18 January 2010

Speaking Braxfield Scots...

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been reading about a certain 18th century Scottish judge, Lord Braxfield (1722 – 1799). Described by Henry Cockburn as the ‘Jeffreys of Scotland’, while sitting as a criminal judge in Edinburgh’s High Court of Justiciary, Braxfield sent Deacon William Brodie to be throttled by his own gallows and ordered the Scottish Martyrs to Botany Bay for their agitation for popular enfranchisement and reform of the constitution. He was a rough fellow, ruddily fond of his drink, crackling with diabolical mirth. Robert Louis Stevenson is said to have been exercised by a particular curiosity towards this scaly old Edinburgh coelacanth, famously adapting him into Lord Justice-Clerk Adam Weir in his unfinished novel of 1896, Weir of Hermiston. One aspect of this interest derived from Braxfield’s tone of voice, his accent and vocabulary. Said Cockburn, ‘his accent and his dialect were exaggerated Scotch; his language, like his thoughts, short, strong, and conclusive.’ While David Hume nervously footered with his Scotticisms and Edinburgh was instructing itself in the proper English elocution, the brisk authenticity of Braxfield has its charms, a fossil of old Scotland. One amusing anecdote of the difficulties his brogue could pose is handed down to us from Braxfield’s egregious sedition trial of the English radical Maurice Margarot in the 1790s.

To Margarot, Braxfield barked, ‘Hae ye ony coonsel, man?'
Quoth Margarot: ‘No’
Braxfield: ‘Dae ye want to hae ony appointit?’
Margarot: ‘No, I only want an interpreter to make me understand what your lordship says.’

He came to my mind this morning as I took a closer look at the recent research, published by the Scottish Government, whose stated intention was “…to explore public perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the Scots language amongst the general public of Scotland.” Any student of social change must regard it as a curiosity how history presides over social and cultural shifts, as different dignities and snobberies supplant and reverse each other. Scots used to be the language of the Court of Session and of the ermined Lord President and his enrobed companions in law. How things do change.

The study asked 1,020 members of the adult population – defined as 16 years or more – various questions about their definition of Scots – is it a language, is it slang, is it just a way of speaking? If you do speak Scots, where do you do it? What should be the place of Scotticisms in the education of children? Should it be encouraged or quashed? What other aspects of public life should Scots feature in, or feature more strongly? Familiar categories are imposed on the data, including suspicious judgements about respondents ‘socio-economic group’.

The study has much to be interested in about how people use language and where it is deemed to be appropriate, even Scots as symbolic of a relaxed, intimate setting – of friends and family. The research puts some empirical flesh on the bones of this idea. In response to a past post on the significance of accent in Scottish politics, one anonymous commentator, rather chiding me for a particular formulation I employed, eloquently pointed out that

“Salmond gets away with using different amounts of broad-ness for the same reason the rest of us do: because we've done it for centuries. For centuries, the educated have used English in public, and Scots (accent, dialect, or language) to their family and close company. I'm sure you even do this today, speaking much more broadly with strangers than with kin.”

On how often they use ‘Scots’, the responses are strategic. 43% say that speak Scots a lot or fairly often, 29% claim never or rarely to do so. In total, 85% of the total claim to speak Scots nowadays, some of the time. Compare this of the use of Scots when writing – and a whopping 68% of respondents said they never did so – the numbers claiming to be regular Scots scribers shrinking to a mere 6% of the total. Definitions are obviously problematic – am I writing Scots if I employ the word ‘furth’, or ‘outwith’? The issue here runs to the unarticulated nub of the questionnaire – how to define Scots itself?

On this point, 64% of the sample did not think that Scots was a language. Equally, the majority sharply reject the idea that Scots is slang, 63% of the total disagreeing with that idea, 40% of them strongly disagreeing. Asking the 867 of respondents who ever speak Scots, the researchers then asked where the respondents use it. Overall, folk mainly employed Scots in domestic and sociable settings – 69% doing so when socialising with their cronies, 63% at home with the family – while only 25% said they ever did so at work.

Although by no means a learned creature in linguistics, I’ve spoken to one in the past about how to analyse Scots, English and how they connect. Difficult questions of accent, dialects and lexical and grammatical differentiation are implicated. The great weakness of this study is that it does not even try to address these questions. Although it is of interest that people don’t regard Scotticisms as objectionably slang, our understanding is sorely constricted if we have no real idea what ‘Scots’ denotes for them. In particular, given the large numbers of those who claim that they ever speak Scots, this wide construction of Scots presents a barrier to external understanding. Equally, it is my understanding that some theorists think of the English-Scots question in terms of a continuum. At one end, Scottish standard English, possessing some of the features and terms which broaden out towards the continuum’s other end. In that context, the either/or type questions asked by the research does not reflect the graduated complexity of reality. The document is of significant interest, despite these gaps and foibles, for those interested in the personal politics of accent and its place in Scottish public life. At the very least, it suggests that we’ve at least partially moved on from the cloying concerns of BBC announcer Scots, abashedly adjusting their vowels.

Do give it a closer look.


  1. I find it odd that people can think of Scots as "not a language - just a way of speaking." Is that not exactly what a language is? Even if we must insist on written forms as a qualifaction for being a langauge, these obviously exist, and have done for centuries.

  2. And hardly an innocent question for the researchers to pose. That said, I think a legitimate one, illustrating as much as anything the point that you make - and stressing the orality of the Scots, borne out by the other answers in the study.

    There is another aspect to this - illustrative, I'd guess, of how other languages appear to linguistically constricted Scots and Britains. 'Other' languages might well come to denote the totally foreign, demonstrated by alternative German grammatical structures and unfamiliar French vocabulary. I doubt that a similar attitude would prevail in situations where there is a broader linguistic consciousness - and other languages seem less foreign.