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Q&A: Getting to know Scots language campaigner and columnist Alistair Heather

Alistair Heather. Image: The Courier.
Alistair Heather. Image: The Courier.

Last week, we got to know Chris Heather, owner of Heather Street Food at Dundee Waterfront.

This week, we’re sitting down with his wee brother Alistair – Ally – Heather, a Scots language activist, campaigner and Courier columnist.

And naturally, some of this interview is written – you guessed it – in Scots.

‘It does get me a good bit of slagging’

You’re an advocate for Scots language – what drives you to stand up for it?

It’s a love thing. I grew up in rural Angus. My grandparents, half my neighbours, my best friends all spoke Scots.

I went straight from Angus to New Zealand in my teens, where Māori is a recognised and respected official language.

Then I moved to Georgia, where several languages and dialects are spoken.

When I came home, I found that Scots was considered inferior. I’ve got this desire to see folk around here respect their own culture, and their own communities.

Does speaking Scots always come naturally to you or do you make a conscious effort to do it after years of conditioning to learn English?

There’s definitely a struggle. Socially, it’s easy enough. When I’m with English speakers I speak English, when I’m with folk that I reckon I can speak Scots with, I’ll use Scots.

Professionally, it’s trickier. When I’m in front of the camera or radio microphone, I’ll push myself to use more Scots, to help normalise it in the media.

But it does get me a good bit of slagging, as much as it also wins me plenty of praise. Some folk don’t like hearing it, and then some other folk don’t like hearing it from me.

Alistair Heather and Mary Ann Kennedy presented the Scots Trad Music Awards 2022 live in Dundee. Image: Alan Richardson.

Your social media handle is @historic_ally – what’s the story there?

The one subject I’ve aye been into is history. Fae since I was wee, I wanted to know the local myths fae around the village, learn about the Picts and the history of the kirk and things like that.

I started using social media in about 2013, when I was working as a tour guide at castles in rural Scotland. I thought I’d just post up some bonnie pictures and wee facts. That went well for a bit.

I went off to uni and studied all the history I could. Soviet Union, Chinese nationalism, the whisky distilling in the Angus glens. I love it all.

Understanding history, and telling stories about it for modern audiences, is still my absolutely favourite thing.

You’re also a part of the Don’t Be That Guy campaign against misogyny. What words do you use to call out mates who are being ‘that guy?’

Really, it’s an uncomfortable subject.

As men, we influence our male pals’ behaviour. We tell each other what’s a cool thing to wear, where’s a good place to go, and we tell each other what’s an OK way to act.

If we see a mate staring at a woman, or being overbearing or even insulting, then we need to use our friendship with them and our influence over them to say: “That’s not right. That’s not good enough. You’re embarrassing me, you’re making her uncomfortable and you’re letting the side down.”

You write columns, which means taking a stance. Have you ever written a column and later changed your mind on the issue?

My mum reads my columns and generally gets me in trouble for things she doesnae like. She was just the other day gien me (a 33-year-old man) a ticking off for admitting to stealing sweeties fae shops when I was younger.

I’ve yet to massively change my stance on an issue. But I did receive some private negative feedback fae pals after writing about LGBT issues, which I listened to and I will look to learn from.

Alistair Heather hosts a radio documentary about male attitudes to women. Image: DC Thomson.

What would you have done if you hadn’t done the job you’re doing now?

When I was trying to leave Carnoustie High at about 16, I applied for the dry stane dyking course at Angus College.

I would’ve absolutely loved to have gone and learned this ancient craft. Spending my days out in the glens working away with the materials of the earth to rebuild centuries-old dykes would’ve been amazing.

I could’ve started a wee business making garden features for the rich, too. Would’ve been class.

‘It’s got to be Angus’

Where in the world are you happiest?

Obviously in the arms of my loving partner. Or sat with a book in a very comfy chair, drinking a cup of hot strong tea.

Favourite part of Scotland to explore?

It’s got to be Angus. I appreciate it hasnae the massive mountains of the far north-west, or the opulence of Perthshire.

