How Scots became a royal language
Read here how Scots became a royal language, how it developed, and how, ultimately, it was abandoned by the ruling family. In this feature we look at the early period down to 1437. On the menu at the left read all about Scots in the period 1437-1542 in 'Courtly conversation' and for the years 1542-1649 see 'How our royal language was lost'.
It is a problematic matter trying to identify which languages the kings and queens of Scotland spoke, particularly before the end of the 14th century. This is because of the paucity of evidence and we often have to rely on the observations and casual remarks of foreign visitors. It has often been assumed that all of Scotland’s rulers down to at least the 14th century spoke Gaelic, but the evidence for this is often circumstantial. In the following account we will try and identify which kings and queens spoke and wrote Scots.
Turgot, writer of the Life of Saint Margaret, reported that she had her language translated by her husband, Malcolm III (reigned 1058-1093) to his courtiers in the 11th century. This certainly implies that Malcolm could speak Anglo-Saxon in addition to Gaelic. However, perhaps the earliest explicit reference to the language of Scotland’s royal family comes from the Barnwell Chronicle (an English source) of the mid-13th century which claimed that the ‘recent’ kings of Scotland had become French in language and culture. Considering the cultural influences, and marriages alliances, at that period, it is probable that all rulers between David I (1124-1153) and David II (1329-1371) were able to speak French but whether they all did so as a mother tongue, and whether the Scottish court largely operated through that tongue, must be doubted. Kings, queens and nobles, at least in this earlier period, rarely wrote documents themselves either because they had little time (and left such work to clerks) or because they were unable to read or write themselves. Instead, aristocrats fixed their seals to confirm documents as valid. It is therefore a misnomer to speak of people ‘signing’ documents, something which was uncommon before the 16th century. Instead, clerks and notaries drew up documents, read them to the parties concerned (translating from Latin when necessary), and the parties agreed and fixed their seals. However, the fact that certain documents were now being written in Scots is good evidence for the use of the language among those who had caused the documents to be drawn up.
The first ruler for whom we have evidence of Scots speaking is ROBERT II 1316-1390 (reigned 1371-1390) who was the first of the Stewarts. Robert was the patron of John Barbour (died 1395) who wrote the epic ‘The Brus’ which celebrated the deeds of King Robert The Bruce, grandfather of Robert II. Barbour was employed at court by 1373 when he was a auditor of the exchequer and was in receipt of a royal pension from 1378 for his work on ‘The Brus’. ‘The Brus’ was probably begun soon after 1371 and completed in the mid-1370’s and was a major literary achievement of the Scottish royal court. It is very favourable towards the king’s father Sir Walter the Stewart. Barbour declared his intent to record the great deeds so they would not be forgotten:
Tharfor I wald fayne set my will
Giff my wyt mycht suffice thartill
To put in wryt a suthfast story
That is lest ay furth in memory
Swa that na tyme of lenth it let
Na ger it haly be foryet.
Clearly Robert II must have been a Scots speaker in order to appreciate the literary works he had commissioned. Scots had also become an acceptable, if not desirable, language at the royal court and under Robert II administrative and legal documents began to be written in Scots too. Indeed, Robert’s second son, Robert earl of Fife, appears to have been a prime mover in the use of Scots. Robert became Lord High Chamberlain of Scotland in 1382 and, in 1398, was created duke of Albany. Between 1388 and 1420 he was the effective ruler of Scotland, first as lieutenant of the realm, and then as governor. As early as 1381 he agreed an indenture in Scots with the earl of Lennox for the marriage of their children, but he also issued government documents in the language too. Take, for example, the precept he issued as Chamberlain to the customars of Edinburgh, Haddington and Dunbar in May 1389:
Robert Erle of Ffyf & of Menteth Wardeane & Chambirlayn of Scotland to the Customers of the Grete Custume of the Borows of Edynburgh hadyntoun and Dunbarr greting ffor qwhy that of gude memore Dauid kyng qwhilom of Scotland that god assoillie wt his charter vndre his grete sele has gyvin to the Religiouss men the Abbot & the Conuent of Meuros & to thair successours for euer mare frely all the Custume of all thair wollys as wele of thair awin growing as of thair tendys of thair kyrkes as it appeiris be the forsaid Chartir confermyt be our mast souereigne & doubtit Lorde & fadre our lorde the kyng of Scotland Robert that now ys with his grete Sele To yow ioyntly & seuerailly be the tenour of this letter fermely We bid & comandes that the forsaid wollys at your Portis thir lettres sene the qwilk lettres yhe delyue to thaim again yhe suffer to be shippit & frely to pass wtoutyn ony asking or takyng of Custume or ony obstacle or letting in ony point eftir as the tenour of the forsaides chartir & confirmacioun plenly askis & purportis In wytness here of to this letter We haue put our Sele at Edynburgh the xxvj day of maij the yhere of god mill ccc iiijxx and nyne.
