The Scots tung

The Scots tung: how to support it without tying up the Yes movement. A guest post by a Clear Contrair Spirit

One of the insinuations heard (admittedly, mostly from English-based media) during the referendum campaign was that the SNP was all about compulsory Gaelic. As any Scot knows, Gaelic is marginal to the Scottish independence movement, and this is probably a good thing. In Wales, the nationalist movement has been largely tied up with the Welsh language movement. On the one hand, this has given them a cause to rally round, but on the other, it has limited the appeal of Welsh nationalism in a country where only around a fifth of the population speaks it.

That’s actually less than the proportion of Scots claiming to speak Scots according to the 2011 census, some 30% of Scots indicated some level of competency in the language, rising to 49% in Shetland and Aberdeenshire. Unlike Gaelic, Scots is spoken the length and breadth of the country, and it is impossible to live here for any length of time without acquiring at least a passive understanding. This being so, independentista types need to ask the question, where do we stand on the Scots language?

Before we get started on that, we need to ask what the Scots language actually is. Most people in Scotland, whenever they open their mouths, place themselves somewhere along a linguistic continuum. At one end, we have what is known as Scots Standard English. This uses British spelling conventions and more or less the same grammatical rules as standard English but the same phonology as Scots and a large amount of Scotland-specific vocabulary (perhaps the best known examples are the use of a trilled /r/ pronounced regardless of its position in the word, and the use of ‘outwith’ instead of ‘outside’). At the other extreme, we have the Scots language proper, based on the Old Northumbrian dialect of Anglo-saxon, with a large admixture of Norman French and Latinate vocabulary, just like English. A sample sentence (taken from William Lorimer’s translation of the New Testament): Gin I speak wi the tungs o men an angels, but hae nae luve I my hairt, I am no nane better nor dunnerin bress or a ringing cymbal (English translation, from the KJV: Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angel, but have not love, I am become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal). Most Scots, myself included, mash these up these two languages, using vocabulary, grammatical forms, and vocabulary from both, sometimes even in the same sentence. Sample: There’s a fell load o snow oan this platform, a pure Scots sentence would use sna instead. When it comes to writing however, almost all of us resort to English, because this is what we’re taught at school is the correct way to write and that’s what we feel comfortable with.

The position of Scots reflects a sort of national schizophrenia (whether this is a cause or a symptom of the famous Scottish split personality or antisyzygy if you’re looking to win at Scrabble is a question for another day). On Burns Night say, Scots is set up as an object of pride, but it’s an ossified object, presented as of no practical use or contemporary relevance, and its use in polite society is frowned upon outwith certain staged contexts. For many older Scots, the refrain rings true that ‘For one day a year, we were given a prize for being able to read and recite ‘guid Scots’ and on the other 364 days we were belted for using the same words.’ But to write in Scots is not just difficult, but often discouraged as incorrect. There’s often also a sneaking suspicion that to write in Scots, on a form or an official letter say, would be undignified; it would mark one down as uncouth and ill-educated, even though the chances are almost everybody who read it would be able to understand the meaning.

This brings us to one reason why the independence-minded should be willing to support Scots. I’ll get the atavistic nationalist thing, red in tooth and claw out the way now – Scots is ours, and if we don’t cherish it and look after it, nobody else is going to. It’s part of what makes us who we are. But, blood and soil nationalist hat off, one thing we often heard during the referendum debate from the Yes camp was ‘I want to live in a normal country.’ Implicit in that statement is the recognition that Scotland is not a normal nation, that we suffer from some kind of psychological wound due to our lack of independence. Heal and whole come from the same (Germanic) root and the way to heal this wound is to integrate (Latin root, to make whole) the national psyche. One very practical way to do that is to integrate Scots mentally so we don’t see it as a second-class form of speech or mere identity marker, the sort of thing you learn by heart at school then promptly forget, but rather as a part of us that we feel entirely at home with, without embarrassment or reservation. Some might think this is impossible, but there is ample historical precedent. In South Africa, Afrikaans used to be derided as ‘Cape Dutch’ or ‘Kombuistaal’ (‘kitchen language’), the uncouth speech of the unlearned. In the wake of the Boer War, Afrikaner nationalism began to cherish the language, and to insist on its development and public use. In order to develop, Scots needs greater standardisation of the spelling conventions, more use in schools and the media, and recognition of the right to use it in communication with public bodies. In Finland, Swedish is a secondary official language, but Swedish-speaking Finns have the right to interact with officialdom in their own language, in recognition of their status as full citizens. Ultimately, we should be looking for Scots to be accorded the same status.

But ca’ canny. Many people already do interact with the government in Scots, but only in oral form, and might not see why they would want to use anything other than English for written communications. Perhaps more importantly, Scots has survived because people feel comfortable using it. There is a danger that were we to impose too artificial a standard, people would become alienated. Obtaining formal language rights is simply a means to an end, and that has to be about normalising the use of Scots, and raising its prestige. Achieve that, and people will come to use it naturally in more contexts, including writing.

Before we go any further, we should say that this isn’t about abolishing the use of English. English connects us to the wider world, and we need both languages to achieve the psychological integration mentioned above. English is part of us too. Rather than teaching Scots as a separate subject, it might be simpler and more effective to teach Scots spelling and grammatical forms alongside each other, in the same way schoolchildren are exposed to Scots literature in what we call their English lessons. A good metaphor for the relationship between Scots and English might be the Horcrux. Except in this case, the two can exist in symbiosis.

