Tag Archives: Scots language

An earlier People’s Poet


Once upon a time, long before Carol Ann Duffy became Poet Laureate or Kate Tempest earned nominations for the Mercury Prize, Liz Lochhead was a young and modern and successful female poet. Her career progressed to the point where, to date, she has published nine volumes of poetry and many other writings, and was appointed as the second Scottish makar or national poet in 2011. She was always more part of a literary tradition than a performer tradition, so that may be why she has sometimes been an overlooked part of her country’s cultural life.

Her first volume Memo for Spring in 1972 introduced many of the characteristics of Lochhead poems which have remained fairly constant. A conversational, free verse style, using word play, alliteration and assonance, but only an occasional use of rhyme. Also a keen eye for the details of behaviour and relationships and fashion and place. As shown in the primary-school-age farmyard terror of “Revelation”, the more grown-up perspective of “For my Grandmother Knitting”; in “Box Room” , dealing with your boyfriend’s family, and “How Have I Been?”, coping with the break-up. If you were looking for influences from earlier poets, you might detect hints of T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Larkin and Dylan Thomas.

The Grimm Sisters in 1981 introduced a new creative line, a feminist revision of fairy-tales and legends, nearly 20 years before Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife. For example, in “The Storyteller”, “Three Twists” about Rapunzel and Beauty and the Beast and several poems about “hags” and “furies”; the narrative of “Tam Lin’s Lady” and the Scots language of “The Beltane Bride” looked forward to how she might combine both in the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off.

Lochhead wrote about Mary Shelley and Frankenstein in her first theatre play Blood and Ice. This was explored further in the next poetry collection Dreaming Frankenstein, with the title poem and “What the Creature Said”. “The Legend of the Sword & the Stone” draws on Arthurian imagery to depict sexual relations. “Fetch on the First of January” uses the Scots language again in a ghost story which recalls Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”.

Dreaming Frankenstein also includes some poems about North America. For example, “Fourth of July Fireworks” hints at “The Waste Land” and The Great Gatsby. “Hafiz on Danforth Avenue” – subtle and engaging observation about life in the Greek area of Toronto – is set during December so vividly reminds me of my own winter work stay in the city around the same time.

Lochhead came to prominence at a time when arts organisations were keen to enlarge the audience for poetry through readings and book festivals. She was always a regular public reader, often alongside other central Scotland writers like Edwin Morgan, Tom Leonard, James Kelman, Agnes Owens and Alan Spence. After I heard her read aloud, her poetry on the page always retained that distinctive tone and pace and rhythm.

She ventured from readings into revue and early versions of what we later called “rap” – anticipating Kate Tempest, who nowadays enjoys a status in both literature and popular music. “Vymura: the Shade Card Poem” and “The Suzanne Valadon Story” draw on Lochhead’s visual arts background, while she produced a number of broader feminist satires like “Men Talk” and “Page Three Dollies”.

One work whose future reputation seems most secure is the play Mary Queen of Scots got her Head Chopped Off, first produced in 1987. It is studied currently in Scottish schools, was one of the few older plays to be revived by the National Theatre of Scotland and is accessible and engaging as well as literary and continually relevant.

Much of the richness of Lochhead’s ideas and writing seems to stem from her awareness of her identity as a middle-class educated metropolitan child of working-class parents, and from a wish to blend always these two parts of her life together. One example is the undogmatic and affectionate homage she pays to her family background and early schooling in what she once described as “a wee bilingual poem”: “Kidspoem/Bairnsang”.

The present-day media gives a lot of attention to individuals whom they perceive as cultural and political role models for women and for people from ethnic minorities or from unprivileged backgrounds – often applying the phrase “you can’t be what you can’t see ”. To Liz Lochhead’s generation of Scots, even if we’re not female: a large part of our life is documented here.


References :      Lochhead, Liz  (1984)   Dreaming Frankenstein and Collected Poems    Edinburgh: Polygon
Lochhead, Liz  (2003 ed)  True Confessions and New Clichés      Edinburgh: Polygon


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A song whose time may be coming


The very first time I consciously heard “Freedom Come All Ye” was at the close of my first Dick Gaughan concert, in Glasgow in 1985. “Hamish Henderson called this the song of the century,” Gaughan introduced it, “and it’s the song I want to be our national anthem when we become independent.”

