The beautiful lilt of a Scottish accent. It’s a wonderful thing to hear, but as I have discovered, an absolute headache to spell each word so it sounds just right to the ear.
You would think writing dialogue for Scottish characters would be an easy thing for me to do, seeing as it’s my default childhood accent. But apparently being a Highlander comes with some distinct quirks, pronunciations and words that seemingly aren’t used outside of the very north of Caithness.
So while writing a collection of stories based in the Highlands, I was faced with having to spell every word with the authenticity that I used to pronounce it with growing up. After living for 21 years down in England though, my own accent has changed to something unique.
I followed the family tradition of spending our childhood in the north of Scotland, before moving away and joining the military. Like me, my father went to Wick High School in Caithness, before moving away to join the army (though I joined the RAF like my uncle). Eventually we all make our way back to Scotland, but not before going off to explore the world. And those family members who never left make fun of our changed accents.
When I first moved down, nobody could understand me. Coming from Wick, I had a broad Highland accent and a vocabulary that you won’t find in any dictionary. One example, I would say “D’ye ken…” (as in, do you know) and everybody thought I was saying “Chicken”.
Even my own family down there had to listen really carefully, and I found myself deliberately putting on an English accent in order to be understood. It was frustrating for me, having just turned 16, to not be listened to (or thought of as the mad guy that went around saying “chicken” all day). And even though I was proud of my accent, I vowed to work on overcoming what had now become a barrier for me.
Over time this deliberate changing of my accent became my norm, a mixture of both Scottish and English. This was further chipped away when I joined the military. Exposed to accents from all over the UK, we all began to speak like each other, stealing words and inflections here and there.
And I didn’t just live in one part of England, I travelled about, a bit of time in the West Midlands, East Midlands, South Coast, Northampton, Coventry and then the last five years in The Cotswolds, with their gentrified Oxfordshire Queen’s English-esque newsreader accents (or so it sounded like to me). Not to mention the time abroad, travelling around Europe, a month in Norway here, a month in Belgium there, a total of eight months in Northern Ireland.
My English friends could still hear the Scottish accent, especially after a whisky or two. But my Scottish friends could mostly hear the English accent. Moving back to Scotland, to Ayrshire, my Scottish accent has started to come back. And I can finally be understood again, no matter which accent slips out my mouth – though I still get funny looks when it switches mid-sentence, or my brain attempts to speak both pronunciations at once!
The idea for this blog post came about from a conversation I had with friends and family who had just proofread the first draft of my short story based in Wick, containing two Scottish characters. I had attempted to balance readability, while still allowing them to speak their native Scots language.
And I had failed.
Reading it aloud, it was obvious that the spellings looked correct, but didn’t sound quite right to the ear when spoken out loud. This is where the can of worms was opened. Now living within the West Central Scots accent area, it had influenced the way I wrote. I hear the Ayrshire and Lanarkshire words (awa, braw, wean), mixed with Glaswegian influences, as we are so close to the city.
So here’s an example of what I was facing:
The word ‘what’. I had decided to used ‘whit’. However, this didn’t sound right in certain circumstances. This is where we realised the singular ‘what’ and the plural ‘what’s’ became different spellings entirely, with the plural becoming an Aberdonian-esque ‘fit’s’. So the general rule is, for the North East of Scotland, drop the Wh and replace it with an F. However, even that rule was broken from time to time. And changed yet again depending where the word came in the sentence, with Fit’s at the start and Whit at the end.
Plural: What’s that about = Fit’s ‘at aboot
Singular: My car, that’s what! = Ma car, thas whit!
Rulebreaker: What are you on about = Fit ye on aboot
This is the best my proofreaders and I could come up with. Even the word that was spelled differently in two of those sentences. The basic premise of my North East Scotland accent is to say as many words as you can, as quickly as possible! This means dropping most the letters in a sentence and stringing the words together!
As my friend said: “Am joos realizin’ it’s pritty hard til capture eh auld week axeint.”
And he wisnae wrong. Cos we dinny joos add n’ ‘ae’ on eh end o’ stuff n’ be done wi’ it.
Adding an ‘ae’ onto the end of words seems like a simple fix. But we quickly realised that, while the ‘ae’ works well for some words like dinnae, it doesn’t work for gonnae, because we actually pronounce it gunna. So am no gunna dae that.
But then the ‘ae’ gives it a more Glaswegian/Central Belt sound. Like the TV show Chewing the Fat: Am gonnae no dae that. But the Highland lilt lifts more at the end of certain words. So to recreate the quicker lift, we went with dinny. And ‘disny bother me’ works for us. And can’t becomes canny, rather than cannae.
And then there’s the random words I have used my whole life. I have never in my life called a seagull a seagull or gull. It’s a scorrie. Even Wick Academy Football Club are nicknamed The Scorries. But everywhere I have ever been, even over here in the west of Scotland, they haven’t got a clue what I am on about if a wis til say a scorrie scoot on ma heed.
So basically, we decided to create and agree on the spelling of our own dialect. This is the freedom that writers have when writing dialogue. These are my characters, this is how they speak. As long as it is believable and consistent.
There’ll no doubt be people who still think we haven’t got it quite right, but then there’s words that even people who live in the same town pronounce differently.
And the reason for that? Dialect changes over time.
The words my grandparents used, weren’t the same words my parents used, which again were changed slightly by my own generation. So dialect pronunciations and even entire words become generation-based.
An example of this is my grandparents generation used to say ‘laskie‘ and ‘boygie‘ when referring to girls and boys respectively. However, the generation above me would say ‘lassie‘ and ‘chiel‘. Then my own generation kept ‘lassie‘, but it seemed more common to say ‘loon‘ or ‘guy‘ for a male. And that’s just the changing influences within my own family.
Every generation of kids always seem to make up their own words and phrases that define their era. So you end up with a mix of dialects and words, with people in the same town, at the same school, even living in the same house, having different individual influences.
A can of worms.
So when you get handed a dictionary or guide to Scottish dialects, you have to pay attention to the age of the writer. Want to write a book set in the distant past of the highlands? You’ll be using different spellings and words than if you wrote a contemporary story of modern day highland life.
So what I have also learned is that, if you want to have an authentic sounding Scottish dialect for your characters, then where possible you need to ask people from that specific area, and from the correct age group. Don’t ask a Scottish person from any other dialect region. My family and friends from across the country started sharpening their claymores to tear apart my dialogue because they all swore they had the one true Scots to rule them all – ‘there can be only one!’
When the dust settled, we attempted to make a glossary to use solely for my collection of stories, consistent within their specific time period, as authentically true as we could achieve.
Here’s some o’ whit a bunch o’ weekers came up wi’:
It’s not complete, but covers enough bases to be a starting point. Plus the Scots spelling of a few swear words, of course, but you’ll have to buy the book when it comes out to read those!
All I have left to say is, Irvine Welsh, I felt your pain of trying to spell the raw Scots dialect in a true manner. Who would have thought it would be so difficult to write in my own natural accent.
Anyhoo, fit’s eh crack eh day?