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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

Late Middle Scots 1550-1700 Part 1

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.

1551 Report by Daniel Barbaro Venetian envoy in England to the Venetian senate who states of Scotland “They use two dialects, that of the civilised (i domestici), which differs but little from the English; and the other of the uncivilised (i selvaggi) being quite different.”

1552 A provincial council of the Church at Edinburgh statuit et ordinat librum quemdam vulgari et Scotico idyomate conscriptum or “decrees and ordains that a certain book, written in our vulgar Scottish tongue” be published. This was the Catechisme printed at St Andrews that same year by Archbishop John Hamilton and included the commandments, Creed and Lord’s Prayer.

1553 In the Rudiments of the Art of Grammar by John Vaus (published Paris) statutes form the grammar school of Aberdeen are appended which stated Loquantur omnes Latiné, Græcé, Hebraicé, Gallicé, Hybernicé, nunquam vernaculé, saltem cum his qui Latiné noscunt or students were permitted to speak Latin, Greek, Hebrew, French, and Irish, but not the vernacular.

1554 A letter of 1446 by the bishop of Orkney to King Eric of Norway was translatit out of Latin into Scottis by a monk named Dean Thomas Guild of Newbottle at the request of William Sinclair of Roslin.

1558 Publication in Paris of Description Des Royaulmes D’Angleterre et D’Escosse by Estienne Perlin. Perlin was a French ecclesiastic who visited England and Scotland during 1552-1553. Of Scotland he said Les Escossois parlēt comme les Anglois ou pour le moins n’y a pas grāde dífference & distance, telle qu’il y a de la langue des Normans a celle des Picards or “The Scots speak like the English, or at least there is not a greater difference than between the speech of the Normans and that of the Picards.” Further in his account he states that Leurs capitale ville est appellee en Escossois Ennebroc or “Their capital town is called in Scottish Ennebroc..”, while in attempting to find accommodation he describes speaking en Escosois guede guednit goud maistre praie gui mi longini or asking “in Scottish Good night, my master, I pray you to give me lodging.”

1558 Instrument drawn up for Janet MacLachlan concerning a reversion of lands in Perthshire in which Robert and Walter Buchanan are her chosen interpreters sworne lealie to interpret the erss toung and leid in scottis be ressone scho spak in the erss leid.

1559 Among the schoolbooks listed as supplied under licence by Master William Nudrye are firstly, Ane schort Introductioun elementar degestit into sevin breve taiblis for the commodious expeditioun of thame that ar desirous to reid and write the Scottis toung, and, secondly, Ane instructioun for bairnis to be lernit in Scottis and Latin.  

1559 Report by Jacques de la Brosse to King Henri II of France regarding conditions in Scotland mentions La presente Information ensemble La coppie des Lettres missives en langaige Escossoys Et translation dicelles en francois or information assembled from documents in Scottish language and translated into French.

c.1560 Thomas Ogilvy in Shetland translates a document in Norwegian from 1431 into Scots which is described by him in Latin as copea principalis, copeam ex Norwraneg(torn) lingua in lingua Scotiana and in the vernacular as copeit word be word in Nordin and Inglis.

1560 Scotland breaks from Rome, parliament abolishes Catholic mass, and the kingdom becomes officially Reformed Calvinist. Because there is no ideologically approved text available in Scots, and because the reformers favour alliance with England, they use an English translation of the Bible, but have to paraphrase so that Scottish congregations can understand.

1560 Report by the English ambassador in France Nicholas Throckmorton of his audience with Mary queen of Scots and Catherine de Medici, during which Queen Mary spoke “all in Scottish.”

1560 The audience of Chester herald from England with Marie de Guise at Edinburgh castle. Chester reported home that the French queen dowager and courtiers spoke to him in the Scottyshe toung which he could not understand and he had to request that they continue the conversation in French.

