Scots is English in its underwear. It's difficult to be pretentious in a language like that. - William McIlvanney
McIlvanney has pointed out more than once that the lower down the social ladder you get, the more metaphorical, the more idiomatic, and quite simply, the more poetic the language gets. His books deal with people across the whole social strata but he will be best remembered for his Laidlaw crime novels and Docherty, a story about a working-class miner. What is particularly distinctive about his style is that when people speak McIlvanney writes what they actually say and doesn't try to Anglify the text. A short example:
'Ah'm gonny kill 'im.'
'You dae. An' Ah kill you. No question.'
My background is not that dissimilar to McIlvanney’s. We both come from working class families, we both received better educations than our fathers and we both had fathers who didn't quite get us. Neither could see the point in reading fiction, “summat someone’s jist made up oot o’ their heed,” but both did read non-fiction. We both started off as poets before we became novelists (him, successful, me, not so much) – in spite of, or because of, all the Burns we had to read growing up (it’s hard to be sure) – but neither of us could leave the poetry alone; like a toddler, it gets into everything.
My own writing is quite different to McIlvanney’s – I never felt the need try and emulate his style even in the couple of short stories I’ve written in dialect – but the simple fact is he was the first writer I ever met in the flesh and got to talk to and, do you know what? He was just a bloke: no airs and graces and certainly no pretensions, as if being a writer was no different from being a miner or a teacher or the guy whose job it was to lock up the swings at night, something maybe I could be.
A number of Scottish writers have chosen on occasion to write in dialect rather than plain old English. This can cause problems for some readers so why bother? I'll come back to that but first a question: what's the difference between an accent and a dialect?
When you listen to someone like Billy Connolly talking nowadays no one would doubt that he was Scottish. He has a Scottish accent. Wrong. The thing is there is no such a thing as a 'Scottish' accent just as there is no such a thing as a 'Southern' accent – I'm talking about south of the Mason-Dixon Line here. Someone in Aberdeen sounds quite different to someone from Glasgow just as someone from Belfast sounds quite different from someone from Dublin. It's even imprecise to say that Connolly has a Glaswegian accent because someone from Kelvinside sounds completely different to someone from Partick where Connolly grew up; Connolly describes the Kelvinside accent as talking "wi jawries in yer gob" (marbles in ones mouth). But if we gave representatives from all the above a copy of the Sermon on the Mount to read we'd know in seconds where each of them was from. That's an accent, speaking your country's dominant language with a regional twang.
Billy Connolly on visiting Scotland
A dialect is another thing completely. It's not a language in its own right – Scottish isn't a language – but it is local variant of a language although there are those who would strenuously argue to the contrary (see here). I had a friend once who hailed from Stranraer in south-west Scotland, She talked about '"the bairns' meaning children, whereas in Glasgow the term is 'weans' (pronounced 'wains'); also she often used the expression 'ye ken' – which non-Scots assume we all say all the time (along with 'och aye the noo') – but that's not something you'd hear in Glasgow.
Dialects have rules. Let's take the word 'not'. In Glasgow we use 'no' most of the time. For example: "I'm not doing that" would become "Ah'm no daein that" however it all depends on where the word comes in a sentence, because "It was not me" would be rendered as "It wisne me". Likewise the difference between 'was' and 'were' – "I was there" becomes "Ah were there" and "We were there" becomes "We wis there." And, yes, I know that's the wrong way round but it's consistently that way.
Wherever you go in the world you'll encounter dialects and those dialects have rules. For example:
Speakers of African American English add the word 'be' before a verb to indicate that the action is habitual or ongoing. The sentence 'He be sleeping on the couch' means 'he sleeps on the couch on a regular basis', while 'He sleeping on the couch' mean 'he's sleeping on the couch now.' - Writing Accents and Dialects, Grammar Girl
For many kids, the English they learn at school is for all intents and purposes a foreign language.
