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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Early Middle Scots 1450-1550

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.

c.1436-c.1503 Robert Henryson the makar (master poet) of Dunfermline lived during this period. Famous for his Morall Fabillis based on the tales of Aesop he appears to have been largely active under James III (ruled 1460-1488).

1456 Gilbert Hay’s The Buke of the Law of Armys or Buke of Bataillis is the earliest dated work in Scots to be translated from another vernacular language – out of the Frenche leid (out of the French language).

1468-1469 Christian I of Denmark, Norway and Sweden unable to pay the dowry of his daughter Margaret’s marriage to James III of Scotland pawns his lands and rights in Orkney and Shetland to the Scottish crown. In 1470 William Sinclair earl of Orkney sold his earldom to James III.

c.1475 Blind Hary’s The Actis and Deidis of...Schir William Wallace is written down about this time and survives in a manuscript of 1488. In this work the adjective and noun forms Sothron, Sothroun, Sutheroun, etc, meaning English things and English people, often appear. By 1500 the form Sudron was in use to mean English as a language distinct from Scots.

1482 An English army occupies the Scottish territory and town of Berwick.

1485 The Scots term Norn derived from the Norse Norraena or ‘northern language’ is first used to distinguish the Norwegian language of Orkney and Shetland from Scots.

1490 Scottish-born Paris theologian John Ireland writes the Meroure of Wysdome in Scots for James IV. Ireland states that he knows Latin best but notes that certain errors are writtin in this tounge and in Inglis and refers variously to Inglis metir, to writing in this langage and in the common langage of this cuntre. About 1500 he translates a treatise on penance and confession in yis toung and langage but notes some people do not approve of the translation of haly writ in Ynglis toung.

1494 Adam Loutfut, Kintyre Pursuivant, and scribe to Sir William Cumming of Inverallochy, is the earliest known writer to use the vernacular name Scots for the language when he translatit out of fraynche in Scottis the heraldic work called The Book of Ordre of Chyualry.

1498 Ambassador Don Pedro de Ayala (1475-1513) in writing to Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile and Aragon described the languages spoken by King James IV (ruled 1488-1513) including y sin su lengua natural Scocessa la qual es con la Inglesa como Aragones con Castellano or ‘his own native Scots language is as different from English as Aragonese is from Castilian’. Aragonese shares features with both Castillian (Spanish) and Catalan and some similarities of wordstock to Basque.

c.1500 The manuscript of Magnus MacCulloch of Rosshire, who attended the Louvain in 1477, and who was clerk to Archbishop Shevez of St Andrews, contains a number of prayers and poems in Scots together with a glossary of Latin to Scots terms, including hoc ydeoma glossed as a leid.

c.1500 A Relation, or Rather A True Account of the Island of England originally written in Italian said the following of Scotland “Il parlare delli Scozzesi e tutt’ uno con quello dell’ Ibernia, molto diverso dallo Inglese, quantunque molti Scozzesi parlino benissmo la lingua Inglese, per il commertio che hāno a cōfini l’uno con l’altro” or “The language of the Scotch is the same as that of the Irish, and very different from the English; but many of the Scotch people speak English well, in consequence of the intercourse they have with each other on the borders.”

1506 The council register of Edinburgh records that Thomas Arnot, one of the sergeants of the burgh, proclaimed letters of King James IV at the market cross in vulgari lingua Scotica, vt omnes audientes populi presentis potuisset intelligere or ‘in the common Scots language, that all the people present hearing might understand’.

1507 James IV grants a license for a printing press to Walter Chepman and Andrew Miller burgesses of Edinburgh who takin on thame to furnis and bring hame ane prent with al stuf belangand tharto and expert men to use the samyne, for imprenting within our relame of the bukis of our lawis, actis of parliament, croniclis, mess bukis and portuus efter the use of our realme with additiouns and legends of Scottis sanctis now gaderit to be ekit thairto and al utheris bukis that sal be sene necessare.

1508 The first work printed by Chepman and Miller is the Porteus of Nobilness which was translatit out of franche in scottis be maistir Androw Cadiou.

