writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Monthly Archives: February 2014

Scottish Standard English, Scots, and Fifty Ways to use a Scunner

Two things inspired this, the first being a post by the brilliant cygnoir about how she enjoyed hearing Scottish Standard English being spoken every day. The second was from an almost equally prestigious source, the Times of London’s letters page. I’d love to point you at the latter, but Roop charges for Times Online, and frankly, I think getting one of his newspapers once a week is more than he deserves, of which more later.

First of all to cygnoir, who is my friend and fellow Edinburgh-based writer Halstead Bernard. In her December 18 post, she wrote:

“Today I am having a day of expat feelings, so I am going to talk about something I love about living in Scotland and something that annoys me.

I love hearing SSE (Scottish Standard English) every day. In fact, I have done tireless (read: not tireless) research to bring to you the absolute best (read: or just really good) sentence to hear in SSE: “Will you tell the girls about the murder rate of squirrels in third-world countries?” I also love hearing the following words: dreich, guddle, drouthy, numpty, outwith. I hope I didn’t offend anyone by writing this. At least I didn’t say …

Haggis. I am vastly annoyed by the punchline to jokes from non-Scots being, “Haggis!” And I love haggis, so it’s not like I object on culinary grounds. It’s just such a lazy joke, like responding to anything Italian by saying, “Spaghetti with meatballs!”

Hm, now I’m hungry.”

Typically sweet of Halstead to concern herself about offending someone by liking their accent. Rather than offending, it motivated me to put a clip of those words up on Freesound as one example of how SSE sounds. However, in the unlikely event of any of my fellow Scots being so tightly wound that they are offended, I say only this.

Firstly, Halstead, and her husband, Funkyplaid, are as far from the stereotypical brash Yankee as you could possibly get. They are charming, educated folks, who have actually gone the length of coming to live and work in this dark, cold, rocky outcrop of the European mainland with us.

Secondly, we should thank our lucky stars other English speakers find our accent charming. A brief Google search discloses that SSE speakers are considered the most reassuring to hear in an emergency; that call centres value us as our voices are thought to reflect probity and caution; they’re even rated second most pleasing to listen to after something called ‘Queen’s English.’

Compare that with the poor old Scousers, the Liverpool accent being considered ‘least intelligent and least trustworthy,’ amongst fellow Brits.

The only time I’ve been to the States, at a conference in Nashville, (where, actually, I didn’t meet hardly any stereotypical brash Yankees – hey, maybe we should revisit that stereotype, eh?) there was indeed a charming lady who peppered with me with questions until confessing that she was only doing it to hear my accent. Come to think of it though, she didn’t ask me about the murder rate of squirrels in Third World countries.

Was that so bad? I didn’t think so (just for the record, anyone with Irish (Northern or Southern), Spanish or French accented English automatically gains extra points from me. I know that’s not the way it should be, but it is. Apologies to any of those I pepper with questions).

In my Freesound clip, I used what I understand to be SSE: in other words, what I would use in normal everyday speech, particularly if speaking to a non-Fifer (like everyone, I guess, my accent does broaden out when speaking to fellow natives).

So much for Scottish Standard English.  What about that rather more contentious, not to say slippery concept, Scots?

Accents fascinate me. Probably because I’ve been born and brought up in Scotland, I’ve always had an ear for the way intonations and pronunciations of Scots accents change, even if you travel a few miles in any direction. I could tell you if a person came from Kirkcaldy or Dunfermline, for example, the two biggest Fife towns, about ten miles distant from each other. I could be pretty sure of my ground if you asked me to tell if a person had spent most of their life in North Fife, or across the Tay Bridge in Dundee, where the accent changes again markedly. Going further north, the Doric of Aberdeen changes the pronunciation again.

