The First Meenister’s Readin Challenge

By Thomas Clark
Wha kent whit, an when did thay ken it? E’er syne thay catcht auld Dick Nixon wi his lug tae the Watergate waw, oor politeecians hae makkit a guid haundlin oot o the doctrine o plausible deniability, itherwise kent as the virtue o unexpectit ignorance. Knawledge, tae oor current crop o baby-kissers, is a volatile thing, ayeweys apt tae blaw up in yer face; an in fact is just like Schrödinger’s box — naebody kens for shuir whit’s in there, but it’s fifty-fifty ye’ll be left wi a deid cat tae explain.

Onygates, it leukt as if the Donald had takken yon trend tae its logical conclusion when he wis electit high heid yin o the free warld on the basis o kennin absolutely naething aboot absolutely onythin — weel, until this week, that is, when his auld sparrin pairtner, Mister Salmond o Lithgae, admeetit in a student paper that, afore 2015, he had niver actually read a beuk.

Fake news or whit! It turns oot aw oor yin-time First Meenister said wis that he hadna written a beuk afore 2015. An honest mistak aw roond, it seems, an strauchtent oot sprig eneuch, tho that didnae stap a few radges on baith sides breengin in bits-first, tryin tae get their licks in afore the nee-naw caurs pullt up.

Aw o which so faur is juist same stuff on a different day. But whit interestit me wis hou mony o the fowk that war gettin their knickers in a twist aboot this — the scandalous suggestion that Alex Salmond had never rade a beuk — war, thairsels, fowk wha plainly dinnae value the act o readin. Mak a muckle point oot o it. Hinnae the time. Hinnae the interest. Get aw the news thay need fae Facebook. Arenae bothert. Are kind o prood o it. An yet find unacceptable the notion that somebody thay admire michtna read themsels.

Declaration o interest, here: A’m a librarian bi tred. Will be as lang as onybody thinks it’s a job wirth peyin for. A dicey proposeetion the nou, tae be shuir — every day some library or anither, be it a thrivin Carnegie in a muckle toun centre, or a vanfu o Westerns putterin aboot the Hebrides, is faced wi the axe. Stock cuts, staff cuts, openin oors slashed tae ribbons. Libraries growin e’er mair reliant on donations o beuks, siller an time. Big haun for the Big Society, aabody. Weel din, Davie C — ye finally really did it.

A’m no flingin oot ma cap for a whiproond, like. Ye can aw pit by yer hankies the nou. Nane o yon is news tae onybody. Ye aw ken the fankle that libraries are in. An gin ye dinnae ken the nummers aff bi hert, ye’ve a notion o thaim. Mair fowk gan tae libraries than tae fitba gemmes. Readin maks a bigger difference tae a bairn’s educational ootcomes than social class. Twa libraries a week shuttered unner the Tories. An on, an on, an on. A dinnae want tae get ower wrapped up in the specifics o whit libraries hae tae offer. Tae fetishize the date stamp an the auld caird catalogue is playin richt intae the hauns o thaim wha cry us the relics o the past.

Nou, like ony guild, the grave profession o the librarians has got its mysteries, an A’m gonnae let ye in on a big yin here. As a caird-cairryin member o the shush brigade, there’s naething gets ma back up like hearin fowk gaun ower big for libraries. Aye, ye heard me richt. The Prime Meenister, the Culture Meenister, the specialist czar for literacy — the meenit ony o them gets oot the pompoms, ma heid’s fair bouncin.

Acause the idea o libraries has niver been short o cheerleaders. A mean, even the Tories ken that fowk like libraries. An there’s plenty o politeecians inby the faurest reaches o government (whaur a guid soundbite, like a bent bawbee, costs naething an is wirth less) happy tae gab awa aboot the idea o libraries, in the same elegaic tone thay employ for ither fantastical notions that hae lang syne shot the craw, sic as post offices or lichthooses or a fair day’s pey for a fair day’s wirk. An, siccar as ye like, yon tone-deif mythologizin o the Gowden Age o Libraries aye rins straucht intae rueful conseederations aboot the real warld we happen tae leeve in, an sic haundy factoids as hae takken up bidin in it, austerity an e-beuks an whitever else cams tae mynd.