Robert duke of Albany is also to be found granting various other documents in Scots including contracts with other nobles and business with the burghs. In 1417 he addressed a letter in Scots from the general council of the kingdom itself to the sheriff of Kincardine and his bailies.
ROBERT III c.1337-1406, reigned 1390-1406
Under Robert III many more documents were written in Scots and some began to be issued in the king’s name. The earliest surviving document made in Scots by a Scottish king was the marriage contract between one of his daughters and George Douglas, son of the countess of Marr, issued in May 1397. The contract declares that George:
“…sall led into wife a dochtyr of over lorde the kyngys; and over lord the kyng sall gif hym, for his mariage, all the landys at the sayde Jorge has in Angus…Alswa over lord the kyng oblis hym lely that he sall nocht resayve na resignasyovnys made be that ilke dame Izabell of na landys, rentys na possessyovyns, to na mannys profyte, na na confyrmasyovne gif thair apoun, bot anerly to the oyis and the profyte of the forsayde Jorge…”
By this point in time Scots had become acceptable for the formal business of the royal family. It was also under Robert III that the first documents in Scots were issued by either general councils of the realm or parliaments, though Robert himself, it must be said, had little influence on political proceedings.
JAMES I 1394-1437, reigned 1406-1437
James I was captured at sea and held a hostage by the English until 1424. His uncle, Robert duke of Albany, ruled as governor of the kingdom and was followed by his son Murdoch in that office. The earliest surviving letter issued by King James I, under his own hand, was written 30 November 1412 from “Croidoune” (Croydon in England) and reads as follows:
“Jamis, throu the grace of God Kynge, of Scottis, Til all that this Lettre heris or seis, sendis gretynge: Wit ze that we haue grauntit, and be this presentis Lettres grauntis, a speciall confirmaciun in the mast forme, til oure traiste and wele belofit Cosyng, Schir William of Douglas of Drumlangrig, of all the landis that he is possessit and chartrit of within the kyngdome of Scotlande; that is for to say, the landis of Drumlangrig, of Hawyke and of Selkirke, the whilkis chartris and possiouns be this letter we conferme, and wil for the mare sekernes this oure confirmacioune be formabilli efter the fourme and our chanussellare, and the tenor of his chartris, selit with oure grete sele, in tyme to come; In witnes of the whilkis, this presentis Lettres we wrate with our proper hande, vnde the signet vsit in selyng of oure lettres, as now at Croidoune, the last dai of Nouember, the zere of oure Lorde jmo CCCCo XIJo.”
James I was quite a cultured monarch, with an eye to many interests, and the poem ‘The Kingis Quhair’ (book) is attributed to him. The internal details correspond with the facts of James’s life in England. The earliest surviving manuscript is late 15th century and is held at Oxford. The manuscript contains many ‘gh’ spellings (rather than the more usual ‘ch’) and forms such as ‘more’ rather than ‘mare’ so it may be a somewhat different copy to that originally written by the king. The author of the poem describes seeing and being attracted to a woman who is presumed to be Joan Beaufort, future queen of James I:
“And therwith kest I doun myn eye ageyne
Quhare as I saw, walking under the tour,
Full secretly new cummyn hir to pleyne,
The fairest or the freschest yong floure
That ever I sawe, me thoght, before that houre;
For quhich sodayn abate anon astert
The blude of all my body to me hert.”
James returned to Scotland after being ransomed in 1424. There were many charters and other writs issued in Scots in this period in the name of James, and, although he clearly could not have written most of them, the evidence is good that Scots was his first language. It was also James who insisted, for the first time, that the enactments of the parliaments of Scotland should be published and narrated in Scots for the benefit of the population so that no one could pretend ignorance of the laws. His intent, at least in this case, was not to promote the language itself but its use as a medium for political business had the effect of further enhancing the status of Scots.
In the audio files below, Dr Dauvit Horsbroch reads an introduction to the history of the kingdom and also the reign of King Robert II, in the Scots language.
Scots Language Resource Centre Association Ltd. t/a Scots Language Centre, A.K. Bell Library, York Place, Perth, Scotland PH2 8EP
Registered in Scotland as an Industrial & Provident Society No. 2451R(S). Scottish Charity No. SCO21747
Scots Language in Scotland's Census 2011 | Shetland and Orcadian Scots dialect | Caithness Scots dialect | North East Doric Scots dialect | East central Scots dialects | Angus and Tayside Scots Dialect | Galloway Scots Dialect | West Central Scots Dialect | Borders Scots Dialect | Ulster Scots Dialect | Scotch language | Scots leid | Scottish Language | Ulster Scots Dialect |