IN recent years, linguists have been trying to push the fact that Scots isn’t just a dialect but a language in its own right into the common consciousness.

The National recently reported on an academic project conducted by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, which examined letters of correspondence between the Bard and his many friends and admirers.

The National:

One such correspondent was Dr John Moore, who advised the poet that using the language of Scots ran the risk of isolating English readers as they wouldn’t be able to connect with the work. He wrote: “It is evident that you already possess a great variety of expression and Command of the English Language, you ought therefore to deal more sparingly for the future in the Provincial Dialect – why should you by using that limit the number of your admirers to those who understand the Scotish [sic], when you can extend it to all persons of Taste who understand the English language.”

Luckily, Burns didn’t listen, and today, the “Provincial Dialect” is undergoing a resurgence. Though there is still a long way to go in the widespread normalisation and assimilation of Scots into everyday language – it may be a while before Microsoft Word’s spellcheck caters for Scots – endeavours such as Eemis Stone, a Scots literary journal started in 2021, which aims "tae bring thegither unner the yin banner the best o whit’s happenin in oor bonnie broukit bairn o a language" is one of many forms of evidence that progress is being made.

READ MORE: Major US newspaper shines spotlight on Scots language in boost for campaigners

As we begin to see and hear more Scots voices across various mediums, from literature to radio, news presenters and in the voice of our government, some readers may be keen to refresh their knowledge of how Scots developed into the language we know it as today.

The Linguistics and English Language department at the University of Edinburgh have a comprehensive and well-researched video on the origins of the Scots language, narrated in both English and Scots, which can be watched on YouTube. The information in the video has been summarised below.

The origins of Scots

Scots has many different names, including Scots, Scotch, Broad Scots, Lowland Scots, and “Lallans”, and is spoken throughout Scotland and also in pockets of Ulster, in Ireland.

Linguists have been able to identify the earliest uses of language in the UK as Celtic in origin. These languages are split into two types: Goidelic, which is Irish Gaelic’s predecessor, Scottish Gaelic and Manx; and Brythonic, which branched into Welsh, Cornish and the now-extinct language of Cumbric.

In AD 43, the Romans set foot on the British Isles. Upon arrival, they encountered various tribes speaking varieties of Brythonic. North of Hadrian’s Wall were the mysterious Picts, whose language to this day we know almost nothing concrete about.

Linguists think Pictish was probably a type of Brythonic, and what we do know about their language comes mainly from Pictish settlement place names, scattered around the east and north of Scotland – places beginning with the prefix “Pit”, such as Pittodrie, Pittenweem and Pitlochry.

Between AD 400-600, after the Romans had mostly departed, a group of Celtic language speakers had made their way into Pictish territory.

These groups were given the name “Scoti” by the Romans and were mostly raiders who settled in the west of Scotland – then part of the Kingdom of “Dal Riata”.

The Scoti spoke Old Irish – a Goidelic form of Celtic – which modern-day Scottish Gaelic is a descendent of.

From the middle of the fifth century, after the Romans departed, groups of Angles, Saxons and Jutes crossed the sea, settling first in East Anglia, Kent and the south of England. These groups spoke closely related varieties of West Germanic.

Within a couple of generations, these Anglo-Saxon settlers had spread both westwards and northwards, reaching the Lothian area in the sixth century.

These West Germanic varieties are usually termed as “Old English”, and can be divided into four main dialects: Kentish, West Saxon, Northumbrian and Mercian.

The two northernmost dialects – collectively termed Anglian – played a crucial component in the development of Scots.

Of course, in the sixth century, there was no “Scottish” nation. The “Kingdom of Northumbria” extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, with the Picts and Gaels holding sway upwards, to the north.

In AD 790 came the Vikings. In the north and east of England, the Danes established the “Danelaw”, which was a large area governed under autonomous rule. In the north of Scotland, the Northern Isles and the Hebrides, Norwegians raided and settled.

The National:

The area where the Scandinavian language had a heavy influence on local dialects is referred to as “The Great Scandinavian Belt”. Local dialects took on lots of Norse words, which remain important cornerstones of Standard English today, such as “sky”, “egg” and “take”, and the pronoun system of “they”, “them” and “their”. Other words have survived as more localised phrases, for example “lug” and “lass”.

Busy trying to fend off the Vikings further south, the Old English-speaking Northumbrians couldn’t hold their northern border, and eventually ceded the area of Lothian over to what had become the Gaelic-speaking Kingdom of Alba.

Scottish Gaelic was by then the dominant language in most areas in Scotland, but Anglian dialects persisted in most lowland parts.

England came under Norman rule in 1066, and French was established as the language of those in power. Scotland was never invaded by the Normans, but the court did feel its presence.

Notably, since French was the language of power, authority and control during this period, many judicial terms used in English survive in their French origin. French words such as “attorney”, “bailiff”, “culprit”, “jury”, along with many others, remain fundamental to the justice system today.

King David I married Matilda, the great-niece of William the Conqueror, and proceeded to award lands and positions of power to members of the Anglo-Norman elite.

Large numbers of followers came with these members of the elite, mainly from the north of England and East Midlands.

Many of these followers were speakers of English, from the old Danelaw country, and their English was heavily littered with Scandinavian influence.

King David also established royal burghs with special trading rights. Inevitably, these burghs attracted nobility, as well as traders, craftsfolk and peasants – both from north England and abroad, particularly from the Low Countries, such as the Netherlands.

Due to a heavy Dutch trading presence, Dutch words seeped into local dialects. Dutch survives in Scots words like “loon” and “keen”.

This linguistic melting pot meant that everyday speech in the Scottish Burghs brought together Gaelic, Anglian, Scandinavian-influenced English, and Dutch.

Disappointingly, most surviving written documents from Scotland before the end of the 14th century are in Latin, making it difficult for experts to trace how modern Scots emerged from the linguistic morass.

Linguists can say for sure that the heaviest component in the make-up of the DNA of Scots is Old English, and that much of the courtly, legal vocabulary of early Scots was adapted from Norman French and Latin.

READ MORE: This major web browser is first to be available in Scots language

North of Edinburgh, Gaelic was much more common. Consequently, the northwards and westwards spread of Scots was slow outside of the main trading towns like Edinburgh. This resulted in lots of natural variation in Scots’ speech around the Central Belt, for example the variation between “fit” and “whit”.

In the 17th century, the relationship between Scotland and England meant that Scots gave way to English as the language of prestige, as the more standardised English of the south and particularly London became the Lingua Franca of business and law.

The National: King James VI of Scotland, before he became James I of the abruptly United Kingdom in 1603

Scots found it useful to use English whilst writing and conducting business transactions. They also found it advantageous to conduct conversations in English, too. However, language always leaves its mark. Unable to entirely get rid of their Scots pronunciation, the variety of English they arrived at is now generally referred to as Scottish English.

Scots is a many-layered and rich language, carrying with it the mark of the cultures, peoples and souls it has brought together over the years, always evolving, growing and enduring.

The National: Scotland is one of the oldest nations in the world, it was called Caledonia by the Romans.

The information in this article was collected from the Linguistics and English Language Department at the University of Edinburgh, in its “the origins of the Scots Language – in English” video on YouTube.