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Yer da: how Scottish humour and all its specifics found a home on TikTok

From Paul Black to Eleanor Morton, young comics are building large followings online by channelling Scots’ self-deprecating humour, politics, and disdain for the English

After being forced to cancel last year, for obvious reasons, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe is officially back. Well, sort of. In “normal times”, The Fringe is the world’s largest annual arts festival, with a live audience only second to an Olympic games squeezing into Edinburgh’s theatres, pubs, homes, makeshift venues, canal boats, swimming pools, fudge shops, and winding streets in the pursuit of seeing something special. But in classic 2021 style, this year’s event will be a dialled-back mixture of online and in-person performances.

August brings creatives from all over the world to Edinburgh in the hope of being “discovered”. This year, Glaswegian comedian Paul Black has headlined his first live stand-up show, Worst Case Scenario. A sell-out Fringe debut isn’t his first “big break”, though, because he spent most of the pandemic going viral on TikTok.

Paul’s videos are mostly filmed straight-to-camera with various backgrounds and captions. He started recording them in lockdown and has quickly amassed over 4.5m views and 150,000 followers on TikTok alone, but he’s got a significant following on Twitter and Instagram too. His sketches tend to be character-based and often riff off “in jokes” about Scottish culture and language. There’s references to Scots calling fruit squash “diluting juice” and giving a dog “a clap” (which means petting, FYI). And he often makes light of Scotland’s antipathy to establishment institutions like the royal family and the police.

Paul tells Dazed that going viral on social media has given him opportunities he’d never have had otherwise. “Beforehand I would spend months putting together pitches for TV shows or other projects, hoping someone would see the potential in them, but now with the videos I can almost show people that there’s an audience there,” he says. It’s true that most comedians don’t expect to make money from a Fringe show, let alone their first one. They’re often covering the costs themselves and doing it purely for “exposure”. But thanks to social media, Paul is an exception to this rule: “The venue actually approached me,” he says. “That definitely wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for my viral videos.”


Me whenever I have to speak to an English person #fyp #scottish

♬ original sound - Paul Black

For comedians, putting videos on social media during the pandemic was a way of connecting with audiences while live venues were closed. But now that live comedy is returning, we’re seeing a significant shift, where young comics are able to use their social media followings to secure gigs instead of jumping through endless (and costly) hoops. Paul thinks this benefits Scottish comedians in particular, who find it harder to get onto mainstream UK-wide platforms and are often encouraged to soften their accents. On social media, though, this isn’t as much of an issue. “When I write about what I know – Scottish jokes – it connects with Scottish people everywhere,” he says. “At the beginning, I could see from the analytics that my audience was mostly in Scotland, but now it’s all over the world.”

There does seem to be a big appetite for Scottish humour on TikTok right now. Millie (@whatsername1.0), for example, has 1.9m followers, while Sully (@rsullivan1991) has 800,000. Steven McKell, whose dragged-up parodies of Nicola Sturgeon went viral last year, has 3.2m followers – that’s over half the Scottish population. This new wave of young comedians, many of whom are women and/or identify as LGBTQ+, are a break from the norm in Scottish comedy. Billy Connolly, Frankie Boyle, Kevin Bridges, and Limmy are undeniably iconic forebears, but they aren’t exactly a diverse bunch. 

What’s happening on Scottish TikTok feels like a continuation of how Twitter has helped to preserve and update Scots’ language and identity. In 2019 Scottish journalist Eve Livingston wrote about how, for the first time, Twitter provided Scots with a platform to express themselves both casually and publicly. Before this, there had been a disconnect between how many Scots spoke at home or to their friends in real life, and how they had been taught to write. The informal yet public nature of Twitter, she wrote, gave Scots a “new and unique opportunity to write in the same way as they speak.” On “Scottish Twitter”, just like TikTok, words like ​“oor”, ​“yersel”, “yer da”, or ​“bairns” – which form part of Scots Language, a dialect that was officially recognised as a minority language in 2001 – are common. And there’s a particularly Scottish brand of humour (“patter”) too, which Livingston aptly describes as “observational, self-deprecating, and playful with language.”

