A Little Doric History

Turra Coo

During the 18th century, Ancient Greek and Roman culture (often called Classical Culture) was much admired by the educated and upper classes who attempted to copy certain aspects. This movement is reflected in, for example, the architecture of grand country and public buildings which included Greek columns and Roman facades. In line with this thinking, and after the Union of 1707 - which joined England and Scotland into a single state of Great Britain – the Scots language was reclassified. Until the 18th century it was commonly taken for granted that Scots was a language. Now, if Scotland was no longer a kingdom but a ‘province’ of the UK, then Scots was downgraded too as ‘provincial dialect’. Because Scots was demoted from ‘national’ to ‘provincial’ status, people became focussed on their local dialects and so alternative and regional names began to emerge. It was a process of fragmentation. Slowly people forgot that Scots had had a single, national identity. Perhaps the most outstanding alternative name to emerge was ‘Doric’. The first Scot to apply the name Doric – as an alternative name for the Scots language in general – was the poet Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), writing in 1721.

Scots was now compared with the ‘Doric’ speech of ancient Greece, spoken in Doria, and associated with the country and peasantry, while English, now the formal language of Britain, became associated with Attic, the ancient Greek language of the city states. When Ramsay described Scots as Doric he meant that it was associated with the countryside, peasantry and working class: it was therefore another way of saying rural or rustic language. Ramsay used the term with affection, and it was often understood to mean simple, ‘pure’, plain-speaking, but people coming after him often used it in derogatory or dismissive senses such as conservative or unsophisticated. And the name was not confined to Scotland: some writers in England also called the speech of the peasantry in England Doric too. Doric was first used to describe the dialect of North East Scots in 1792 when it was used by the Banffshire-born academic named Alexander Geddes. However, not one of the ministers describing the language of North East parishes in the Old and New Statistical Accounts, in the 1790’s and 1830’s, used the term Doric, but preferred names such as Scotch, Scots, Buchan or Aberdeenshire, etc. But in the usage of Scotland, the name Doric was not confined to any single dialect but came to be employed as an alternative name for the Scots language generally, whether from Aberdeen to Ayr or Dunbar to Dumbarton. But specifically, it was most often used to describe rural speech.

In contrast to regions such as Lanarkshire, where change driven by industrialisation was significant, the counties of Kincardine, Aberdeen, Banff and Moray remained very rural and so retained a strong sense of continuity, tradition and, perhaps, conservatism.  For this reason the term Doric had even more relevance than, say, a county like Lanark. Gradually, during the 20th century, the use of the name Doric fell out of use in many places that experienced strong industrial growth and Anglicisation. More recently the name has taken on new life in the North East where its use has been increasingly preferred to Scots as a way of highlighting the very distinct features of the dialect spoken in the region. And, because Doric was closely associated with rural speech, it has been used by North East organisations to give a name to the way of life in the region. Though farming and fishing, of course, are not peculiar to the North East alone.