A COUNTRY’S language is a defining part of its identity. If you walk into any Scottish gift shop, you will find an array of products covered in Scots phrases like “giein it laldy” and “dreich”. They are part of a wider celebration of what it means to be Scottish.

The popularity of Scots words goes beyond gift shops. Len Pennie’s Scots Word of the Day has been a huge success on social media and has encouraged many outside Scotland to start learning our language. But therein lies the problem.

Scots is a language, and not slang, and an estimated 1.5 million people speak it today. However, because of Scots’ close relation to English, it is embroiled with classism as it is spoken predominantly by the working class, and its use as a celebration of Scottishness has resulted in many unionists politicising it.

I studied literature at a Scottish university a decade ago, and while there were some Scottish authors on the syllabus, the existence of Scots as a language wasn’t even acknowledged, let alone studied. I’ve been told things have changed a little since then, but more needs to be done. I am a Scots author and myself and just about every other Scots author I know has encountered at least one dig that their work is simply misspelled English – especially on social media, where there are a very vocal group of Scots language deniers.

READ MORE: The new magazine giving Scots an outlet to write in their own language

Scottish literature reached new heights in 2020, when Douglas Stewart’s Shuggie Bain won the Booker Prize. However, it’s worth noting that only the novel’s dialogue was in Scots, the rest was in English, and it’s arguably a reflection of the barriers faced by Scots authors. Had it been written entirely in Scots, I wonder if it would have achieved the same success.

I’ve faced similar barriers, with my debut novel, Be Guid tae yer Mammy, being sold exclusively in Scottish Waterstones. The assumption was made that no-one would want it elsewhere, despite copies being purchased from the likes of Canada, America and elsewhere in Europe.

Regardless, while Scots has always had a degree of popularity though texts like Trainspotting, it is bigger than ever before, and more people are writing in their mother tongue. The Scottish Government reported that the use of Scots was previously in decline, but things are changing. In 2021, there were translations of popular books like Lemony Snicket’s The Bad Beginning as well as a plethora of other successful Scots books published, like Graham Armstrong’s The Young Team and Ely Percy’s Duck Feet.

Now, we need to get to a point where one of Scotland’s three indigenous languages is associated with more than just one, if not a handful, of authors. Otherwise, we are at risk of it dying out completely or becoming an archaic and gift shop curiosity.

Writing in Scots requires the same level of skill as writing in English. Probably more, as there’s no such thing as a Scots spell-check! Scots also varies according to region, which means that becoming adept is all the more difficult if you are writing it down.

The cultural importance of Scots can’t be underestimated either. Modern Scots authors are capturing a sense of what it means to live in Scotland today, in the language of the people. Colin Burnett’s A Working Class State of Mind is a prime example, shedding light on the darker underbelly of our capital.

The only way to do that is through education and a change in attitudes, which is why it’s so important that people know the facts.

Scots is recognised as a language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. It is the traditional language of the lowlands of Scotland, with Gaelic being the previously predominant tongue in the Highlands. Linguistically, it is a separate language, with its own words, grammar and syntax, despite its relation to English. In fact, English only became the main language of Scotland as recently as the 18th century.

Children need to be encouraged to speak and write in Scots. While “slang”, as it is thought to be, was drummed out of Scottish children, including myself, the benefits of fluency in English and Scots can’t be understated. I can write in shorthand and longhand English, and if I wasn’t fluent in Scots as well as English, I think I’d have struggled more to use short forms when writing.

This is true of the experience of many Scots speakers, with one teacher telling me on Twitter that fluency in Scots is not only a great tool for unlocking the curriculum, but that it helps to build pupils’ self esteem and confidence.

Another Twitter user told me of the advantages they’ve found in Scots’ wider and more evocative vocabulary, while a third simply said that they love having two ways of thinking and expressing.

READ MORE: Major US newspaper shines spotlight on Scots language in boost for campaigners

Scottish author Ross Sayers said of the issue: “I think the anti-Scots language folk are a very small but loud minority on social media. My feeling is, in the real world, people are largely supportive of seeing more work in Scots.

“We’ve all been nervous of using Scots in educational or professional settings so it’s no wonder people have this idea that it’s not all that literary. With more and more writers publishing words in Scots and winning awards, like Ely Percy’s Duck Feet, I hope that’ll change.”

Any language is constantly evolving, and the celebration of modern Scots literature will keep the Bard’s work thriving into the future too. A perfect example is Scottish poet Lorna Wallace. She rewrote Burns’ Tae a Moose as Tae a Selfie in 2014. It was a brilliant idea, and the poem was a viral hit at the time. It modernised Scots language, incorporating the word “selfie” which wasn’t actually included in the Oxford English Dictionary until 2013.

So this Burns Day, why not help keep the Bard’s tongue alive by looking up some modern Scots authors and help Scotland’s literary landscape go from strength to strength? Scots is a beautiful language, and it should be more than just Burns and a gift shop curiosity.