An Ode to Scotland – Meeting a Modern-Day Scots Poet
Intertwined and impenetrably linked to Scottish culture, poetry has a long and distinguished history in Scotland. And it’s a history that’s continuing to this day – Edinburgh was recently named the world’s first UNESCO City of Literature, the publishing industry is thriving, the country has more literature festivals per capita than any other, and there’s at least a dozen spoken word monthly nights in Glasgow and Edinburgh alone which are frequented by a plethora of experienced and budding poets.
This new generation of Scottish poetry is certainly alive and well, carrying on rich literary traditions of old. However these days you’re more likely to find these modern-day versifiers using hashtags and laptops rather than quills and parchment.
Meet Harry Giles, 27, an Edinburgh-based poet, producer and performance artist. He’s the proud author of two poetry publications, performs regularly in England and Scotland, and is something of a luminary in the Scottish poetry slam scene – winning the UK Student Slam in 2008 followed by the BBC Slam in 2009. I first encountered him at the BBC Slam during last years Fringe festival, where his ranted, passionate ode to Scottishness entitled Brave grabbed me by the ears and demanded my attention.
wadna ken workin class authenticity gin hit cam reelin aff an ile rig douned six pints o Tennent’s n glasst hit in the pus,
whit it wadna
by the way;
o google Scotland,
o laptop Scotland,
o a Scotland sae dowf on bit-torrentit HBO drama series n DLC packs fer paistapocalyptic RPGs that hit disna ken hits gowk fae hits gadjie;
– Excerpt from Brave.
Harry is one of only a handful of young poets writing and performing in Scots – one of three native languages spoken in Scotland; predominantly in the lowlands, Shetland and Orkney. He grew up immersed in a mixture of Orcadian Scots and English on the tiny island of Westray, part of the Orkney Islands, just off the northern-most tip of the Scottish mainland.
If you, like me, assumed that Orkney was Gaelic speaking, you’re not alone – it’s an assumption that is something of a hot issue amongst Orcadians. Gaelic never had a significant impact on Orkney. Instead a form of Norse introduced by the vikings, called Norn, became the spoken language before Orcadian Scots. You can still see bits of the language around to this day – Westray and many others of Orkney’s islands end in the suffix ‘ay‘, which is Norse for ‘island’.
With Celtic culture so prevalent in defining the image of Scotland both here and abroad, this different kind of Scotland, where things are more Norse than Celt is a theme that pops up in Harry’s poetry. “Scandinavian culture is very influential in Orkney. The place names, peoples names, even the architecture. It kind of feels half Scottish, half Scandinavian. And it’s even more so on Shetland.”
Along with identifying with this different type of Scottishness, Harry was born in London, but his family moved to Orkney when he was two. At that time in Westray, the Giles family were one of the only ‘incomer’ families, the Orkney term for outsiders who have adopted the isles as their home. “I have no feelings of home towards England, I’ve only had feelings of home towards Scotland. So I’ve always had this doubleness where Orkney is my only home but I don’t quite belong either.”
This mash of English/Orcadian/Scottish identity makes good fodder for poetry, with Harry’s 2012 publication of Visa Wedding acting as a kind of therapy, addressing and resolving these questions about himself:
Listen, hit’s semple:
in Orkney I’m English;
in England I’m Scottish;
in Scotland, Orcadian–
this glib-gabbit, mony-littit tongue
snacks at identity as tho hit wis
a gollach piecie sappit wi
the sweet-n-soor o BELONG.
– Excerpt from Visa Wedding #1.
His love of Scots came from the sounds and rhythms, and the way it feels to speak. “When I’m writing in Scots, I’m often digging out words from my memory that have fallen off my tongue as I’ve lived in St. Andrews, London and Edinburgh. They’re words from Orkney that I knew in my childhood and used in my childhood but never identified with enough to keep using and have lost over the years. So I’m recovering a lot of those words, and recovering a part of my own identity which is Scottish and not Scottish at the same time.”
“Even as a written language, you can’t get away from how Scots sounds. It’s impossible to write without thinking about the speaking of it possibly because of the tradition of Scots literature which is so connected to speaking. So I really like that aspect of it. Something that people say to me now is that they look at my Scots poem on the page, and they have no idea what it says, and then I’ll speak it and it becomes immediately intelligible. And that’s really interesting to me.”
The status of Scots as a language is a hotly contested topic, with some claiming it’s merely a dialect, or ancient variety of English; or at the other end of the scale a completely distinct language from English, in much the same way that Norwegian is closely linked yet vastly different to Danish. Harry’s view is that what matters is where people can be understood by each other.
“If somebody in Glasgow can’t be understood by somebody in the East End of London, talking the way they would in those places, then I think it’s pretty sensible to say that they’re separate languages.”