Contrary to any still prevalent notions among academicians and educators that nonstandard dialects are simply sloppy, slovenly or careless usage, "broken English" or "bad grammar", scholars from various academic disciplines have been studying these dialects and have revealed them to be highly systematic and socially viable, with their own valid, linguistically describable rules of phonology, morphology and syntax. Indeed the very systematicity of such nonstandard dialects as American Black English Vernacular and its Caribbean Creole cousins suggests one reason for their persistence among students we are confronting in our inner-city classrooms. – Writing: Variation in writing, functional and linguistic-cultural, p142
Although attitudes to non-standard accents have become more tolerant in recent years – just look at the BBC announcers these days – non-standard syntax is still widely stigmatised.
Talking about the BBC, the first writer I ran across who wrote in dialect wasn't actually McIlvanney, although they were writing at the same time, it was the poet Tom Leonard. I bought his collection Intimate Voices – it was more than likely the first poetry collection I bought. In it we find probably his most (in)famous poem:
THE 6 O'CLOCK NEWS
this is thi
six a clock
man said n
a talk wia
iz coz yi
mi ti talk
lik wanna yoo
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.
A reading of ‘The 6 O’Clock News’
Now I know a few of you struggle with my 'Aggie and Shuggie' sketches when they appear so why do I do it to you? It's because I hate pretension. I use this family to poke fun at myself and even at the good people who do the reviews I'm hoping you'll read. It's far better than a post every few days pleading with people to buy my books. Am I poking fun at working class Scots. Yes. But then I've been a working class Scot all my life and we're more than happy to poke fun at ourselves. Aggie and Shuggie are my proxies. But I could be accused of writing in dialect simply because people who talk that way sound funny. Correction, that’s how people talk around here. It's all of yous that sound funny (no, 'yous' is not a typo).
Is Tom Leonard poking fun at Scottish people? No. He's poking the finger at the pretentious twats at the BBC who used to read the news in Received Pronunciation, that strangled version of English they insisted on broadcasting in for decades, as if the truth was only valid if spoken in BBC English. The fact is that no one has a monopoly on truth.
Leonard doesn't write all his poetry like that. In fact as far as I'm aware he's not written any poetry like that since 1979. It wasn't a fad though. He had a point to make and that was the best way to make it. Leonard's urban phonetic poetry is hard to read. When McIlvanney chose to use more realistic dialogue in his books he decided that a middle ground would be the best place for him. Consider this paragraph from the short story 'How Many Miles to Babylon?':
'Christ we're everywhere,' Benny said, raising his beercan in a toast to the empty room. 'We are the people. Open an alligator's gub in the Congo an' a Scotsman'll nod oot at ye. We're everywhere. Australia, Canada, America, South America, Asia.' He paused, running out of places. 'Russia. There was always Scotsmen in Russia. An' all over Europe. For centuries. India. A lotta Scottish graves in India.' He started to sing. 'There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier. We are the people. Scotsmen can go anywhere. An' why no' me? Why not Benny Mullen? Ye can go anywhere. Ye could even go –' His mind eddied with the drink and he waited to find what exotic flotsam it would throw up. 'To Babylon.' The word shimmered in his head. 'Babylon.' He laughed and drained his can. 'Correct. Ye could even go to Babylon. How many miles wid that be?'
Just on its own this is a wonderful character study and we learn to so much in this single paragraph. The use of dialect isn't intrusive and, once you realise it's a Scot talking, don't you find that a Scots accent appears too?
Hawd yer hosses! Whit's tha aboot a Scoats accent?
Sorry, Shuggie. He's perfectly right. There is no such a thing as a Scots accent. We've already established that but just like I have a 'Southern accent' in my head when I read Tennessee Williams so I appreciate that non-Scots will do their best to approximate the right accent so I imagine a few of you had Aggie and Shuggie talking like Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons or even (perish the thought) Shrek. My wife can tell the difference between a Louisiana accent and a Georgia accent but it all blurs into one in my head. But then unless you're familiar with all of McIlvanney's characters you won't know if the paragraph above is set in Graithnock (where he would have an Ayrshire twang like McIlvanney himself) or Glasgow. To be totally honest I can't remember but I tend to hear all his books in his voice when I read them irrespective of where they're set.
William McIlvanney in a TV advert
If we have a closer look at the dialogue here we have to admit that (and this is also true of the writer James Kelman) McIlvanney uses language that is neither "standard" nor "dialect," but trades on both in pursuit of specific literary ends. Let's just consider this wee bit from that last paragraph:
'There was a soldier, a Scottish soldier. We are the people."
There's nothing inherently Scottish in those sentences but because we know a Scot is saying – well singing in first sentence and chanting the second – we 'hear' the accent. In reality what he’d say would be more like:
[sings] 'Thur wis a soja, a Scoattish soja. [shouts] We arra peep-puuul!'
The fact is that only the first sentence is part of the song, the opening line of 'The Green Hills of Tyrol'. The second is basically a war cry, part of a football chant. There is no way someone who isn't very familiar with Scotland is going to get the cultural references here.
On the east coast of Scotland lies Edinburgh. It also has its own accents and dialects. Just as Glasgow's posh speak with a Kelvinside accent, Edinburgh's affluent speak with a Morningside accent – both are variations on Standard Scottish English. You would immediately recognise them as Scottish but the amount of Scotticisms would be limited to the occasional 'aye' or 'wee'. It could, of course, be argued that these are social dialects rather than geographical ones.
I've written about the relationship between Glasgow and Edinburgh before but Edinburgh is not without its deprived areas and common folk. We get to meet some of them in the work of Irvine Welsh. Here's a wee taster of his style. Renton, the hero of Trainspotting (his best known work) muses on the Scottish identity:
Ah hate cunts like that. Cunts like Begbie. Cunts that are intae baseball-batting every fucker that’s different; pakis, poofs, n what huv ye. Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.
Irvine Welsh interviewed
The language is coarse. Of course the language is coarse. This is the same Scot's voice that Tom Leonard uses in the poem I quoted above. You could just imagine Groundskeeper Willie spouting off like that. The fact is Willie is quite unrealistic – he should swear like a trooper.
Okay, we've had monologues so far, but the best place to get the feel of what Scots are all about is to look at a bit of dialogue like this between two co-workers in a chicken processing plant from Mark McNay's Fresh:
Ye'll no believe this.
Ah've just counted sixty-seven seconds between two chickens.
Is that a record for ye the day?
Fuckin right it is.
Albert picked a chicken off the belt and hung it on a hook.
D'ye think it'll stay a record?
Course it will. Sixty-seven seconds. Put that in yer pipe and smoke it.
Ah would but smoking shite gies me a soar throat.
Of course Ah am. Sixty-seven seconds is a great achievement.
Fuck off ya sarky old cunt.
Ah'm messin with ye. Sixty-seven's no a bad score.
Sean held a chicken up like a trophy and shook it by the wings.
No bad? It's pure fuckin champion.
It's no quite champion son.
How d'ye mean?
Albert pushed his cheek out with his tongue.
It's no as good as seventy-three.
When did ye get seventy-three?
Ah got that between two Sunday roasters before we went for breakfast.
Albert breathed on his hand and rubbed it on his shoulder.
Bet ye counted fast.
Albert pointed at Sean.
No as fast as you ya wee cunt.
Ah count slow ya old bastard.
Yer too tight to count slow.
Ah used my watch.
Albert turned his back.
Aye. Ah know ye are.
Bear in mind that these two men are friends. This is friendly banter, two workmates passing the time of day. Derision is a part of Glaswegian humour. That whole conversation could have been the prelude to a fight, the exact same words, but you'd have to hear the tone to determine whether these two were squaring up for a fight. If the next line involved Sean grabbing a hold of Albert and knocking him to the ground then you'd know. And as soon as the other men saw what was happening someone would shout out "Square go!" and they'd probably all gather round until someone decided it had gone too far. Chickens aside the above is a playground conversation.
But why write like this? Is realism so damn important?
I think it is. And clearly a lot of my fellow Scots think it is too. So where are all the novels in a Newcastle dialect or a Birmingham dialect? Or what about other countries? I'm just reading a novel by a New Zealand writer at the moment and it's set in Watford, England. But even if it hadn't been I doubt he would have gone to the same extent as someone like Irvine Welsh to capture the flavour of the place. And why not? Surely Scotland is not the only country with such a strong national identity. This is what Irvine Welsh had to say about the subject:
"There's a big fuss about the language in some of my books … [b]ut it's like the book is the only cultural artefact now that has all these walls. ... Why is it only in the novel — the English novel — that everyone's got the same narrative voice? They're still stuck in these kind of standard poems. Every other medium has exorcised it. People just don't talk like that anymore. They don't talk in standard English anymore. So why present [novel dialogue] in it?"
