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Scots Language Centre Centre for the Scots Leid

A Brief History of Scots

In this section there is a quick overview of the history of the language. You will also find links to other, more detailed inormation.

Where did it come from?
Scots is descended from a form of Anglo-Saxon, brought to the south east of what is now Scotland around AD 600  by the Angles, one of the Germanic-speaking peoples who began to arrive in the British Isles in the fifth century. English is also descended from the language of these peoples.
By the 11th century, Gaelic, descended from the Celtic language brought over from the north of Ireland by the original Scots, had become the dominant language in most of the emerging kingdom. At this point, another form of Northern Anglo-Saxon arrived - the speech of the followers of the Anglo-Norman landowners and of the members of the newly settled monastic orders, who came north mainly from what is now Yorkshire. This area had been part of the Danelaw and the language had strong Scandinavian elements still seen in Scots (and northern English) to this day (e.g. gate - street, kirk - church).

How did it develop?
This language flourished in the growing trade in the newly-formed burghs, and it developed with further influence from French (e.g. ashet serving plate, douce quiet, respectable), Latin (e..g. dominie - schoolmaster, preses - chairman), Dutch (e.g. loun - lad, redd - clear, tidy) and Gaelic (e.g. glen - narrow valley, whisky - the drink). Before the sixteenth century, it was usually called 'inglis' in the vernacular (i.e. 'Angle-ish' - 'Scottis' sometimes referred to Gaelic or Irish) or 'German' in Latin. From 1494 it came to be known as 'scottis' and in this, the Stewart period, it began to develop a written standard, just at the time when the East-Midland dialect of English was becoming the basis for a written standard in Tudor England. It was the vehicle for the works of the great late-medieval makars (poets) like Robert Henrysoun, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas and David Lindsay.

What happened to it?
After the Scottish Reformation (1560), the Triple Monarchy (1603) and the political Union with England (1707), English gradually became the language of most formal speech and writing and Scots came to be regarded as a 'group of dialects' rather than a 'language'. It continued, however, to be the everyday medium of communication for the vast majority of Lowland Scots, and was used creatively in poetry, song and story. It reached its pinnacle of literary achievement in this period in the work of men such as Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns.

Where is it now?

The number of Scots speakers probably reached its height in the course of the 19th century, but the lack of a standard, and an insistence after 1845 that children be made to speak English in the schools, often to the exclusion of Scots, did not help the situation. At present Scots is primarily a spoken language, with a number of regional varieties, each with a distinctive character of its own, and is heard widely in most parts of the country. Scots use a mixture of Scots and English in their speech, with some using mostly Scots and others mostly English. In this sense the language exists as part of a continuum with Scottish Standard English. You can hear people speaking Scots and using Scots words in most parts of Scotland. People have a strong emotional attachment to the language and often feel most comfortable using it amongst their friends and family.
After centuries of neglect and indeed opposition, Scots is now much more widely appreciated as an important part of Scottish culture. It has been recognised as a language under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages and there is an increasing awareness of its cultural and social value. In recent years there has been an explosion of writing in Scots, some of it in the writer's own distinctive dialect, and new technology has provided opportunities for Scots speakers to express themselves in their own language.

What is its future?
Excellent books and teaching materials are being produced to encourage the use of Scots among the young. Changing attitudes and a greater respect for diversity have led to increasing support for the language. However, more still needs to be done and the development by the Scottish government of specific policies to support Scots would represent a great leap forward.

Below you will find two PDF files containing detailed timelines for the background and history of the language. The first file details the language before 1700 (the period known as Older Scots) and the second file deals with the period since 1700 (known as Modern Scots).