Bible in Scots

Lorimer 1983

In Scotland prior to the Reformation Parliament of 1560, mass and other church services were usually conducted in Latin. The Bible was also written in Latin and any talk of hearing services, or translating texts into the vernacular languages was, regarded as heresy by the Catholic Church, particularly after Martin Luther’s attack on the papacy from 1517. To be sure, there were popular preaching friars and others who preached in the vernacular and some scholars who had translated portions of scripture but there were no Bibles in Scots. None, that is, until Murdoch Nisbet in Ayrshire who translated the New Testament, and parts of the Old Testament, into his vernacular in the 1520’s or early 1530’s. Nisbet was translating not from the original Greek or Latin but from an English version originally made by John Wycliff in the 14th century and revised by Purvey in the 1520’s. Nisbet’s Bible is therefore invaluable in showing what were considered to be the differences between English and Scots at that period. Take, for example, the following passage: (Purvey) And he gaderide to gidre alle the prynces of prestis, and scribis of the puple, and enqueride of hem, where Crist shulde be borun. And thei seiden to hym, In Bethleem of Juda…Thanne Eroude clepide pryueli the astromyens, and lernyde bisili of hem the tyme of the sterre that apperide to hem. And he sente hem in to Bethleem, and seide, Go ye, and axe ye bisili of the child, and whanne yee han foundun, teel ye it to me, that Y also come, and worschipe hym. (Nisbet) And he gaderit togiddir al the princes of prestis and scribis of the pepile, and inquirit of thame quhar Crist suld be born. And thai said to him, In Bethlem of Juda…Than Erode callit priuelie the astronomyers, and leirit besilie of thame the tyme of the stern that apperit to thame. And he send thame into Bethelem, and said, Ga ye and ask ye besilie of the child: and quhen ye haue fundin, tel ye to me, that alsa I cum and wirschip him. For Nisbet, using shared Greek and Latin words, it was possible to closely follow the English version and, in many cases, make a minimum of changes. For example, he felt no need to change ‘enquire’ or ‘appear’ to ‘speir’ or ‘kythe’ because these words were also used in high register writing in Scots, though ‘speir’ and ‘kythe’ may have been more familiar to the common people. Also we see forms such as ‘child’ (pronounced cheeld) also used in Scots along with bairn at this period. The Scottish parliament briefly enacted in 1543 that it was permissible to own a Bible in Scots or English, but this was revoked soon after, and it was not until 1560 when Scotland became Calvinist that a vernacular Bible became legal. The new Scottish Church adopted the English Geneva Bible because it was the only full translation available that was ideologically acceptable and that was in a language close enough to the vernacular. Nisbet’s Bible would probably not have been acceptable to Calvinists and so remained unknown outside his family. In 1579 the Scottish parliament enacted that every substantial householder should own a Bible in the vernacular and the English Bible, with a preface in Scots, was printed again. When the General Assemby of the Church of Scotland met at Burntisland in 1601 there was some discussion regarding a new version of the Bible being produced in the vernacular of Lowland Scotland, but this came to nothing because King James VI succeeded to the throne of England in 1603. After that date, James was keen to bring about conformity in culture, language and religion among his kingdoms, based on the culture of England, and so he produced the King James Bible, in English, instead. This is not to say, of course, that Scottish sermons and preaching were in English from 1560. Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that Scottish Presbyterian ministers commonly preached in Scots well into the 18th century, and, in some cases, into the 19th century. They did so because it was the language most readily understood by the average Scottish congregation. From the mid-16th century a number of religious tracts, forms of prayers, and sermons, circulated in Scots both in manuscript and printed form. One of the most popular was the Pockmanty Sermon preached by the Reverand Row in 1638 and which was still being printed in the 18th century, though by the latter date ministers were having their sermons ‘Englished’ for wider publication. It was usual throughout this period for Scottish ministers to paraphrase the English Bible into Scots as they read to the congregation, pronouncing it as Scots and making changes in vocabulary when necessary. Once they had finished the text they preached in a robust vernacular. In 1615 one Englishman described a sermon in Orkney in which the minister began to “speake in plaine Scots words” while another visitor in 1705 described a sermon in Edinburgh in which the minister “made such a prodigious noise in broad Scotch.” In the early 19th century the celebrated Dr Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847), first principal of the Free Church College, was described as preaching in Scots in Glasgow and as late as the early 1900’s the Reverand D Gibb Mitchell of Cramond produced two volumes of sermons he had preached in Scots to his congregation. In his 1917 collection he declared “I’ve a bonnie Kirk in my Clachan here, and on Sabbath my folk gaither round me for the breid o’ life. I whiles win at them throwe the auld Scots tongue. The hamely words gang far in, and I see tears fa’ an’ faces smile. Mony a han’ grips mine at the skailin, an’ buirdly men thank me wi’ trem’lin voice.” There were occasional complaints about the drawbacks of using