Weel, let’s face the facts. The Internet has makkit leeteratur mair accessible an, tae an extent, affuirdable tae a wheen o fowk. Moby Dick has went fae bein a £7.99 Oxford Edition tae a £1 Everyman Classic tae a free dounload on Project Gutenberg. Wha’s complainin? But the real price o yon free e-beuk isnae the Kindle ye need tae read it or the bandwidth ye need tae access it — it’s the accelerated capitalism that’s assignin these mercat values tae these priceless things. The cost o a free Wuthering Heights, in ither wirds, is a wirthless Wuthering Heights, the loss o oor capacity tae express whit things mean tae us in ony ither currency than pounds an pence.

E’er syne 52% o fowk votit tae cut oorsels aff fae the continent — fae the warld — the pound’s been fleein up an doun like a firework let aff in a livin room. Maist o us dinnae really ken why or hou that wirks, juist that withoot spendin ony siller we’ve somehou wound up wi less, like some Christopher Nolan reboot o the Loaves an the Fishes. The anely currency we ken tae uise has been unpegged fae reality — it’s nae wunner that we’re left skytin aboot like contestants on The Price is Right, no shuir gin the act o readin beuks is priceless or valueless.

Nae dout ye ken whaur A’m gaun wi aw this. Ony meenit nou, ye’re thinkin, A’m gonnae mount the barricade wi ma flaming sword an a muckle cry tae airms. Save oor libraries! Save oor dog-eared Famous Fives! Save oor specky spinsters! But ye’re wrang. Yon idea o libraries is awready deid, an onybody strivin tae keep yon alive isnae daein it oot o nostalgia, tae bring back the libraries we’ve lost. Thay’re daein it tae get rid o the yins we’ve still got. In Scotland, we’re still aheid o that gemme. But let’s no dislocate oor shouders wi pattin oorsels on the back. The initiatives are braw, but let’s aye mynd that whit we’re leukin for is mair than juist the First Meenister’s Readin Challenge. It’s evidence o the First Meenister’s challengin readin.

Hou can we meisur the value o abstractions? Hou dae we represent oor feelins aboot democracy ‘cept throu oor pairliament? Oor ideas aboot justice ithergates than in oor coorts? The notion o libraries — weel, yon’s a grand an noble story. But gie us some brick an stane ower stories. Gie us some concrete ower castles in the air.

Thomas ClarkThomas Clark is a makar an scriever fae the Scottish Borders. He is currently editor o Scots at Bella Caledonia, an poet-in-residence at Selkirk FC. He gabs awa at www.thomasjclark.co.uk and on Twitter @clashcityclarky.

Selected glossary

Scots English
aye, ayeweys always
bawbee small coin
bidin residing, staying
breengin pushing
catcht caught
cry call
fankle predicament
gin if
haundlin business
high heid yin leader
ithergates elsewhere
ken, kennin know, knowing
lug ear
michtna might not
mynd remember
onygates anyway, anyhow
radge a wild obstreperous person
sic such
siccar surely
siller money
sprig quickly
strauchtent straightened
syne since, ago
yin one
yon that

Trains approaching?

By Alistair Heather

Puir infrastructure is a belt aboot Scotland’s thrapple. Oor roads are pithailed anachronisms. Boats tae the isles are auld an dear. Fleein tae ony airt ither than London gars ye travel tae the ane o the central belt aeroports, doublin the cost an time o ilka journey. Scotrail is a mixter-maxter o the sorry an the sublime. On ae haun there’s a braw new electric service breengin atween Embra an Glasgae. On the ither haun ye hae twa-carriage vintage trains rattlin aroon an aboot the hielands, gangin nae place fast. No ainly is infrastructure puir, but infrastructure inequality is severe an growin worse ilka year. Gin ye want tae gang onywhaur in Scotland north o the Forth, by car, sea or rail, it’ll be slaw an it’ll be dear.

The effects o this are extreme. Hail sections o Scotland are economically uninhabitable.

Ane o the worst effected airts is the Buchan. The Broch. Peterheid. Buckie. MacDuff. Big touns thrang wi culture, business an potential, cut aff fae mercats an cities by an infrastructure that’s oot o date by decades.

