Sunday, 26 April 2015

Scots-Speaking Underdogs Outsmarting ‘Standard’ English-Speaking Authority Figures: From Dougal Graham’s Chapbooks to James Hogg’s Confessions

Alasdair Thanisch[1] and Peter Thanisch[2]

Following the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England, England’s language of officialdom was adopted in Scotland, with just a few distinctively Scots words and constructs surviving. So-called “Standard English” became Scotland’s language of religion and education, as well as of government. Inevitably, the prestige of Standard English resulted in its adoption by Scotland’s aspiring middle classes. By the second half of the eighteenth century, middle-class Scots were taking elocution lessons in Standard English. The best-known teacher of elocution at that time, Thomas Sheridan, told his Edinburgh audience that all dialects other than Standard English (or, to use Sheridan’s terminology, ‘court’ English) had ‘some degree of disgrace annexed to them.’a This linguistic colonialism divided the Scottish literati in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with some authors ridding their work almost entirely of ‘Scotticisms,’ whilst others, most notably Robert Burns and James Hogg, used Scots ‘vernacular’ to great effect.

James Hogg excelled at writing dialogue in which the participants had different voices and dialects, especially pitting a speaker of Standard English against a Scots speaker. Typically, when Hogg writes such dialogue, the participants’ speech patterns reflect their respective positions in society: the speaker of Standard English is educated and an authority figure, whereas the Scots speaker is uneducated and from the underclass. In James Hogg’s Confessions,b the Scots speaker invariably gets the better of such encounters. Hogg writes the dialogue in such a way that the Scots speaker is seen to rely on his or her native wit. Furthermore, Hogg depicts the marginalized Scots speaker as having a better grasp of the wider context than that possessed by the speaker of Standard English.   

Here are some example dialogues from Confessions that conform to this pattern:

1. The beadle, John Barnet, squares up to Rev. Wringhim in the manse garden:

"Well, John, this is a fine day for your delving work."
"Ay, it's a tolerable day, sir."
"Are you thankful in heart, John, for such temporal mercies as these?"
"Aw doubt we're a' ower little thankfu', sir, baith for temporal an' speeritual mercies; but it isna aye the maist thankfu' heart that maks the greatest fraze wi' the tongue."
"I hope there is nothing personal under that remark, John?"
"Gin the bannet fits ony body's head, they're unco welcome to it, sir, for me."

2. The servant, Bessy Gillies, avoids incriminating Bell Calvert without perjuring herself in her courtroom encounter with a lawyer:

"And, when you went home, what did you find?"
"What found we? Be my sooth, we found a broken lock, an' toom kists."
"Relate some of the particulars, if you please."
"Sir, the thieves didna stand upon particulars: they were halesale dealers in a' our best wares."

3. The jailer in the Edinburgh tollbooth demonstrates a commendable level of professionalism when told by his prisoner, Robert Wringhim, that Robert has a commission to slay him, though one might expect that a jailer would be the authority figure vis-à-vis a prisoner. Here is a part of Robert’s account of his conversation with his jailer:

‘Friend,’ said I, ‘I am making my appeal at the bar where all human actions are seen and judged, and where you shall not be forgot, sinful as you are. Go in peace and let me be.’

‘Hae ye naebody nearer-hand hame to mak your appeal to, man?’ said he, ‘because an ye haena, I dread you an’ me may be unco weel acquaintit by an’ by?’


This form of dialogue did not originate in the works of James Hogg. The highly popular mid-eighteenth century author Dougal Grahamc (bap. 1721, d. 1779) was using the form to good effect in the 1750’s. Dougal Graham was the most popular author in Scotland in the eighteenth century.  His parents were poor, but he received at least some formal education. He was hunchbacked, lame, and less than 5 feet tall.

