Crackan the troughs

A neebor said tae me a couple o year ago, ‘I mind when I war young gaan oot tae brak the ice on the troughs so the kye could drink. Ye cheust don’t get cowld waathir like that any more.’ Me faither-in-law minds the postie walkan right across the ice on the Boardhoose Loch wan winter in the forties tae cut short his route deliveran the mail.

Climate change is deeply demoralisan. Winters o notheen but relentless, weet, windy, soothwesterly waathir. Ye waaken up in the night and think aboot the poor sheep oot in that endless, drivan rain and wind, wind and rain. The worst thing for me aboot keepan animals in winter is the sea o gutter – every job ye go tae dae on the ferm ye get bogged doon in the weet and ye canna pull yer feet oot. Climate change maks the sheep miserable, teu.

These are the reasons why this current spell o deep cowld is profoundly reassuran and welcome; a return tae the fermers’ memories o owld. For the first time in me life, I hiv brokken the ice on troughs – for eight days in succession. While this waathir maks certain birds more apparent – snipe, in particular, struggle wae the frozen grunnd, and appear in unlikely places, visible and vulnerable close tae buildings or in patches o scrub, or on the salty shore – it is aisier on the sheep. Sheep can stand any amount o cowld, as long as they are dry. Weel fed on silage and barley, they sit content on the snow and in the February sun, relaxing in the later stages o thur pregnancies.

On the road home fae brakkan the ice and feedan the rams in the picture, twa Lapland Buntings accompanied me in flight for a hunder metres or so, keepan up wae the tractor at twenty mile an hour, and no at aal oot o place in crisp, georgeous Durkadale this eftirnoon.

Why the Westray cats hae good coats.

I gaed a drive doon the Nort Pier wae me blue Polo wan night last week tae see a man aboot some partans. There wis a few guys on the pier and I recognised me owld boss wae his yellow rubber beuts and his white fish-processor’s kep. He wore the kep thirty year ago when he was me boss in the crab factory in Kirkwall. He haed something black, still and feathery in his right hand.

I pulled in and opened the door tae speak tae him. (The Polo’s an isles ker, so the window doesna work.)

Dae you ken whit this is? said the bearded wan, raising his hand a peedie bit tae let me see whit he haed.

Ya, I said. It’s a deid Storm Petrel. I spent a night ringan them in North Ronaldsay a lot o years ago. We played their caals through speakers oot intae the darkness o the North Soond and they flew intae wur invisible nets. Kind o the opposite of hoo the US Marines flushed out Manuel Noriega in Panama wae heavy metal. Bonny peedie things. But that’s no gaan tae feed you and the wife the night?

No. Thur’s lots o them at Mousa Broch in Shetland. Whar aboot in North Ronaldsay dae ye get them?

In a peedie geo just sooth o the Bird Observatory. Whar Heather Woodbridge – the new Cooncillor – comes fae.

O yaas. Sheu’ll be a Green. I fund this ane deid on the end o the pier.

Folk go on aboot the puffins at Castle o Burrian, I thowt, but a Storm Petrel really is the last word in seabird cute.

Me boss gaed on: We used tae see them sometimes at sea, at night. They followed the boat in the moonlight and cam doon tae pick up things that had gotten steered up in the prop.

The boys arrived wae the partans. Wae aal ken the Orkney partans are the sweetest. (The Strumniss folk gaed B. Johnson the best they could find in Hoy Soond, but precious little did they get in return, I heard.) As I wis loading me boiling intae the boot o the Polo, wan o the boys said tae me boss, That bird’s no gaan tae feed thee and the wife the night!

Na, na. It’s for the cat. Keeps his coat good 🙂 explained the bearded wan.

Pulling Ragwort in Bonny Birsay


Nobody’s favourite job in high summer is pulling ragwort. But it’s weel kent that this vibrant plant, if it finds it’s way intae silage or hay, can be deadly poisonous tae sheep, kye, or horses. So we have spent the last two days clearing it fae a field that is soon tae be mown for silage.

It’s satisfying tae load the pickup up wae the wilting stalks and tae luk back owre the clear, clean acres ahint ye. Stealthy clegs, and the repetitive stretching movement as ye try tae get each plant up by the roots, mean that this can be a tedious job. But the views o bonny Birsay and the distant Atlantic tae the west more than mak up for hid.


