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Late Middle Scots 1550-1700 Part 2

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.1600 The Diary and other accounts by Reverend James Melville (1556-1613) describe personal, political and religious affairs in Scots.

1603 The earliest text of Philotus the oldest known comedy in Scots.

1603 James VI also becomes king of England and Ireland and moves his court to England where he begins to favour cultural assimilation based largely on English customs and language.

1603 Sir William Alexander publishes Darius and comments The language of this Poeme is (as thou seest) mixt of the English and Scottish Dialects; which perhaps may be un-pleasant and irksome to some readers of both nations. He appealed to them both to a straiter union and conjunction as well in language, as in other respects.

1604-1607 James VI attempts a political union between England and Scotland and adopts the personal style Magnae Britanniae Rex, the general meaning of which is ‘king of the whole island of Britain’. Some of his subjects even describe him as imperial. However, largely because of opposition from the English parliament, the plan for a political union fails and England and Scotland remain separate states.

1604 The Englishman Henry Saville in his Historical Collections compared the proposed union of England and Scotland with that of Castile and Portugal in 1580 when documents concerning Portugal were to be written in the Portugall tongue (differing only in dialect from the Castilian as ours and the Scottish. He said of England and Scotland both nations using one and almost the same dialect, to wit the Saxon language. And the Scots and north people of England speak more incorruptly than the South, which by reason of the Conquest and greater commerce with foreign nations, is become more mingled and degenerate from the antient tongue, as will easily appear to him that shall compare the two dialects with the Germane, mother of them both.

1604 Sir Thomas Craig in his Latin De Unione Regnorum Britanniae Tractus had the following to say about language: In connection with the present union it is unnecessary to discuss identity of language, seeing that both peoples use the same speech (“populus eadem Lingua”); though, if our neighbours will allow me to say so, the Scottish vernacular (“nostra hodie vernacula Lingua”) is more akin to Old English (“veteris Anglicae Linguae”) than is the language spoken in England to-day. For the English, admitting new words from neighbouring languages, Latin, French, and Italian, with the object of strengthening it, have corrupted their own. Of Orkney and Shetland Craig said where in the course of this very century nothing but Norse was spoken, the ministers of God’s word now use English in church, and are well enough understood.

1604 The English version of Robert Pont’s tract Of The Union of Britayne states of the English their tounge is now growen familiar and naturall, not onlie to the chief parts of Scotland But even to the orchades and the isles of Zetland or thule, a comment that assumed English ownership of all variants descended from Anglo-Saxon.

1604 Englishman Sir Francis Bacon addressed James VI and argued that the proposed political union would merge the tongues. He said both your Majesty’s kingdoms are of one language, though of several dialects; and the difference is so small between them, as promiseth rather an enriching of one language than a continuance of the two. Bacon continued But yet the dialect is differing, and it remaineth a kind of mark of distinction...for the rest, it is rather to be accounted (as was said) a diversity of dialect than of language; and...it is like to bring forth the enriching of one language, by compounding and taking in the proper and significant words of either tongue, rather than a continuance of two languages.

1604 Letter from the Lord Mayor of London to the Privy Council of England informing them that Scot Sir George Kerr gave out articles written in Scottish to Englishman Richard Holmhead which he had much ado to understand and so for his better information he put them into English.

1605 King James VI complains to Robert Cecil about his publication being altered: it was first marred in the orthography by Geddes copying it...in very rude Scottish spelling, and next it was copied by Sir Peter Young’s son, who pressing to English it, hath marred it quite and made it neither.  Sir Thomas Lake also wrote to Cecil The language his Majesty doth also excuse, being neither good Scottish nor English, but lays that to the transcriber’s fault.

1606 Publication of Amorose Songs Sonets and Elegies by Alexander Craig who apologises to the reader in vsing the Scotish and English Dialects; the one as innated I cannot forget; the vther as a stranger, I can not vpon the sodaine acquire.

1607 The last known document written in a Scandinavian tongue in Shetland – in this case Danish – is a receipt by William Manson to Sǿren Spence for goods bought by Manson.

1607 Preacher John Welsh wrote from Bourdeux, France to Robert Boyd of Trochrig at Samur regarding the Scottish community at Bourdeux: I wald desyre yow to wryte to M. Plessei theranent, that libertie fra ye K. May be pruchassit to preich in ye Scottisch or Inglisch toung to theme that cums to this place.

1609 Protestant Scottish nobles and lairds are offered land in Ulster, recently conquered by the English crown. They come predominantly from the western Lowlands of Scotland and speak Scots. They and the English settlers are known as Planters.