English texts. In the 1630’s the Church of Scotland wrote to Charles I about his new Prayer Book and objected to many of the terms which were unknown to the common people and in 1703 the Reverend James Kirkwood commented “Does not everybody know that in our English Bibles there are several hundred words and phrases not vulgarly used nor understood by a great many in Scotland who have no other Translation.” However, because Scottish ministers paraphrased texts, and because of the drive towards Anglo-Scottish political union, the idea of a Scottish Bible did not seem a pressing issue. Indeed, by the 1750’s the so-called Moderate Party had arisen to dominance within the Scottish Church and the Moderates chose to preach in English. Certainly by 1800 the idea of a Scots Bible would have seemed irrelevant to the upper classes. Despite the divorce of the upper classes from the Scots language, academics and others continued to take an interest in Scots translations. For example, Prince Louis Bonaparte (died 1891), nephew of the former French Emperor, was a keen linguist and commissioned translations of parts of the Bible in various languages, including Scots, during the 1850’s and 1860’s. However, the translations were made from English and not Greek, and the translators, largely literary writers, often chose to retain many non-Scottish features. Take, for example, George Henderson who translated Matthew in 1862: (King James Bible) Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child: and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. (Henderson) Syne Herod, whan he had hiddlinsly ca’d the wise men, speir’t at them eydently what time the star kythet. An’ he sendet them til Bethlehem: an’ said, Gang an’ seek eydently for the young bairn: an’ whan ye hae fund him, bring me back word, that I may come an’ worship him alsua. After the time of these translations came Peter Hately Waddell (1817-1891), a native of Stirlingshire, who took quite a new and distinct approach to providing Scots religious translations. Waddell believed in getting back to the Germanic roots of the language and often rooted out Greek, Latin and other words and replaced them with Germanic compounds. He also made his translations straight from Hebrew. By this approach he produced, firstly, ‘The Psalms: Frae Hebrew Intil Scottis’ (1871), and then ‘Isaiah’ (1879). Here is Waddell’s translation of the 23 Psalm. Evidently spellings such as head and dead were intended to be pronounced as ‘heid’ and ‘deid’: The Lord is my herd, nae want sal fa’ me. He louts me till lie amang green howes; he airts me atowre by the lown watirs: He waukens my wa’-gaen saul; he weises me roun, for his ain name’s sake, intil right roddins. Na! tho’ I gang thro’ the dead-mirk-dail; e’en thar, sal I dread nae skaithin: for yersel are nar-by me; yer stok an’ yer stay haud me baith fu’cheerie. My buird ye hae handsell’d in face o’ my faes; ye hae drookit my haed wi’ oyle; my bicker is fu’ an’ skailin. E’en sae, sal gude-guidin an’ gude-gree gang wi’ me, ilk day o’ my livin; an’ evir mair syne, i’ the LORD’S ain howff, at lang last, sal I mak bydan. The whole of the New Testament was finally translated into Scots by William Wye Smith, a native of Jedburgh who spent most of his life in America, and published in as the ‘New Testament in Braid Scots’ at Paisley in 1901. In his preface he declared “…the Scots tongue is no gettin extendit and some folk think it may be tint a’thegither ‘or lang…Lat nae man think it is a vulgar tongue – a mere gibberish to be dune wi’ as sune as ane is by the schule-time. It is an ancient and hounorable tongue: wi’ rutes deep i’ the yird: aulder than muckle o’ the English.” However, like many before him, he made his translation from English. Here is his translation of Matthew: Than, Herod, convening the Wyss Men privately, faund oot mair strickly o’ the comin’ o the starn; And bad them gang to Bethlehem: and qo’ he, “Gang, and seek ye oot the wee bairn: and whan ye ken, fesh me word gain, that I as weel may come and worship. It was, however, William Laughton Lorimer (1885-1967), a native of Angus, and celebrated scholar of the classical languages, who finally translated the New Testament from the original Greek (and other sources) into Scots during the 1950’s and 1960’s. His son completed revisions and it was finally published in 1983 when it became an instant success. It has since also found its way onto audio cassette and CD. It has justly been recognised as one of the great works of literature in Scots in the modern era. Lorimer was able to take the original Greek and write equivalent Scots idioms, reflecting changes in regional speech and differences in formal and informal speech to be found in original texts. In translating the New Testament, William Lorimer hoped that it would help to encourage interest and support for the language once again, as well as pointing the way towards establishing a high-register standard form necessary for public use. Here is Lorimer’s version of our Matthew text: Herod than caa’d the spaemen til him in hidlins, an whan he hed lairnt frae them the day an hour o the stairn’s kythin, he sent them awà tae Bethlehem, biddin them gang their waas an seek out aa the speirins they coud win at anent the bairn: ‘”An whan ye hae fund him,” qo he, “bring me back wurd, sae at I may gae an wurship him mysel.” Since the appearance of the Lorimer translation a number of other religious texts have also come into print and Scots has, occasionally, formed part of church services in Scotland, particularly at Christmas time. Inspired by Lorimer, Jamie Stuart produced ‘A Scots Gospel’, ‘The Glasgow Gospel’ and ‘Auld Testamemt Tales’ during the 1980’s and 1990’s.