Which makes rendering them into a written approximation doubly difficult. Take the phrase, ‘see you later.’ In Fife, the pronunciation turns that into something like ‘seeyuh lu’er,’ with a glottal stop replacing the ‘t’ in the last word (interestingly, the phrase seems to lend itself to heavy accenting in other languages, too – the Spanish ‘hasta luego’ (lit. until then) is classically pronounced ‘aasta loowego,’ but generally comes out as ‘’sta logo.’)

There are about a zillion other examples. ‘What,’ is pronounced ‘Whit,’ Whut,’ or even, in the North-East, ‘Fit.’ Some of these variations are better documented than others, and Fife hasn’t to my knowledge been much written down.

When I was working on my chapbook of Fife football fairy stories, I had to basically create a whole etymology of words and phrases to smooth out the different tries I’d had over the course of three stories at getting Fife pronunciation on the page. When I was working on my Soundcloud version of Thrawn Janet, I even had to take a red pen to Robert Louis Stevenson (I know! The sheer impertinence!) to make sure I was comfortable with one or two of the Scots words.

According to English Accents and Dialects, (5th edition) Hodder Education, 2012: “Describing Scots as a dialect of English is problematic in a number of ways … historically speaking, it would be more accurate to say that Scots and English are dialects of a language that is the common ancestor of both, because both derive from a West Germanic dialect that was imported to Britain from northern Germany and Denmark  in the mid-fifth century. The history of Scots is just as long as the history of English in these islands … but even today many Scottish people are not altogether sure what distinction is intended by the use of the term ‘Scots’ versus ‘Scottish English.’”

As our American friends might say, you bet your ass, buddy. And I’m not even going anywhere near the socio-political implications of Scots being a distinct language. No sirree Bob. Not in Referendum Year. Instead, let’s go back to see what the Times of London letters page was mithering (a good Mancunian word) about.

Referring to an earlier report (which I didn’t see, as we take the Guardian during the week, only succumbing to the blandishments of News International because, frankly, the Guardian’s Saturday edition isn’t as good, no matter how bleeding heart liberal it might be) entitled “Scots mind their language and hang on to braw words,” there was a minor stushie (nope, didn’t think Microsoft Word would recognise that one) over the meaning of Scots words still in current use.

First out of the blocks was a William Warrack of Sheffield, and the meaning of three words, ‘braw,’  ‘glaikit,’ and ‘scunnered.’ Mr Warrack, rather unsportingly I felt, let slip that his reference point, Chamber’s Scots Dialect (sic) Dictionary, had been compiled by his great grandfather, the Rev. Alexander Warrack.

According to this authority, ‘glaikit’ is defined as ‘giddy or foolish in an affected manner;’ ‘braw,’ rather than being beautiful, is handsome or even able bodied, and rather than being bored, ‘scunnered,’ according to Mr Warrack’s great-grandfather, “implies loathing, repugnance or disgust.”

Meanwhile, a Mary Pirie of Tighnabruaich felt that scunnered meant annoyed, rather than bored.

So who’s right, the Sheffield-resident descendant of a celebrated etymologist, or the redoubtable Mrs Pirie? The answer, of course, is both of them, and neither. Because the whole point of these surviving Scots words is there is no exact English equivalent. That’s why we keep using them!

Take the simplest of these, ‘braw.’ It could be applied to either sex, to mean beautiful or handsome. There are probably more handsome women in Scotland than beautiful men, but let’s leave that to one side: the point is, it’s a good general term indicating positivity, something the Scots are not universally noted for, it’s fair to say. (I was reminded the other day of the phrase from Wodehouse about there being no difficulty differentiating between a ray of sunshine and a Scot with a grievance. Outrageous English propaganda, of course.) Braw can also be used to denote general satisfaction with a state of affairs, as in, ‘that’s braw.’

And now, ‘glaikit.’ I fear I must depart from Mr Warrack’s great grandfather, as glaikit to me doesn’t mean ‘giddy or foolish in an affected manner.’ It may be it meant that in 1911, but to me the nearest standard English equivalent is gormless. It denotes, I think, a lack of common sense, a lack of self-knowledge, or just plain witlessness: but, crucially, is also usually associated with how the person looks.