1510 The earliest document in Scots from Shetland is a decree by Nicol Haw lawman of Shetland, dated at Tinguell, regarding lands in the parish of St Andrews in Orkney. This is followed by a deed of conveyance in Scots by Thomas Olason of Veester to Mr Henry Phancouth archdeacon of Shetland, of lands in Shetland. It is dated at Tyngwall in Schetland in 1525.

c.1513 Death of the courtly makar William Dunbar. He and makar Walter Kennedy of Carrick (a Gaelic-speaking region) held a now famous Flyting in Scots in which they refer to the languages of Scotland as Inglis and Irisch.

1513 The makar Gavin Douglas (1474-1522) completes his translation of the Roman Virgil’s Latin Aeneid into Scots as the Eneados. In his prologue Douglas distinguishes Scottis - our awin language – from the language of England called Sudron. Douglas is widely regarded today as one of the greatest vernacular poets in Europe at that time.

1521 John Mair alias John Major (c.1467-1550), a native of East Lothian, became a theologian, philosopher and historian at both Paris and St Andrews. In 1521 he published in Latin Historia Maioris Britanniae (History of the whole island of Britain) in which he said three languages were spoken in the island – Prima meridiem versus est Vallica, qua Britones britonisantes utuntur. Secunda in Insula priore latior, qua Scoti Silvestres & Insulani Scoti utuntur: et haec est Hibernica, licet quodammando fracta. Tertia lingua in Insula praecipua est Anglicana, quam Angli et Scoti mansueti habent or ‘The first of these, in the southern parts, is the Welsh language; this is in use by the Britons who speak the British language. The second is more widely spread throughout the island, and is in use by the Wild Scots and the island Scots; and this is the Irish tongue, though it may be called broken Irish. The third tongue of this island, and the chief, is the English, which is spoken by the English and by the civilised Scots.’

Mair divided the people of Scotland into Scoti sylvestres (Wild Scots) and domestici (domestic Scots) and commented Apud exteros priores Scoti sylvestres, posteriores domestici vocantur, lingua Hibernica priores communiter utuntur, Anglicana posteriores or ‘The Irish tongue is in use among the former, the English tongue among the latter’.

However, further into his account Mair states Et a lingua Anglicana nos Scoti meridionales propter sylvicolas Scotos differimus, sicut de Picardis Gallicae loquentibus ob Flandrensium vicinitatem contingit or ‘And we southern Scots differ in our speech from the language of England on account of our neighbourhood with the Wild Scots. The same may be seen with the people of Picardy, in the use of the French language, on account of their proximity to the people of Flanders.’

1525 English ambassador to Scotland Magnus reports home that he was sent a letter of the duke of Albany “the copy whereof booth in Frenshe and Scottish I send unto your Grace.”

1529 Publication in Lyons, France of Emblems of Alciat by Barthelemy Aneau in which he refers to the Scottish philosopher Florence Wilson alias Volusen from Elgin who taught at Paris and Carpentras. Aneua lists him as speaking Greek, Latin, French, Italian and Escossois and Wilson certainly wrote in Scots.

c.1530 Murdoch Nisbet (d.1559) of Hardhill, Loudoun, Ayrshire makes the first complete Scots version of the New Testament. It is translated from John Purvey’s version of the Wycliffe Bible in English and provides a good source for comparing points of difference and similarity between the two languages.

1530’s The council register of the burgh of Aberdeen provides the first glimpses of North East Scots forms (popularly known today as Doric).  

1533 John Gau from Perthshire, while living in Denmark, translates the Lutheran text Den Rette Vey till Hiemmerigis Rige from Danish into Scots as The Richt Vay to the Kingdom of Heuine so ‘that al quhilk onderstandis the scotis tung ma haiff with thayme’. He also draws on the German version.

1534 The acts of the lords of council in Edinburgh refer to Thir new bukis maide be the said Lutheris secteis baith in Latyne, Scottis, Inglis and Flemys or heretical books written by the followers of the religious reformer Martin Luther in Latin, Scots, English and Flemish.

