JOYCE MCMILLAN on UNION AND THE SCOTS LANGUAGE for Scotsman Magazine, 5.4.14.
LAST WEEK, Tim Barrow’s play huge and rowdy play Union – about the events leading up to the Act Of Union of 1707 – opened at the Royal Lyceum in Edinburgh, to a torrent of conflicting reactions. Some critics lashed out four stars immediately, others dismissed the play with a withering two; some audience members tweeted undying enthusiasm, others warned their friends to stay away.
Amid the debate surrounding the play, though, one aspect of it that should not be neglected is its odd and ambiguous relationship with the Scots tongue. That the play is mainly written in various forms of Scots is no surprise; it’s set at a time when almost everyone in lowland Scotland spoke some form of Scots, and it explicitly aims to combine that historical awareness with today’s living Scots speech, to be heard around Edinburgh every day. And it’s also clear that Tim Barrow is determined, in some parts of the play, to suggest the range of Scots speech at the time; the sequences set in the Scottish Parliament of the day are sober and powerful, and there are some touching moments of lyricism as the hero, the young poet Allan Ramsay, brings his enthusiasm for classical myth and legend to bear on his love-affair with a Royal Mile prostitute called Grace.
Elsewhere, though – and for most of the play’s 3-hour length – Barrow and the Lyceum company fall headlong into the old, old trap of suggesting that Scots is good for nothing but “flyting and fighting” – that is, that it is in its nature a crude street language with special qualities of “earthiness” and “realism”, mainly associated with obscene abuse, drunken aggressiveness, toxic hyper-masculinity, and a notable ugliness of voice.
Now any student of language will tell you that these qualities are not inherent in any language. They are, in fact, a perfect stereotypical list of the qualities routinely associated with languages which have lost political power, and have therefore gradually lost their perceived ability to deal with the “higher things” of life – philosophy, love, spiritual or political aspiration, and become dismissed as languages of the gutter, to be left behind in the quest for refinement and social advancement. Even today, most Scots still believe that the Scots tongue, the Scots voice, is simply an incorrect form of standard English; the impressive history of the language, and the heights of poetry and philosophy to which it once soared, are largely unknown, although the discovery of them remains immensely empowering to those Scots lucky enough to maek the journey.
What is sad about this, though, is that there was a moment – back in the 1980’s – when a new generation of writers and theatre-makers seemed to be on the verge of a major reinvention of Scots speech for new times. They were not the first; one of the funniest , most perceptve and most loving plays ever written about the Scots tongue, for example, is Robert McLellan’s 1948 play The Flouers O’ Edinburgh, recently republished by Luath Press in a new edition of McLellan’s collected works. In the 1980’s, though – as director Charlies Nowosielski explored the rich lyrical and erotic power of the Border Ballads in Scottish theatre, and Liz Lochhead, in Mary Queen Of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off, reinvented a sparkling, sensuos and poetic Scots with a strong and often seductive female voice – it seems as though Scots speech in the theatre was finally breaking the “flyting and fighting” cliche, and reacquiring a range and richness it perhaps had not seen for several centuries.
Well, times move on; and in the ever-more globalised culture of the 1990’s and 2000’s, the dominance of standard English and American voices only increased, in Scottish theatre as elsehwere; the lurid brilliance of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was unforgettable, but only reinforced the image of the Scottish voice as a rogue male one, speaking from the gutter. Perhaps it’s time, though, for another effort to break the bonds of the rough, street-fighting cliche when it comes to the Scottish voice in theatre. Actors who tend to equate Scots speech with shouting and aggression would find the shift to a wider range liberating; writers would find it full of strange and exciting possibilities, both in historical drama and elsewhere. For people in Scotland to make self-respecting decisions about their future, after all, they need to know that their distinctive voice contains within it a whole range of possible human expression, and not just a capacity for vivid cursing and whoring. And that brings us back to the point where Union begins, with good intentions of showing an entire nation on the cusp of change, but with a fatal tendency to lapse – under pressure – into the cliche of an entire nation forever down the pub, shouting the odds, throwing punches, and swearing a blue streak, far into the Edinburgh night.