Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Stour or Dour or Clour: An Overview of Scots Usage in Stevenson's Works and Correspondence

Academic journal article Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature

Stour or Dour or Clour: An Overview of Scots Usage in Stevenson's Works and Correspondence

Article excerpt

This chapter outlines the main ways in which Robert Louis Stevenson appears to have used Scots for special stylistic effects in his prose writings and personal correspondence. Attention is given to metalinguistic and metatextual comments, and to vernacular modes of expression that contribute to the definition of a situational context, of an exchange, or of a character.

Keywords: Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Baxter, Correspondence, Scots, Pragmatics, Prescriptivism, Vernacular usage.

In the Preface to Underwoods (1887), Robert Louis Stevenson commented quite extensively and competently on his use of Scots lexis and spelling. While seeming somewhat defensive on certain points, Stevenson did nonetheless provide a good overview of the potential difficulties that any writer of Scots would run into when attempting to achieve consistent spelling and usage.

In what follows I intend to outline the main ways in which Stevenson appears to have used Scots for special stylistic effects in his prose writings. Starting from the Preface to Underwoods itself, I will then discuss instances of Scots usage in four very successful novels {Kidnapped, 1886; The Master of Ballantrae, 1889; Catriona, 1893; and Weir of Hermiston, 1896) and in a short story, Thrown Janet, 1881, entirely written in Scots. Finally, I will comment very briefly on the humorous exchanges between Stevenson and Charles Baxter, his lifelong friend, lawyer and business agent, under the interchangeable pseudonyms of Thomson and Johnson.

The preface to Underwoods

It is well-known that Stevenson had a very good knowledge of Scots. He had acquired competence in the spoken vernacular from his maternal grandfather ("My grandfather [...] was one of the last, I suppose, to speak broad Scots and be a gentleman" (though "he did not [...] do so in his sermons") ("Memoirs of Himself', Tusitala edn. 29: 152), from his nurse Cummie (i.e. Alison Cunningham) and other servants, including the Swanston gardener and John Todd, the Swanston shepherd mentioned in the essay "Pastoral"); and from those he met in his fréquentation of Edinburgh low life in his student years.2 In addition, Stevenson was very well acquainted with the Scots literary tradition, and especially with the works of Robert Fergusson and Robert Bums, the other two "Robins" with whom he felt close artistic kinship.

It was the viability of this literary and folk tradition, together with the persistence of spoken usage, that enabled Scots to survive despite the strenuous attempts of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century prescriptivists to eradicate it in favour of Southern models (Dossena 2005). Scots would continue to influence Scottish English to this day, and it was not unusual for older generations to be heard to speak Scots even in bourgeois circles. Henry Cockbum's famous anecdotes of elderly ladies using Scots expressively (1856/1971: 58-67) were resumed in an undated anonymous text (Anon, n.d.: 2; 29-31), in which language loss was regretted on account of the impossibility to render specific turns of speech just as appropriately; the text cites Edward B. Ramsay's Reminiscences of Scottish Life & Character (1861):

I cherish a great love of the old Scottish language. How expressive, how beautiful are many of its turns! You can't translate them. [...] I cannot help thinking that a change of national language involves also a change of national character. [...] There was a dry Scottish humour which we fear [Scots speakers'] successors do not inherit.

(Anon, n.d.: 25-26; 33)

Indeed, commentators frequently regretted the gradual loss of "pithy" Scots idioms,3 of distinctive vocabulary and of accurate orthography. On the other hand, a long printing tradition based on Southern models had made Scots spelling more and more difficult to ascertain, and Stevenson himself commented on this in his Preface to Underwoods. Far from being prescriptive, however, Stevenson advocated flexibility, so that the language he saw in danger in his poem "The Makar to Posterity" could be preserved. …

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