A solution is chuggin reekily owre the horizon: the Buchan railway line. There aince wis a line linkin aa the North-East tae the rest o Scotland, but it wis torn oot by Beeching in his cuts. Nou the clash is a reinstatement is possible. The SNP are getting ahint the idea. It has grassroots support.

Whether it’d be a full relaying o the auld 57-mile track that linked Peterheid an the Broch wi Dyce, or some new configuration, isnae yet set in stane. But whit is gey clear tae the maist blindit o een is the sair need in the area for a train line.

The fowk o the Buchan are haein tae thole gey sair times the nou, in the wake o the oil crash an the decline o fishin. Unemployment is a huge issue. The nummer o fowk needin a haun fae the state rose by 97.5% in 2016. The lack o ony ither employment opportunities in that airt means that thae fowk wha are dumped oot on their dowp efter years o guid wark in the oil an gas industry arnae likely tae finn new posts ony time soon. The unemployed are mair nor likely tae be hail, hearty men atween the ages o aboot forty an saxty, an skilled warkers intae their sectors. Ae muckle barrier tae wark wis that thay juist coudnae gang intae Aiberdeen for tae finn wark or mak contacts; it wis juist owre far. Nou, ye’re mibbie ainly spikkin aboot forty mile or so, but on thae totty wee roads, wi their ferm clart an tractors blockin yer run, it micht weel be twa hours tae drive. It’s fower hours an twenty quid return on the bus.

So aa these gey talented lads, richt in the middle o their warkin lives, are bein left tae rot in the fields like unhowkit tatties, their skills deid tae the economy o Scotland.

An exaimple fae near at haun shaws us clearly the benefits o a train line.

Ballatar an Braemar are baith Cairngorm conurbations. Baith were on ane o the vital routes through the Cairngorms an therefore hud every reason tae be a vibrant economic hubs. In the nineteen-hunners a trainline wis planned, tae link Braemar tae Aiberdeen. Construction got sae far as tae big a railway station at Braemar, a biggin that stauns there yet.

But then intae this natural development cam big Queen Vicky. She bocht Balmoral Castle, an a guid skelp o the laun thereaboot. She soon cam tae ken that the new railroad wad gang richt by her new front door. So the train wis stapped at Ballater, saxteen mile doun the road. Braemar was left tae stew in parochialism.

The difference atween the twa touns — ane wi a train station durin a century, the ither withoot — coudnae be mair marked. The population o Ballater is double that o Braemar, its tourism infrastructure is weel-developed an it has a relatively diverse economy.

The tearin up o the North o Scotland railroads pit a stap tae Ballater’s development, but the tale o the twa touns is a usefu fable for unnerstaunin the importance o infrastructure in rural areas.

There is a braw modren test-case for rebiggin the Buchan railway line: The Borders Railway. The Borders line rins fae Embra doun tae Tweedbank, juist ayont Galashiels. The area wis ane o the maist disconnectit in Scotland, wi a hirplin tourism industry an prohibitive travel costs. Busses tae Embra took owre twa hours, but this train taks unner ane. This situation is mirrored by the Broch an Aiberdeen.

The economic impact o the Border Railway has been staggerin. Owre a million passengers in the first year — 350,000 mair than expectit — an a huge shot in the airm o local businesses. The Scottish Tourism Economic Assessment Monitor (STEAM) figures for the Borders efter the biggin of the railway were aa fantastically positive; a 27% increase in visitors steyin at hotels an B&Bs. 20% mair spent by visitors on bevvy an scran. Aa across the board nummers are heized up.

There’s naebody doun there scratchin their heids speirin whaur aa this new money cam fae. thay ken fine. “The introduction of the railway has undoubtedly contributed” tae aa this growth, says Stuart Bell fae the Borders Cooncil.

The Buchan needs this railway like it needs its neist breath o air. The belt o 19th century infrastructure needs lowsed aff the thrapple o the North-East.

The Transport Minister, an indeed aabody in the SNP leadership maun pit their shooder tae the wark an mak absolute certain that this project comes tae fruition. A new trainline will be the artery, pumpin the lifebluid o cash an fowk tae the Buchan hertlands that’s sae sairly needit. Wi’oot it? It’ll be yet anither toom airt, anither Ross, anither Cairgorms, anither bleak wasteland that aince supported life but nou ainly exists for grouse shoots an postcairds.