The Man, you know?


Image of Jo Grimond, Rackwick July 2020.

On a crumbling sea wall in one of the outlying isles, or on the gable of a redundant farm building somewhere in a Mainland parish, you can still make out the faded lettering, daubed in white paint by a zealous supporter during, say, the 1966 general election campaign: VOTE FOR JO!

So popular and weel-kent was Jo Grimond, that only his familiar, friendly first name was required. ‘Vote for Jo, the man you know’, went the slogan. It is now exactly seventy years since Grimond was first elected as the Westminster representative for the Northern Isles. Remarkably, he held the Orkney and Shetland seat for thirty-three years between 1950 and 1983. The exhortation to vote for him was already then, as it is now, redundant, pointless, and unnecessary. Because for much of the twentieth century, Orkney and Shetland was the safest Liberal seat in Scotland.

Why should this be? And why – in the face of seismic shifts in Scottish political thinking and voting behaviour – does it remain the case? Orkney and Shetland is a curious anomaly on the Scottish political map, and Grimond goes as far as to acknowledge this in his 1979 Memoirs: ‘I have heard it said that Orkney and Shetland is a freak constituency segregated from the main highways of British political thought’. Of course, he refutes this. But the question nevertheless remains at the heart of the argument about whether people should continue to vote Lib Dem today. Is to do so not to segregate yourself and your fellow constituents from those ‘main highways’, and in so doing perpetuate the election of a tiny group who will only ever be, at best, voices in the political wilderness at Westminster?

The reasons I hear from people voting Lib Dem in twenty first century elections range from an uncritical assertion from an Orkney Islands Councillor that ‘if Liberal was good enough for Daddy, then it’s good enough for me’, to the friend who told me recently ‘well I don’t really know anything about politics so I always just vote Lib Dem’. I suspect that these sorts of family honour or safe repetitive predictability voting patterns are pretty common in modern Orkney and Shetland. And I absolutely don’t want to denigrate Lib Dem supporters. I know that a great many of my family and friends must vote Lib Dem (and I have done so myself from time to time in the past). I like to think that people here continue to vote this way because they can’t see themselves as idealist Socialists at this late point in history, but neither can they abide the hard-hearted, money-grabbing mentality of those on the right of the Tory party. With a tradition of hardworking owner occupancy in a reasonably classless society where people work every hour available (mostly on their own small-ish farms or in their own small businesses), it’s understandable that the industrial urban roots of socialism and radicalism have never really taken hold in Orkney. Likewise, the excesses of right wing Conservatism are deeply unpalatable to people who live, for better or for worse, in a real community, and understand that there is, of course, such a thing as Society after all; this is one important fact that you can’t afford to ignore when you are an islander.

I wonder how many of the younger Lib Dem voters in the Northern Isles know very much about the history of their party of choice, or indeed about the underlying philosophy of Liberalism. Grimond’s memoir is as revealing on the history as it is fascinating on the philosophy.

We shouldn’t imagine, for instance, that the Liberal party is any less an integral component of the British Establishment or that it is any way further removed from those implacable structures of power, privilege and patronage than the Tory party is. Grimond’s recollections of his early life are a veritable Who’s Who of the rich and powerful families at the very top of the UK caste system during the thirties and forties. He describes his enrolment at Eton, and then Oxford to study the famous PPE course required of future Conservative and New Labour cabinet ministers, with weekends spent shooting on estates where dinners in the lavish country houses of British aristocrats began with sherry and ended with port. When Grimond notes that ‘in 1945 my brother in law Billy became the Chief Scout’ and ‘after retiring as Chief Scout Billy was made governor of Tasmania in 1959’, it is as if this kind of appointment coming to a member of one’s immediate circle is nothing unusual. The power, interconnectedness and exclusivity of this disproportionately tiny British coterie is nothing short of astonishing. But, to his credit, Grimond doesn’t lack self-awareness, and he yearns for a future politics that is – dare I say it? – a bit more like that which we see at Holyrood today, ‘free from the patronising airs of the old Eton and Oxford hierarchy’.

