‘outwith’: preposition: outside; beyond. A term unique to Scotland.
Revising my visa essay,
applying for three more years
here, I read my own scribbled words:
Comparable opportunities for critical study
do not exist outwith Scotland.
Outwith: a term unfamiliar, yet
scrawled in my own hand,
doubtlessly mine, and I wonder:
I came here all rude American brass, all
trash can, fanny pack, Where’s the castle?
Then Glasgow rolled itself under my tongue,
a grey marble lolling my mouth open with Os:
Glasgow, Kelvingrove, going to Tesco,
then thistling my speech wi sleekit lisps,
wee packets a crisps,
my lips like the lids
of those glass bottles of sand
I used to collect from every beach:
my mouth a shore holding each grain
that altered the flow of my speech,
my pen flowing ‘s’ into the cursive waves
of ‘socialised,’ ‘civilised,’ ‘acclimatised,’
answering Aye! by accident
I may be from out
but I am now with.
About this poem
This poem was included in the Best of the Best Scottish Poems, published in 2019. To mark the fifteenth anniversary of our annual online anthology Best Scottish Poems, the Library invited broadcaster, journalist and author James Naughtie to edit a ‘Best of the Best’ drawn from each of the annual editions of Best Scottish Poems.
Witty and wise, ‘Outwith’ gives us an outside look at ourselves, and the things we take for granted, like words that no-one outside Scotland uses. Katie Ailes – ‘all rude American brass’ when she arrived – writes with an obvious natural verve and insight.
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2016. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editor in 2016 was Catherine Lockerbie.
Confession: for most of my life as a Scottish but reasonably cosmopolitan citizen, I had no idea that ‘outwith’ was a purely Scottish word. (Really? What are you supposed to say? ‘Outside’? ‘Without’? Both have alternative meanings and neither work properly.) This poem by American Katie Ailes – a spoken word performance poet whose work also reads beautifully on the page – is a captivating, fond, witty piece about the absorption and use of language and accent and becoming part of a culture. And in the new isolationist rhetoric which emerged in 2016, the final two lines serve as a fine, clever, perfectly crafted sense of inclusion, not exclusion.
It’s amazing how unaware we can be of the effects of our migrations on our own tongues; how subtly accents shift and new words find their way into our mouths.
Though I’ve lived in Scotland for several years now, I rarely register how much my language is changing — my vocabulary widening, ‘Os’ lengthening — until I call home and all that evolution sloughs off for a wee while (to return as soon as I hang up). This is one of my favourite poems to perform live due to all the accent shifts I get to make in it (and the rude joy of yelling ‘fanny pack’ in feigned ignorance at the audience). The longer I live here, the more comfortable the Scottish sections feel and the more the American section feels like putting on an accent…