Born in Kyle – An Afternoon with Billy Kay

Billy Kay

Tuesday 19 March, 2024, 4.30  p.m. – 6 p.m.

Room 237C, Advanced Research Centre (ARC), University of Glasgow, 11 Chapel Lane Glasgow G11 6EW

Free Event – Book at EventBrite

Billy Kay is a well-known writer and broadcaster in the realm of Scottish culture, particularly through his radio and TV documentaries for the BBC and books like Scots The Mither TongueOdysseyKnee Deep in Claret and The Scottish World. His latest work, Born in Kyle – A Love letter tae an Ayrshire Childhood, takes him back to his roots. This event gives the opportunity to University of Glasgow staff and students, as well as the wider public, to hear Billy talk about the culture, history, folklore and literature of his home in the Irvine Valley and read passages from his book in a powerful Scots that is shot through with a sense of belonging and a sense of humour.

More information in English

Jyne weel kennt scriever, braidcaster an Ayrshire boay Billy Kay for the Glesga launch o his book whaur he describes the wey o life in the Irvine Valley when he wis a wean growin up there in the 1950s an 1960s. In a steirin mell o memoir an creative scrievin he gies fowk a sense o belangin tae a ticht former minin community and echoes the Scots makars fae aw the airts that gaed there afore him, fae John Barbour tae Robert Burns.


Ane o the maist kenspeckle chiels in the Scots revival o recent decades haes been Billy Kay, whase buik Scots The Mither Tongue wis gey influential in garrin fowk chynge their attitudes anent Scots an hain it as a weel lued pairt o their identity. In Born in Kyle, Kay gaes back tae his ain linguistic an cultural ruits in the toun o Gawston in Ayrshire an scrieves vieve memoirs o growin up there in the saicont hauf o the 20th century. But he duis mair than that in a steirin mell o creative non fiction an gleg cuttie tales that veer atween fiction an non fiction, an in daein sae, create a sense o place wi a historie gaun back centuries an a feelin o belangin for aw the diverse fowk that appear here, fae gomerils tae worthies, fae chantie wrastlers tae douce lassies, fae heidbangers tae fitba pioneeers.

Here, Billy scrieves aboot workin cless faimily life an the luve gien by his mither an faither an the extendit Kay faimily; aboot tholin cauld winters in a cooncil hoose het wi ae coal fire an a wee paraffin heater; aboot whit fowk hecked an whit they drank; hou weans passed their time collectin everythin fae stamps tae war badges; the Scots speakin warld they were thirled tae, wi saws, words an sayins gaun back hunners o years; the influence o the Picturs an American culture an music comin intae the Irvine Valley; the strang sense o community that cam fae the leivin minin tradeition; the fitba heichts an the gamblin laighs; the awaurness o makars an sangsters that had gaen afore an gied the fowk the Scottish identity they lued; the releigious fowk wha cuid be unco guid an unco bad; the guid faimilies fae the respectable warkin cless that luikit doon on loyalist sectarian gomerils. But there’s mair that micht come as a surpise tae ye, wi fey stories o the saicont sicht, traivels ayont Kyle tae Fife in Scotland an tae fremmit airts fae Roushia in the East tae the Deep Sooth in Americae in the West. There’s e’en a true tale whaur the author minds on the last gemme o fitba the boays organised in Gawston at the heicht o the Cuban Missile crisis! This is balanced against a description o hou a frien o his wha wis a British diplomat in Cuba, did save the warld at the same time as the last gemme, by tellin the Americans that the Roushian missiles had been moved an were nae langer airtin theirsels at Americae!

Includit in the collection are twa short stories an a prize winnin poem ruited in Kyle that were furthset monie year syne in books an anthologies o Scottish leiterature, but that are noo oot o prent. Inrush at Nummer Fower is a story o a muckle minin disaster frae the 1920s that Billy got fae his ain grandfaither’s brither – the chairacter Matha Kay in the story. Famie wis aboot a middle cless lady whase faimily had aince owned the Gawston Pictur Hoose, wha had tae thole dementia in her auld age.

