Knowing the Scots Language

by Dr Dauvit Horsbroch

This is an English version of this the talk in this video, as requested by Julian Svedosh.

My name is Dr Dauvit Horsbroch, Language and Information Officer at the Scots Language Centre in Perth.

I would like to speak about the Scots language and the study of its history.

Firstly, what is Scots? In modern Scotland, Scots is the name for the dialects gathered together, and is known by the other names of Doric, Lallans and Scotch as well.

Where you live, you may already know it by other names, such as Borders, Buchan, Dundonian, Glasgow or Shetland, to name a few. You see when gathered all together, the Scots dialects are called the Scots language.

Scots belongs to the Germanic family of languages, and is, like its sister tongue, English, descended from the Old Anglo-Saxon language. Both Old Anglo-Saxon and its daughter, Scots, have been spoken in southern and eastern Scotland - the Lowlands - from the 7th century AD.

There are mentions of this language to be found, for instance, in the runic carvings on the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, built in the 8th century AD.

Scots also came to Orkney and Shetland as early as the 14th century, and became the most spoken language in that area in 17th and 18th centuries.

It was brought to Ulster in Ireland as early as the mid-16th century.

Today there are five main dialects of Scots: Insular, Northern, Midland, Southern and Ulster. And within each of the dialects there are more variations, just like any other language.

The dialects were first cleary set out on a map by James Murray in the 1870s, but the oldest studies of them can be found in an old statistical account written in the 1790s, though this isn't completely comprehensive.

Scots should not, of course, be confused with Scottish Gaelic, which is a Celtic language, and the sister language of Irish.

The earliest text in Scots that we know of dates to the 14th century, though there were a number of Latin charters vernacular glosses in them that date back to the 12th century.

In 1371, Robert Stewart became King of Scots as Robert II, and it was at his court that the language was given royal patronage.

John Barbour, regarded as the father of literature in Scots, wrote the epic, The Brus, in the 1370s.

It wasn't long before the range of Scots extended throughtout the administration. People started writing charters and contracts in Scots, and speaking enactments in the King's council, and the parliament as well.

By the mid-15th century, the use of Scots in those areas, and for writing history, was taken for granted.

The orthography of the written language in Scotland differed very much from the one used in England. The Scots used the Scots alphabet [?] while the English used Italian [Latin?] alphabet. Both sides found it difficult to read the others'.

The Scots took on the Italian [Latin?] alphabet after the joining of the countries in 1707, but the fact that the King's court of Scotland was Scots speaking from the time of Robert II until the reign of Charles I, who died in 1649, was directly linked to the status [?] of the language.

Now, the Scots didn't seem to be very bothered about language names in the Middle Ages. The speech of the Lowlands was in general known as Inglis (English) in the vernacular, or in Latin as Teutonica, that is 'German'. Instead is was the southerners (English) who seemed bothered about sorting one language from another, and as early as the 1360s, some of them, at least, were calling the lowland tongue 'Scots', to distinguish [?] it from anything spoken in England.

There as case of an English herald who came to the Scots court in 1560 and was addressed by the French Queen dowria [?] Marie de Guise in Scots, and had to request that the court by held in French instead because he couldn't understand Scots. This makes it clear how much Scots and English has separated.

By the end of the 15th century, the lowland Scots had started to call their language 'Scots', in recognition that it had developed its own identity [?]. In this way the Scots were typical of a general movement in Europe towards more sure definitions of identity. For instance, in the Low Countries the language had long been known as Dutch, not as German, but in the 1480s some people started to call the language Nederlands to distinguish it from the language of Germany, though people continued to use the name Dutch as late as the 17th century.

In a similar way, the name English was used as an umbrella term for both the English and Scots languages. This is something our historical research wants to look into. When a chronicler speaks about English, or a text in English, just what do they mean? Take, for example, the description based on Andrew Keith in Sweden in 1578, where he described reading a letter from the Regent Mortimer [?] of Scotland to the King of Sweden. "What his majesty understood well, because his majesty can speak and understand good English." Clearly in this context the term 'Inglis' can only mean the language of Scotland.