Graham usually published his writing in the form of ‘chapbooks,’ d,e small, cheaply-produced booklets. Chapbooks had a large circulation in Scotland, mainly at the “lower end” of the market.  The examples we give below are from one of Graham’s chapbook stories called The Whole Proceedings of Jockey and Maggie’s Courtship.f The background to the story is that Jockey, who is engaged but not married, has become a father. In the eighteenth century, the Church of Scotland regarded this as a sin (‘fornication’) and those involved were expected to confess and repent in public on ‘the black stool.’ 

Incidentally, that story-line might have had a particular resonance for James Hogg, who had first-hand experience of the Church of Scotland's position on the public confession of sin. Following the births of Hogg's two illegitimate daughters, confessions of sin had to be made before the Kirk Session and he had to stand on the penitent's stool.g,h 

As you can see from David Allan’s painting from about this period, the term ‘stool’ could be figurative: some churches used actual stools for penance, whereas others, such as the one in Allan’s painting, invested in more elaborate structures.

Figure 1. 'The Black Stool', by David Allan

Both Jockey and his mother (‘mither’  in Scots; abbreviated in the dialogue to ‘Mith’) object to Jockey having to perform this type of confession and repentance and Jockey’s mither intercedes on Jockey’s behalf to the Session (i.e. the committee of elders, chaired by the minister, which ruled on such matters in those days). In the eighteenth century, a minister was addressed as ‘Mess,’ an abbreviation of ‘maister’ which is the Scots form of the Latin word ‘magister’:

Mess John. […] What's the reason you keep your son so long back from answering the session? you see it is the thing you are obliged to do last.

Mith. Deed sir, I think there needs na be nae mair wark about it, I think whan he's gien the lazy hulke, the mither o't, baith meal and grots to maintain't, ye need na fash him, he's a dutifu; father indeed, weel a wat, whan he feeds his ystart sae well.

Mess John. Woman are you a hearer of the gospel? that you despise the dictates of it, how come you to despise the discipline of the church? is not offenders to be rebuked and chastised?

Mith. Yes stir, a’that is very true, but I have been three or four times throw the Bible […] and I never saw a repenting stool in’t a’; than what cou’d the first o’ them come frae, the Apostles had nane o’ them. […]  wi’s pay the buttock mail and mak na mair about it. 

Jockey’s mither points out that the church has no biblical authority for its practice of forcing people to do penance on the black stool. She ends up by saying that she will pay ‘buttock mail’. This was the widely-used name for the tariff charged by Church of Scotland churches: the more you paid them, the less public humiliation would be your penance. It was the Church of Scotland's equivalent of the medieval church's sale of indulgence.

We have mentioned that the people who bought Dougal Graham’s chapbooks tended to be poor, rather than ‘respectably’ middle class. Hence his typical reader would be a Scots speaker, one who is likely to have had a confrontation with a Standard English-speaking authority figure. His readers might well have appreciated Jockey’s mither’s prowess in dealing with such situations.

Interestingly, these kinds of chapbooks circulated in the eighteenth century without drawing much opposition from the church. It was only in the nineteenth century that the church started to condemn them as ‘ungodly.’


a. Katharine Glover, Elite Women and Polite Society in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. St Andrews Studies in Scottish History (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011), 103.

b. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, ed. Ian Duncan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010). All quotations from Confessions are from this edition and page numbers are given within the body of the article. 

c. William Donaldson, ‘Graham, Dougal (bap. 1721, d. 1779).’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.

d. The Scottish Chapbook Project, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, University of South Carolina, 2002.

e. G. Ross Roy, "Some Notes on Scottish Chapbooks," Scottish Literary Journal 1 (1974): 50-60.

f. Dougal Graham, The Whole Proceedings of Jockey and Maggy: In Five Parts  (Glasgow: J. & M. Robertson, 1777).

g. Gillian Hughes, James Hogg: A Life (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 74.

h. James Hogg, The Collected Letters of James Hogg: Volume 1, ed. Gillian Hughes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), 314.

[1] Master’s Student, Women’s Studies, Humanities Division, University of Oxford, UK; Alasdair; 
[2] Associate Professor, School of Information Sciences, University of Tampere, Finland;

No comments:

Post a Comment