THE Scots language is the source of many of the first words we hear. Bairn. Greet. Bonnie. For many of us it is the language of those we love most, those who raised us, who taught us about the world. The tongue of couthy grannies, freenly neebors, loving parents. It’s the language of funny rhymes an sangs like Ally Bally Bee an the Three Craws.

For a huge number of us it is the language of childhood but for almost as many it is not the language of adulthood. When we go to school, Scots switches to English. Scots has its place in the playground but not in maths or chemistry. So we store away so many great words – shoogle, bahookie, fankle, haver – that mean so much to us but that we seldom get to use.

Scots is the language of 1.5 million of us, about 30% of the population. In entire chunks of the country – the Borders, Shetland, the north-east – it is the everyday language of the clear majority. But there are many more areas of Scotland, particularly urban areas, where Scots is strictly socially policed. And across the nation as a whole, Scots remains almost entirely absent from classrooms, from publicly funded media and from the business of government.

But the status quo is being challenged more strongly now than ever. I have just finished writing and presenting a new documentary about the language that goes out on Tuesday evening on the BBC Scotland channel.

Prior to lockdown I visited grassroots activists, ordinary speakers and talented writers, all of whom are playing a vital role in keeping the language vibrant and pressuring for change. I discovered an increasing boldness shared across many areas, with working-class or rural folk committing themselves to real action.

Many who had for decades been denied their own tongue were reclaiming it, vigorously and confidently, and were helping get it back into schools, into media and even pressuring the government for change. Let me give you one heart-warming example.

Buckie is a fishing town on the Moray coast. It’s at the end of a long road of wildly winding tarmac, and sits like a sentry post overlooking the vast shimmering blue of the Moray Firth.

According to the 2011 census, about two-thirds of its population speak Scots. It is absolutely the mither tongue of the community and the wider farming hinterland. But even there, far from the damaging linguistic influence of London or Edinburgh, the people found themselves pressured to speak a different language than their own. I met Evelyn, a bright-eyed, sweetie-sooking auld dear who had bade around Buckie all her years. She explained, in beautiful north-east Scots, about the repression of her language at childhood.

“We spoke Doric like aa the time, but in the school ye wisnae allowed to spik like at. ‘Don’t you dare talk like that, speak properly’ [the teachers said]. I thought I wis spikkin properly! We jist spoke as wir mams an dads spoke til us. We jist lairnt fit they wir sayin til us an spoke that wye. Ye hud tae speak proper in school. Ye wis nivir allowed tae spik broad or onythin like at. Ye kent fan tae spik proper, an fan tae spik broad Scotch.”

Evelyn’s notion of speaking “proper” was speaking English, implying that her native Scots was therefore “improper”. This is something I’ve seen up and down the country, from Peterheid prison to Glasgow University. In Dundee, young folk are telt “dinnae speak oary”. Oary, it’s implied, is rough, common and coorse. In Glasgow, talented Scots writer Chris McQueer told me he was chastised by his own granny for “speaking like a ned” when interviewed on tele.

Folk across Scotland are nudged by the dominant culture into seeing English as “speaking proper”, relegating their own language to the status of a gutter dialect.

Happily, Evelyn is now part of the vanguard of cultural change. She is part of The Buckie Blethers, a 20-strong group of Buckie folk who meet regularly to produce materials in their local dialect of Scots. As I arrived for filming, the gathering had just finished the new Buckie dictionary. They had recorded definitions for literally hundreds of Scots words commonly used in the fishing, farming and day-to-day life of their community.

There were words common across Scotland – creel for woven basket, ganzie for jumper – but many that were hyperlocal. Pyow, pyoolie, scurry and gow are all attested variants for the English seagull around the north-east coast.

These superb resources were supplied to the schools, who took them up readily. Stacks more copies were then widely distributed throughout the town via the community’s Facebook page.

It is a grassroots reclamation of language, led by octogenarians like Evelyn and facilitated by a new generation of teachers and speakers that are bolder in their approach to language. This is a microcosm of what we found across the country.

In Hawick we met a teacher from England and a librarian from Hamilton who were leading the charge in raising the status of Borders Scots. In Dundee it was a scaffie and a punk. Ordinary folk doing their bit for their community.

What we found to be missing on our travels for the documentary was any support from officialdom. There were no programmes in government to help connect and encourage these grassroots activities. The BBC were not part of this cultural renaissance. Schools, even with the best will in the world, don’t have the ability to teach Scots at the highest level because there is no Scots Language Higher. We discovered a terrible disconnect between the people and the structures meant to empower them.

Thankfully new Scottish media has fewer of the hangups of the more traditional media it has partially displaced. The

National has for years run Scots columns, as has the politics blog Bella Caledonia. They have given a generation of Scots writers an equal platform alongside their Gaelic and English language colleagues. It has helped readers get used to reading Scots more complex than their annual Oor Wullie Christmas collections, and is developing a generation of professional, confident, skilled Scots writers. The longer term impact of this will be significant.

We need to free ourselves of the cultural cringe around language in the same way we have around history and literature. Scottish history was for generations seen as a long darkness, enlightened only after the Union. In 1919 TS Elliot proclaimed that there was no longer such a thing as Scottish literature.

SCOTS has been perceived and portrayed as just a dodgy wee offshoot of English. Bad English, slang, dialect. Scots isn’t any of these things. It’s a language of its own with a long history, many regional dialects, a rich literature in poetry, prose, song and story. It’s a living language that generates new vocabulary and brings in new speakers. As we have reclaimed our literature and history in the previous generation, so now we can reclaim our language.

Scots is the partially submerged national tongue of a partially submerged nation. And as we continue on our journey towards being a normal country again, we need to start having a more normal attitude to one of our indigenous ways of speaking.

But even more important than the national is the personal. So many of us have this rich kist of words inside us that have a tremendous emotional resonance. The longer we keep the kist locked, the foostier they’ll become until the language we learned from our parents and grandparents is no longer our own. On an individual level, this will be a terrible loss.

I left Scotland at about the age of 17, and didn’t come back until I was well into my 20s. Abroad, I’d had my tongue clipped to allow comprehension. The monoglot English me abroad had always felt a bit formal, using language harvested from the pages of Dickens and Tolkein. Once home, my tongue could once again echo the words of my grandad, my mum, my neighbours and pals. I started to sound and speak again like the people I loved and respected most, and I immediately felt more myself.

This is the joy and sense of reconnection I hope my documentary encourages people to experience.

There is an obligation on government, public broadcasting and education to address this at a national level. But there’s an opportunity for us to address it on a personal level. Order yourself a copy of Harry Potter in Scots. Read it to your bairns, read it to yourself. Unlock that kist of words, and reclaim the language of your family, your community and your country.

Rebel Tongue will be shown on the BBC Scotland channel on Tuesday at 10pm