Why Scotland lost its tongue

  • Themes: History, Scotland

The disappearance of the Scots language from its native land is more than a linguistic conundrum. It is testament to Scotland's distinctive status within the British Isles and its complex relationship with England, both of whom once spoke related but distinct Germanic tongues.

Poster advertising travel to Scotland.
Poster advertising travel to Scotland. Credit: Sam Kovak / Alamy Stock Photo

Every January, Scots around the world gather to celebrate the life and work of their national poet: Robert Burns. The centrepiece of this communal birthday celebration is a voluptuous, savoury sphere of offal, onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices encased in a sheep’s stomach. The famed and unfairly reviled haggis, in other words. Its entrance is traditionally accompanied by the playing of bagpipes, after which one lucky individual is tasked with giving the Address to the Haggis.

Written by Burns in 1786, its opening lines are some of the best-known lines of poetry in Scotland:

Fair fa’ your honest, sonsie face,

Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

When the poem reaches its climax, a knife is drawn:

His knife see rustic Labour dicht,

And then plunged into the haggis, tearing it open:

An’cut you up wi’ ready slicht,

Trenching your gushing entrails bricht,

Like ony ditch;

And then, O what a glorious sicht,

Warm-reekin, rich!

The disembowelled haggis is now ready to eat, traditionally served with ‘neeps and tatties’ (mashed turnips and potatoes). Beverages are consumed, further poems are read, and the night concludes.

It does not take a trained linguist to notice that the language deployed by Burns to address Scotland’s national dish is far from standard English. It is far even from a ‘Scottish accent’, let alone Scottish Standard English. The language of Burns’ poem is in fact not English at all, but Scots, the country’s native Germanic tongue.

By Burns’ time its spelling was influenced enough by English that it appears like a strange dialect of it, accentuated by the apostrophes that are used in writing to convey colloquial speech, but it was not always so. Though they shared a common linguistic ancestor, Scots and English developed independently for centuries.

An English herald delivering a message to the (French) Queen of Scotland in 1560 found himself sufficiently perplexed by the ‘Scottyshe tongue’ that he ‘well not understanding [it] was forced to speak French’. In the same era Scandinavian, Dutch, French, and German sources all attest to awareness of a separate Scottish language. An Italian scholar resident in England even noted that Elizabeth I spoke ‘Greeke, Latine, Italian, French, Spanish, Scottish, Flemish and English’.

Scots has, however, over the centuries become so subordinated to and influenced by English that it has become ‘dialectised’. Something akin to what has happened to Occitan or Low German, subordinated to standard French and German, respectively. The crucial difference being that Scotland continues to enjoy its own strong sense of nationhood rooted in a long tradition of statehood reaching back to the Middle Ages and a unique position within the United Kingdom. Today it is a nation without its own language, but it wasn’t always so.

Long before the Kingdom of Scotland joined its southern neighbour to form the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, before James VI inherited the English throne in 1603 and migrated to London to become its James I, Scots was the country’s de facto national language. What happened?

Like many European kingdoms, Scotland was from its inception a multilingual land. Gaelic, Pictish, Britonnic, Norn, and West Germanic dialects were all spoken across the territory of today’s Scotland around the year 1000. Latin, meanwhile, was the dominant ecclesiastical and administrative language thanks to the country’s Christianisation. Rìoghachd na h-Alba – the Kingdom of Scotland as it was originally known to its natives – was formed through a union of Gaelic and Pictish-speaking polities, in which Gaelic eventually became dominant.

From the 11th century Scotland’s rulers and aristocrats began to intermarry with Anglo-Saxon and Norman nobility from down south, bringing a gradual Anglo-Normanisation of the kingdom’s ruling class. Simultaneously, migrations into Scotland of burghers speaking various Germanic languages planted Germanic linguistic islands across much of the Lowlands. The combination of Northumbrian Old English dialects present in the south and those of the new migrants produced a language that came to be known as Inglis.

