Older Scots

“Older Scots” is a label given to the period in Scots history stretching from the late fourteenth century – the time of the first extant writings in the language – to 1700, the final turning point in Scots’ progressive anglicization and replacement by English in official and public functions. Scots developed from a number of Germanic dialects coming together with French and Gaelic in the burghs of the Scottish Lowlands from the twelfth century onwards.

The Germanic stock of the language can be traced to the Angles’ arrival from continental Europe between the fifth and seventh centuries. This initial Germanic population would have been supplemented by later migrations from northern England, following the Norman Conquest. These later arrivals, in turn, would have borne influences from Scandinavian, as a result of the Viking invasions, a situation that would have also affected south-western Scotland. To these West and North Germanic layers, Scots would have added a strong influence from French in the aftermath of the Norman Invasion; some elements of Middle Dutch, brought in by Flemish crafts-folk; the learned vocabulary of Latin; and – presumably – some remnants of Gaelic, which was widely spoken throughout the Lowlands at the time of Scots’ ascendancy.

The earliest extant writings in Scots are works of literature, such as John Barbour’s The Brus (1375), though the language was also used as a lingua franca in the multilingual urban centres in medieval Scotland as a means of legal and administrative communication. A substantial portion of the surviving records and documents in Scots from the period 1380-1500 form the backbone of the Linguistic Atlas of Older Scots (LAOS), on which the FITS project is based.

Although the growth, prestige and autonomy of Scots is inevitably intertwined with the growth, prestige and autonomy of the Scottish Kingdom, the language did not die away with the nation’s independence. Scots continues to be spoken in Scotland, alongside Gaelic, English and a number of newer arrivals.

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One of the Laing Charters (nº 7, 1447, East Lothian), housed at the Centre for Research Collections
at the University of Edinburgh and part of the LAOS database.

Further reading

A detailed summary of the current state of knowledge of the history of Older Scots was published as an ‘Introduction’ to the twelfth volume of the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue by Caroline Macafee in 2002. It is now available online.

For a concise overview of the history of Scots, see Corbett, John, J. Derrick McClure and Jane Stuart-Smith. 2003. “A brief history of Scots”, in Corbett, John, J. Derrick McClure and Jane Stuart-Smith (eds.) The Edinburgh Companion to Scots. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. 1-16.

For chapters on specific aspects of the linguistic system of Older Scots, see contributions to Jones, Charles (ed.) 1997. The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

For more bibliographical material on Older Scots, and on Scots in general, see our site’s Resources page.