A further question is, how do you promote Scots without being labelled as obsessive hobbyists or narrow nationalists? One answer is that the Yes movement is precisely that, a movement. Scots language organisations can take a neutral position regarding politics, but still work for the language, but there is a need to set up a group that supports both the Scots language, and the independence movement, and can co-operate to linguistic and political ends on an ad hoc basis. Another answer lies in questions of social justice. Social justice? That’s practical stuff: foodbanks, bailouts, benefit cuts – nothing to do with language, surely? Wrong. Scots is the language of the people, in that it is the language of the lower classes, urban and rural. In the contemporary Scottish media, it’s exceedingly rare to see or hear Scots used except in a context where the use is there to show that the speaker is proletarian, or comic, or quite possibly both. Still Game is laced with Scots; you won’t hear it on Reporting Scotland, save the odd vox pop. Normalising the use of Scots in all contexts is a very powerful way to lessen the stigma, and therefore the social exclusion, that goes with using the language. If, as George Bernard Shaw said, it is impossible for one Englishman to open his mouth without another despising him, it remains true, almost a century later, that a huge proportion of Scots cannot open their mouth without their fellow Scots mentally writing them off, because of the language it comes naturally to them to express themselves in. In a nutshell, if you remove the negative stereotypes associated with contemporary Scots, you remove a huge impediment to social mobility and social justice.

So, want to know the old Scots word for independence? Unthirldom!

Read more from A Clear Contrair Spirit here


67 comments on “The Scots tung

  1. aitchbee says:

    I’ve always felt that Scots are to some degree bilingual, in that they generally speak Scots to each other and English to non-Scots. I’ve also found that, in general, Scots are less resistant to learning other languages than is often the case in England. I’m not saying that we’re all experts in foreign languages, but we seem to be quite comfortable in learning and using useful words and phrases when abroad, rather than simple expecting everyone else to speak English.

  2. jacqui calder says:

    an a guid scots dictionary?

  3. This is something I’ve thought about a lot of late; I have made more of an effort over the last year or so to make more spoken use of Scots though I find my grammar is less extensive than I’d like.
    Still, this is likely to improve with practice.
    Need to work on the written side though!

  4. Clicky Steve says:

    This is really fascinating, and articulates a lot of things I’ve been thinking about for a long time. One concern is that if I move abroad, I would lose the linguistic connection to Scotland that I have… One which has already been dimished through formal education that placed an emphasis on good English skills.

    I’d love to hear suggestions on how to start improving… Though fear my pals might openly mock a greater use of Scots as taking myself too seriously.

    • There are ways the government could make Scots language more mainstream again. In one example, the adding of Scots spellings to railway station name boards as with Gaelic – I believe Paul hinted at this some time ago.
      What about Police Scotland marking their vehicles ‘POLIS’. Works for the Scandinavians!🙂

      • Cuilean says:

        Also in Turkey, police = ‘polis’. Of course, in Scots, it’s always ‘Ra Polis’ as in ‘Erra Polis’.

      • hektorsmum says:

        Agree with you, we would still know what it meant. I love that Gordon Brown get The Gaelic shoved in his face when he goes along to his railways station.

    • hektorsmum says:

      Steve, do as I do, chuck in words which seem appropriate, there are Scots words which fill the void that Inglis never can. I never use small, wee works better for one, then of course there is always the old favourite Dreich if you put our mind to it, loads of words and expressions which should be used. Aye instead of YES etc.

      • turra loon says:

        I have always liked ‘Scunnerd’

        • gerry parker says:

          I’ve always liked the admonishon

          ” Haud yer wheest”

          • domhnall ruadh says:

            Haud yer wheesht is a very nice example of both Gaelic and Scots melding. “Isd” pronounced “eesht” is gaelic for “shut up”.

            And ” smashin’ ” is simply the Gaelic ” ‘s math sin” meaning “that’s good”. There are lots of examples. As someone who was genuinely a first language Gael ( only learnt and used English within a classroom until my teenage years in the ” big school in town”) I am tickled at how much hidden Gaelic survives in real grass roots Scots dialogue. Watching the numbers tumble from census to census, there is a wee warm glow of comfort for me to see that my language, or traces thereof at least, survive beyond its own dwindling linguistic shorelines.😊

        • Clicky Steve says:

          I love scunnered. Last year I felt completely fed up of a particular situation… at the end of my tether, and it was the only word that really expressed how I felt properly. That’s what’s beautiful about Scots – it has emotional connections other words don’t have.

      • Clicky Steve says:

        Definitely. I use Scots words a lot, and am proud of it, but it’s the more common ones like you’ve mentioned. Maybe half the battle is not knowing whether a word is Scots or English half the time as they just seem normal. I’ve got a hold of a few books in differing levels of Scots I’m going to read – remind me of words I may have forgotten.

    • Brian Fleming says:

      Never mind your pals Steve. Just do it. That’s the only way it’ll happen. But I know what you mean. But once you’ve crossed the threshold, I’m sure it’ll get easier. That’s how Hebrew was resurrected.

