The Scots Leid – The Scots Language

I am very excited to share this post with you, and have been looking forward to it since the dawn of the HLC. Why? This post marks the first part of a mini-series which will tell you the story of the Scots language, its historical and present day status and linguistic elements, while introducing concepts such as language standardisation and the idea of “debased English”. For now, let’s start with a general overview of what Scots is and where it came from. As any essay-boosting student would, I will start with a quote:

“Up until the end of the 18th century largely the entire Scottish population spoke Gaelic […] During the 19th century the English language further dominated the area. It was the language of the church and schools. Essentially all contacts outside of the villages was in English.”

The quote above comes from a language sciences textbook by a Swedish author1 (the translation is my own). I’m gonna leave it with you for now, and by the end of this post it will hopefully become clear why the statements above are not only problematic, but also plainly wrong!

So, what do we mean when we talk about the Scots language? When hearing the name, some assume it’s another name for Scottish Gaelic (usually pronounced Gallic) , others that it’s a name for the variety spoken in Scotland which is “essentially English” with some lexical differences. As I will probably write about Scots again outside of this blog series (I may be a one-trick pony), I figured it was appropriate to outline as simple as possible (it’s not in any way simple) what the Scots language is, isn’t, and what it has been. I am not going to give any absolute answers, because they can be somewhat political, but will try to keep this series nice and diplomatic, and highly linguistic2.

How far back to begin? I think it is best for everyone if I leave pre-Celtic out of this. I can even do without outlining what we know of the Picts, right? I think we should start in the Dark Ages, when the Gaels, also called the Scotti, migrated to Scotland from Ireland. This people and their language, an ancestor variety to Irish and Scottish Gaelic, dominated Scotland for quite some time. In the Middle Ages, there was a shift to a variety referred to as Inglis, deriving from Northumbrian Old English. Inglis was not called so for very long, but soon became Scottis (in the early 16th century) and finally Scots. Scots became the common language of the Scottish lowlands (and northern islands, but slightly later), while Gaelic remained the language of the highlands.

Map of Scotland, 1595. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland3.

The shift from Gaelic to Inglis/Scots began in the Scottish burghs established in Southern Scotland in the 12th century (hint: Edin-burgh). These burghs became  melting pots for various languages, and the main contributors were locally spoken Northumbrian/Anglian (i.e. varieties of Old-Middle English), Northumbrian/Anglian from south of the English border, Anglo-Norman, Gaelic, Scandinavianised English from the previous Danelaw area, and Flemish spoken by merchants from the continent. All of these lovely ingredients came together to form the tasty casserole we call Older Scots. Now, Scots periodisation is not a done deal, and I will tactfully avoid the issue by referring to everything Scots between 1100 and 1700 as Older Scots. I’ll have to refer you to the footnotes4 for more information about this, we need to stay on the ball.

After this rather lengthy intro, we now arrive at the core of what I want to be known by the end of this post: Scots was a historically distinct variety, spoken in the Scottish lowlands, which was used for all functions and purposes for several centuries; it was the language of literature, parliament, legal texts etc., etc. Essentially, Scots and English were two distinct varieties, and recognised as such! It was not until the late 16th century that things started to change. First, strike one, during the Scottish Reformation (1540) the bible was only available in English, making English the language of religion. Then, strike two, King James VI of Scotland became King James I of Scotland and England after the death of Elizabeth I – this event is called the Union of the Crowns (1603) – which made English the language of the royal court.

King James the VI of Scotland and I of England and Scotland.5

The third strike came in 1707, the Union of Parliaments, when Scotland became part of the United Kingdom and thus English became the language of parliament. By this time, Scots lost its status as a language for formal use, and essentially became degraded, in the public view, to a vernacular, “uneducated” dialect used by the working class and rural populations. The final blow came with the Education Act of 1872, which required only English to be spoken and taught in schools6.  

Does this mean that Scots is gone? Of course not, but the status of Scots as a language is a complicated issue. To properly explain what present-day Scots is we would need to dive back into the debate of what constitutes a language. In recent decades, Scots has received a lot of attention and activism; many Scots speakers want to see their variety receiving official language status, they want justification for the marginalisation of their language and some seek standardisation of Scots. What complicates this matter is that spoken Scots is used by different people from different geographical areas and demographic groups, without a unifying standard variety for several centuries, so it has become a highly mixed variety with very different dialects and sociolects under its spectra. If we were to attempt standardisation, would the urban Glasgow speech “win”, or the rural Aberdeenshire Scots? Or, would we construct a standard like what was done with Basque? Further, it has become increasingly difficult to determine where Scots ends and Scottish English (i.e. English with a Scottish accent) begins, especially since most speakers mix their speech with elements from both varieties and change their speech depending on context.

We can now establish that the quote from the Swedish textbook is problematic mainly because (i). Gaelic was not the language of all of Scotland before 1700, and (ii). It’s controversial to claim that Gaelic was overtaken by English, rather than Scots (and that this happened as late as the 19th century). Finally, I recommend all to visit the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes website for more information about Scots literary history in particular, and to get a better idea of what Scots looks and sounds like (the whole website is in Scots). I have tried very hard to not make this too lengthy and too specific, and I hope I did not lose any essential details in the process. While this post was mostly meant as a general overview of the history and terminology surrounding Scots, the next post in the series will be dedicated to the linguistic distinctions between Scots and English.

To be continued.


1I will leave this author anonymous – it is not my place to shame anyone, this person cited someone else and this may not be their area of expertise.

2I want to give a huge shout out and many thanks to the people teaching the Scots courses at the University of Edinburgh who taught me all of this stuff: Dr Rhona Alcorn, Dr Joanna Kopaczyk, Dr Warren Maguire and Dr Benjamin Molineaux. Anything uncited is credited to their lectures, I owe it all to them!

3Accessed at:
Copyright terms:

4A.J. Aitken (i.e. the forefather of modern Scots linguistics, one might say (and this one does say)) is responsible for the traditional periodisation used. However, Joanna Kopazcyk makes very good points regarding why this periodisation is not ideal, and I’ll refer you to her article for those arguments:
Kopaczyk, J. (2013). Rethinking the traditional periodisation of the scots language. In R. M. Millar and J. Cruickshank (Eds.), After the Storm: Papers from the Forum for Research on the Languages of Scotland and Ulster. University of Aberdeen.

5Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery:

6This act, of course, also had severe effects for Scottish Gaelic.

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