9.4 Scots in television drama

In this section, you are going to focus on examples of the use of Scots in television drama, including comedy. You may either be familiar with the most recent examples mentioned, and other examples can also be found online, usually, on YouTube, in case you are interested in watching these following your study of this unit.

When radio broadcasting started in Britain in October 1922 it was very much Londoncentric: its language and accents were clearly those of middle- and upper-class England. In March 1939, on the BBC Scottish Home Service, Helen W. Pryde’s series based on a working-class Glasgow family, The McFlannels, broke through and ran intermittently until 1953. Some episodes are available on YouTube and reveal character-based Scots dialogue ranging from strong Glaswegian-Scots dialect through to Scottish Standard English.

The programme was popular in Scotland although towards the end it was seen by many as becoming stale. An attempt to transfer it to television in 1958 proved fruitless: characters so much in the mind’s eye did not seem ‘real’ on the screen. Nonetheless, the programme’s powerful Scots language dialogue’s initial success breached pre-war BBC emphasis on Received Pronunciation and Standard English.

When television arrived in Scotland in 1952 there was still no strong impetus for Scots language television drama. Key programmes were often London-based, including soaps like The Grove Family (1954-57) or Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76). Possibly the first major series using Scots language dialogue (though not very emphatically) was Para Handy – Master Mariner (1959-60), based on Neil Munro’s characters. The series was revived, slightly recast, in the 1960s.

Meantime, television borrowed forms of comedy from variety. Stanley Baxter, for one, developed in the mid-1960s a series of televised sketches parodying stiff televised language lessons with his Parliamo Glasgow. Here, for the uninitiated, he interpreted such phrases as sanoffy as in sanoffy caul day or takyurhonaffmabum, a demand to cease over-familiarity. Such joyous transcription of Scots-Glasgow dialect is reflected in several later poems by Tom Leonard, but, televised, they introduced a celebration of spoken Scots much appreciated in Scotland, if not entirely understood south of the Border.

Try to tune into Glasgow Scots by watching an example of Baxter’s Parliamo Glasgow ‘language lessons’. This one is called ‘Upatra Burd’s’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] .

Activity 9

Part 1

Read the phrases out loud and then match them with their English equivalents.

You parliamo Glasgow? (updated for Polish bus drivers).

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. Wan and three weans to Scotstoun

  2. Wan tae the Croass

  3. Gie's a hon wi the messages

  4. Wharlla stick ma wean's buggie?

  5. Awayyego, it's nivir that dear!

  • a.Please give me a hand with my groceries

  • b.Where will I put my child's pushchair?

  • c.No, it can't be that expensive!

  • d.A single to Charing/Anniesland etc. Cross

  • e.A single and three halves to Scotstoun

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = e
  • 2 = d
  • 3 = a
  • 4 = b
  • 5 = c

Part 2

Now listen to the phrases by a Scots speaker and record yourself saying them. Then compare your pronunciation with our model.

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Gradually, confidence to develop a variety of televised applications, both short-form comic and long-form dramatic, of Scots language developed. By the 1970s it took off. The 1971 BBC adaptation of Sunset Song was highly regarded and, while its Scots was somewhat diluted, it was still seen as difficult to understand.beyond Scotland.

In the next year, Peter McDougall, employing uncompromising Scots language dialogue in Just Your Luck, initiated his series over the next three decades of key Scots language dramas for the BBC, often dealing with contemporary sectarian issues and set in or near his native Greenock.

The potential of Scots as a serious televised dramatic language was established.

While such a series as Taggart, launched by STV in 1983, is much parodied and often derided, its role in bringing, if not fully developed Scots, a Scots patois into the mainstream of detective soap should not be scorned. While later in the 1980s John Byrne, whose use of Scots on stage has already been mentioned, wrote two emotionally powerful Scots language series, Tutti Frutti (1987) and Your Cheatin’ Heart (1990), that achieved popular acclaim beyond Scotland.

Though there is a tendency for Scots on television still to be used in comedy drama, often Scots-speaking writers use it there subversively. Ian Pattison’s series Rab C Nesbitt (1990-2014) used Glaswegian-Scots to blackly comic and often social satirical effect. Alan Cumming and Forbes Masson in their spoof air-line series The High Life (1994-5) wrote apparently in Scottish Standard English but smuggled in many Scots language jokes.

For example, calling a bitter old rock star Guy Wersh and several times using the rudest Scots word of female genitals, fud, before the watershed, presumably as an inside-joke against the monolingual English-speaking producers who would never have allowed the English equivalent.

The use of Scots is now accepted generally, despite occasional resistance by monolingual English-speaking audiences. In 2014, Brian Cox acting in the BBC series Shetland, when he ‘reckoned he had learned the Shetland tongue “pretty well” for his character Magnus Bain’, was asked to re-record his lines because of fears that viewers would not understand.

Nonetheless, alongside serious drama on Scottish and UK-wide television, comedy extravaganzas like Chewin’ the Fat (1999-2005) and its spin-off Still Game (since 2002), Burnistoun (2009-12) and Gary: Tank Commander (2009-12) have consistently employed Scots to subversive, witty and often surreal effect, while River City (since 2002), created by Stephen Greenhorn, employs a naturalistically varied range of Scots dialects in the context of a long-running soap.

Such a variety of use of Scots, however at times tempered for consumption beyond Scotland, would have been unthinkable in pre-war broadcasting.

Activity 10

In this activity you will summarise the most important changes in the way in which Scots language was used in broadcasting from around 1940s, which expose shifting attitudes and a marked difference to pre-war broadcasting.

Part 1

Match the changes around the use of Scots language with the programmes that achieved these changes according to the information given in the text.

Using the following two lists, match each numbered item with the correct letter.

  1. H. W. Pryde – The McFlannels

  2. S. Baxter – Parliamo Glasgow

  3. Peter McDougall – Just Your Luck

  4. Glen Chandler et al. – Taggart

  5. John Byrne – Tutti Frutti, Cheatin’ Heart

  6. Ian Patterson – Rab C Nesbitt

  7. Chewin’ the Fat, Still Game, Burnistoun and Gary: Tank Commander

  • a.Parodied stiff televised language lessons using Scots

  • b.Brought emotionally powerful elements to Scots language series

  • c.Used Glaswegian-Scots to blackly comic and often social satirical effect

  • d.Brought Scots patois into the mainstream of detective soap

  • e.Breached pre-war BBC emphasis on Received Pronunciation and Standard English

  • f.Used uncompromising Scots language dialogue in serious dramatic language

  • g.Employed Scots to subversive, witty and often surreal effect

The correct answers are:
  • 1 = e
  • 2 = a
  • 3 = f
  • 4 = d
  • 5 = b
  • 6 = c
  • 7 = g
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9.3 Scots language drama after 1940

9.5 Scots in film