There was an excellent example the other day when I was dropping off Daughter and Heiress somewhere, and she asked, not without an element of sarcasm, whether she could wait in the car or whether I thought she should ‘stand outside and look glaikit.’ Now, D & H is in full possession of her mental faculties: I would even go so far as to say she has more than her share of common sense for a teenager. It wasn’t that she was glaikit; it was, notwithstanding any internal degree of cerebral activity, that she would look glaikit. I let her wait in the car.

However, that’s only my opinion, and that, I think, is what makes Scots as a language so slippery. Even if one is to consult noted authorities such as Mr Warrack’s great-grandfather, it’s not the end of the matter. The etymology of words changes with time, and with geography. There’s no central medium like the movies or the telly to create some sort of universal acceptance of what a word like glaikit might mean. That’s why I tend to disagree with attempts to codify Scots into some kind of unitary linguistic organism called Lallans.

Which leads me, finally, to scunner. Ah, scunner! Shall I compare thee to a Scottish summer’s day? Thou art yet more changeable and inconstant. Mr Warrack and Mrs Pirie are, again in my view, both right. Scunnered can involve the English words they use: it can imply loathing, repugnance or disgust. It can also mean annoyed.

But they’re both also wrong. Scunnered can encompass boredom. It can involve varying degrees of annoyance, boredom, loathing, repugnance and disgust. In fact, almost any word in a similar vein can be implied by the use of the word scunnered. You can be scunnered with your job, your nearest and dearest, with the fading fortunes of your football team, or with the whole lot of them. It can denote that you’re finished with a topic, or an aspect of your existence.

As a verb, it can be in the active or passive voice. You can be scunnered with something, or you can even scunner yourself. Used as a noun, it can be a wearisome or troublesome activity, or even something more like a feeling – Stevenson, in Thrawn Janet, uses it to mean a feeling of dread. It also can denote loathing, repugnance, disgust or similar with a person – as in, ‘That George Osborne (or it could be Rupert Murdoch, Ed Miliband, or Alex Salmond) is a pure scunner.’

Right, that’s all for now. I think I might have scunnered myself with the whole thing.




Crowd Surfing, Clothes Throwing, Flea Bites Optional (or not): Foals and Cage the Elephant in what may be The Greatest Rock Gig Ever

I’ve been thinking a lot about mindfulness, recently, mainly because it’s all about you everywhere you turn these days. In the papers, on the telly, on t’Internet, some bozo’s earning a few bob recycling this concept of, if you can live in the moment and forget about the past and the future, it’s like, such a healing place to be, you know? The Buddhists have been doing it for years apparently. Who knew.

I was even thinking about this during the early stages of the Foals set on Sunday night, as they began tearing up the O2 Academy, Glasgow, with a barnstorming performance. And why not? Isn’t that, after all, what the truly great gigs do – transport you from all your workaday worries and back story of woe to a place where you are just there, in that moment, enraptured, the magical wrangling of your synapses by the guitars/bass/drums/keyboard/vocals (or, I guess, if it floats your boat, random electronic bleepings) making you wish this moment could go on forever, that this, this was real life, and your other life, the one you call real life, was just a mildly disturbing dream you’d now woken from?

Yeah, well. If you’re anything like me, there are a million things to drag your mind’s sorry ass back from that rapture. To use Sunday as an example, the car being parked somewhere that looked like the place to park if you wanted to do a drug deal in the Gorbals. The guys to your right being more bent on getting the next pint in than sitting still and actually listening to the music, which you kind of thought was the point. Whether you’ll need to pee again before going back to collect what’s left of the car. The really strange smell coming off the seating.