During Scotland’s Wars of Independence in the 13th and 14th centuries, Inglis seems to have spread at the expense of Gaelic to become the dominant national tongue. The first great literary work in the language was recorded not long after in the form of the patriotic poem The Brus, recounting the heroic deeds of Robert the Bruce. Besides literature, royal proclamations, records, laws, and correspondence from the following centuries all indicate Inglis had become the dominant language of the Scottish Lowlands, generally written in the emerging Edinburgh standard.

By the end of the 15th century a terminological shift had also taken place. The Lowlanders now called their language Scots, which used to refer to Gaelic, while Gaelic they now called Erse, or Irish. Gaelic had originally come from Ireland and, despite displacing the local Celtic languages, it remained strongly associated with the emerald isle. This was now reinforced by the language’s diminished status.

The island of Great Britain was therefore home to two independent kingdoms, each with related but distinct Germanic languages and large Celtic-speaking minorities (the Welsh, and the Gaels in Scotland). Though the two languages were similar enough that some people took them to be the same, it was usually on equal footing rather than treating Scots as a subordinate element of English. The English scholar Henry Saville, for example, saw both ‘nations’ using ‘the Saxon language’, which ‘the Scots and the north people of England speak more incorruptly than the south’ due to a lack of French influence. Interestingly enough, this was not quite the case. French and Latin words also seeped into Scots. In English one could propose but in Scots one would propone, for example. This was just one of many ways in which Scots in this period was actually growing apart from English. What linguists would call Ausbau, or ‘building-out’, creating further distance from its close linguistic relative.

Saville nonetheless believed a political union between the two countries was only natural thanks to their linguistic affinity. Such a union when it came would indeed create one of the most successful countries the world has ever seen. It would be disastrous for the status of the Scots language, but the same could not be said for Scotland as a whole. The union was not the culprit for the language’s decline, however. The Lowland Scots themselves were to blame.

The people of Scotland not only abandoned Scots as a language of high culture and state administration, but they failed to ever produce a movement to correct this linguistic course. As Burns as well as novelists like Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson show, Scotland’s literary tradition thrived, often making use of both Scots and patriotic themes even as Scots faded away as a written language. Scots as a spoken language lives on to the present day, and Scottish poets and novelists have hardly ever concealed it.

The existence of a distinctly Scottish literary tradition never translated, however, into a wider movement to standardise Scots and employ it as a national language. It even, perhaps, solidified the role of Scots as a dialect in a wider English-language world, relegating it to the status of a provincial literary curiosity. Scots is seen as fit for addressing a haggis, but not for political debates, tax returns, or education.

All over Europe there are examples of vernacular languages whose fortunes ebbed and flowed over the centuries before re-emerging to become fully-fledged national languages. That goes even for kingdoms that were incorporated into neighbouring ones to form ‘composite monarchies’ consisting of multiple distinct polities. This never happened with Scots. Not yet at least.

In the 17th century, for example, a craze for all things French swept across what is today’s Germany. Aristocrats and anyone who wanted to be associated with them adopted the French language. Their native German was widely seen as crude and incapable of expressing the kind of profound and beautiful thoughts that French could. As the wife of a later German revivalist put it: ‘nothing [was] more plebian than to write letters in German’.

Germany’s most celebrated enlightened monarch, Frederick the Great, who ruled Prussia for 46 years, maintained an entirely Francophone court. Towards the end of his life, he disparagingly reviewed recent advances in German literature, dismissing Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s work as ‘disgusting platitudes’ and German as a ‘half-barbarous language’ that would take centuries to catch up with French.

Frederick was proved terribly wrong. By the late 18th century German had been standardised, refined, and elevated to such an extent that it had become a regional lingua franca in Central Europe, even where the vast majority of people were not German speakers, such as Bohemia, Croatia, or Hungary. These places in turn would standardise, refine, and elevate their own languages in the 19th century, successful revivals that turned once-scorned vernaculars into fully fledged national languages.

The decline and lack of revival of Scots can be traced back to three distinct social institutions that elsewhere played leading role in the development of national languages: the kirk (church), the state, and the social elites.

