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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Early Scots 1350-1450

Timelines of the Scots Language

By Dr Dauvit Horsbroch

The following list is intended as a quick reference guide to developments in the Scots language, including reference to cultural and political developments.

1364 The earliest example of the form of Inglis in Scotland being described as distinctly Scottish comes from the records of a court at York. A Scottish witness Thomas Scott alias de Thorpearche, native of Peebles, but who had lived in England since 1346, had his testimony discounted because “This witness in his deposition often changed his way of speaking, forming himself sometimes in Southern English, sometimes pure Northern, and sometimes Scottish, sounding the words of the English in the manner of the Scots (Scoticum per modum Scotorum sonando ydioma Anglicanum), and therefore it seems to the examiners that less trust is to be placed in him.”

1364 Death of the English writer Ralph Higden whose Polychronicon describes the various languages of the British Isles including Scoti tamen et Wallani, uptote cum aliis nationibus impermixti ad purum paene pritinum retinent idioma: nisi forsan Scoti ex convictu Pictorum, cum quibus olim confaederati cohabitant, quippiam contraxerint in sermone or ‘The Scots as well as the Welsh, even though they are intermixed with other nations, retain their languages almost in their former purity. It might be the case that the Scots have taken on something in conversation from their intercourse with the Picts, with whom they lived for some time.’ Higden also describes the language of Northumbrians as being scarcely understood by southern English quod puto propter viciniam barbarorum contigesse – ‘so that I suppose it to have been bordered on the vicinity of the barbarians’.

1365 The chronicler Jean de Froissart of Hainault visits the court of King David II and refers to the difference between la sauvage Ecosse ‘Wild Scotland’ (the Highlands) and the ‘Flatlands of Scotland’ or ‘Mild Scotland’ (the Lowlands). Froissart states that the Lowlands stretch from the border to Aberdeen which lies ‘at the entrance to wild Scotland’.

1371-1390 The reign of King Robert II, first of the Stewart monarchs, who is the first ruler closely associated with the Scots language.

1375 John Barbour’s epic poem The Brus is the earliest surviving literary text in Scots (it survives in a 1487 copy). John Barbour (d.1395) was archdeacon of Aberdeen and an official at the royal court.

c.1380 The Scottish chronicler John of Fordoun completes his chronicle of Scotland. He draws largely on earlier writers such as Solinus, Isidore and Bartholomew Anglicus to describe cultural and linguistic differences in Scotland but adds some observations of his own. He said Mores autem Scotorum secundum diversitatem linguarum variantur; duabus enim utuntur linguis, Scotica videlicet et Theutonica, cuius linguae gens maritimas possidet et planas regiones, Scoticae vero montanas inhabitat et insulas ulteriores. He called the language of the people of the coasts and plains Theutonica, which translates as German, while that of the mountain and island people was Scoticae which translates either as Irish or Gaelic. Fordoun said that the people of the mountains and islands were not only hostile to the English people and language (populo quidem Anglorum et linguae) but also toward those of their own nation because of the diversity of language (propter linguarum diversitatem).

1380 A writ granted by Alexander Lindsay lord of Glenesk in Angus is the earliest known surviving original prose document in Scots. In this document Alysandre Lyndessay Lorde of Glennesk quitclaimed certain lands in favour of Margaret countess of Mar and her sister Elizabeth.

1382 Robert Fleming, clerk, is commanded by John Ramsay of Brackmont to ‘read and expound in the vernacular’ certain charters, to all those gathered for a tournament at the sands of Eden near St Andrews, Fife.

1386 The earliest known diplomatic act in Scots is the truce made between Scotland and England at Billymire in the Borders agreed between the earls of Douglas and March for Scotland and lord Neville for England.

1387 Edinburgh council’s earliest known document in Scots is a contract between Provost Andrew Yutsoun with masons John Prymros, John of Scone and John Skuyer to repair St Giles Church.

1388 By this date the English chronicler Thomas of Walsingham had completed his Chronica Maiora describing a Scottish invasion of England in 1379 led by the earl of Douglas during which the Scots swore an oath ‘which sounds even more ridiculous’ in ipsorum ydiomate – ‘in their own language ’ - to guard against the plague.  He paraphrases this as Gode and Seynt Mango, Seynt Romayne and Seynt Andreu, scheld us this day fro Goddis grace, and the foule deth that Yngleesh men dyene upone.

1388-1420 The kingdom of Scotland is dominated by Robert earl of Fife (later duke of Albany), first as lieutenant of the realm, and then from 1406 as governor on behalf of his nephew James I. Albany and his kin group are closely associated with issuing administrative and legal documents in Scots in regions wherever they hold sway.

