How often nowadays do you hear a Doric phrase uttered in the streets of Aberdeen, or in any of the bigger towns of North East Scotland? Perhaps it’s inevitable in the cosmopolitan, international city Aberdeen has become over the last 40 years, but conversation overheard in the streets of our locality today is as likely to be in the accents of the Central Belt, of Eastern Europe or, most likely, of England, as in the tones of our native turf.
This is, for the most part, a welcome development. Aberdeen city and shire is a land of opportunity, and there is no better evidence of that fact than the number of people who flock to our shores to build careers and make money. We should embrace the diversity that has come to our corner of Scotland in the last half century; it enriches us all and there is plenty of room for cultural co-existence in the welcoming, easy-going communities of the North East.
But all this diversity has had at least one unintended consequence. Living in a society that is increasingly multi-cultural will inevitably lead to some dilution of the well-loved custom and tradition with which we have grown up. In North East Scotland, this is nowhere more evident than in the change seen over the last generation in the way we express ourselves in everyday speech. The Doric of my childhood is increasingly confined to the remoter country districts. More to the point, it is less and less the everyday speech of the upcoming generation, whose preferred communication, influenced by their role-models from television and social media, is in English.
The erosion of Doric language and idiom began early and, until recently, continued unnoticed. It is usually blamed on the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, an Act of Parliament that formalised early-years schooling, and which was actively hostile to every tradition but English. (It dealt, for example, a hammer-blow to Gaelic in the Highlands, from which that language will likely never fully recover.) But long before that, as early as the 1840s, the parish ministers who contributed to the New Statistical Account were reporting that many of the old forms of speech had fallen out of use during the course of the early 19th century. They, of course, thought this was a good thing.
Influenced by the 1872 Act, it has been dinned into generation after generation at school that Doric is crude and backward, unfit for serious literature or conversation, unworthy of use in any serious context. To speak English is to be serious, educated and professional; Doric is for the stupid, the menial and those at the bottom of the social heap.
There is a particularly vocal lobby, which enjoys a regrettable level of support in the media, that continues to trumpet this narrow, unimaginative view; the launch of the Doric Board in June 2018, for example, was greeted with a predictable blizzard of abuse from this noisy minority. Any support given to Scotland’s indigenous languages is a waste of money, runs this argument; such resource would be better deployed teaching Mandarin or Arabic; Doric, like other varieties of Scots, has no cultural value; Doric is the expression of a culture that is dying and should be put out of its misery.
Does it matter whether Doric lives or dies? Well, yes, actually, it matters very much indeed. Those of us who grew up in this tradition have been told once too often that our native culture is worthless and should be allowed to wither on the vine. Enough is enough.
Cultural heritage matters, because it defines who we are. Here in the North East, Doric in all its various forms: poetry, prose, song (especially in the form of our unique bothy ballads) and most of all, in everyday speech, is part of the very fabric of our identity. To lose it would be to lose the soul of the North East.
There is good reason to be hopeful. At an artistic level, Doric is thriving. There is a substantial body of ‘quality’ Doric in the arts, both old and new, in literature, poetry and song, which gives the lie to the widely held belief that Doric is somehow crude and unsophisticated. The immense wealth of Doric poetry is evident from the work of a long succession of supremely talented bards, from Peter Buchan at the turn of the 19th century, to Ian Middleton at the turn of the 21st. We are seeing a resurgence of Scots song, driven by the likes of Huntly lass Iona Fyfe, which highlights the quality of song that has emerged from this area, a region so rich in ballad tradition. In literature, the great Lewis Grassic Gibbon – a native of Auchterless, although he grew up mainly in the Mearns – began a trend that has brought the culture of the North East to a wider audience; Gibbon wrote for a broader reading public than Doric speakers, but he brilliantly evokes the spirit of the North East by his use of Doric idiom alongside a largely English vocabulary. The Buchan Heritage Festival, now more than 30 years old and held annually in Strichen at the end of May, has played a sterling part in ensuring the Doric arts continue to evolve, rather than simply preserve the songs, stories and poems of a long forgotten past; the festival places an admirable emphasis on encouraging and rewarding new work in Doric every year.
And yet, that is not enough. As commendable as all the work done in the arts undoubtedly is, Doric cannot thrive as a purely literary language, used only by a handful of practitioners, and studied by dusty academics in the ivory towers of their universities. The overarching priority must be to encourage the everyday use of Doric in the homes and workplaces of the North East – probably by incorporating Doric into the curriculum of the education system by which it was historically despised – because only then can it survive as a living, breathing, evolving language.
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