In the 2011 Scottish census, 1.54 million Scots (30%) indicated they were able to speak Scots, however an earlier study of the language by the Scottish Government found that 64% of respondents “don’t really think of Scots as a language”. This may be because of Scots reputation as slang, as for many years the language was discouraged by officialdom and schools. Today Scots is promoted and fostered, but it’s nowhere near as threatened and in decline as Scotland’s other traditional language, Gaelic, with only 58,000 respondents in the 2011 census indicating they could speak fluently.
“There are also different type of Scots, not just regional variants, but what I would call vernacular Scots, which is the way that people actually speak. So if you go into a pub in Leith you will actually hear people speaking in what I call the (Leith Scots) vernacular. There’s also a sort of literary Scots which is not necessarily how people speak.” Harry explained that during the 50s there was an active reclamation known as the Scots Renaissance by people like Hugh MacDiarmid and Hamish Henderson who were deliberately working to preserve and recreate the language.
“Folk like MacDiarmid would read ancient Scots dictionaries and travel around and collect words from people, and then construct what he called a ‘syncretic’, as in synthesised Scots from that, taking the words the people spoke and making a literary language out of them.”
“And most poets writing in English are writing in a kind of English that’s nothing like people speak, ya know. So I’m writing mostly in literary Scots, in a sort of constructed Scots, rather than the Scots that people speak.”
While Harry agrees that cultural dominance can threaten and water down traditional language, he’s skeptical of some of the recent efforts employed to promote Scots. “It’s a very optimistic utopian project to imagine that we might have a complete body of work that’s written only in Scots. There’s too many different types and regional variants of Scots, and I’m really resistant to the idea of there being a monolithic Scots that has one form of spelling and one form of words. I’m much more interested in people writing new work and working in new ways in Scots than I am in reading a translation of Asterix in Scots.”
Harry is currently writing about 50% of his work in Scots, and said he can usually tell straight away when writing a poem if it will be in English or Scots. However sometimes he bounces a poem between the two languages, or if the poem is about Scotland, then it’s almost always in Scots. Cue what is fast becoming known as his signature piece, Brave, which was written in 2011, just as the Independence debate was starting to heat up.
cadna hink o a grander wey tae end a nite as wi a poke o chips n curry sauce,
whit chacks the date o Bannockburn on Wikipaedia,
whit draws chairts on the backs o beermats tae lear ye aboot rifts n glaciation
n when hit dis hit feels this oorie dunk,
this undesairvt wairmth
o inexplicable luve;
– Excerpt from Brave.
“I was thinking a lot about my past, and how I felt about Scotland and was reading a lot of Scots poetry. I wanted to get across something of the contradictions and complexities of Scottish-ness. I wanted to react against the tartan tat vision of Scotland. And even though Orkney is the only home I know I am still an incomer. I wanted to claim Scotland for myself in some way, and also talk about how it is and isn’t mine at the same time.”
“And I like being funny, and I like being angry, and I like being ranty, so I just wrote the longest rant that I could in Scots, about what Scotland meant to me. And what pissed me off and what I liked about Scotland. It’s kind of like my state of the nation poem; as if a wee scrote like me could write a state of the nation!”
The poem has gone on to have a life of its own, being featured on podcasts, websites, and in the Scottish literary journal New Writing Scotland. He thinks the poem gained significance as it came out just at the right time, when all across the land people are questioning their identity, just before the looming independence referendum this September.
“Literature and poetry in particular are quite central to Scotland’s self understanding. Poetry and folk music are our art forms. There are poems carved on the walls of Scottish parliament, so it definitely has a place in our political discourse. So I do feel like artists are central to the way Scotland constructs and presents itself.”
Post-Brave and Visa Wedding, Harry says his writing has moved on, and he’s not writing as much about Scotland as a whole these days. His second publication Oam was the result of a five month residency at Govanhill Baths in Glasgow, with proceeds from the sale helping the project reopen as a community swimming pool and well-being centre. The poems are all written in contemporary Scots and describe the baths and their incredible history.
“(Writing Oam) was quite nice because I was writing in Scots intensely, but I wasn’t writing about Scotland. I was just writing about this one place. So I’m less interested in the big questions of Scotland at the moment, in poetry, and more interested in local stuff.”
As his body of work moves and evolves, Harry says the reason he talks so much about Orkney now is because he has an urge to go back to discover more of that part of himself. “The Scots that I write is influenced by the Scots that’s spoken in the lowlands, it’s very influenced by urban Scots, partly because that’s what i’m living in now, and partly because that has dominated the Scots literary tradition. I have an ambition to spend much longer in Orkney digging to try and get more of the Orcadian Scots into my own writing, and that would involve investigating Norn a bit more. I’m also interested in the Viking forms of poetry and how this has influenced Scots poetry. But that’s more of a long term ambition.”
As Harry’s work expands and evolves, he’s the latest in a long line of innovative writers who have been inspired and shaped by Scotland and Scottishness. As the country considers its future, Harry’s body of work mashes literary traditions of old and new, providing a pertinent and contemporary review of Scotland’s identity.