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What is Scots?


Scots is the indigenous language of Lowland Scotland. It is descended from Old English, which first reached the south of Scotland in the seventh century. However, the Celtic language, Gaelic, which came to Scotland from Ireland in the fifth century, remained dominant until after the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. At that point, the Scottish kings saw the advantages of the Feudal System and they granted lands to Anglo-Norman barons. From then, there was an influx of immigrants into Scotland as the barons brought their Northern English retainers, whose language had been greatly influenced by borrowing from the Danish Vikings. This left Scots with Old Scandinavian words like reek (smoke) and brae (hill). We also have French words, from the barons and French monks, and from the long period of friendship between Scotland and France known as the Auld Alliance. So we have jalouse (guess) and douce (gentle).

Flemish speakers came to work and trade in Scotland and gave us words like pinkie (little finger). Gaelic was, and still is, spoken in the North and West of Scotland and so it is not surprising that a few Gaelic words found their way into Scots as well, like glen (valley). We borrowed many Latin words, particularly in the field of education, religion and law, words like dux (top pupil in the school) and sederunt (the people attending a meeting).

The language of Scotland and England began to diverge during the Wars of Independence in the days of Wallace and Bruce. The North of England looked to the southern English court for its cultural lead and the Scottish court in Edinburgh was the centre of patronage in Scotland. So Scots became a separate language from English.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Scottish court poets like William Dunbar and Robert Henryson were producing work written in Scots that was appreciated throughout Europe. However, on the death of Elizabeth I of England, in 1603, King James VI of Scotland inherited the English throne and took on the additional title of King James I of England. He then took up permanent residence in London and increasingly used English as his medium of communication. When the parliaments united in 1707 English replaced Scots as the language of education, church and state.

Even so, Scots remained the language of the people, and poets like Burns, writing in the eighteenth century, rekindled the creative flame. Today we have many excellent poets and authors writing in Scots and the language is reclaiming its rightful place in the culture of Scotland.