Scots: A Living Repository of Scotland’s Past

Updated: Apr 20, 2021

Ashley Douglas has very kindly agreed to write up as an article the presentation she delivered as part of our second workshop.

Part I: Reflections on the unique role of Scots in Scotland’s past, and how it is has a special role to play in communicating Scotland’s heritage today.

Part II: Practical considerations when using Scots in a heritage context

Part I

Scots is Scotland’s past

Scots can never be just a medium through which to communicate Scotland’s past, because Scots is Scotland’s past. Whole centuries of Scottish history took place in the Scots language; hundreds of thousands of Scots have lived and died and fought and loved in the Scots tongue. But Scots isn’t just our past. Scots, and Scots speakers, remain a crucial part of modern Scotland.

In this sense, spoken Scots constitutes an intangible oral connection between us today, and the people who walked the streets of Edinburgh and ploughed the fields of Perthshire and built the ships of the Clyde decades and even centuries ago.

At the same time, Scots in written form constitutes a tangible connection with Scots across the ages. Huge amounts of written Scots have survived down the centuries: from the magnificent Barbour’s Brus, to the poetry of the great makars, the records of Scotland’s historic burghs, courts and pre-Union Parliament, and the more mundane but just as precious and insightful records of trade and everyday life.

Scots is Scotland; and Scotland is Scots

Scots is a language only through Scotland’s nationhood. Like English, the prehistory of Scots is as one of the four main dialects of Anglo-Saxon. This northern dialect (Northumbrian) becomes linguistically distinct from its neighbouring dialects as a result of the encounters and relationships of Scotland, the nation, with France, Scandinavia, the Low Countries, Gaeldom and so on.

Equally, it is through Scotland’s nationhood that this increasingly linguistically distinct variant of Anglo-Saxon becomes imbued with the trappings of a language of state, forever elevating it beyond the status of a mere dialect.

This symbiotic relationship between Scotland the nation and Scots the language means that using Scots to tell Scotland’s story imbues it with a visceral and authentic immediacy that transcends the centuries and brings people closer to the past.

I Mak Siccar

For example, let’s consider the story of the Kirkpatrick family motto, which relates to Bruce’s killing of the Red Comyn in the kirk at Dumfries. I have produced imaginary information board text in Scots, English and German, by way of illustration.

The story gangs that Bruce cam oot o the kirk and telt his men that he had slain Comyn, whaurupon Roger Kirkpatrick taen oot his sword, shoutit, ‘I mak siccar’, and gaed awa in tae finish him aff: hence the faimily motto.

The story goes that Bruce came out of the church and told his men that he had slain Comyn, whereupon Roger Kirkpatrick took out his sword, shouted, ‘I mak siccar’ (‘I’ll make sure’) and went in to finish him off: hence the family motto.

Wie es in der Geschichte heißt, kam Bruce aus der Kirche heraus und sagte seinen Männern, er habe Comyn erschlagen, woraufhin Roger Kirkpatric sein Schwert zog, schrie, ‘I mak siccar’ (‘Ich will sicher sein!’) und hinein ging, um ihn endgültig zu töten: daher das Familienmotto.

As is apparent, less mediation is required when communicating Scotland’s past in Scots. Here, for example, there is no need to have an intrusive, othering translation of ‘I mak siccar’. The family motto, on which the story turns, is in the same language as the one being used to tell it - that is, Scots. In addition, the ‘kirk’ would have been ‘the kirk’ to Bruce and his men, just as it remains ‘the kirk’ and not ‘the church’ to modern Scots speakers today.

Similarly, if we take the notorious Black Dinner of 1440, which took place at Edinburgh Castle, the mid-fifteenth century Auchinleck Chronicle describes how:

William of Douglas Archebaldis son … XVIII yeris of age … was put to deid at Edinburgh. And Malcome Flemyng of Beggar was put to deid in that saymn place within thre days efter.

