Her upbringing on a Kinross-shire farm meant that Irene had heard Scots spoken all her life – except at school, for Dollar Academy did not encourage it. After leaving there, she joined the Scots Language Society and met Dr George Philip who produced Scotsound cassette-tapes of readings, prose and poetry. From 1977 the Perth Festival now known as Perform in Perth introduced an annual competition for the Soutar Tassie : an early entrant of Irene's was Scott Mitchell, now an acclaimed pianist, and she is currently in the 45th year of her involvement. In 1998, the centenary of William Soutar's birth, the winner was Irene's daughter Ishbel, now an actor and creator of the show “O is for Howlet”.


At the last census 1.5M people claimed to speak Scots, so having  mastered teaching and recitations Irene began to wonder about publishing a book – and specifically a Christmas book for children. A possible choice “The Twelve Days of Christmas” had already been turned by Susan Rennie into “The Twelve Days of Yule”, so her attention alighted on the American classic “A Visit from St Nicholas” written in 1843 by Clement Clarke Moore which fortuitously was out of copyright. The first need was to find an illustrator, and she was already familiar with Rosemary Cunningham's Glasgow Alphabet of Buildings.  A publisher that readily suggested itself because she had helped it with proofreading was Tippermuir Books who had translated from the German “The Story of the Little Mole Who Knew It Was None of His Business”  by Werner Holzwarth and Wolf Erlbruch into “The Tale o' the Wee Mowdie That Wanted tae Ken Who Keeched on His Head”, as well as producing other publications in Scots including reminiscences by soldiers of the Black Watch and “If Rivers Could Sing” about the River Devon.


Irene summoned the courage to present her proposal to Tippermuir, and soon became aware of the recent explosion in children's titles, with The Scots Gruffalo a roaring success in Doric, Scots and Glasgow versions. Cheapest to produce were Scots translations alongside pre-existing illustrations, with books offering new illustrations in a minority. There could also be new adaptations with new illustrations (eg Hans Christian Anderson published by Itchy Coo with contributions by Elaine C Smith, Val McDermid, Sheena Blackhall), totally new texts with new illustrations - which almost always required external funding - and for older children Scots translations without illustrations of classics including Harry Potter  by Michael Fitt, Treasure Island and Winnie the Pooh. As well as Itchy Coo and Tippermuir, other notable publishers are Dalen Scot, Pictish Kelpies and Fons Scotica, and there is the option of self-publishing. The example of the north Netherlands offers inspiration, with entire bookshops given over to books in Friesian spoken by just 400,000 people.


For the work on translating an existing poem, Tippermuir suggested that Irene should apply for a Scots Language Publishing Award administered by the Scottish Book Trust and funded by the Scottish Government. It proved a long wait but a worthwhile one when eventually in September 2020 she secured the maximum grant of £5,500. Tackling the majority of the illustrations had been held over until the grant was to hand, and Irene was anxious not to convey the “country cottage” image beloved of English illustrators. Fortunately in the street where Rosemary lived in the Garnethill district of Glasgow was the National Trust for Scotland's Tenement House Museum containing a perfectly-preserved interior form the 1920s, complete with a lum for the descent of Faither Yuletide, but Irene was also keen that the depiction should not be set in the past but ought to reflect modern multicultural Scotland. So it was decided to have a dad of Afro-Caribbean heritage and  a white mum, and for the choice of wallpaper and carpets Rosemary was able to drawn on “The Front Room” by Michael McMillan to conveyhow incomers to Scotland had decorated their homes, with that most West Indian of fruits the pineapple on the table.


The setting was to be evocative not just of Glasgow, so Rosemary brought to the appearance of the sleighs something of the Fire Festival image of Northern folklore as seen in Up Helly A'. Among themes worked in from other parts of Scotland were the Glenfinnan Viaduct of Harry Potter fame, The Kelpies and the Forth Bridge.


The book contains no glossary because readers can always cross-refer to the original text. There was a special focus on choosing the names of the reindeer, with Donner and Blitzen retained but most others were changed, bringing in Smeddum, the fine Scots word for energy. Hoose wirds were also highlighted, including winnock for window, ingle for fireplace, ruf and waa.


By early November the completed book was ready to go to the shops, and a reprint was soon required after sale of the first thousand copies which went all over the world. Now as Scotland opens up after lockdown Irene wants to use it with children at Strathallan where she still teaches in Scots . One of her pupils Eric won the Tassie with a reading from it, and the book is now dedicated to Ishbel's and Rosemary's daughters Maria and Beatrix. Irene's presentation concluded with her spirited rendition of the whole poem which just oozed glorious lines like :

A bunnle o’ toys he had

ower his back

Like an auld gaberlunzie

wi a fu chapman’s pack.”


In response to questions, Irene believed that anyone wishing to develop an awareness of Scots would find a wealth of resources online. The Scottish Government was supportive, with provision of Scots Language Awards as well as grants, and many celebrities were doing their bit - including even in lockdown, with Janey Godley's impersonation of the First Minister's daily Coronavirus briefings. The social media had helped promote self-expression in Scots, and now Irene was considering what should be her next challenge.


“The Nicht Afore Christmas” can be ordered at any bookshop or by going to