Liberalism, Grimond reminds us throughout, combines the radical instinct with an insistence on individual liberty, and does not see the two as contradictory. Sadly, it’s difficult to see any immediate future for the doctrine in our increasingly fractured and fragmenting United Kingdom. Grimond’s seventy-year-old plea for proportional representation at Westminster has fallen on deaf ears for, well, seventy years. And neither has his argument for the advancement of Liberal ideals through parliamentary coalition stood the test of time, having been shot down in the flames of the end of free university education in England. And now, most inimical of all, narrow right-wing British Nationalism has turned its back on Europe forever.

While it might take a bit of a stretch of the imagination to think that Jo Grimond would have joined the SNP by 2020, it’s not unreasonable to imagine that he might by now be mobilising something like ‘Scottish Liberal Democrats for Independence’. His close involvement with the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the work of which informs so many contemporary SNP policies, or his concern for the plight of the Guardian at a time when it was in much less trouble than it is today, reminds us of the social compassion underpinning his values.

And Grimond was a lifelong campaigner for what was originally known as Home Rule and later became Devolution. He was arguing for full federalism and tax raising powers for Scotland when Gordon Brown was still in short breeks. Grimond would have been frustrated beyond belief with Groundhog Day Labour ‘vows’ to deliver federalism or reform the upper chamber. With the combination of his antinuclear conviction and his internationalist outlook, we might imagine he would also be content with the pragmatic middle ground balance of SNP opposition to Trident renewal alongside commitment to NATO membership.

No, Grimond is by no means hostile to the SNP – some of whose socially progressive policies, it might be argued, have stolen a march on his political descendants in Scotland. If we remove the British/Unionist factor from this equation, the only true revival of the fortunes of the Liberal party that it is now possible to imagine in Scotland would come after the event of Scottish independence (at which point the SNP’s raison d’etre becomes redundant). The urgent question Lib Dems need to answer in Orkney and in Scotland today is How do you think you are ever going to achieve anything resembling Liberalism within the archaic and undemocratic structures of the United Kingdom?

This is an enthralling and an endearing memoir, not least because of its love for and affinity with the old Orkney people and ways of life. The warmth of Jo Grimond’s character continues to shine through forty years on. When he writes ‘I take the family as the green of the grass or the warmth of the fire’, we feel we are in the company of a gentleman whose heart is in absolutely the right place. But those Orkney and Shetland folk who persist in voting for Jo today run the risk of insisting that the political world is flat.

Ghosts, Stones, the Sunset


Every six months or so, the sale ring of the Orkney Auction Mart in Kirkwall is swept clean with a stiff byre broom, and made ready for a sale of Orkney books. The muscular Limousin steers or prime Texel lambs usually passing through this ring make way on these occasions for other products of the islands’ agricultural hinterland. Dusty copies of Eric Linklater’s magnificent Orkney novels. Sooty collected folk tales or histories by Walter Traill Dennison or Ernest Marwick. Slim volumes of exquisite verse, written by Robert Rendall or Christina Costie in the Orcadian variety of the Scots language, their pastel-coloured dust-jackets faded with age. The air carries a powerful smell of livestock. On the surrounding benches – usually populated by canny Aberdeenshire buyers – assembles a discerning local clientele. The auctioneer begins his rhythmic chant. The gavel cracks.

One book above all others has the power to create a frisson among the seasoned Orkney book buyers: The Storm and Other Poems, by George Mackay Brown. It’s more than sixty years since this maiden work of the great poet appeared, and the story of its publication has become a local legend. The young Brown was dogged by a black combination of tuberculosis, depression, and near-alcoholism. Had it not been for the love of a devoted mother, Mhairi Brown, and the guidance of a poetic mentor, the Orcadian modernist Edwin Muir, the great bard of Stromness might never have made it into print. But thanks to the encouragement of Muir, who wrote of the ‘grace’ of these early poems, and the help of the historian Ernest Marwick, who published two of them in An Anthology of Orkney Verse (1949), Brown found the self-belief to complete his first collection, and the courage to take it to a Kirkwall publisher, The Orkney Herald. A modest run of three hundred copies of The Storm and Other Poems went ahead, after which the press was dismantled. The book promptly sold out, and the rest is Scottish Literary History. Over the next three decades, George Mackay Brown became internationally famous, earning the acclaim of poets and critics the world over. A fragile copy of The Storm and Other Poems that has lain in a drawer in an Orkney farmhouse, the damp air of sixty northern winters rusting its staples, has the power today to excite the passions of even the most reserved and conservative of book buyers at the Orkney Auction Mart.

