In this glorious spell of spring weather, I have enjoyed some lovely walks in the heart of L’Écosse Profonde, round Loch Leven, “the three bridges” in Callander, and the Birks of Aberfedly, in deepest Breadalbane. I hadn’t been to the Birks before. It is a steepish woodland walk for a mile or two to the head of a gorge, where you cross a footbridge over a vertiginous waterfall, somewhat reminiscent of the cascading waters of Corrieshalloch Gorge up near Ullapool.
And dizzy ‘tis to cast one’s eyes so low!
…I’ll look no more,
Lest my brain turn and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.
(King Lear, Act 4, Scene 5)
Having crossed the bridge, you come down the other side of the river by a further series of waterfalls, back to the starting point. It turns out that Robert Burns visited here on August 30th, 1787. “I composed these stanzas standing under the falls of Aberfeldy, at, or near, Moness.” I daresay The Birks of Aberfeldie is not the bard’s most profound utterance, though I would not go so far as to say that, like an actor treading the boards on automatic pilot, he “phoned one in”.
The little birdies blithely sing,
While o’er their heads the hazels hing,
Or lightly flit on wanton wing
In the birks of Aberfeldie!
Burns writes in Scots, of course. I was filling in my census form the other day – a strange questionnaire, all about my gender, my sexual orientation, and would I be able to start a job next week? Well I suppose I would, if I absolutely had to, but if you take such questions too literally you just tie yourself in knots. So I said no. Then, did I understand Scots? Did I read Scots? Did I speak Scots? Well, as we say in West Stirlingshire, Whiles.
Well noo, ye ken, hen, ah hae nae doot that t’wud be rang o me tae spurn ma mither tongue’n aver a cannae jalouse whit Rabbie’s oan aboot, an’ wudnae pit pen tae paper anent ony matter ye wannae quibble ower, usin’ whit ye may caw’ a stairheid patois juz’ becuz them posh loons’n Auld Reekie cannae or wullnae cott’n oan tae whit ah’m sayin’.
Professors of linguistics often hold the liberal view that there is nothing intrinsically inferior about such a mode of speech, just as there is nothing intrinsically superior about, say, BBC Received Pronunciation. Languages are democracies. But is that true? The professor of linguistics may be a great mimic and may adopt any brogue, and ham it up, but the prof is still likely to deliver his lecture, by and large, using a “higher register”. When I were a lad, it was quite common for youngsters from a working class background to be sent to elocution lessons. Their parents reckoned, no doubt quite rightly, that they would get ahead in life if they were able to “talk proper like”. Gaelic-speaking parents very commonly and quite deliberately didn’t speak Gaelic in the home, because they felt their children would be held back if they conversed in the peasant language of the illiterate. This was undoubtedly a misguided view. The advantages of multilingualism are clear. Middle class parents now compete to send their children to Gaelic-medium schools.
I find myself slipping into Scots all the time. I think I must relish a perverse, contrarian delight in talking rough in the gracious drawing-rooms of Edinburgh New Town. Then people give me sidelong glances, dubious as to whether I should have been invited in, after all. One very useful aspect of having a low-caste, preferably urban, heavily industrialised lingo at one’s disposal, is that one can utilise it in the detection of humbug. If a member of the establishment, a political Big Beast, elder statesman and Grandee, spouts something on the airwaves that you suspect might be a load of tosh, albeit delivered in the mellifluous tones of one born to lead, it can be useful to translate the statement into the local dialect, to see if it stands up. I call this the SPT or Stairheid Patois Test. It could as easily be done in some variation of Cockney, or Scouse, or Geordie. But when somebody pompous comes on Private Passions and, unaware they are talking in cliché, says something like, “I cannot live without Schubert, Michael. Sublime, pellucid limpidity…” I translate it into Glaswegian. Then it sounds ridiculous.
But then again, Glaswegian can be extremely expressive, and concise. Remember the motto of NATO:
Hit wan, ye hit uz aw’.