      The ariticle mentions Swedish in Finland. As a Finnish citizen of some 23 years, i have some knowledge of the history of that. The status of Swedish is a relic of the days when it was the language of official discourse and finnish a collection of local dialects spoken by the common folk. Thus it’s more akin to the position of English in Scotland. Finnish-speakers struggled long and hard to achieve equal status, and that struggle marks attitudes to Swedish today, which is under pressure from sections of Finnish society.

      But I digress. I think Scots, English and Gaelic should ALL have official status in Scotland, but there’s a lot of work to do getting there, and the best way to challenge attitudes anent Scots is for educated, confident Scots speakers to use the language in all contexts.

  5. Clicky Steve says:

    Reblogged this on clickysteve and commented:
    Thoughts on Scots. The Scots language isn’t the same as English. This is pretty interesting, whatever side of the independence fence you may find yourself.

  6. aclearcontrairspirit says:

    Thanks everyone for commenting. @Jacqui, here is a database of Scots Dictionaries: Some info on James Murray’s (a big 19c cheese in compiling the Oxford English Dictionary) contribution can be found here –

  7. aclearcontrairspirit says:

    @Clickysteve I honestly think one fo the strengths of Scots is that we feel so comfortable in it, and we take pride in it, save for ‘official’ uses. I imagine you already use Scots in daily life: my advice would be to read more Scots and incorporate more words and phrases gradually; if folk don’t understand, you can always say, “but this is a Scots phrase/word, what do you mean you don’t know it?!” Most people will at least pretend they were familiar with the concept all along😉 Over the long run, increasee exposure in schools should help normailise the language and reduce the perception that it’s ‘bad English’ or second-class speech.

    On a secondary note, I have no idea of your circumstances or ages, but I’ve lived outside of Scotland (bumming around the Middle East and England) for about 10 years, and it’s had no detrimental effect on my appeciation of Scots, indeed, quite the opposite. If you are thinking of moving abroad, I’d say go for it; nothing can compare as a learning experience, and it’ll teach you all sorts of things you never knew about yourself. Go for it!

  8. begoniapink says:

    Anither Braw Read , fair enjoyed This ane ,

  9. Big Honke says:

    Recapture the language it’s ours. Cultural imperialism makes Shakespeare national and Burns and regional.

  10. macart763 says:

    An interesting read.

    Even in my lifetime, the words and sentence structure used by my grandparents is almost gone.

    To me though, a frog is still a puddock.🙂

  11. jimnarlene says:

    I’m old enough to remember, getting belted at school for speaking Scots. It was seen as bad English, except in January for Burns night.
    It may be the reason that, I’ve always wanted Scottish independence.

    • macart763 says:


      I was brought up in a rural/mining community, broad Scots was just how we spoke. It was the common tongue and by that I mean the language of the community. Basically only posh folk spoke proper English like whut it is writ.😀 Y’know teachers, doctors, solicitors, civil servants, upper ranks of the polis, cooncilmen and such… posh folk.

      When we went to school, even as far back as primary, the use of Scots descriptions for everyday objects and animals was frowned upon, the use of sentence structure discouraged. By the time you got to high school you were openly considered common or a moron if you weren’t writing and conversing in full standard English. Singling kids out in class for using common speech was nothing less than an open and naked attempt to create a nature of otherness and ridicule. Kids were literally made to feel ashamed of their background.

      • jimnarlene says:

        I was brought up in a “working class” area of Ayr. It was indeed the professional classes that spoke “proper” English.

        I did have an English teacher that said, ” It’s not bad English, it’s guid Scots”. He read a lot of Scots literature out to the class, sadly that was thirty odd years ago and the brain cells aren’t what they used to be.

        I do partially remember a story about a boy who was late, for school. And the maister wanted to know why he was late, the boy replied; “Ah fell and bumpt mah heid in the shuch.”

        If anyone here recognises the story, do they know who wrote it and what it’s called.


        If oannybiddy kens the tale, whae writ it an whas it cried?

        • jimnarlene says:

          Eureka, I found it…„
          What‟s wrong with your face, Docherty?‟ „Skintma nose, sur.‟ „How?‟ „Ah fell an‟ bumped ma heidin the sheuch, sur.‟ „I beg your pardon?‟ „Ah fell an‟ bumped ma heidin the sheuch, sur.‟ „I beg your pardon?‟ In the pause Conn understands the nature of the choice, tremblingly, compulsively, makes it. „Ah fell an‟ bumped ma heidin the sheuch, sur.‟ The blow is instant (McIlvanney, 1975: p114).

  12. David Comerford says:

    Swiss German is an interesting example: utterly incomprehensible to hochdeutsch speakers, and a spoken language only (swiss kids do their schooling in hochdeutsch) – but apparently thriving with no signs that hochdeutsch is taking over.

  13. Anne Lyden says:

    “Unthirldom” I love the sound and look of that! A different and very interesting piece.

  14. “Scots needs greater standardisation of the spelling conventions”. I am not convinced this should happen. Part of the joy of writing in Scots is its richness, the multifarious forms words can take. Standardisation of the spelling of English is relatively recent. The lack of ability to spell correctly in English is now seen as a mark of social status. It is part of the class divide, and a way of literally writing people off, similar perhaps to speaking in Scots which you highlight. Having a standardised Scots spelling would need conformity recognised by institutions and in mass compulsory education. I am not sure who would determine correct spelling. Would this to be imposed by government? Would then the inability to spell Scots correctly add to negative stereotyping? It might also diminish the rich vivacity of the language.