Like Burns himsel, Kay wis a lad that wis born in Kyle an he gies laud an gloire tae aw the makars that descrievit his native Irvine Valley, but maybe it’s the wark o anither Ayrshire scriever that influences this quair mair than ony ither. Annals of the Parish by John Galt gied a gleg pictur o an Ayrshire Pairish o the late eichteenth an early nineteenth century, an Kay tries tae dae somethin seimilar here for his ain generation that wis the last tae bide in a solid Scots-speakin community jist afore televeision wis beamed intae ilka hoose in the toun, an chynged the cultural dynamics in force there for aye.

Mair information aboot Billy



One of the most influential figures in the Scots revival of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is Billy Kay. Through radio, television, plays, creative writing and especially his hugely influential book Scots The Mither Tongue, Kay’s work helped change negative attitudes surrounding Scots and paved the way for its extended acceptance as a key element in Scottish cultural identity. In Born in Kyle Kay goes back to his own linguistic and cultural roots and celebrates a sense of place and belonging in his native Galston in Ayrshire’s Irvine Valley.

Here Billy writes about working class family life and the loving environment created by his parents and extended family; about enduring cold winters in a council house where the only source of heat was a coal fire and a paraffin heater. He writes about what they ate and drank; about how children passed their time by collecting everything from football cards to war medals; the richness of the Scots-speaking world they inhabited, using words and sayings with a pedigree going back hundreds of years; the influence of American music and movies coming into the Irvine Valley; the strong sense of community that came from a still living mining tradition; the football heights and the gambling lows; through the singing of Scots songs, the awareness of the poets who had gone before and who gave the people an identity they celebrated at family gatherings; local religious observation and the good folk from the respectable working class who looked down on the minority who indulged in ugly sectarian nonsense.

But there are other stories which will come as a surprise, one bringing in a fey incident where a woman uses the second sight to prophesy a mining disaster. There are also trips beyond Kyle to Fife in Scotland and to Russia in the East and the American South in the West. There’s even a story of the Galston boys organizing what they believed might be the last game of football at the time of the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962, balanced against a true story the author got from a friend later in life who was a British diplomat in Cuba at the time, and whose job it was to inform the Americans if the Russian missiles had in fact been moved and were no longer a threat to the United States!

Included in the collection are two short stories and a prize winning poem also rooted in Kyle which were published in anthologies of Scottish literature many years ago, but which are now out of print. Famie is about an elderly middle class lady from a family that had once owned the Cinema in Galston, and who suffered from dementia in her old age. Inrush at Nummer Fower is a story of a tragic mining disaster from the 1920s that Billy got from his own grandfather’s brother – the character Matha Kay in the story. It was first published in a collection in 1974 which also contained a story by a young James Robertson who wrote:

“One of the most memorable things about Genie was your story. At that time the only other piece of prose in Scots I’d read was ’Thrawn Janet’. It wasn’t my home language and ’Thrawn Janet’ wasn’t an easy read but I recognised what was going on and that this was the same language I heard going on all round me and could even use a bit of if/when I had to.

Then I read your ‘Inrush at Nummer Fower…’ and it was a lightbulb moment. It was a direct link to Stevenson on the one hand and to everyday spoken Scots on the other. It was the standout story of the publication and it was a first step on the brae for me. Two years later MacDiarmid died and I started reading his work. Never looked back after that, but I do now and thank you, Billy, for that story at that moment in my life.”

Looking back too, Kay realises that his was the last of the pre television generations, and life was lived in a strong Scots-speaking environment which would be eroded when television in English was beamed into every household from the early 1960s onwards. In a vivid, gutsy and realistic Scots prose shot through with humour, Kay brings alive the characters he grew up with, some in personally recalled memoirs, others in short stories which bring out a history and a literary history inherited by local folk going back hundreds of years. Kay acknowledges Burns in the title of the book – like the bard himself, he was born in Kyle. But perhaps the greatest influence on this work is from another Ayrshire writer, John Galt’s whose 19th Century work Annals of the Parish gave a vivid account of an Ayrshire parish at the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th Century. In Born in Kyle Billy Kay attempts to do something similar for his own parish and its life in the middle of the 20th Century.

More information about Billy Kay

Burnawn Books was delighted to receive a Scots language Publication Grant from the Scottish Government for the publication of Born in Kyle.

How Do We Talk About Knives – Scottish Writers Centre
10 Years In The Baking – ProjectAbility

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