“We have a very self-deprecating culture, don’t we? Sometimes that can be to our detriment, because maybe we don’t think we’re as good or deserving of things as we are” – Paul Black

TikTok is keeping this uniquely Scottish humour and language alive. “If you slag off (mock) Americans, they often take it very personally, but Scottish people would be more likely to agree and join in,” Paul says. “We have a very self-deprecating culture, don’t we? Sometimes that can be to our detriment, because maybe we don’t think we’re as good or deserving of things as we are. But it helps to laugh at yourself and also see the value in celebrating Scottishness through jokes.”

Eleanor Morton is another Scottish comedian who blew up on TikTok during the pandemic. She was inspired to explore TikTok by Scottish postman Nathan Evans, who started the viral worldwide “Sea shanty” trend earlier this year. So she started posting videos in lockdown after her live stand-up career, which included a solo Fringe show in 2019, was put on hold. Her sketches are similarly self-deprecating and focus on niche aspects of Scottish culture, like her impression of “Craig” – a fictional (but very realistic) tour guide who “doesn’t give a fuck” as he unenthusiastically shows tourists around historic Scottish landmarks.

“It’s not so hard to be Scottish right now, or celebrate our national identity, compared to being ‘British’ specifically at the moment” – Eleanor Morton

Eleanor tells me that people watch her videos all over the world. She thinks that the surge in Scottish comedy on social media could be related to perceptions of Scottish identity both within and outside Scotland. “It’s not so hard to be Scottish right now, or celebrate our national identity, compared to being ‘British’ specifically at the moment,” she says. “Scottishness isn’t as closely tied to negative aspects of the UK right now.” (I can only interpret that as a reference to all things Brexit and Boris Johnson).

Eleanor cites 2014’s Scottish independence referendum as a key point of change. “A generation of Scots, particularly young people, went through this big political education and conversation together,” she says. “It’s a moment of education the rest of the UK didn’t really get. It felt like the whole country was really engaged and it was very exciting, I’d never felt that before.”

It does feel like more than just a coincidence that displays of Scottishness on social media started to get much louder in the aftermath of 2014’s referendum. In the years leading up to the vote, the Scottish National Party consciously shifted the tone of independence campaigning towards positivity. Although they lost the 2014 vote, Scotland’s political trajectory – rejecting Brexit and both the Conservative and Labour parties at successive elections – has been starkly different to England’s since then.

Scottish academic and commentator Gerry Hassan tells me that, when he was growing up in the 1970s, his parents often spoke about Scotland and Scottishness as if it was “an embarrassment”. As left-wing, politically involved people, they viewed Britain as the future for working people. “To my parents, it was like Scottishness was an embarrassing relative at a Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve) party: it was kitsch, it was tartan, and it behaved badly,” he says. 

But then the Thatcher years came, starting a chain of events that would see Scotland carve out a new political path with its own parliament. Gradually, people started to approach their Scottishness differently. “My parents are part of a generational story. They had an embarrassment and put distance between themselves and Scottishness, but gradually that has changed for most people, including my dad,” he says. “I think that's generally been a really healthy and cathartic thing.”

There isn’t one Scottish identity, of course. It’s a small and complex country where various types of nationalism, including many different takes on Scottish and British nationalism, exist together. But after decades of being the butt of the joke, from pop culture to politics, it feels Scotland’s narrative is changing. 

The new wave of Scottish comics – many of whom are outwardly pro-independence themselves – reflect an embrace of a Scottishness that’s outward-looking. On TikTok, they are showing us what it means to be young and Scottish today. The nation’s self-aware humour, politics, and newfound confidence have found a digital home, passing its patter down to the next generation.