What is Scots? Is it Gaelic? A dialect of English? English with a Gaelic brogue? A hodgepodge of English and Gaelic?
In fact, none of the above. Scots is “ane o the wee leids o Europe, ane o the leids o Scotlan, alang wi Gaelic an Suddron.” Linguists consider it an autonomous West Germanic language, with its own dialects-Glesca, Aberdonian, Doric, Shetlandic, Orcadian, Black-Isle-and its own standard literary language, Lallans (Lowlands). Its closest relatives are English and Frisian. According to the survey Ethnologue: Languages of the World, it has a million and a half speakers. The Bible has been translated into Scots, as have Virgil, Homer, Aristophanes, Hesiod, Catullus. It has a rich tradition of medieval romances and prose, a Golden Age of courtly poetry, its own Classic and Romantic eras, its own national poets. It has modern translations of Molière, Mandelstam, and Mayakovsky. There is even a Scots Macbeth and a Scots Three Sisters. In his introduction to Tales frae the Odyssey o Homer, William Neill writes: “Gin I’m tellt that Scots is no a leid but a ‘mere dialect’ I will mak repone that it’s the yae ‘dialect’ on the isle o Britain that hes a literary tradeition raxin back ower mair nor sax hunner year.”
English and Scots both developed from Anglo-Saxon-English from a southern, Mercian dialect, Scots from a northern, Northumbrian one. Scots was born in a Scotland of many languages. When the Anglo-Saxons captured Din Eidyn (Edinburgh) in 642 A.D., they heard Pictish spoken in the lands north of the Forth, Brythonic, the ancestor of modern Welsh, spoken in the south, Old Irish spoken west of the mountain ranges of Argyll, and dialects of Old Norse that had been brought by marauding Vikings. Latin was used by a small elite of scholars and men of the church. The new Scottish Gaelic that evolved from Old Irish was to become the dominant language in Scotland and the language of the royal court until 1286, when one stormy night the Celtic King Alexander III fell off his horse and broke his neck, and a line of Norman-French and Scots-speaking kings ascended the throne. In the Scotland of the late 1200s and the early 1300s, Norman French was the language of literature and polite conversation, Scotis (the ancestor of Scots) was the urban language of trade, and Gaelic the language of the highland clans in the north.
During the 1300s, Scotland’s elite began to forget its Norman mother tongue. First it peppered its French with Scots expressions, and then began speaking a disorganized mix of the two before settling into a Scots that was enlivened by a smattering of sophisticated French words. In 1375, the first of the great Scots writers, John Balfour, had King Robert the Bruce rouse his army to victory in rhyming Scots, with light sprinklings of Norman French:
And certis me think well that ye
Forout abasing aucht to be
Worthy and of gret vasselagis
For we haff thre gret avantagis.
Scots became the language of the royal court and of literature. In 1398, the Scottish Parliament recast its laws from Latin into Scots, which became the leading form of communication for all social classes. The new generation of Norman noblemen were still hungry for the French epics and romances they had heard in the manor halls of their childhood, but as their French grew weaker they found that they preferred to hear their minstrels sing in Scots. The great medieval romances were recast into Scots-the French Launcelot reemerged as Launcelot o the Laik and La Romance d’Alexandre as The Buik o Alexander.
There followed a glorious Golden Age of Scots literature, its new prose and poetry raising the language to a literary medium unsurpassed in Europe. The Kingis Quair, believed to have been penned by King James I of Scotland, is a love-dream allegory in rhyme-royal stanzas. The great Scottish poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries-Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, Sir David Lyndsay, Harry the Minstrel-came to be known as the makars, “makers” or “creators.” In the century after Chaucer, their poetry surpassed that of their English contemporaries in creativity and sophistication. The makars were not only makers of poetry, but also makers of language. Inspired by Chaucer, French court poetry, and the Classics, they expanded and enriched the Scots vernacular into a highly refined literary language. They imported vocabulary, superimposed Latin grammatical models to complexify Scot’s syntax, and used Chaucerian models of poetry. In the early 1500s, Gavin Douglas translated Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots, giving the language for the first time the authority of the Classics.
Until the political union with England in 1707, Scots was the language of state and education, but its literary heyday was coming to an end. The English army dealt it its first major blow at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, killing King James IV and many of his poet courtiers. After 1603, England and Scotland were governed by the same monarch, and the King and Court moved South to England. Overnight, Scotland became a provincial backwater. English spellings and words began seeping into Scots. The second major misfortune to befall the Scots language and its literature was the English Bible. The Protestant Church of Scotland did not commission its own Scots Bible, but relied first on the Geneva Bible and later the King James Bible. The people of Scotland read and prayed in English, were sermonized in English, and soon were filling their speech with English biblical quotations and allusions: “I am escaped with the skin of my teeth”-“As is the mother, so is her daughter”-“The apple of mine eye”-“All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.”
