Hi, I’m Angus, one of this year’s batch of MSc Publishing students. My work placement involved editing some of the very first titles put out by The Wee Book Company, who publish in Scots and nothing else. Since I’m the kind of gadgie who likes to lecture others, I’m going to use this platform to share five wee tips for writing and wrangling with Scots.
Narrative Voice vs Dialogue
Something you’ll hear again: Scots is a spoken language. The page is not its natural home.
This means that in a first person story told by a Scottish character, you’ve got full license to write in their voice, and be as chatty as you like. Imagine the character is sitting in front of you, relating their tale. Scots isn’t for internal monologue. Scots is for speaking.
Which means that in third person, you might want nothing but the dialogue to be written in Scots. After all, third person narration is usually supposed to be neutral, and disembodied. If you have it speak in Scots, it becomes a person. Point in case: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song.
Scots is a spoken language. There’s no official, standardised version. So when you write Scots, you really have to ask yourself: who’s speaking? Who we are affects the Scots we speak. Consider:
- I is Eh in Dundee, but Ah in most of the country. Eh dinnae ken.
- Is a 9 year old Fortnite addict speaking the same Scots as Granny? Naw, he’s no.
- Is @ScottishPatterr retweeting Victorian-era Scots? Nae chance.
- Do the suburbs sound just like the schemes? Tak a guess, Einstein.
Sense of Humour
Think of how modern Scots manifests in pop culture. Irvine Welsh. Chris McQueer. Limmy. Chewin’ the Fat. Burnistoun. Still Game. Are these smart people? Yes. Are they writing brilliant stuff? Yes. Do they give the impression they take themselves incredibly seriously? No. I’m not saying Scots English can’t be dour, direct, and deep. In fact, those first three guys on my list do dabble in the darkness. But not before they entertain you.
Scots is spoken. It doesn’t have standardised spellings. The page isn’t its natural home. Blah blah blah. So when you do put Scots on the page, does it matter if spellings switch between ‘I’ and ‘ah’, or ‘highlan’, ‘heighlan’, and ‘heilan’? To some it might not. Don’t try to impose your rules on a rule-free language, they might argue. I decided that in the case of The Wee Book Company, I disagreed. I didn’t want smart alecs like me to be able to flick between two different pages, and see the same word spelled two different ways.
So, if you’re editing a big chunk of Scots writing, I’d suggest making a spelling grid. That means picking out every word with a contentious spelling, and settling on the rendering you think is most suitable for the piece. Later on, of course, you can always break and bend the rules, but to do this you need to have a rule to disobey in the first place.
Learning from the Greats
Did I mention that Scots is a spoken language? With no rulebook to follow, you’re better off following precedents, and learning from the Great Masters. That’s what photographers, painters, and filmmakers do. Why shouldn’t editors? Why shouldn’t writers? Here’s a recommendation for free: The Acid House by Irvine Welsh. Inside this collection of mostly insane short stories you’ll find a least half a dozen different ways to write Scots prose and dialogue, and you’ll probably end up very jealous of just how clever Mr Welsh is. Bawbag.