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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

1920-1990 Modern Scots 5

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.

1921-1922 The Articles of Agreement (1921) leads to the establishment of the Irish Free State from 31 March 1922 while 6 counties in Ulster are constituted as Northern Ireland. A new state called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is created from England, Scotland, Wales and the six Ulster counties in 1922. An international frontier now runs through the Scots-speaking area dividing Scots speakers in Donegal from those in Derry/Londonderry.

1921 Publication of William Grant and Jams Main Dixon’s Manual of Modern Scots which consists of a detailed grammar, description of the Scots sound system, and copious examples of literature in Scots with phonetic descriptions. Grant was lecturer in phonetics at Aberdeen Training Centre, while Main was a graduate of St Andrews and professor at the University of Southern California in the USA. The introduction explains that Main “felt the need of a book to which he could refer them for details of Scottish Grammar and Pronunciation, which he could employ, in class, for the recitation of our literary masterpieces, and which the students themselves, after they left University, could use either for purposes of declamation or teaching.” Grant and Main refer to “our ancient national speech...And certainly the term “language” is as applicable to our speech as it is to Danish or Norwegian, for like these, it has a national life and national literature behind it.”

1922 First of Hugh MacDiarmid’s (Christopher Murray Grieve 1892-1978) poems in Scots published. His work leads into a period dubbed the ‘Scottish Renaissance’ and inspires a generation of writers in Scots such as Robert Garioch (1909-1981), Alexander Scott (1920-1989), Sidney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975), William Soutar (1898-1943) and Douglas Young (1913-1973).

1923 First radio station established in Scotland, at Glasgow, followed by a second in Aberdeen. From the beginning, there were complaints from Glasgow about London centralisation. From this point onwards Scots speakers are increasingly exposed to the English sound system and language as never before.

1924 First radio station established at Dundee.

1925 Publication of Last Leaves of Traditional Ballads and Airs which had been largely collected or composed by Gavin Greig (1856-1914). Greig was schoolmaster at Whitehill in Aberdeenshire but was also a gifted musician, poet and songwriter who collected ballads in Scots. However, many ballads were left out of the 1925 publication because they were considered ‘unpure’ or ‘indecent’ but since 1981 have gradually been included in new collections.

1925 The secretary of the Scottish Education Department reports that while it is acceptable for children to be passively taught to read and understand approved texts in Scots as a literary exercise, it is not the place of schools to teach active speaking and writing in the language.

1925 In a memorandum by one of HM inspectors of schools the idea had become prevalent that there was good Scots (rural) and bad Scots (urban). The report stated “In the North East rural area the vernacular is vigorous and thriving. In Aberdeen, Banff and Moray it is still the everyday language of the villages as well as of the farms. An even surer evidence of its vitality is the fact that it is still the everyday language of the school play-grounds all over this area” but in Glasgow and district it was said “We cannot use the vernacular in any of the Lanarkshire schools north of Carluke without appearing to the children ridiculous; south of that in the rural ward of the county, the children hear from him what is their own tongue gladly and reply in it with corresponding readiness.”

1926 Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978) publishes his long poem (2,685 lines) A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle. It is based on his Borders Scots but also draws on the Scots of other dialects. His poetry in Scots is characterised by combining various dialects and drawing on older writers which he calls Synthetic Scots, from the Greek word sunthesis meaning to combine or place together. The literary output of MacDiarmid and his contemporaries in the 1920’s and 1930’s is dubbed the Scottish Renaissance.

1928 The vote for parliament elections is extended to all men and women over the age of 21.

1928 Publication of The Quarry Wood by novelist and poet Nan Shepherd (1893-1981) who was a lecturer at Aberdeen College of Education. Like Grassic Gibbon, Shepherd impregnated otherwise English text with Scots words and phrases. She is known to have to have published three poems in Scots which appear in the work In The Cairngorms. She is commemorated on the £5 note issued by the RBS.

1930 Publication of Ord’s Bothy Songs and Ballads of Aberdeen, Banff, and Moray, Angus and the Mearns. John Ord (1862-1928) was a police superintendant in Glasgow who collected and saved many ballads in Scots, though he is said to have somewhat anglicised many of the published versions.

1931 The first part of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue is published.

1932 Scottish Regional radio transmitting station opened at Westerglen near Falkirk.

1932-1934 Novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James L Mitchell 1901-1935) publishes Sunset Song (1932), Cloud Howe (1933) and Gray Granite (1934) known as A Scots Quair trilogy which draws on the Scots of his upbringing in Kincardine.

