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The Scots Language: A Personal View

The Scots Language is a core element of Scottish culture. It informs, colours or articulates, in varying degrees, virtually every aspect of the social, cultural and occupational lives of millions of people – in effect, of the whole community of Scotland. Moreover, it has done so for hundreds of years. Our history, oral and song culture and not least our literature cannot be fully understood or appreciated without access to or a minimal comprehension of Scots.

Yet Scots still suffers from an almost total neglect by government. Unlike Gaelic, it has no official recognition, no official status and consequently receives negligible attention in terms of policy formulation, and minimal financial support. Scottish Language Dictionaries, the Scots Language Centre and projects such as Itchy Coo receive their core funding via the Literature Department of the Scottish Arts Council: virtually no funding for or related to Scots comes from, for example, the Executive's education budget. Nor, with honourable exceptions, does it receive any serious attention in the cultural and educational planning of local authorities. This means that, despite the best efforts of the SAC's Literature Department, the amount of money available to support or develop Scots remains woefully insufficient to address the many policy areas in which it could or should be a key element.

Scots' linguistic proximity to English has led to its being habitually described as slang or 'bad English'. Until very recently it was portrayed in the education system – and still is in some quarters – not just as a language of little worth but as one inimical to the aims of education. Speakers of Scots have as a result often come to believe the way they speak to be of little or even negative value, a mark of low achievement and a barrier to career success.

And yet despite all this Scots has survived and is cherished by many as a key factor in their identity. It is valued in our literary culture even though most of the Scottish population are kept in ignorance of the vast extent and variety of that literature. In last year's Radio Scotland poll to find 'the nation's favourite poem', for example, no fewer than 16 of the 25 most-voted for poems were written in Scots.

There is, then, a dire lack of recognition among policy-makers, even in key areas like education, tourism, culture and social services, of the powerful undercurrent of Scots language that continues to enrich all our lives like a kind of linguistic gulf stream. It is true there has recently been a change in attitude towards Scots in education, particularly at primary level, and statements have been made in support of Scots by Executive ministers. But none of this is backed by a coherent and deliberate policy to give Scots the status and support it deserves.

I believe that the most pressing concern is to raise awareness of the language at all levels of society and in particular to raise expectations of what might be achieved for and through Scots if it were given proper status, recognition and funding. The manifesto of any political party seeking election to the Scottish Parliament in 2007 should therefore include a proposal for Scots along the following lines:

"We will work towards establishing an adequately funded policy for the preservation, encouragement and development of the Scots Language, and its integration into all aspects of Scotland's life. In the short term this will concentrate on ensuring that Scots language and literature are taught throughout the education system and that proper financial provision, training and support are put in place to enable this to happen. In the longer term we will work towards giving Scots official status and recognition equivalent to that accorded English and Gaelic."

James Robertson

January 2007