And so to the music. We’ll gloss over the first support act, That Fucking Tank, a guitar and drums duo from Leeds. To be honest I had a really snarky riff about how they might have got started, but on the principle of if you haven’t something positive to say, don’t say anything at all, I won’t say anything at all. Besides, they were out there on stage getting paid for what they do, and your reviewer was in the front row of the balcony getting eaten by the local wildlife, so who is he to be snarky?

Besides, things took a distinct upward turn with the arrival of the second band, Cage the Elephant, a six-piece from Bowling Green, Kentucky. Now, it’s fair to say your reviewer hadn’t heard of Cage the Elephant before, far less Bowling Green, Kentucky, but frankly any town unimaginative enough to name itself after a recreational pastime’s playing surface sounds like the kind of place you’d want to form a rock and roll band and get the hell out of, quam primum, as they say in Kelty. Or even Kentucky.

Bowling Green’s loss turned out to be Glasgow’s gain, big style. The band’s Wikipedia entry describes their musical style as ‘alternative rock, garage rock, punk blues, indie rock,’ which I suppose just about covers it, although it was definitely more punk than blues, with a generous dollop of bands like the Ramones prominent in the bone structure. Lead singer Matthew Shultz had also clearly attended the Iggy Pop Finishing School of Performing Arts, and it wasn’t long before he attempted his first – but by no means last – crowd surf.

Ah yes, the crowd. ‘You guys are animals,’ Shultz informed them on making it back to the stage, before taking his top off and diving back in for more. And indeed they were. The Cage the Elephant set unleashed a growing frenzy in the stalls, and one could only lean over the balcony and watch, and marvel. There was lots of good natured (I think) slamming into one another amongst the young bucks, as well as a seemingly endless stream of stuff getting thrown: water, beer, other unspecified liquid substances, plastic (thankfully) containers, items of clothing. Shirts, socks, everything.

Most of this seemed to end up elsewhere in the crowd, rather than on stage, and the band played on as crowd members emulated Shultz, crawling over the heads of their fellow audience members, like drones ejected from the swarm, and looking for a way back into its warmth. Eventually these bold spirits would reach the front, where the security guys would pick them off and pass them along to the sides, where they would be released back into the hive mind.

As another review of the gig has noted, Cage the Elephant seemed to be in danger of stealing the show. They closed their set in a squall of feedback, Shultz lying on his back on stage, facing away from the audience, stripped to the waist and glistening like a sweaty reincarnation of Jim Morrison himself. All he needed was the half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels, but who knows, maybe only pussies drink JD in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

So Foals had a bit of work to do to reclaim their audience. They started slowly, with Prelude, before building through Hummer, Olympic Airways, and My Number. By this time the stalls were a seething, boiling mass of activity, and when frontman Yannis Philippakis disappeared into the crowd before rising, slowly, like a tiny bearded rock god, still playing his guitar, you could have sworn the fans bearing him aloft had fused into one adoring organism, made solely of flesh, beer, and plaid cotton.

Philippakis was a cooler, slightly less frenetic presence than Cage the Elephant’s Shultz – he had a guitar to play, after all – but ultimately the more charismatic of the two: and that’s saying something, because Shultz was no slouch in the crowd pleasing stakes. Ultimately, though, Foals as a musical unit have a really pleasing, unified, sound, with the guitars working off each other really superbly. I may write more about the frenetically scrubbed sound of many indie bands another time, but here the high-pitched riffing of Jimmy Smith’s guitar was complemented by the more rocky, lower register crunch of Philippakis’s.

The whole set was perfectly pitched, with highlights perhaps being Spanish Sahara, Providence, and Inhaler. The sound was just amazing, the light show (not something this reviewer is usually bothered about) astonishing, and the atmosphere – the sheer unbounded joy of the crowd bouncing around to every last drop of the thing – unforgettable.

And yes, even your festival dad reviewer, with all his accumulated lists of things to think, plan, and worry in advance on, lost himself in the midst of it all, found the rapture, and admitted to Daughter and Heiress that yes, this might be The Best Rock Gig Ever. Even better than Dylan and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers in Birmingham, 1987. Really. That good.

