Anent the Scots Leid an Its Makars
On the Scots Language and Its Poets
by James Graham
On a website I visit from time to time, you can click on such things as Rake, Steid Cairt, and Airtins tae ither Wabsteids. This is the Scots language website Scots Online. ‘Rake’ could be trendily translated as ‘Google’ but literally it’s ‘search’. The ‘Steid Cairt’ is the site map, and ‘Airtins tae ither Wabsteids’ means links to other websites. Such coinage of technical terms in Scots is, to say the least, rather artificial, since no-one says in conversation, ‘D’ye ken the Bewildering Stories wabsteid?’ Note 1
The spoken language still exists, mainly in rural areas and small towns, but in a diluted form. It’s not yet a dead language, but it’s not ‘alive’ enough to assimilate coinages and borrowings, and bits and pieces of its vocabulary are easily lost in favour of their English equivalents.
Some would say it’s as good as dead. The trouble is, it won’t lie down. Throughout the twentieth century, right up to the present, there have been writers — especially poets — who have used it in their work, often with astonishing vibrancy. As the spoken language becomes more and more sparse, literary Scots seems to have gone from strength to strength. It is this surprising fact that prompts me to write this essay.
I want to share a few samples of the Scots poetry I love and admire — poetry which is part of the poetic heritage of the British Isles, but may for obvious reasons be a little challenging to those not familiar with the language. Since Scots has been with me since childhood, and I can read it as easily as I read English, it’s difficult to know how comprehensible it is to English hearers or readers, or to Americans or Australians. If my notes and translations are too obvious, too spelled out, I apologise. Contrariwise, I hope they’re spelled out enough!
First, a mini-treatise on the language. Then the poems.
1. The Leid
Here’s a sample of Scots first of all, a familiar text to give us a flavour of the language. The English version that follows is more or less a literal translation.
This Scots version of the 23rd Psalm, or one very like it, would be commonly heard in churches at any time up to the 19th century. Scots was also the language of the laws and of the law courts — that is, used by judges and lawyers as well as defendants. It was a ‘complete’ language in the sense that it was used throughout society.
It began as a variant of Northern Anglo-Saxon — just as Anglo-Saxon in turn had begun as a variant or dialect of the Northern Germanic language spoken by the Saxons before they migrated across the North Sea.
Virtually all literature not written in Gaelic was written in Scots. Even in its heyday there was always some vocabulary shared with English, but in the 17th century mutual comprehension between Scots and English speakers would have been difficult. Since then its status has declined. Note 2
Even so, it’s still widely taught in schools, not merely as a salvage operation but much more importantly because of the quality of the literature that has been written in Scots from the late Middle Ages to the present. The literary tradition is so strong that no teacher working in Scotland can reasonably justify its omission from the curriculum. Every teacher of English literature has to be a teacher of English and Scots literature.
During my thirty-odd years of teaching English and Scots, I found that most Scottish schoolchildren enjoyed poems and stories in Scots. For younger children there’s a whole genre of ‘bairnsangs’, and for senior pupils there’s the work of Burns, the Scots short stories of Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, and the astonishingly rich Scots poetry of Hugh MacDiarmid and others in the twentieth century.
In the classroom, the language itself presents little difficulty. There are always some obsolete words, or some regional words, that the children don’t recognise, but there’s always a glossary to help them with these. And even if they don’t speak the whole language of the text in front of them, in some indefinable way it always seems a ‘natural’ language for most of them, like a second language heard and spoken from infancy. In any case their engagement with the stories and poems tends to overcome any linguistic problems that remain.
2. The Makars — Burns
Arguably the greatest writer in Scots is Robert Burns — though he has his rivals. Despite calumnies that are still sometimes uttered about his supposed drunkenness and promiscuity, Burns is profoundly admired and respected among Scots. The project he undertook in the last years of his life, which he did without payment as a labour of love, was to enrich and secure for all time the heritage of Scottish song.
