What is older scots?

[Continued from the Home page]

The term ‘Scots’ in this period referred to speakers of Gaelic (the Celtic language introduced into what is now Scotland from the sixth century onwards by settlers from Ireland) and thus was occasionally used to describe the Gaelic language itself, although it was normally called ‘Erse’, i.e. Irish (on Scottis for the Gaelic language or people see DOST entry for Scottis, adj. and n., senses A2 and B3).

By the eleventh century, the northern part of the old kingdom of Northumbria was under the control of the Gaelic-speaking kings of the Scots, but political and economic factors nevertheless saw its local descendant of Northumbrian English gradually overtake Gaelic and Norman French as the primary vernacular language (i.e. not Latin) of government and commerce in the Scottish kingdom The records of the parliaments of Scotland began to use English from 1424, despite the fact that Gaelic remained the primary language of the Highlands, islands and Galloway.

The first recorded use of the term ‘Scottis’ to describe the language we now know as Scots dates from 1494, when a Scottish scribe remarked that one of the works he had copied was ‘translatit owt of fraynche in Scottes’ (see the ‘Loutfut’ manuscript, BL MS Harley 6149) This passing reference would be followed a couple of decades later by a much more forceful distinction betweeen the languages of Scotland and England by the poet Gavin Douglas in the prologue to his Eneados, a complete translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Older Scots verse. He proclaims that he will translate Virgil’s Latin into ‘the langage of Scottis natioun’ (Prol.1.103), and explains that he tried to

. . . mak it braid and plane,

Kepand na sudron bot our awyn langage,

And spekis as I lernyt quhen I was page

(Prol.1.110-12 ‘…make it clear and plain, keeping no ‘southern’ — i.e. ‘English from England’ — but our own language, and I speak as I learned to when I was a boy’)

It should be pointed out that this is no romantic memory of a simple country childhood: Gavin Douglas was a son of the earl of Angus, one of the most powerful magnates in the kingdom, so he had learned his ‘braid and plane’ Scots in the very highest of social circles. The social reach of Scots in this period, when Scotland was yet an independent kingdom, is perhaps the greatest single difference from the situation of Scots in the modern period: there were plenty of ways to mark social class in the early modern kingdom of Scotland, but use or avoidance of Scots was not one one of them. It was simply what everyone used if they were not using either Gaelic or Latin, ranging from formal speech and writing to the most colloquial diction (the register to which broad Scots tends to be restricted today).

The period from the later fifteenth century through to the Union of the Crowns under James VI/I in 1603 is generally thought of as the golden age for the Scots language. A rich literature in Scots was produced and circulated in manuscript and (from 1508) print; the language of court and most administration was Scots where it was not Latin. Scots itself looked increasingly distinct from English as literature in Northern English dialects very similar to Scots gradually ceased to be produced, ousted by a developing Tudor standard based on Central Midland and London usage. But when James VI became James I of England, the royal court and its literary patronage moved south to London. Even before this, the Scottish Reformation of 1560 had introduced a prestigious anglicising influence through its promotion of the English Geneva Bible (a pragmatic move in the absence of a ready translation into Scots). Scots and Gaelic remained the vernaculars of the Scottish kingdom, but the stage was set for Scots’ gradual re-convergence with English. Scottish speech evidently remained quite distinct, but the impetus towards a standard written Scots, powerful through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, had been entirely lost by the time that Scottish parliamentary records ceased to be kept at the 1707 Union of the Parliaments. Ca. 1700 is thus the accepted end-point for the linguistic period labelled ‘Older Scots’.

For a detailed account of the development of Older Scots, see The History of Scots to 1700 by Caroline Macafee  (incorporating material by the late A J Aitken) at the Dictionaries of the Scots Language site.