    I am very surprise that while you include examples of language use in South Africa and Finland, there is no mention of Ulster-Scots. Why? The agency promoting this as a living language, that can even now be found alongside English on road signs, is funded by the governments in Northern Ireland and in the Republic of Ireland. Could it be a starting point for us?

    • hektorsmum says:

      We have a Scot Dictionary, had it for a long time, and believe me a atandardised spelling or indeed anything as the Chinese discovered one hell of a long time ago is what makes for civilization. Can you say that Burns is dull, I expect he wrote in a form which people could understand, we had a problem here, in that you could once upon a time write any way and we are going back to it, you often have to guess what people are actually saying.

    • aclearcontrairspirit says:

      I agree with you to an extent about the downsides of enforcing a single spelling. However, the benefits for writing clearly far outweigh the negatives. In langauges like Scots or English, massive vocabulary borrowing and historic phonological changes mean that a purely phonetic spelling is impossible. By way of example, when we write ‘thae’ and ‘they, we know that one is the plural of thon (or yon, depending on the dialect) and one is the nominative third person plural. If you encourage people to spell simply as they like, you lose these sorts of disinctions, which maybe isn’t such a problem in informal writing (like a blog comments box!) but is important whenever clarity is key, which is the case for most written communication. It’s true that there is a stigma attached to bad spelling, but it might be better to tackle that head on rather give up the massive benefits of a standardised spelling system.

      Ulster-Scots is something of a minefield, which is why I didn’t mention it in the article. It’s almost certainly true that Scots has been spoken at some point in Ulster, especially in Antrim and Down, the two counties closest to Scotland, and which saw the heaviest plantation of Scots. However, a lot of Ulster Scots speakers switched to English years ago, at the same time English was displacing Irish. It was accorded some sort of recognition during the Good Friday Agreement, because the Unionists felt they needed to be able to show their own side they had got something of equal value to the limited recognition of Irish that the Republicans gained.

      Perhaps because recognition was a political compromise rather than a grassroots movement, there’s been fairly little interest in or uptake of Ulster Scots; years ago when working on a Scots cultural magazine, we were able to get funding from Northern Ireland because there was so little interest in what grants were available, and the Ulster Scots Agency would rather see the money be spent by us than have it unspent and lose it in the next year’s budget. Anecdotally, you hear of similar things all the time. Anyway, I don’t want to derail the comments into a discussion of Ulster Scots, but hope this is helpful

  15. hektorsmum says:

    This I feel is something which the Scots should get behind, we all speak Scots, I certainly do and much to the disgust of my Mother who wanted her Daughter to speak properly. Somewhere in my rebellious youth I discovered my ain tung. So I can speak English, I can be understood furth of Scotland, well at least by those who live furth of England, there still seems a denigration of the Scots Accent down there. I choose to use those words I have accumulated but unfortunately I like so many of my generation, lack the spelling and still find difficulty with Burns, due to the over reliance of the English (Inglis). Would love to see classes in the Scots Tung conducted in School, nothing wrong with Gaelic, I would have loved to have learned that as well, but there are as many of us who should have known our own language,
    There is still a cringe about speaking Scots.
    I would like to say that Welsh, when I was a lassie, was spoken by the elderly, the fight back was yet to start, I was taken by my Cousin’s Grandparents to Chapel where Welsh was spoken, boy was I lost, but both of them were Welsh Speakers, their children did not have it, South Wales you see, too close to the Inglis.

  16. turra loon says:

    I was born in Turra (Turriff) where we spoke the Doric at Home and in the Playground. Off course it was frowned upon at school. We were always told by our teachers to speak English to strangers e.g. asking for directions etc. We were always bilingual in Turra.

    • Aberdeen Lass says:

      Ay fit aboot the Doric, nithing like it!
      Hubby recently did a Doric reading at a wedding, asked for by the young couple, and composed specially for them. Good to see the auld traditions still alive. While researching Doric readings online, I found a lot of interest from all age groups and from folk all over the world. RGU did a wee Doric Dictionary not long ago, and it was very popular, but it’s not nearly enough. “Negative stereotypes” do truly act as a hindrance- BBC received pronunciation still rules, I think!

  17. VikingsDottir says:

    Folks, for the last few years I have been unconvinced that Scots is a derivative of Northumbrian or Anglo Saxon. After doing some study of Old Norse, and it’s quite difficult to find the old books but Amazon have some, I realised that almost every Scots word I use is actually Old Norse, like slitri for example, and thrawn, two of my mother’s favourites.
    There was a Scottish court case recently and a person was charged with ‘Hame sucken.’ As soon as I saw it I looked it up in the Old Norse books, and there it is. Hame is obvious. Sucken is the past tense of sokken-to strike someone. Imagine that! Tae beat someone up in their ain hame.
    Anyone who has been interested in the Scandinavian TV programmes can hear all of the words we got belted for using. If it’s alright for Sarah Lund, why is not alright for us? I bet Sarah never got belted for saying ‘Go ut, go nu’ or ‘Gie op nu.’ She also says ‘Keek.’
    To clarify, I am not a linguist or a historian, but I have a strong interest in languages and as you can see from my tag, it’s a matter of descent.
    Let’s hear it for the Vikings.

    • hektorsmum says:

      Well I do think we had enough interchange of people for many forms to have entered into Scots, I certainly recognise the familiar Braw, which regardless of the explanation on google means exactly the same in both Swedish and Scots.

