Scrieved with forked tongue: A growing number of writers say Scots as a written language deserves more than its annual reading this Burns Night. By Robert Hanks

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Tonight, all around the world, millions of Scots will be toasting the memory of Robert Burns in whisky and reciting the ode To the Haggis ('Fair fa' your honest sonsie face / Great chieftain o' the puddin'-race]'). So, too, will millions more of half-Scots, honorary Scots and not even remotely Scots: since his death nearly 200 years ago, Burns has become an embodiment of Scotland, and his poetry a kind of universal language.

But while individual poems were well-known ('Auld Lang Syne', 'My Luve's like a red red rose'), the language that Burns wrote in, Scots, all but died out, or so it seems. Hugh MacDiarmid tried to revive it singlehanded in the first half of this century; but most Scottish writers have worked in what, for the sake of convenience, we'll call standard English.

In the last few years, though, Scottish writing has undergone a renaissance, and with it has come a resurgence of writing in Scots. Robin Robertson of Jonathan Cape says, 'It so happens that the most interesting fiction in Britain is being written in Scotland just now.' He may count as a prejudiced witness, since at Secker and Warburg he was responsible for bringing a trio of Scots writers to public attention - James Kelman, Jeff Torrington and Irvine Welsh.

It isn't just in fiction that the phenomenon is observable: seven out of the 20 poets now being promoted as a 'New Generation' come from north of the Border, and two of those, Robert Crawford and W N Herbert, write largely in Scots. There are playwrights like Liz Lochhead, Simon Donald and Bill Findlay; not to mention composers such as James MacMillan who have set Scots texts, and pop groups such as The Proclaimers.

But if it's clear that Scots writing is on the rise, what 'Scots writing' means is open to question. Scots is not a unified language - the urban Strathclyde patois of Rab C Nesbitt has a very different vocabulary and accent from the rural dialect of Aberdeenshire (W N Herbert says: 'A north-east farmer saying 'Aye' goes on for hours, and it sound like he's breaking his jaw'). As yet, too, there's no standard orthography - most writers make up spelling as they go along.

But this raises the question of what qualifies writing as Scots: can you turn a piece of English into Scots just by including a few obvious words - mair for 'more', ane for 'one', frae for 'from'? Or does it involve more specialised vocabulary, such as fou' (drunk), thrapple (the gullet), fankle (to fumble).

It's a matter of how it looks as much as anything. Take the first two stanzas of a W N Herbert's poem To Rutskoi:

As Eh exhaled, trehin tae relax,

Eh heard thi saulter i thi field ootside

whinny, and Eh thocht o thon

puir cuddie in Kutznetsky Street

that Mayakovsky waatcht faa doon,

be whuppit as ut pechd uts life awa

There are only three obscure words there: saulter and cuddie are both synonyms for 'horse', and pechd means 'panted'. The rest you can understand by reading aloud.

Where you draw the line between Scots and English is still the cause of dispute. The history of the language goes back to the 12th century, but for much of that time it has been influenced and corrupted by English, and boundaries that were clear cut in the 14th century are harder to draw now. Is the novelist James Kelman, for example, writing in Scots, or just a mildly modified demotic English?

Stuart McHardy is at one extreme of this argument. He runs the Scots Language Resource Centre in Perth, which holds a collection of Scots language material ranging from rare folk-song collections to Harry Lauder 78s. McHardy is actually mildly reluctant to include Kelman in his roster of Scottish writers, simply because he doesn't like the swearing. Otherwise, he sees 'Scots' as a very broad church: in his view, it is the language spoken by the majority in Scotland, even if they don't realise they are speaking it - it just happens to share enough vocabulary with English for the two languages to be mutually comprehensible, but is still a distinct tongue.

At the other end is the poet and academic Douglas Dunn. He agrees with McHardy that Scots is best seen as a sister tongue of English, rather than an offshoot, but regards it as now primarily a literary language: 'It's very rare to find - in fact I have never experienced - somebody speaking Scots with the same density of vocabulary as you will find in a poem self-consciously written in Scots.' He regards most Scots as speaking 'Scots English'.

Somewhere in the middle ground stands Bill Findlay, best known for his translations into Scots of the Quebecois plays of Michel Tremblay. 'Spoken Scots is still alive, but it's not the same as literary Scots. Literary Scots refers to an aggrandising of a spoken Scots base with words that are taken from Scotland's literary past.'

The past looms large over any discussion of what it means to write in Scots. For some, this is an advantage: Bill Herbert says that, 'There is a very large vocabulary of Scots which is now going out, which is lapsing, and it is possible to dip into that without sounding too strained.' It helps that, thanks to the Scottish National Dictionary Association, Scots can check their vocabulary. Herbert says that 'If you read the Scots dictionary you're basically reading an enormous novel about Scottish life.'

The past, too, provides a political impulse for many writers in Scots. Robin Robertson says that 'A rejection of England is implicit in the Scottish character' (he adds that many of his best friends are English, though without much conviction). Certainly for writers like MacDiarmid, assertion of Scotland's identity was the primary issue - Gaelic is spoken by too few people ever to serve as a truly national language, in the view of many Scots. The poet and playwright Liz Lochhead sees a renewed self-confidence in language contrasting with Scotland's continuing political impotence.

Still, writing in Scots can be an acceptance of the way things are as much as a rejection. In his introduction to The Faber Book of 20th-Century Verse, Douglas Dunn quotes the poet Edwin Muir: 'The curse of Scottish literature is the lack of a whole language, which finally means the lack of a whole mind.' Bill Herbert writes poetry in both Scots and English on the grounds that 'To use either English or Scots . . . seems to cover up some aspect of our experience, to 'lie' ' - hence the title of his forthcoming collection, Forked Tongue (Bloodaxe).

There is a further side to the Scots writing revival: many writers believe that Scots offers a flexibility of register, in its diversity of dialects, that English cannot - Bill Findlay calls it 'a very rich resource, perhaps unique in the English-speaking world'. In Herbert's poem To Rutskoi, you find in the first two stanzas the words 'saulter' and 'cuddie' - both alternatives to 'horse' unavailable to the writer in English.

But if Scots presents new routes to the writer, it's undeniable that it also presents challenges to many readers in terms of vocabulary, while the lack of standard spelling is still a block to ease of reading. Because spelling reflects the way words sound, you can always get around this difficulty by reading aloud. Bill Herbert has a simple piece of advice to the novice English reader: 'Base yourself on Scottie out of Star Trek and get going.'