He goes on to answer his own question:
"Because if you're a novelist in Britain, you're almost seen as a custodian or something, like a curator, and that's just stupid. Then you get all this angst about death of the novel, and why people aren't reading the novel. Well, no duh. You know, right? It's like the standard English, the Queen's English, is an imperialist language set for us to control our knowledge. Therefore, it's not very interesting. It's an administrative language. It's not got many beats, it's not got any rhythm. It's terrible to write with." – interview with Benjamin Arnold in Flakmag
Which bring us to Lallans. I'm not going to talk about Gaelic because that is another language but there are terms kicking around to try and describe the Scots' tongue: Lallans and Doric are the two best known. Lallans is a variant of the Scots word 'lawlands' meaning the lowlands of Scotland. There's no specific geographic area that you could call 'the lowlands'. In simplistic terms, however, the lowlands are everywhere in Scotland that aren't the highlands. So, broadly speaking, Lallans refers to the dialects of south and central Scotland and Doric refers to the dialects spoken in the north east of Scotland.
Robert Burns' poetry is written in Lallans. To illustrate:
They took nae pains their speech to balance,
Or rules to gie;
But spak their thoughts in plain, braid lallans,
Like you or me.
from 'Epistle To William Simson'
I think of it as the Scottish equivalent to Shakespearian English only less intelligible and you'd think we were done with it. But no.
The term Lallans was also used during the Scottish Renaissance of the early 20th century to refer to what Hugh MacDiarmid called synthetic Scots, i.e., a synthesis integrating, blending, and combining various forms of the Scots language, both vernacular and archaic. This was intended as a classical, standard Scots for a world-class literature, although it was more often than not Scots words grafted on to a standard English grammatical structure somewhat removed from traditional spoken Scots, its main practitioners not being habitual Lowland Scots speakers themselves. – Wikipedia
I'm not sure I personally approve of this trend. I can't see the point of a language that exists as a purely literary form. Writing poems and songs in Gaelic is another matter entirely because Gaelic is still alive although not very well and the same goes for Welsh; pockets of resistance against the English invaders. MacDiarmid's detractors often referred to it as plastic Scots – a play on synthetic as in synthetic plastics – to underline its artificiality.
A short documentary about the poet especially interesting because it includes an old BBC radio broadcast in Received Pronunciation
But is Aggie-and-Shuggie-speak not artificial since you don't talk that way?
Good point. I think that my sketches would be better if I didn't have to translate what I want to say into an approximation of Govan-speak but they're just a bit of fun. What I decided quite early on was to provide all my characters with an idiolect, basically a family dialect, and try and stick to it, e.g. when Shuggie means 'never' he says 'neffer' and instead on 'review' we get 'refyoo'. I'd take the whole process a lot more seriously if I was trying to get them published. I have written stories in dialect. You can find two of them in an early edition of Ranfurly Review. Here's an excerpt from 'Just Thinking':
Should Ah stay or should Ah go? That’s a song isn’t it? Who the hell did that now? Some punk outfit. The Skids Ah think. OK, ten reasons to stay. Ah can do that. Wan: she’s got huge tits, two: she laughed at your jokes, three: she’s OK in bed, four: she’ll fill the gap till you bump into Little Miss Right at the dancin, five: it’s been far too long since you had a real girlfriend, six: she hasne got nuthin pierced – Ah hate body piercin, seven: she likes you – that’s important – I think she likes you, eight: she disne punce me out the door as soon as we’d done the business – another plus, nine: her pal went off wi Mikey so Ah’d better no drap her till Ah see whit the score is wi the two of them an ten: sod it, Ah’ll give her tits two points – they fuckin deserve it.
Ah guess that means Ah’m stayin put.
Looking back over it I can see places where I'd change it. It really is an impossible task trying to get it right and it's hard to know where to draw the line. Take 'nothing' for example – I've written 'nuthin' above but when I read it I hear 'nuhin' in my head because that's how it would be said . . . probably, depending on who was talking, because we all put our own twists on language. One of the first things my wife commented on was how I pronounce the word 'poem' – apparently I say 'poyem'. So there you go.
