In 2002 The Scotsman carried a news item about a sheriff banning the use of the word “aye” by those appearing from custody in his court, insisting on “yes”. The sheriff, Lindsay Wood, an Arbroath solicitor (well-known as a popular after dinner speaker) serving as a visiting sheriff, asked 18-year-old Ryan Seath of St Ninians whether he accepted a bail condition, and he responded ”Aye”. Wood barked: “Next time you appear in court you don’t say aye, you say yes. Do you understand that?” The poor boy quickly replied “Yes” before being bailed and told to return for trial in December.
The incident even led to questions in the House of Commons, with six Liberal Democrat MPs, including Menzies Campbell, a leading Scots advocate, tabling an early-day motion noting that “aye” was recognised throughout Scotland as a clear alternative to the word yes. The motion pointed out that “aye” was the only word acceptable in the Commons as an alternative in a vote and asserted “its use should be universally accepted in courts in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom”.
The story also ran in the Daily Mail and the Daily Record, and the sheriff was ridiculed of course, a pundit from Aberdeen University (Derrick McClure, a Scots language expert), commenting : “Aye is a perfectly acceptable word for ‘yes’. I thought these sheriffs would have learned some sense by this time. It happens to have disappeared from use in England, but not in Scotland, which is why it’s now thought of as a Scots word.” He added: “Everybody in Scotland knows what it means, and it is ridiculous that there should be any stigma towards using it.”
This was not the first time “Aye” was objected to. In 1993 in the Stirling court again, former sheriff James Nolan held Kevin Mathieson, 18, in contempt . He was told to answer “yes” or “no” but, when asked if he understood, he replied: “Aye” – and was sent to the cells for an hour and a half. We also learned that another retired Stirling sheriff, J Irvine Smith, “banned it because it could easily cause confusion, since the Scots word ‘aye’ also means ‘always’.”
Actually they are two separate and different words, and usually spelled differently too. I pronounce the affirmative like the first personal pronoun, and the one meaning “always” with a different opening vowel. The Scottish National Dictionary gives the pronunciations differently: “yes” is closer to ah-ee, while “always” is close to eh-ee. Actually the latter is often (in English) pronounced like the first letter of the alphabet, to rhyme with “day”. The Stirling bannings are a bit of a mystery, in that I wonder why such fastidious avoidance of the vernacular seems to happen most often there; but I do understand the sheriffs, who are probably much anglified establishment pillars, poor things.
Such niceness in the use of English (however mistaken) is on a par with the former insistence on English in school, as opposed to anything else, be it the guid Scots tongue or the Gaelic, under the threat of the tawse, a length of leather, split at one end into two (sometimes more) straps or thongs, applied to the outstretched palms of the hands. The belt, as we called it, was only outlawed in the eighties, and in my time was used on pupils who didn’t perform well or acted up, though it was a bit earlier that it was applied to those who, knowing no better, spoke their mother tongue in school (and even in the playground). A similar sort of thing happened in Canada, where the First Nations (as we call them now) were ruthlessly forced out of their traditions, and on the prairies those of Ukrainian stock were despised for trying to keep theirs. That belt by the way was (mostly) manufactured in Lochgelly, a town quite close to my home town in Fife. I knew it had some claim to fame.