Protestantism came to Scotland with a force in the 16th century. While its leaders promoted vernacular literacy so that the Bible could be accessible to anyone, internal turmoil meant a full Scots Bible was never produced. Instead, they had to make do with the English Bible so that in Scotland God spoke English. The established Church of Scotland’s hundreds of parishes would promote literacy and religious knowledge across the country for centuries based on an English-language document rather than a vernacular Scots one.

The kirk cannot single-handedly be blamed for abandoning Scots, however. England and Scotland entered a personal union in 1603 when the Scottish James VI inherited the English throne. Though he failed to enact his hoped-for union of the two into a single British kingdom, the Scots-speaking and writing king made a conscious shift to standard English upon his accession.

English, always carrying a certain prestige thanks to England’s size and wealth, exerted more and more influence over Scots over the course of the 17th century. Its golden age was long over by the time that Scotland and England were united into a single United Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707. Scottish politicians would thereafter sit in a united parliament at Westminster with their English counterparts. The Scottish contingent was too small to have an independent voice and instead simply joined existing English groupings. Leading aristocrats made a similar linguistic transition as their monarch.

Perhaps Scots could have been kept alive or revived even without nobles or priests. In Germany it was the work of enlightened scholars in the late 17th and early 18th centuries that spearheaded the country’s vernacularisation. Breaking with the Latin tradition of the universities, the philosophers Christian Thomasius and Christian Wolff taught their enlightened philosophy in German, a crucial factor in the language’s elevation in the 18th century.

Scotland had a somewhat analogous figure in Francis Hutcheson. A professor of moral philosophy at the University of Glasgow in the early 18th century, he too broke with the Latin tradition of the university and laid the foundation for his country’s Enlightenment. He became the first professor to lecture in a Germanic vernacular at the university, but that vernacular was English. Like Wolff, his influence reached far and wide. One of his students, Adam Smith, would go on to become the father of economics. Other enlightened Scots, such as David Hume, would meanwhile become some of the most important philosophers in the world.

All of them wrote in English even though they were from Scots-speaking backgrounds. Hume was even the likely author of a guide on how to avoid ‘Scotticisms’ in writing. Many such guides appeared in the 18th century as middle-class Scots in the larger cities – especially Edinburgh – abandoned written Scots altogether in favour of English. Celebrity language ‘improvers’ even appeared, giving lectures on how to write and speak ‘proper’ English.

This unique linguistic situation produced what is known as Scottish Standard English. In its written form it is very similar to other English standards, but with many Scots features, especially when spoken. Phrases like ‘sore head’ instead of headache or words like ‘outwith’ are not simply odd Scottish inventions but elements of Scots that seeped into Scottish English usage. This is also the root of the famed Scottish accent, the result of native Scots-speakers and their descendants speaking English.

The irony of the Act of Union of 1707 is that despite its staying power, it was neither universally popular nor unchallenged. Less than a decade after its creation the union narrowly avoided dissolution in the British Parliament. Jacobinism – the desire to see the exiled Stuart dynasty returned to the British throne – was a powerful centrifugal force well into the 18th century. These early hiccups were, however, largely overcome by the middle of the century, partly thanks to the new commercial opportunities afforded by the union, as well as a new understanding of Scotland and its place in the world.

The very same enlighteners and aristocrats that abandoned Scots were by and large enthusiastic unionists. Even if a ‘British nation’ never quite replaced the English and Scottish ones, many generations of Scots were committed to the project of a single Britain. The phrase ‘North Britain’ even entered into usage in the 18th, reflecting the strong desires of many prominent Scots to fuse the English and Scottish nations into one.

Those who believed in ‘North Britain’, even if they were not in favour of abandoning Scottish nationhood entirely, had a by and large negative view of Scotland’s history and a positive view of England’s. Their vision of Britain was fundamentally Anglocentric rather than multinational. In Scotland’s past they saw the darkness of religious strife and poverty, but in England they saw the foundations of enlightened liberal modernity developed over centuries through English constitutionalism.

If history was a story of progress, and England was the most progressive force in the world, then Scots had hit the historical jackpot. They had the opportunity to share in the fruits of England’s progressive development without actually having to abandon their own nation. Setting aside the determinism of this view, over the following two centuries there would be little to disabuse Scots of this historical notion. Britain became the heartland of the industrial revolution, it became the envy of the world for its liberty and prosperity, and it built the largest overseas empire in history. Scots and Englishmen achieved all this together, in the very same language. Indeed, when it came to the empire Scots were overrepresented just about everywhere.

