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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Speaking of Mary


In the 16th century there were, of course, no audio recorders, devices or tablets. What we know about a person’s language comes either from first-hand accounts by those who described them, or from their own writings which give us an idea of how they may have spoken. In the case of Mary, accounts by witnesses agree that she spoke both French and Scots. Queen Mary’s father, James V, a member of the Stewart family (spelled Stuart by the French because they have no ‘w’ in their alphabet), was a speaker of Scots. He also knew some French, and perhaps a little Latin. Mary’s mother was Marie de Guise-Lorraine or Mary of Guise, and she spoke French. Mary of Guise arrived in Scotland in 1537 and afterwards learned to speak and write in her husband’s language Scots. The courtiers around little Queen Mary also spoke Scots of course and this was her first, native tongue. By the terms of the Treaty of Haddington (1548) it was agreed to send five year old Queen Mary for safety to France to escape the dangers of English invasion, and that she would be betrothed to the son and heir of the French king.

Little Queen Mary arrived in France in August 1548 and turned six in December that same year. Many years later the French writer Pierre de Bourdeille seigneur de Brantme (c.1540-1614), who wrote Les Vies des dames illustres (The Book of Illustrious Dames) included an account of Mary in which he said “...her native tongue, which in itself is very rustic, barbarous, ill-sounding, and uncouth, she spoke so gracefully, toning it in such a way, that she made it seem beautiful and agreeable in her...” In that period there was no such thing as political correctness and each culture regarded its neighbours as unsophisticated. Indeed, the French regarded not just the Scots, but the English, Dutch and others as more backward and their languages as harsh and unpolished. Undoubtedly, the longer Mary was in France, the more French exercised a modifying influence on the way she spoke Scots, or, as Brantme put it, ‘toning it in such a way’ that it sounded less ‘ill-sounding’ to French Latin ears.

King Henry II of France, it is said, urged that the little queen be afforded tuition in French and she was sent to a convent near St Germains to learn it is quickly as possible. She also received instruction in Latin. Mary lived with King Henry’s daughter Elizabeth and by 1549 Janet Stewart lady Fleming, an aunt of Mary, had been appointed her governess. Fleming was assisted by Mademoiselle de Curel who had formerly been a lady in waiting to Mary of Guise in Scotland. This meant Mary continued to have a Scots language influence close to home while also learning French. At that time there was concern about the appointment of a doctor for Mary because of the language. In a letter by Giovanni Ferrari to the bishop of Orkney, Ferrari commented that “...Lady Fleming would not be able to explain in her own language except to a Scot what the little queen’s ailments were, should such occur...” which suggests Fleming knew little French. By 1553 the Cardinal of Lorraine could write to Mary of Guise back in Scotland that King Henry II was spending extended periods chatting with Queen Mary who had become very conversant in French.In 1552 Mary had also delivered a speech in Latin, composed by herself, and given in the gallery of the Louvre before the king and queen and royal court. Brantme later commented that Mary was more at ease in French, so we must suppose that her Latin was more of an academic accomplishment than a practical tongue.   

As Mary was a reigning queen in her own right, she had her own household which saw a constant stream of Scottish courtiers coming and going between the two countries on official business. She naturally continued to converse in Scots with her own subjects. There are first-hand accounts by envoys who met Mary and who attest that she readily spoke in Scots. In August 1560 the English envoy Throckmorton was granted audience with Mary as queen of France, and with her mother-in-law Catherine de Medici, and reported back to England. Throckmorton said that he first began to address Mary who then “...requested to him in Scottish first to talk to the Queen Mother...” and that Mary, in discussing the political situation in both England and Scotland did so “...all in Scottish...”

Once Mary was back in Scotland she received a papal envoy named Father Nicholas de Douga who wrote a report of his audience with the queen in September 1562. He began by speaking to her in Latin but she found some difficulty responding in the same tongue. Douga then called in two of his colleagues of whom one was John Rivat, a Frenchman, and another Master Edmund, a Scot. Douga asked if they could interpret her answers, and Mary agreed. Douga then states that “The queen turned at once to Master Edmund as to a subject of her own, whom she had met before, and began her response in the Scottish tongue.” The religious reformer John Knox, who wrote a history of the times, had audiences with Mary at Holyrood in the 1560’s and it clear they conversed easily.

