Children of Carol Craig's generation were commonly exposed to toxic stress – and that, she argues in her new book Hiding In Plain Sight, is a root cause of Scotland’s ill health, drug and alcohol problems. Here, she examines the prevalence of emotional abuse in Scottish culture when she was growing up ... and how the effects are written in our national language

SCOTS pride themselves on the country’s humour and music so it’s fitting that Billy Connolly is one of the nation’s favourite sons. Connolly is a comic genius whose gallus pantomime antics, storytelling and scatological wit amuse many people. But Connolly is much more than a singer turned comic. He is also the “poster boy” for childhood abuse. Of course, people internationally take solace from his story but it resonates painfully for many who grew up in Scotland.

Connolly’s wife Pamela Stephenson, who became a psychotherapist, wrote a revelatory biography which lets us count the ACEs his family dealt him.

ACEs are “adverse childhood experiences” and there is mounting international evidence of their negative impact on future mental and physical health. In Connolly’s case, his mother left the family when he was four; he was physically neglected; his aunt and his father both beat him regularly; he was verbally abused and humiliated; his father sexually abused him; and he was emotionally neglected and lacked love in his life. That’s six ACEs. He also recounts that he was mercilessly belted in primary school, treated cruelly by nuns and repeatedly told he was stupid.

The effects of these adversities were evident in his young life – he had learning difficulties; as a young man he could be violent, verbally abusive and impulsive; and he turned to alcohol and tobacco early in life and became a problem drinker. Stephenson maintains he was an alcoholic when she met him in his 40s.

“Billy’s real story is a dark and painful tale of a boy who was deprived of a sense of safety in the world,” she writes. “This early trauma had a massive influence on the man he became – a survivor of abuse whose psyche still bears the scars, and whose resultant, deep self loathing prompted self-destructive tendencies.”

Before Connolly revealed his childhood abuse, he worried that revelations would alienate his fans. They didn’t. Stephenson tells us: “Readers let Billy know how much they empathised with him, adored him and, in many cases, shared similar stories of violation, torture and humiliation. Far from being rejected, Billy became a poster child for those who seek to overcome the challenging legacy of a painful childhood.”

In his biography and in various interviews, Connolly is clear that violence was not the main problem: he was able to prepare himself mentally for this and got used to it. He also plays down the sexual abuse, saying he forgives his father. What really affected him was the lack of love, along with emotional abuse and humiliation, and it would have destroyed him if he had not met Pamela Stephenson. She gave him an ultimatum about drinking and helped him to heal. At heart Connolly felt he was “useless, worthless and stupid”, a fear his wife tells us “he keeps in a dark place even today”.

This chimes with ACE studies, as researchers have found that all ACEs had a negative effect but that, unexpectedly, sexual and physical abuse are not more damaging than others. The one that has a slightly more negative effect is emotional abuse and this is what Billy Connolly experienced “every day” from his Aunt Mona.

The first question on the ACE questionnaire asks: “Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often ... swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you ... or act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?”

The first part of this question is really about verbal abuse and humiliation and I think there’s hardly a Scot of my generation, at least from the industrial central belt, who would say no to it. This behaviour was endemic not just in schools but also homes and communities. This is hardly surprising – a culture that thought it was OK to belt and hit children as young as five for minor misdemeanours is also likely to verbally abuse them.

But the problem runs much deeper than that. In Scotland, verbal abuse is also inherent in our language. If a comedian from elsewhere wants to impersonate a Scotsman all he needs to do is put on his best Scottish accent and then, peppering his speech with expletives, say something like: “See you, you’re a wee ...” and then add his choice of Scottish insults.

Scotland has traditionally been a put-down culture. We’re good at criticism and cutting people down to size. Look at Michael Munro’s The Patter: A Guide To Current Glasgow usage, originally published in the mid-1980s, and you’ll see how so much of the language is critical. Many of the terms listed are insulting ways to describe people – nyaff, flyman, bauchle, heidbanger, sweetie-wife, tumshie, tube, daftie, hairy, keelie, breenger, balloon, eejit, haddy, no-user, queerie and countless more. There are also lots of negative adjectives such as haunless, torn-faced, shilpit, glaikit, away wi the fairies and hackit.

There are lots of ways to describe dirt and they can also be applied to people. There are many different terms for violence and giving people a row such as shirrack and slag. But all this makes sense – it’s hardly surprising that people who lived in the world’s most overcrowded slums created many of their own words for dirt, drink, physical aggression and maintaining your position by being prepared to argue for your rights.

However, the preponderance of negative, critical words is not just an aspect of Glasgow’s patter. It’s also evident in the Scots language. Lexicographer Betty Kirkpatrick is an expert on the topic and tells us: “The Scots language is rich in words that can be used as insults,” adding later: “Scots is not lacking in ways of indicating our disapproval or contempt for others.”

This may be why the Scots excelled at “flyting” – a medieval literary practice, usually involving poets, where opponents would joust verbally using insults, vulgarities and profanities to inflict wounds.