In 1707, England and Scotland were joined by the Treaty of Union, in an corporating politic union called the United Kingdom of Great Britain. In reality England had annexed Scotland with terms [?]. This union had, and has yet, a negative outcome [?] for the Scots language community.

The leaders of Scotland set out to confirm to the southern (English) way of life to compete for places in power. This meant abandoning the Scots language for English. Scots was now reclassified as a provincial dialect of English for political purposes.

We can compare this with Scandinavia, that was unified in the political union of Kalmar lead by the Kingdom of Denmark. Under this union, Norwegian was classified as a dialect of Danish for political reasons, as was Swedish, before Sweden freed itself from the union.

In the Netherlands also, the prominent [?] Frisian was often classified as a dialect of Dutch in the interests of mixing the Frisians with the Dutch.

The union of 1707 meant that the language became less and less used in politics and from many other domains, such as administrative writing, and formal settings. But most of the people - the workers in towns and the farmers in the countryside, even officials here and there [?], carried on speaking Scots as a mother tongue.

There was, however, a culture of working against [?] the political union that lead to a flowering of poetry and songs in Scots. Lead, at first, by Allan Ramsey, and then by Robert Fergurson and Robert Burns.

Take, for example, the well-known Jacobite song, The Wee Wee German Lairdie. The Jacobites considered George of Hannover (George I) as no more than a laird working his own land, and who was not a real king. In the full twelve verses they make fun of him doing the gardening [?].

Read the words of the song. See:

As a bit of political satire it is very scathing [?], and gives us an insight into the world of the Scots-speaking community.

Take note of the spelling conventions such as ow and ou - both of them are interchangable, but pronounced /u/ in Scots. Also gh is pronounced as a fricative or gutteral /x/.

Take note as well of the words louns (rogues), clowns and thumbs, that only rhyme when pronounced with the Scots /u/.

There was also tradition of writing stories, moral and religious tracts, and political commentaries, all in Scots, that peaked [?] in the 18th and 19th centuries. Together with the poetry and song, these sources give historians a valuable window on the world view of the the Lowland Scots speaker

...[?] making regulary [?] comments about so-called British culture, language and identity.

I've looked into the history of Scots at home, and how it was different [?] to English, but Scots people, of course, had dealings with others in Europe, that were particuarly strong when Scotland was an independent country. The main countries were in this respect France, the Low Countries and Scandinavia.

It was natural that wherever the Scots went, they spoke their mother tongue as well, but did other [?] countries recognise Scots and make use of it? This is another subject that has been touched on, but hasn't been much researched, because the history of Scots has been ... [?], when compared with English. And the Treaty of Union covered the political identity of Scots culture and language with a blanket of 'Britishness'.

Between the 14th and 17th centuries, a handful of ambassadors, envoys and visitors came to Scotland and left accounts of their opinions of the language.

The well-known writer, Don Pedro de Ayala of Castille and Aragon, in 1498 said that King James IV spoke Scots as his favoured language, and it differed from English as much as Catalan from Spanish.

French visitors in the mid-16th century made similar comparisons between Scots and the French dialects. Ambassadors for the States General of the United Netherlands described Scots in their reports of the 1590s also.

It is apparent that they all knew that Scots was a recognised language at the Court of Scotland, but what about Scots abroad? We know that the Scots community settled at Campvere (Veere) in the Netherlands in the 17th century and had their own church, and there are references to the language. The same evidence can be found for the large, long-standing settlement of Scots at Bern in Norway.

Interpreters were appointed for the Scots language at Dansk [?] in Germany in 1597, in Denmark in 1639, and for Stockholm, Sweden in 1680. Also then, there were many Scots exiles in Germany and Scandinavia. Men such as John Wedderburn from Dundee, and John Goth [?] from St Andrews, who translated religious works from Danish, German and other languages into Scots. And there is good evidence for the use of the language among the Scots envoys and royal officials in Sweden all through the 17th century and beyond.

I would like to speak a bit about some of the things that historians and researchers have looked into with regards language. Watching for changes in spellings, I've seen some Victorian and more recent writers who aren't Scots describe some material as written in "bad English". These documents date, for the most part, from the 17th century, and it should be seen as a time in a deep thraw [?] for Scots writing.

