Edinburgh Fringe 2016
Question: What do Bourdieu, Robert Burns and David Crystal have in common? Answer: They all appear as characters in O is for Hoolet. If you’ve ever wondered whether Scots is really a language or just a dialect, what constitutes ‘proper’ English or you’re just interested in language and culture generally, this is the show to answer all your questions – and maybe raise a few more.
Language theory might not seem like a very promising premise for a Fringe show, but in essence this one-woman show is just that, a spoken word performance about the sociolinguistics of the Scots language. It’s funny, it’s informative and it’s a little bit thought provoking. If you’re Scottish, you might find yourself confronting your own prejudices and what Scots is, and isn’t, and if you’re not Scottish, you’ll find out more about Scotland’s less well-known language.
O is for Hoolet (hoolet being the Scots word for owl) is a storytelling session based around questions people ask about Scots. Is it really a language or just a dialect? Should we legislate to protect it? Should children be taught to speak standard English in schools or allowed to speak the way they do at home? Why do we have such affection for Scots and yet embarrassment about its public use?
Ishbel McFarlane is a self-deprecating and engaging storyteller, with an obvious passion for her subject and a lighthearted approach to sharing her learning on language and culture.
Audience participation is encouraged, although not mandatory, with numbers beng called out bingo-style to prompt different audience members to read out a series of seemingly random pre-prepared questions. McFarlane then weaves the answers together into a cleverly crafted whole piece that dives into both language and a personal history of why Scots means so much to her.
Some quite serious linguistic and social theory from the likes of Pierre Bourdieu, David Crystal, Geoffrey Finch and Johann Unger is unpacked, which at times it can be a little hard to follow as she speeds through some complex concepts. It doesn’t matter too much because it’s delivered in a funny way, as she drops into character and does silly impressions of them explaining their own theories, but sometimes those impressions do make it more difficult to pick up exactly what they’re saying.
Those are interspersed with impressions of other Scots language speakers including Robert Burns, Liz Lochhead, Tom Leonard and Jean Redpath, acting out the roles entertainingly with actions and props, as well as childhood versions of herself, personal anecdotes, readings, song, plus a little French and British Sign Language for good measure.
All this takes place in a set that looks a bit like primary school classroom, with bookcases of books and a selection of little houses that McFarlane opens to find objects, documents and roofs that turn out to be books relating to what she is talking about, which echoes the influence that the classroom has on the view many Scots speakers have of their language. The only slight off note in the whole show is the choice of the Gypsy Kings as background music, which doesn’t quite fit.
While O is for Hoolet doesn’t have all the answers, it gives plenty food for thought about why it is that we Scots are ashamed to spik wir ain leid (speak our own language) and what we might do about it. For anyone who’s interested in language, it’s a fascinating and informative performance.