1611 Old Norse law is abolished in Orkney and Shetland and replaced by Scottish law.

1611 Englishman Lord Thomas Howard wrote to Sir John Harrington regarding King James’s favourite Robert kerr that the king teacheth him Latin every morning, and I think some one should teach him English too; for, as he is a Scottish lad, he hath much need of better language.

c.1615 An English visitor to the Orkneys commented tis nothing strange to here them in the churches leave their text and raile in person against this or that man and speake plaine Scots words against those who set in their stoole of repentence.

1615 Flensburg skipper Cornelius Jönsson asked Scottish merchants William Fernie and David Ramsay in Sweden to draw up his contract with Edinburgh merchants John Weir and Thomas Inglis in the scåtske sprak or Scots language which was later produced in court at Stockholm.

1616 Act of the Privy Council for establishing schools in the Highlands that the vulgar Inglishe toung be universallie plantit, and the Irishe language...may be abolisheit and removit.

1617 Henry Erskine wrote back home to the earl of Mar that while in Bourges, France we could not have lernit the Frence, in respek of the great number of Scotsmen that is thar for the present, for we met every day together at our exercise, so that it was impossible to us not to speake Scotis.

1621 The Morall Fabillis of Esope (in Scotish Verse) by 15th century makar Robert Henrysoun published at Edinburgh.

1623 Scottish diplomat James Spens wrote from Hamburg, Germany to Swedish chancellor Axel Oxenstierna in Scots, adding he could not find anyone to put it in Latin at the time. In 1624 Spens referred to writing to the chancellor in Scotico sermone.

1624 Petition by the Planters of the Scottish Nation in Ireland that there being only one, aged clerk serving the royal council of Ireland that business was held up especially Scotchmen, whose petitions being written in the Scotch hand are either not read or understood.

1625-1649 Reign of King Charles I who is technically the last monarch to speak Scots.

1626 Habakkuk Bisset, writer to the signet and servant to Sir John Skene completes his legal work Rolment of Courtis described as Contenand, the auldest laws, actis, statutis constitutionis monumentis and antiquities, of the maist ancient Realme of Scotland as ane frie kingdome. In his introduction Bisset states I have writtin reuerendlie and spairinglie, usand my awin maternal Scottis langaige, or mother toung as we call it.

1627 Sir Thomas Kelly’s publication Pallas Armata includes tables comparing equivalent English to Scots vocabulary.

1627 The curriculum at George Heriot’s Hospital in Edinburgh includes the provision to teach the scholars to read and write Scots distinctly.

1628 To encourage Latin learning the burgh council of Edinburgh enacted that students attending the university speik Latine and that nane be fund speiking Scottes.

1630s Norwegian-born Karen Mowat, daughter of Scot Andrew Mowat, who lived in Bergen, was stated to have spoken Skotske and that ha skrevet bedre skotsk end norsk or “she wrote better Scots than Norwegian.” In the same period the diary of Robert Monroe refers to Daniel Sinclair who was raised in Norway and was master shipbuilder to King Christian IV and that Sinclair “speaks the Scottish tongue.”

1630 The Privy Council states that England and Scotland whilks ar twa free and distinct estats and kingdomes and sould be differenced by thair particular names and not confoundit under the name of Great Britane orders that the royal title be changed to king of Scotland, England, France and Ireland and the style Great Britane dropped because no such state existed.

1631 A Relation of the Empire and State of Russia written by Captain Thomas Chamberlayne, an Englishman who had served as a soldier in Russia, compared the situation of Poland with Russia to that of Scotland and England and said the Polish tongue is not so much more dividend in Language then the English and the Scotts is.

1633 Captain John Smith after living a year in Shetland wrote A Description of the Island of Shetland stating The chiefe Inhabitants of the Island are Scots. The meaner or inferior sort are a mixed people of Danes and Scots.

1633 David Hume of Godscroft’s The History of the House of Douglas declares in the preface For the language, it is my Mother-tongue, that is, Scottish: and why not, to Scottish-men? The language is increasingly Anglicised with each new edition.

1634 Travels in Holland, The United Provinces, England, Scotland and Ireland by Englishman Sir William Brereton is published. Regarding ‘Speech in Scotland’ Brereton had the following to say: We call here a clock, a knock; a watch, a munter; a dial, an orelege; a band, an ourlayer; for sleight, hough; a shop, a buith, or booth. In many words, as chest, shall, etc, here it is not h pronounced; a cap, a mutch, if it be linen; a bonnet, if it be woollen or leather; a man’s coat, a juipe, or joope. And generally they pronounce ow, oo, as towne, toone; and that which we spell in England with ou, but pronounce as it it were oo, as in the word enough, they call it enuigh, changing it into ui. Our a, that we in England pronounce as they do ŋτɑ, i.e. as if it were ae; they in Scotland pronounce as it were ao, and in some words ai; so that concerning their accent no few general prescripts will give any satisfaction, but only experience and use acquired by cohabitation among themselves. They have many words in the country that citizens understand not, but if all the properties of language were concurrent there, as well as significancy in pathetic speeches and innumerable proverbs and by-words, they might compare with any people in the world.

