Gerda Stevenson: Thoughts on writing in Scots and English
“Why do you choose to write in Scots?” I’m often asked. And then, sometimes, the follow-up: “Is it a political act?”
If we were to substitute English for Scots in the above, I expect many writers would be bemused. To me, these questions come from a narrow, monoglot perspective, representing a linguistic imperialism, the assumption that the act of writing in Scots is somehow an assertive statement, a rebellion even, throwing down a gauntlet - a deliberate deviation from an establishment norm.
Looking back at my writing in relation to the subject of this blog, I see that I write more in English than in Scots. Far more. But when I’m writing, I don’t spend much time thinking about which language I’m using. Scots or English choose themselves – one or other language presents itself, and I go with it. It’s entirely instinctive, not a conscious choice at all.
I was born and brought up in the Scottish Borders, of Lancastrian parents, who had eloped to Scotland as a young couple, and remained here. As a child I heard Scots spoken in the village of West Linton – on the street, in the primary school playground, and at Peebles High School – again in the playground, rarely in class, where Scots was frowned upon, unless delivered through Robert Burns. (Although I remember the intense curiosity when discovering that a whole chunk of his poetry had been neatly cut out of the bard’s complete works in the English department’s several copies. Of course, I immediately wanted to know what was missing, and discovered elsewhere The Merry Muses of Caledonia, giving them far more attention than I would have, had the school copies remained intact!)
At home, the linguistic picture was richly mixed – my parents spoke English with Lancashire accents, but I was exposed to a lot of literary Scots through my father, the composer/pianist, Ronald Stevenson. He immersed himself deeply in Scottish culture, and set the words of Scotland’s poets to music (English, Scots and Gaelic), among them Robert Louis Stevenson, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Soutar, Helen B. Cruikshank, and Sorley MacLean. Poets would visit the family home, including Sydney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch, Alan Bold, and, more frequently than any, MacDiarmid, who lived only a few miles away at Brownsbank, near Biggar. So, from as early as I can remember, Scots was part of my every-day landscape, and also my imaginative hinterland. I loved to sing my father’s settings of Soutar’s bairn rhymes – can still recall the eerie thrill of:
Dinna gang out the nicht:
Laich was the Mune as I cam owre the muir;
Laich was the lauchin though nane was there:
Somebody nippit me,
Somebody trippit me;
Somebody grippit me roun’ and aroun’:
I ken it was Bawsy Broon:
I’m Shair it was Bawsy Broon.
At the same time, I was being raised on Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, and Frances Hodgson Burnett. English and Scots literature were simultaneously central to my world. I didn’t have to choose.
Among the hundreds of wonderful plays I’ve had the privilege of working with as a professional actor and director, are those by Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Brian Friel, Hector MacMillan’s and Liz Lochhead’s Scots translations of Moliere, David Lyndsay’s gloriously multi-layered Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, and Edwin Morgan’s scintillating Scots version of Racine’s Phaedra, in which I played the title role. The music and rhythms of these diverse texts, to mention only a few from my work in theatre, have resonated and danced in my ear for decades, teaching me that when it comes to drama and poetry, words have only a half-life on the page – they need to be spoken aloud to truly live.
When it comes to my own writing – well: let’s take a monologue, which eventually evolved into a stage play for three people, based on an ancient Inuit folk tale, set in a Scotland of the future overwhelmed by environmental disaster. It’s a magic realist play, and the central, eponymous character, Skeleton Wumman, who spends most of the play addressing the audience from the bottom of the sea, speaks in Scots. I honestly don’t know why – her voice just came out that way.
My latest poetry collection, QUINES: Poems in tribute to women of Scotland (Luath press, 2018), comprises poems in both English and Scots, about two thirds in English, one third in Scots, as it happens – depending on the voice that presented itself to me. Since it was published last year, at every reading of the many I’ve given from the book the length and breadth of Scotland, audience members have told me how much they’ve enjoyed ‘hearing the Scots’. And when I’m reading abroad – most recently in Italy and Norway – people respond with similar enthusiasm. So there’s definitely an appetite for the language out there in the world, and I’m glad to be able to satisfy it.
But there is no political choice made on my part to write in either English or Scots. Why should there have to be? I’m excited by, and at ease with both – glad I have two languages to work and play with.
For the UN’s International Mother Language Day on 21 February, we're running a series of blogs from authors from around Scotland. Check out our #AneYinWan Scots tag on your favourite social network for more Scots celebrations.