Wir Ain Leed — What is Scots?

© 1996 - 2024

Wir Ain Leed — What is Scots?

The Emergence of Scots

Various languages have no doubt been spoken in Scotland since humans first arrived after the ice age. The earliest language spoken in Scotland for which we have a name was Pictish. The Picts occupied Scotland north of the Forth. What little evidence there is, such as place names with the elements Aber- and Pit-, indicate that Pictish was a Brythonic language related to the modern Celtic language Welsh. The Romans called them Picti, perhaps from a name the Picts used for themselves. Old Norse Péttar or Péttir and Old English Pehtas, Pihtas, Pyhtas or Peohtas are derived from the Latin Picti. The Old English Pehtas went on to become Modern Scots Pechts, the Standard English form Picts having been influenced by the Latin Pictus. At the time south west Scotland (Strathclyde) was occupied by another Brythonic tribe (Britons) speaking Cumbric, also related to modern Welsh. South east Scotland was part of a Northumbrian kingdom based on the Lothians. Those people who spoke Anglo-Saxon, or Old English as it is usually known, were the descendants of the Angles who had settled in the north of England. By 500 A.D. a tribe of people from Northern Ireland called the Scoti had began to settle in Argyle. Those new immigrants spoke Gaelic, another Celtic language, and they called their new kingdom Dalriada. By 900 A.D. the Scoti of Dalriada had absorbed and integrated the original Pictish inhabitants and formed the kingdom of Alba north of the Forth and Clyde. Shortly afterwards the British kingdom of Strathclyde became part of the kingdom of Alba. It wasn't long after 970 A.D. that the parts of the Northumbrian kingdom between the rivers Tweed and Forth also became part of the kingdom of Alba, creating the borders of modern Scotland that have hardly changed since.

One of the conditions to the annexation of the northern part of the Northumbrian kingdom was that the Northumbrians were allowed to use their own language and laws. Scotland's political centre of gravity moved from the west Highlands into Central Scotland. Soon a situation had emerged where the Royal household was only Scots in name. They too were speaking Old English. At this time speakers of Old English called Gaelic Scotis. After the Norman invasion of England in 1066 King David I of Scotland (1124-53) granted lands to many Norman noblemen who held lands in the Midlands and northern England. Most of the lower rank people accompanying those Norman noblemen spoke a variety of Northern Middle English, which they called Inglis, a variety heavily influenced by the Anglo-Scandinavian of the Danelaw. This would explain much of the Scandinavian vocabulary of Modern Scots that can not be ascribed to the Norse influence in The Northern Isles and Caithness. The variety of Inglis resulting from the speech of recent incomers and the natives of south east Scotland soon gained in prestige, and by 1290 A.D. Inglis had spread up the east coast to the Moray Firth and taken hold south of the Clyde. Only Galloway, South Ayrshire and the Highlands to the north and west remained Gaelic speaking. The wars of independence in the eleventh century soon separated the two divisions of Northern Middle English north and south of the Cheviots. During the following centuries Inglis developed separately north and south of the border. In the twelfth century extensive trade took place between the eastern seaboard of Scotland and the Low Countries. Trading colonies were established in Low Countries and similarly many traders and craftspeople from the Low Countries settled in Scotland. They too enriched the vocabulary of Scots with Dutch and Low Saxon loans. Later on the Auld Alliance with France further influenced the Inglis of Scotland with the addition of more Norman and central French vocabulary. Meanwhile the Gaelic had also been adding vocabulary to the Inglis of Scotland. Many terms for topographical features are of Gaelic extraction although little more was passed on due to the low regard held for things Gaelic. The great language of learning in middle ages Europe was Latin, that too influenced the Inglis of Scotland, especially in the realms of literature and law.

The Inglis (Early northern Middle English) spoken in Northumbria and Scotland were very much the same but the emergence of the two competing Political entities of England and Scotland caused a shift in their population's centre of gravity. In Scotland the population looked to their capital Edinburgh and to the Inglis spoken in the Lothians as a model for a national standard, both spoken and written. In Northumbria the population looked to the emerging standard language of the east Midlands and later the speech of London. The early Middle English varieties in the south and north were noticeably different, reflecting the patterns of settlement by different Anglo-Saxon tribes and Scandinavian influence. Those varieties did share a considerable amount of common vocabulary but later divergent pronunciation and grammatical shifts further increased the difference between the Northern and Southern varieties. In England what was to become modern Standard English spread, and then in Scotland what was to become known as Scots had began to become a fully fledged national vernacular being used as a vehicle for both literature and legal documentation. Although early Scottish literature, in Inglis, such as Barbour's Brus (c.1375), Whyntoun's Kronykil and Blind Harry's Wallace (c.1478) may more accurately be described as early northern Middle English, scholars of Scots refer to the contemporary variety in Scotland as Early Scots. Those developments may be seen as polycentric standardisation of the same language or the emergence of two separate languages, depending on one's preferred narrative.

The Relationship of Scots to Other Germanic Languages

The Relationship of Scots to Other Germanic Languages

By the end of the fifteenth century the Inglis of Scotland had become a national language and was being called Scottis to distinguish it from the language of England. The following period in the development of Scottis, known as Middle Scots, brought forth an abundance of literature based around the Royal Court in Edinburgh and the University of St. Andrews. Masterpieces by writers such as Henrysoun (1450-c.1505), Dunbar (c.1460-c.1530), Douglas (1476-1522), and Lynsay (c.1486-1555) saw the introduction of a great many French and Latin words into Scots. At the same time the spellings employed by these writers indicated many pronunciation changes that were probably due to natural developments in the language. By the end of the seventeenth century the continued influence of English writers like Chaucer and later Elizabethan English literature, started to have an effect on the spelling of Scots.

The Development of Standard English and Scots

The Development of English and Scots

Thus began the gradual decline of Scots as a national language. During the ongoing struggles of the reformation the reformers failed to introduce a Scots translation of the Bible, instead taking the Standard English version which was already available from England. The written Languages, of course, posed no insurmountable problems of intelligibility for an educated readership but the spoken word remained as different as ever. After The union of the crowns in 1603 the Scottish court moved to London, further increasing the Status of the southern standard in Scotland. Finally, with the union of the English and Scottish parliaments in 1707, Scots had become dialectalised and the Standard English imported from England was now the de facto Standard form of the language being increasingly used as the language of politics, education, religion and prestige. Elocution lessons were in great demand among the aristocracy, who were the first to endeavour to adopt the southern tongue in both speech and writing by eradicating Scotticisms (Scots words and grammar features). They were of course closely followed by the middle classes and then generally by anyone who desired to be upwardly mobile. Modern Scots of course continued to be used as the vernacular of the vast majority of the lowland Scottish population and the centuries old ballads in the vernacular continued to be immensely popular among all sections of society, even though the population was being increasingly educated in Standard English. It was also during this period that many of the ballads of the Borders and the North East, that had been orally handed down the centuries came to be written down. Writers like Sempill, Lady Wardlaw and Lady Grizel Baillie helped keep the vernacular alive as a literary medium until the eighteenth century revival of interest in Scots and Scottish literature.

In the eighteenth century not all the Scots intelligentsia accepted the marginalisation of Scots. Some writers, among them Ramsay (1686-1758), Fergusson (1750-1774), Burns (1759-1796) and Scott (1771-1832) continued to use Scots. Scott introduced vernacular dialogue to his novels, to great effect. That eighteenth century revival of Scots literature was based largely on current colloquial Scots, although the spelling were becoming increasingly anglicised, and apostrophes substituted for some supposedly missing letters, some spellings based on the standard written Scots of the sixteenth century court continued to be used. The revival of the eighteenth century continued into the nineteenth century, with the publication of Jamieson's Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808). Scots was once again being regarded as the national language by the intelligentsia, although use of it for any purpose other than literary was frowned upon. Writers such as Galt (1779-1839), Macdonald (1824-1905), Stevenson (1850-1894), Barrie (1860-1937) and Crockett (1859-1914) followed the lead set by Scott by using Scots dialogue in their novels. Although, during the 19th century, indications of different dialectal pronunciations began to make an increasing appearance in written Scots, the pan-dialect literary Scots, presented here, continued to be used well into the 20th century. However, from the middle of the 20th century knowledge of that pan-dialect literary Scots increasingly began to wane. That, in combination with massive dialect levelling towards Standard (Scottish) English, resulted in written Scots becoming increasingly dialectal and phonetic in nature, based on the perceived sound-to-letter correspondences of Standard English.