1536 John Bellenden alias Ballantine is asked by King James V to translate Hector Boece’s Historia Gentis Scotorum as Chroniklis of Scotland though Bellenden also adds new material of his own. It is translatit laitly in our vulgar and commoun langage (meaning the language most commonly spoken) and is the first prose history of Scotland to be published in Scots. Bellenden also translated work by the Roman Livy and published poetry.

1540 Sir David Lindsay, herald, Lord Lyon king of Arms and poet in Scots premiers an early version of his play Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis before James V and his court at Linlithgow palace. At various times Lindsay refers to poems in tyll our vulgare toung, and wryttyng of Uulgare and Maternall Language, vulgar then meaning the non-Latin, commonly spoken language.

1542 English traveller Andrew Borde publishes in London The Fyrst Boke of the Introduction of Knowledge. Borde, who had spent time in Scotland, first lists the many languages known and spoken within England of which There is also the Northen tongue, the whyche is trew Scotysshe, and the Scottes tongue is the northen tongue. He later continues with his account of Scotland – In Scotlande they haue two sondry speeches. In the northe parte, and the part joynyng to Ierland, that speche is much lyke the Iryshe speche. But the south parte of Scotland, and the vsuall speche of the Peeres of the Realme, is lyke the northen speche of England. Wherefore yf any man wyl learne to speake some Scotysh, Borde then cites a table of numerals in both English and Scots followed by a conversation to show the differences between the tongues. He ends his account by stating For as muche as the Scotysh tongue and the northen Englyshe be lyke of speche, I passe ouer to wryte anye more of Scottyshe speche.

1543 The Scottish parliament passes an act that it salbe lefull to all our souirane ladyis lieges to haif the haly write baith the new testament and the auld in the vulgar toung in Inglis or Scottis.

1543 In a letter written by the earl of Lennox to his brother Sir John Stewart in France he complains to his brother he hef wrytyn sa scharply to me as he dyd...batht into Franc and into Scottis.

1544 A letter from the council of the north of England to the earl of Shrewsbury reports the capture of a Scottish ship containing French, Scots and a woman who could speak bothe Scotishe and Frenshe.

1545 Donald Macdonald, heir to the lordship of the isles issues the earliest known document in Scots in Ulster, wryttin at Knokfarguse (Carrickfergus) by Macdonald’s servant and notary Patrick Colquhoun of Pemwut during the summer of 1545.

1548 Protector Somerset of England, then at war and attempting to occupy Scotland, declared of Scotland that nacion onely beside England speaketh the same language; and as you and wee bee annexed and ioyned in one Island, so no people so like in maner, forme, language and all condicions as we are. The calendar of English state papers of that time show that it was common practice on receiving documents in Scots for the English chancery to produce English versions so they could better understand. Somerset’s statement also ignores the reality of Gaelic and Welsh in one Island (meaning Britain).

1549 Publication of the anonymous The Complaynt of Scotland, believed to have been written by Robert Wedderburn vicar of Dundee. This fascinating political tract in Scots speaks of both distinct Scots language and similarity with English. The author states of his written language for i thocht it nocht necessair til hef fardit ande lardit this tracteit vitht exquisite termis, quhilkis ar nocht daly vsit, bot rather i hef vsit domestic scottis langage, maist intelligibil for the vlgare pepil. He also refers to writing in oure scottis langage and to terms dreuyn fra lateen, be reson that oure scottis tong is nocht sa copeus which have not been translatit deuly in oure scottis langage. However, he also says of the relationship with England – There is nocht tua nations undir the firmament that ar mair contrar and different fra vthirs nor is inglis men and scottis men, quhoubeit that thai be vitht in ane ile, and nychtbours, and of ane langage which is explained by the 16th century understanding that English and Scots were both variants of the ald saxoun tongue as it was then termed. Again, this ignores the existence of Gaelic and Welsh in the island.

1549 The Latin work De Recta et Emendata Linguae Graecae Pronunciatione by Sir Thomas Smith makes references to the differences between English and Scottish pronunciation and cites several examples.