Home» About Scots» History

The History o Scots

2000 BCE

In order tae unnerstaund the linguistic position in Scotland the day, it is appropriate tae trace its linguistic history. The principal languages spoken in Scotland are derived frae a common ancestor cawd Indo-European (IE), spoken by fowk wha bided in a land-locked temperate place, maist likely in the South Russian Steppes an the Danube region. The kind o clues we hae are that the Indo-Europeans had words for rain and snaw and beech trees (but no for palm trees!), an they had nae maritime words — nae words for sea or ocean.

Migrations frae the IE hameland began sometime afore 2000 BCE. Those wha were tae gie rise tae the Indic languages migratit tae the east, the European ancestors tae the west. As ilka wave o migrations muvit on, the wey they spak began tae chynge and diverge intae ither branches. Aw the Celtic languages, includin Welsh and Gaelic, an aw the Germanic languages, includin German, Danish, English an Scots, are descendit fae yon ancient IE mither tongue.

10th century BCE - 5th century CE

Afore Scots speakers got here, a puckle o Celtic languages had awready stravaigit tae Scotland frae continental Europe. Wan group o Celtic languages are kent as 'P-Celtic' while anither is kent as 'Q-Celtic'. This is acause o typical chynges in the soond o the twa languages. Speakers o the Q-Celtic language frae whilk Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic are descendit are thocht tae hae reached Ireland as early as the 10th century BCE. Irish speakers o Gaelic began tae arrive in Scotland frae aboot the 5th century onwards. Bit whan they arrivit, they werenae alane, acause speakers o the P-Celtic language frae whilk modren Welsh is descendit were awready here. In fak, they had been arrivin syne aboot the 4th Century BCE. If yer readin aboot this language, ye'll soon jalouse that the terminology is in a bit o a guddle - whiles the language is cawed 'Brythonic', an whiles 'Welsh', but nooadays these terms are a bit auld-farrant. Traces o P-Celtic can be foond in place-names aw owre lallan Scotland, baith north an sooth. In the north-east, it's associatit wi the Picts, an in the sooth, it's associatit wi a group of fowk identified by the kenspeckle Celtic scholar Kenneth Jackson as 'Cumbrians'. He cawd their language 'Cumbrian', an modren commentators tend tae reflek his division atween 'Pictish' an 'Cumbrian' varieties o P-Celtic.

Sae, whan the Romans arrived, aboot 100 BCE, there were Brythonic speaking people in sooth Britain, Picts frae the Pentland hills to the Pentland Firth and early Gaelic speakers in Ireland. The Romans biggit Antonine's wall frae the Forth tae the Clyde and ventured north. There is a Roman Camp at Braco in Perthshire and anither jist ootside Callendar. But their record in Scotland was less nor glorious and the heiland line merkit the limits o their empire. (Whitivver happened tae the ninth legion?) Rome itsel was threatened and the Romans withdrew frae Britain early in the fifth century.

Scots in the Indo-European faimly tree

Luik at the IE faimly tree (.pdf) tae see whit English and Scots are descended frae. Sae whit wey was there nae influence on Scots or Scottish English frae the Roman occupation o Britain? Simply acause the Angles, Saxons and Jutes had no got here yet. They were still sittin in the north-west o mainland Europe. (There are a puckle Latin loans in Auld English datin frae thon time but the contact was no made in Britain. Whan the Angles, Saxons and Jutes were fechtin and tradin on the fringes o the Roman empire in Europe they borraed words like cheese). Towards the end o the Roman period in Britain, a few Anglo-Saxon mercenaries began tae arrive but, as suin as the Romans gaed hame, they saw thair opportunity and invadit in force.

5th century - 9th century CE

The Jutes settled in Kent and the Saxons foondit their kingdom in the Sooth o England. They didnae stravaig north, an didnae hae muckle tae dae with Scotland. The Anglians pushed North, foondin the great kingdoms o Mercia and Northhumbria and breengin on intae Southern Scotland in the sixth an seeventh centuries. In 685, their northward advance was stappit by the Picts at the Battle o Nechtansmere, near Forfar, but they remained in the sooth o Scotland for a wheen o years. The runic inscription oan the Ruthwell Cross, in Dumfriesshire, whilk micht be as early as 600 CE, is aften takin tae be the first rael evidence o the language that wes tae evolve intae modren Scots.

