It appears that a body which advises rich English people on what posh Scottish school they should entrust with their precious offspring has reassured them that the kids won't emerge with a Scottish accent. Understandably, my nationalist chums are up in arms about the insult to our culture, with its implication that a Scottish accent is undesirable. However, it also set me thinking about how 'Scottish speak' has been interpreted in the past.
When I was young, in the 1950s and 60s, to have a Scottish accent was a sign of gravitas and dignity, usually signifying that its owner was both educated and professional. In The People's Friend
magazine, which my aunt always read although she had no other Scottish links as far as I know, all the heroes were headteachers, doctors, dentists or vets. The depute head of my primary school was Mr Leishman from Edinburgh, and no-one messed with him, even the naughtiest students.
When did this change? I think Rab C Nesbitt
was partly to blame. When this TV comedy series about a 'dysfunctional' Gorbals family reached English channels, I had to get my Scottish husband to interpret some of the language, and subtitles would have helped. I did find the programme hilarious, though, but I may have been the only person to have a bit of a crush on Rab. He always had a naughty twinkle in his eye, and I bet he would always have been fun to spend an evening with (if you couldn't remember what you had done the next day). As someone pointed out, his family was hardly dysfunctional for modern times, having a full set of married parents and two resident children. But nowadays, is it that the Cholmondely-Smythes think that little Peregrine is going to come home for the hols wearing a Rab C string vest and bandage, swigging from a can of Irn Bru and bottle of Buckfast?
The reality – from my limited experience of the Scottish 'gentry' – is that because their education, or what passes for it, takes place in England, the worst of them learn to speak with an accent more English than the English, which makes their strangulated speech sound like a donkey braying. I'm told this tribe are known as the 'Yahs' at St Andrews because of their inability to pronounce the word 'yes' properly, and are thankfully avoided by the local students.
Vengeance is mine?
It seems that at last the general attitude to such bastions of – respectability? – as the public schools is changing, as it is now being revealed that in many of them, physical, emotional and sexual abuse was rife. My late husband could confirm this, having endured a 'top' English public school and up until the end of his life reliving some of the horrors.
My advice was always to start a survivors' group and sue them, but like many people he couldn't stomach the idea of having to relive his experience in a public enquiry. My elderly Catholic friend is convinced that the brave souls who are now suing the priests who abused them at school are 'snowflakes' – 'Well, that's just what life was like in those days, and times have changed' – solely motivated by financial gain. However, hitting the abuser in the pocket is often the only way of obtaining a sort of justice. The two – justice and compensation – are not incompatible.
The sad thing is that now many of the public institutions of the past have been exposed as harbouring morally corrupt and often criminal leaders, the idea of respect for any institution has been challenged, which in turn leads to a sort of cynicism that suggests it's everyone for themselves. This is dangerous, as there is evidence that it's the 'good' institutions like the trades unions of the past that have managed to bring about change for the better.
Happening to be in Durham once when the annual Miners' Gala was happening, and seeing the explosion of beautifully created trade union banners, was a powerful reminder that many of these self-help groups for people in dangerous jobs managed to mitigate against the worst excesses of Thatcherite neoliberalism.
I would defy anyone to read E P Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class
and not emerge as a socialist, even if it's a temporary conversion. No doubt an SR reader could direct me to a similar study about the Scottish working class. I'm no historian but it has often occurred to me that the working class in both nations reached a point, maybe in the late 19th/early 20th century, when they definitely occupied the moral high ground, with a passionate interest in politics, education and culture. This interest was fostered by such bodies as the Workers' Educational Association, who I discover still exist to promote and organise adult learning (and even have a branch here in Aberdeen), and Ruskin College, established in 1899 to provide higher education for working-class people who had not had the finance or opportunity to get a university education.
It may be that we need a resurgence of such bodies, for the educational opportunities for people from less affluent backgrounds have significantly diminished. Thankfully, in Scotland we have managed so far to retain our commitment to no university tuition fees. Recently, I was putting the world to rights on this issue with a physiotherapist where I had gone for treatment on an injured knee (indirectly caused by the cat, and I may write another time about the destruction by stealth of the NHS which required treatment from a freelance – and very helpful – expert). I happened to remark that when I was at university, not only were tuition fees paid by the local council, but that students were recipients of a grant for living expenses.
'Oh,' he said, 'that would be in the 1950s'. I am devoutly hoping that his mathematical ability is even worse than mine, otherwise a rough mental calculation suggested that he thought I was in my 90s. A couple of weeks ago, I referred to a TV programme about looking 10 years younger in a week. I wonder if they are still doing auditions?
Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant