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History of Scots politics

Ever since John Barbour put quill to parchment in the 1370’s, people have been debating and discussing political matters on paper through the Scots language, and long before that era, in Anglo-Saxon and Old Norse. Of course, Latin (whether directly or through French) and Greek have also helped to colour and shape our political discourse down through the centuries. Indeed, we probably wouldn’t consider a political debate as complete unless we threw in some Latin and Greek words, depending on how formal we wished to sound, and there are some words that are now so common place that we would probably be surprised to learn they were actually Latin and Greek.

The vernacular (that is, the everyday speech of the land) in Scotland was once considered as lacking status when it came to writing political tracts, and this was true of the vernacular language of England too. Written political commentary was reserved for Latin, the intellectual language (along with Greek) of most of the European countries. However, during the 14th century this began to change, not only in England and Scotland, but in other European countries. By the end of the 1300’s people in Scotland had begun to write history, draft diplomatic documents, and present petitions to government in their mother tongue. By the 1420’s King James I had also decreed that the acts of his parliament should be written in the mother tongue (though Gaelic was not included) so that the people might better understand the laws.

Although the number of people who could read and write was small, this trend established Scots as a language for political commentary and debate, a trend which really took off when the printing press arrived in the 16th century. However, the increasing dominance of the English language print market led many to have their Scots texts ‘Englished’ (as it was termed) for publication. More importantly when Scotland was joined in a political union with England in 1707, Scottish MPs then had to sit in a parliament in London and make their speeches in English so they could be understood by the English majority. Since that time people have continued to debate political matters in Scots, both in speech and writing, as, for example, in 19th century newspaper articles. But since the elite in Scotland had dislocated itself from the culture and language of the majority of Scots, it generally ignored debate in Scots (or Gaelic), either because it thought the language lacked formality and status or because it feared the distinct Scottish identity that was affirmed in using the language.

In the menu below are several articles with PDF documents which explore Scots as a language for political discussion, or crack aboot politics, down through the last few centuries. In particular there is a focus on commentary about the changeable nature of Scotland’s ongoing relationship with England, and place in Europe, topics which are at the heart of the current referendum debate.