Scots for children ‘mainstreamed’ by Alexander McCall Smith book

Anne Smyth


Belfast has its own place in the life story of Alexander McCall Smith, because he was on the academic staff of Queens University in the 1970s. While at Queens he entered a literary competition, submitting a novel for adults and a children’s book, and won first prize in the children’s category. This signalled the beginning of an extremely prolific writing career.

A law graduate of Edinburgh University, Professor Smith has been responsible for a dozen academic texts, usually jointly with other academic writers and mostly on the subjects of medical ethics and criminal law. However, it is as a writer of fiction, for all age groups, that he has won international acclaim.

Professor Smith does not claim to be a Scots speaker, but his ‘44 Scotland Street’ series is set in Edinburgh, and here and there in these books the reader encounters a natural and unforced smattering of Scots vocabulary. For instance, ‘Big Lou’, who comes from Arbroath and runs a coffee shop frequented by a number of the main characters, is quite broadly spoken. Even wee Bertie, whose mother (dare we say it?) is a bit of a snob, occasionally latches on to the odd word of Scots. In one of the early books in the series, Isibeal McLeod, of the Scottish National Dictionary, well known to that rare breed, Scots and Ulster-Scots dictionary compilers, is featured out and about in Edinburgh city centre as part of the storyline. To be ‘acquent’ with Isibeal, it is clear that Professor Smith must know something of the story of what has since become Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd.

Enthusiasts for Professor Smith’s writing often say that one significant attraction of his books lies in their ‘feel good’ factor. The reader is never confronted by serious violence or offensive language. Indeed, there is a positive message in this writing: that the world would be a much better place if its inhabitants were more considerate of each other. Having said that, the characters are fully rounded human beings, not milk-and-water creatures who haven’t the imagination to be wicked. This basic decency does genuinely seem to reflect the attitudes of the writer.

Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that he was so generous as to present his latest book in the ‘No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’ series (set in Botswana) to Itchy Coo, which has for the last ten years been involved in publishing successful books for children and young people in the Scots language, with the stipulation that it be produced first in Scots, to be followed by the English version only after a year had elapsed. Until the publication of the English edition, Itchy Coo was to have exclusive rights to the text.

James Robertson of Itchy Coo translated the text provided by Alexander McCall Smith, who modestly withdrew from involvement in this task, saying that he was not a native Scots speaker. Clearly, however, the text of his earlier books would suggest that he could have done a competent job in rendering the text of this one in the Scots language.

Precious and the Puggies, for that is the title of the book, published in February 2010, is a kind of prequel to the series and traces the heroine, the ‘traditionally built’ Precious Ramotswe, back to her childhood to follow the progress of her first case, undertaken when she was eight years old. It is particularly unusual for a book in the Scots language, in that its location is away from the natural setting in which the tongue is spoken. The Scots version has now been succeeded by the English equivalent, which bears the title Precious and the Monkeys.

McCall Smith is a doughty champion of the use of Scots. In a recorded interview, he described Scots as a ‘rich, descriptive and beautiful language’. His initiative in having this title produced initially in that language has done wonders in enhancing its profile and in consolidating its place in mainstream literature.

The poignant postscript to all this is, sadly, the end of the education, outreach and strategic liaison elements of the Itchy Coo project in March 2011. Formed in 2001, Itchy Coo stated as its primary aim the establishment of a publishing imprint that ‘would provide a range of high quality texts and other resources in Scots’ so that teachers and young people would ‘develop appreciation of and confidence in their Scots usage’. The two workers involved, James Robertson and Matthew Fitt, joined for a time by Susan Rennie, immediately began to implement this strategy.

Itchy Coo’s first books appeared in August 2002 and by March 2011 it had published 37 titles. All but two of these titles remain in print, many have been reprinted several times, and the Itchy Coo list as a whole continues to flourish.

The project was assisted by funding from the National Lottery, accessed through the Scottish Arts Council, and at its conclusion it was stated that the total public spend attributable to its work averaged out at £50,000 per annum. This amounted to approximately one penny per Scottish citizen per year — good value for money in any language.

The great thing about the Itchy Coo books is their consistently high quality. Itchy Coo undertook translations of a number of the classics (R L Stevenson’s Kidnapped and the work of Roald Dahl being notable examples), as well as publishing original work in Scots. The standard they set enables Scots speakers and activists to be proud of their language, and indeed the report compiled to assess the effectiveness of the project rejoices in the much higher profile now accorded to the Scots language in the Scottish education system, particularly at primary level. It states that ‘this has resulted in new levels of self-confidence and linguistic awareness among many thousands of children, and also among hundreds of teachers’.

It is sad to see the end of the project, and sadder still to note that the report tells us that several of the bodies that are central to the progression of the Scots language still have no strategic plan in place for its development. There is therefore a lack of co-ordination, and the task of prioritising the work that needs to be done is made virtually impossible. This brings us right back to where we started, geographically, as the same can be said in regard to the development of Ulster-Scots.

The Ulster-Scots Language Society congratulates Itchy Coo on the significant contribution it has made to the health of the Scots language, and hopes that these aspects of its work may be reactivated in the future.



The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

Ulster Scots Academy


A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



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This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

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