1933 William Soutar (1898-1943) publishes Seeds in the Wind: Poems in Scots for Children. Soutar believed that Scots could be revived in public life by educating children in the language from an early age. 

1933 Mary Symon (1863-1938) of Dufftown, Banff publishes Deveron Days with poems in North East Scots noteworthy for its poetry about the First World War.

1936 Burghead radio transmitting station established for North East Scotland.

1938 The Report on Glasgow Speech (of Glasgow schoolchildren aged 5-12) by the Educational Institute of Scotland highlights the linguistic schizophrenia imparted to Scottish children: “In most cases Glasgow pupils enter the schools with one language only, the Central Scottish Dialect, and they proceed to learn to write Standard English. As the result of education the vernacular is gradually eliminated from written work, but it persists in colloquial use....In the playground children who try to speak Standard English are generally laughed at, whilst in the class-room a lapse into the mother-tongue is greeted with hilarity...Children usually hear little else than a Scots dialect and so they come to regard Standard English as artificial. To speak properly requires not only a departure from the normal pronunciation but also forethought in selection of words. Hence whenever they endeavour to use Standard English, they feel self-conscious. In such moments they tend to lapse into the mother-tongue, much to their dismay. In the presence of visitors or inspectors they are sometimes inarticulate, at other times silent. They know that their ordinary mode of speech will be criticised, and at the same time they lose their self-possession because they feel they cannot glibly perform in the other language.”

1939-1945 Second World War in which more than 57,000 Scots died and are commemorated in the roll of honour at Edinburgh castle.

1940 Robert Garioch Sutherland (1909-1981) publishes 17 Poems for 6d with Sorley Maclean. Garioch became a lexicographer with DOST and published his poems in Scots as Selected Poems (1966) and Collected Poems (1977).

1941 Publication of Skail Wind by Sydney Goodsir Smith (1915-1975) who is among the influential poets writing in Scots in this period. He is also a literary critic researching Scottish literature and the life of poet Robert Fergusson.

1943 Publication of Auntran Blads: an outwale o verses by Douglas CC Young (1913-1973). Originally from Fife, Young is a lecturer in Greek and Latin at Aberdeen, Dundee and St Andrews and prominent figure in both Scots language and nationalist circles.

1946 Deaths of Violet Jacob (1863-1946) and Marion Angus (1866-1946) both noted writers of poetry, prose and song in Scots. Violet Jacob (nee Kennedy-Erskine) was sister to the laird of Dun near Montrose and was unusual in speaking Scots in an upper class, landowning family of that period. Marion Angus, from Aberdeen, published her first work in Scots The Lilt in 1922.

1946 The Report on Primary Education states of Scots that it is “the homely, natural and pithy everyday speech of country and small-town folk in Aberdeenshire and adjacent counties, and to a lesser extent in other parts outside the great industrial areas. But it is not the language of ‘educated’ people anywhere, and could not be described as a suitable medium of education or culture. Elsewhere because of extraneous influences it has sadly degenerated, and become a worthless jumble of slipshod ungrammatical and vulgar forms, still further debased by the intrusion of the less desirable Americanisms of Hollywood.”

1947 The Makars’ spelling style sheet is introduced in an attempt to limit the many variations in spelling which had emerged in written Scots. Its earliest known publication was is Lines Review in 1955.

1949 Death of John Morrison Caie (1879-1949) from Banchory-Devenick who wrote poetry in North East Scots which were published in two volumes The Kindly North and Twixt Hills and Sea.

1949-1950 The Scottish Covenant, a petition presented to the parliament in London, calls for the restoration of the Scottish parliament and is signed by 2 million people. It is dismissed by the Labour government.

1950 Alexander Scott (1920-1989) from Aberdeen publishes his first collection of poems in Scots as Selected Poems. A poet, playwright and academic he oversaw the establishment of Scotland’s first department of Scottish Literature (Glasgow University) during 1971-1972.

