Education writer James McEnaney speaks to Emma Grae, author of Be guid ta eyer Mammy (Scots Book of the year 2022) and The Tongue She Speaks, about writing in Scots and her new children’s book, The Hoolet That Couldnae Fly.

This is your third book, with a fourth to come soon, and all of them have been written in Scots. Why did you decide to write in that language rather than English?

It started because I was drunk one night. Me and my friend were in a bar on Sauchiehall Street - this was 10 years ago in February - and we were students at the time. We were drinking and she was like "I really want to rewrite To a Mouse as To a Selfie.” So she did that and it was big hit and then we kept going back to the same  bar and we would just be drinking and we'd start writing in Scots, just little poems to make ourselves laugh, and then it kind of went from there.

Honestly I find it easier to write in Scots than I do in English, which is hilarious because my day job involves writing in English, but when it comes to writing for pleasure and writing stories that I think people would want to read, and would really entertain them, I think Scots is the best way to do it - for me anyway.

I guess when I write in English I'm telling other people's stories all the time: they're not my stories and I'm just the vessel for them to come into the world. Whereas in Scots, it's like it's my stories and there’s a very clear world in my head. So although all these books are very different they're all set in the same town. All the voices are the same - it's just different generations. It's almost like you're looking into different windows in this little town and they all talk the same way and I think when you're writing character-driven stuff Scots is just a really powerful way of telling it.

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The Hoolet That Couldnae Fly  is a all about a bird with a bad wing that disappears. Where did the inspiration for that story come from?

I went to Moniack Mhor writing retreat in the highlands and I just thought: right, I've got a week here - let's see what I do. They asked us to just try to think about turning points in our life and all that sort of stuff and I was thinking that I'd already used everything or it's going to be the next novel, but then you think about the age of the person you want to write from and then think about turning points when you were that age. So then I was looking further back and thinking about when I was younger  and remembered that my rabbit got eaten by a fox. It was the most traumatic thing that had happened to me so I thought that was a sort of starting point.

But also, years and years and years ago, I volunteered at a bird of prey centre just near Loch Lomond. I've always thought I should write about those birds, because I know the birds really, really well, and it's just never come up. But I’ve still got photos of them and stuff like that and know all their names so I decided I could make it a bird instead of a rabbit.

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And what was it about the idea of writing a children’s book in Scots that had appealed to you?

There are examples of Scots children's books out there, but they're quite frankly few and far between. There are some amazing translations in Scots like The Laddie, the Mowdie, the Tod and the Cuddie, which is a beautiful book and I guess you could call it a bit of an inspiration.

But for me it was about wanting the next generation of kids to have access to original Scots books. There's always the argument that says to translate Harry Potter and parents will give it to their children because they know it's a popular story, whereas this is something new that's told in the language, and the idea is that it's going to be one of a series.

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Some people might worry that exposing children to Scots books could be confusing for them, and wonder if it would be better to concentrate on their English literacy skills instead? You would, presumably, reject that?

Scots literacy improves English literacy but it can also engage children in a way that English might not. There's a lot of children in Scotland who, if you give them permission to write like that, you're going to engage them.

And I know that things have changed and we've got the Scots Language Award and things like that, but Scots is still not fostered the way English is. When kids in Scotland are writing they're still going to be writing in English. I just feel that there's loads of people who maybe, you know, wouldn't be as engaged with English and Scots can get them into it. I've written a bit at the back of the book actually, in English, called notes for readers. It's addressed to children and saying that if they want to write stories of their own they might actually find it easier to write them in Scots than in English.

When I was young I was a super-broad Scots speaker. My dad worked in California for a year and so we went out there to live for a bit. My mum filmed me at Disneyland and it was such broad Scots that it was ridiculous - much stronger even that it is now. And you know, I remember watching it back, before I really knew that Scots was a language, and actually being quite ashamed that I spoke like that. I mention that at the end of the book as well and the idea is that other people shouldn't feel like that. It's rubbish.

The Hoolet That Couldnae Fly is published by Luath Press on 30 November and is now available to pre-order.