Some of the poems in The Storm and Other Poems brim with a kind of Hopkinsean gusto that is typical of Brown’s early work. The title poem especially is loud, dramatic, and flamboyantly musical. And there are occasional flashes in The Storm and Other Poems of a punky young poet, setting out to sing ‘for Scotland, that Knox ruined nation’, nationalistic and confrontational in a way that readers of the later Brown wouldn’t quite recognise. But of course, his perennial themes – land and sea, farming and fishing, sanctity and sacrifice, history and cycle – are all there from the outset.

Brown was born to be the poet of his community. His point in history enabled him to create a bridge between the ancient agrarian and maritime Orkney of the peasants and the jarls, and the modern world of international communication, publishing and poetry. His circumstances dictated that he would never be able to hold down any other kind of job, and so there was an inevitability to his development as a poet and author. And his rise to prominence during the sixties and seventies coincided with wider New Age ideals of a reversion to innocence and a seeking after pure sources. For many metropolitan migrants these ideals extended to uprooting themselves and moving lock, stock and barrel to some of the ‘remoter’ parts of Scotland. Brown’s work, which is scathing towards modernity, science, technology, and nuclear weaponry, struck a chord with an idealistic generation of southern readers. 

Critics lauded Brown’s ‘unadulterated’ art, and were blown away by the ‘purity’ of his poetics, imagining that this meticulously crafted and painstakingly developed poetry had somehow always been here in the distant north, like Neolithic treasure waiting to be lifted by southern hands from the damp northern clay. And while it may represent part of the truth of GMB’s art, this view fails to sufficiently recognise his dedication, his extensive reading, his literary network, or his individual genius – not to mention a certain canniness, his sense of the wider audience sitting round the sale-ring. 

A cynic might say that those ‘pure sources’ of Brown’s poetry have all but dried up in Orkney today. Wind turbines grind out their clean energy. Every square metre of pasture or tilth is satellite-mapped, assessed, and subsidised. Hundreds of thousands of tourists spill from ocean liners to shuffle round the rocks at Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar. The tides, the waves, and the very seabed have been leased to renewable energy developers. You can drive the roads of the West Mainland late in a summer evening before harvest time, seeking George Mackay Brown’s mythology, but all you’ll find are ghosts, stones, the sunset.

(Adapted from the introduction to Orcadians: Seven Impromptus by George Mackay Brown with illustrations by Simon Manfield, published by Kettillonia: )


New Lambs, Owld Stone



Picture: Anja Hall

Sorry, but the picture o the lambs is cheust clickbait. This post is aboot sometheen else. It’s aboot pittan up a new lambeen shed. Read on, though! Pittan up a new shed is a big event.

Ally arrived shortly eftir Christmas wae his Japanese digger tae dig oot the found. He worked long oors, and soon struck rock; the kind o stuff we caal ‘blue whin’, tae be precise. Haird as diamond. Whit ancient sediment wis he brakkan up? Whittiver it wis, stoor stood oot o it when Ally pit the brakkar on it. That slowed us doon a bit. We enjoyed Ally’s company when he wis here. But when he wis feeneeshed, we didna miss the noise o the brakkar gaan aal weekend long. D D. Ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd ddd. Ddd ddd. D d. d.

Eftir the hole wis dug, Bruce and Scott arrived tae assemble the kit. It gaed up in no time. These boys work haird, teu. And in any weather. Drivan rain, howlan wind, freezan cowld. Nane o it bothered them much – they cheust worked and worked and worked. And the shed wis up – a bonny new structure gleaman in the April sunshine. They got the concrete floor poored in the nick o time.


So. Tak the sheep in, and stert lamban. The usual, cutesy ‘Lambing Diary’ stuff sterts tae happen. Multiple births. Easy lambeens. Bad lambeens. Up aal night. Unsuccessful adoptions. Successful adoptions. Orf. Snatchan some sleep through the day when ye can. Calorific breakfasts, and litres o cappuccino. Faalan asleep on a weet bale in the new shed at 4.45 am. Steam in the haet o the piggy bulbs. Milk. Mithers. Atrocious waather. Joni Mitchell on the radio. Boiler suits laggered in … best no tae say. Red Throated Divers caalan ootside. Peedie lambs gaan Meeeh! Meeeh! Meeeh! till yur cheust aboot demented wae it.