  18. As a foreign learner of Scots (an ay, A coud write this in Scots, but A’ll uise the Inglis leid tae mak shuir awbodie can understaund me), as the father of Scottish children that don’t speak anything that it would be fair to describe as Scots, and as a linguist, I must say I’m not too happy about treating the Scots language cause as basically a civil rights movement (“Normalising the use of Scots in all contexts is a very powerful way to lessen the stigma, and therefore the social exclusion, that goes with using the language.”)

    Yes, that is important, too, but lessening the stigma is not enough any more. We also need to create opportunities for people to learn Scots (or to relearn it, for those who spoke it before starting school but then suppressed it), and that means creating many more language courses, text books and dictionaries than we have at the moment. It also means creating a norm that learners can aim towards — I have sometimes been told in the Scots language group on Facebook simply to write in any way that feels natural to me, but that simply doesn’t work when your native language is Danish and you didn’t move here till you were 30.

    But more than anything, we need a radio channel and ideally a TV channel. The Gaels have Radio nan Gaidheal and BBC Alba, and that’s great and I wholeheartedly support these, but we need the same for the Scots language. At the moment, more is done to support Scots in Northern Ireland than in Scotland (e.g.,, which is crazy. We also need many more books, websites and magazines.

    Scots can still be saved, but time is of the essence.

    • @Thomas Widmann. There have been Scots language organisations for decades, but they haven’t exactly succeeded in setting the heather afire. Scotland’s in a very interesting place at the moment, and support for Scots can be built up among the public on the back of that. I don’t want to see the language movement become a civil rights movement, but for those of a more instrumentalist bent, who don’t care about the language but nevertheless support independence, lessening stigma is one reason to get behind greater support for Scots.

      I couldn’t agree more that we need a norm to aim towards. A big part of that in gained through the media these days, so we need to see more Scots presence, but I think we can come up with more creative ways of doing that. Colloquial programmes already mix Scots and English, and we could see that being done across a much broader range of programming. There’s a danger that a Scots-only station would fail to attract many viewers, whereas if Radio Scotland and BBC Scotland were to show, say, 30% of their programming in Scots, with a couple of Scots-language news broadcasts, that would probably get much more exposure. More language courses for adults, who can often speak Scots but don’t feel comfortable writing it, (or write it phonetically using models heavily based on English) are also something that would help. There’s a big reservoir of goodwill out there towards Scots, we just need to harness that and mobilise people more.

      On another note, I’m assuming you’re the Thomas Widmann who blogs about linguistics? (there can’t be that many Danish linguisticians living in Scotland!). If so, I’ve enjoyed your writings very much over the past year or so🙂

  19. vronsky says:

    I’ve seen some ghastly stuff self-describing as ‘Scots’ when it is just a dictionary transcription from BBC English. It’s geeky computer stuff, and intensely, cringeingly ugly.

    Happily, it’s a problem that will solve itself. Given independence, spoken and written Scots will rapidly diverge from standard English. Spanish used to be Italian, did you know?

    We don’t have to save something that isn’t drowning. Just get rid of the water it’s drowning in.

    PS: read Henryson and Dunbar

  20. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    This is a timely article and I like the tenor of so many of the replies and how nuanced they are. I am old enough to remember being scorned by teachers for speaking in the language I used in my Glasgow community. It was a sign of a lack of civilisation, of mental defectiveness and many other deficiencies. So, like the rest of us, I learned standard English and, as you see, I write in it, too. Indeed, it is my default writing style.

    However, since I retired, I no longer have to speak as a senior professional person was expected to speak and I find myself increasingly and unapologetically reverting to my original tongue. My wife, from rural Perthshire, with Doric speaking parents, is similarly reverting. More ‘Scotticisms’ appear in my writing, and I am decreasingly likely to punctuate in accordance with standard English conventions.

    A language is a living and evolving thing, so I am cautious about things like standardising spelling, but I think Scots dictionaries are useful in that they are a store of words and phrases which have been and still are in use, but have been forgotten or have been rendered uncertain by how things are expressed in the media. Is it ‘hailstones’, ‘whole stanes’, ‘hale stanes’ or ‘whole stones’?

    The contempt shown by many in official positions has rendered many intelligent Scots inarticulate, when being interviewed by the media as the interviewer looks on in benign pitying amusement as she pointedly fails to understand what is being said, and the interviewee then struggles to express himself effectively.

    My mother was a native Gaelic speaker who was at school at a time when suppression of Gaelic was still an official policy. She and her peers were corporally punished for speaking to each other in Gaelic and publicly ridiculed. She spoke Scots and spoke and wrote standard English very well, but, when under stress (such as when I as a boy misbehaved grossly!) she would revert to Gaelic because it expressed naturally what she felt. I remember times when she was in tears at the recollection of cruelties visited upon her and her friends for chatting naturally. So, we must realise how important to us as people our native tongue is, even when we have to recall it and reinvent it.

    Alasdair Macdonald.

  21. Marconatrix says:

    I think a standard spelling and grammar would be essential for Scots to be taken seriously as an ‘official’ written language, to be taught in schools etc. If that’s what is actually wanted. It’s simply what’s expected of any national language these days. The process would have to be something like that used to create Norwegian when Danish had previously been the written language. At one extreme there was a sort of slightly Norwegianised Danish, at the other various country dialects. They started from both ends but never managed to meet in the middle, and so are stuck with two different written standards.