The Scottish liking for insults has survived to the present day. In 2007, as part of a charitable venture, a telephone company in the UK asked 50,000 people to contribute their favourite word to a “Wall Of Words”. The whole of the UK chose “love”, “family” and “hope” as their three favourites but the Scots picked “numpty”, meaning a stupid person. “Peelywally” was second and “scunnered” third in Scotland. This was not a particularly scientific exercise but we can also find evidence for the Scots’ penchant for insults and plain speaking in current giftware. One company offers the following mugs – eejit, galoot, besom, glaikit, skiver, crabbit, steamin, and of course our favourite word, numpty. Thanks to the internet there is now a fashion for new, even more robust Scottish put-downs and insults involving lots of sweary words. Various sites vie with one another in offering lists of offensive terms.

Now, I don’t want to be po-faced about this. I love the grittiness and onomatopoeia of these traditional words. Standard English seems bland by comparison. I too once thought these Scottish put-downs amusing and I could be writing this with one of these mugs on my desk. When I read Sunset Song decades ago as a teenager I loved “the Speak” of Kinraddie and how it cut folk down to size.

Some of this liking for Scots words, even if they are insulting, comes simply from the desire to affirm our culture. More importantly, these expressions have a comfortable, almost homely, familiarity as we grew up with them. Indeed psychologists talk about “the familiarity principle” to explain why, for example, people with an alcoholic parent often marry someone who will become a problem drinker.

But it’s important to put our liking for these insults to one side and examine what they mean. The use of these words is not just idle name-calling; we are pouncing on something someone has done and then labelling them for this one behaviour. So if you do one silly thing you’re an eejit or a numpty. Or we take someone’s flaw or weakness, exaggerate it and and label the person accordingly – bawface, skelly, glaikit, hackit ...

The Scots language and Glaswegian patter are also full of expressions to tell people that they are haverin or talking mince. That’s then an invitation to tell them “yer bum’s oot the windae” or “awa and bile yer heid”.

These forms of expression are designed to display the speaker’s superiority and contempt for the other person. By alighting on someone’s weaknesses or mistakes we are effectively humiliating them. What’s more, instead of encouraging people to express their opinions and views we make people fearful of doing so. Of course, these expressions and countless individual variations are so outrageous that they appear humorous. But when they are used in everyday life there’s usually a victim.

Neither Scots nor Glaswegian patter encourages or expresses respect and I mean basic human dignity, not status. They don’t encourage communication or discussion either. In a country that prides itself on egalitarianism and compassion, the surprising truth is that the insults and contempt endemic in our language shore up the strong at the expense of the weak.

It’s children, disabled and elderly people, and the weakest in our midst who bear the brunt of our liking for insults and straight-talking. Gey few are going to tell the psychopathic teacher, the gang leader, the adolescent bully, the overbearing parent or the aggressive, opinionated co-worker that he or she is a numpty and should go and bile their heid. In this respect the insulting language we feel proud of is a bully’s charter. Of course, there are aggressive, contemptuous individuals everywhere but do we want to pride ourselves on this behaviour and brand it Scottish?

So contempt abounds in Scotland, partly thanks to our language. The tragedy is that there is sound research to show that contempt not only leads people to feel bad about themselves, it’s also one of the main slayers of relationships.

Insults, criticism and contempt could be offset to a small extent by a copious amount of compliments, praise and endearments. But yet again we fall short for, as Betty Kirkpatrick tells us: “In general, traditional Scots do not go in much for compliments. ‘No bad’ is often the highest form of praise that leaves their lips.” Of course, Scots has some positive adjectives such as braw and bonnie but commonly we use the diminutive to be positive.

The diminutive is much used in the north-east in the frequent addition of “ie” to the end of words and it evokes tenderness towards children’s smallness. In Glasgow, “wean” is “wee yin” and so a form of the diminutive. But it isn’t always used tenderly, as in “bloody weans”. More commonly in the central belt the diminutive is just the copious use of wee. “I just bought this wee skirt in Marks” – a language style which suggests you have to make something small or trivial before you can be positive about it.

The First World War poet Mary Symon of Dufftown observed that our language has “practically no endearments”. She added: “In a vague unformulated fashion we consider tenderness a weakness.”

Unless this tenderness is being expressed by our national poet Robert Burns. He wrote eloquently of love and his poems exude affection but in this respect he appears exceptional and not to the liking of some influential figures. In the 20th century, Hugh MacDiarmid attacked Burns and the Burns cult for being sentimental.

According to the writer Alastair McIntosh, Gaelic has over 70 terms of endearment. This may have helped counteract the fundamentalist, chilly Calvinism of the Free Church which flourishes in the Gàidhealtachd. It may also explain why the only tender passage written by a Scottish man on his father that I’ve read is Finlay J Macdonald’s account of his boyhood on Harris in the 1930s. He writes: “My father and I had developed a marvellous relationship which puberty, paradoxically, was strengthening rather than abrasing.” Of course, there were tensions and arguments in this father/son relationship but much acknowledged tenderness and love. This may have been facilitated by the affection inherent in Gaelic language.

When we put children of my generation’s frequent exposure to emotional abuse alongside other common ACEs such as a problem drinker in the family, being hit by parents or watching a parent or sibling being physically abused then it isn’t hard to see why Scotland has some of the worst health outcomes in Western Europe.

This is an edited extract from Carol Craig’s new book Hiding In Plain Sight, which is available from and Amazon (£10)