Many years ago there was a weekly programme on BBC Scotland called The White Heather Club.
A half-hour devoted to Scottish music and dancing, led by the then well-known face of Andy Stewart, decked out in his kilt and a boyish grin. Presumably it was the Stewart tartan but, since it transmitted in black and white the exact tartan was left to the imagination.
During each episode, which followed a very distinct formula, you could be sure that Andy would sing a Scots song or two and the dancers, led by Dixie Ingram, would entertain with their interpretation of a Scottish dance – not one you would see in any country dance hall or get-together, being too stylised for comfort but, nevertheless, an artistic manoeuvre displaying their fitness to perfection.
Whether or not you agreed with this brand of “Scottishness” is irrelevant. What they were doing was broadcasting (and perpetuating) a myth about what Scotland and, consequently, its people are all about. They became weel-kent faces on national television as the programme lasted for some years and had a good following, part of the reason for this being the sense of community it depicted – a oneness we could all share in and have a bit of fun and laughter and, even in your own living-room, join in, with the singing at least, if not the dancing.
Each time, Andy would finish off the programme by singing Haste Ye Back (We Loue Ye Dearly) which, of course, perpetuated the camaraderie image.
Maybe they all fought likes cats and dogs once the cameras were turned off but, for those thirty minutes, harmony prevailed.
Last night (January 25) was Burns Night and BBC Alba aired a programme entitled Burns and the Nashville Lassies recorded last October (according to BBC Alba’s website info) at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Great, we thought. We’ve always been exponents of the belief that Burns is open to interpretation – the more the merrier. That’s why his appeal endures. We’ve stated before that the best televised tribute we’ve seen in recent years was one where Maya Angelouwas invited to a Scottish Burns Night celebration. To see the annually-repeated formula played out again through her eyes was fantastic and so emotional.
Now, everyone knows about Burns’ fondness for the lassies, and the line-up for this latest programme was outstanding. Heading the bill was Beth Nielsen Chapman – a great favourite of ours. We didn’t manage to see her when we visited Nashville a few years back, but we did catch her on a tour of the UK, when she did a concert at the SECC in Glasgow. That was such a fantastic evening. (She’s due to play The Queens Hall, Edinburghon March 24, 2013. Get your tickets now.)
The Scottish contingent included Tayside’s Laura McGhee and the Isle of Barra’s Cathy Ann MacPhee, resplendent in her sequined dress, who sang a Gaelic version of Green Grow the Rashes, after first apologising to her audience, in English, for singing it in a language most of them would not understand.
Fair enough. No one who is a Burns’ fan should need a crib sheet for this one – and we’ve been to a Julie Fowlis concert where the Gaelic did not put us off enjoying the entertainment for its musicality alone.
However, she chose an unusual version which meant that even Beth had trouble keeping up with although, obviously, she wasn’t singing in Gaelic!
Part of the feeling of community at a Scots gathering such as a Burns Night celebration is the fact that you can sing along with the artistes and this was a small enough gathering that it wouldn’t have been a problem and would have helped gel the performers with the audience more. You know yourself – when you hear a well-known song while you’re shopping in a store or supermarket, you find yourself humming along. It makes you feel good … until you realise you ‘re actually singing aloud, to the astonishment of the other shoppers!
So, this didn’t work for us. Nothing wrong in translating Burns into other languages – it’s been done very well – but not to be performed to an audience whose knowledge of the language is limited or non-existent. You break the thread of association. The audience applause was stilted. Perhaps they were as disappointed as we were.
If they (and you) want to hear a perfect performance of this poignant song, sung as it should be, listen to Michael Marra’srendition performed at the Celtic Connections Concert in Glasgow in January 2009. Sadly, Michael died in October last year. He will be very sadly missed. A tribute concert, entitled All Will Be Well, will be held for him at this year’s event. It’s a sell-out.
And all could have been well with Beth’s performance of Braes of Killiecrankie had she been given better tuition in pronouncing the Scots words. We were cringeing at some and totally dumfoonert (or bumbazed) at others.
We’re not saying this was entirely her fault. She must have relied on someone’s advice and singing in a language which is not your mither tongue is difficult.
Scots isn’t a difficult language to learn. It’s spoken every day by Scots people in every corner of the world, perhaps without them realising it. A word or two will creep into their conversation which will immediately identify them to any fellow Scot.
Children here don’t realise they are speaking Scots until it is pointed out to them. Gone are the days when Scots was left at the school gate, where it waited patiently for you to return at 3.45 p.m. to pick it up and play around with it at home. A bit like the family pet.
The real Scots language seems to reside in the works of writers of poetry these days. It is still alive and establishments such as the Glasgow Herald newspaper, in conjunction with Glasgow University, promote it annually with their McCash Poetry prize competition. The recent publication The Smeddum Test is an anthology of winning and commended poems over the past ten years.
Occasionally, an independent publication will appear on the shelves. One such is Eunice Buchanan’shighly readable As Far As I Can See, published by Kettillonia.
But it’s guaranteed that neither Ronnie Brown nor Roy Williamson of The Corries, who regularly included a rousing version of ‘Killiecrankie’ in their concerts, would recognise the words Beth sang.
Probably, none of the Nashville audience was any the wiser. However, it does promote a very different image of the language and the people the artistes are purporting to celebrate – tae see oorsels as ithers see us!
All will be well, however, so long as the language stays within the reach of each successive generation, as long as it doesn’t go the way of text speak and transmute into a phonetic bastardisation of its own creating.
So, please, Beth, do continue to sing our timeless Scots songs – just get the pronunciations right. There are a lot of Scots folk out there more than willing and able to help you.
Haste ye back – see you in Edinburgh! We’ll be the ones waiving a Scots Thesaurus.