  22. Juan P says:

    Out of interest does anyone in Scotland use Scots words in every day conversation as much as folk in the North East who speak Doric?

  23. jdman says:

    I often find the portrayal of Scots is to disparage people and to denigrate people as somehow less,
    Take the instance of that poor wee child who was murdered by the 20 odd year old laddie in Kelty,

    Th BBC reported his words in the Scots tongue as spoken by him in the trial, but the words spoken by witnesses were reported in the entirely (in the BBC’s veiw) more appropriate Queens English.

  24. hektorsmum says:

    I think we should remember that Scots has been denigrated since the Union, Boswell and Johnson for instance. This is something which only we can overcome, and yes I agree jdman used to denigrate people even today.

  25. Gordie McRobert says:

    ‘One of the insinuations heard (admittedly, mostly from English-based media) during the referendum campaign was that the SNP was all about compulsory Gaelic. As any Scot knows, Gaelic is marginal to the Scottish independence movement, and this is probably a good thing’

    Why is it a good thing? I’d be interested to hear why.

    The claim of Gaelic like Scots are both equally strong in Scotland. The numbers who still speak it mean there are still possibilities for it to grow. Scots and Gaelic can both thrive in this land as can the languages of new entrants to the country with goodwill (rather than casual chauvinism) shown to all. Not a good start to an otherwise decent article.

  26. Wan o’ the words Ah rememember ma granny usin wis “furrnent” meaning “in front of”. God, Ah still miss her.

  27. Clare says:

    This is a fascinating piece on a subject I would love read more of – thank you. I just want to add that the experience of being allowed to speak Scots one day a year isn’t something that belongs to the older generation. My son reported that his friend was rebuked for saying ‘aye’, quite politely, to the heidie, just a few days after the school’s annual Burns-fest. This happened no more than four years ago, in a primary school in Lanarkshire, to ten-year-old boys, and they could see the irony – I don’t know why the heidie can’t!

    Like an earlier poster I would love to use more of the Scots of my childhood, but I feel self-conscious, as if I’m being affectedly couthy.

    Another thing I found interesting is that my mother, who was born 1922 and spoke a sort of hybrid Scots-English, switching as the occasion demanded it, became much more broad and consistently Scots-speaking in her last few years, as she was slowly dying, as if the English was laid over the top of an earlier, more deeply learned language.

  28. […] For a bit more on Scots, check out this great post. […]

  29. lumilumilumi says:

    Thanks for this interesting article, and also all the BTL comments.

    I once did a minor in linguistics at uni, and though I now work in a different field, I’ve retained an interest in linguistic matters. One aspect is the interplay between politics and language, and definition of languages. For instance, Dutch and Flemish could be argued to be one language from a linguistic point of view (mutually intelligible) but two from a more political point of view.

    I’m a Finn and Finland’s written constitution actually defines two national languages with equal status, Finnish and Swedish, for historical and political reasons (as Brian Fleming above pointed out). The national broadcaster YLE has dedicated Swedish-speaking national and local radio stations and also a TV channel. Currently about 5% of Finns speak Swedish as their mother tongue, mainly along the west and south coasts (including the capital Helsinki – Helsingfors). Finnish and Swedish are unrelated languages but Finnish-Swedish differs from Swedish-Swedish in pronunciation and also some vocabulary and grammar. Many Swedes consider Finnish-Swedish “quaint” and “cute” and affectionately (and a bit patronisingly) call Finnish-Swedish speakers Moomins after the Finnish author Tove Jansson’s loveable and slightly anarchic cartoon characters.

    There’s a third national language, Sami, spoken by a tiny minority in the far north. It’s related to Finnish but not mutually intelligible. The law (but not the constitution) states that Sami speakers should be able to access public services and deal with the authorities in their own language, but this doesn’t always happen due to meagre resources at local council level. The Finnish national broadcaster YLE has a dedicated Sami radio station and website, and Sami-language TV news are broadcast nationally on YLE 1 daily – a joint venture with the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK as Norway has a larger Sami minority than Finland. (A bit O/T but Sami people and language got a lot of positive attention recently when a lovable, level-headed young reindeer-herding Sami guy won the Finnish Big Brother with the largest margin in the 10-year history of that reality show – and YLE Sapmi ran with the story on several days, from more serious angles. How he and his victory had helped to bring modern Sami culture to mainstream audiences and boosted self-confidence among young and old Samis etc.)

    What’s all this got to do with Scots and English? Maybe not a lot or maybe a lot. Linguistically, Gaelic is the odd one out and Scots and standard (British) English are very closely related; politically, Gaelic and Scots are the poor cousins while standard (British) English rules the roost.

    From a linguistic, language-history point of view, Scots, an offshoot of Northumbrian from before the time there was any “standard English”, developed in its own way and could be argued to have become a distinct language, used even by the powerful elite of the country. The events of 1603 and 1707 put an end to that. Since then, the Scots tung has slowly and surely converged with its closely related, more populous and “prestigious” southern cousin. The elite, in thrall to London, switched their language from Scots to English and then branded Scots speakers as uncouth, provincial or whatever, and in due course the education system finished the job.