Telling this story in modern Scots would, again, require little mediation: ‘deid’ and ‘efter’, for example, are still common currency in modern Scots. For the Scots speaker today, reading about Bruce ‘comin oot o the kirk’ or Douglas being ‘put to deid’ will surely connect with them more directly and viscerally than reading about Bruce ‘coming out of the church’ or Douglas being ‘put to death’. It makes Scotland’s history sound more like their history - which it is.

Making Meaningful and Powerful Connections

Using Scots to communicate Scotland’s past means fewer barriers between the people and events of the past, and modern Scots today. This makes for more meaningful and powerful connections with the people and communities who interact with heritage sites in Scotland, many of whom will be speakers of Scots.

Scots is the most widely spoken language in Scotland after English. In the 2011 census, which included a question on the Scots language for the first time, 1.5 million people reported that they could speak Scots and 1.9 million reported that they could speak, read, write or understand Scots. The real figures are likely to be even higher, due to issues around comprehension of the question.

An Act of Preservation

But using Scots isn’t just about sharing Scotland’s past more effectively - it’s also about preserving it. Scots is an inextricable part of Scotland’s heritage, and so using Scots is, itself, an act of preservation of that heritage. And we know, sadly, that Scots does need to be preserved.

From being the undisputed language of the state in the Middle Ages, for all sorts of historical, social and political reasons that we don’t have time to go into here, the place of Scots in Scotland today is quite shooglie - to use a good Scots word. Its language status and its significant role in Scotland’s history are not widely known. We still hear Scots being dismissed as a dialect of English, or, worse, as slang.

Although it survives remarkably well as a spoken language, given all that, it’s not widely used today in written form, and particularly not in more formal settings. Regrettably, most Scots speakers are not literate in their own language - and may not even realise that they speak a distinct language. They will never have been taught about it, or how to write or read it, and they will not be used to seeing it written down.

In this context, writing in Scots at all is often perceived as a radical, unexpected, and, sometimes, political act; and doing so in a public-facing heritage context - that is, a formal, authoritative, semi-academic setting - even more so. But telling Scotland’s story in Scots is hardly radical. It is no more or less remarkable than communicating Germany’s past in German or Russia’s past in Russian.

Elevation and Validation of the Scots Language and its Speakers

Nonetheless, because more formal written Scots is not widespread in Scotland at the moment, and because many speakers don’t recognise what they speak as a different language, its formal use anywhere can serve to elevate and to validate the language and its speakers.

For many people, reading Scots in a heritage context may be the first time that they encounter the language in extended written form, and the first time that they realise that what they speak isn’t slang or dialect or a collection of regional quirks to be put a tea towel, but a national language with an extremely rich and proud history.

Education and Attainment

And where Scots speakers begin to recognise the worth of what they speak, so, too, do they begin to recognise their own self-worth.

Studies have demonstrated a strong link between engagement with Scots in schools, and increased attainment and self-esteem, particularly among pupils in more urban and deprived areas, which often have high concentrations of Scots speakers. More and more schools across Scotland are embracing the benefits of teaching in and about Scots, and seeing written Scots in other formal settings will complement and consolidate that classroom learning.

Tak Tent Or It’s Tint / Use It Or Lose It

It’s beyond clear that there are many compelling reasons to use Scots in a heritage context. However, the huge potential that it holds is not, at the moment, being made the most of in the heritage sector in Scotland.

At heritage sites throughout the country, you might see the odd historic quotation or heading in Scots, but embedded in otherwise English interpretation boards and, more often than not, without further explanation or translation. In addition, many sites produce quizzes in Scots for children and, of course, any self-respecting castle gift shop offers a range of mugs bearing some choice Scots words.

However, while any Scots is better than no Scots, it’s still largely the case that Scots is kept over there, in a separate wee box, while the “real” interpretation is in English. Fully bilingual signage or interpretation boards are still pretty rare. That said, we are starting to see change. There are some great examples of a genuine dual-language approach, where Scots is put on an equal footing with English, such as the National Trust for Scotland’s Robert Burns Birthplace Museum or the Govan Stones Project. In an online context, the National Library of Scotland’s Wee Windaes resource is exemplary, and DigIt! Scotland, Scotland’s national archaeology organisation, has begun to publish articles in Scots with English versions alongside.

