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Alex's Stories
A Guid Scotch Tongue
by Alex Aitken


"Ye have a guid Scotch tongue in yer' heid," my mother used to say.

That was meant to convey the notion that I would never get lost in life. The particular "Scotch tongue" she was talking about was the accent and vernacular of her own little society in a West Lothian shale-mining village, something that Scottish Primary Education in the forties did its best to eradicate and replace with a kind of English hybrid that would be needed, they thought, by their better pupils in later life. With me they were only partially successful.

University types, two years with English soldiers in National Service, and moving to the city all took their toll, but not much, and when I opened a law practice back in that shale- mining community in the early seventies, I was glad I could still speak the old lingo. I remember a lady client who was battling with her sister over the terms of their father's will. She described a meeting with the hated sister. "Ah seen 'er yisterday, comin' queenin' it doon the street. Ah jaloozed somethin' wis up an' Ah jist went up and chinned 'er aboot it!" What would an English solicitor have made of that?

But it had its drawbacks, that auld Scotch tongue I inherited. At a Law Society dinner in Edinburgh, it was frowned upon by my so-called colleagues - especially the ones who learned to articulate at Watson's and George Heriot's and the like. I heard later about the quiet smiles and the disparaging remarks. Scotland in the seventies was still bashful, still overawed by the English tones, still unkind to its own home-grown voices. Anyway I upped sticks and left; emigrated to Canada.

In 1980 yours truly opened a law office in Manitoba - the little law office on the prairie - in a town of three thousand souls in the middle of twenty five million acres of wheat land. I still had the Scotch tongue, and here I was the only one who had it. I don't think I will ever forget that first day in business, sitting at my new desk, keeking through the window, sipping cups of coffee and waiting for my first client.

She came in around three in the afternoon, a timid little woman in her sixties with a brown weather-beaten face and kind eyes. She sat opposite and I poured her a coffee and she told me her name was MacD---- and her grandfather had come from Scotland and worked for the Hudson Bay Company at Norway House at the top of Lake Winnipeg, and she had been a farmer's wife for forty years, and she had never been to Scotland but she remembered her grandfather and some of the words he used. She asked me how I liked Manitoba. She was a treat to talk to - a really interested listener - and we talked back and forth for over an hour, until it dawned on me that I should find out how I could help her.

"Oh," she said, with a little smile, "there's nothing that you can do for me right now. I just called in to hear you talking. I love your Scottish accent."

That was when I discovered that Canadians love the Scots accent.  That was when I gave up any attempt to imitate them. I went on calling it "Toronto" and didn't attempt "Traano". That was when I discovered that, after all, I had "a guid Scotch tongue in ma heid".

Thanks ma!