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Haud Yer Wheesht: language and class in Scotland

Haud yer weesht – in English it means shut your mouth or be quiet– is what Scots speakers have been told to do for centuries. Effectively, in the country of our birth, our language has been in almost permanent exile for more than four centuries. It has never been outlawed as such but it has been ridiculed, marginalised, dismissed and discounted as an uncouth and unsavoury expression of an uneducated populace: a relic of the past forming an antiquated barrier to the historic tide of progress driven forward by an enlightened class south of the border.

Scots, which was once held in such high esteem, became an essentially closet language hidden from the public gaze but for Burns suppers and Hogmanay saturnalia. It was on occasions such as these that people could cheerfully or whistfully recite Scots Wha Hae or sing Auld Lang Syne without having much of a clue as to the content of either. But never since the Union began has it been the language of commerce, trade, politics, education literature and the arts.

English audiences are now accustomed to hearing the speeches of Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and they have no difficulty in understanding her. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it is remarkable for the fact that they won’t hear one word of Scots, despite it being the historic language of the Scottish people who she claims to represent and a language which is still actively spoken by roughly a third of the Scottish population and partially used by many more.

In the final analysis, the language question in Scotland is a class issue but so too is the national question and it is through the prism of these two interrelated features – class and nation – that we can fully appreciate both the downfall of Scots and its possible revival at the centre of an independent socialist republic.


There was a time in the UK’s very recent history when the notion of Scotland being a distinct nation entitled to any form of self-government was regared as pure folly. Even those on the revolutionary left who readily championed the right of self-determination of Ireland and other oppressed nations, believed that the Scottish people had no such claim. The nationalist movement in Scotland was portrayed at best as utopian fantasy or, at worst, an expression of “tartan Torysm”.

As someone who was born and raised in Glasgow I probably shared a similar view during my early days as a political activist. If anything I tended to despise the cultural expression of Scottishness as a backward looking, nostalgic longing for an archaic past. Hogmanay was one thing but, to the extent that my somewhat nerdy looks permitted, I wanted to be a thorougly modern young man who dressed,danced and sang like Elvis or Mick Jagger, not like Andy Stewart and the other hosts of the White Heather Club.

As a working class household, there were very few books around. I remember only an abridged 3 volume version of the Encyclopedia Britannica but nothing of Burns or even Robert Louis Stevenson.

Scottish identity

However, there was the rub: words like hogmanay as well the occasion itself were part of a very definite Scottish cultural identity distint from the rest of the UK. And even though our unofficial anthem Scotland the Brave extolled the virtues of a non-existent “mountain hame,” we had our own football league, national team and stadium where it was always played and sung, with even greater fervour when the England team came to compete in the Home Championship. Oh how our spirits soared with the swirl of the pipes and fluttered alongside the Scots saltires that festooned the stadium. Even then the anthem of the Union – God Save the Queen – enjoyed little popularity.

Aye, A fair remember yon waves of excitement whenever the Auld Enemy came to play at Hampden Park. And jings, ye cannae ken whit it wis like when we beat them on thur ain turf efter they’d won th’ world cup in 1966.

Where Scots has been represented in the media it is usely as a means of laughter or ridicule and derision. From the early days of Scottish television with the series Francie and Josie through to Rab C Nesbitt, the characters, however likeable, are presented as mostly poorly educated and gullible people on the fringes of the working class

So what if Rab C Nesbitt and his pals couldnae speak proper English? What did you expect?In taking the piss out of an incomprhensible stream of apparent Scottish gibberish, it was the English comedian Russ Abbott who created an almost primeval archetype of the laughable beast. Mind you it was the great Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter who had the most fun with this.

Baxter’s comic exaggeration of what some call the Glaswegian dialect. and others reduce to a form of English slang, is absolutely hilarious. However, whilst poking fun at our spoken language he touched a chord that most Scots and almost all Glasgwegian could identify with – a spoken language that bore little resemblance to the Standard English which was the country’s official language.

It wasn’t just a gap but a veritable chasm separating one from the other. So, when Baxter turns to the camera to give a lesson in his best received pronunciation English, it is evidently a different class that is speaking.

Still an aw, comin fae Glesga, A kent it aw or maist o it oniewey.

Today, the Scots language, not just Gaelic but Lallans, is officially recognised by the EU as a minority language in Europe. In the 2011 Scottish census, it emerged that around 1.5 million used it. That’s a sizeable chunk of Scotland’s 5.5 million population. In reality I think it’s far more since many people to this day are still ashamed to say they don’t speak English or that they don’t speak it properly.

