A Guest Post by J.M.
A vote for independence is first and foremost a vote for democracy. The Scottish vote has been proven impotent in influencing who gains power in Westminster. Scotland is a country governed by a parliamentary majority that is essentially unelected (or at least not democratically elected) by the people of Scotland. Everything else is secondary to that.
The most neglected aspect of the independence ‘debate’ is the cultural implications both historical and contemporary of Union. In the early 90s James Kelman suggested that positions of power and influence in Scotland were only reached once anglo-superiority had been accepted and internalized. It doesn’t seem a radical suggestion in the world of Harry Potter and the first Brit poet laureate born in Scotland. The cultural reality of Union is that we have been culturally attacked and brainwashed with stories of our inferiority since the accession of James VI to the british throne.
The English Language translation of the Bible the King James Version was begun in 1604, one year after the Union of the Crowns and completed in 1611. In keeping with the royal policy of making the Church of Scotland more English in form and ritual, it was published in in 1633 and pushed as the version to be used in the Kirk. It was mandated in 1660 for Church use. So the largest and most powerful social institution was being made more English in form and ritual. A tension sprang up between elevated speech, elevated subject matter and everyday speech, everyday subject matter: a tension was created between the English language and Scots. This marked the beginning of the end for Scots as a language. The Bible was the must-own book including, perhaps especially, for Scots-speaking impoverished families. Furthermore, the primary function of literacy for these families was to read the bible. So both education – literacy – and elevated subject matter – salvation – were bound to the English language. Scots was for everything else.
In the 17th Century, post Union of the Crowns, Scotland and England were separate states with separate parliaments sharing a single monarch. The Acts of Union in 1707 saw the Scottish and English parliaments merged into a single entity based in London. English was now the language of politics and, as importantly, a career in politics or law. By the mid-18th Century affluent and prospectively affluent Scots were going to elocution classes to erase every trace of Scottishness from their now-English diction. Anglicization and gentrification were tethered together. English was not only the language of religion and salvation, a holy language, it was the language of politics, of economics, of progression, of affluence, of high society, of enlightenment. Scots was not.
Skip to the 20th century and the death of Scots was neatly illustrated in the Scottish Literary Renaissance by Hugh MacDiarmid’s attempt to create a coherent national voice with “synthetic Scots”. To do this he tried to reconstruct the language using a patchwork of shards from different regions. Even this attempt to rehabilitate the Scottish psyche by restoring its language was haunted by a sense of linguistic inferiority to English an deliberate letter omissions were justified by an inverted comma. MacDiarmid was an interesting figure regardless. He believed that the Scottish psyche couldn’t be coherently, exhaustively or even adequately expressed in the English language. In a sense James Kelman has inherited this conviction in his line that it’s better to communicate effectively to a small, local group in your own tongue than to communicate mediocrely to a large, exterior or international audience. Where Kelman succeeds that MacDiarmid did not is that he communicates in a living language rather than trying to resurrect one that has been destroyed. The sad situation we are in today, and the current incarnation of Scottish linguistic (and by extension cultural) inferiority to England, is that there is not a school child in Glasgow who would not describe the language James Kelman writes in as ‘slang’.
The big issue today it seems to me is one of permissibility that resides largely within the Scottish education system where it germinates and ripples through society in the form of assumption and common-knowledge. School children are encouraged to speak English in the classroom and save ‘slang’ for the playground or better yet the scheme. Despite studying Scottish writers in English class at school, students who go on to study English Literature at university level will be met with an anglo-centricity in the course construction and reading lists that tells a different story of worthwhile literary production from that which they may have glimpsed in the Scottish writing they studied at school. In my time at university, in the run-up to the independence campaign, I encountered only four Scottish writers on my reading lists: J. K. Rowling, James Boswell, Muriel Spark and Irvine Welsh. I will leave the number of English writers on my reading list to your imagination. I wrote about these English writers in a language, the same one I write in now, that has little in common with the language I use to communicate with my friends and family. The story of Higher education in Scotland failing to accommodate Scottish students doesn’t end at that.
Surely a (lowland) Scotland that has lost its language, has been indoctrinated with tales of its linguistic and cultural inferiorism, and has learned to look south with an envious eye of inferiority has a cultural responsibility to negotiate itself into existence in the dawn of independence. Surely these efforts have to go beyond praising the accomplishments and proudly waving the Scottish birth right of writers who have their gaze fixed firmly south of the border. Surely these efforts shouldn’t be trying to ‘measure up’ by brandishing historical Burns and tartanry. Surely this should have been an intrinsic part of the movement for independence since day one, visibly and openly. Yet I’ve not seen it. Perhaps I’ve been looking in the wrong places but I fear that the cultural implications of Union and independence have been sadly peripheralized and largely ignored.
You will forgive me for not being filled with hope for the cultural future of Scotland by the wish trees and webcam photos and ‘send in your songs’ approach of National Collective.
Next time: Frantz Fanon & Cultural Rehabilitation