1561 The case of the merchants of Nantes, France against Thomas Kennedy of Bargany as Admiral Depute of Scotland in which the queen and council ordered the haill bukis, billis and charter parteis...be translatit in Scottis be sum peryfte man of bayth thair consentis.

1562 Report by Father Nicholas de Douga that he had a secret interview at Holyrood with Queen Mary and that Master Edmund, a Scot, was interpreter to whom Queen Mary Scotice respondere coepit “began her response in Scottish.”

1563 Ninian Winzet in his Buke of Foirscoir Thre Questionis attacks reformer John Knox for his perceived Anglicised writings and commented Gif ze, throw curiositie of nouationis, hes foryet our auld plane Scottis, quhilk zour mother lerit zou, in tymes coming I sall wrytt to zow my mynd in Latin, for I am nocht acquyntit with zour Southeron.  Winzet also refers to the publication of Vincentius, Optatus and Tertulliane - newlie putt in Scottis. In the introduction to Vincentius Lirinensis of the Natioun of Gallis Winzet states And zit I hoip yat yow sal think me to speik proper langage conforme to our auld brade Scottis.

1565 Publication at Edinburgh of Ane Breif Gathering of the Halie Signes, Sacrifices, etc, translatit out of Frenche into Scottis, the translator having causit this little buik be set furthe in our Scottis toung to make the treuth knawin to all our countrie men that hes not the knawlege of the uther leid.

1567 Earliest known edition of The Gude and Godlie Ballatis translated from German into Scots.

1567 The last letter of Shane O’Neill king of Tyrone, sent by him to Cormac O’connor in Scotland, survives in three contemporary copies, in Irish, English, and Scots, and is a good example of the linguistic differences between them. An earlier letter from O’Neill sent to the earl of Argyll in 1560 was translatit out of Eris in to Scottis, as neir ye phrays of ye Eris as it cald be.

1568 In writing his preface for an edition of the works of David Lindsay, Hendrie Charteris was critical of printers in England who changed writings in Scots and altered the meanings. Charteris said Thai haif gane about to bring thame to the southerne language, alterand the vers and collouris thairof, in sic placis as thai culd admit na alteratioun.

1568 The register of the parliament held at Edinburgh on 19 August records the summonses of treason against several men who fought at Langside Quhilk haill summondis abone wrychtin...beand red baith in Scottis and Latein in presence of my lord regentis grace and thre estatitis of parliament were enacted.

1568 Publication of Ane Breve Descriptioun of the Pest by Gilbert Skene who was professor of medicine at the University of Aberdeen. It is among the earliest medical works in Scots.

c.1571 A tract entitled The copie of a letter written by one in London to his frend concernying the credit of the late published detection of the doynges of the Ladie Marie of Scotland refers to writings from Scotland of which the author said I haue for your more easy understanding changed the Scotish orthography, which I would to God had been done for Englishmens better satisfaction in Maister George Buchnan’s boke. Howbeit the same is not so hard but that after reading of two leaues a man may easily enough grow acquainted with it, and doubtless the knowledge and monumentes theirin contained are wel worth so small a trauell to understand them.

1571 Letter by Scottish envoy Thomas Buchanan, from Cophenhagen in Denmark, to William Cecil in England, warning him of the presence in England of a page of the earl of Bothwell who though Danish borne was not readily knowin by a Scott be reasone he speketh perfyte Scottes.

1573 A letter by Englishman Sir Henry Sidney in Ireland to Francis Walsingham in England, describes Agnes Campbell, daughter of Colin earl of Argyll and wife successively to Sir James MacDonald of Antrim and Turlough Luineach O’Neill. Sidney states she is a wise, well-spoken lady both in Scotch, English, and French.

1577 English writer William Harrison who contributed material to Holinshed’s Chronicles described researching material on Scotland from Bellenden’s version in Scots of Hector Boece. He said he did not stick rigidly but I haue chosen rather, onely with the losse of three of foure days to translate Hector out of the Scottish (a tongue verie like vnto ours) than vvith more expence of time to diuise a nevve, or follow the Latin copie. He later added Hetherto haue I translated Hectors description of Scotland out of the Scottish into the English toung, being not a little ayded theirin by the Latine.