In many ways, language and how we use it is the quintessential expression of a given culture. Within a language are embedded not just nuances of meaning but historical consciousness and social attitudes too. What is spoken and written by one social class is often quite distinct from another even within the same nation. Working class people from Newcastle, Liverpool and east London also know this to be the case. They too were brow beaten at school for not talking proper English. So what’s the difference?

Language and literacy

There is no question that cockney is a dialect of English. Apart perhaps from the rhyming slang, any other native English speaker could understand it but not speak it. Scots, however, is an historically distinct and separate language of a distinct nationalit and has various dialects amongst which broad Glaswegian is one.

Most Scots people would not and probably could not write in this language. “So what?”, you might say, we can all read and write in Standard Scottish English. That’s not actually true. Even in England itself, functional illiteracy stands at around 16% whereas in Scotland the last report showed a markedly higher level of 26.7%, amounting to nearly one million people out of a population of 5.5 million. That was based on adults aged 15 plus. An earlier report in 2008 displayed and even greater problem amongst older adults aged 34 plus. According to that report entitled New Light on Adult Literacy and Numeracy in Scotland:

” 39% of men and 36% of women in the survey had literacy abilities at a level likely to impact on their employment opportunities and life chances.”

It is impossible to say with any accuracy just how far these staggering figures reflect the difficulty of reading and writing in a language which they do not speak. What can be said is that illiteracy is a universally class phenomenon and it is that same class phenomenon in Scotland which underpins the use of Scots.

However, even allowing for the fact that a majority of people can understand and speak English, should not mean that English should be the sole language of communication. Just as the majority of Catalans could speak and understand Spanish – and were forced to do so under Franco - all of us can understand Standard English but it wisnae an isnae oor leid.

Linguistically, we can say that there are no absolute barriers between one language and another. Certainly, in terms of English - or what is called Scottish Standard English - and Scots, there is an undoubted continuum. Not just a crossover of words and phrases from one language to another but two languages underpinned by a similar if not identical grammatical structure and syntax. This is not uncommon between different languages such as Flemish, Dutch and German or Catalan, Spanish and Portugese, not to mention some of the Nordic languages. Indeed the same could be said of the romance languages as a whole but nobody would deny that each language has its unique features including a distinct lexis of idioms, phrases and general vocabulary.

If a language is obsolete perhaps it is fair enough to say let it die or at least let it die with some dignity. For the Scottish ruling class – a uniquely comrador class that hitched its wagon to the train of British empire at the beginning of the 18th century – its view was somewhat different. For them, Scots was an anachronism. It wouldn’t die, so it became necessay to perform a sort of cultural hara-kiri for them to catch the train on time. And as the imperial juggernaut steamed ahead there began a persistent, shameless attempt to execute the language, or at best sentence it to life imprisonment within its own nation.

The smelly people

Long before the peasant hordes descended from the Highlands or came over from Ireland to populate the teeming cities emerging from the industrial revolution, the English ruling class vented its spleen against the disorderly and distasteful habits of the Scottish populace. This was elucidated by an English visitor to Scotland who wrote: "The aire might be wholesome but for the stinking people that inhabit it"

And these “stinking” people would usually speak some form of Scots, Irish, Gaelic or a mixture of all 3. Most of them couldn’t write it but they certainly spoke it – an anomaly that pertains to this day. The infant Scottish bourgeoisie agreed that if they were to share the benefits of Empire then the language of Empire should rule the country, even amongst the smelly people.

But it wasn’t just the smelly people who suffered. As a class, the Scottish bourgeoisie emasculated its own cultural heritage, rendering unto the Empire the things that belonged to it. Hence, whilst The University of Glasgow was one of the world’s foremost centres of learning, it was a national anachronism befitting its social status as an institution of learning for the privileged few. It took centuries – at least 6 – before it would produce native scholars able to publish a history of Scotland, even in the English language which they had spent a fortune on mastering.

Deference to English culture, English history and the English language became the watchword of the Scottish bourgeoisie. If Britain really was to rule the waves then it had to be one nation with one language and a seemingly indivisible social entity. Enter Standard English as a language that would obliterate popular sentiments, especially but not exclusively those of the Scottish working class.

The principal beneficiaries and cultural exponents of the Union were in many cases descendants of former Jacobites whose forefathers were part of the landed gentry.Their inherited wealth and existing estates gave them the start they needed. Amongst these were industrialists like Henry Monteith, Henry Houldsworth, and the Campbell brothers who, in addition to their plantations in Grenada, Jamaica, St Vincent, Tobago and Demerara, had significant holdings in shipping and railways.