1637 David Calderwood’s Reasons Against The Publick Use of this New Metaphrase of The Psalmes attacks Charles I’s new prayer book and psalms and cites the use of English words and phrases unknown to Scots speakers. He said the people must be first taught to vnderstand these and the lyk French, Latine, and hard Englisch tearmes, and harsh phrases...Our awin metaphrase hath non bot such may be understood...Bot to bring in a number of words which have need of a dictionarie in the end of the metaphrase, is to mak worse and not better. Among the words cited as unknown to Scots speakers are - regall, opposites, various, gratefullie, divulge, exorbitant, impetuous and emulate.

1639 English and Scottish captains complain that their letters are being mistranslated by the existing translator at Helsingor, Denmark so Jacob Gronnevold is appointed to translate all English, Irish and Scottish letters in these languages into Danish (“Jacob Grønnevold at oversætte saadanne Breeve, da den, den nu er forordenet dertil, ikke er disse Sprog saa mægtig, som han burde være.”)

1639 The town council of Glasgow enacts for certaine guid considerationes moveing the saidis provest, bailzies, and counsall, it is statut and ordanit be thame that nae mae Inglisch scoolles be keipit or haldin within this burghe heireftir bot four only, with ane wrytting school, and the maisteris thairof to be admittit be this place, and receave injunctions thairfra anent the place of thair duelling and utheris neidfull.

1639-1646 The Wars of the Covenant between King Charles I and those who support the Presbyterian Church. Scotland becomes divided between Covenanters and Royalists and the Covenanter government makes a treaty of alliance with the English parliament called The Solemn League and Covenant.

1640-1700 Written records of the Scottish parliament, Privy Council and various town councils gradually adopt a more English style, adopting English spelling conventions and vocabulary. This is an uneven, drawn-out process varying from region to region, some places remaining more Scots than others. Private writings generally remain Scots but are ‘Englished’ for publication. The publication of contemporary poetry and song in this period goes into decline, but will revive again from the early 18th century. Non-Latin schooling is referred to variously as ‘in Scots’ or ‘in English’ or ‘in vulgar tongue’ with Scots as the spoken medium of the class and reading from English texts subject to Scottish accent and idiom.  

1640s The Scottish Jesuit Gilbert Blackhall, who acted as a go-between for the French government and Catholics in the North East, recorded that he translated French letters into Scots for certain noble families.

1640 Death of Elizabeth Melville, lady Culross, one of the earliest women writers of poetry and song in Scots, noted for her Ane Godlie Dreame (1603).

1640 The rules of Dundonald grammar school in Ayrshire refer to reiding Scottish, quhither print or writ.

1641 The publication of Scottish Proverbs which is the earliest known collection from Scotland. These had been collected by David Fergusson who died in 1598.

1642 Publication in London of The Red-Shankes Sermon from notes taken of a sermon preached in St Giles, Edinburgh by Mr James Row in 1638. A second version called A Cupp of Bon-Accord or Preaching was printed about the same time in Scotland and is very Scots in its language. So much so, that it went through several editions and was popularly known as The Pockmanty Sermon because it was read by people travelling. Row refers in his sermon to schooling in Latin and Scots.

1643 The propositions by the French ambassador to Scotland are recorded as having been translated into Scots for use by the Privy Council.

1643 Letter of Robert Buchan of Portlethen to Axel Oxenstierna chancellor of Sweden, reminding him that he had written previously to him in verbis Scoticis and included a gift of two pearls.

1646 The town council of Glasgow ordains the scoolmaisteris of the Scotis schools to be warnit to the nixt meitting of the council.

1649 The town council of Kirkcudbright enacts that Mr John Laurie acceptis and takis in and vpone hime the charge of ane scoole maister within the said burgh ffor learning teaching and instructing of the bairnes and zouthis putt and to be putt to him for learning Scottis Latine Greik musick and arethmetick..and sall instruct and teach the saidis scolleris in the foirsaidis languages of Scottis Latine and Greik and airtis of musick and arethmetick.

1649 The town council of Peebles instructs the schoolmaster to give the bairnes learning Scottis each of them ane portioun of psalms or catechisme and give ane compt therof vpon Sunday.