The John Byrne Award is an online exhibition and art competition exploring personal and societal values. The competition is open to anybody over the age of 16 living or studying in Scotland. It awards £7,500 annually and £500 quarterly to work which encourages the questioning of values appropriate to our modern age.
Here, Róisín discusses her winning entry and graduation project:
Can you tell us more about your entry for The John Byrne Award?
The title of the video is Bad English, with the entry title submitted as “What will we lose if we continue to discourage the use of Scots?” This story is based on a homework exercise that I got during primary school where we would create sentences using one of the words on the lists given to us.
When I saw the word piece, my first thought was to use it in the most common way I had heard it, I had no idea that this wasn’t a word used in English but in fact a Scots word for sandwich. I remember when my dad tried to explain this to me being confused as to why I might not be allowed to use this word in this way. To me this was the only way of saying what I was trying to communicate and didn’t know that some people regarded this speech as improper or wrong.
In the video I tried to get across the turmoil that my dad would have been going through trying to make sure that I wasn’t going to get in trouble for school, but also not trying to dissuade me from using my own language, which I think is something that a lot of Scots speakers can relate to.
The reason that this memory has always stuck in my head was that I was ready to have the teacher talk to me about my sentence and I was ready to defend the use of the word piece. Instead, she corrected it in a way that totally changed the context of the sentence and what had happened and didn’t say anything to me. In a small act of rebellion, I scored out what she had written and rewrote what I had said.
What do you want people to know about your graduation project?
The main aim of my graduation project was to get people more comfortable and acquainted with Scots and give recognition to voices seldom heard in media. I added subtitles for the narration so that the audience could follow what was being said, this way the audio became the centre of the audience’s focus and further invited them to sound out the words for themselves.
Having to go through each word in the narration also helped me to standardise how I write my own language and dialect, and I was able to pay more attention on how I was pronounced the words and how they looked when paired with the sounds. Since the primary focus of my video work is writing and narration, I began experimenting with letterpress print to support the videos.
By making the words physically present in the space, the audience are invited to consider the words and sounds, further aided by including pieces where the phonetic spellings of the words are drawn out on the page. The main objective of these prints is to bring these words and phrases to an audience in an environment where they are normally discouraged, giving them a sense of status and belonging.
What were the inspirations for this project and why was following this route important to you?
When I first started working with video I experimented with voice and narration trying to use my natural voice as much as possible. When speaking with people from my hometown who watched these videos, they said that it was great to hear their own accent used in a way they had never heard it before. This was when I first started to properly look into Scots and decided that I wanted to try and promote its use and get people more comfortable with hearing these words and voices they weren’t used to.
Scots is often degraded as “slang” and speakers are told to “talk properly” to usually imply that Scots speakers are of a lower class, which I see a real loss to our culture. Language plays such an important role in our cultural belonging and identity and so to discourage people from using these words, which has been done so much throughout history, we will lose these rich and emotive phrases and a part of our cultural identity.