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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

A History of Writing in Scots

The Northumbrian Anglo-Saxon poem the ‘Dream of the Rood’ – which is carved on the Ruthwell Cross in Dumfriesshire, and dates to c.750 - along with some writings in the Lindisfarne Gospels (from c.900) may be justly accounted the earliest writings in the northern language which evolved into Scots, and therefore constitute a historical continuum with the Scots language. Early Scottish society appears to have been largely oral in nature, with everyday business, history and tales alike being committed to memory. The single exception was biblical scholarship conducted by monks writing in Latin in monasteries. The Normans introduced the written charter to Scotland around 1100 and a school of scribes – who can be traced to Yorkshire – began to establish rules of writing at the end of the 12th century. This writing, together with the earlier Anglos-Saxon tradition, led to the birth of literature in Scots, probably around 1300, though virtually nothing has now survived prior to the late 14th century. The earliest poem in the Scots language that has survived in written form is a short lyric on the death of Alexander III (ruled 1249-1286), which appears in ‘The Original Chronicle’ of Andrew Wyntoun, finished in about 1420. The poem itself may be dated to around 1300:

“Qwhen Alexander our kynge was dede, That Scotland lede in lauch and le, Away was sons of alle and brede, Off wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle. Our golde was changit into lede. Crist, borne into virgynyte, Succoure Scotland and ramede, That is stade in perplexitie.”

Before then, like many European language communities, Scots speakers had used Latin for official and literary purposes. But between the 14th and 16th centuries there was a great flowering of literature in the vernacular. The first Scots poem of any length is ‘The Brus’ written by John Barbour about 1375. Barbour studied at the University of Paris before becoming Archdeacon o Aiberdeen and was a popular literary figure at the court of Robert II (ruled 1371-1390). ‘The Brus’ is a long romance, in twenty books of rhyming couplets, about King Robert I's campaigns (during 1306-1329) in the 14th century Wars of Independence. Barbour’s poem was followed by ‘The Kingis Quair’ ('The King's Book'), another long poem, attributed to James I in the 1420s, which mixes allegory, romance, and the king's biography .

It was in the reigns of James III (ruled 1460-1488) and James IV (ruled 1488-1513), that writing in the Scots language came into its own. The vernacular poets of this period are to this day known as the medieval 'makars', after William Dunbar's danse macabre, the 'Lament for the Makaris', in that he gives us a sense of the great literary culture that existed in lowland Scotland at the time:

“I se that makaris amang the laif Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif; Sparit is nought ther faculte: Timor mortis conturbat me. He has Blind Hary and Sandy Traill Slane with his schour of mortal haill Quhilk Patrik Johnestoun might nought fle: Timor mortis conturbat me. In Dunfermelyne he has done roune With Maister Robert Henrisoun; Schir Johne the Ros embrast has he: Timor mortis conturbat me.”

Dunbar is a virtuosic poet with an impressive range. His poems vary from elaborate religious hymns, decorated with Latin-derived vocabulary, to scurrilous bawdy verse, the famous 'Flying of Dunbar and Kennedy', in which the two makars compete in a battle of insults, and surprisingly modern, confessional poems, giving us a rare glimpse of the inner life of a courtier, one that is not above complaining about his poor pay and empty purse.

Dunbar's 'Lament for the Makaris' refers to Walter Kennedy, his opponent in the famous 'Flyting', and Blind Harry, who's poem ‘The Wallace’ provides the basis for later accounts of William Wallace's life. Afterwards he refers to Robert Henryson, the Dunfermline school master and poet, remembered today for ‘The Testament of Cresseid’, which picks up where Chaucer's ‘Troilus and Cressida’ leaves off, and for his ‘Morall Fabillis’, a group of tales based on the tradition of Aesop and Renard, which combines humour and pathos with the religious and philosophical questions about God's relationship to a world in which people suffer. To Dunbar and Henryson's names we should add that of Gavin Douglas, whose ‘Eneados’, a translation of Virgil written in 'the langage of Scottis natioun', is one of the major literary achievements of the Middle Scots period.

King James VI (ruled 1567-1625) was a makar too, writing an essay on literary theory called 'The Reulis and Cautellis', which laid down the standards the young monarch expected writers to follow. After James VI o Scotland became also James I o England in 1603, the Scots language did not have the patronage of the royal court to support its makars. The attitude of James VI himself had changed. Before 1603 he emphasised the differences between English and Scots, but now, after 1603, he saw himself as an ‘imperial’ ruler over a British empire. James sought the cultural, linguistic and political union of his kingdoms and, though he was unsuccessful in the short-term, he set in motion a trend towards the Anglicisation of Scottish society. As a result, 17th century Scotland witnessed a decline in literary activity in Scots as poets such as William Drummond of Hawthornden preferred writing in English. This was encouraged by the physical presence of the royal court in England and by the bigger, more lucrative publishing market to be found in England. All classes continued to speak Scots, and to write in manuscript form, but, for publication, Scots writers now had their texts ‘Englished’.