Letters, which are also evidence for the spoken language, were usually written for the queen by secretaries. Mary usually signed these, sometimes with a word or two, and occasionally a postscript in her own hand, but it is very uncommon to find whole letters in her own hand before 1568 when she was in exile.  In February 1569 an Irishman named Nicholas White, who worked as an agent of the English crown, met with Mary at Tutbury and reported back to the English minister William Cecil. In his report he observed of Mary that “...she hath...a pretty Scotch accent.”

In June 1568 Mary had been moved to Bolton castle in Yorkshire. Not long after she arrived she addressed a letter to Sir Francis Knollys, envoy of Elizabeth of England, in which Mary claimed it was her first time writing in ‘this langasg’. Mary wrote:

Mester Knoleis y heuu har sum neus from Scotland, y send zou the double off them y vreit to the quin my gud sister and pres zou to do the lyk, conforme to that y spak zester-nicht vnto zou and sut hesti ansur y refer all to zour discretion & will lip ne beter in zour gud delin for mi, nor y kan persuad zou, newli in this langasg. Excus my iuel vreitin for y neuuer vsed it afor & am hested.

Although she claimed ‘for y neuuer vsed it afor’ (for I never used it before), Mary had, in fact, been signing and adding postscripts in Scots for years. But as an exile queen, without the staff to hand, and with little time, Mary now had to write either lengthy postscripts or entire letters in her own hand. She was used to French, but had to feel her way writing in Scots. There are some interesting features, such as the use of English ‘from(e)’ rather than Scots fra(e), which was becoming a fashion among aristocratic writers of that period, probably due to the influence of the large market of printed books in English, and the Bible in particular. Nonetheless, Mary was clearly aware of the customary forms and spellings of Scots, and we can hear Mary’s spoken Scots coming through this letter in forms such as mester (master), double (copy), vreit (write), spak (spoke), zester-nicht (last night), hesti (hasty), ne (nae), lip (depend/rely/trust), and afor (before).

In another example, Mary dated a letter from Bolton on 31 August 1568 back to the earl of Argyll in Scotland. She discusses political matter back home and the earl’s apparent help for her cause. The letter has evidently been written by a Scottish secretary and is typical of the language and orthography. Mary thanked Argyll for the:

greit fervency, gud will, and forwartnes ye haif schawin in this zour last assembley. Thankis zow maist hertly thairof. Zour disasembling and staying of forder proceiding thairin, we cawsit to be for ane gud intent, considering our sisteris uryting, quhilk we send zow the copy thairof, wes be the same in hir gud promeses constrynit to staye zow.

Your richt gud sister, and asured frind, MARIE R.

Then Mary added a postscript to this letter in her own hand –

Ze schal si farder by the instructions, bot asur zour self that ze heuue dun zourself and al our frindes ne letle honour and gud in only schauin zour forduartnes and obediens to my. Y wil nocht spel tyme in wourdes, bot Y think mi so far adet to zou that Y schal think on it al my lyf.

Like the letter to Knollys, this postscript also gives us some evidence both for Mary’s spoken Scots, such as al (sounded as ‘aw’), farder (further), heuue (‘hay-v’ now hae), ne (nae), nocht (not), and her awareness of Scots writing conventions. Also, forms such as ‘zou’ and ‘our’ were pronounced with an ‘oo’. One further example from this same period provides more evidence for her language. On 28 March 1570 Mary had her secretary write a letter from Tutbury in England to the countess of Moray, whose husband, Mary’s half brother James Stewart, had been assassinated not long before. Mary was informed that the countess had taken some of her jewels and commanded her to deliver them up.  She was quite angry and added a postscript in her own hand threatening Moray:

As I mynd to pitie yow in your aduersitie yff yow doe your deuti, so be sur iff yow hold anithing pertins me from me, yow and your bernes and meinteners schal feel my displesour heuiuer wrangous geir profitable, and so I will be to yow, as yow schal deserue.


Once again we are provided with a window on Mary’s language. She uses the fashionable English form ‘from’ rather than Scots ‘fra(e)’ but she sticks to Scots spelling conventions such as ‘schal’ (shall) and ‘yow’ (you) and interchanges u, v and w as was the custom in Scots. There are also forms that indicate her Scottish speech such as meinten (maintain), wrangous (wrongful) and bernes (children). No doubt the longer Mary remained in England, the more her speech was influenced by the English she heard around her, just as French had done previously. But one thing is certain, when we consider the descriptions of Mary and examples of her writing, it is clear that she spoke neither the tongue of England or in an English accent as so many actresses in cinema have wrongly portrayed her.