Historic Languages of Scotland
During Roman times two main languages were documented in Scotland. In the south the
language was British, probably close to Welsh. In the north Pictish was
spoken, which appears related to continental Gaulish, possibly brought by refugees of
early Roman expansion.
The 5–6th C. saw the arrival of the more ancient Scottish Gaelic from Ireland to the West of Scotland. Gaelic has a long and rich literary history. From the 5–12th centuries Gaelic gradually became the national language spoken throughout almost all of Scotland. However, at the end of this period, its use started to decline and it is now restricted to parts of the Highlands and the Outer Hebrides
The 7–8th C. saw the influx of Germanic Angles who brought Anglian, ancestor of modern Scots, into the southeast. In the 9th C. Scandinavians speaking Norn (a form of Old Norse) settled in the Orkney and Shetland Islands and Caithness. At this time all five languages must have been in use. Norn’s use diminished from the 15th C. and eventually died out – possibly some time around the 18th C.
After Scots King Kenneth gained the throne in 843, Pictish culture and language didn’t last long. British disappeared as Strathclyde was united with Scotland. Around 1000 AD, Gaelic was the language of all Scotland except in the fringes where Norn or Anglian were used.
Malcolm III (1031–93) spent time in Northumbria. When he came to the throne, he and his Anglo-Saxon Queen, Margaret, replaced Gaelic with English as the court language. When the Normans invaded and captured England in 1066, Scotland became a haven for Anglo-Saxon nobles. Anglisation of the Scottish “ruling classes” had begun.
David I (1124–53) established a feudal system and invited a small number of Norman families to administer various sections of his kingdom. With these Normans came larger numbers of Northern English servants spreading their northern Anglian tongue further. Royal Burghs (cities) were created and to these many more English craftsmen flocked. The influence of English monks also increased. The 800-year decline of the Gaelic language among the populace began.
Scots (evolving from Anglian) soon became the language of the Lowlands while Gaelic became that of the Highlands. Literature in Scots dates from the late 14th C. The 15–16th C. saw the height of Scots as National language in both usage and literature. Scots borrowed many words from Old French, Dutch and German through trading links at this time.
Formal English, with its roots in southern England, made its first inroads into Scotland with the mid-16th C. religious Reformation, when English Bibles were introduced into the new Protestant Church. From this beginning, English eventually replaced Scots as the written language. The Union of the Crowns (1603) and Parliaments (1707) further accelerated this rift, whereby Scots speak Scots, but write English.
Gaelic in 17th C. Galloway and then Norn in the 18th C. Northern Isles were replaced by this spoken Scots/written English culture.
English is currently Scotland’s first language, a tongue it shares with the world.
However, the English spoken in Scotland is unique, and very different from other
Englishes. The English language in Scotland has been permeated by the influence of Scots.
The English used in Scotland could be said to exist in a continuum from a dialect influenced by Scots vocabulary and grammatical usage, to more or less standard English, but spoken with an identifiably Scottish accent. There is no such thing as a ‘correct’ Scottish way of speaking or spelling. “Scottish” speech and writing are not taught in Scottish schools.
On the one hand, most modern Scots have the desire and instinct to use at least some Scottish vocabulary and grammar. Most native Scots retain a distinct accent, but they differ widely from region to region. The amount of dialect, vocabulary and grammar used also varies according to upbringing.
Some Scottish words and expressions are used and understood across virtually the whole country. Among them are:
Other phrases, though using internationally recognisable English words, reveal their
Scottishness not just by accent but by grammar. Scots, for example, will say ‘Are you
not going?’ or ‘Are you no going?’ rather than ‘Aren’t you going?’
And ‘I’m away to my bed’ often replaces ‘I’m going to bed.’
Beyond these everyday words and expressions, every Scot has his or her “extra” Scottish vocabulary. In its heyday, the Scots tongue produced enough unique words to fill several dictionaries. Scottish writers can find words with no equivalents in standard English and the speech of many older Scottish people is sprinkled with a selection of Scots expressions.
A rich variety of dialect words and phrases survives in the regions. Hearing the Scots speak in their particular local accents and lingo is one of the pleasures of travelling in Scotland.
Throughout the Highlands, most road signs are shown with a Gaelic translation following
the English. An exception to this is in Eilean Siar, the Western Isles, where the English
translation follows the Gaelic.
In the 21st C. all Scots can speak, read and write English. Around 3.5 million can understand pure Scots but many do not use it as their first language. Most use a mix of Scots and English in daily speech. About 70,000 understand Gaelic but it is now a first language only in the Western Isles of about 30,000 speakers.
The Scots tongue, like many other aspects of Scottish national life, has been a topic of debate since the use and status of languages is controversial and political: is Scots a language in its own right or a dialect of English?