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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

1750-1800 Modern Scots 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.1750 The rise of the Moderate Party in the Church of Scotland leads to a decline in preaching in Scots in favour of English. The Moderate ministers are prominent among those supporting English elocution and grammar.

1752-1779 Publication of the popular chapbuik stories of Dougal Graham (1721-1779), the Skellat Bellman of Glasgow who was a native of Stirling. These tales are written in Scots using English spelling conventions.

1754 The Select Society is established in Edinburgh, which, among other things, aims to promote the reading and speaking of the English language.

1755 Population of Scotland enumerated as 1,265,380. When the counties of Argyll, Bute, Inverness, Ross and Cromarty, and Sutherland are deducted (201,832) this leaves 1,063,548 giving a possible estimate for the Scots-speaking population.

1762 onwards Adam Smith and Hugh Blair deliver lectures on English grammar and literature, in English, at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow confirming the trend for upwardly mobile Scots speakers to acquire English in higher education.

1762-1763 Scottish peer James Stewart 3rd earl of Bute is Prime Minister but resigns in the wake of anti-Scottish campaign led by English MP John Wilkes whose publication The North Briton unleashes a wave of Scotophobia attacking all things Scottish, including the languages.

1768 First publication of the poems and songs of Alexander Ross (1699-1784), schoolmaster of Lochlee in Glen Esk, Angus. A native of the North East, he is the first writer in Scots to identify explicitly with a particular dialect area.

1769 The English language master at Ayr reports he has a class learning English grammar “which is a branch almost new.”

1774 Death of the poet Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) in Edinburgh. A gifted poet, he died tragically young and was the inspiration for Burns.

1774 English writer Dr Samuel Johnson wrote of his visit to Scotland “The conversation of the Scots grows every day less displeasing to the English ear. Their peculiarities wear fast away; their dialect is likely to become in half a century provincial and rustic even to themselves. The great, the learned, the ambitious, and the vain all cultivate the English phrases and the English pronunciation. In splendid companies Scots is not much heard, except now and then from an old lady.”

1774 George Low’s A Tour through the islands of Orkney and Shetland is written (but not published until 1879) in which he describes Norwegian as spoken only as remnants by a few people.

1780 Henry Mackenzie wrote “The old SCOTTISH dialect is now banished from our books, and the ENGLISH is substituted in its place. But though our books be written in ENGLISH, our conversation is in SCOTCH...when a SCOTSMAN therefore writes, he does it generally in trammals. His own native original language, which he hears spoken around him, he does not make use of; but he expresses himself in a language in some respects foreign to him, and which he has acquired by study and observation.”

1782 Publication of Two Ancient Scottish Poems by John Callander who comments “Our language, as it is at present spoken by the common people in the Lowlands, and as it appears in the writings prior to the seventeenth century, furnishes a great many observations, highly deserving the attention of those who wish to be acquainted with the Scandinavian dialects in general, or the terms used by our ancestors in their jurisprudence and poetry, in particular...we, in Scotland, have preserved the original tongue, while it has been mangled, and almost defaced, by our Southern neighbours.”

1782-1792 The number of newspapers in Scotland grows from 8 to 27. Many of these, such as the Caledonian Mercury, include adverts, articles, letters, poems and reports written in Scots.

1786 Robert Burns (1759-1796) publishes Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect which is a bestseller. Burns chose to spell Scots using spellings more conventional to English. Over the next decade he produces some of the most quoted, most iconic poetry and song in Scots, including A Man’s a Man for a’ That, A Red, Red Rose, Address to a Haggis, Ae Fond Kiss, Auld Lang Syne, Holy Willie’s Prayer, To a Mouse, Tam o’ Shanter, and Scots Wha Hae.

1791-1799 The Old Statistical Account of Scotland is compiled and published. Many parish ministers describe the languages spoken in their parishes, including Scots. This is the earliest survey which provides a cross-country description of Scots and provides much evidence for language attitudes in that period.

1792 Alexander Geddes publishes Three Scottish Poems, with a Previous Dissertation on The Scoto-Saxon Dialect in which he translates Classical Greek poems into Scots, one poem based on Edinburgh speech and the other two on Buchan “which may be called the Scottish Doric” and is the first use of the term Doric in reference to North East speech, by which Geddes mean ‘rustic or rural’.

1792-1802 Friends of the People Society call for political reform and dissolution of the union with England. Led by advocate Thomas Muir of Huntershill many members are arrested, tried and transported. This is succeeded by the United Scotsmen society which plans an uprising but its members are also arrested and tried.

1793 Gilbert Innes of Stow recounts in a letter to the Burnet family that while in London in the midst of a street accident “I lost my temper and fine English at the same moment and began to swear in fine stile in broad Scots.”

1794 Samuel Thomson of Carngranny, Antrim, Ulster publishes his Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

1795-1796 The account of English traveller Peter Barber who said “At Berwick The Language begins to alter, it is like the Town something between Scotch and English. They have a slow singing way of speaking.” Later he commented “I was surprised to hear in Edinburg better English spoke than in many provincial Towns in England – But the Villages they do cackle.”  Of the distinct dialect further north Barber said “Aberdeen is like Newcastle, let an Aberdeens-man be in any part of Scotland and speak but a single Word, he is instantly challenged – he has not the Burr.”

1796 Death of Robert Burns (1759-1796).

1799 English priest James Adams (d.1802) publishes Pronunciation of the English Language with an appendix called The Dialects of all Languages and Vindication of that of Scotland in which referring to educational provision in Scotland he commented “How, in the name of wonder, can Scotch schoolmasters teach poor children to read their Bible printed in the English way?...Hence every word is a stumbling block.”

1799 Death of Robert Macqueen lord Braxfield (1722-1799), known as Auld Braxy, lord of session and Justice Clerk of Scotland. A controversial judge who tried many Radicals he was noted as a Scots speaker, and for whom many anecdotes are recorded of his speech and cutting wit.