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LUGGIN IN: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Welcome to the first in a series of features which focus on the Scots language through the descriptions and perceptions of people who encountered it as visitors to the country. The features cover people from a range of times and places who had contact with Scots speakers and writings in Scots and who wrote about their experiences and opinions of the language.

Our first writer is Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) who is known the world over as the influential 19th century anti-slavery campaigner. Stowe was born in Connecticut, USA, and wrote a novel entitled ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ which was published in 1852. This novel, depicting the evils of slavery in America, caused an uproar in the southern states and led to campaigning in the USA, Britain, and elsewhere. As a result of this work, Stowe was invited to various countries by her admirers. It is not a well known fact, but Stowe visited Scotland, among other places, in 1853, and she wrote an account of her visit, published in 1854 as ‘Sunny Memories of Foreign Lands.’ Stowe, being highly literate, was familiar with the works of Robert Burns and Walter Scott and, probably because of these, had quite a romantic view of Scotland. She frequently quoted sentences and phrases she heard spoken in Scotland and made some valuable comments about the language in passing. For example, when she and a friend were strolling down by Kelvingrove, in Glasgow, she noted the following:

 “We saw a great many children of the poor out playing – rosy, fine little urchins, worth, any one of them, a dozen, bleached, hothouse flowers. We stopped to hear them talk, and it was amusing to hear the Scotch of Sir Walter Scott and Burns shouted out with such a right good will. We were as much struck by it as an honest Yankee was in Paris by the proficiency of the children in speaking French.”

Stowe, who was used only to reading Scots through Burns and Scott, and who assumed it to be essentially a literary language, was struck by the fact that the same language these writers employed was spoken as an everyday, native tongue by working class children in Glasgow. She also noted that when she went to Dryburgh, in the Borders, she met a family whose father read ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ to the children and who told her “…whiles they were greetin’ and whiles in a rage…” (sometimes crying and sometimes very angry). She also met a boatman, at the same place, and “…I fell into conversation with my host, He and his family, I noticed, spoke English more than Scotch..” These asides show that spoken Scots was generally still in a healthy state, that literate Scots speakers read English, and that some people mixed the two together.

Perhaps the most interesting document, from a language point of view, is the letter Stowe received from ‘an old Scotch bachelor’ dated at Stonehaven, in Kincardine, 21 April 1853. Stowe had been visiting Aberdeen and the author as at pains to expose hypocrisy in Scotland in regard to the condition of the ordinary people. It was written in a mix of Scots and English, of which the following is an extract:

 “I wad like to see ye mysel, but I canna win for want o' siller, and as I thought ye might be writin a buke about the Scotch when ye get hame, I hae just sent ye this bit auld key to Sawney's Cabin. Well, then, dinna forget to speer at the Aberdeenians if it be true they ance kidnappet little laddies, and selt them for slaves; that they dang down the Quaker's kirkyard dyke, and houket up dead Quakers out o' their graves; that the young boys at the college printed a buke, and maist naebody wad buy it, and they cam out to Ury, near Stonehaven, and took twelve (tots frae Davie Barclay to pay the printer). Dinna forget to speer at, if it was true that he flogget three laddies in the beginning o' last year, for the three following crimes: first, for the crime of being born of puir, ignorant parents; second, for the crime of being left in ignorance; and, third, for the crime of having nothing to eat. Dinna be telling when ye gang hame that ye rode on the Aberdeen railway, made by a hundred men, who were all in the Stonehaven prison for drunkenness; nor above five could sign their names.”

The author was evidently annoyed that the authorities in Scotland feted Stowe for her anti-slavery campaign while treating the lower classes in the fashion he described. But the text gives a fair example of the kind of Scots that was being written in this period and which was beginning to appear in Scottish newspaper columns too, often written in a far more consistent fashion.

During her entire visit Stowe was clearly pleasantly surprised to find that the language of the literary works she had read previously read was so widely spoken as the daily vernacular. However, on the other hand, she was disappointed when it came to collecting ballads and other works because she commented:

 “…that the Scotch ballads and memories, which so interested me, seemed to have very little interest for people generally in Scotland.”

Nonetheless, Stowe’s account, when taken alongside other similar writings, sheds interesting light on the Scots language of the mid-19th century. If you would like to read the entire text of this work please check out