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Poems, Stories, Plays in the Scots Language by David Purves
Lallans Magazine

Lallans is the journal of The Scots Language Society which was founded in 1972 under the name of The Lallans Society.  The term Lallans is simply another name for Scots, the State language of Scotland before 1603, which still survives as a number of spoken dialects throughout the Lowlands of Scotland.  Although Gaelic was the ancient language of the Scottish Kingdom, Scots is now the linguistic heritage of the great majority of the people of Scotland.

After the Union of the Crowns in 1603, there was little or no contemporary literature in Scots to provide a unifying standard, and the language continued to live mainly in its dialect variations, and these came under  continuous socail and economic pressure from English, which had become the language of Kirk and State.  In a broad sense,  English  became associated with power, politics and religion, Scots with domestic life ---with flesh and feeling and bern an byre.  The resultant psychological conflict has been described as the Caledonian antisyzygy.  This was the state of affairs by the time of Robert Burns, who successfully reawakened an interest in writing poetry in Scots, but nevertheless demonstrated, by switching into English in his poems whenever he wanted to express lofty sentiments, that, for him, Scots was no longer adequate for every purpose of life.

The process of downgrading Scots continued in the 19th century, and by its end, the use of Scots in writing was largely confined  to the Kailyaird School, in which poetry in Scots was restricted to dealing with the concerns of couthie fowk in rural areaa – a society conditioned by the influence of the Kirk, and the Kirkyaird, where the tear was never ferr frae Grannie’s ee in hir Hieland hame.

Since the time of the Kailyaird writers, attitudes to the Scots Language have changed greatly.  Hugh MacDiarmid demonstrated that the language could be used in poetry to deal with cosmic themes, and as a result, Scots is no longer specifically associated with heartfelt prayers and Kailyaird (and kirkyaird) situations.  A substantial volume of fine poetry has been written in Scots since the 1920s, arguably against a background of declining standards of poetry in English.

For generations, little attempt  was made to set standards in schools for writing in Scots.  No significant attempt was made in Scottish education to present any image of ‘good Scots’, based on the substantial body of literature in the language, and Scots was generally represented as an aberrant, or incorrect form of English, which it was the purpose of ‘education’ to correct.  However, in recent years, a more enlightened approach has developed among educationists, and the Scots language is now generally perceived as an important part of the national; heritage which should be given its proper place in education. The Scottish Parliament re-established in 1999 is specifically responsible for Scotland’s linguistic heritage and the Scottish Government is now evidently committed to formulating a National Languages Policy.

Lallans magazine has now been published regularly, twice-yearly in Spring and Autumn, for over thirty years.  It has therefore ssurvived longer than most of the small literary magazines published in Scotland.  Lallans is the only publication in existence which is entirely in Scots, and it therefore provides a valuable outlet for aspiring writers in this linguistic register, either in verse or in prose.  When it first appeared in 1973, the editor was J K Annand.  He created the magazine and continued as editor for a period of 10 years.  In the first number, he defined his editorial policy as follows:

Our pages sall be open til scrievers in local dialects, as weill as thaim that ettle to scrieve in what is taen for a “standard” or “literary” Scots.  We sall forby, be prentin frae the auld and the new, the deid and the leevin, for withouten dout, the auld maisters were mair skeelie i the Lalllans than monie that are writin the day, and we can aa lairn frae the best exemplars. Evir sin the hinnerend o the saxteent century there has been a dearth o scrievers in gude Scots prose, alangside, for the maist pairt, a rowth o poets and rhymsters in Lallans verse.  Nou Lallans’ll ne’er regain the stature o a rale language till we hae a hantle-sicht mair prose writin nor we hae the day, and sae we sall gie the gree til prose.

While Lallans still pursues a policy of  encouraging good prose in Scots, submissions of verse are no longer discouraged.  Annand was soon obliged to give up this policy. However,  an anthology of twenty-one years of writing in Lallans entitled Mak it New, was published in 1995 (Mercat Press, Edinburgh) and this included useful examples of recent prose in Scots.  The Scots Language is certainly well developed  as a medium for poetry and in  the 1970s, the quality of the work coming from some of the younger makkars was so high, it would have been a pity to exclude poetry in Scots, from what was a unique outlet for publication in this medium. Sydney Goodsir Smith used to argue in public that he wrote poems in Scots because it was no longer possible to use English for poetry.  Ernglish had become an international technological language divorced from its emotional roots and any specific social context.  English was therefore spiritually worn out as a medium for poetry.  This case seems overstated, but there is an element of truth in the argument.

Over the years some fine poetry in Scots has been published in Lallans and perhaps this has been capable of extending awareness in areas which English could not reach.  Some of this work has been original, an some has taken the form of trasnslations (or recreations) from poems in a wide range of languages.  In Lallans, we have now had renderings in Scots of poems from Chinese, Danish, English, Flemish, French, German, Gaelic, Old Greek, Modern Greek, Italian, Korean, classical Latin, medieval Latin, Persian, Spanish, Tamil and Vietnamese. 

Anybody who wants to try to write in Scots is at present faced with a number of very serious problems.  Colloquial Scots is now becoming rapidly eroded under pressure from English as an instrument of globalisation and writers may be unfamiliar with the sound of anything that could be described as authentic Scots.  Faced with such difficulties, it is not surprising that some writers may attempt to invent their own Scots language off the cuff. As a result of the treatment in schools over generations, of Scots as a corrupt form of English requiring correction, these has certainly been a problem of definition with the language.  However, a contemporary Scots grammar is now available (Saltire Society, Edinburgh, 2002) and this includes a published consensus document on Scots spelling  (Scots Language Society Recommendations for Writers in Scots, 1985).

An important object of Lallans has been to help to create an image of good Scots and to set standards for writing in what was once our State language.  Most of what is published is in the literary Scots used by writers from Allan Ramsay in the early 18th century, to William Soutar in the present century, although some dialect poems have been included.  However, even literary Scots has become differentially anglicised and undermined and lacks an adequate foundation of native standards of grammar and orthography.  It has been editorial policy to encourage the evolutiion of standards in these areas, in particular, in the development of a standard spelling system based on useful spelling precedents.

A number of distinguished poets writing in Scots who are now deceased, have been contributors to Lallans.  These include:  J K Annand, Robert Garioch, William Graham, George Campbell Hay, A D Mackie, Alastair Mackie,  Bessie MacArthur, Robert McLellan, William Montgomery, Ken Morrice, T A Robertson (‘Vagaland’) and William J Tait.  It would perhaps be invidious to name any contemporary writers who have written fine poems which have appeared in Lallans.  The relationship between the quality of any poet’s work and his or her reputation is often obscure and there is no way the artistic value of  poems can be quantified.  Nevertheless, some verse published in Lallans by authors who have achieved no recognition elsewhere, is poetry of a high order and properly belongs to the long distinguished tradition of poetry in the Scots language.

David Purves


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