But being fae there means that when I discover something new, I feel like I’m adding to myself, and my own store of personal lore, as much as I am learning about a new thing.

Last book you read?

J.R.R. Tolkein’s biography. I’m away to take a bunch of Americans on a Lord of the Rings themed guided tour of New Zealand, so I’m brushing up my Tolkein knowledge.

Music you listen to in the car?

Awful thrash metal, long sad Bob Dylan songs, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Loads of modern Scottish folk.

Who inspires you?

My big brother Chris. He runs the doughnut and coffee van down by the V&A. He’s always been my guiding light. He’s bold and brave and afraid of nothing.

Melodie Paterson and Chris Heather own Heather Street Food. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DCT Media.


Your house is on fire – what one item do you save?

Honestly nothing at all. I’ve been bouncing round cheap rented flats for so long that I’ve not really accumulated anything of value. Let it all burn.

First thing you’d do if you won £1 million?

Buy up some land in Angus, grow summer berries, make it into jam and sell it. Use the presumably massive annual profits to buy and run Dundee United.

We’d become the Newcastle United of the SPFL, except with jam money instead of oil money.

If you could rule for a day, what would be the first thing you would do?

I’d experiment with a 100% inheritance tax. Completely return us all to equality at birth and death, so we have no further motivation or reward for greed in this life.

Instead, we could all be looking to make sure that every bairn gets a decent crack at life.

Favourite holiday destination?

France. Always thought of it as the most romantic and exotic possible destination when I was wee, and nothing’s changed.

What makes you happy?

Regularly prescribed medication, therapy, and having a group of loving pals.

What makes you sad?

Forgetting to reorder my regularly prescribed medication, and crashing off the pills. Also, hangovers bring out a deep, resounding sadness in me.

Do you believe in love at first sight?

I really do. I think humans run so much on instinct, that you can immediately sense that compatibility and respect that is at love’s foundations.

What was the first album you ever bought?

Fairly sure the first tape I bought was the sex-laced club banger by ATB – 9pm.

What is the best advice you have ever received, and who did it come from?

Always act from a place of love. My mammy always preached that, and I try to abide by it.

What do you do to unwind?

Read books, and go for walks and jogs in the countryside.

Biggest regret?

A band I love, Raging Speedhorn, were playing on my 17th birthday in the old Doghouse Dundee. I bet that would’ve been an absolutely unreal gig, and I wish I’d been there.

Shortly afterwards, the band fired the singer and became shite, and the Doghouse closed and I moved away. I regret not being there.

What or who are you proudest of?

For the last 3 years I’ve hosted Na Trads, the Scots Traditional Music Awards on BBC Alba. My family are big into Scottish music.

My grandad was a great singer in the Carnoustie folk sessions, my cousins play fiddle, pipes, piano and have toured all over. My mum’s a great reciter of Scots poems.

I’ve never really had the musical skill, but in hosting the awards I get to make my own wee contribution to a really positive scene. It feels good, and I’m very grateful to do it.

If you could turn back the clock what one thing would you change?

I wish we’d voted Yes in 2014. We’d have rejoined the EU by now, have our own Scottish currency and be amidst an exciting time of renewal across Scotland.

Instead, we’re in yet another Brexit-accelerated recession, and child poverty in Dundee continues to rise. What a shame. What a missed opportunity.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

Forgive yourself. I had a pretty warped sense of my own value, and a lot of self-destructive behaviour. I would’ve liked to have been easier on myself. I could’ve been a better classmate, pal, brother and son if I had been.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?

Leave New Zealand. I emigrated there in my teens, knowing that in Dundee there was nothing for me.

Couldnae get into uni, couldnae get a job that paid enough to move oot, couldnae get a girlfriend.

Alistair enjoys getting out into the Angus glens. Image: DC Thomson.

I went to NZ thinking I’d be there for life. But things changed, and I had to say a sad goodbye to the place a few years later.

Could you save someone’s life if they were dying in the street?

Ha! No. I would happily hold their hand, say soothing things and wait for the ambulance though.

What’s your motto?

Take each person as they come. My grandad used to say it all the time, and I try to keep it in mind, especially in these polarised times.