I had become a great fan of Gaughan by that time, both of his political songs and his more traditional material, so those comments struck me. I already knew and loved another Henderson lyric which Gaughan had recorded, “The John McLean March”.

Two elements of “Freedom Come All Ye” immediately engaged me: the tune, and those English words which I could discern from that first listen: the lines about the ships sailing from the Broomielaw and about John McLean meeting with his friends in Springburn.

What I didn’t realise at first was that the music of the song was traditional and not Henderson’s own composition – he followed the Robert Burns practice of writing words to traditional tunes –  so that reduced somewhat my initial awe for the song. Later again, I became a little less patient with the use of the Scots language as a medium. That first visceral impact of the song (of which a large part came from Gaughan’s unique delivery) began to dilute.

More recently, having heard the song regularly in various recorded and live versions, I have scrutinised its lyrics more closely. It is still greatly loved by more than one generation of left-leaning folk music fans.  But is it as great as Gaughan first said?

My present opinion is that it is perhaps three quarters of a great anthem.

The first stanza is mostly good. The song starts with references to weather and climate, good classic lyrical openings, as Burns himself applied in “Now Westlin Winds”.  Even an ear unused to the Scots language might pick out that the song is commenting on events of “the world the day” and that the actions of “rogues” are being criticised.

The second stanza is a bit more confusing. A reference to the ships sailing down the Broomielaw might be expected to be a heroic one but actually these ships are not the newly-launched Clyde-built products of working-class craftsmen but departing troop carriers mourned by onlookers. “Scotland the Brave”, also usually a reference to heroism, is here explicitly described as a “curse”. In fact, the stanza is supporting equally the plight of Scottish soldiers forced to fight unnecessary wars abroad and the inhabitants of the countries they invade.

It seems that Henderson was being critical and ironic with language which is often taken at face value, the language of national and imperial martial success. Rather in the way Bruce Springsteen was angry that his “Born in the USA” was misread by US Republicans as a jingoistic flag-waver rather than as a statement of anger at the country’s betrayal of its war-veteran working-class.

Henderson’s lyrics clarify again at the start of the final stanza. The “freedom” of the title is signposted at the start and there is a clear exhortation not to listen to voices of fear and reaction.  The reference to John McLean is indeed one of celebration, about his revolutionary ideas being put into practice. However, the phrase “painted room” is surely too flimsy to represent such ideas as a home fit for heroes or the 21st century Americanism of homeland.  The final image of pulling down gallows is a powerful one but the reference to “a black boy” now sounds uncomfortably close to the colonialism which Henderson was challenging. It’s also a weak phrase for the song’s big finish. And why the specific naming of “Nyanga” at the end? Apparently it was a location of anti-apartheid protest but is certainly now rather less well-known than Sharpeville or Guernica or Auschwitz.

Of course the delivery of a song is all-important. Most versions of “Freedom Come A Ye” which I have heard present it in a dramatic, martial way from start to finish. Maybe it should be sung more delicately and gently, with differing emphases as the imagery shifts from heroic to bleaker. I don’t remember enough of the details of Gaughan’s performance in 1985 but You Tube has a TV performance  from 1989 which is excellent.  His delivery is sweet but manly and measured and I note he changes that penultimate line from “black boy” to “black lad”, slightly less horrible as a phrase plus more assonant to the ear.  Of course Gaughan would be the first person to admit he can’t quite sing like that any more!

Scotland now sits a little closer to the political situation which Gaughan envisaged in his 1985 comments but I think today’s Scotland is a little less attached to the Scots language than Hamish Henderson hoped we might be.  It will be intriguing to see whether the political and cultural discussions which continue during this year will give the song a higher profile.

A man is entitled to change his mind over time. Gaughan’s most recently reported views on the song, when he performed it in Edinburgh on 1 January this year, show a slightly different attitude to it. In an epithet which was apparently first coined by the late Labour MP and folk music aficionado Norman Buchan, Gaughan said, “The best way to kill a song is to make it a national anthem.”



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Scots speaking and Scots singing


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.


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