Aye Right

As part of this year’s census people in Scotland will be asked if they understand, speak, read or write in Scots. The census counts everyone in Scotland once every ten years and I was initially surprised that the Aye Can website referred to ‘Scots’ as a language. Gaelic in my opinion is Scotland’s only independent tongue whereas Scots is a broad term for a loose confederation of dialects. Scots is a Germanic language and has evolved from Old English and Norse to be spoken throughout the land although not exclusively, as speaking in a Scottish accent is not the same as speaking in Scots.

Having spent the majority of my life in the North East of Scotland, I am already familiar with one of the richest Scottish dialects in Doric. The 18th century poet Allan Ramsey (1686-1758) was the first to apply the name Doric as an alternative name for Scots. In the 18th century, Scots was compared with the rustic peasant tongue of Ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, while English, the official language of the new British state of 1707, became associated with Attic, the standard language of the city states.

In post-industrial Scotland, the Doric label crept northwards and is now commonly associated with the Grampian region. Despite living in rural Aberdeenshire for over twenty years, I can’t speak in Doric or even read it properly as this wonderfully impenetrable article by Robbie Shepherd will duly illustrate. With my Anglo-Irish parents holding sway, I grew up from my Mother’s knee speaking English and often felt estranged from my peers and elders who did spik in the mither tongue.

As a product of North Sea oil, I found myself being brought up as a British migrant child in the part of Scotland no one really cares about. Geographically isolated and deeply unfashionable, I remember going to primary school and watching oil rigs pump billions into the nation’s economy from my class window. With oil barely receiving a mention in Thatcher’s memoirs, I can recall studying History at two of the country’s oldest universities, one of them being Aberdeen, and hoping to learn about how my region shaped our nation’s fortunes.

But Aberdeen rarely ever featured in my lectures and text books. All the great battles, figures and political incidents took place in the social and economic heartbeat of Scotland’s Central Belt. While the misty romances of Gaeldom provided the poets and tourists with a chocolate box vision of the Highlands. Even when the North East should have become more relevant in the latter end of the 20th century, it appears going offshore every two weeks in Thatcher’s Britain is nowhere near as romantic as ‘goin down pit’.

On being asked whether I speak or read in Scots, I can recollect the social differences in dialect from my childhood years in a commuter village south of Aberdeen. Even my Scottish peers spoke in a far softer tone than the raw Aberdeen dialect we regularly encountered at football matches and school activity weeks. Children from my school would dismiss kids fae Aberdeen as ‘toonsers’ and their accents were frequently mocked for being uncouth and poorly spoken.

Obviously I was too young to understand the social class dimension behind these childish views.  The oil boom of the late 1970s had transformed a previously isolated region, and resulted in a steady influx of non-Scots speakers into the area. Although miles away from the coastal strip of oil rich villages, the Doric tongue continues to baffle outsiders in the traditional braes and communities of the North East. As a student I remember labouring in the summer around the time of last census in the market town of Stonehaven. While obviously out of place, I struggled to keep up with the broad dialect of the labourers in the yard. The old men manning the vans would comically refer to me as a lanky ‘guffy’, and curiously enough this is a derogatory term for an Englishman.

Despite being born and raised in Aberdeenshire, I persistently felt like an outsider during my three month stint in the yard. And while any attempt to speak in Doric would have made me an imposter, I am relieved globalisation has not completely extinguished the ancient tongue of the North East. For while I cannot speak in Scots, I long for it continue regardless of whether it is a language or not.

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The Illusionist

After leaving my university town of Glasgow in search of a media career in London, I have often found myself trying to preserve my Scottish identity. By living and working in a global metropolis, I fear my Scottishness will eventually become so diluted that I’ll lose touch with my Aberdeenshire upbringing.

Nostalgia can be very misleading but on recently watching Slyvain’s Chomet’s animation The Illusionist , I immediately knew that I wanted to return to Scotland for the festival season. Chomet’s visual love affair with the Scottish capital is a melancholy fairy tale and offers a romantic throwback to a seemingly more innocent era of steam engines, roast fires, whisky drams, red post boxes and candlelit evenings.

The Illusionist is about an elderly French magician who has become increasingly marginalised and ignored after the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll. Unable to sustain his vaudeville show in France, the magician travels over the English Channel and performs on stage in empty theatres in the far north of Scotland. Such is the remoteness of the Hebrides in the 1950s they represent one of the few remaining indigenous communities in Britain unaffected by the cultural impact of America.

On a remote Gaelic island, the magician meets a young girl called Alice, who secretly follows him back to Edinburgh. They quickly form a paternal relationship and spend their lives surrounded by eccentric miscreants, loners and forgotten souls. They are the moths of the world with troubled hearts, living beyond their means in a cosy domestic abode. Struggling to communicate in their adopted tongue, the pair slowly drift apart in a sad and beautiful tale of two outsiders trying to find their way in a lonely world.

Slyvain Chomet creates a melancholy vision of Scottish capital and it is set around the death of the British Empire. This fading spectre of imperialism would have been keenly felt in Edinburgh, which even to this day represents a kitsch romantic version of Scotland wrapped in kilts and colonial union jacks.

Chomet’s love affair with Scotland explores the green fringes of the city and takes you on a cinematic journey northwards towards the Forth Railway Bridge and the luminous fields of Fife. While to the south you can marvel at the gentle rolling hills of Lothian, which fades aimlessly into the horizon like an electric green sea.

Edinburgh is a beautiful place and during the summer it is comparable to classic European cities like Paris or Prague, especially when every accent in earshot is almost inevitably from outside of these shores. What is so remarkable about The Illusionist is the grainy imperfection it lends to its adopted landscape. This beautiful animation captures the sensation of walking through the Old Town at night, where it literally feels like you are walking in ink.

Chomet’s elegiac vision of Écosse is tinged with a homely sentimentality and dangerous as this might be, I am looking forward to walking in the Illusionist’s footsteps this summer. The textural grace of the Scottish tongue may be slipping from my grasp but I hope to reacquaint myself with my homeland, while listening to the sound of pneumatic tyres rippling over the cobbles of the past.