Scots: The Mither Tongue – In Conversation with Billy Kay

Written in 1986 Scots: The Mither Tongue is an accessible history of the Scots language which successfully filled a gap in the market. The book has remained in print ever since selling over 20,000 copies, remaining popular as Scots has become more accepted in the mainstream and people look to learn about the leid’s history. The book was written by Billy Kay, a Scottish writer and broadcaster, who studied at the University of Edinburgh. Billy kindly agreed to discuss the book and its impact with Retrospect.  

Could you start by telling me a bit about your background to give some context to the interview? 

One of the reasons that I got so into Scots was that I was brought up in a strong Scots speaking household in Galston in Ayrshire and whereas a lot of people in other parts of Scotland have, especially mothers telling them to talk ‘proper’ in appalling English. My parents never did that. They were very proudly Scottish and culturally Scottish and because of the Robert Burns connection that was a difference too for us. We knew we had an international, world-class poet writing in our language, so that gave us pride in our local Ayrshire dialect of Scots that maybe some people in other parts didn’t have.  

I didn’t get television until I was, I guess, about eleven, so literally the first ten years of my life were in a Scottish village rather than a global village. All of that gave me a very strong sense of place. Part of that sense of place was the language, we literally spoke it 99% of the time, the only time you spoke English was when you spoke to the teacher directly or very occasionally a visit to the doctor – people like that. At the same time, you had the bizarreness of the Scottish education system where it was almost regarded as giving cheek to the teacher if you spoke in non-Standard English. Apart from the one day a year when the Burns Federation was giving out its prizes for reciting Robert Burns’ poetry and then you got the belt for speaking his language. All of these things I explore in Scots: The Mither Tongue but I think that why I had such a strength [in Scots] was because in the formative years of my life I didn’t have the BBC coming into the house and influencing me.  

Now I have some questions about the book, specifically about the writing process. Could you tell me about your inspiration for writing Scots: The Mither Tongue and I’m interested as to whether your years at Edinburgh University played a role in that? 

I wrote the book because coming from that strong Scots speaking background and speaking a few languages, I just saw Scots as another language but it happened to be my language – my mother tongue. Therefore, I wanted to give it the status that I thought it deserved as a language. [At University] I started doing French and German and then I switched to doing Scottish Literature and a degree in English language and literature, within in that you could do a course in Scots. Jack Aitken who is one of the leading academics in the history of Scots taught at Edinburgh University and I went along to his classes, and doing the literature made me realise that it wasn’t just Burns – the language had a pedigree going back to the medieval Makars, John Barbour’s Bruce and works like that. That gave me more ammunition to want to tell ordinary Scots people what they had missed out in their own education if they were told it was slang or bad English and whereas it has a literary pedigree going back to the 12th and 13th century, getting stronger in the 13th and 14th century. So, Edinburgh gave me that ammunition. At the same time, I remember being frustrated that the way it was taught was almost as a language, but as a dead language that didn’t have political relevance. Whereas when I learned this, I thought it was intensely politically relevant to me today and I belonged to that generation of cultural nationalism following political nationalism. I was there in the early 1970s, which was the first major surge of the SNP getting seats in Parliament. If you have people who have been told that their culture is worthless then you need something to change that narrative and learning about Scots certainly changed it for me. I was frustrated that it was regarded almost as an academic exercise rather than something that to me was vibrantly culturally and politically alive right now in the early 1970s in Edinburgh.  

The other thing [that spurred me] to write it was the number of dinner parties and pub conversations where I had people arguing with me – mostly monoglot English speakers – having a lot of conversations with people like that honing a lot of arguments, I thought it was time to write them down. There hadn’t really been an accessible history of Scots written down; it was all very academic, done by linguists and using terms ordinary punters couldn’t understand. I decided that I would be the person who would translate all of this material into a way that would influence ordinary people, and make ordinary Scots realise what they had.  

My next question follows on from that really, asking how you researched for the book. I know you touched on that there, but I was just wondering about the specifics of it.  

I had all of my lectures at Edinburgh and the book is shot through with examples of Scots through history. From studying Scottish literature, I had a lot of them already, but I went back to all of the Makars to choose passages where the older Scots resembled modern Scots, passages from the likes of [William] Dunbar or Gavin Douglas. I chose examples from the Medieval Makars that had words and sounds that sounded similar to what a contemporary Scots speaker would use. Then I read everything that was available on linguistic history really, including a lot of diaries and things like that – people like [James] Boswell talking about their very mixed attitudes to their Scottish heritage.  

By then I was also into broadcasting and I knew that I probably had an outlet for the material in radio and/or television and I ended up doing series on both of them. Again, the research for these series helped me compile the book as well. 

