Out of History (Part 3)


Culture is not an organism, nor a totality, nor a unity: it is the site of a dialogue, it is dialectic, a dialect. It is being between” (p206).

Through Parts 1 and 2 of my critical read of Cairns Craig’s 1996 Out of History I have investigated some of his intellectual framing of the Scots language.

He highlights the poets Leonard, Kelman, Dunn and a poet I am especially fond of,  Liz Lochhead who as a fairly native speaker often uses the rich interplay between Scots and English to explore sexual, linguistic and Scottish identity. One of her most popular poems, by the way, is the striking bilingual ‘Kidspoem/ Bairnsang‘ (video, words).  Even her English ‘View of Scotland / Love Poem’, reveals a Scots underlay especially when read aloud. The precise language of this poem is used to “encounter the clichés of the world of tartanry so hated by the Scottish intellectuals and to find in it a positive” (p199).

Craig acknowledges the British state has been “all too bent on creating unity and continuity” (p204) and “the country which sought most insistently to create monolingualism” (p205).

But for these four poets “writing in Scotland becomes the exploration of the intersections between, and the spaces between, a multiplicity of different dialects and grammars. It is the very lack of unity in Scotland’s linguistic situation which makes their writing possible” (p200). Again this is a direct counter-argument to Muir’s fear of destructive ‘disassociation’ and Craig suggests these writers are “using the folk idiom as an assertion of separate cultural identity…trusting the voice of the Scottish people to remain Scottish no matter how much it absorbs of English, or now American, culture” (p200).  Thus “the condition of ‘being between’ is not the degeneration of a culture but the essential means to its generation” (p205).

I think it is worth quoting one entire paragraph that encapsulates Cairns’ stance here. It is introduced with reference to Chinua Achebe’s post-colonial classic Things Fall Apart and not surprisingly parallels Wee’s reflections on post-colonial emergent hybrid languages.

The old culture cannot be had back, of course, in some unfallen purity but in the very act of overthrowing the colonial power with the tools it had used to assert its dominion, a new kind of culture is born. That culture will have at its back an absence, a break, a dislocation and disassociation from the continuity of its local tradition; it is the ‘bastard’ product of dominion and submission and will always retain the ‘scar’ of its incorporation of the colonial culture into the body of its own existence. It will be a culture which, unless it denies its history as a colony and entirely extirpates the English language – something which, for the educated, is almost impossible in the modern world – cannot help but be bi-lingual: its cultural existence will neither be in its traditional language (unique, parochial, peculiar) nor in English (general, cosmopolitan, universal: its being will be between them, in the particular and unique way that the two intersect or inflect one another” (p203).

The question for me is whether Scots really is a post-colonial variety and should be treated as such. In my view Scots is a pre-colonial language and hybridity thus has a distinct meaning. That said, what Craig says about the creative mix between English and Scots is quite true and the trick is to find a model that encompasses both perspectives.


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