TWO years ago, I was contacted by the office of the presiding officer and asked whether I would deliver one of the regular Time For Reflection talks in the Scottish Parliament. Emma Harper MSP had put my name forward, as both of us are members of the Cross-Party Group for Scots and we agreed that a speech in Scots in the chamber would raise the profile of the language and show that it could be used in a formal setting.

It was the least political speech I had made in public for decades, as I wanted to stay within the parliament’s ­guidelines and also to take the MSPs in the ­chamber with me on the day. And I could tell by the reaction to it that day that I ­succeeded by citing all of the ­parties present there equally and ­revealing their links to the language and culture. ­Everyone has heard of the great Liberal politician ­Gladstone but I wonder how many ­realise that the origin of his name is Scots – Gled Stane, the stone of the bird of prey the kite.

I did however refrain from mentioning that the term “greedy gled” was a common form of abuse langsyne!


I spoke about bringing Scots into the parliament itself – Gaelic is visible there – but the only Scots you see is in the poems carved on the walls outside. I ended with two stories about the positive effect Scots can have in schools that I got from my friend Matthew Fitt, who has witnessed so many examples of children’s approach to education being transformed when their language of home was recognised in the classroom.

It was a great experience for me. I had long been a campaigner for the creation of the parliament itself, speaking ­regularly at Scotland United events and ­touring the country with the likes of Willie ­McIlvanney and Neal Ascherson in the Bus Party before the 1997 ­referendum. But this was the first time I had spoken in the chamber itself, so it was a special occasion for me and my family with my wife João and my sisters Mary and ­Janette present.

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Scots-supporting friends like Ash ­Douglas and Ally Heather were there too, and their reaction told me I had done the occasion justice.

That was it, I thought. I could now ­relax with a sense of relief and enjoy the aftermath of the occasion with my ­family. It didnae quite turn out that way! That afternoon, Ally Heather contacted me to get a written copy of the speech, as he had alerted The National to the event and they were interested in posting it on their website. Nae bother, thought I, the more folk who saw Scots being ­normalised in this way the better!

Now, I was used to a degree of ­online abuse from what I call the yoonatic fringe, usually from Twitter accounts splattered with Union Jacks and images of Rangers and Ibrox with names like @BillyBoys169016901690. One ­memorably responded to my tweet in Scots promoting my BBC Radio ­Scotland series on the history of Scottish Literature with the immortal words: “In English, ya tadger!”

The National: Billy Kay - Scottish Parliament.

Or more recently, in a tweet in ­support of Nicola Sturgeon following her ­appearance at the Covid Inquiry: “She’s as fake as your pretendy gibberish ­language.”

What I was not prepared for was the level and volume of vitriolic abuse ­directed at me because the speech was on The National’s as well as the ­ Parliament’s website.

Here’s a sample of a few: “Speak right, ya arsehole.”

“More romanticised cow dung which doesn’t put food on the table.”

“What a blethering idiot – no wonder that people are dressed up like Mel Gibson’s clowns in the fairy story Braveheart while on their indy walkabout.”

“Jings, the Broons.”

“Beautiful my foot. Bastardised English.”

“Och aye the noo and a haggis up yer kilt, Jimmy!”

Now, to some degree, these poor souls are to be pitied for their total ignorance, but on the other hand, sensible, good folk who know nothing about a subject keep quiet about it rather than expose themselves to ridicule. For that reason, I blocked most of the ignoramuses so that I would not have to thole their idiocy and nastiness on a regular basis.

Me and my family are multilingual and have access to a number of European languages. One of my favourite Spanish words is “impresentable” – a person who is so disagreeable that the last thing you want is to be seen with them or associate with them in public. I had to go on several block parties to block scores of such impresentables at that time.

Now alongside the abuse I was also the recipient of many words of love and ­support for the speech. Here are a few: “Billy is so right when he says that Scots children love hearing Scots in the ­classroom. When they realise it’s okay to write it and the teacher wants them to use it, their eyes light up!”

“The bairns at scweel, tyauvin awa at their Scots Language Awards, will tak muckle encouragement fae yer bonnie heeze up. Monie thanks, graan speech.”

The National: The awards have been running since 2019

“Absolute poetry. I keep listening to the beautiful pronunciation and intonation. His speech is a celebratory song of our beautiful Scots language. Glorious, proud and full of expression. Loved it!”

“It toucheth me in my newfound Scottish heart”

“Couldnae love this man mair x”

At the time, I was able to balance the bad with the good, in the knowledge that I had succeeded in one of the prime aims of doing it – giving the language a public profile and proving that it could be used in such a formal setting.

It was by far the most watched and commented upon Time For Reflection in the history of the parliament. Regarding the abusers, as an Ayrshire man, I also consoled myself with the words of Burns: “The mair they talk I’m kent the better.

E’en let them clash; An auld wife’s tongue’s a feckless ­maitter tae gie ane fash.”

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My sisters though were shocked by it and depressed by the ignorance and hatred on display for the language they spoke every day of their lives.

I remember Matthew Fitt saying that many people hated Scots in an interview for a radio documentary on the language. I wondered whether he was exaggerating slightly. This incident proved that he was totally correct. It is hatred. It is also self-hatred – people raised so ignorant and ­alienated from their own culture that any manifestation of it is regarded as a threat to them, to be put down with scorn and animosity. This is a recent phenomenon.

The Scottish Unionist tradition in the past could contain people like Sir ­Walter Scott and John Buchan who believed that Scots was a wonderful medium for ­creativity and a strong badge of their Scottish identity. They would birl in their graves if they witnessed the present orra mob, as MacDiarmid described them.

I welcome excellent recent developments like the Scottish Languages Bill, the Open University’s Scots course for teachers, and the Scots Language Publication Grants, but feel that only with independence will the dichotomies be healed and appreciation of the culture become normal, as it is in every other country. The Catalans thought it would take several generations to remove the ­effects of cultural colonialism by the Spanish state and the resulting “slave mentality” of sections of their society. Hopefully we can get there quicker!

I will end on a positive note though. There is a very simple and effective way that you yourself can help advance the cause of normalising Scots. Tak tent or it’s tint – use it or lose it.