History of Scots

Scots was the official state language of Scotland for around 400 years in the Middle Ages. It lost its importance due to major political events in the 17th century. After a long absence, it is now finding a place again in Scottish education.

When Celtic Britain was invaded by Angles and Saxons in the Dark Ages, the seeds of two new languages were imported to the island. Ultimately, the Saxons’ Germanic tongue developed into modern English, while the Scots language descends from the Germanic speech of the Angles.

The Angles from Denmark crossed the North Sea around AD 500 and established the kingdom of Northumbria which stretched from the River Humber to the Firth of Forth. Two centuries later, Vikings conquered Northumbria. Their language, Norse, had a massive impact on the Anglian speech of northern England.

In the 12th century, King David I created the first Scottish burghs. These new trading towns needed skilled craftsmen and people to run them. When Norman lords were given lands in Scotland, a large number of servants and trades people from the north of England migrated with them and settled in the burghs. Descendants of the Angles, these settlers spoke Old Northern English which was different from the English developing in southern England.

Gaelic, previously the language of Scottish kings, was replaced by the Germanic tongue English, often written as 'Inglis'. This language became the vehicle for some of Scotland’s greatest poetry as well as the language of court and state. By 1494, the form of English spoken in Scotland was considered so different from that of England that it was referred to as Scottis or Scots.

In 1603, James VI of Scotland assumed the throne of England, uniting the two kingdoms. And in 1611, James authorised a translation of the Bible to be read by all his subjects in English.

The removal of the court from Edinburgh to London and the sanctioning of English as the language of worship was a double blow to the fortunes of Scots. The language lost its status in Scotland. English was the new language of power and poetry and over time the ruling and professional classes did their best to forget their Scots tongue. The 18th-century philosopher David Hume famously sought to edit out what he called his ‘Scotticisms’, or Scots words and expressions, from his writing in English.

But the poet Robert Burns was not quite so ashamed of Scotland’s culture. Recognising that the Mither Tongue was in danger of being forgotten, he resolved to write in Scots. Arguably, Burns single-handedly arrested the decline of the Scots language and kept it alive as a medium for literature. Children and adults still enjoy reciting Burns’ poetry and writing Scots poems of their own to this day.

Until recently, however, the language was prohibited from the daily life of our schools. From the time of Burns to the banning of the belt in the 1980s, children in Scotland could be given corporal punishment for speaking their own language. Schools made no provision for those who brought Scots to the classroom and teachers were told they had a duty to rid their pupils of their Scots tongue.

But Scotland is beginning to celebrate its Scots heritage once again. Curriculum for Excellence includes Scots as an integral component of our children’s education. Teachers and pupils are discovering that learning in Scots can offer fun and constructive pathways into language and literacy. Outside school, folk continue to speak Scots as they have done for centuries but now the language is used more frequently in advertising, shop names, official signs and for texts and e-mails.

Scots is a language with a long and often difficult history which may well be looking forward to a more promising future.