Soon, the new shed, that began as an empty hole in the grunnd, is fill o life.

I step ootsite the shed door wan morneen at aboot 6.00. The sun is shinan eftir a few days o April shooers. The rain haes washed the gutter fae the thoosand fragments o blue whin that lie aal roond the site. In the corner o me eye, I see the fossilised underjaw o a peedie fish – no unlike a troot fae the Harray Loch. If thur’s new life in the new shed, then thur’s the remains o some o the owldest life on Earth rooed up ootside. Fossil fish fae the sediment o Devonian Loch Orcadie, when Orkney wis in the southern hemisphere.


Bonny Isle o Sanday


Cata Sand



A billion grains o sand. A hunder thoosand migrant birds. A scant scattering o folk. The isle o Sanday in October presents a glorious unfolding flatness o sand/soil and pure sky, stretching northwards and eastwards into the shallow North Sea – into distances that belie the island’s deceptive baby dragon profile on the admiralty chart.

This isle is a vast table o riches spread beneath the northern sky. It’s possible for a vistor tae get lost in Sanday. Distant hooses on the horizon seem like they canna be on the same island, but they are. Every road ends in the sea. Every aspect pleases.

We traverse the vast ouse o Cata Sand and climb the dunes. A gull owerhead in the blue is an emblem o absolute purity. Godwits and redshank wade in 20mm o brine. A heron awaits the flood. The tide returns swiftly, and wur walk back is twice as long as the walk oot.

Sanday is a modern, forward lukkan piece. A generous proportion o the profits o the 10 MW wind farm at Spurness are ploughed back in tae community projects, such as the employment o a ranger on the island – whose job is tae mak the abundant wildlife accessible tae the public. We join ranger Emma on a scheduled walk roond Spurness, whar sheu shows us a peedie baby selkie in a geo. The mither selkie waits anxiously nearby on the margin o Eday Soond, like a granite boulder. Migrant goldcrests flit roond the geo in the morning sun – fire creaturs in a watter place.

Sanday haes a magnificent literary heritage, teu. The Victorian gentleman-farmer Walter Traill Dennison single-handedly saved Orkney folklore with the publication in 1880 o his The Orcadian Sketch Book, a little-read gem o lore and language. As a result, we ken more folk tales fae Sanday than fae any ither pairt o Orkney.

For instance … the Broonie o Helliehowe tormented a family in a nearby ferm tae the point whar they haed tae leave. On the day o the flit, they were carting their possessions tae the ither end o the isle when the Broonie popped his heid oot o a milk churn and said: my, but wur gotten a fine day for the flitteen. The tale is a cautionary one: many problems are within us, and canna simply be left ahint.

*                    *                     *

But on Sunday morning at low-watter we leave wur problems ahint and cross the causeway tae Start Point, the easternmost and flattest pairt o aal the brokken isles o Orkney. Here, the selkies sing, and the abundant shell sand haes a purple hue in the morning sun. Here, in the shadow o the only vertical-striped lighthoose in the northern hemisphere, we gaither groattie buckies till wur hearts are content.



(Sanday Sealcam:

Last night in Tokyo – Japan Diary Part Three

We are a merry company, twelve Japanese and two Scots working our way through the thronging Tokyo streets to the tavern at Myogadani. The November evening is wet, but the weather can’t dampen our spirits. The tavern is simple, the food honest, and the company warm.


In the tavern at Myogadani

The celebration is to mark the end of a rich and wonderful visit to Japan. Our companions are members of the Japan Scotland Society and the Tokyo Caledonia Society, and all speak excellent English.

A tiny waitress appears with a huge bottle of saki. She fills a glass in front of me until it can hold no more. The diners laugh and cheer as I stand up and do my best to sup the saki without spilling. Osamu, our kind host in Tokyo, makes a short speech, and I make a short reply. We begin our banquet of tempura shrimp, fried chicken, smoked Pacific fish, and crisp edamame.