The Royal Court moved to London. Scottish courtiers and men of fashion began affecting English comportment, and Scots deteriorated into a provincial vernacular. James Boswell, in London, struggled to erase all Scots influence from his speech and writing. The philosopher David Hume, on his deathbed, is supposed to have recanted not his sins, but his “Scotticisms.” The poet and philosopher James Beattie published a dictionary of Scotticisms-not to help revive the Scots tongue, but to warn his compatriots of expressions they should avoid when attempting to speak properly. The Golden Age of Scots literature was over.
Allan Ramsay was one of the few poets still writing in Scots in the eighteenth century, continuing the work of the Makar poets, republishing their poetry and translating, as they had, the Latin and European Classics into Scots. But unlike the Makars, who had striven for an elaborate and artificial courtly style, Ramsay flouted all literary convention by using a living vernacular, proving to anglicized readers that living Scots was a viable medium for literature. He became a pioneer in contemporary Scots poetry, writing mainly comic and satiric verse. His work inspired Scotland’s greatest national poets, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns.
Fergusson came first, exploding onto the Scots literary scene with a wide and wild range of odes, elegies, ballads, and particularly sharp comic verse. In “To the Principal an Professors o the University o St Andrews,” he turned his witty pen on the formidable lexicographer Samuel Johnson, a known jiber at all things Scottish, who in his Dictionary defined oats as “A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland appears to support the people.”
Mind ye what Sam, the lyin loun!
Has in his Dictionar laid doun?
The aits in England are a feast,
To cow an horse, an sican beast,
While in Scots ground this growth was common
To gust the gab o Man an Wumman.
In this poem he goes on to cook up all kinds of recipes to “gust the gab” (please the palate) of Johnson: Scottish haggis, sheep’s head, and, among other things, oatcakes. When Fergusson (who wrote in Edinburgh Scots influenced by Aberdeenshire dialect) died at twenty-four, the younger Robert Burns picked up where he left off (writing in the Ayrshire dialect of Scots with some English mixed in). Burns’ first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, appeared in 1786 and was an immediate and resounding success. He was celebrated at all levels of Scottish society, and internationally, as Scotland’s national poet.
Over the next century, Scots poets continued writing in Burns’ folkloristic style, exhausting the medium. The trend was (and in some cases still is) to write romantic, pseudo rustic poems-“swatches o’ hamespun”-that dwelt on idyllic pastoral themes.
The Scots language and its literature had reached an absolute low point by the 1920s, when the poet Hugh MacDiarmid launched a literary and linguistic renaissance, calling for new, modern, experimental writing in Scots that could rival European and American models. At the time, a handful of Scots poets were writing in regional dialects that readers from other parts of Scotland found difficult or even impossible to understand. In order for a national literature to arise again, a national language had to be created, artificially, if need be. And MacDiarmid set out to do this. Over the next decade, he and his circle of poets gathered words and expressions from various Scots dialects, creating what came to be known as Lallans (Lowlands) or Synthetic Scots. MacDiarmid and the new Lallans poets-William Soutar, Alexander Scott, Douglas Young, Sidney Goodsir Smith-turned to the glorious poets of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the great Makars, for linguistic inspiration, resuscitating expressions and grammar that had fallen out of use centuries earlier. The effect was often powerful and brilliant, though sometimes very arcane: “gesserant sails,” for instance, recasts the medieval word gesserant, “chain-mail armor” to mean sparkling-even though the modern Scots reader might not make the connection or recognize the word.
The Scots revolution was uncommonly successful. The movement attracted and created major poets, gave birth to literary magazines, language societies, competitions, literary prizes, and finally led to the official recognition of Scots and its being registered with the European Bureau for Lesser Used Languages. But there has also been criticism in Scotland that Lallans is not a natural language, that it is not spoken anywhere, and that it has alienated many Scots readers who find it difficult to understand the idiosyncratic vocabulary.
Since the 1970s, a new generation of poets has turned back to the vernacular. Alexander Hutchison, for instance, has published poetry in North-East Scots, into which he also translated the poetry of Catullus. In the Shetlands, Robert Johnson, John M. Tait, and the younger Robert Alan Jamieson have published poems in both Shetlandic and English. The Glasgow dialect, Glesca, traditionally maligned as a coarse hybrid vernacular, has become one of the leading vehicles of poetry. Tom Leonard has been one of its foremost champions.
Today literary Scots is thriving in many forms, with poets and prose writers such as William McIlvanney, Liz Lochhead, Irvine Welsh (author of Trainspotting), Janet Paisley, Matthew Fitt, and James Robertson. They write in Scots, or the characters in their novels speak various forms of urban Scots. Weakened after centuries in the shadow of English, the Scots language-the auld an nobill tung-is growing ever stronger as new generations write and speak it.