Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Cathie Dunn on Scottish Dialects in Novels

As promised, my first special guest is historical novelist, Cathie Dunn. A resident of Edinburgh, Cathie has some significant experience with Scottish dialect. Here's her take on its appearance in a novel's dialog.

"Aye." "Nae bother." "Ah dinna ken."

Readers of Scottish historical and romance novels can't avoid coming across Scottish accents. Whether, as a reader, you like them or not, accents can enrich a story, or spoil it.

A well-balanced addition of an accent gives readers the experience of 'hearing' the characters, their speech a sign of heritage, upbringing and culture. Sometimes, different accents can be used to identify regional differences. This is more in line with the reality of the day, I believe, but quite tricky to achieve. Modern Scots still have different dialects, east from west and north from south. What's 'ye' for some, is 'yoo' for others, and even the odd 'ya' appears in places.

How does a non-Scottish writer choose the right accent for a character? That’s the tricky bit.

In Highland Arms, my Jacobite Scottish romance, the main Highlander, Rory, has a Scottish burr, just a hint. Minor characters - of a different class and age – have different accents. I chose not to overdo it, so my Lowland, posh Edinburgh-raised heroine Catriona doesn’t have a Scottish accent at all. This indicated again a different education, living area and class.

As a (non-Scottish) resident in Scotland I have an issue with the over-use of dialects in fiction. Hints of a lilt are fine, but the continuous use of dialects - especially when characters from different areas use the same accent - keep throwing me out of a story. However riveting the plot, I find it hard to continue reading.

Language has changed over the centuries. Intonation and style are different. Gaelic has become the language of a minority; Doric even more so, now confined to a small north-eastern corner. Scots has changed. Cities have their own, distinctive dialects. Shifts in population from the countryside to cities have merged dialects. You visit various corners of Scotland and get different lilts. It's fascinating. And quite complicated.

How does a writer of historical fiction get the right balance? If your readers like it, you must be on the right track. Correct? Maybe. Guess it depends where your readers live. And if they’re familiar with the rich range of the country’s dialects.

Maybe I've become too familiar with the regional accents to accept a novel where the dialect is totally unrealistic. Yes, it’s fiction, but I still prefer a well-placed hint at an accent rather than full blown wrong terminology.

So, how much Scottish dialect should a novel contain? Should every character speak with an accent? Or only specific characters?

Or none at all?

About Cathie:
Cathie Dunn writes romantic adventure & suspense set in Scotland, England and Normandy. A hobby historian, her focus is on medieval and Jacobite eras.

She has two historical novels published: Highland Arms, a romance set in 1720s Scotland, and Dark Deceit, a medieval adventure suspense and the first in The Anarchy Trilogy. Last July, Cathie self-published Silent Deception, a romantic spooky novella set in Victorian Cornwall. All her books are available on Amazon.

Cathie lives in Scotland with her husband and two cats and currently works on a contemporary romantic suspense set in Idaho, US, and a historical Scottish romance.

Author Links:

To buy Cathie's books:


  1. Thanks for having me here today, Maggie! Happy New Year!

    1. You're so welcome, Cathie. It's a delight to have you visit!

  2. Awesome article. The first book I ever wrote had an Irish character in it. Of course, my research at the time came from Hollywood movies where accents were thick, hot and heavy, so I dropped the H's from most of that character's dialog, along with a few other tricksy no-nos and hoped the book would be a hit. Never got it sold but eventually ended up meeting some Irish people who read the book and laughed me into submission . . . sadly not book submission. I was so embarrassed that I put the book in a drawer (back in the day when we could still do that) and worked on something else. It's a great story though. I just need to get it back out and correct the accent. One day when I have time {sigh}.

  3. Oh, bad accents are a pet peeve with me! And fake "olde" English too -- I know a lot of people who trumpet Joe Hill's Heart Shape Box but I couldn't get past page one without throwing the book across the room because neither he nor his editor understood the difference between first and second person in early modern English.

    That said, I set a lot of my stories in Britain and agonise over this a lot because I'm not originally from here. I also have a lot of slang (sometimes historical) and it's hard work making it sound authentic and yet original. Cheers to you for doing it, Cathie.

  4. Hey Cathie, I loved your accents in Highland Arms, you hit the nail right on the head. I do love a different accent thrown in, it does place the book and the character quite nicely. And it's nice to be different. But I agree, it needs not be overdone, otherwise it gets plain annoying. Great post!