Meanwhile, ower frae Ireland, the Scots, durin the fifth century, were bringin their Gaelic intil Argyll and Sooth West Scotland and beginnin tae establishin a linguistic dominance ower the Picts.

The Vikings

By the time we get tae the ninth century, the language situation in Scotland was extremely complex. The Norwegians had been makkin their presence felt in the Northern Isles frae the aucht century but since the contact was wi Pictish and Gaelic in the Western Isles, their incursions didnae influence the development o Scots.

Muckle mair significant in the development o Scots were the Viking Raids on the North East o England, leadin tae the establishment o the seat o a Danish Kingdom at York. The Auld Norse o the Danes was a close cousin o Auld English. The twa languages had a lot o relatit words and it widnae hae been ower difficult for the Vikings and the Auld English tae mak thirsels understood tae each ither. The naitur o the contacts atween the twa peoples seems tae hae been intimate. They were tradin thegither, warkin and farmin alangside each ither and intermairryin. The very profoond wey that Auld Norse influenced Northern Auld English reflects this intimate and everday contact.

The Normans

Although Auld English had been extensively spoken in Lothian and the Borders since the seventh century, the dominant language o Scotland was, in the 10th and 11th centuries, Gaelic, and the Gaelic speaking kings held sway ower the suthren coonties. Sae whit chynged? The effects o the Norman Conquest were profoond, een in Scotland. It was no jist that there were refugees frae the conquest muvin intae Scotland but there were substantial grants o land made in Scotland tae Normans, includin the faimlies sic as the Bruces and the Comyns. It didnae tak a genius tae jalouse that the Norman Feudal system gied kings muckle control ower the land, and frae the time o David I (1124-53), the system o government in Scotland became increasinly Normanised. There was also a huge incomin o Norman monks. The social situation wi the Normans was very different frae that wi the Vikings. The Normans were numerically quite few, oot o aw proportion tae thair influence. They were socially an! politically michty, an muved in contact wi the upper echelons o society. The kings and their coortiers became French speakin but, fremmitly, it wisnae French that got the maist o a boost frae the Norman Conquest. The Normans in Scotland brocht wi them a wheen o servants wha spoke a form o Medieval English. Mair significant, burghs were set up and incomers frae the north o England settled, bringin wi them the Auld Norse influences on thair speech. Immigration frae the low countries was encouraged forbye, and immigrants were attractit tae the safe and prosperous tradin environment providit by the burghs. English, or Inglis as they thairsels cawd it, was the lingua franca o the burghs. At this point Scottis was the term for Gaelic.

The high point of Scots

Mair and mair, the language o Lalland Scotland divairgit frae that o England. The Northumbrians sooth o the border began tae luik til the sooth o England for leadership in politics, culture and language. The Scots luikit tae thair ain King and coort. The Wars o Independence added tae this polarisation. The faither of Scots literature, John Barbour, wrote the epic poem Brus in 1375 and wi the return of James I from captivity in England the heyday o Scots dawned.

Scots was weel on the wey tae becomin a standard language. It was yaised by the maist influential members o society, and on state occasions. It was yaised for state documents. Although Gavin Douglas apologised for yaisin:
Sum bastard Latyn French and Inglis where scant was Scottis,
in his translation o the Aeneid, this was nae sae muckle a reflection on the inadequacy o Scots as a formulaic introduction tae a translation frae the respectit classical Latin. English authors made similar comments the whilk implied that thair vernacular was in some wey inferior tae Latin. Scots culd be and was yaised for any and aw yisses tae whilk a language culd be pit.

William Dunbar demonstrates the heichs and depths o register and ony student o Scots wad be weel avisit tae read his warks. Henryson, tae, scrieved in a range o registers, although he is perhaps best kent for his fables and his Testament of Cresseid.

Sae whit happenit tae Scots?

Scots didnae become oor staunart langage, but how no? Een in early Scots literature, English spellin cud occasionally be fund. Authors and the scribes wha copied their wark were exposed tae English texts. Whan prentin came in, mony o the typesetters werenae Scots and there war commercial pressure tae get rid o the mair extreme Scots forms tae encourage sales sooth o the border.