A multi-language approach— the way forward?

It would be fantastic to see more organisations and sites taking at least a dual-language Scots-English approach as we move forward. On the one hand, this would deliver accessibility, inclusion and enhanced literacy for both English and Scots speakers. While English speakers may be able to follow a lot of the Scots, they won’t get it all, and so having both to refer to will enhance their comprehension of Scots and their appreciation of the differences between the two languages. Similarly, while Scots speakers may be able to follow even more of the Scots, lack of literacy in the language, even among the broadest of its speakers, means that having the English to refer to will enhance their literacy in, and comprehension of, written Scots as well.

Just as importantly, a dual-language approach underlines the fact that Scots and English, though closely related, are different languages. By contrast, using Scots only, or untranslated Scots quotes and headings, leaves it in that grey area of being close enough to English that people can kind of read it, but not so close that people fully understand all of it.

Part II

Practical Considerations

We have discussed why Scots should be used in the heritage context, but what does - or should - that actually look like? In the following, I will address some of the challenges the writer of modern Scots has to contend with, and set out how I, personally, tend to approach them when writing in Scots in a heritage context.

Lack of an official standard

The first, and perhaps most obvious, issue for the writer of modern Scots is the lack of an official universal standard. On the one hand, this gives me, as a writer, a lot of freedom, and the ability to put my own stamp on things - in the form of both my own personal preferences and my regional variant of Scots (east central).

On the other hand, the lack of rules or a standard to follow can be quite daunting, and places a lot of pressure and responsibility on the writer. Although there’s technically no ‘wrong’ way to write Scots, you can be sure that people will have their own ideas about what is ‘right’ or what might be ‘better’ or more ‘authentic’ than what you’ve chosen to do. You have to be prepared for criticism, and ready to defend your every decision of spelling, word choice, grammar, and syntax.

The lack of a national standard also means that the Scots that a writer produces naturally reflects their particular Scots dialect - and not all of the other equally valid dialects of Scots that exist. I’ve heard speakers of the Doric dialect of Scots say, for example, that seeing central Scots ‘whaur’ is as foreign to them as seeing English ‘where’, because their dialect of Scots would say and write that with an initial f, as ’far’, ‘faar’ or ‘faur’.

Personally, I deal with the lack of a formal standard in five main ways.

1. Use the resources that are out there

Despite the lack of an official standard, there are many extremely high-quality resources and guidance for Scots. The online Dictionary of the Scots Language, which brings together the two major dictionaries of the Scots language - The Scottish National Dictionary (Modern Scots (1700 onwards)) and A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (Older Scots (12th century - 1700) - is fantastic. There are also books such as the Modern Scots Grammar and the excellent Style Sheet produced by the respected Scots blog, Mak Forrit, which draws on a range of authoritative historical and modern sources.

2. Read, read, read

Wonderfully, there is a rich and hugely expansive body of written Scots to mine, from the early Middle Ages to the present day. In particular, there is an increasingly large body of modern written Scots, across many different genres and registers. I read anything in modern Scots that I can get my hands on as well as historic Scots sources. This all informs my own writing and grounds it in both the long-established traditions and currently evolving new trends of written Scots, as well as expanding my Scots vocabulary and knowledge of its idiosyncrasies in syntax and so on.

3. Collaborate

Learn from others and how they approach things. When I am writing in Scots, I actively seek the guidance and input of friends, other Scots writers, and even of Scottish Twitter. On a larger scale, heritage organisations can similarly learn from what other bodies are already doing, engage in public consultation, and collaborate as much as possible.

4. Authenticity / Localism

On the basis of authenticity, and sticking to what you know, I will generally always write in my own dialect of Scots, and not introduce Doric or Shetlandic words, for example. In a heritage context, this is about being mindful of the local Scots dialect in the area in which a site is located, and considering how and whether to reflect that.

5. Internal consistency