Scots: an outline history

Dominance of Scots

By the fourteenth century Scots had emerged as the dominant speech of all ranks in Scottish society east and south of the Highland Line, except in Galloway where a form of Gaelic appears to have survived down to the seventeenth century. In other areas the rural inhabitants had abandoned their former Gaelic for the Scots of the burghs, which were the local centres of government, law and trade. Moreover, the barons had also abandoned their minority (if prestigious) tongue – French — for the Scots of the majority of the population. From about this time, too, Scots was increasingly used in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, so beginning the long process of the supplanting by Scots of Old Norse (later known as ‘Norn’), a language spoken in these territories when ruled by Scandinavian jarls.

Written Scots

Until the latter decades of the fourteenth century, written records of Early Scots (‘pre-literary Scots’) consist of no more than a few vernacular words and phrases and some descriptive place-names and surnames which crop up sporadically in early Latin documents from the twelfth century onwards. From these fragmentary written records, and by extrapolation from later evidence, we are able to reconstruct the origins of Older Scots, and trace its divergence from contemporary Middle English.

The Language of Literature

Continuous written records of Older Scots begin in 1375-6 with John Barbour’s great poem The Bruce, an account of the exploits of the heroes Robert Bruce and James Douglas in the Wars of Independence. Gradually an ever-wider range of genres was written in Scots, so that, by the second half of the fifteenth century, Older Scots became the principal language of literature and of record for the Scottish nation, having successfully competed in this latter function with Latin. As in the polity south of the border, where the Celtic languages Welsh and Cornish became geographically restricted, so Gaelic was recessive in the north and west of Scotland, and – as already flagged — in Galloway in the south-west. Hence by the later fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries there were two prestigious vernacular languages emerging in the island of Britain: metropolitan Tudor English in the kingdom of England, and metropolitan Older Scots in the kingdom of Scotland.

The name ‘Scots’

Initially, few people who spoke and wrote Scots seem to have had any strong feeling for a linguistic identity distinct from English. Not until 1494 did Scottish writers begin to apply the name Scots to their own tongue. Before that the language was always called Inglis (i.e. English), as no doubt befitted a variety which shared with the English of England a common Old English/Anglo-Saxon origin. And even after 1494 — and indeed until the end of the Older Scots period — both names continued in use, with no obvious predominance of either. However, from early in the sixteenth century there are occasional hints that, even though Scots was now the preferred vernacular of at least Lowland Scotland, it was felt to be somewhat less elegant than literary English.

Smith, Jeremy. (2017) Scots: an outline history. Online