The Diminution of Scots

Scots Language Family TreeThe Scots Language is an enigma; although we call it “Scots”, Scots was originally the name used for Gaelic, which was influential in earlier times. Why did its meaning change?

The language we call Scots was known as “Inglis,” or English, a word that still survives as a surname. Perhaps it was after the Wars of Independence that it became unpopular to refer to Lowland speech as “English,” although that is what is is, an ancient form of English which retains some of its oldest aspects. For example, the ch in “loch” used to exist in English too in the form -gh, as in “night” (Scots: nicht) Modern English has smoothed out the more pronounced sounds and left foreign language students with a big headache because there is a divergence between English pronunciation and spelling.

The Decline of Gaelic

James IV (died, 1513) was the last king of Scots to speak both languages. After that, English (Scots) predominated. At one time, the Kingdom of Northumbria had stretched to Edinburgh and even after the Saxons lost ground to the Picts, those in the Lothian area were allowed a measure of autonomy under their own leader, or ealdorman. Later, perhaps, when Scottish kings wisely invited Normans to take lands in Scotland (since they would have invaded anyway). the Saxons, who were farmers, were used as workers of the lands in the North-East. If so, it may be one reason why the Gaelic language receded, leaving almost every mountain with a Gaelic name but being gradually walked on by non-Gaelic-speaking Scots. In my own lifetime, the last native Gaelic speaker died out in Tomintoul and, in Aberdeen now, there is not only very little Gaelic but, occasionally, even hostility towards it, an antipathy not reduced by Aberdeen having been the place where Butcher Cumberland stayed before travelling up to Culloden.

Despite this, largely through the later efforts of Sir Walter Scott, a sense of shared Scottishness overcame historic divisions. Scottish regiments, like the Gordons, proudly wore the tartan as their own distinctive. In so many ways, it is the blend of Celt and Saxon which has helped to create a national sense and even a national character, to which the different cultural strands feed in and fuse, creating a heart-feeling that unites Scots at a deeper level.

Yet, as Gaelic suffered oppression for political reasons, so also did Doric.

The Decline of Lowland Scots

The Scottish Reformation (1560) had sympathies with the earlier, English one, hence John Knox’s links to England. In order to unite the Protestants, the King James Bible superseded translations on both sides of the Border and this was followed, in what scholars call the Second Reformation of the Seventeenth Century, by a programme of theological unity that was called “The Westminster Confession of Faith” (1646). As the name indicates, the programme was intended for the whole British Isles but, today, its vestiges are mostly seen in Scotland and Northern Ireland, while, in England, the Church of England moved in style from their original Reformation in “The Thirty-Nine Articles” (1562), in which, for example, Chapter XVII speaks of Predestination and Election, like the Westminster Confession, to a revised position which, by the early Nineteenth Century had returned to a tradition recalling Pre-Reformation styles, accommodating Anglo-Catholicism.

In spite of these local variations, Britain was still seen as a Fortress Island of Protestants, developing political liberties, in contradistinction to oppressive, autocratic regimes in Europe. The embattled outlook, tested by Stuart kings and and brought to a crisis by the 1745 Rebellion, helped make the need for a common language vital for Protestant survival: so the Scots continued to value, and relate to, the form of English that had been adopted in the south.

The result of the religious movement of unification of Protestant England and Scotland, followed politically by the Treaty of Union (1707), was the relegation of Scots translations, Scots language and Scottish literature to the margins of history. Scots became associated with couthiness, humour and ribaldry, while English became the language of seriousness and spirituality.

Under such pressures – military, political and religious – Scots became less significant. The Post-1745 resurgence of Scots literature under people like Robert Fergusson (1750-1174) and Robert Burns (1759-1796) was to restore the respectability of Scottish literature, both in Scots and English but they swam against a tide in which non-standard English was considered rustic.

This extreme distortion was to last until the early Twentieth Century, when the Lallans movement under poets restored Southern Scots to a recognised place in universities and literary circles. Doric, a common term for the North-East dialect(s) of Lowland Scots was also to feature in poets like Charles Murray, a Prince of Doric Poets, and today we owe our freedom to develop the Doric tradition to the pioneers who restored dignity to the Scots Language, so that it now is, as before, unlimited in its reference to all of life.