    Is Scots a distinct language? Not just an accent and vocabulary thing? Linguists look for grammatical (syntax) evidence because syntax goes deeper than the surface phenomena of pronunciation or vocabulary. One thing this lapsed linguist has noticed is that even Scots who speak Standard English (maybe with a Scottish accent) tend to use auxiliary verbs and the word “no” differently from their southern neighbours to form negative declarative sentences. You can even hear it in the Holyrood chamber, from all benches.

    Subject + NO (manifest as “no”) + Verb + Object complement instead of Subject + AUX (“do” or another auxiliary verb) + NO (manifest as “not”, or contracted to “n’t” at the end of the auxiliary verb) + Object complement.

    “We no saw you” vs. “We didn’t see you.”

    OK, maybe that wasn’t the best example but it’s something that strikes my foreign linguist ears as a real syntax difference – maybe because in my native Finnish the negative conjunction “ei” (“no”) behaves like a verb with person/number inflection (en, et, ei, emme, ette, eivät) to form negative declarative sentences with the structure Subject + NO + Verb + Object complement (the Scots way) so I’m sensitive to this particular linguistic quirk.

    Should Scots, in particular Scots spelling, be standardised?

    I say yes. For any language to survive and maybe thrive and grow in the modern world – or to even be taken seriously – there should be a national standard taught in schools and courses and used by the media and officialdom.

    Scots and English spelling are a real mess anyway because those languages started to be written down before some significant sound (pronunciation) changes took place and before any central standardising efforts. By comparison, Finnish began to be written and published only about 150 years ago so the language (esp. the pronunciation) hasn’t changed too much and the spelling is still phonetic. Basically, one letter, one sound (beisikli, wan letr wan saund, as a Finn would phonetically write that).

    From a collection of different peasant dialects, Finnish emerged as a standardised modern language, able to coin new words and adapt to the 21st century world.

    We all learn to write standard Finnish in school and YLE newsreaders and some current affairs journos and politicians etc. speak it but nobody actually speaks like that informally. People speak in their own way, be it regional dialect or “generic urban”. Standard Finnish for “I don’t know” is “En minä tiedä” but what people actually say is “”Emmä tiiä”, “En mää tierä”, “En mie tiijä” etc. All mutually intelligible. Standardising the Finnish language (spelling) has not killed off regional accents. In fact, there’s been a boom in regional accent literature and pride and media exposure in the past 10-15 years.

    However, it is important that we have a national standard and an independent academic body safeguarding Finnish (and Finnish-Swedish and to a lesser extent Sami, Romany and other minority languages), the Institute for the Languages of Finland. They’re not an ivory tower, they’re even responsive to language change and the real world! When I was in school, using the 3rd infinitive with the verb “alkaa” (to begin) was a no-no, now “alkaa tehdä” (1st infinitive) and “alkaa tekemään” (3rd infinitive, the form naturally used by most Finnish speakers with a western Finland background) are both accepted even in end of school exams.

    The situation in Scotland is, of course, very different and difficult. Scotland is not an independent country (yet), and the mother tongue of a large slice, Scots, is so closely related to English, and now so enmeshed, even confused with it, that it’s difficult to separate the two. Add to this that English is a world language.

    An independent country like Finland, where nearly 95% of the 5.6M population speak a unique language incomprehensible to the rest of the world (except maybe some Estonians), has much more incentive to preserve and develop their language. The sad fact is that it’s too easy for promoting Scots in the UK context to be portrayed as either desperate (sentimental) harking back to yesteryear or the wrong kind of nationalism, which is a great shame.

    The Scots tung can only develop and thrive in an independent Scotland (if there’s political will for it) so we’re left waiting. Scots diverged, then converged with Inglis and the future is, sadly, uncertain. To be a language on its own right or just a distinct regional variety among all the other Englishes around the world? Sorry to sound so downhearted but the linguist in me faces the facts and the realist in me knows that the current political situation will not allow Scots to flourish.

    Oh! And one more thing! As a Finn, I learned Swedish in school (it’s compulsory) and being from the Helsinki/Helsingfors area have always had Swedish-speaking neighbours and friends, so Swedish is everyday for me (not so for people from inland Finland). I read Swedish, Norwegian and Danish, write Swedish and speak (slightly ungrammatical) Finnish-Swedish, which Swedes, Norwegians and Danes understand (I don’t always understand them, though). Anyway, back at uni, we once had a couple of lectures on Scottish literature and the lecturer started by explaing the Scots words and we students were a bit meh? We all knew Swedish, so words like mirk, kirk etc. were immediately intelligible to us (mörk, kyrka etc.) without being explained via standard English. The lecturer was baffeled by how readily we understood and even pronounced Burns’ poetry!

    Sorry for long post, I got a bit carried away.

  30. Lochside says:

    I totally agree with this article. I get quite’ disjaikit’ when ‘ ma lugs ur clattered bi fowk whae cannae spik Scots richtly’. Particularly west coasters who are now pronouncing ‘Loch’ as ‘Lock’ and white as ‘wite’. Yet tell me that they talking pure ‘glesga man’.

    I grew up speaking west border Scots with many words which my Doric speaking parents recognised as variations on their dialect. Although Doric, it must be said, always struck me as possessing the stronger lexicon of onomatopoeic words that makes Scots language so distinctive. Fifty years ago in my native Dumfriesshire, the dialect changed every 5-8 miles. Now? longer. In Aberdeen you will hardly hear now the Torry burr, just a flattened out, whiny pale donside estuary equivalent, with nary a ‘loon’ or ‘quine’ to be heard.