Did you find the book easy enough to get published, being a book about Scots, or was this more of a challenge?  

It was unusual in that Mainstream Publisher was run by two guys that I knew from Edinburgh University and one of them, Bill Campbell, I knew from Kilmarnock Academy, we had gone to the same school together. Bill had previously worked at Edinburgh University Student Publications Board for a couple of years and he had edited the student newspaper, and I had been involved with that in Edinburgh. I went to Bill to tell him about the book and he thought it was a great idea, again, because nothing had been done like it. There wasn’t a problem getting it published! 

Do you think it would have been a different story if the whole book had been in Scots rather than just using Scots in the passages? 

I think it would have been, at that time anyway. I think you could do it now. You could write a book entirely in Scots now and there would be enough people interested to buy it. However, saying that, the Scottish book buying public is quite small, so it really has to be a major book in a way that is filling a major gap to have the kind of success that Scots: The Mither Tongue had. There was obviously a thirst for knowledge on that subject! Doing the radio and television series also helped to boost the sales of it and the appreciation of it. You’re never going to become a millionaire writing for the Scottish market but it has stayed in print since it was first published and there have been several editions of it. It continually ticks over and sells so it is always available, proving that it has filled a huge cultural gap in the market.  

An interesting aspect of it, especially when I give talks and sometimes in emails, is people telling me what a huge difference it made to them as someone from a Scots speaking background. It completely changed their perspective on that background, and that perspective on themselves and their parents and grandparents who spoke the language. It was like a revelation and a liberation to be able to know that history. That has been a very positive aspect of it to get that kind of reaction.  

Have you been surprised yourself that there has still been this interest in the book? Did you expect this prolonged interest when you wrote it? 

Who knows what you think when you are that age! No, because the support for Scots has gotten a lot stronger. You’ve got no idea what it was like the attitudes against Scots back in the 1970s, well really the 60s, 70s and 80s. I recently won an award for my contribution to Scots and in my speech I gave an example of what things were like. I did a television series based on working class oral history, originally a radio series called Odyssey. One of the stories was about the Temperance Movement in Scotland and the Glasgow Evening Times in their television page said ‘Billy Kay: the man with the broadest accent in broadcasting mouths gutturals about the Temperance Movement’ [discussed further in Scots: The Mither Tongue]. That is the kind of self-hatred and colonised mentality that was around at that time. They could say that and get away with it, their middle class culturally colonised unionist friends would have applauded them for that! When the majority of the population spoke closer to me than to them! But that was the way it was, so we have come along way. Gradually as more support has come in, more people needed to know the history of how all this came about so more readers came into Scots: The Mither Tongue

Do you think the increase in cultural and political nationalism has helped acceptance of Scots from the 1970s onwards? 

I would say so. For example, people know that they cannot make statements like that nowadays, even though some may still agree with it. The rise of awareness among Scots of their culture, and cultural identity, has also helped people identify with things like Scots. The rise of social media has helped too, because people tend to be a lot more colloquial on Twitter, for example. There is a lot of Scots written on Twitter which would not have been done in more formal situations.  

Scots is much more around us now, especially with young people because of that loosing up on social media. The confidence of young people in their Scottish identity, which the older generation questioned a lot of that – the young people do not, I would say.  

To round off, in your opinion what do you see as the ideal future for Scots as a language? 

I think eventually it has to be given the same status as Gaelic and I think it will eventually be recognised along with English and Gaelic as an indigenous language of Scotland. It should be encouraged, should be part of education and eventually should be taught – but we are a good way away from that just now. But now, the normalisation of Scots, using it in places in the past it wasn’t considered formal enough, that is proceeding at pace. That is positive! I think it has a very positive future now compared with what it had years ago. There is a great quote from [Hugh] MacDiarmid which I think I end Scots: The Mither Tongue with:  

‘For we hae faith in Scotland’s hidden poo’ers, 

The present’s theirs, but a’ the past and future’s oors.’ 

That says a lot about Scotland, when MacDiarmid wrote that back in the 1920s or 1930s the outlook for Scotland was bleak – the country and the language, everything to do with her after the First World War. And yet, he said the future is oors, and we are a lot closer to that future he envisioned now and it is coming, so I’m quite positive for the whole of the Scottish cultural experience at the moment including the Scots Language.  

Many thanks to Billy Kay for such an interesting chat about the book, and thoughts on the place of the Scots Language today and in the future. More information about Billy is available on his website: and you can find him on Twitter @billykayscot.  

Author Image copyright of Angus Bremner  

Interview conducted by Mhairi Ferrier 

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