The group is deeply interested in Scotland. Most have travelled there, some of them frequently. One lady spent a winter in Orkney, and speaks English with an Orkney accent. Some of the others enjoy Scottish country dancing. They ken lots aboot malt whisky. One of the ladies specialises in origami, and presents Linda with three beautiful, delicate paper girls, dressed in traditional kimonos. We learn some of the rules of Tanka and Haiku.


Origami lasses

The following morning, Yuko takes us to the Meiji shrine at Shibuya. This is the perfect place to relax after a busy week. There are weddings taking place at the shrine, and children’s confirmations. Here, we see peedie lasses in real kimonos, brilliant in the crisp November sunshine. Tokyo is a magnificent city, and our friends have been so kind. We long to return.

November 14th and 15th, 2015


Kimono lass



Linda and Yuko at the Meiji Shrine

Rashabreck Corbies

The owld byre at Rashabreck wis re-slated in 1966. Three winters ago, a northerly gale stripped off a patch o the Orkney slab slates an noo a ragged hole gapes oot tae the north. Cheust inside this opening, on top o the cupples, rests a most remarkable built structure – the largest made by any creatur in these islands. A metre wide by a metre high, it is a massive ravens’ nest.

It’s a coorse nest, reflectan the intelligence, strength and resourcefulness o its builders. Most o the dried sticks are sycamore or fuchsia. There are bits o rope, barbed wire, cable ties, heather roots, ku hair, scrap metal, an dried gresses wound intae the structure. It’s like a roond bale o rural detritus. The top is crowned wae a delicate, soft bed o cheviot wool. This is the regal bed o the corbies’ eggs.

There are folk that wid clim up there an smash those eggs. Ravens perpetrate unspeakable cruelty tae newborn lambs at this time o year. But I love them nevertheless. The purple sheen o them. Their cheust-fur-the-hell-o-it tumbling fall in mid-flight. Their gentle xylophone calls. Their size, their ability tae coont, their monogamy.

Me owld freend the late Ernie Donaldson loved the Scots ballad The Twa Corbies, in which twa ravens discuss the whereaboots o a cadaver. The ravens plan tae perch on the dead knight’s collarbone, eat his eyes, an use his ‘gowden hair’ tae theek their nest. Ernie liked tae remark that, although the knight was dead, he ‘gave so much tae life’.

Black, carrion birds they may be – but they are rich in iridescent colour and spirited character. They gie so much tae life themsels. I wish them weel, as they cock an eye oot fae under the brokken slates in the Rashabreck roof and luk owre Eynhallow Soond tae the Atlantic beyond.



(Listen tae Rashabreck Corbies by Simon Hall #np on #SoundCloud

No the Six o Clock News – some thowts on language in Scottish broadcasting


Wan o the things I love best aboot listenan tae BBC Radio Shetland or BBC Radio Orkney is the wey the presenters use thur local language wae a full, crisp, confident voice – withoot the least peedie bit o a cringe, nivver mind any sense o cultural inferiority.

The original broadcasters at BBC Radio Orkney and BBC Radio Shetland in the seventies and eighties were heroes o thur profession, who persevered tae bring thur language tae the fore. Spaekan Orcadian or Shetlandic on the radio haesna always been easy. Wan famous – and famously crass – complaint comes tae mind: ‘Ken is a man’s name, and kent is a county in England’. But ken and kent are northern verbs, used throughout Scandinavia and Germany, and pairt o wur legitimate language -replete wi its own grammar, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, and soonds.

Whar ither than in the Northern Isles wid ye get proper, authentic Scots language like this on the BBC? And whit could be more natural, representative and fittan than Hallo, good morneen and welcome tae Aroond Orkney fae the BBC. The news bulletin itsel, as weel as political interviews (both questions and answers), hard news reports aboot NHS, Rural Payments, renewables developments, mart reports, fisheries policies, the fortunes o the SNP or the Lib Dems, cultural items – furtivver – are aal conducted in rich, broad Orcadian or Shaetlan.

Glasgow, the home o BBC Scotland, is thrang wi hunders o thoosands o Scots spikkers. Thur language is rich, expressive, hilarious, humane, profound, and gallus by turns. Yet, in 21st century Scottish broadcasting, Glaswegian Scots, by contrast tae the Orkney or Shetland varieties, remains almost entirely restricted tae comedy and football. Still Game or Tam Cowan’s On the Ball/Off the Ball are some o the best programmes on the BBC, full stop. We aal love them, and the connections atween the Scots language o these shows and the Scots used in the Northern Isles are much more numerous than ye might think. So could we no push Scots cheust a peedie bittie further?

