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The Scots Leid

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A'll tell ye the tale o a leid

Scots - the Language

Scotland has more than one distinct language (or leid). There is English, the language of newspapers, TV programmes and the Internet; Gaelic, the ancient Celtic language of the Western Highlands and Island; and one other. The language is Scots, the language of the poet Robert Burns.

The reason for the lack of knowledge of this language is simple enough. It is very close to English. However, it is not simply a dialect. Scots is to English what Dutch is to German or Portuguese is to Spanish.


When the Anglo-Saxons came to the British Isles they brought their own language which eventually supplanted the native Celtic languages (Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic) in all but the far west. As the two nations of Scotland and England formed and grew their respective versions of this common tongue diverged. For instance, the language of the south was heavily influenced by French after the Norman Conquest while the language of the north was influenced by Norwegian Viking raiders and later traders from Flanders and Germany, giving it the distinctive 'ch' noise as heard in the word loch as well as many distinct words and grammatical constructs.

From the 14th Century the official language of Scotland, as far as government documents and literature was concerned, was Scots. Acts of Parliament were written in Scots, books were published and even kings wrote in Scots1

Scots was also taught in the schools. For example, in 1658, the burgh council of Edinburgh licensed Master James Chalmeris to run a school 'for teaching of scholleris to read and wrytt Scotts2...'.

However, after the Union of Parliaments between England and Scotland in 1707 the official language of the new United Kingdom was English, the language of the southern half of the kingdom. Hence why, by the late 18th Century Burns poetry was seen as the language only of the peasants, the nobility in Edinburgh now speaking English, all be it with the odd Scots twang.

Scots was still taught in schools into the late 18th Century. However, in 1845, school inspections began. These were meant to ensure that a good curriculum was taught, but this curriculum did not include Scots, rather listing English. By the mid 20th Century Scots was actively discouraged in schools. One woman from Fraserburgh had her hand tied behind her back each time she spoke Scots. She said:

Ma faither took wis till the doctor, but er that time the damage wes deen. They thocht we wes queer, nae richt in the heid. Fit wes vrang wi the wey A wes spokken?"3.

This attitude continued into the 1990s and this Researcher remembers being told at school that using words like 'wee', 'muckle' and 'ken' were all bad and the sort of thing that would stop you getting a decent education and progressing in the world. The poetry of Burns, however, was taught in schools, ironically in English lessons. These days Scots is no longer actively discouraged, but it is only really taught at universities, and then not to full degree level.

Does Anyone Still Speak It?

In 1690 poll tax returns showed that seventy percent of the population of Scotland spoke Scots (The remainder no doubt speaking Gaelic). In 1996 an estimate was made of people who would say they spoke Scots. This gave a number of thirty percent. While most of these may not speak a pure form of the language this is still a sizable chunk of the population. Sadly the prejudice against Scots that exists in government and society circles to this day means that this thirty percent are not catered for. Government documents are only printed in English and Gaelic for instance.

However, despite this prejudice books are still written in Scots. Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting for instance has characters speaking the language as you would hear it in Edinburgh, and Iain Banks' The Bridge has a very Glaswegian-sounding character. Also, Liz Lochead is rightly famous for her poems and plays in Scots.

As a language Scots can be further split up into dialects with the five main ones being Insular (Orkney and Shetland), Northern (Caithness, the North-East and Angus)4, Central (most of the Lowlands), Southern (most of the Borders), and Ulster5. The majority of the dialects are very similar but there are some differences such as in the North-East people say foo, fit, far and fan while in the Central dialect people say hou, whit, whaur and whan.

Some Examples

  • Come awa ben - Come in
  • Jine the bodie o the kirk - Move into the middle of the group
  • Ur ye gaun tae the pictures the night, ken? - Are you going to the cinema tonight?
  • Di ye ken auld Charlie Fraser? - Do you know old Charlie Fraser?
  • Aye, he's a weel kent face roon here - Yes, he is well known around here.
  • A wad be caw cannie roon that yin - I would be careful around that one.
  • A wis jist stravaigin but an I found a right braw pub - I was just wandering around and I found a great pub.
  • Aye, it'll soon be time fur howking oot the tatties - It will soon be time to harvest the potatoes.


1James I (1406-37) and James VI (1567-1625).2'For teaching scholars to read and write in Scots'3'My father took me to the doctor, but by that time the damage was done. They thought I was odd, not right in the head. What was wrong with the way I spoke?'4Also called Doric.5The Scots language having come over with the Ulster plantation in the 17th Century.

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