The Scots Question

As the government in Edinburgh plans another independence referendum, does language have a role to play?

By , a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addresses members of the Scottish Parliament.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addresses members of the Scottish Parliament.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon addresses members of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 28. Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images

In a 1975 essay, influential Scottish writer Tom Nairn raised the specter of the “vast tartan monster”: a provincialized version of Scottish culture that romanticizes rural iconography and elevates it above the messy, class-ridden reality of modern Scottish life. In this fictional account, Scottish people were cartoonishly inoffensive and apolitical. They drank whisky, sang folk songs, and otherwise toiled fruitlessly in the kailyard (a Scottish term for a quaint kitchen garden) of Western popular imagination. They also sometimes spoke in an apparently indecipherable tongue: Scots.

According to the latest census data, from 2011, 1.5 million Scots—around one-third of the country’s population—describe themselves as Scots speakers. But the actual number is likely higher than that. Most Scottish people speak or read Scots to some extent. Idiomatic words, such as dreich (bleak or overcast), scunnered (fed up), skelp (hit), and kirk (church), pepper conversations. Likewise, Scotland has a Makar, not a poet laureate, and its landscape is threaded with burns, not streams.

That Scots is so embedded in everyday communication has given rise to controversy. Is it a language in the sense that Welsh, Catalan, or even Scottish Gaelic is, which hangs on in the islands, spoken by about 1 percent of Scots? Or is it a regional dialect, a derivative of English like Geordie or Scouse, a few steps removed from slang? These questions have become more polarized as the debate over Scottish independence has accelerated. This week, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), brought the issue back to the forefront: She set out a road map for a second referendum on independence in October 2023 despite the fact that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far ignored Scottish demands for a fresh vote.

In a 1975 essay, influential Scottish writer Tom Nairn raised the specter of the “vast tartan monster”: a provincialized version of Scottish culture that romanticizes rural iconography and elevates it above the messy, class-ridden reality of modern Scottish life. In this fictional account, Scottish people were cartoonishly inoffensive and apolitical. They drank whisky, sang folk songs, and otherwise toiled fruitlessly in the kailyard (a Scottish term for a quaint kitchen garden) of Western popular imagination. They also sometimes spoke in an apparently indecipherable tongue: Scots.

According to the latest census data, from 2011, 1.5 million Scots—around one-third of the country’s population—describe themselves as Scots speakers. But the actual number is likely higher than that. Most Scottish people speak or read Scots to some extent. Idiomatic words, such as dreich (bleak or overcast), scunnered (fed up), skelp (hit), and kirk (church), pepper conversations. Likewise, Scotland has a Makar, not a poet laureate, and its landscape is threaded with burns, not streams.

That Scots is so embedded in everyday communication has given rise to controversy. Is it a language in the sense that Welsh, Catalan, or even Scottish Gaelic is, which hangs on in the islands, spoken by about 1 percent of Scots? Or is it a regional dialect, a derivative of English like Geordie or Scouse, a few steps removed from slang? These questions have become more polarized as the debate over Scottish independence has accelerated. This week, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), brought the issue back to the forefront: She set out a road map for a second referendum on independence in October 2023 despite the fact that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far ignored Scottish demands for a fresh vote.

The first Scottish independence referendum, held in September 2014, produced a 10-percentage point victory for the pro-Union campaign. But support for independence increased in the years after, reaching a high of 58 percent in October 2020. Momentum has since ebbed—one poll at the start of June put the “yes” to independence figure at 47.5 percent—but the 2014 plebiscite was a cultural landmark as well as a political one: The vote helped legitimize the use of Scots in Scottish mainstream media. Nevertheless, the language hasn’t necessarily benefited from the standoff over Scotland’s constitutional future.

Scots has a long association with the nationalist movement. In the 1920s and 1930s, pro-independence poet Hugh MacDiarmid championed a literary revival with the Scots vocabulary at its heart; he characterized his own decision to write in Scots only somewhat ironically as an act of political faith, an experience “akin to religious conversion.” This long-standing association, coupled with the language’s growing media profile, has prompted a sneering response from some members of the pro-United Kingdom commentariat, who dismiss the idea that Scots is anything other than English delivered in a broad Scottish brogue.

However, expert opinion is less divided. “The consensus among academics … is that historically Scots is indisputably a sister language of English, sprung from the same Old English root, with a liberal admixture of Scandinavian speech, through the dialects of what is today the north of England,” Pavel Iosad, a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, wrote in the New Statesman. Poet Norman MacCaig was more direct: “It’s as absurd to call Scots a dialect of English as it is to call English a dialect of Scots.” After all, there is a standardized version of Scots: The first Scots dictionary, written by linguist John Jamieson, appeared in the early 1800s. In 2011, Scotland’s government rolled out a national policy aimed at boosting Scots in education and the media.

