It is common in theatre plays these days to hear Scottish actors speak English with a Scottish accent. This may hint at the dearth of theatre opportunities for the current generation of young actors, whose principal work now seems to come from TV or film, and from contemporary rather than established texts. It may also suggest that fewer these days have been trained to speak either Received Pronunciation or regional accents with confidence. However, English with a Scottish accent seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable mode of performance address, as this is the language which all during my life I have heard in homes, workplaces and public spaces.
It wasn’t always thus in Scottish theatres. In the 1970s and 1980s the use of Scots language seemed to be in the ascendancy. There appeared to be an actual policy in the Scottish Theatre Company of the 1980s that their productions should be made more authentically Scottish by using the Scots language, following the practice of older playwrights like Robert Kemp and Robert McLellan. I remember feeling that it worked well enough with the comedy of Kemp’s adaptation of Molière, Let Wives Tak Tent, but less so with the more serious narrative of Ibsen’s Ghosts. That production benefitted from a Scots Presbyterian setting but regular references to “ghaists” and other Scots language words seemed merely to dilute its power.
Scots was also a very effective medium for a new play set in the past such as Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off. However, actors in the political and populist theatre productions of 7:84 and Wildcat opted for recognisable contemporary urban Scots accents, a dialected English.
It’s intriguing to compare drama performance with that of popular music. At that time, pop and rock songs were usually sung in an English or American accent depending on whether your vocal style was more influenced by David Bowie or Joe Strummer or Ian Curtis on one side or Elvis Presley or James Brown or Bob Dylan on the other.
The first rock singer I can recall singing in a recognisably Scottish accent was Fay Fife of the Rezillos on their 1977/1978 songs “I Can’t Stand My Baby” and “Top of the Pops”. I remember John Peel once saying how struck he was by the way Fife sang the word “down” in “I can’t stand up, lemme sit down” in her distinctive mixed American/Scottish delivery.
The Proclaimers are possibly the most well known pop or rock musicians who sing in Scots accents. To my taste, their work has often veered a bit too much towards the sentimental and the broadly rabble-rousing. However, when they first began, their singing in a broad Scots accent was genuinely radical and it certainly helped to give “Letter from America” the timeless power which it has.
Their pioneering stance has been followed by more recent Scottish bands like Arab Strap, the Delgados, Sons and Daughters, Frightened Rabbit and Admiral Fallow. Perhaps singing in their natural Scots accents links to the folk influences many of these artists draw on. It certainly looks like a new default setting for Scottish popular music.
Education Scotland, the Scottish government’s education agency, makes great claims for the importance of the Scots language. To ignore this in schools, it says, is to insult the many young Scots who speak it regularly. However, schools’ sympathy towards Scots has certainly not led to an increased popularity for Hugh MacDiarmid or Robert Garioch or Tom Leonard or any other artist in the language. Why is the Scots writing of Robert Burns, a farmer from the pre-industrial 18th century, more frequently read than that of MacDiarmid, who was still alive at the time of the Sex Pistols? If it is merely the modernist challenge of the latter’s work, why are the equally demanding modernist texts from the same period, Ulysses and The Waste Land, more often read and discussed in Scotland? My view is that Scottish young people may find a few Scots words useful to speak but do not generally consider Scots a natural language of everyday communication. They see it much like my generation did forty years ago, an important part of the Scottish past but less important as an present-day influence than that coming from England or America or continental Europe.
However, I did enjoy Education Scotland’s repetition of the quip that a language is merely a dialect with an army and a navy, pointing out that the way of speaking in any country which is most acceptable is a matter of historical fashion, the practice of the group or tribe which has at that time the greatest political power. In the 1980s plays like Brian Friel’s Translations and Harold Pinter’s Mountain Language dealt with the idea of language as a tool of political oppression. Perhaps political changes in the next few years will lead to a growth in the regular speaking and writing in Scots as envisaged by the Scots Language Society and the Scots Language Centre.