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Billy Kay

Billy Kay was born in Galston, Ayrshire in 1951, and educated at the local High School, Kilmarnock Academy and Edinburgh University. He began doing a degree in Modern Languages - he speaks French, German and Portuguese - but his interest in Scottish literature led him to take an MA degree with Honours in English Language and Literature. He graduated in 1974, spent a year travelling round the world, and obtained a teaching qualification at Moray House College of Education.

Billy and David Annand Image | Billy Kay | Odyssey Productions
(David Annand making the bust of Billy for the Heritage Society of Scotland Award of 1995)

He joined the BBC as a researcher in 1979, then as a producer, he created the acclaimed Odyssey series of documentaries recording the oral history of the Scottish working class. Later as a freelance writer and broadcaster he continued this theme in a number of Television documentaries for BBC Scotland. These included the story of Scottish colliers - "Miners", and "The Mother Tongue". He has written two plays for Radio and one for the stage, "They Fairly Mak Ye Work" which broke box office records at Dundee Rep in its two runs at the theatre in 1986. He has poetry and short stories published in several Scottish anthologies. In 1992 his play for Radio Scotland, Lucky´s Strike - set in Ayrshire during the miners strike - won the Sloan Prize for writing in Scots at St Andrews University. In 1994 the U.K. Wine Guild gave the "best radio or tv programme" award to Kay´s feature "Fresche Fragrant Clairettis". In 1999 he made a television series on Scots for Channel 4 Schools - Haud Yer Tongue and in 2003, he represented Scotland at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC. Recently, he has presented and produced an average of ten new features per year on Radio Scotland. In 2006, Mainstream Publishing issued a brand new edition of his classic "Scots: The Mither Tongue" while his new book "The Scottish World" was launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August 2006.

Billy and his wife Joao | Billy Kay | Odyssey Productions
(Billy and his wife João – click to see bigger version)

During the 1990´s Billy was involved in the campaign for a Scottish Parliament and spoke at major rallies organised by the cross party alliance Scotland United, the Scottish National Party and the civic forum Common Cause. A trustee of Common Cause, he also took part in the Bus Party, where author William McIlvanney and a group of artists and activists toured Scotland to raise awareness and support the Yes Yes vote in the referendum of 1999. Later, this was described by Neal Ascherson in his book "Stone Voices The Search for Scotland" Like all patriots and democrats, Kay was delighted when the Parliament was restored to Scotland.

Today, Billy is an active member of the Cross Party Group on the Scots Language at the Scottish Parliament and looks forward to the day that his mither tongue will have status in its homeland. He is a trustee/patron of the Wallace 700 organisation in Aberdeen and had the honour of addressing the gathering there on the 700th anniversary of the execution of William Wallace. He is a trustee of the Stanza Poetry Festival in St Andrews, and a Friend of Dundee Rep. For his services promoting knowledge of wine and wine history in this country, he was given the honour of being initiated as a member of two prestigious Confraternities in the Bordeaux region – the Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc et des Graves, and the Jurade de St Émilion.

He is a passionate supporter of the Scotland national football team and of Dundee United. He loves film, especially French film, theatre, reading and walking. Billy Kay is married to Maria João de Almeida da Cruz Diniz. They have two daughters Joanna and Catriona and a son Euan.

Joanna Catriona Euan | Billy Kay | Odyssey Productions
(Billy´s children Joanna, Euan and Catriona – click on picture to see bigger version)

The following is a short article Billy wrote for the book "Being Scottish" edited by Tom Devine and Paddy Logue. It gives an idea of the factors that made his strong sense of Scottish identity.


"My sense of Scottishness was wrought primarily in a working class family in 1950´s Ayrshire. 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. My father taught me stories from Scottish history… Galston had sheltered Bruce before the skirmish at Loudoun Hill while my grandmother lived in Stand Alane street – the words uttered by Wallace when his followers deserted him in the face of an approaching English force – "I stand alane" Cultural, as opposed to political nationalism, was absorbed by osmosis. The socialism of the mining communities was another major influence, so along with pride in being Scottish there was a strong sense of egalitarianism; we werenae better than ither folk, but we were gey shuir we were as guid as onybody!"

Given that background, you will understand how moved I was when Sheena Wellington sang "A man´s a man for a´ that" at the opening of the Scottish Parliament… and consequently how scunnered I was to see certain MSP´s reduce the debate to have a question on Scots included in the census to the level of comic capers. As someone whose work has always promoted cultural diversity, making programmes about minorities like Lanarkshire Lithuanians or Ayrshire Spaniards whom very few people knew existed, I was pleased to see that the lobby pressing for a question on religious identity in the census had succeeded. I found it bitterly ironic though, that if I had belonged to a religious or ethnic minority, the same MSP´s would not have dared trash my mither tongue. I stand alane with the many hundreds of thousands who use Scots as their first language, yet see it given scant recognition from our major institutions.

However, as most MSP´s and most Scots have not been educated in their own culture, ignorant attitudes abound, and the Scottish cringe is everywhere. I collect examples: the education convener in a Labour fiefdom who replied to the proposal that Scotttish studies should be an integral part of his schools´ curriculum, "Oh, no, we live in a multi cultural environment!" Apparently every culture was to be taught except the native one! A few years ago when I asked a Fife headmaster if Scottish literature was encouraged in his school, the reply left me almost speechless…" No, this is not a very Scottish area." Can you imagine an English or Irish headmaster making such a statement? It shows how far we have to go in renewing Scotland after centuries of self inflicted cultural colonialism. I have actually heard educated Scots argue that no Scottish history from before 1707 should be taught in our schools, as it only foments "dangerous nationalism". The Catalans reckoned it would take three generations after autonomy for a similar "slave mentality" to be replaced with cultural and political self confidence. With us it might take a bittie longer!

Yet on the occasions I feel alienation from my countrymen, I hear McDiarmid´s humorous response to the same conundrum…

"Mercy o´ Gode, I canna thole
wi sic an orra mob to roll"
"Wheesht! It´s for the guid o your soul."

It micht be for the guid o my soul, but I dinnae like whit it duis tae ma heid.

I do feel, nevertheless, 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. At the core of the culture is the tradition defined by George Elder Davie as "democratic intellectualism" It has been there for centuries, and has affected positively our perspective on the world, with our working class culture especially enlightened and liberal compared to most societies. My wife´s first experience of Scotland was an airport taxi driver who quoted huge passages of Burns´ poetry on the way in to the university hall of residence. A fellow student there was astonished to discover a rose and beautifully hand written lines from "My love is like a red, red rose" lying on his bed, placed there by the woman who cleaned his room. The foreign students at the summer school realised they were in a very special cultural environment. I am constantly being made aware of that too, and realise its immense potential.

Having made documentary features over two decades, I have interviewed almost 2000 people from different walks of life, and I never fail to be impressed by our human kindness in adversity, our rampant egalitarianism, our wild, dark humour, the power of our stories, music and songs, our insatiable thirst for knowledge, our passionately shared desire for sense and worth ower aw the earth tae bear the gree, an aw that. For aw that potential to bear fruit, is something definitely worth waiting for.