January is a month of celebrations and holidays. Of course, there’s New Year’s Day, and January 25th is Robbie Burns Day, which marks the birth of Scotland’s national poet. January is also when many people choose to escape the cold Canadian winter. Not all of us can hop a plane for a tropical vacation, though, so here’s a Scottish example of a virtual winter get-away.
Without quite meaning to, I found myself in the midst of an educational trip, while still curled up beside my cozy Bergen fireplace. The stage was set in mid-December, when I received a reminder that some credits purchased from Scotland’s national archives website, Scotland’s People, were about to expire. Exhibiting the stereotypical Scottish trait of frugality, I could not let them go to waste. So, I set aside a little time over winter break to renew my investigation into my Scottish roots. A few days of searching, compiling, and contemplating produced an expanded family tree.
Curious about the area where my Scottish relatives had lived, with Google’s help I was soon examining maps and photographs of the glen and surrounding hills and settlement. I wondered what it must have been like to live in this fertile valley, with its woods and river, nearby cave and quarry, inscribed standing stone, Roman remains, and crumbling castle ruins. My ancestors would have been surrounded by a landscape resonating with history, myth and tradition.
Overwhelmed by facts, I pulled some Scottish oatcakes out of the pantry, and decided to escape into a fictional world. I scanned my bookshelves and spotted a particularly pretty volume that seemed just right: Waverley, by Walter Scott. I was captivated by the beautifully illustrated romantic tale of the 1745 Scottish Jacobite rebellion.
Within this book, some of the dialogue is unusual, and the vocabulary is explained in a handy glossary. I had already run across some of these words when I was researching the songs of a 1910 New Year’s Eve party. The lyrics had appeared to be phonetic representations of a Scottish accent, but they had also contained a unique vocabulary. “Auld Lang Syne” is the perfect example. The lyrics of this song were written by Robbie Burns in a language called Scots, Scotland’s under-appreciated third language (existing beside English and Gaelic).
A recent genealogy newsletter contained an advertisement for a free online Scots language course, so I signed up. I feel a particular affinity to Scots for two reasons. Firstly, I was accidentally exposed to it at a very young and impressionable age. I distinctly recall an outing with my father when he happened to meet an older woman of his acquaintance. She gestured towards me and inquired sweetly in a Scottish brogue, “and who is this wee lassie?” I was fascinated by this fresh and unusual description of myself. Secondly, I am happy to report, in Scots, spelling is not standardized. To one such as myself, who is completely dependent upon a word processing program’s spellcheck, Scots is the perfect language.
The online course has many interactive elements, including links to Scottish television and radio shows. Although the amount of Scots presentations does not correspond to the 30% of the Scottish population who speak this language, some of the history programs caught my attention. I found myself listening to BBC Radio Scotland, complete with news broadcasts and weather reports. It was practically like being there.
January in Scotland is not a tropical getaway for a winter-weary Canadian, but it is a change of scene. One could travel to other, much warmer areas using the same types of resources that I used. National archives, maps, photographs, Google Street View, novels, music, YouTube, radio streaming, and language courses can all help you immerse yourself in another culture or location. So, settle into your favourite fireside chair with some ethnic food and drink, click on your computer, and transport yourself to a far-away destination. That reminds me, it must be time for a wee dram…
P.S. Hogmanay is the Scottish New Year’s festival
This article was originally printed in THE BERGEN NEWS and is being reprinted with permission.