In a time of failing health, and increasing poverty after he had to give up his farm at Ellisland near Dumfries, he contributed more than 300 songs to two major collections published in Edinburgh — songs that are still sung by professional and amateur singers, in concert performances, at weddings and funerals, and while gardening or doing the housework.
Burns had a genius for a very special art that few poets or composers have been able to master — the rare skill, not of setting a poem to music as Schubert did so superbly, but of putting words to an existing tune.
In just this way, to an old folk tune that could be played on the fiddle he put these words (Note 3):
Summer’s a pleasant time,
When I sleep I dream,
Aye waukin, O,
Lanely night comes on,
heugh (pron. hyuch) , rock, crag
the lave, the rest, the others
Burns produced a rich treasury of songs like this — and an equally rich repository of comic and satirical songs.
He was also a great comic writer and satirist. There’s no better example of his satire than Address to the Deil, of which a few snippets follow. Remember the poem was written in an age when the Devil was no mere fantasy figure; when a minister could put real anxiety into the hearts of his congregation by telling them Satan was writing in his book the names of all the drinkers, fornicators and intermittent church attenders in the parish. I don’t think at that time belief in the actual existence — indeed, immanent presence — of the Devil was anything like universal, but it was widespread.
Burns ironically places under the poem’s title a quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
O Prince, O chief of many throned powers,
That led th’embattled Seraphim to war...
Then immediately launches into:
O thou, whatever title suit thee!
Auld Hornie, Satan, Nick, or Clootie,
Wha in yon cavern grim an’ sooty
Closed under hatches,
Spairges about the brunstane cootie
To scaud poor wretches!
spairges , splashes (implying, in a clumsy, messy way)
brunstane cootie, brimstone bowl
A cootie can be several kinds of container, including a chamber-pot. I like to think that was among the meanings Burns intended.
Satan’s ‘real name’ is included, but the rest are impudent nicknames; and the description of Hell is a purely comic scene far removed from Dante or Milton. The derisive tone of this opening gambit is pretty clear.
So far the poem’s speaker, for all he talks so insolently, nevertheless seems to assume the Devil exists. At the same time the poem is infused with the irony that anyone who so blatantly thumbs his nose at the Devil must be more than half certain of his chimeric status.
As the poem develops, the ‘address’ to this shadowy figure becomes much more nuanced. We hear how the Devil appears in many forms, including the Miltonic — as a roaring lion, or riding the ‘strong-winged tempest’. This is the fearful creator of all evil, God’s adversary, who represents the terror of eternal punishment. Burns gives the Devil a good build-up, especially his capacity to assume cunning disguises; but then comes the deliberate anti-climax:
Ae dreary, windy, winter night,
The cudgel in my neive did shake,
ayont, on the other side of
sugh, sigh or the sound of a gust of wind
I remember one winter night, the poet tells Satan affably, you did give me a bit of a fright, when you assumed the form of a wild drake rustling a clump of reeds (rash-buss) down by the loch and then taking off with ‘an eldritch, stoor quaick, quaick’ (an unearthly, harsh quack-quack). So with God’s adversary now in the form of a quacking duck, we begin to see his power diminishing. In fact...dare we think the unthinkable? Can it be that it’s not Satan in the form of a wild duck in the reeds... that after all it’s only a duck?
Later in the poem Burns gives a lyrical description of Adam and Eve in Eden, and takes the Devil to task for interfering:
Then you, ye auld, snick-drawing dog!
Ye cam to Paradise incog,
An’ played on man a cursed brogue,
(Black be your fa’!)
An’ gied the infant warld a shog,
Maist ruined a’.
You old cat-burglar, he tells Satan no less amiably than before (‘snick-drawing’ means stealthily pulling a door-latch or bolt), you entered Paradise incognito, played a filthy trick (brogue) on humanity, gave the infant world a bit of a shake (shog), and — here’s the punch line — maist ruined a’. Almost spoiled everything. Almost.