The taking on of a English Bible after 1560, the ...[?] royal patronage after 1603, and the total [?] hold that London had on the printing press, lead Scots to take on more and more conventions of English spelling.

By the mid-17th century, we often find documents written in a mixture of English and Scots forms, with key items of English vocabulary, such as from and most taking the place of Scots frae and maist. These language choices tell us a lot about the cultural allegiences, intentions and mental world of the people and communities making them. And such documents should be seen as valuable evidence in themselves.

On the other hand, the people who stood against change for longer were dismissed as old fashioned, and this has much to show about whose culutrual allegiences held on.

Watch out for language that looks like English but isn't. There are examples of rhymes and poems from Scotland that don't make sense until sounded in Scots. Examples of these verses can be seen on Scots funeral and monumental inscriptions.

And considering as well, the Scots names for countries and places. Scots speakers, for instance, knew Trondheim in Norway as Drondhim, Danzig in Poland as Danskin, and Russia as Roushie. You'll find these, and many other names, in both official papers, and in 19th century press articles.

We should take into account [?] the political context that language commentators were writing in as well. Take, for example, John Meer, the well-known Latin historian of the 16th century, who described the languages of Scotland as Inglis (English) and Erse (Irish). But these names mask a language situtation altogether more complicated. Here, the inquirer should keep in mind that Meer was all for the political union of England and Scotland, and his interest was in playing up the similiarities of the language between the two.

At the same date, James VI, who spoke, and often wrote in Scots, once famously described the island of Britain to his English parliament as "all joined in the one language". English commentators have often been taken in by this royal talk.

Again, we need to be weary of the political context. James VI, a man who had cultivated Scots as a language before 1603, sought the political union of his two kingdoms after that date. And to achieve [?] this political end, he played up any the similarities, and played down any differences, and made sure that Gaelic and Welsh were not even mentioned.

I should mention the use of the Bible in Scotland. Scotland became a Calvinist country, at least officially, in 1560, and the nearest [?] translation of the Bible then was an English one. Because of this, historians have mostly had the idea that religious worship went on in English. However, the use of Scots in religious worship is a very unstudied subject.

Church of Scotland ministers who wrote their sermons, had them 'Englished', to use the term of the time, with an eye on the bigger publishing market in England. but English visitors were confused with the different language, and often found it a hard to follow a Scots sermon. This was because the minsters, though using an English Bible, paraphrased the text for their congregations, and Scots readers pronounced the text in way altogether different from people in England.

A common complaint of Scots parishoners was against any minster who used [?] a Bible-lead sermon for the extact reason that it didn't match [?] the spoken language. This trend for paraphrasing seems to have been a common practise until the 19th century.

Lastly, we should pay attention as well to the changes going on in the 19th century. On the one hand, there was a large reservoir of unused material for the popular press in Scotland. Many thousands of articles were written in Scots in those days, dealing with all kinds of subjects, including politics. Taken altogether, with the collection [?] of material in poety and song, these papers represent a very valuable source.

On the other hand, the importing of state inspection of skills from 1845, and the obligation [?] that both the teacher and pupil should take their schooling through the English language, lead at the further end [?] to the further wearing down of Scots speech. All the same, those school inspectors' reports can be another valuable source for researchers.

If you're new to Scots, and would like to look at further examples of the language, there a many books to have. For instance, the printed version of the Registers of the Privy Council of Scotland, running from 1545 to 1690, and the printed Acts of the Parliaments of Scotland, going from the 15th to 1707. This one is also online.

There are many articles in Scots on history published in the journal, Scottish Language. And if you'd like to read both vernacular and later Scots prose, Lallans, the journal of the Scots Language Association, would be a good place to start from.

Lastly, I can freely recommend the Concise Scots Dictionary, as an altogether necessary tool for an researcher dealing with material from Scotland. This provides the reader with a etymological and historical reference for the whole time between the 12th century and the present.

Note: I have studied Scots, but don't understand everything. If you spot any mistakes, do let me know.

Dictionary of the Scots Language

Information about Scots | Phrases | Numbers | Time | Family words | Learning materials

Page last modified: 04.06.21


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