outlander as in dinae fash yersel – from the French facher; gean/guigne (cherry); ule or yle/huile (oil); serviette/serviette (napkin); gysard/guiser; haggis/hachis; jalousie/jalouser (suspect).

If you were said to be silly in Scotland you weren’t a bit daft but physically under the weather. And it’s common to hear folk here observe that someone’s health is failing whereas this is apparently a term only known in relation to business in England.

Long gone are Scots names for illnesses such as the nirls (measles); blabs (nettle-rash); scaw (clap); kinkhost’ fever (whooping-cough);  branks (mumps); the worm (toothache.)

Imagine the consternation here to be told that political change on the Continent had been brought about by a cow – “a coo dee’t a” (coup d’etat.) Then again in Scotland all things are possible.

At the risk of establishing a cow theme let me remind you, if you need reminding, of the old Scottish proverb, “Do as the cow of Forfar did, tak a standing drink.” It came about because one day a Forfar woman left the beer she had just brewed to cool outside her cottage when up came a cow and drank it. She sued the cow’s owner for compensation but the bailies of Forfar acquitted him on grounds that when Highland folk took leave of one another their last drink would be taken standing up – a dochan doris (deoch-an-doruis) – deoch is a drink/an means of the in Gaelic/ doruis or dorais is the possessive case of dorus, a door so literally the last drink at the door. This last drink was never charged at an inn so it was argued in court that as the cow had stood while drinking the woman’s ale there should be no charge – in both senses.

As usual I have veered straight up a blind alley. Back to the language that divides Britain. The English poet, Charles Lamb, had no time for Scots whom he dismissed as having no humour – presumably it went straight over his head. Some of his prejudice was based on a meeting he had with a son of Rabbie Burns when he wished he’d seen the father instead of the son. A chorus of Scots voices returned, “That’s impossible, for he’s dead.” Lamb considered these Scots didn’t share his wit. And to be honest his droll remark doesn’t strike me as funny, which rather proves his point no doubt.

Perhaps less nowadays than in the past the Scottish sense of humour, a dry pawkish humour, is often misunderstood south of the border (don’t mention the border.) Scots tend to play down situations and are far less respectful of social position – the lack of interest in royal pageantry is a prime example.  

We’re a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns is woven into the psyche of Scots: the take-down is integral to our humour – I kent his faither. Here’s an example from way back. A conceited packman (trader) blawin (boasting) about the grand life of folk in York, London and other English places was asked where he came from.

“Oh, I’m from the Border.’

“Ach the Border, I thocht that. It’s aye the selvedge (seam) is the wakest bit o the wab (cloth)!”

Ah yes there are as many jokes in Scotland about the English as there are in England about the Scots. Here’s a couple of ancient funny stories:  

When an Englishman sneered that no man of taste would spend any time in a country like Scotland  a Scot replied, “Tastes differ; I’ll tak ye to a place no far frae Stirling whaur thirty thousand o yer countrymen ha’ been for five hunder years, and they’ve nae thocht o’ leavin’ yet.”

A Scotsman was making his way back home from an unsuccessful trip selling goods in England. Penniless he reached Carlisle when he saw a notice offering £50 for someone to act as hangman to dispatch a well-known local criminal. He applied and got the job but then a local man condemned him as a “mean beggarly Scot” for doing for money what no Englishman would. Undaunted the Scots trader grinned, “I’ll hang ye a’ at the price.”

Then there’s the story of the Englishman who bought a country estate in Scotland. Travelling abroad one time he tried to pass himself off as a Scot when he met up with a native born one. To prove his claim he went on about Scotland, haggis, whisky, Bannockburn, Queen Mary and even how writers Scott and Burns were superior to all English authors – and so on. Still he failed to convince. The Scot turned to him and said, “Weel, I’m jest thinkin’ my lad, ye’re nae Scotsman; but I’ll tell ye what ye are – ye’re jest an improved Englishman.”  

Time for a last one?

An English tourist enjoying a bit of angling in Scotland asked a local girl to catch a horse-fly for him to use on his hook. The girl stared at him, confused. “Have you never seen a horse-fly?” he demanded. “Na, sir,” she replied, “but ance I saw a coo jumper ower a cliff.” Now if he’d known a horse-fly is really a cleg she’d have obliged him.  

Of course in the union of equals, apologies, the precious union,  it was never England that changed; from its parliament to peely-wally Scots have been the ones to submit to pressure from the bigger partner. I’m sure you have several examples of your own.

*Dr Beattie of Aberdeen wrote: Scotticisms designed to Correct Improprieties of Speech and Writing

2 Comments to “Scotticisms in our Precious Union or Michael Gove and Sconglais”

  1. A comment left by an old friend on FB.

    I’ve never forgotten reading William McIlvanney’s book “Docherty” when Docherty recalls his childhood and a teacher asking him what happened to his face (His nose was skinned). The boy replies “Ah fell an bumped ma heid in the shuch”. He immediately receives a whack round the ear and is told to translate what he’s said into English, described by his teacher as “the mother-tongue”!!! As a kid, I remember my parents talking about people who spoke “pan loaf” while we spoke “doon the toon”. As a teenager I recall my mum talking about “half pun a mince folk” which was shorthand for people who seemed to have everything but went short on basics to maintain their image – or something like that.

  2. In Angus the Grey Partridge was referred to as a ‘pitrick’ or similar sounding when spelt.

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