I loved the the view of the North Sea from the departmental office window. The room was on the fourth or fifth floor of a modern tower and you could watch the dark clouds form up on the horizon then steadily move towards us, relentless as zombies, bringing in chill winds and fresh rain from Scandinavia. Sometimes the oil rig supply ships would emerge too as if from nowhere and gradually grow in size as they made their way back to Fitdee and the port of Aberdeen.
The office was run by two immaculately dressed ladies of a certain age. They ran a tight ship, friendly and efficient and I had chatted and joked with them many times. This day I was waiting for a printout or something. Disconnected, in a dwam my mother used to say, just staring out to sea. The ladies were just talking between themselves. Something caught my ear though. They weren’t talking in English, but in Doric, the dialect of the North East. They were describing in some detail the various other members of staff. I listened for a while, then thought I’d better make a confession.
“Ye ken a can unnerstaun aw that ye’re seyin. We aw spoke the same wey whan A wis a bairn doon in Pairthshire an Fife”.
The blethering stopped. Both looked at me in astonishment, as if a dog had just got up on his hind legs and stated speaking.
“That’s impossible, only Aberdeenshire folk speak the Doric”.
“No it isn’t, you say ‘fit’ and ‘and I’d say ‘whit’ and stuff like that but it’s much the same otherwise”.
But they were having none of it, it was as if I had broken their secret code, intruded in a private matter. In the rest of my time in Aberdeen, though they chatted and joked as normal, they never spoke the Doric in my company again.
The episode bothered me, not just because I tend to fret when conversations don’t turn out well but there seemed to be something else going on, just on the edge of my mental horizon, some question that should be answered. It took some time, nearly a decade, for the question even to form, I’m not a quick thinker.
I had a slightly odd childhood. My family were into hotels. Not just staying in them but running them. The addiction started slowly. I was born in Edinburgh but by the time I went to school we were in Dunbar, living above a shop and renting out rooms (my room, actually) to holidaymakers. I think it was my mother Muriel who was the driving force. She was an exceptionally bright and insightful woman, from Manchester. She’d met my father during the war when he’d been stationed there as a government munitions inspector. Mum was working on the production line making bullets and Dad had a car, and petrol, so was so something of a catch. Dad always wanted to return to his native Glasgow and Mum followed but being a housewife was never quite enough for Muriel.
We moved Burntisland on Fife’s Riviera coast when I was about nine – bigger house, more rooms to let out. But that wasn’t enough either, after a few years they bought an old bank house in Dunning in Perthshire to they convert to a proper hotel. I went to three primary schools, therefore, in East Lothian, South Fife and Perthshire, all at the time heartlands of Scots speakers. This was why I could understand the Doric of the Aberdeen ladies. Although my mother was English, she delighted in collecting and using Scots words and phrases, often spoken in mock-ironic inverted commas, but spoken nonetheless. So although English was (of course) used in the classroom and on the television I was immersed in the Scots tongue throughout my childhood.
Many people nowadays speak of being punished at school for speaking Scots, sometimes physically by beatings with sticks and leather straps or psychologically through public humiliation. Such is the frequency of such stories the ‘hidden oppression’ of the tongue has become part of its folklore ‘just something that happened’. However this never really happened to me; maybe having an English parent was an advantage, making it easier to slip between Scots and English, but I remember some of the teachers were actually supportive. Our teacher in Burntisland explained to us we were ‘bilinguals’, using one language in the classroom and another in the playground. She would test us on our knowledge of Scots vocabulary; “Can anyone explain what a ‘bawbee’ is?” She made us learn J.K. Annand’s Scots poem “The boy in train” by heart and on a Friday afternoons would read to us from J.J. Bell’s Glasgow Scots stories “Wee McGreegor”. It seems this was an almost unique in this experience in the 70s where skill in Scots was praised not punished. I suspect now our Burntisland teacher may have been a Scottish nationalist.
When I moved to secondary school and on to university, and Scots just disappeared, though I remember thinking it odd that fellow students in the Anglophone bubble of St Andrews were learning long dead Anglo-Saxon. Just down the road I knew a vibrant living tongue was still spoken that would have taught them more about the history and development of English than the dull pages of Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Primer ever could.
Scots proved useful again though when I found myself as a student working in factories up in Montrose, in Arbroath parks (my parents had moved again) and later hospitals around Glasgow. No vernacular talk was a mystery to me, and I could still turn my Scots up to 11 whenever I felt the need.
Like most Scots speakers, I never really thought about it, though it was just ‘a way of speaking’. I suppose I knew Scots was a language of some kind, and not just because the teacher had told us so. The English relatives we visited regularly spoke a strong Lancashire dialect and even as a bairn I realised what we spoke north of the border could never really be a ‘dialect’ in the English style, it was just far richer, more complicated and varied.