A new children's book range shows it's okay

to speak Scots, as Sam Phipps discovers

Matthew Fitt

is not exactly grateful for

the belting but today, 25 years later, he can at least look back on it as a good motivator.

The scene: a primary school in Broughty Ferry. The crime: replying: ''Ah dinnae ken, miss'', when his teacher asked where his pencil case was.

''She asked me several times and I gave the same answer. Then she said: 'It's your last chance. Where is it?' Once more, I said: 'Ah dinnae ken miss.' She brought me out in front of the class and belted me on both hands.''

Other Primary 6 children would lose their pencil cases too, of course, but the young Fitt was being beaten for something else - speaking in his native tongue. Having only just moved from a less affluent part of Dundee, he had no inkling why the teacher thought he was being cheeky.

Countless adults in Scotland could attest to the same kind of treatment. ''Right until the 1980s children were still belittled in school for speaking in Scots,'' Fitt says. ''One man, who is now a head teacher of English, told me he was made to stand in a wastepaper basket.''

A quarter of a century after Fitt's own humiliation, the poet, teacher and novelist is delighted to be playing a prominent role in consigning such attitudes to their own wastepaper basket and helping to foster a new sense of confidence in Scottish culture and identity.

In partnership with Edinburgh-

based Black and White Publishing, Fitt, together with lexicographer Susan Rennie and novelist James Robertson, has created Itchy Coo, a new publishing imprint specialising in Scots language books for schools and general readers. The slogan is Braw Books for Bairns o Aw Ages. Four titles are just out and another 12 will follow over the next 18 months.

The damage wrought by 400 years of official neglect and prejudice is extensive but all the signs point to a fruitful and enjoyable venture - one that promises to glory in the riches of language rather than revel in

historical grudges or political point-scoring.

So you thought you knew your alphabet? Think again. A is for ''auld armadillos airm in airm'', B is for ''birlin bears wi big bahoochies'', C is ''crabbit crocodile wi clarty claes'', D is for ''drookit draigon in a dub'', right through to Z - ''zebras bumbazed in a maze''.

These are some of the creatures that lie in wait for readers of

Susan Rennie's Animal ABC ((pounds) 5.99), sumptuously and amusingly illustrated by Karen Sutherland. Intended mainly for young children, it looks like being a winner with all ages.

If humour is to the fore in this book and Kat an Doug on Planet Fankle, the madcap adventures of a seven-year-old girl and her cyberdug, Itchy Coo will be aiming for more than laughs. ''Sometimes people's only access to Scots is through Rab C Nesbitt or Chewin' the Fat or The Broons so humour is obviously a useful tool. But we're keen to show the pathos of Scots too,'' says Fitt, author of the futuristic thriller But n Ben A-Go-Go. '' It's a very expressive language and we're trying to show the whole range.''

The Hoose O Haivers, by Fitt, Robertson and Rennie ((pounds) 6.99), for instance, is a loose adaptation from Ovid's Metamorphoses and swings from funny to moving in its retelling of ancient myths.

''All Scottish schoolchildren should have an understanding first of all of what the Scots language is, because at the moment many of them believe it to be slang or improper English,'' says Fitt. ''That might sound like a very unambitious aim but it's actually quite a big deal. Scots is recognised by the European Union, and by the Scottish Executive, as a minority language, so the minimum I'd like to see is that children know how it came about and what it is.''

Another of the first batch, A Scots Parliament ((pounds) 6.99), by James Robertson, should be

particularly helpful in addressing this. An informative and illuminating introduction to the history of the institution old and new, it also sheds light on linguistic matters.

''When James VI gaed sooth tae inherit the English Croon in 1603, the Scottish Coort gaed wi him an learned tae speak English. The Union of the Parliaments in 1707 pit the hems on ony possibility that Scots micht survive in official, political discoorse . . . Lang afore 1707, in fact, Scots wis lossin the battle wi English, no in the mooths of the ordinary people, but on paper.''

So from being Scotland's official language, learnt as a matter of course by ambassadors from all over the world, including England, it lost out in every sphere.

The Authorised Version of the Bible in 1611 undermined the

literary form, though of course Scots has continued to be spoken, sung and written in its various dialects ever since. But all the while, the misconception flourished that it was never a language in its own right.

In fact, though it shared common roots in the Anglian of Northumbria, since the fourteenth century it developed along different lines from English and was subjected to different influences. Danish, Dutch, French and Gaelic etymology can all be traced in various Scots words that do not appear in English.

But Itchy Coo, which is supported by the Scottish Arts Council National Lottery Fund, has no nationalist agenda or improbable goals of reconquest, Fitt insists.

''This project is not about reviving Scots at the expense of English or making everyone sit around in kilts saying: 'Och noo.' Without English these children would not communicate with the rest of the planet, it's as simple as that.

''They obviously need to be able to speak and write it well. But they also need to understand that they have another culture too.''

Just this month a conference held by the International Reading Association in Edinburgh heard how Scottish children who speak in broad Scots are still

disadvantaged and embarrassed because they are made to speak in standard English when they start school. Consequently, they are reluctant to volunteer for tasks involving words.

''Most children are perfectly fluent and articulate if they are allowed to be,'' Janet Paisley told delegates.

''Learning Scots actually improves their English because they know how to use it more effectively in countries outside Scotland,'' Fitt says.

''With an awful lot of words, they're not sure if they are Scots or English because they've never been told there's such a thing as Scots - they're only given one area. If someone went to America or Ireland or Australia and used the word oxter instead of armpit they'd be laughed at.''

Early demand for the imprint has been strong. ''Teachers have been telling me: 'I can use this, I've been waiting for something like this'.''

The SQA brought Scots into the Highers curriculum as an option in 1995 and into the

Higher Still a few years ago. Although these were major breakthroughs they have not been backed up with decent teaching materials - so far.

Itchy Coo is supported by in-service training for teachers, school visits, library visits and other activities, carried out by Fitt under his somewhat muckle title of National Schools and Communities Scots Language Development Officer. A website provides complementary features and resources.

The Scots tongue, despite

having vastly more speakers than Gaelic (as many as 1.6 million, plus millions more with a passive knowledge, compared with about 80,000 Gaelic speakers) receives a fraction of the Executive

funding. ''Gaelic is a wonderful language and a national resource. It deserves proper support, but so does Scots,'' Fitt says.

It is telling that signs in the new Parliament building, when it is eventually completed, will be in English and Gaelic but not Scots. ''The authorities are probably thinking of Scots language activists in the past, who've written some really ropey Scots.

''Words like farspeaker for telephone. These are the guys who got in first. But give it another five, maybe 10 years, and we could well find the signage changing.

''Let's face it, there are a lot of mumblers in Scotland because no-one knows where they are linguistically,'' Fitt says.

Itchy Coo's message may be loud and clear. But there's a lang wey tae gae.