Langage of Scottis Natioun

by Lady Anne Montgomerie

Part I
Part II

Langage of Scottis Natioun is the name given by the poet Gavin Douglas (1475-1522?) to the language into which he translated Virgil's Aeneid, and the language which was at that time used in all lowland Scotland by everyone from the King to beggars. Since the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, Scots has been demoted to a dialect of English, and like other "provincial" dialects has been regarded as lazy, uneducated speech. It's status as language or dialect, however, is determined more by politics than by linguistics. As an independent state, and very conscious of its independence, thanks to the efforts of Edward I of England, Scotland naturally used its own language. From 1424, Scots replaced Latin as the official language of state, in which all Scottish laws and legal records were written, and developed a strong literary tradition with writers like Robert Henryson, William Dunbar and Sir David Lyndsay. Over the next few issues, I hope to include excerpts from various period texts, but to start with some Scots basics, here is an Act of the Scottish Parliament from 1587. This act is still in force, and the text is from Statutes in Force, as revised to 1983. Remember that medieval spelling makes little distinction between v and u or between i and j.

There are four obvious differences in spelling (and probably pronunciation) between Middle Scots and English of the same period:

-es and -ed become -is and -it, as in proceidis (proceeds) and callit (called).

a and o are often switched, as in ane (one) and ony (any), also haill (whole).

English wh- becomes Scots quh-, as in quairof (whereof) and my favourite, quhilk (which). This is thought to represent a stronger pronunciation, more [chw-] than [wh].

-ing becomes -and, as in cumand (coming).

These features are regular in all Scots writing. Other differences in spelling are usually easy enough to understand if you are used to medieval texts, and can imagine them pronounced in a strong Scottish accent!

Aganis extraordiner impositionis layed vpoun victuallis

Forsamekle as ane of the speciall causes of derth proceidis frome the exorbitant custumes and impositionis layed vpoun victuallis coirnis and guidis cumand to mercattes fre portis or heavins without ony warrand and quhairof thai have not bene in vse and custume past memoir of man quhilk is ane oppressioun of the people and ane caus of incres of derth Thairfoir our souerane lord with auise of the thre estaitis of parliament forbiddis and discharges throw the haill realme all sic custumes and impositionis quhairof thair is na warrand Nather haif the intromettouris and vptakeris thairof and thair predicessouris bene in vse and possessioun thairof past memoir of man ... And ordanis the takeris of the saidis exorbitant impositionis to be callit thairfoir and quhateuer they have vptane to be adiugeit to rander the samin to the kingis Maiesties vse....

Forsamekle - forasmuch; derth - shortage; coirnis - corns; heavins - havens; sic - such; saidis - said (in Scots this agrees with the noun); adiugeit - adjudged; samin - same

I hope this taster, despite the dense legalese, will inspire you to look out more period texts in Scots, and help you to understand them.

Part II

Quhen Alexander our kynge was dede,

That Scotlande lede in lauche and le,

Away was sons of alle and brede,

Off wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle.

Our golde was changit into lede,

Crist, borne in virgynte,

Succore Scotlande, and ramede,

That is stade in perplexite.

I promised you some Scots poetry. This fragment, dating from 1286, is the oldest surviving poem in Scots, and thus begins the close association of Scotland's poetry with her kings. The early poems are epics - John Barbour's "The Brus" and then Macbeth. Then there is a change, the king as author. James I's "book", The Kingis Quair, is perhaps the first poem of Classical influence, written in stansas with a more personal story.

Heigh in the hevynnis fugure circulere

The rody sterres twynklyng as the fyre;

And, in Aquary, Citherea the clere

Rynsid hir tressis like the goldin wyre,

That late tofore, in fair and fresche atyre,

Though Capricorn heved hir hornis bright;

North northward approchit mydnyght:

Classical poetry was the inspiration for two of the great makars, Robert Henryson (c1420-c1490) and Gavin Douglas (c1475-1522). Henryson's magnum opus is the Testament of Cresseid, which he retells from Chaucer's version, while Douglas's even-magnum-er opus is a translation of Virgil's Aeneid. These are not straightforward translations, but retellings of the story in a Scottish setting. Surely neither Aeneas nor Virgil ever met weather like this!

Quhen brym blastis of the northyn art

Ourquhelmyt had Neptunus in his cart,

And all to schaik the levis of the treis,

The rageand storm ourweltrand wally seys.

Ryveris ran reid on spait with watir browne,

And burnys hurlys all thar bankis downe.

These poets' approach to their English counterparts is revealing - while Chaucer was revered as the first vernacular poet (ie, not writing in Latin) his work encouraged the makars to write in their own language, not his, and Douglas has something to say about William Caxton's attempts to render Latin into English

I red his wark with harmys at my hert,

That syk a buke but sentens or engyne

Suld be intitillit eftir the poet dyvyne;

Hys ornate goldyn versis mair than gilt

I spittit for dispyte to se swa split

With sych a wyght, quhilk twely be myne intent

Knew never thre wordis at all quhat Virgill ment...

No inferiority there! Other poets branched out to show not only the high love poetry of a Renaissance court ("Sweit rois of vertew and of gentilnes...") but also the plain, straight talking and downright bawdy "... Ye look like a sheipe and yee had two hornes..." - but more of that next time.

If you want to find any of this in Edinburgh City Libraries you will need to go downstairs to the Scottish library.

lauche - law le - peace sons - abundance

art - airt (direction) brym - fierce ourweltrand - overriding

wally - swelling intitillit - entitled syk - such

swa - so spilt - spoilt

Click here to return to newsletter contents page