1950’s to 1980’s The Third Statistical Account of Scotland, though somewhat drawn out, continues to provide commentary about the Scots spoken in various parishes of Scotland and attitudes towards it.  The author of Paisley parish and burgh in 1959 had this to say: “...but standard English has had very little influence on the common speech, so that, for the local idiosyncrasies, one must look to the working class...As for the local idiom, he would have a keen ear who could distinguish the diction of Paisley from that of, say, Glasgow or Greenock, but some hold that distinction exists...Many older people in Paisley, as in Scotland generally, are unconsciously bilingual and, in unguarded moments, slip naturally from their normal speech into the dialect of today or the Doric of yesterday. Youth, thanks to the cinema, are better acquainted with the American tongue than their elders, and it is a common experience for the older generation to sit mystified through a Yankee film while their children rock with laughter at its humour. The Scottish Doric, however, tends to become more and a more a cult of the Burns Club and other kindred associations.” Another typical comment is the one made about Longforgan (Perthshire) in 1964 “The local form of speech is plain and vigorous and typical of the Eastern Lowlands. The children seem to be better acquainted with American slang, learned in the cinema, than with their native idiom and there are many expressive Scots words known to the older generation which the younger generation appear never to have heard.” This was echoed in the comments on Unst, Shetland in 1982 “The language of the parish has greatly changed over the modern period...But with the upheavals of two world wars; the scattering of the young (and even not so young) of both sexes all over the world in various services; with the influence of four generations of compulsory education with English the basic language; with radio sets and television in almost every house; and the passing away of the old ways of life; much of the old language had passed too. Shetland dialect is still the speech used in the average Unst home, although many of the words in use fifty years ago are now seldom heard.”

1951 The census returns a Scottish population of 5,095,969.

1951 Folk singer Hamish Henderson (1919-2002), originally from Blairgowrie, is instrumental in establishing a place for Scots folk music and song at the Edinburgh Festival. A collector of ballads he helps to revive interest in songs in Scots, both traditional and new, and he is best remembered for his song The Freedom Come All Ye.

1952 Television station established at Kirk O Shotts bringing TV to Central Belt and southern Lowlands.

1952 Publication of English in Secondary Schools by the Scottish Education Department which advocates models of speech in English as approved by ‘Educated Scots’ while allowing into the classroom “words and phrases of genuine dialect” for study but excluding “slovenly perversions of dialect.”

1954 Television station established at Redmoss, near Aberdeen, bringing TV to North East Scotland.

1957 Death of Sir William Craigie (1867-1957) who planned and oversaw the publication of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST).

1964 A nuclear submarine base is established at Faslane, Argyll, holding Polaris nuclear weapons (replaced by Trident from 1982). This facility, with a nuclear arsenal at nearby Coulport since 1963, located near Scotland’s main population centre, becomes the subject of poems and songs of protest in Scots.

1960-1963 Robert J Gregg of Larne is the first to define and map the areas of Scots spoken in Ulster leading to an estimate of about 100,000 speakers in Ulster. He found that the Scots-speaking areas closely matched those parts of Ulster settled by Scots during the 17th century.

1962 Death of John C Milne (1897-1962) of Buchan whose wonderful poems in North East Scots describe a number of themes including farming life in the early 20th century and education and school life in Aberdeenshire. Perhaps his most quoted piece today is I wadna be an orra loon.

1969 The vote for parliament elections is extended to all men and women over the age of 18.

1971 The first ever conference on the Scots Language is held by the Association for Scottish Literary Studies and leads to the establishment of a sub-committee for furthering studies of the Scots language. This was followed by a second conference held in Edinburgh in 1972 with papers on the entire chronology of the language.

1972 The Lallans Society (later renamed the Scots Language Society) is founded as a literary association for promoting poetry and prose written in the medium of Scots. The national presidents over the following decades are George Philp, Alexander Scott, William Graham, David Purves, Gavin McEwan, Raymond Vettese, Neil R MacCallum, Sheila Douglas, John M Law, Rod Lovie, Dauvit Horsbroch, Irene McGugan, Tom Band, Chris Robinson, and J Derrick McClure.

1973 On 1 January Scotland as a member of the UK joins the European Economic Community (EEC) or ‘Common Market’.

1973 The Lallans Society begins publishing Lallans, the only journal devoted entirely to writing in Scots. It is edited over the following decades by JK Annand, William Neill, David Purves, Neil R MacCallum, Jan Natanson, John M Law, Kenneth Farrow and Elaine Morton.

1975 Death of traditional folk singer Jeannie Robertson (1908-1975) who came from a traveller family, but was based in Aberdeen. During the folk revival she helped to popularise many ballads in the Scots language. Her daughter was the singer Lizzie Higgins and her nephew the storyteller Stanley Robertson.

