Thursday, 11 February 2016

Beards and Makars

The last week has seen some debate in Scotland concerning a mooted, and then withdrawn, plan to do away with the title of "Makar" and replace it with the more pedestrian — and more English — "National Poet of Scotland". Some commentators believed that "Makar" implied someone who wrote in Scots (indeed, it does), or that it smacked of medievalism (in a healthy nation, it would imply cultural continuity). The stalled initiative sums up one of the main differences between the nationalism of Scotland and that of Wales and, to a certain extent, Ireland. Faced with the choice of reviving in general use a beautiful and uniquely Scots word or creating yet another public position including the word "national", many folk's first choice is reflexively for the latter.

The utilitarian nature of Scottish nationalism isn't all bad: it may be one of the main reasons why it will succeed, perhaps sooner than we think. It is hardly music to the ears of cultural nationalists, however.

In this case, faced with the mobilisation of just such people, who are among the SNP's longest-standing supporters, the Scottish Government has backed down. That's not to say that the current situation is perfect. While no one would bat an eyelid at a "Makar" writing in English, perhaps with the odd Scots word thrown in, what would the reaction be if a Gaelic-language poet were appointed to the post? Given the real possibility of that never actually happening, perhaps Scotland should have both a "Bard" and a "Makar".

As an aside, among the more bizarre suggestions to come out of the debate is support for the appointment of Tom Leonard. Mr. Leonard writes witty, entertaining, often thought-provoking poems in a subversive, deliberately illiterate version of Glaswegian. His work is dedicated to debunking the notion of Scots as a language, highlighting its Central Belt sociolectal incarnation at the expense of its historical and rural use as a language. Because, after all, it's only Glesgae that counts.

One could hardly think of a less suitable candidate.

Of course, there are those who argue that a "Makar" can write in any language, including Standard English or, in this case, cludgie-door graffiti. In particular, they draw attention to the fact that there is now a Scots "Scriever".

In the Scottish National Dictionary, the verb scrieve is defined as follows:
"To write, esp. to write easily and copiously (Sh. a.1838 Jam. MSS. XII. 193; Ayr. 1880 Jam.; Rxb. 1923 Watson W.-B. 341; Sh., Abd., Kcd., Ags., Per., Edb. 1969). Vbl.n. scri(e)ving. Agent n. scriever, skriever, a writer, used somewhat contemptuously, a scribbler, “a mean scribe” (Lth. 1825 Jam.)."
Now, of course, the word has since been revived in a more general sense — perhaps influenced by the use of cognates in other languages — in a manner shorn, or perhaps merely ignorant, of its pejorative overtones.

However, given that Mr. Leonard has, as a matter of explicit ideology, adopted just such an attitude to Scots, the Blether Region respectfully suggests that he might be a good candidate for the post. Just don't call him "Makar".

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