River City may yet dae for Scotland and the Scots language whit Coronation Street did fur the language and culture o the North o England. When Tony Warren penned Elsie Tanner’s immortal line o soliloquy Ee, Elsie, you’re just about ready for the knacker’s yard in 1960, he set in motion changes in linguistic and media representation for the North of England that hiv thur descendants the day in drama like Happy Valley, or the acceptability o ‘Northern’ accents within mainstream broadcasting – includan even the most formal o news broadcasting. There’s no shortage o diversity within the BBC the day. But this diversity doesna extend tae representan the full linguistic reality o Scotland, gaan beyond accent intae language. Wur the last province remainan that is yet tae be touched by this benevolent and beneficial wave o political correctness.

Ann Cleeves’ Shetland is wan remarkable step forward. It wis a revelation for this Orcadian viewer tae hear some pretty good Northern Isles Scots in this mainstream setting. The Shelties who hiv pairts in Shetland are tremendous, and the show itsel is a tremendous opportunity for them – in a country whar young actors aal too often hiv tae ape the accents and language o anither culture tae get their next gig. Brian Cox’s weel-documented difference o opinion wae his BBC bosses aboot the acceptable density o Scots/Shaetlan in his own lines in the show points the wey tae the future fur Scots on wur TV screens. Shetland soonds pretty Central Belt-ish a lot o the time, and much o the Shetland language o the drama is faer too diluted for the tastes o most Northern Isles viewers. But consider this: when did we ivver hiv a serious TV drama that even attempted tae represent the real language o the North? Shetland might no be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.

I don’t ken if the whole country is ready tae hear the news read in Scots yet, and that’s a peety. But there’s lots o ither pieces we could mak a stert. Whit aboot a bit more Scots on Landward or Countryfile? I widna be at aal offended if denser Scots in contexts like this wis subtitled: tae me subtitling raises the status and profile o Scots. Welsh TV drama flits perfectly naturally atween subtitled Welsh and English. And thoosands o folk hiv no problem watchan oors and oors o subtitled Nordic Noir – while the soondtrack flings oot Scots/Scandinavian crossover words like barn/bairns, bra/braw and hus/hoose.

The Mart is watched religiously aal owre rural lowland Scotland – fae Gallowaa tae Moray tae Caithness – in pieces whar Scots continues tae be spoken by the majority o folk. It’s owld news noo, but 1.5 million respondents tae the 2011 census reported spaekan or understandan Scots. Wid the sky faal doon if we scripted the voice ower tae a production like The Mart in Scots, as weel as the fairmers’ and auctioneers’ real, recorded Scots dialogue? By comparison, some novelists in Scotland moved fae English narrative wi Scots dialogue tae Scots narrative wi Scots dialogue ower a hunder year ago.

Or whit aboot the splendid aerial film o Orkney we haed the pleasure o watchin on BBC Alba a few month ago, wae its beautiful Gaelic voice ower? Hou expensive could it be tae script an Orcadian/Scots voice ower tae accompany this film, and whit wid the dividend be in terms o inclusion and representation for the Northern Isles? Or whit aboot a TV version o the hugely popular Gruffalo in Scots for bairns? A voice ower for The Gruffalo animation widna cost the yird. Katie Morag could be owerset in Scots. The Mr Men in Scots wid be a student cult sensation in the West End o Edinburgh.

There’s an urgent need tae expand the possibilities o whit can be broadcast in Scots. I don’t believe for a meenit that these missed opportunities are the result o deliberate policy, or the result o any kind o thrawn BBC badness. They are more likely cheust because o a simple lack o understanding and appreciation o Scots at the top levels, and mibby a lack o professional expertise in scrievan formal material in Scots.

Top o me wish list for a reformed BBC Scotland is a simple plea that it better represents the linguistic realities o the country it serves. Wur professionals in Lerwick and Kirkwall could teach their colleagues at Pacific Quay twarthree salient things aboot language, audience, and broadcasting.