Friday 28 April 2017

New venture: Mass readings in Scots language

                                                       Lazarus dressed for blogging

Ninian Winzet's savaging of John Knox in 1563 for forgetting "our auld plane Scottis quhilk zour mother lerit you." Winzet, McClure explains, was merely ladling on yet more irony in questioning why Knox had not answered the doctrinal questions Winzet had earlier posed: perhaps you are unable to read my handwriting; perhaps you have forgotten your mother tongue. For the purpose of his argument, Winzet could allege a difference in language between his own "plane Scottis" and the variety of English Knox had adopted as part of an excessive "curiositie of nouatiounis."

Bailey, Richard W. (1991) "Scots and Scotticisms: Language and Ideology," Studies in Scottish Literature: Vol. 26: Iss. 1. (Available at: )

David Leask has been banging on a while now about the way Unionists have amongst other things) developed a neuralgic reaction to the Scots language (eg Herald article here). I wouldn't put it quite the way he does, but I do think there's a general problem of political debate in Scotland becoming simplified into the one issue of 'Independence -for or against?' and of other important questions becoming weaponized by both sides in the attempt to win this one battle.

From the 'progressive' Nationalist side, I don't suppose I need to make a case for Scots. (Although in principle, the justification for an emphasis on Scots ought to be problematic in such circles, even if in fact it isn't.)

Turning to the Right, to the extent that the Right is now synonymous with Unionism in Scotland, there is no particular reason why Scots as a language should be a target. There can be different views on its importance, but there is no obvious reason in principle why hostility to Scots is entailed by hostility to Scottish Independence: one of the great pleasures in reading Walter Scott's canon recently was the discovery of just how well he uses Scots in a variety of different registers. (And no obvious SNP-er he.) I sympathise with a kneejerk reaction to the nonsense that graces the pages of The National and to  political Nationalist attempts to coopt the language, but what is kneejerk needs to be resisted. Conservatives need to be much smarter than this: culture is much, much more important than politics.

But, digging a little more deeply, what of a conservatism that is not simply identical with Unionism? Difficult though it may be to peer through the fog of war and see the underlying principles at stake here, it's essential that those of us who (at least in broad terms) think of ourselves as cultural conservatives don't fall into the trap of a simple identification with the Conservative Party and thus Unionism (because the Scottish Conservative Party is self declared as progressive and because, in any case, social conservatives do not have to be supporters of the Conservative Party) or of a simple identification of Unionism and conservatism. I think the former point is relatively straightforward, so it's to the latter I turn.

Imagine for a moment that I am a Kirkian or Scrutonian conservative. Let's adopt the (somewhat ill-fitting) title of 'palaeo-conservative' as shorthand. Why would I be hostile to Scots (quite apart from necessarily hostile to Nationalism or Independence)? I put aside as utterly irrelevant the question of whether or not it is a proper language: it is at the least a proper dialect, and one with a rich, longstanding literature. With an emphasis on the local and the imaginative, and quite simply the preservation of what has been, why would I be resistant to at least preserving (quite apart from promoting) Scots? I struggle to think of an answer except for the assertion that there are more important things to think about. Possibly. But one of the key elements at least of Russell Kirk's conservatism is its element of fancy and eccentric individuality: if people see fit (as many whom I admire do) to spend their time promoting and thinking about Tolkien, then why should not those of us whom Tolkien leaves rather cold, spend time thinking about and preserving Scots?

Beyond this, I think there is a special duty on Scots Catholics to re-imagine and re-enchant Scotland. There has been a strong current in English Catholicism, seen both in Walsingham and the sense of England as Our Lady's Dowry, to remember and wish to recreate at least in imagination, an England in which the Reformation never happened or at least has been healed. For whatever reasons, this sense is rather diminished in Scotland. (The main exception to this in recent years has been George Mackay Brown, but, even here, his emphasis on Orkney reduces his impact on non-Scandinavian Scotland.) So what would a Scotland freed from the poison of the Reformation look like? What would it be for it to live as a daily reality its status as Specialis Filia Romanae Ecclesiae? Well, for one thing, at the very least a greater awareness of the mediaeval literary heritage in Scots. (Back to Dunbar, indeed.)

Anyway, let him wha will be a traitor knave. I don't know what other shenanigans I'll get up to on this, but, from this Sunday (and at least monthly thereafter until -as per usual- I get bored) I'll be posting selected Mass readings in Scots. These will be pilfered from a variety of sources rather than my own workings and this will doubtless result in a number of absurdities. (On present estimates, I'll need to make use of at least some readings in modern Ulster Scots as well as in Scotticised Middle English. (I don't totally dismiss the possibility of resorting to machine translation either.) The resulting linguisic tensions can either be ignored or celebrated as a re-enactment of the linguistic tensions necessarily involved in the original language texts of a 'book' which has been assembled by the Church from a variety of texts produced over centuries.) As with so many other ventures, I am happy to do it badly with a view to others eventually doing it better.