1975 The referendum on whether to remain a member of the EEC is held on 5 June. The vote in Scotland is 1,332,186 (58.4%) to remain and 948,039 (41.6%) to leave.

1975 Oil production in Scottish waters begins at Argyll and Duncan oilfields, followed by Forties the same year and then Beatrice in the Moray Firth from 1976. Since then some 42 billion barrels of oil have been extracted – with 2.8 million per day at the last peak in 1999. Like the nuclear issue, oil has proven fertile ground for poetry, song and prose writing in Scots.

1975 Death of Helen Burness Cruickshank (1886-1975) suffragette, nationalist, and poet in Scots.

1976 Publication of report Scottish Literature in the Secondary School by the sub-committee of the Scottish Central Committee on English. The committee advocates the inclusion of Scots dialect material as part of wider study. It stated “French children study French literature. German children study German literature, English children study English literature. In Scotland things have been different.”

1977 Radio Shetland established. It is one of the few radio stations to actively use and encourage the use of the local dialect for discussion and debate.

1979 Scottish Devolution referendum held on 1 March. A total of 1,230,937 (51.6%) vote in favour while 1,153,502 (48.4%) vote against. However, because this fell below a requirement that 40% of the registered electorate had to vote in favour (the turnout was 63.6%) it is scrapped.

1979 Publication of The Shetland Dictionary by John J Graham who was head master at Anderson High School, Lerwick.

1981 James Milroy comments of Ulster “in the Scots areas there are a great many rural speakers who speak a dialect of Scots rather than English; in its strongest forms it is also indistinguishable from the Scots dialects of West and Central Scotland.”

1983 William Laughton Lorimer’s (1885-1967) New Testament in Scots is published, having been translated from the Greek and Latin originals in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Lorimer, born near Dundee, was a professor at the universities of Dundee and St Andrews where he taught Greek, but was also a life-long Scots language enthusiast.

1983 Poet and playwright Howard Purdie claims that “Glaswegians, in their native habitat, have succeeded in debasing both the English language and the guid Scots tongue. What is left is city-slang at its worst, without an ounce of linguistic beauty to glean amongst the dross of Scottish-English-Irish-American verbiage.”

1985 The Concise Scots Dictionary (editor-in-chief Mairi Robinson) is published and quickly becomes the standard single-volume reference work on Scots language etymology. Over the coming years it inspires a series of derivative pocket dictionaries of Scots.

1985 The Patter A guide to current Glasgow usage, by Michael Munro, is published. This is followed in 1988 by The Patter Another Blast also by Munro. The same year Peter Mason publishes C’Mon Geeze Yer Patter The Glasgow and West of Scotland Phrase Book. These remain valuable guides to the dialect of Glasgow.

1986 Billy Kay’s Scots:The Mither Tongue is first shown on BBC Scotland and is published as a book. Broadcaster and writer Kay becomes a significant figure in Scots language advocacy and the dissemination of knowledge about its past.

1986 Publication of Popular Literature in Victorian Scotland by William Donaldson of the University of Aberdeen. This is followed in 1989 by The Language of The People Scots Prose from the Victorian Revival. These groundbreaking books are a timely reminder that the Scots language was widely used in the media not too long ago but was being forgotten, and even denied. After giving an example in his introduction Donaldson comments “This is a piece of discursive prose. In Scots. It is entirely typical of thousands of similar pieces, also in Scots, published in the columns of the Victorian press. According to the textbooks, none of it ought to exist. And the fact that it does, means that we must seriously revise our view of Scots as a medium of written communication in the period since the Reformation.”

1986 The Reverend David Dinnes Ogston (1945-2008) of St John’s, Perth, publishes White Stone Country: Growing up in Buchan which is written entirely in Scots prose. It is followed in 1988 by Dry Stone Days.

1987 Alexander (Sandy) Fenton (1929-2012) publishes his story Kipper’t in North East Scots, followed by Stirries (1988) and others. These and other prose stories in Scots are later published as the collection Craiters...or Twenty Buchan Tales (1995). Fenton, among other achievements, was head of the School of Scottish Studies and first professor of Scottish Ethnology.

1989 Beginning of the prolific published output of North East poet, novelist, story teller and singer Sheena Blackhall (nee Middleton). Blackhall later becomes co-editor of The Kist with Les Wheeler, is a Creative Writing Fellow at the Elphinstone Institute, Aberdeen from 1998 to 2003, Makar for Aberdeen and the North East in 2009 and receives the Degree of Bachelor from Aberdeen University in 2018.