Scots, a cultural heritage to be shared: poetry with Rab Wilson – 6 November 2019

To a Sassenach whose first exposure to Scots was hearing about ‘dwangs’ in the ‘flair’ while renovating a house, the evening was an eye-opener. Rab Wilson, Convener of the Scots Language and ‘one of Scotland’s most accomplished poets’ explained that by the fifteenth century Scots had emerged from a battleground of tongues as one of the great languages of Europe with a wealth of literature.

Although writing in Scots is now something of a niche market, the language is still very much alive. The 10-volume Scottish National Dictionary bears witness to the richness and complexity of the vocabulary.

Rab lamented any tendency to use Scots divisively. As part of the cultural heritage of Scotland it should have no political overtones, he insisted. He drew our attention to the fact that it’s common for people to deny that they speak Scots, even while employing Scots to do so!

Scots poetry typically has a robust humour. We were regaled with a poem by Brent Hodgson written in the style of a medieval proclamation, threatening capital punishment to hooligans with motorbikes and quadbikes on the streets of Kingcaidston, and with Tracy Harvey’s poem First kiss about teenagers at a bus stop.

Scots has moved in and out of prominence over the centuries in a play of action and reaction. It missed a chance to take a leap forward in the sixteenth century when Murdoch Nisbet hid his Scots translation of the Bible in a secret room tunnelled under his house rather than publishing it. He did avoid the probable fate of being burnt at the stake, though, and his Bible survived and was finally printed in 1901.

After Rabbie Burns, a veritable blaze in the firmament of eighteenth century Scottish literature, the pendulum swung back again as the nineteenth century saw Scots eroded by the empire and outlawed in schools. A figure resistant to this trend was Sir Walter Scott who wrote much of the dialogue in his novels in Scots as well as championing the Scottish bank note for which he was duly rewarded posthumously by having his own face appear on one of them.

Hugh MacDiarmid, among others, breathed life into the language in the twentieth century. Rab read us his own poem Playing MacDiarmid at Scrabble which pokes wry fun at his co-poet by denying him some of the words he might have wanted to use.

Just before the break, we listened enthralled to Rab’s reading of his own wonderfully onomatopoeic translation of Wilfred Owens’ Dulce et Decorum est. The sound of the language was somehow even more powerful than the original English and underlined the enduring value of Scots.

Rab gave us a writing exercise he used in his time as a psychiatric nurse which asked us to describe a toy that had meant a lot to us. We responded with memories that ranged from a wooden horse to a spinning top. He rounded off by giving us some pointers about writing poetry. Start with a great line, end with a great line, and in between make a profound statement.

Damaris West

One comment

  1. Joanne Bailey

    Excellant account of another fabulous evening. Well written Damaris x

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