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.

Tae thee, or no tae thee?

The owld Orkney pronouns – the ‘thoo’s, the ‘thee’s, and the occasional ‘thine’s – that well up like sweet spring watter in Westray and Papay and also, less frequently these days, in the West Mainland, present me wae a dilemma.

There’s no doot that previous generations o me family used these words. We hiv a family story aboot me great grandparents visiting a ferm on the Lyde Road in Harray. The wife o the ferm asked me great grandmither ‘Wid thoo be blide o a swine’s puddeen?’. And me Granny used tae tell me aboot someone who joked ‘Aal the world’s queer but thee and mee, and thoo’re a bit queer’.

But these pronouns are more or less completely extinct in Mainland noo. Wance, aboot ten year ago, in the bank in Kirkwall, a wife said tae me: ‘Pit in thee PIN number, buddo.’ And anither time I heard a North Isles bus driver sayan tae an owld wife, ‘On thu comes’ – never was there a gentler or a more compassionate utterance. In their twilight years, the writers Edwin and Willa Muir continued tae refer tae one anither in their Orkney and Shetland parlance as ‘beuy’ and ‘lass’, and they kept their island pronouns alive, although they had lived the literary life in Prague, Dresden, the United States. The ancient pronouns serve a function going way beyond the cowld, formal ‘you’ and ‘yours’; they convey a warmth, a generations-deep familiarity, a compassion.

So, is it ridiculous for someone who hasna really used them in the past tae employ these pronouns when addressing a bairn, a spouse, a beloved pet or farm animal, in the twenty first century? The resurrectionists of Welsh, Cornish, Manx achieve tremendous success in reviving their language in its entirety – whit can a peedie pronoun hurt?

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.

Spaekan Doondie – whar owns the Scots Language?

Eday June 2015 (1)

An invitation tae Papay tae spaek aboot Orkney language at a community event celebratan the ‘Doondie Dialect’ is cheust too good tae be true. Me an Linda fire wur bags in the back o the peedie Loganair Islander an we’re off owre Shapinsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, an the desolation o the North Soond – the grim, grey expanse o watter atween the ooter North Isles – afore landan quarter o an oor later wae a comfortable bump in wan o the silage fields o Holland, the biggest ferm on Papay.

Papay’s wan o these places that folk love tae (mistakenly) caal the ‘ends o the Earth’, ‘the ooter periphery o Europe’, or ither such romantic things. Tim, who sent us the kind invitation tae come, is an English ornithologist who travels tae North Africa an the Middle East tae lead an lecture on conservation projects there. Ye couldna get much less peripheral or parochial.

Tim drives us doon the spine o the isle tae the classic Orkney fermhoose at Holland, whar we are met by Jocelyn, who is the author o two superb Orkney books, an an owld freend. Jocelyn gaed tae school in England, cam tae Papay, an merried Neil. Taegethir, they ferm Holland. We spaek aboot sheep, folk we ken, an Lorimer’s magesterial New Testament in Scots, afore Jocelyn says tae Linda, in beautiful Orcadian wae her lovely English accent, Wid thu like tae see whar thu’re sleepan? Owlder, gentle familiar pronouns live on in the North Isles; we feel welcome an at home.

The eveneen event is a muckle community supper o finest mince, tatties an maely pudeen, followed by a talk fae me aboot Scots/Orcadian language, some readeens, music, an some recordeens o Doondie. Lukkan roond the haal at the framed calligraphy o Doondie words on the waals, hid dawns on me that I’m totally oot o me depth. Doondie’s ootlandish, even by Orkney standards: Doondie, in ossigar, horsegowk, glaip, yurrie. Yurrie?

I get some good-natured an weel-deserved freendly criticism during the Doondie quiz, whar I canna really help me team. An owld man corrects me – correctly – on me pronunciation o the word pok; That’s a Kirkwaa wey o sayan it! I should ken that the vowel’s right at the back o the roof o the mooth. There’s good crack aboot the word scorrie, a young herring gull in Papay, an owlder bird in neeboran Westray. Jim claims he wid caal a mature gull a scorrie, tae which Neil caals across the room wae the accusation Westray bluid in thee! A Doondie, I finally discover, is an ill-thriven cod – wan o that big long wans, worms in hid’s belly. Hence the ironic, derogatory island nickname. A Doondie is a buddy that wis born in Papay.

Tim’s dowter, Cassia, is that rare thing nooadays – a young Doondie. And sheu is the wan who reveals the meaneen o in ossigar. This is wan o these untranslatable Scots phrases. It refers tae a stage o a hen’s moult when it luks dour and dull. In ossigar the favourite phrase o a bright young Doondie student whose ornithologist faither lectures in Egypt. The hens are in ossigar, mither. Doondie for the 21st century.

And this taks me tae the point aboot Papay. Papay is rare an precious in so many weys. An no least o them is the wey hid’s language belongs tae owld an young, Doondie an ferrylouper alike. And this is the only wey forward for Orcadian or wider Scots Language. It canna afford tae be exclusive, the property only o folk who were born here. That wey o thinkan wid strangle Orkney language waein a generation. The truth is, ye can spaek it wae an English accent, a Dutch accent, a Canadian accent, furtiver. We mustna imagine hid belongs only tae folk whose folk cam fae Orkney, an no-one should feel that they canna use it.

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In the morneen, the blashy waathir o the previous day haes geen wey tae bonny sunshine an a brisk northerly wind. As Neil an Jocelyn drive us tae the airstrip, the Holm o Papay rises in the East like sometheen in a painteen by Stanley Cursiter. We soar owre Ramna Geo in the Islander on the wey back tae Kirkwall, minds an vocabularies a peedie bit broader than they were twenty four short oors ago.