The infant Scottish bourgeoisie was no longer content to merely couple its wagon to the train of empire. As it grew in size and stature it willingly took its place in the engine carrriage driving it forward. It was a train that crushed the people in its tracks and, in the process, jettisoned its own Scottish heritage as so much unwanted ballast.

In contrast to the labouring population of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Dundee whose language was broad Scots,the future magnates of steel, engineering, textiles, mining, rail, shipbuilding, banking and sugar processing were all part of a Tory establishment who sought to Anglicise nearly every Scottish institution. Not only did they abhor the unseemly language of the young proletariat which they had created,but they stood resolutely opposed to any signiicant social or political reform that would question the existing order of things.

Language of oppression

Just as they had brutally suppressed any slave rebellions in the Caribbean, they were not averse to using similar methods against their wage slaves at home. And they did so in a language marked by a complete absence of any of the Scots vocabulary that resounded in the overcrowded tenement blocks and was still present in the popular songs of that time

It is a little known fact that the first general strike in history took place in Scotland in 1820 when 60,000 workers – mostly weavers and spinners but including colliers and foundry workers – downed tools and took to the streets to protest against both poverty and despotism When the strike was crushed and its leaders hung and beheaded, the capitalist class in Glasgow issued the following declaration:

"We, therefore, hereby declare our fixed purpose and determination …... not to employ in future any persons who may have already joined, or who shall hereafter join, the promoters of this treasonable Confederacy, who have taken up arms, or lent aid and encouragement to it by his presence or his countenance.

"We highly disapprove of the conduct of those who have left their work, even when threatened by the menace of the lawless and unprincipled men who conduct the present audacious proceeding, and we are resolved not again to employ any one who has left off working, or who shall in future do so, without a previous minute inquiry into his conduct, and character...."

The fact that this declaration was written in such formal standard English with its tortuous tangle of compound sentences and multiple clauses, illustrates the complete social and linguistic separation of the Unionist establishment from the popular masses. It was written with the same cold steel as the sabres that had slashed and killed the people in Peterloo. Like some ancient Aztec slave sacrifice, it was as if they had reached into the chest of the Scottish nation, ripped its heart out and offered it up to the sun God of capitalist prosperity.

The Scots language was not the only victim. The French revolution had inspired a range of enlightened thinkers throughout the UK – poets, journalists and reformers in general – to press for social and political change. The Peterloo massacre of 1819 and the hangings in Scotland in 1820 were the pinnacle of the ruling class’s attempt to extinguish it.

Alongside the English poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley stood Robert Burns. He too passionately embraced the Frensh revolution. Although he frequently reverts to English, Burns poetry was a far cry from the language of the Unionist rulers. As can be seen in this excerpt from The Tree of Liberty:

Wi’ plenty o’ sic trees, I trow,

This warld would live in peace, man;

The sword would help to mak a plough,

The din o’ war wad cease, man.

Like brethren in a common cause,

We’d on each other smile, man;

And equal rights and equal laws

Wad gladden every isle, man.

Wae worth the loon wha wadna eat Sic halesome dainty cheer, man; I'd gie my shoon frae aff my feet, To taste sic fruit, I swear, man. Syne let us pray, auld England may Sure plant this far-famed tree, man; And blithe we'll sing, and hail the day That gave us liberty, man.

It was more the content than the language of Burns which disturbed the despots on both sides of the border, but in Scotland at least both the content and the language demonstrated the widening gulf in class interests.

Anglicisation and bourgeois culture

At this time there was no system of public education and no need for one since most working class children worked in factories from a very early age. As for newspapers , even The Scotsman had an extremely limited circulation with a national readership of just 300 when it was launched in 1817. However, its limited circulation reflected the reality of the class and Anglicised culture that it spoke to.

Apart from the suppression of Gaelic, the Anglicisation of Scottish culture began with Anglicisation of bourgeois culture in the fields of science, medicine, chemistry and engineering in particular. It was in these fields that Scottish education, research and devolopment yielded their most lucrative results. Standard English was the linguistic coin of the realm and whilst its circulation increased it did so mostly amongst those who appropriated the country’s wealth.

As Glasgow grew to become the Second City of Empire, so too did its ruling class boast the finest architecture and fashion to match that of their English compatriots. Edinburgh and Glasgow too would have their magnificent libraries, concert halls, botanical gardens and exhibition centres to boast the benefits of empire. It mattered little that the teeming Scots and Irish masses festered in the bordering tenements.