Yin development that is frequently seen as a nail in the coffin o Scots was the decree in 1579, that ilka hoosehauder worth 300 merks had tae possess 'a bible and psalme buke in vulgare language'. By 'vulgare', whit wis meant wis 'the vernacular', but there wisnae a prentit bible in Scots available, and the maist accessible ane was the English printing o the Geneva Bible whilk appearit in 1561. The catechism and Calvin’s prayers was also in English. Insidiously, God became an English speaker.

The next dunt was the Union of the Crowns in 1603, whan King James VI o Scotland inherited the throne o England an muvit his coort an maist o his coortiers doon tae London. We can see frae his early scrievins that James VI spak Scots, but wance he wis ower the border, he wis unner pressure tae conform tae the language o the sooth. Hooever, een afore he muvit sooth, prentit editions o his warks wis bein anglicised and this process intensified in the yeirs efter 1603.

Into the Modern period

The Union o the Pairliaments in 1707 was a low point economically, socially and politically for Scotland, and een as we muve intil the period kent as the Scottish Enlightenment, in yin area at least there was utter derkness. People like David Hume the philosopher and Adam Smith, the economist, went to great lengths to get rid of ilka Scotticism frae thair writins. It is said o Hume that he deed confessin no his sins but his Scotticisms. Societies like the 'Society for Promoting the Reading and Speaking of the English Tongue' were set up and elocutionists were hired tae get rid o Scots accents. Mony o the leadin lichts o the Enlightenment were awfy keen tae see thaimsels as 'North British' an didnae appreciate the Scots language at aw.

Fortunately, a large pairt o the population were, ootside the school and the kirk, maistly unaffectit by thir chynges in fortune and fashion and Scots remained their everyday speech. But for aw that, those with ony thochts o upward social mobility wad have agreed wi Lewis Grassic Gibbon, wha scrievit in the early twentieth century:

Tae get out of the pleiter, you have to speak the English, orra though it be.

The attributes o a standard language — that Scots was weel on the wey to haein in the fifteenth an sixteenth centuries — were nae langer apparent. It wasnae the language o the state, it wasnae the prestige language o the pooerfu clesses and its yiss in literature had become severely restrictit. In the auchteenth century, mind, ther were makars lik Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns wha yaised Scots in thir poetry an formed a movement aften cawd the 'Vernacular Revival', sae Scots wisnae absent frae written texts. But it wis nae langer acceptit in formal writin, an een the day, yon's mair or less still true. Mair recently, in the twentieth century an up tae the present time, the writers o the Scottish Renaissance and the Scots Language Society hae worked energetically tae restore the status o Scots frae a collection o local dialects tae ane o the national languages. The production o presteegious and authorative dictionaries like SND, DOST and CSD in recent years hes made a very significant contribution, but there is still a lack o self confidence amang mony speakers thirsels (weel, at least whan dealin wi formal issues o language). Mony aulder speakers describe thirsels as 'speaking really bad English' whan whit they speak is perfectly guid Scots.

Sae in present day Scotland, the Germanic languages are representit by a few speakers of Soothron British English (SBrE), a lairger nummer o Scottish Standard English an Highland English speakers, an a wheen o speakers o Scots, whether they yaise it a the time or wee bit noo and again. Acause o the variety o forms o Scots an the weys they innerack wi Scottish English an Highland English (whilk are lairgely descendit frae SBrE but wi merked differences in pronunciation, vocabulary an grammar) it is mair usefu tae think o Scots as yin lang continuum raxing frae the braidest o Braid Scots richt up tae Scottish Standard English. The language o maist Scots flichts up an doon yon continuum, maistly depenin oan the formality o whit thir seyin.

Gaelic suffered even mair as a proscribed language whase yiss was forbidden by law in the auchteenth century. But the biggest threat to baith Scots and Gaelic cam frae the faus impression that they werenae tae be valued. Mony speakers turned their backs on thair ain native tongues as bein a social handicap, an the generations they brocht up werenae encouraged tae explore the history o yon languages. It is no sae lang syne that the teaching o Scots and Gaelic at university level wad hae been unthinkable, but noo fowk are beginning tae tak a guid lang luik back at Scotland's rich heritage an see it as a strength tae be celebrated, an no a dork secret tae be ashamed o. Indeed, mony self-respeckin Scots the day wad be black-affronted at the thocht o Scots as 'slang'. Nevertheless, there is still a wheen o research an education tae be achievit — but this is an excitin time tae be studyin the languages o Scotland!

Further Reading:
The Concise Scots Dictionary Introduction.