Rising political support for Scots has coincided with a modest cultural renaissance, fueled by a new generation of social media-savvy writers and performers. Iona Fyfe, an award-winning Scottish folk singer from Aberdeenshire, translates Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo songs into Scots. In July 2020, an Anglo-Scottish couple in Scarborough racked up 400,000 views when a video of them comparing English and Scots words went viral on TikTok. Meanwhile, 23-year-old poet Len Pennie, whose work tackles contemporary subjects like online misogyny and mental health, has acquired more than 470,000 followers on TikTok in the past two years.

Pennie’s success demonstrates how modern Scots blends classical traditions—Scotland’s two most famous literary exports, Robert Burns and Walter Scott, both wrote in Scots—with the ordinary vernaculars spoken in the country’s urban centers, which can be highly local and specific. The term bairn, meaning child, is traditionally used in the north and east of Scotland, whereas wean, also meaning child, is more common in the south and west. Both words fall under the disputed and ever-evolving banner of Scots. (As if to complicate matters further, both words, like many other Scots terms, are also used in parts of Northern England and Northern Ireland.)

The debate over the role of Scots in political life has often served as a proxy for wider issues of class, nationhood, and cultural control. When novelist James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, a novel distinguished by its liberal use of Glaswegian Scots, won the Booker Prize in 1994, one of the English judges, Julia Neuberger, threatened to resign in protest. Journalist Simon Jenkins compared Kelman to an “illiterate savage” who had transcribed “the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk.” Kelman hit back: “My culture and my language have the right to exist, and no one has the authority to dismiss that,” he said.

Thirty years later, another Scottish Booker Prize winner, writer Douglas Stuart, acknowledged feelings of inadequacy prompted by the success of his 2020 debut novel, Shuggie Bain, which shares Kelman’s use of modern, urban Scots dialogue. Although Stuart, who works as a fashion designer in New York City, grew up on a working-class housing estate in Glasgow, his mother insisted that he speak the Queen’s English. “She thought regional accents would hold back your kids, that if you wanted to do well you had to talk like a BBC newscaster,” he told the Guardian in April.

The idea that cultural legitimacy is conferred on and by those who “talk like a BBC newscaster” runs deep in British society. Almost half of all British newspaper columnists and almost one-third of top executives at the BBC were privately educated, according to a 2019 study by the Sutton Trust, and nearly 40 percent of all U.K. journalists graduated from either the University of Oxford or the University of Cambridge—where less than 2 percent of students are Scottish. Likewise, in Britain’s antiquated class system, language remains a remarkably durable metric of power.

Perhaps it is here that overlap between the Scottish constitutional question and the role of Scots in shaping political attitudes becomes most visible. Many Scottish nationalists see British media organizations as mainstays of unionist Anglo-centricity, blocking the country’s path to freedom. When Scotland voted against leaving the United Kingdom in 2014, younger, poorer, and more city-oriented Scots formed the pro-independence base while wealthier, older, more rural, and suburban Scots backed the status quo. These dynamics aren’t set in stone: Since Brexit, enthusiasm for independence has risen among the Europhiles in the Scottish middle class. But overall trends suggest that Scots speakers fit easily within core pro-independence constituencies.

The SNP has deployed Scots in subtle ways as a signifier for Scottish moral and cultural separateness. In 2017, Sturgeon’s SNP administration in Edinburgh launched the “Baby Box,” a Scandinavian-inspired initiative that granted new Scottish parents a package from the National Health Service that included a play mat, a digital thermometer, and a baby book. The package was accompanied by a saccharine poem written in Scots by the country’s then-Makar, Jackie Kay: “O ma darlin wee one / The hale wurld welcomes ye / The mune glowes; the hearth wairms. / Let your life have luck, health, charm / Ye are my bonny blessed bairn.”

Kay’s words lent cultural gloss to Sturgeon’s policy, which nodded toward Scotland’s mythologized communitarian past and its prospective future as an independent, center-left, Nordic-aligned state. Educational experts pointed out that there was no evidence the box would improve the life chances of Scottish kids, and the box was notably not introduced in England. But such gestures are nonetheless effective at bolstering Scotland’s progressive credentials. In 2020, an Irish politician cited Scotland as the inspiration behind Ireland’s decision to roll out its own baby box.

However, mainstream Scottish nationalists have yet to fully embrace Scots as the lingua franca of their movement. Scottish National Party politicians only occasionally speak in Scots, and since at least the 1970s, the party has worked hard to distance itself from separatist arguments based on ethnicity. As a result, the case for independence is usually articulated in blandly technocratic terms, with existential questions of identity and belonging pushed into the background of public discourse.

Spoken every day by more than a million people, Scots isn’t inherently nationalist or unionist, pro- or anti-British: Scott was a unionist, and Scotland’s inaugural first minister, Donald Dewar, was a passionate opponent of independence who used Scots phrases in the British House of Commons. Yet despite this appealing ambiguity, it finds itself squeezed into the narrow parameters of Scotland’s national politics, reduced by those on both sides of the independence divide to the status of corny cultural fetish, an exhibit in Nairn’s “self-contained universe of kitsch.” The vast tartan monster lives—and Scotland can’t quite work out how to escape it.

Jamie Maxwell is a political journalist in Glasgow, Scotland.
 Twitter: @jamiedmaxwell

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