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History of the Scots Language

Scots has been spoken in Scotland for many centuries and is spoken today throughout the east and south of the country - the historic Lowlands - and also in Orkney and Shetland which form the Northern Isles. Scots is a branch of the Germanic family of languages which includes Dutch, English and Frisian.

Scots originated with the tongue of the Angles who arrived in Scotland about AD 600, or 1,400 years ago. During the Middle Ages this language developed and grew apart from its sister tongue in England, until a distinct Scots language had evolved.  At one time Scots was the dominant language of Scotland, spoken by Scottish kings and queens, and was used to write both literary works and official records.

Scots comprises four main dialects which are subdivided into a total of ten sub dialects. Literature in the various dialects began to appear from the 17th and 18th centuries. John Jamieson’s Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (1808) was the first to systematically catalogue the language. In addition, Scots speakers also settled parts of Ulster, Ireland during the 16th and 17th centuries establishing a dialect known today as Ulster Scots.

From the evidence of the hearth and poll taxes of the 1690's it may be estimated that there were then around 750,000 speakers of Scots who counted for about 70% of the Scottish population. The 2011 Scottish census returned 1.5 million speakers of Scots within Scotland making up some 30% of the Scottish population of 5.4 million.

An audio file of this article is available below in Scots.

  • History of the Scots Language