The adoption of English as Scotland’s national language never had any clear drawbacks. If anything, it was the strongest and final force for linguistic unity in its long history. In the early 19th century one in five Scots were still Gaelic speaking. By the turn of the century, it was one in 20, and by the 1970s there were no monolingual Gaelic speakers left. Conversely, the romanticised tartan image of the Highlands that developed in the 19th century helped reconcile Lowland Scots to the country’s Gaelic heritage even as Gaelic Scotland was being irrevocably destroyed.

Scotland as part of Great Britain became truly whole for the first time in its history. It became prosperous and its inhabitants had the chance to explore, administer, and settle in far-off lands. The dominant view of union in the 19th century was not that Scotland had been annexed by England but liberated by it. The proudly British street names in Edinburgh, such as George Street and Hanover Street, or colonial Glasgow streets bearing names like Jamaica and Virginia, reflect the new idea of a Scotland within the United Kingdom.

So disinterested were Scots in their own distinct history that it took until 1901 for a permanent professorship in Scottish history to be created at a Scottish university. Two transformational world wars and the building of a powerful welfare state only brought the people of Britain closer together in the 20th century, even if the strongest movement to challenge it since the 18th century emerged at the end of it.

In 1999 the Scottish Parliament convened for the first time since it voted for its own dissolution in 1707. Two years prior, Scots voted overwhelmingly in favour of its establishment in a historic referendum. Galvanised by the country’s newfound autonomy, the pro-independence Scottish National Party swept to power in 2007 and has dominated Scottish politics ever since. Even after the party failed in its 2014 bid for independence, its grip on power tightened, only to loosen in the wake of a series of scandals in the early 2020s and the recovery of the Labour Party under Keir Starmer.

Scotland’s new-found autonomy gave hope to advocates of its now-minority languages, but their hopes have been largely dashed. Since 2005 Gaelic has been given nominally equal status with English as the official language of Scotland, but its number of speakers still declined between 2001 and 2011. Despite the lack of any monolingual Gaelic speakers, street signs across the country are bilingual.

In a sense, the elevation of Gaelic to the status of Scotland’s national tongue is the culmination of a long romantic tradition celebrating the Highlands and Scotland’s Celtic heritage in an almost purely symbolic form that does not actually threaten the fundamentally English nature of modern Scotland. It is a position afforded to Gaelic purely by sentiment rather than reality – a cultural nationalism that long post-dates Scotland’s union with England. There are about as many Polish-speakers as Gaelic-speakers in Scotland today and both pale in comparison to the one and a half million that claim to speak Scots as their native language.

Though it is a number that must be taken with a grain of salt considering the ambiguities around the linguistic boundary between Scots and Scottish Standard English, it is impossible to deny that Scots is and has been a far more important language to the country in the last millennium. It was not ‘originally’ native to Scotland, but then neither was Gaelic. Indeed, few nations in Europe can point to some sort of linguistic continuity to the beginning of history.

The Scots language is clearly a linguistic conundrum that the overwhelmingly Anglophone leaders of the SNP would rather not engage with, appearing too distant and irrelevant in the day-to-day lives of Scots to make it the subject of government intervention. Advocates of Scots themselves have struggled to transform recognition of the language into its active use, the principal obstacle being that the language still has no standard. There are many Scots dialects across Scotland, most under the heavy influence of English. To privilege one over the other would alienate some Scots speakers, it is feared.

This is the natural course of any language on its journey to becoming a national standard. In the same period that Scots was abandoned as a written language, certain dialects of German, Czech, Hungarian, Croatian, and countless other European languages were codified, standardised, and elevated to the status of national lingua francas. The power of English is perhaps simply too much to overcome. A century of independence has not freed Ireland from its grip, nor has Wales fared much better against the linguistic tide. If the bonds of the union are fraying, the bonds of Britain’s linguistic union appear healthier than ever.


Luka Ivan Jukic