The physical boundaries that marked this social and cultural divide were clearly evident in Glasgow with the increasing separation of the city’s central and Western sector that housed the university as well as the mansions, offices and other private dwellings of the elite. Here they could enjoy the fresh air kept pure by the incoming Atlantic winds which would keep the industrial pollution and its assorted smells at bay. There was no apartheid in any legal or political sense but there is little doubt that Standard English was the Africaans of its time and the geographical boundaries within the city of Glasgow served to underscore this divide.

As in the rest of Britain there came a time when widespread illiteracy and absence of basic numeracy in Scotland became an obstacle to capitalist development. Following the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, children were at last taught the 3 “R’s”: reading, writing and arithmetic based entirely on Standard English. In some ways, from a language point of view at least, it was this – much more than Edward Longshanks – which became the true hammer of the Scots. Here began an English equivalent of Bismarck’s kulturkampf whereby the Scottish ruling class attempted to erase or at least suppress the Scots language, an effort which extended well into the lattter half of the 20th century.

The linguistic anglicisation was part of a cultural assimilation which began in early childhood and was expressed in the first years of television by a complete absence of Scottish programmes or characters. The source of almost everything concerning culture, history and language originated from either London or Hollywood. Scotland had not been colonised, at least not forcefully, but there existed a type of cultural imperialism weaponised by the English language. The BBC series Andy Pandy was a classical example.

Andy Pandy and the language puppets

Just as it was subjected to high level censorship to prohibit any subversive content, this delightful children’s series was characterised by a narrative driven entirely by BBC received pronunciation. Everything about it – the characer, the location and, for want of a better term, its plotline, were dictated by an upper class view of popular lifestyles. Everyone had a garden, a swing, trees, a dog , a picket fence and were ever so careful not to get too excited.

So anodyne was the content that its first episode saw Andy being  admonished for daring to twirl around on his swing. Just when it seems the party was getting started, the narrator warns him in her best, toffee-nosed BBC accent: 

“Don’t do that Andy, you’ll make yourself giddy! And you’ll make Teddy giddy too!!” 

The narrator in question was Maria Bird, daughter of Colonel Christopher Bird who was Britain’s Colonial Secretary in South Africa., a nexus close to the BBC’s heart.  Between her world – she lived most of her life in the grounds of Chartwell House, the family home of Winston Churchill - and our world in the tenement blocks of post-war Glasgow, there was little in common. Her matronly monologue reflected this in the very first episode where she asks, 

“Have you got a swing in your garden?  I expect some of you have.”

The purity of the children’s experience it seems demanded a comparable purity of language. Even the song reflected this. This was because the musical content was mostly provided by Gladys Whitred, a classically trained opera singer who made her debut in the 1951 production of Gustav Holt’s The Wandering Scholar.  Theirs was a world of perfect harmony and with that perfect harmony came perfect diction.

However, whilst the Watch With Mother marionettes provided an ideal vehicle for a speechless nation, it was at school where working class children received the most humiliating instruction. From the tender age of five, we were taught that we spoke the wrong way and used the wrong words. That’s where we really learned to haud oor wheesht.

Lessons in child psychology

In the play, See me, Jimmy, this ongoing effort is highlighted in the following excerpt of a working class Glaswegian’s experience of education in 1950s Glasgow:

“School was great for that. Taught us aw the words we couldnae say:

Ye cannae say "ye". Say you.

Ye cannae say “cannae”. Say can not.

Ye cannae say “huv”. Say have.

Ye cannae say "mair". Say more.

Ye cannae say “dosh”. Say money.

Now boys, practise and learn it well. All together now,

You....can' Well done, good lads.”

This class driven pummelling continued for at least the next 50 years and was noted by the writer and translator Dr. David Purves in a report produced in 1997.

“To a significant extent, what we have had in Scotland, in place of education over many generations, is a process of deracination - a process of separating children from their roots - which is the opposite of education. Education should help children build upon their cultural heritage. It really is a wicked thing to tell a five year old child at school, 'The way you speak is wrong and must be corrected.' To tell a child this is very damaging. The child's cultural identity is undermined and the child's whole family insulted. This treatment of generations of children in Scotland has probably introduced a schizoid element, an element of self-hatred, into the national psyche. Associated with this is self-contempt, the well-known Scottish cringe.”

It wasn’t an entirely fruitless efffort since there was a layer of kids who somehow managed to breathe through the suffocation and went on to enjoy more professional careers. But for the grand majority, and especially those who failed their 11+ exam, the shame at not speaking the Queen’s English was only fleetingly painful as we continued merrily to use our street patter. As long as you kept your mouth shut in class.