1390 The earliest document issued in Scots at Perth is a jury decree by Sir John of Levingstoune and others in the dispute between the abbot of Cambuskenneth with William of Fentoune and Robert of Dunbarny.

1392 An indenture between Duncan earl of Lennox and William of the Spens burgess of Perth, and Isabel his wife, is the earliest document issued in Scots at Stirling.

1393 A plea by Thomas of Erskine for half the earldom of Mar is the earliest document in Scots to be enrolled in the records of parliament.

1394 A mortgage granted by Duncan Campbell of Edderling, at Innernodyn in Strachur, is the earliest known document in Scots issued within Gaeldom.

1397 An act of Council at Stirling is the earliest state enactment in Scots while a marriage contract in the name of King Robert III, that same year, is the first known document issued by a monarch in the language.

1399 Aberdeen council’s first document in Scots is a contract between the council and John Lambynton and Crawford masons to make doors and windows for the town.

c.1400 Compilation in Scots known as the Legends of the Saints which is derived from the Latin Legenda aurea and deals with legends of apostles and evangelists.

c.1400-1420 Andrew of Wynton (c.1355-1422), prior of St Serf’s Lochleven  writes the Orygynale Cronykil of Scotlandoff Latyne in-till Ynglys sawe’ or rhyming metre in Inglis. It is the first history of Scotland written in the Scots vernacular rather than in Latin. His sponsor and fellow literary enthusiast is Fifeshire laird Sir James Wemyss of Kilcaldrum, Rires and Wemyss.

1400 Letter from George Dunbar earl of March to Henry IV of England, dated at castle of Dunbar, in which Dunbar comments ‘And noble prince mervaile yhe nocht that I write my lettres in Englis fore that ys mare clere to myne understandyng than latyne or Fraunche.’

1406-7 A contemporary inventory of the English treasury refers to two indentures, one of 16 March 1398 written in ydeomate Scotico (Scottish language) and another indentra de lingua Scotica (the Scottish tongue) of 11 October 1404 and both dated at Houdenstang (Hawdenstank, Roxburgh).

1406 A charter by John of Crawford to John of the Schaw, of the lands in the barony of Dalmellington, is the earliest known document in Scots issued at Ayr.

1418 A certificate by Nichol Kynman of Megginch to Alan Kynnard is the first known document in Scots issued at Dundee.

1422 A mortgage granted by George Campbell to William Stirling of Calder of part of the lands of Gallystoun is the earliest known document in Scots written at Glasgow.

c.1424 The Kingis Quair is the first literary work in Scots ascribed to a member of the royal family of Scotland, in this case King James I (1406-1437).

1424 Records of parliament begin to be kept regularly in Scots (‘in wlgar tunge’) from which period a continuous register of enactments is maintained.

1426 James I issues a royal letter commanding all sheriffs, provosts and baillies in courts and public places - quhar oftast hapins congregatioun of pepil opinly you ger be rede and cryit and alsua in the court of prelatis, erlis, barounis and of al other hafand courtis the quhilkis we will that be yow the copy be gevin of ther statutis sa that thai haf na mater thain til excuse of the ignorans of thaim – that his laws be read out to the people so no one could pretend ignorance of them.

1426 The last known document to be written in Norwegian in Orkney is a complaint against David Menzies of Weem who is a Scottish official employed by the Danish crown. The document shows both Danish and Scots influence in its language.

1433 A gift of a tenement by Duncan of Law to Donald Clerke is the first known document in Scots from Orkney.

1438 The Buik of Alexander is the oldest dateable Romance in Scots. Probably derived from a French original it deals with the life of Alexander the Great of Macedon. The author is unknown.

1438 By this date the lawmen of Orkney are using Scots for administration and transacting business.

1439 The earliest writ in Scots issued by a lord of the isles was granted by Lord Alexander Macdonald at Inverness in favour of Alexander Sutherland.  Witnesses include Lachlan MacLean of Duart and John MacLeod of Dunvegan.

c.1440 Augustinian friar and poet Osbern Bokenam from the south of England described the speech of the northern English as unfamiliar and strange partly because of their nyghness on to the Scotts (nearness to the Scots) – an indirect comment on language divergence in Scotland.

1440-1447 Walter Bower (c.1385-1449) canon of Inchcolm Abbey writes his Latin history of Scotland called Scotichronicon. In book 16 Bower states that when James I was captured and taken to England in 1406 he had difficulty understanding the language of Henry IV’s household.

c.1448 Completion of The Buke of the Howlat by Richard Holland, secretary and chaplain to Archibald Douglas earl of Moray. This comic allegory in Scots was dedicated to Moray’s wife Elizabeth Dunbar countess of Moray.