I grew up bilingual.
I’m not talking about my acquaintance with French, from my teenage years. No, in my wee Ayrshire village from the very start I was bilingual, speaking both a version of English that all of my readers would recognise, and the local broad Scottish idiom, now formally called “Lallans”.
On the local soccer field, “the fitba pitch”, I ran around imploring my 8-year team-mates to pass the ball to me with the urgent cry “Geesabaw! Geesabaw!” At home my mother would have been scandalised if I had introduced that language, with its array of improper words like “pish”and “shite”. So I was carefully bilingual at home and in the classroom, and very different in the schoolyard.
My mastery of Lallans came to play an important part in my literary life, and it can be argued that it brought me to Canada. Because I was in Ayrshire, the older people around me, especially the farmers, were speaking the language of Robert Burns. My first summer job was working on a local farm that was placed right beside Dunlop House, where Burns used to visit his patron, Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop. The grandfather on the farm, “Auld Moneyacres” (like Tam o’ Shanter he was known by the name of his farm) spoke pure Burns. In the nearby Stewarton kirkyard my Young ancestors lay beside an uncle of Robert Burns.
So when I went on to study English at the University of St. Andrews I had an advantage when we studied the poetry of Robert Burns. My classmate from elsewhere, especially from England, tended to treat it as a new language, like Chaucer’s Middle English. To me, it was just the language I had known in the village. Easy.
But I had never written in it. Then, in November in my final year, I started thinking that it would be nice to win a scholarship to go to somewhere interesting the next year. I learned about a sort of Rhodes Scholarship in reverse. It was open to contenders from each of the Scottish Universities, and a selected Scottish candidate from Oxford and Cambridge. The winner would receive a free year at the American university of his or her choice, thanks to the scholarship provided by the St. Andrew’s Society of the State of New York.
One scholarship would be given.
I looked at the requirements, and looked at my own qualifications. Thanks to my sporting and dramatic and newspaper deeds, not to mention my being President of the Student Union, I found that I ticked many of the required boxes.
But not any academic ones So I started to leaf through the list of annual University prizes. I found “The Sloan Prize, awarded for the best composition in Lallans”. A friendly professor advised me that an entry should run about 5,000 words, so that Christmas I cleared the decks at home, and on the dining room table, bolstered by dictionaries, I created a short story in Lallans.
You can see where this is going. There was a moment of horror when I learned that the Sloan Prize judge would be the Editor of The Scottish National Dictionary. But the Essay won The Sloan Prize. And it won in time for me to include it in my Scholarship application, ticking another important box.
I won the Scholarship, went to Yale, and after a year gaining my MA, came by Greyhound Bus to Canada, and never looked back.
But what about those Leafs? Thanks to my friend Donald Gillies, I recently read an edition of his magazine “Lallans”. It mentions the amazing fact that when the version of English spoken in Scotland began to be written, in formal print, the correct way to form the plural of the Scottish word for “wife” and ” life” and “leaf”, was simply to add the letter “s”.
Who knew? Generations of schoolteachers have decried the spelling as simply wrong. Now we’ve learned that the spelling”Leafs” is an official old Scottish plural.
Go Leafs Go!