Book Review: The Scots Language

Author: John Erskine

Date: 1998

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 6 Simmer 1998


John Erskine

The Scots Language: Its Place in Education, edited by Liz Nevin and Robin Jackson. Dundee: Northern College, 1998

ISBN 1-872014-50-1, 146pp., £11.95

(Contact Liz Nevin, Penninghame Schoolhouse, Newton Stewart DG8 6HD: Tel. xxxxx xxxxxx)

Imagine for a moment a book on Ulster-Scots and its place in education here. Imagine contributions to that book by academics from Northern Ireland’s universities, by teachers teaching Ulster-Scots in the classroom, by teacher-trainers, by staff from the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, and from the Department of Education for Northern Ireland. And imagine its foreword written by the Northern Ireland Office minister with responsibility for the arts, a minister who expresses the view that Ulster-Scots “is part of our cultural heritage and, if we value that heritage, we need to cherish the language and aim to see it used with respect and sensitivity.”

Cloud cuckooland? Perhaps. But if you translate the preceding paragraph to a Scottish context, then you begin to have an idea of the extent and achievement of this book. It contains contributions from Scottish academics, from serving teachers and from educational administrators and policy-makers; and its preface is indeed written by the Scottish minister for the arts, Sam Galbraith, who applies the words just quoted to the Scots language.

The book contains sixteen contributions, ranging from full essays to shorter pieces, grouped into three sections or “perspectives”: cultural, educational and institutional. Together, these contributions demonstrate the inter-dependence of the work of the university academic, the classroom teacher, and the educational policy-maker in the advancement of the language.

At first sight the four excellent essays in the “cultural” section, which begins the book, might seem to sit awkwardly in a study of the place of Scots in education. But they are included — and rightly so — to set out in a scholarly manner the “historical, cultural and sociolinguistic facts relating to the Scots language” in view of the controversy that the inclusion of Scots (never mind Ulster-Scots) in the school curriculum can still sometimes engender. In these essays Derrick McClure discusses the history, development and current status of Scots; Billy Kay examines the experience of other lesser-used languages in Europe; Koen Zondag presents a case study of the implementation of a Frisian language policy in schools Friesland (in the Netherlands): and Jim Miller examines social attitudes to Scots and English.

The section on the “educational perspective” begins with an updated version of an important essay by one of the editors, Liz Nevin, in which she compellingly examines the cultural and educational reasons for the inclusion of Scots in the curriculum, and outlines the need for the development of in-service training and the provision of classroom material. The section continues with contributions by teachers and teacher-trainers in which they outline their experiences of introducing and teaching Scots in the classroom, and describing the differing responses of teachers, students and pupils to the teaching of the language. The section ends with and article by Sheila Douglas describing how she became involved in the development and publication of Scots language materials for schools.

The final section includes contributions by writers whose institutions influence, in different ways, the progress of the language in the curriculum; the Scots Language Resource Centre, the Scottish National Dictionary Association, the Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum (responsible for the production of the Scots language material in The Kist), the Scottish Examination Board and the Scottish Office Education Department. The fact that each writes from a very different perspective, and with varying degrees of commitment, demonstrates not only the diversity but also the complex network of influences which assist of hinder the progress of Scots in schools, influences which the language movement must harness and co-ordinate.

Twenty years ago this book could not have been written. It is a measure of the achievement of the Scots language movement that such a book has now been published and that it can command contributions from government bodies. The book does not claim to have resolved the issues surrounding the place of Scots in schools, but it does signal remarkable progress. And, what’s more, it is a most encouraging book to read. Furthermore, while this book is not a blueprint for Ulster-Scots in the curriculum in Northern Ireland, it is most certainly a guidebook. Many of the issues raised in this book are applicable to Northern Ireland and merit much more detailed discussion than is possible here; but one recurring theme does deserve mention; the central importance of the language that children bring to school. If a comparable book on Ulster-Scots — the language that many Ulster children bring to school — can be published within the next decade, then progress here will indeed have been made.

But, as two of the contributions to this book remind us (in the words of JT Law):

In the hinner end, friens, it aa depends on oorsels”.



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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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