I have no doubt where you live people have their own unique way of talking. As a writer do you embrace the local speech idiosyncrasies and incorporate them into your work or smooth out the rough edges? I'd be interested to hear what you have to say.
There are examples to be found all over the world, like the opening lines of this one from the Trinidadian poet, Miguel Browne:
Trinidadians are a special people of dat there is no doubt,
Doh care what odders say of how dey run dey mouth.
But of all de special talents dat we Trinis possess,
Is de way we talk dat ranks us among de best.
At de street corners, in de shop or at work on any given day,
Is to hear us speak and carry on in our own special way.
De colourful words, de antics and de accent all combine,
To create a whole language dat has stood de test of time.
But I suspect the problem has its roots in our education systems. There is prevalent opinion that people who can't express themselves in the official language of a country are somehow stupid. Here's what a teacher in the Caribbean wrote:
I interviewed each of my Caribbean students one by one. They shared with me that they had never written in their vernacular because they were not allowed to in their school systems. One student said she had been told by her teachers that the dialect she spoke was "broken English" and not worthy of being written. Another told me it was hard for her to write in patois because she had never been taught how to do it.
Elsasser and Irvine found in their work with Caribbean students:
. . . their reluctance to write (was) directly attributable to the denigration of their native language and to their conviction that they do not, in fact, possess a true language but speak a bastardized version of English. It is difficult if not impossible to write without a language, and it is emotionally draining to attempt to develop voice and fluency in an education system that has historically denigrated one's own language. (1985, 406)
My students who spoke vernacular Englishes seemed to suffer from the stigmatization that Elsasser and Irvine described. Their dialect had been devalued and banned from the classroom. 
We then have an excerpt from a student:
I definate hate writing. Takes too much time when you can talk about what you want. Writing is a bore and a process we can live without. Writing is a very difficult process that involves a lot of thinking especially if you don't have a command of the English grammar . . . In my country, we spoke `Patois,' as a result, is sometimes confuses my tenses and my punctuation. Everytime I tried to write exceptionally well, thinking that my grammar is intact, the end result is always watch your grammar. I really feel down at times when I have to write.
I think this is an important issue. A lot can be lost by trying to get people to confirm to the 'Newspeak' of the day be it Hindi (the official language of India) or English (the official language of too many places to list). When a 13-year-old Scottish girl handed in an essay written in Textese, she explained to her flabbergasted teacher that it was easier than Standard English. Part of me is appalled at this but that's just because I'm old and struggle with texting. It's not my lingua franca but it is fast becoming many people's. Should we cling to English as it stands just now or let it evolve naturally just like Scots did and is continuing to do? Good question. There is room for all kinds of speech. As Thoreau put it:
It is a ridiculous demand which England and America make, that you shall speak so that they can understand you. Neither men nor toadstools grow so. – Walden; or, Life in the Woods
This wee article’s drifted away from Glasgow where we started off so I’d like to bring us back there with a song written and performed by Billy Connolly, a serious one and one that reduced me to tears listening to it again and not for the first time:
Sounds Familiar: very useful, with sound files of ordinary people from different parts of not only Scotland but the whole of the UK
 Since the early twentieth century, Glasgow Rangers has been viewed as the most powerful and successful club within Scotland. Indeed, because of its Protestant history and identity and its frequent dominant periods in Scottish football, Rangers can be viewed as the team of the establishment. The club has also been perceived as a bastion of Scottish Protestantism due to, among other things, the notable unionist popular identity that formed part of its early character and its historical refusal to sign players of the Roman Catholic faith. Although this "policy" changed in 1989, Rangers and their supporters retain the label of being a club of and for Protestants. For many Rangers supporters, the chant that "we are the people," is both an indication of the dominance that the club has periodically enjoyed as well as other cultural aspects that surround it. – Joseph M. Bradley, Orangeism in Scotland: Unionism, Politics, Identity, and Football
 WE ARE THE PEOPLE
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
We are the people!
(Clap, clap, clap, clap, clap!)
 Elsasser, N. and Irvine, P. 1985. "English and Creole: The Dialects of Choice in a College Writing Program." Harvard Educational Review (55) 4, 399-415.