A couple of final points. First, everything I say above in favour of Scots could be said of Gaelic but with even greater force. That I say nothing here of Gaelic is a result entirely of my very, very limited acquaintance with that language. Secondly, none of this is to be taken as suggesting that actual Masses should be said in Scots. I suppose there is an argument in favour of such a view, but it's not one that I'm engaged in. (For what it's worth, I would ban all experiments in the language of the Mass for 1000 years and, if there is a lust for linguistic variety, urge a greater use of Scotland's other great historic language, Latin. But that's for another day.) My purpose here (quite apart from its being a simple jeu d'esprit) is simply to allow that imaginative reception of the liturgy into a wider culture that can be seen (eg) in mediaeval mystery plays and church decoration, and the transformation of that wider culture by a Catholic presence. (Pie in the Sky in practice, no doubt, but at least (ignored) there will be in principle a Catlick presence in a field too often dominated by Proddy, Secularist (and Ginger) Dugs.)


  1. Lazarus, what a fascinating post, with much indeed to think about! But what I must say before anything else is that you cannot write about the Bible in Scots without referring to the magisterial and definitive New Testament in Scots by William Lorimer. If you haven't a copy, you simply must go out and buy one:

  2. Yes, indeed! I have a copy which I was given (by my then girlfriend and now wife!) just after its publication. I'd completely agree with you and heartily recommend it to anyone as a remarkable work.

    I will use it -although there is the question of copyright! (Embarrased shuffling of feet on my part!) But I hadn't realised until recently the breadth of alternative versions What really pushed me to do this is that I recently discovered an (I presume) continuing programme to translate the Old Testament into what seems to be either Ulster-Scots or as it is described 'plain Scots' (which seems to be a Scots deliberately designed to be common to both Ulster and Scotland:

    Quite apart from all the reasons I've given above, I interested in doing this simply to get a better sense of the worth of the different versions!

    1. Ah, all credit to Mrs Lazarus then! It's great that Lorimer's translation has been part of your life for so many years. When I described it as 'definitive' I guess I meant that it's hard to see how a better translation could be made into that kind of Scots, even if Lorimer's astonishingly rich and evocative language may be seen by some as somewhat idealised these days.

      The relationship between language and Scotland is, of course, complex. At various points in our history Gaelic, Latin, Scots and English have all been 'official languages' in this land, but since the dawn of mass-literacy English has dominated.

      English, even though it has subtle national variations (I suspect we both speak 'Scottish Standard English') is the modern Latin, an international language that no longer 'belongs' to any one people. And the Scots no more need a unique national language to be 'authentically' Scottish than the Irish, American, Canadian, Australian and so forth people do.

      That said, the Gaelic and Scots strands of our cultural identity are profound and unique to us: a Scottish 'palaeo-conservative' would be right to see in them something to cherish, even if he didn't speak the languages himself.

      Conservative Unionist hostility to Scots is likely a result of seeing in the serious or formal use of Scots a reassertion of pre- (or non-) Unionist Scottish identity; which can so easily become a political threat. Surely the 20th century Scottish Renaissance writers saw this too.

      Anyway, even though you look resplendent in your blogging costume, I would never wear such an outfit: early exposure to MacDiarmid gave me a long-standing dread of kitschy tartanry!

    2. I confess to not being quite sure what the precise status of Scots should be beyond -as you say- being something to cherish. And certainly you're right that any memory of pre-Union Scotland *might* be seen by a unionist as a threat -except that, in many cases in the past, they haven't: a very public celebration of things Scottish has been part of the Union (and Scott is probably the best example of this). My worry is that part of the current polarisation of Scottish life might lead unionists to view any display of nationalism as problematic. (And as Leask notes Scots and Gaelic seem to be victims of this.) If this is happening, I think it is shortsighted: if the union is to work, it will have to recover some (doubtless tense) sense of its being a union of separate nations and not just a melting pot. I have no idea if this will I fact be possible. In any case, for a variety of reasons, both Unionists and Nationalists should cherish Scots and Gaelic.

      Better tartan kitsch than the alternative cyber warrior uniform of dressing gown and slippers!

  3. Another thought, Lazarus. As far as I understand 'Kirkian, Scrutonian or palaeo-conservatism' (I am happy to be corrected here), one of its constitutive elements is a powerful, though non-ideological, sense of patriotism.

    The unresolved nature of the constitutional question here means that a Scottish form of that conservatism would immediately be confronted with the reality that the proper focus of our patriotism, far from being a bedrock of stability, is bitterly contested ground.

    Perhaps this is one factor preventing Kirkian conservatism from emerging in Scotland - which is ironic given his affection for our country!

    1. That's a really good point and I'm not quite sure how to answer it! Kirk in particular does have a strong Augustinian sense of the futility of politics and perhaps it's this (coupled with a strong sense of the local rather than the state) that made me think of him as a model. (We may be conflicted over the political status of the nation, but all sides might agree on the imperfectability of politics and the importance of local language etc.) Scruton might be seen as more of a British Nationalist except he did come out in favour of Scottish independence I think precisely on the grounds that the present conflict of loyalties was unsustainable.

      But in short, it is a tough question!