Burns’s Adam and Eve are fellow human beings who should have been left alone to found the human race, without interference from the despicable Auld Hornie — or, for that matter, from the heavy-handed, authoritarian God who evicted them from their beautiful and fertile land. All this egregious meddling, however, could do no more than almost destroy the human spirit. It was a near thing, but less harm was done than we sometimes think.
After casting up a few more of the Devil’s misdemeanours, the poet raises the possibility that he himself is bound for Hell.
An’ now, auld Cloots, I ken ye’re thinkin,
A certain bardie’s rantin, drinkin,
Some luckless hour will send him linkin
To your black pit;
But faith! he’ll turn a corner jinkin,
An’ cheat you yet.
Linkin, hurrying; jinkin, dodging.
As the poem proceeds, Satan is gradually and inexorably reduced to a mere trickster, a con-man. Once you see through him he’s finished; he can’t wind you up any more. Burns’s satire in Address to the Deil — we might say his good humour too, for although it hits the spot it’s very genial at the same time, a joshing humour — is an authentic voice of the Enlightenment in an age of superstition.
3. The Makars — MacDiarmid
In 1925 a young man called Christopher Murray Grieve produced one of those books, like Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, after which the literary scene is never the same again. Under the pseudonym Hugh MacDiarmid, he published Sangshaw (Song-festival), which kick-started what has ever since been called a renaissance in Scots literature and language. The influence of this collection of twenty-seven poems, and MacDiarmid’s subsequent work over the next fifty years, has been massive. Here’s just one of the poems from Sangshaw:
Ae weet forenicht i the yowe-trummle
I saw yon antrin thing,
A watergaw wi its chitterin licht
ayont the on-ding;
An I thocht o the last wild look ye gied
Afore ye deed!
There was nae reek i’ the laverock’s hoose
That nicht — an’ nane i’ mine;
But I hae thocht o’ that foolish licht
Ever sin’ syne;
An’ I think that mebbe at last I ken
What your look meant then.
For readers unfamiliar with Scots, there’s quite a lot of explaining to do. But I hope that if I can explain clearly and carefully enough, readers will be able to appreciate this short poem which uses the Scots language so immaculately, and must surely be one of the finest modern lyrical poems in any language.
The first line needs a careful commentary. ‘Ae weet forenicht i the yowe-trummle’ — One wet early evening during a cold spell just after the sheep-shearing. The ‘yow-trummle’ (literally ‘ewe-tremble’) is, or used to be, a common country expression — like ‘Indian summer’ but a sort of opposite to that, a cold spell in Spring when the poor shorn sheep were exposed to bitter winds.
The rest of the stanza translates: I saw that fleeting thing, a rainbow with its shivering light, beyond the rain-squall; and I thought about the last wild look you gave before you died.
‘There was nae reek i’ the laverock’s hoose/ that nicht, an’ nane i’ mine’ — there was no smoke in the skylark’s house/ that night, and none in mine’. The skylark’s house could be its nest, or it might be the sky, that ‘most excellent canopy, the air’ where the lark is so much at home. If there’s smoke, there’s a fire — maybe a peat-fire; there’s warmth, food and drink, and company. All’s well. But the night she died all the joy seemed to have gone from the poet’s house, from his heart, even from his natural surroundings.
But that light, and the poet’s feelings about it which he thought foolish at the time, have never left him. And because of it, he begins to understand that last look she gave.
‘What your look meant then’ is ineffable; any attempt to give a pat answer to the question ‘What did it mean?’ would fall short not only of the poem’s meaning, but of its depth of feeling too. ‘I know what your look meant’ is an intuitive knowing. It is bound up with the rainbow, the storm, our joy of living in the world and our grief at leaving it — and that remarkable thing that sometimes happens to us when something accidental, something observed in a passing moment, becomes an epiphany.
As much as anything else, it’s the astonishing quality of work like this in Scots that keeps the language alive. In the far future, even if nobody speaks it any more than Chaucer’s English is spoken now, the work of the makars is unlikely to be forgotten.
Websites of interest:
Copyright © 2012 by James Graham