However, in the 18th century, a group of poets began to make the most of an increasingly bilingual literary situation. They also reacted, in part, against the Treaty of Union which took place in 1707: Scotland was joined with England to form the new state of Great Britain and so Scotland lost her independence. Poets now combined the influence o Augustan English poetry with a knowledge of Scots songs and tales and a reading o the older Scots poets in what became known as a Vernacular Revival in Scots verse. The work o these poets, particularly that of Alan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns, demonstrated that Scots could be used to create a literature that was both popular and poetic, - and expressive of national identity -producing fine poems that were, and continue to be, widely read. While Fergusson did not see success in his lifetime, Robert Burns, who called Fergusson 'my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in the muse', achieved fame among the Edinburgh literati of his day and went on to become Scotland's best known writer. To this day his poems and songs are read and sung the world over, making Burns the Scots language's most recognised voice.

The 18th century saw great advances in Scots poetry, and in the next hundred years it was the turn of novelists to make an impact. Like the poets o the 18th century, the 19th century prose writers used both English and Scots in their work. More often than not, English would be the language of the main narrative, while Scots appeared in the mouths of Scots-speaking characters, and as the language of set-piece episodes told by a character within a novel, as well as being the language of many excellent short stories. 'Wanderin' Willie's Tale', in Walter Scott's novel ‘Redgauntlet’, is a great example of this. James Hogg, 'The Etrick Shepherd', like Scott a poet with an interest in the songs and traditions of the Borders, used the language to great effect in ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, maybe the greatest of all Scots novels, which is often thought of as the first proper psychological novel too. As well as Scott and Hogg, writers like John Galt and Robert Louis Stevenson used Scots in their fictional work as well, using the close relationship between the Scots and English languages to bring Scots writing to an international audience.

The 20th century saw a radical renaissance in Scots poetry pioneered by Hugh MacDiarmid, the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve. In ‘The Scottish Chapbook’, Grieve insisted both on innovation ('Not traditions, precedents!') and upon a reassessment of earlier Scots verse ('Not Burns, Dunbar'). His first lyrics in Scots appeared in 1922, the same year as James Joyce's ‘Ulysses’ and T.S. ‘Eliott's The Waste Land’, and MacDiarmid shared the modernist ambitions of his better known Irish and English contemporaries. MacDiarmid's poetry insisted that Scots could be used to write modern, European verse, without the sentimentalism that he saw in many of Burns' imitators. To do this, though, he had to expand the resources of the language. Instead of sticking to his own Border dialect, MacDiarmid used words from across the different regions, combing through dictionaries, and in particular John Jamieson's ‘Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language’, in search of words and expressions that would suit his purpose. The results were remarkable, and by 1927 MacDiarmid had published two books o lyrics, ‘Sangschaw’, ‘Penny Wheep’ and the long poem ‘A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle’. MacDiarmid was followed in poetry by William Soutar and Douglas Young, and in prose by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, whose trilogy ‘A Scots Quair’ uses a Scots narrative voice made possible by the work of other modernists like Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

In the second half of the 20th century Scots writing continued to develop, although not necessarily along the lines that MacDiarmid intended. The Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch re-opened links to the 18th century that MacDiarmid had devalued, looking back in particular to the work of Robert Fergusson. Garioch did more than any other Scots poet in the 20th century to develop a form of Scots that was not tied to any particular locality, and to a far greater extent than MacDiarmid, provided models that future Scots writers could follow if they chose to. At the same time Edwin Morgan was busy translating the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky into Scots, bringing Scots modernism into a positive engagement with city life and, in particular, with Glasgow. Another Glasgow poet, Tom Leonard, used the speech of that city, represented almost phonetically, as the basis for his 'Six Glasgow Poems'. The spirit of Leonard's poetry could be seen in the fiction of Edinburgh writer Irvine Welsh, whose novel ‘Trainspotting’ uses the language of Edinburgh and the port of Leith to give each narrator their own voice.

At the start of the 21st century, Scots continues to thrive as a language for writing, as well as being the usual speech of people in communities across Scotland, from Shetland to Shettleston, from the Grampians to Galloway. With more Scots being used in schools and in the media, and writers continuing to write in Scots, sometimes alongside their work in English or other languages, there seems no doubt that people will be able to read Scots, in all its diverse forms, for many, many years to come.