James McDonaldAlistair Heather is the Scots Editor at Bella Caledonia. He studies History an French at Aiberdeen University, an warks wi the Elphinstone Institute promotin the culture o the North-East. Gie him yer chat @historic_ally on Twitter.

Selected glossary

Scots English
aince once
airt place
ane one
bevvy an scran drink and food
biggin building
bocht bought
dowp buttocks
gars ye forces you to
heized up risen
hirplin limping
ilka each
mixter-maxter a jumble
neist next
speirin questioning
thrang packed
thrapple throat

Pit astronomy heich up in the Scots eddication seestem

Editor’s note: many thanks to James for Discourse.scot’s first article in Scots. You can read about the rich history of Scots, and explore its vocabulary, over at the Dictionar o the Scots Leid website. There’s also a selected glossary at the end of this post. Happy reading. JS.


By James McDonald
We can read this Thursday in The National that Scotland coud be the place for the rapplin space industry by the wey o Tom Walkinshaw o technology firm, Alba Orbital. We can read an aw that space technology firms fae Scotland is developpin new technology, wi Alba Orbital developpin the lichtest, cheapest, an peeriest sattelite aroun.

Anither newins tae dae wi the Scots space industry, the possibeelity o a spaceport, wis proponed an aw, bi Commonspace. This idea wis descreived as “science fiction” bi Adam Tomkins, Tory MSP. But this is in maugre o the first spaceport bein biggit in Kazakhstan in 1957 (on lease tae Roushie syne Kazakhstan’s wanthirldom in 1991) an twa new yins biggit juist last yeir, in Roushie an Cheena. Sae it’s mair tae be science fact. An Scotland awready haes its ain space industry, becomin sonsier an sonsier, as Commonspace pynts out.

An Scotland investin in its space industry wad be a braw idea, in ma view, for a hantle raisons. The investment wad forder a industry that, forrit an ayont, coud be crucial for the hale o Jock Tamson’s bairns. It wad create jobs that fowk coud actually be greeshochie anent an aw. An, on tap o that, it wad pit Scotland at the forebreist o innovation, as it’s afttimes been.

But whit can be daen for tae forder this industry?

Och, the state o the economy is relevant: a economy that isnae diverse eneuch, a economy that isnae even biggin the components for caurs, willnae can produce a major space industry. Anither relevant element is the financial an infrastructure investment fae the govrenment. An the encouragement or discouragement hings on whaur individuals an firms is makkin thair efforts an aw: whiles, in ony domain, ye juist need the yin-twa eydent buddies for awthing tae gang fae naething till something.

But hou can thae eydent buddies even hae thair ideas, gif thay dinnae learn anent thaim? Och, it’s possible that thay can gang awa thairsels an learn things aw bi thairsels. An that comes o some fowk. Some fowk juist learn things on thair ain. An that is a rare thing. This kin o willint naitur can an should be upsteert. But awbody isnae sic a aiver learner. An, even for the fowk that learns on thair lanesome like that, thay dinnae necessarly finn the swecht for tae resairch thair favourite topic on thair ain: thay found the topic through fowk shawin it tae thaim, wis interestit in learnin mair about it, an then gaun awa an learnt about it.

Hou can we git fae wir present knawledge o an interest in astronomy in Scotland tae a generation wi mony buddin astronomers?

Ma idea is tae pit astronomy heich up in the curriculum. The idea that astronomy shud hae a place in the curriculum is supportit bi the journal airticle Teaching Astronomy: Why and How?

Afore leukin at alternatives, we’ll see whit astronomy lessons is like in Scotland awready. Thir days, there a fair differ aqueish astronomy in Scots heicher eddication an eddication afore that: scuils pit astronomy as pairt o pheesics, while universities gie it its ain place. This is true in general; outthrou different kintras, there is mair availability o astronomy at universitie level than at scuil level. At the moment, there isnae a National Qualification for astronomy though there a pheesics unit that is anent astronomy, an it is guid that there is something.

