As a writer, broadcaster, programme-maker and arch-demolisher of the Scottish cringe, Billy Kay has spent his life demonstrating the enduring expressive elegance and power of the Scots tongue with which he grew up in Ayrshire, while, through three decades of Odyssey programmes and associated books, he has brought oral history to the fore as a vivid and valid record of the people’s story and song.
His pioneering Odyssey programmes on BBC Radio Scotland have given powerful voice to such diverse and often little-celebrated working-class communities as the Glasgow Donegals, Loch Fyne ring-net fishermen, Lithuanian coal miners and Caithness flagstone cutters, while other programmes have ranged richly across topics as diverse as the Scottish Enlightenment, freemasonry and the history of black people in Scotland.
These programmes have been compared to the work of Charles Parker, the documentary-maker who created The Radio Ballads with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, and prompted the historian Sir Tom Devine, a leading authority on Scottish immigration and emigration, to remark in an interview: “… history is not just about economies and governments, it´s about human beings, and Billy Kay should be congratulated because, almost single-handedly, he has developed interest in this in Scotland and scholars owe him a due.”
Another leading historian, T C Smout, later to become Scotland’s Historiographer Royal, described one of the Odyssey publications in The Scotsman as “The best book of the year is just out, the written version of BBC Radio Scotland’s memorable radio series Odyssey. It is a wonderful compilation of photographs, songs and oral history.”
His book Scots: The Mither Tongue, first published in 1986, has sold more than 20,000 copies and was listed among Scotland on Sunday’s top hundred Scottish books. It provocatively stirred the social, cultural and political debate over the future of Scots and acted as a catalyst for change in attitudes to the language Billy describes as “the bonnie broukit bairn o Scottish culture”.
Writing in Scotland on Sunday, the author James Robertson commented: “Kay was the public face of Scots, and was roundly abused by some for pleading its cause. For others, his work transformed their thinking: never before had they been told, on the BBC no less, that what they spoke, far from being ‘the language of the gutter’ or debased English, had an 800-year pedigree, two multi-volume dictionaries describing it, a vast and glorious literature, and a whole set of dialects of its own. This was a life–affirming, emotionally and intellectually liberating message, and it took courage and conviction to be the messenger.”
Billy’s other books have included Knee Deep in Claret (co-authored with Cailean Maclean), The Dundee Book and, most recently, his acclaimed exploration of the Scottish diaspora from Bangkok to Brazil, The Scottish World.
Born in Galston, Ayrshire, he was educated at Kilmarnock Academy. He speaks French, German and Portuguese, but his love of the Scots tongue of his native Ayrshire would never leave him. ““My sense of Scottishness was wrought primarily in a working class family in 1950s Ayrshire,” he writes. “Intellectual dimensions were added studying Scottish literature at Edinburgh University, and international perspectives gained from travelling round the world and speaking several foreign languages, but my first identity is as a Scots-speaking Lowlander from the Burns country. His brilliant poetry and songs were ingrained in the local culture, and it was a source of community pride that we spoke the same dialect of Scots as the poet.”
Having graduated from Edinburgh University in 1974 with an MA (Hons) degree in English language and literature, he spent a year travelling round the world then obtained a teaching qualification at Moray House, before joining the BBC as a researcher.
Becoming a producer, he went on to create his Odyssey series of documentaries recording the oral history of the Scottish working class. He eventually became a freelance writer and broadcaster, his radio work expanding into a number of TV documentaries.
His plays have included one for Radio, Lucky’s Strike, set in his native Ayrshire during the Miner’s Strike, which won St Andrew’s University’s Sloan prize for writing in Scots, while They Fairly Make Work broke box office records at Dundee Rep during its two runs there in 1986.
The music for They Fairly Mak Ye Work was written by the late and much lamented Michael Marra (a posthumous inductee into this year’s Scots Trad Music Hall of Fame), and Billy has performed with and inspired many musicians. The Skye accordionist and composer Blair Douglas’s tune From the Gorbals to Gweedore was informed by Billy’s story of the Glasgow Irish, while Karine Polwart wrote her lullaby Baleerie Baloo after learning from him about Jane Haining, the Scots missionary who cared for Jewish children in Budapest and who died in Auschwitz. He has also performed with members of Jock Tamson’s Bairns, notably in his celebration of Edinburgh’s 18th-century bard, Fergusson’s Auld Reikie.
A doughty campaigner for Scottish devolution and ultimately independence, he was involved in the campaign for a Scottish Parliament during the 1990s and the Yes campaign in the run-up to the 2014 Referendum. He was a member of the Cross Party Group on the Scots Language at the Scottish Parliament, currently in abeyance, and is anxious that Scots should be granted full official status as a language of Scotland.
“Personally,” he writes, “I am delighted that my second language is English – as a lingua franca in the world today, it is a perfect medium of communication. But, I know the power and pathos of Scots and I want future generations to be bi-lingual in Scots and English, or Gaelic and English in the Highlands, so that like me they find it easier to learn other languages and communicate confidently with the world.”
Recognition of Billy’s work has included numerous radio awards, a Heritage Society of Scotland Award and an honorary Degree from the University of the West of Scotland.
He believes that, “Scotland is inevitably moving towards being at one with herself, and that the positive values ingrained in the culture will survive and thrive as we gain political maturity.”
As another champion of Scots, Brian Holton, wrote in The Edinburgh Review: “Whole new tracts of Scotland have been opened up for broadcasting thanks to him. He has shown us images of ourselves that don’t conspire with the prevailing media image – half pantomime, half Hollywood – and he has shown us that we can and do speak naturally and easily in a language of grace, dignity and power. Much of his work has been moving, delightful, even inspiring.”