Aye ‘n thur wisnae nae speakin oot o turn. Dae that an ye got a beltin fae the souk.

The teaching of standard English was part of a curriculum which specifically denied the Scottish experience and taught British history as written and interpreted by English authors. Scottish history did not really exist as an independent area of research or study. Its status then was akin to a domestic pet, you had to feed it and let it out from time to time but it never acquired a life of its own. Such was the poverty of research, knowledge and insight into anything remotely interesting about our past that the first book on Scottish history was not written until the publication of William Ferguson’s 1968 tome Scotland: From 1689 to the Present.

Within the education system as a whole this class of rich anglicised Scots reproduced itself through a network of schools and universities reserved exclusively for the middle and upper classes.

Their schools and ours

The popular (tabloid) press in Scotland was no better. With the exception of The Sunday Post, all the “national” newspapers were but local versions of the English ones whose editorial offices were based exclusively in London. The Scots language didn’t have a look in apart from the cartoon strips Oor Wullie and The Broons which appeared in The Sunday Post. Whilst not necessarily the object of derision, they fell within the tradition of comical working class characters to laugh at but definitely not aspire to emulate. Scots it seems is fit enough for the poachers but not the gamekeepers, and most certainly not for the lairds.

Such has been the extent of anglicisation by the Scottish ruling class that while they are Scots by name and birth, most of them have been educated in English public schools like Eton College, Winchester and Harrow or the equally exclusive English-style public schools like Fettes, Glenalmond and Gordonstoun which happen to be in Scotland. For example, of the nine Scottish Dukes listed in the 1990s only two of them were educated in Scotland.

For such a small country Scotland is cursed – some might say blessed – with a bloated gentry. Aside from the Dukes, there are a host of Lords, Viscounts and Earls grouped under the fatuous title of Knights of the Thistle. The majority of these were also educated in English public schools. Standing at the base of this glorified dung heap are a further 31 and 32 members respectively of the Queen's Lords Lieutenants and the Queen’s Bodyguard reared in the same stables at Sandhurst, Eton, Oxford and Cambridge.

Naturally enough, or so they believe, one needs to have land befitting this social status. And so it is that these titled Scots, can be seen parading in kilts across their vast Highland estates boasting some of the finest Scottish scenery and home to the best game shoots and golf courses this side of the Atlantic. Even this does not include the other huge estates with rivers and glens, generously stocked with salmon and stags, purchased by City-of-London traders keen to metamorphosise into Highland or Border Lairds.

The use of the English language as the language of government, business, the media and the arts gained complete ascendancy during the halcyon days of Empire. It was willingly and consciously embraced by a comprador capitalist class which until recent times was thoroughly wedded to the Unionist cause and the dominion of English based institutions. However, even with the decline and loss of traditional Scottish based industries, the process of anglicisation continued apace.

In 1988 the writer and broadcaster George Rosie was commissioned to produce a TV programme entitled 'The Englishing of Scotland'. Rosie was not a Scottish nationalist or in anyway hostile to English people. But these were his findings.

“But then when I started doing the research I moved rapidly from being reluctant, to being fascinated, then amazed, then appalled. Because it seemed that almost every institution into which I was peering universities, scientific research institutions, charities, colleges, theatre managements, art galleries, new towns, municipal bodies, health boards etc - was being run by people who were born, brought up and educated furth [outside – BL] of Scotland. My misgivings disappeared. This was clearly a syndrome which was widespread, growing fast, and needed to be looked into. I also realised that this was an issue which went straight to the heart of Scotland's ambivalent constitutional position. The essence of what the writer Ian Jack called Scotland's role as "a nearly country'. On the one hand it seemed absurd – churlish even - to complain about one's fellow Britons taking jobs and buying land and property in their own country. But on the other hand it seemed equally absurd that so many important Scottish institutions should be run by non-Scots, by people brought up in a different education and culture.”

Following that report, eleven years passed before the inauguration of the Scottish parliament and a further 9 years until the first SNP government was formed. During that time, the Labour Party – a unionist party par excellence – was the dominant party throughout Scotland and the governing party of the new parliament. Whilst nominally opposed to Thatcher’s neo-liberalism, its policies in effect totally embraced the free market economic policies which marked the Thatcher and Blairite governments - policies that further boosted the Anglicisation process.

Since then, at a language level at least there have been some positive changes but nowhere near the radical, root -and-branch revolution required to reverse the historic kulturkampf.

In Part 2 of this blog I will detail the reforms and try to sketch a road forward.

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