1578 Letter from Sir Andrew Keith in Sweden to the regent of Scotland, James Douglas earl of Morton, informing Morton he read out his letter to King Johan III quhilk his Majestie onderstuid weill, becaus his Majestie can speik and onderstand guid Inglis and then Keith paraphrased Johann at length in Scots.

1578 The scholar George Buchanan wrote a report regarding reform of teaching Latin classes at the University of St Andrews and recommended that in the VI class the scholar will write down Latin And efter that he sal geif the interpretation in Scottis, correspondant to the Latin, garryng thayme al writ.

1578 Compilation of English and Italian phrase book by Florio, tutor to the earl of Southampton in England, who lists in chapter 13 the languages spoken by Queen Elizabeth I of England – Shee speaketh Greeke, Latine, Italian, French, Spanish, Scottish (Scozese), Flemish and English.

1578 Publication in Scots of the Second Book of Discipline which sets out the rules governing the reformed Church of Scotland and its beliefs.

1579 Alexander Arbuthnot prints the Geneva Bible translated from Hebrew, Greek and other tongues into English. The general assembly of the church recommends this work with a convenient preface in our common Scotish language addressed to the king. That same year parliament passes an act requiring all householders over a certain income to own a Bible in the vernacular.

1579 Publication in Paris of La recherché tant des singularitez plus remarquables concernant l’estat d’Ecosse by David Chambre, originally written in 1572. Chambre states that three languages were spoken in Scotland – Escossois by lauland men, Gachtlet by hechtland men and dite Nordin in Orkney and Shetland.

1580 Kerr of Ferniehirst is sent as an envoy by Esme Stewart to King Philip of Spain but Philip’s secretary wrote from Badajoz to Cardinal de Granvelle at Madrid that they had difficulty understanding as Ferniehirst “only talked broad Scotch, without any other manner of tongue.”

1581 Jesuit writer John Hamilton complains of heretical works printed in England in English being imported into Scotland. He said Giff king James the fyft var alyue, quha hering ane of his subiectis knap suddrone, declarit him ane trateur: quhidder vald he declaire you triple traitoris, quha not onlie knappis suddrone in your negatiue confession, bot also hes causit it be imprentit at London in contempt of our natiue langage?

1582 The deposed Queen Mary advises Bernardino de Mendoza that is was better to send Scottish Catholic missionaries to Scotland as Englishmen “are foreigners...and do not understand the language.”

1584 King James VI (1566-1625) publishes Ane Schort Treatise, Conteining some Reulis and Cautelis to be observit and eschewit in Scottis Poesie, in which he states That as for thame that hes written in it of late, there hes neuer ane of thame written in our language. For albeit sindrie hes written of it in English, quhilk is lykest to our language, zit we differ from thame in sindrie reulis of Poesie.

1585 The case of a Scot tried in the Court of the King’s Bench in England who claimed the privilege of dimidietas lingue – to have half the jury composed of speakers of his own language. The judges disallowed his claim with the convenient legal fiction that a Scotsman had always been held an Englishman and not an alien and therefore the Scottish tongue was not a foreign language. Yet Scots settling in England and English in Scotland in this period were required to be naturalised because they were foreign states.

1585 A declaration by James VI printed in Edinburgh is reprinted in London by Thomas Nelson and translated out of Skottish into English.

1586 Death of the master poet Sir Richard Maitland (1496-1586) of Lethington.

1587 Second edition of the Chronicles by Englishman Holinshed. In his description of contemporary languages he said The Scottish english hath beene much broader and less pleasant in vtternace than ours, because that nation hath not till of late indeuored to bring the same to any perfect order...Howbeit in our time the Scottish language endeuoreth to come neere, if not altogether to match our toong in finenesse of phrase. Holinshed also said that the wild Scots, otherwise called the Redshanks lived in the north and speake good Irish which they call Gachtlet while in Orkney and Shetland the Gottish or Danish speech is altogether in vse.