    Can Scots’ decline be halted?..Yes, but only by adopting the methods that this article suggests. By the way, the admirable Billy Kay published a book ‘the Mither Tung’ a puckle years syne and it traces Scots origins and status as a true language. Well worth a read.

  31. Liz Scott says:

    Crackin article. Very much appreciated.

  32. Fascinating article. I grew up in rural Northumberland, less than 40 miles from the Scottish border. Needless to say, we share the same linguistic heritage with many words in common , such as ‘bairn’, ‘hoose’, ‘glaiky’ (stupid) and ‘muckle’. We were definitely discouraged from speaking our dialect at school. It wasn’t considered ‘proper’ or ‘polite’. Interestingly, my grandmother (from Berwick-upon-Tweed) spoke with what sounded (to us) like a broad Scottish accent, which we loved. Neither wonder we Northumbrians have far more in common with our Scottish cousins than with our compatriots south of the Humber.

  33. Oh I don’t know, I just don’t know…. I think that the success of the YES campaign in the referendum was its inclusivity in that the very idea of any definable Scottish CULTURE was not gone into. I for one still think that Scottish culture is – or used to be – e.g. Global Video shops, Indian, Chinese carry-out shops etc. That Scotland was multi-cultural in its outlook rather than exclusive (as in the famous John Maclean dictum – Glasgow will not be dictated to by Moscow – as opposed to London) . Of course, I understand all too well the cultural imperialism that James Kelman talks of and as is illustrated above by other contributors, but I would not wish to see any formal campaign for the formal establishment of a scots tongue as it would be so open to political misrepresentation such as the accusation of Kirkyairdlikeness and divisiveness as experienced by Canadians with the French language. Yes, I speak formal English when necessary or for effect, just as I will speak a casual form of Scottish west coast dialect/slang/mishmash/yiddish when it is appropriate. Have read MacDiarmid and understood it – If that makes me bilingual then so be it. I am also currently learning Hungarian and I have a smidgin of French if that makes me multi-lingual – then so be it as well. So what? Who needs badges? I don’t need a government of whatever hue to tell me how to speak or write, I’ll happily do both under my own steam and above all else language is living, it’s organic. I think of some scots language as being largely of another era and so it is not socially relevant. If its not spoken it’ll die – like Manx. I don’t think language of all things can be kept artificially alive. I know that some of this will be naïve and can only hope that I haven’t offended anyone, no doubt there’ll be a latent racism in there being a product of the empire etc. but its just my opinion. Happy to be educated on this topic.

    • Lochside says:

      @paulgmccormack59 ..Scottish cringe alert! Read the contributions carefully please before responding with a knee jerk that Scots language being taught formally = a fascist Indy Scotland scenario. Folk, including me, were belted by teachers for speaking Scots. Any racism latent or otherwise rested and continues to rest with the Brit/Anglo establishment. Listen to BBC Scotland for pity’s sake!

      English language visitors from the U.S., Australia etc. get the absurdity of Queen’s English being elevated above Scots as the gold standard. What we want is our voices given parity to RP and to be accepted and nourished. No one is expecting enforced Scots speak!

      • Anton says:

        Hold on. RP was invented by a Scot (John Reith) as a common standard which he believed would be the version of English most comprehensible to most people in the UK. And he was probably right (unless you care to argue differently?).

        This is a very common approach in any part of the world which, like the UK, includes people who speak variations of any given language. So, for example, different South American countries speak and use Spanish in very different ways, but use another language – “neutral Spanish” – to speak to each other. The same is true of Arabic. Arabic as spoken in the streets of Aleppo is pretty much incomprehensible to the inhabitants of (say) Tangiers, but they communicate by way of “classical” Arabic. In both cases they’re using a language which few people actually speak on a day to day basis, but is universally understood.

        In the UK, we use RP for national communication (e.g. the BBC) and local varieties for local communication. Where’s the problem?

        • yerkitbreeks says:

          Aha, but the Duke of Rothesay and his pals use ” heightened RP “, yet another step up.

          For a full explanation may I commend to your reading The Drinkspotty Book or the Housespotty Book ( and also a bloody good laugh ).

  34. yerkitbreeks says:

    One of the best examples of pride in dialect is in Switzerland, where the locals will deliberately maintain it in the presence of a ” High German ” speaker.

    As a Doric proponent I would love to tutor enthusiasts. Foor ye dein the day, might get the exhortation : A’m sair forfochan fae yerkin stobs oot o’ yon park an’ ma queets are afa cauld.

  35. zenbroon says:

    Just a comment on ‘standardisation’. There have been excellent English-Scots dictionaries out for decades (e.g., and most modern non-dialect Scots publications stick pretty closely to these standards. Most also are based -knowingly or not – on a standard Scots grammar first published in the 1920s (The Manual of Modern Scots There is therefore a workably good written standard out there and widely used, just not widely taught. The disparaging and untrue ‘no written standard’ argument is an effective – in that it is widely believed – propaganda weapon used by those who don’t really want Scots to have any status. This refers to non-dialect _written_ Scots BTW, nobody wants to standardise _spoken_ Scots in all its dialectical and language-jumping richness.

  36. michael says:

    You can find out more about Scots at

  37. michael says:

    The Scots Language Centre has a lively facebook group. Please join us.

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