It wasn’t perfect, of course. The sound system blew out on the final encore, leaving the band to close the show with the muted growling of the onstage monitors. They could have dispensed with the first band and given themselves and Cage the Elephant longer sets. And there were the insect bites to consider the next day. But then, the Best Rock Gig Ever isn’t necessarily the Most Perfect Rock Gig Ever. In fact, it almost definitely isn’t. It needs to be hot and sweaty. Beer needs to be drunk, and indeed thrown liberally over other people. Steam has to actually rise from the seats at the end of it (yes, really!)

And Foals saw that all of that came to pass. And lo, Foals looked down upon their followers, and were pleased. And lo, the feeling was entirely mutual.

Flea bites though. Genuine, honest to goodness critters sucking the blood out of you. I’m taking the insect repellent to Bombay Bicycle Club on 3rd March.

Keith Ferguson – a remarkable man

Normally, this blog is meant to be a repository of the quirky, surreal, and all that sort of stuff. However, I can’t let my father’s passing simply go unmentioned.

Dad was admitted to Victoria Hospital, Kirkcaldy, on 27th December last, and died in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary on 22nd January. Although he was 85, and he was admitted with a serious condition, we always expected him to recover, so his loss is all the worse for us because of that. His funeral on Tuesday helped a little, but life will not be the same without him.

For those of you who weren’t fortunate enough to know Keith Ferguson, his obituary is on the Scotsman website. He was a remarkable man with many achievements – achievements which he was still adding to right up to his final illness. In a few weeks I’ll be telling you about his book, which we’re publishing posthumously.

For now though, here’s what I gave the Humanist celebrant by way of my contribution to the tribute at the funeral. Sleep well, Dad. We miss you more than we could possibly say.


Dad was an inspiration, even when I didn’t think he was. I never had that Mark Twain moment of thinking he was the most ignorant man in the world when I was 14, only to find out he’d learned a lot by the time I was 21.

But when I was 17, I was determined to go to University, but do anything other than law, like him. I ended up doing law.

When I was 18, in my first year, I was determined I would do anything other than end up becoming a solicitor, like him. Wrong again.

It wasn’t that I didn’t admire him even then, and what he did. But I saw what life as a high level lawyer in a public sector organisation took out of  him. By the time I was 21, he was in hospital getting a triple bypass, and I was deciding that, ok, I would probably end up being a solicitor, but I definitely wouldn’t end up being a solicitor in public service, like him. Guess what.

Fortunately, Dad was an inspiration in far more important things than career choices. One of my fondest memories of teenage years was the way he used to bring me a cup of tea in bed to encourage me to go off to the pool with him, first thing, before school and work. His successful management of his heart condition by exercise and sensible eating was not lost on me, and I’m pretty sure it’s the reason I’ve kept good health up to now.

More importantly than that, he taught me the virtues – and benefits – of hard work, positivity, courtesy, kindness, listening to the other point of view, and treating people the same no matter what their age or social class.

Of backing up your arguments with facts. Of having at least half an idea of things like Latin, and nineteenth-century authors. The importance of revising and revising anything you wrote until you were pig sick of it, and then putting it away in a drawer to let it settle before you revised it one more time. The importance of being Scottish.

Even more importantly, he taught me how to bowl a leg-spinner, and the googly. Crucial life lessons about the right amount of water to put in your whisky, how to wear a false moustache with style, how to tell a good anecdote.

When I think back on Dad, as I now must do, there are a million tiny things he taught me by example, about being a man, a husband, and a father. There’s a phrase we non-fiction writers like to put in the start of our books when we thank sundry folk for their help in editing, commenting, doing research, or otherwise getting the book over the line. The errors, we say, are all our own.

That’s how I feel about Dad. All my best bits come from him. The errors are all my own.

Oh, and dreams. Not giving up on them. He definitely taught me that, too.