A resurge of interest in the inherited pan-dialect literary Scots tradition was awakened by the Scots revival in the first half of the twentieth century with the publication of reference and dictionary works such as Warrack's Scots Dialect Dictionary and the 10 volume Scottish National Dictionary. In the 1920's, Hugh MacDiarmid, a leading figure in that revival, did not just see Scots as literary but also political - for a nation to regain its soul it must also regain its language. MacDiarmid found himself among many contemporaries writing both prose and poetry. Among them Douglas Young, Sidney Goodsir Smith, Robert Garioch and Robert Mclellan. Many of those writers were accused of artificially reinventing a language because they recoursed to Scots Dictionaries and older literary works to increase and developed their already substantial native Scots vocabularies. On the other hand, recourse to dictionaries and other literary works by writers using German, French or Standard English who wished to expand their vocabularies was considered an enlightening and educational experience - a touch of discrimination perhaps?

Those attempts to have Scots hold its own continued after the Second World War despite the ever expanding reach of the mass media, especially radio and then television, which was as good as completely presented in Standard English, giving the whole population access to a spoken English on which they could then model their speech. The vernacular speech of Lowland Scotland had become increasingly influenced by standard and non-standard English from elsewhere in the English-speaking world. Mainstream Scotland now spoke Standard English or more correctly Standard Scottish English, which itself retained some traits of the older Scottish tongue.

The currently prevalent 'definition' of Scots is that "Scots might be regarded as a continuum, with Broad Scots at one end, and Standard Scottish English at the other." A description that indicates that Scots is simply a cover term for the varieties of English spoken in Scotland. The introduction to the 1985 Concise Scots Dictionary describes the "linguistic distinctiveness" and "remarkable literature" among other features of the Broad Scots end of that continuum as having "attributes of a language rather than a dialect." That Broad Scots, and the accompanying literary tradition described above, is what is considered the Scots Language for this website, particularly since that same introduction describes the "various intermediate mixtures of Scots and English" on that continuum as "the country's everyday vernacular, but now no more than that."

Another approach geared towards defining what Scots is or isn't within the continuum above describes "The Scots language" as a "number of (closely) related spoken dialects accompanied by a literary tradition employing established and prestigious (pan-dialect) orthographic conventions" i.e. the Broad Scots described in this website. The other end of the continuum is then "Scottish (Standard) English" which is essentially "Standard English pronounced with a Scottish accent and including a few Scotticisms." Leaving the "range of spoken mixtures forming a continuum between two poles, broad vernacular/dialectal Scots at one end, and Scottish Standard English the other", referred to as 'Scottish language', a term that "appears in some official policies and it seems to refer vaguely to the spoken mix, though is never defined as such." The term 'Scots language' may also be used for that, "but in both cases without the all-important 'The' definite article."

That Broad Scots or "The Scots language" was described in The Edinburgh Companion to Scots as being at an advanced stage of language death over much of Lowland Scotland by the end of the twentieth century. Consequently what is often presented as broad Scots today are those "various intermediate mixtures of Scots and English" nearest to the Broad Scots end of the continuum described above.


Corbett, John et al. eds. (2003) The Edinburgh Companion to Scots Edinburgh University Press
Görlach, Manfred (2002) A Textual History of Scots Heidelberg: C. Winter.
Jones, Charles ed. (1997) The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Edinburgh University Press.
Kay, Billy (1986,1993) Scots: The Mither Tongue, Edinburgh: Mainstream, republished with revisions, Darvel: Alloway Publishing.
McArthur, Tom ed. (1992) The Oxford Companion to the English Language, Oxford University Press. Various articles by A. J. Aitken. Abridged edition, 1996.
Young, Clive (2023) Unlocking Scots The Secret Life of the Scots Language, Edinburgh, Luath Press Ltd.