Obviously, we can say astronomy is pairt o pheesics. But astropheesics is in fack juist the ae subdiscipline o astronomy; there is forby ither owerlaps wi ither subjecks: astrobiology, astrochemistry, even archeoastronomy, as weel as ither domains athin astronomy, like celestial mechanics, pheesical cosmology an planetary science.

Turnin tae ither times an places, we can see that there wis or is mair astronomy lessons. In auncient Greek scuils, astronomy wis gien date an gree amang scuil subjecks. In the Pythagorean scuil, for insaumple, it wis yin o the major subjecks.

Nou that we recognise the importance o space traivel an the propines it can bring us, it should be mair important, no less. Thir propines can range fae the space traivel itsel (for tae hae the potential tae can stairt colonies on ither planets some day) tae technology developpit bi NASA, an then transfert tae Earth uise, like artificial limbs amang ither innovations. Sae we should, by wey o it, be mair interestit in space than the auncient Greeks were.

Nou tae leuk at anither kintra, in pairts o whilk astronomy is awready heich placed in the curriculum. That kintra is East Germany, whaur there wis obligator astronomy clesses fae 1959 on. This is true yet in fower o the five Eastern Länder (states): Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Sachsen-Anhalt, Thüringen an in Brandenburg. Famous astronomers like Martin Fiedler, Jens Kandler, Maik Meyer, André Knöfel, Lutz D. Schmadel an, maist notably, Thomas Henning, wha wirks as director at the Max Planck Astronomy Institute (Max-Planck-Institut für astronomy) is aw astronomers that haes been through the East German seestem wi astronomy lessons. The situation in Eastern Germany wad obviously no be replicate like for like in Scots scuils, wi the wey Scots scuils is mair intae chyce, but we cud offer mair aften the chyce tae learn the astronomy.

In Scotland, whit we coud dae is eik astronomy intae Scots scuils as a separate subjeck, leastweys at Higher level. Obviously, we cannae gang straucht fae nae teachers specialisin in astronomy tae aw the scuils haein thaim. There wad need tae be a hauflin process through whilk things wad temporarily gang.

On tap o that, anither thing we need tae think on is the wey in whilk fowk learn. This is important an aw: we wad aye want tae teach it richt, an in a wey that forders a gey wheen o the pupils tae continue in the field. As Neil deGrasse Tyson says:

“I would teach how science works as much as I would teach what science knows. I would assert (given that essentially, everyone will learn to read) that science literacy is the most important kind of literacy thay can take into the 21st century. I would undervalue grades based on knowing things and find ways to reward curiosity. In the end, it’s the people who are curious who change the world.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sae we can see that the feelin o wonder for the warld, an the promuivin o whilk, is fundamental tae the forderin o society.

Anither quote o his is the follaein:

“I am trying to convince people — not only the public, but lawmakers and people in power — that investing in the frontier of science, however remote it may seem in its relevance to what you’re doing today, is a way of stockpiling the seed corns of future harvests of this nation.”

Och, he’s talkin anent the Unitit States in yon statement, but it isnae less true for Scotland or ony ither place.

Sae, aw in aw, astronomy wad be benefeicial gin it’s for the future o humanity or for the future o Scotland’s space industry, or Scotland’s economy mair generally, or the potential inventions, or ony ither raison. An that’s hou A wad think that it wad be braw gif we coud see astronomy pit heicher up in Scots scuils. An teach in it in a wey that fowk can be inspired by.

James McDonaldJames McDonald is a Scots polyglot steyin in Réunion. He is keen on different leids, inspecially local leids, an thair forderin, whether it’s Scots, Gaelic, Réunion Creole or ither leids. He wirks in scuils, helpin bairns wi thair hamewirk an giein chess lessons. Ye can contack him on jmcd89 [AT] googlemail [DOT] com.

Selected glossary

Scots English
aiver eager
anent about
aqueish between
eydent industrious
eik add
forebreist forefront
fowk people
gif if
greeshochie enthusiastic
hauflin intermediate
heicher higher
och An exclamation of peremptory dismissal of a subject (can also be exclamation of weariness, oh!, alas!)
peeriest smallest
promuivin promoting
propone to propose (as a question for discussion)
sonsier an sonsier Becoming ever more prosperous
upsteert encouraged
wanthirldom independence
whiles sometimes
yin-twa a few