1590 The report of envoys Leonard Voocht and Jan de Warck back to the States General of the United Netherland describes meeting King James VI and diplomatic writings being written in Scots and then translated into Latin.

1592 Death of Ninian Winzet, who fled Scotland in 1562, and became abbot of Ratisbon, in Germany. He translated the Catechism of the Jesuit Canisius into Scots.

1593 Publication of A Plaine Discovery of the Whole Revelation of Saint John by Napier of Merchiston on the subject of the Apocalypse. In this work Napier attempted to create a language and style that could be easily read by both English and Scots. He stated I presse not to follow the particular ornate tearmes of neither Scottes nor Englishmen; but rather contrarily, for both their instructions, I vse so much as I can these wordes and tearmes, that be more common and sensible to them both, then proper to ornate to any one of them.

1593 Publication at Middelburgh, Netherlands of Dutch version of James VI’s poem on the battle of Lepanto, the poem being van hem eerst beschreben in Scotsche Dicht, Ende Overgeset in Nederlandsche Dicht (“first written by him in the Scots language and translated into the Dutch language”).  The translator later states he has done his best to follow the original as those who understand the Scottish tongue will judge (die de Schotsche spraeke verstaet).

1594 Embassy to Scotland of the Lord of Brederode and Jacob Valck from the States General of the United Netherlands. They report attending a church service in Leith with preaching in Scots, and the minister then addressing the guests in French, and later the baptism of Prince Henry at Stirling castle when preaching was both in Latin and Scots.

1594 Visit of James MacDonald of Antrim who is knighted by James VI and described in the Chronicle of the Kings of Scotland as ane Scottis man of bluid, albeit his landis lyis in Yrland. He wes ane braw man of persone and behaviour, bot had nocht the Scottish tong, nor na language bot Eirse.

1595 Johannes Seringus reports to the Rigsråd or royal council of Denmark that Queen Anna of Scotland had learned Scots nunc tam scotici loquitur, quam aliqua princeps faemina in hoc regno nata.

1596 Publication of Father James Dalrymple’s version of Bishop John Leslie’s Latin Historie of Scotland (1578) translated into Scottish. Speaking about the spread of the Kirk of Scotland’s Bible and the diversity of dialects, Leslie said for the Ingles men, evin as the mair politick Scottis, vses that ald Saxone toung, al throuch vther in commoune, quhilke now is called the Ingles toung, in ane place thay speik of sik ane maner, and in another place of sik a maner (“Saxonum lingua quae nunc Anglica promiscue dicitur, alia tamen atque alia dialect loquuntur”). Of Lowland people Leslie said In speiche they differ nocht far frome thair nychtbouris the Inglise men. He also comments of Orkney that sum are Inglese, sum of the language of Norway. Reference is also made by Leslie to Gavin Douglas who made dyvers utheris notable werkis in our Scottis langage.

1596 John Wode of Geillistoun informs the Privy Council that he has onlie sic lauland peceable men as speikis onlie Scottis language living on his lands.

1597 Death of Alexander Montgomerie master poet at the court of James VI.

1597 The petition of the Scottish merchants at Danzig (Gdansk) to the magistrates mentions Michael Kock as the Scottish interpreter.

1598 King James VI (1566-1625) writes The Basilicon Doron. In this work he advises his son Prince Henry in youre langage be plaine, honest, naturall, cumlie, clene, shorte & sententiouse escheuing baith the extremities alsueill in not using a rusticall corrupt leid, nor yet booke langage & penn & inkorne terms...I ualde also aduyse you to uritte in youre awin langage for thaire is nathing left to be said in graeke & latin...it best becumis a king to purifie & make famous his awin langage quhairin he maye ga before all his subiectis as it settis him ueill to doe in all laufull things.