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Braid Scots


THERE is probably no presumption more widely taken for granted even in Scotland itself at the present day than the belief that "broad Scotch" is a mere vulgar corruption of " good English." Among people especially who pay some attention to correctness of speech an idea is prevalent that anything, word or idiom, which is not to be found in Webster's or Ogilvy's dictionary must perforce be either vulgarity or slang. So greatly, indeed, has the written language of modern times overpowered the native spoken speech of older Scotland, that the slightest difference of accent from present usage, or the slightest broadening of the vowels, is apt upon a platform, or even in ordinary company, to excite immediate suspicion as to the breeding of the speaker. Not only, however, is the general assumption as to "broad Scotch" entirely wrong, but in many cases the particular departure from ordinary modern usage is both purer and more vigorous speech than its conventional substitute.

The actual position of the ancient language of Scotland among its fellows should be more popularly known than it is; the perusal of books like Malet's "Northern Antiquities" and Dr. Murray's "Dialect of the Southern Counties of Scotland" is confined too much, it is to be feared, to mere scholars and specialists. In Britain during the early centuries, from the time of Bruce downwards, three great Saxon dialects, each of distinctly marked features, were spoken. The most southern of these, the language of Rent and Devon, giving birth to no great literature and possessing no royal vogue, decayed early and died out, though its influence may possibly still be traced in the speech of its ancient region. Middle English, as it is called, the speech of the middle counties of England, and the language of the Bible and Shakespeare, has had a different fate. Supported by Court usage after the death of Norman-French, and made the medium of the best English thought, by the labours, among others, of Chaucer, Gower, and Wiclif, it gradually obtained dominance in the South, and became the national tongue of England. Most northern of the three great dialects, and in many respects the richest and most beautiful, was the language of Scotland. The region in which it was spoken was not large, Gaelic being the language of Galloway and the Highlands. But from the Borders to the Clyde and Forth, and northwards in the East of Scotland to Aberdeen, braid Scots was the vernacular for five centuries. During these centuries it gave birth to a poetry with which, in many respects, and considering the size of the country, the poetry of Greece alone can be honourably compared. In the Scottish vernacular was written Barbour's great national poem, "The Bruce," which, it is not too much to say, takes its place among the great poems of Europe as particularly the Epic of Freedom. In Scottish was written Blind Harry's glowing romance-history, "Sir William Wallace," of which Burns has said it "poured a tide of Scottish prejudice into his veins which would boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest." In Scottish appeared the beautiful "King's Quair" of James I., a composition, according to Mr. Stopford Brooke, "sweeter, tenderer, and purer than any verse till we come to Spenser." In Scottish are preserved Henryson's exquisite rich pastorals and poems, from "Robene and Makyne" to the "Tale of the Upland Mouse and the Burgess Mouse"; Dunbar's fiery rose-heart of song, from "The Goldyn Targe" to "The Dance of the Seven Deidly Sins"; Gavin Douglas's classic grace, and the scorching Reformation satire of Sir David Lyndsay and Sir Richard Maitland; not to speak of minor bards unnumbered, and the rich unrivalled store of nameless ballad minstrelsy. Scottish was the language of Court and Bar, of Bruce on the field of Bannockburn, and of James IV. in the halls of Holyrood.

In the reign of the latter king the language, like the kingdom of Scots, may be said to have reached its meridian. The splendour of the Court in which it was spoken was then at its height. The monarch was alike wealthy and refined, speaking no less than seven languages besides his own. Ambassadors of all the countries of Europe heard the Scottish poets and minstrels recite their lays in the presence of King James. Scottish merchant carvels carried the speech of Scotland across all the northern seas. And altogether the period must be owned to merit the title of an Augustine age.

With the battle of Flodden, however, the decadence alike of the Scottish power and the Scottish language began. That defeat and slaughter broke up the feudal civilisation of the country; the Reformation followed, with its introduction of an English Bible, and the influence of English correspondence and support upon the Reformers; and, finally, the transference of James VI. to the English throne, with the consequent change in the Court fashion of speech, and the influence of the great outburst of Elizabethan literary genius, brought into use in Scotland the language of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson. The Scottish poets of the seventeenth century, like the Earl of Stirling and Drummond of Hawthornden, wrote not in Scots but in English, and it is to be supposed that all who assumed to be the "smart" people of that time made the same change in the fashion of their speech.

This change, however, was in no way general or rapid throughout the country. The common needs of life retained their ancient names in the common speech of the people. Down to the end of last century the most popular reading of Scottish folk, nest to the Bible, were the braid Scots writings of Sir David Lyndsay, a poet whose pungent humour and satire have only been rivalled by the humour and satire of Robert Burns. And even at the present day it is possible to meet with old ladies and gentlemen here and there who on certain subjects find their thoughts run most freely in the quaint and noble manner of the "auld Scots tongue." It was only lately that the present writer, in a country house not thirty miles from Glasgow, heard the building of farmhouses on Loch Lomond side in the early years of this century described in this fashion. The 'walls, it appeared, were then the only part of the steading belonging to the owner of the land, and the tenant, upon taking possession, before inserting window frames, hastened to set up the bowgar (main beam) of the roof, and after laying on the thatch of bracken, heather, or straw, fastened it at the top with birken ryss (birch branches), and made all secure with a coping of flauchter-fails (broadly-cut turfs).

It was the existence of this under-memory of the superior expressive power of the ancient national tongue which made possible the revival of that tongue's literary use in the writings of Allan Ramsay and Robert Burns. The Scottish language had been for many centuries the means of recording and describing all that was strong and striking, rare and rich, in the life and deeds of the nation, and as the tongue of a shrewd and sensitive people living close always to the touch of actual things - spade and sword and spinning-wheel - had come to be as apt and vivid a speech as the world has heard. A national speech of such vigour and expressiveness was not likely to be quickly dropped. When Ramsay and Burns, therefore, appeared respectively at the beginning and end of the eighteenth century, their songs, instinct with the peculiar genius of the Scottish people at its best, and clothed in the vigorous and picturesque ancient tongue, were assured of a ready welcome.

Certain remarks of Dr. Murray upon the dialect of the Scottish poets of the modern period are to some extent true. "Scots wha hae," for instance, he says, is fancy Scotch, being merely the English " Scots who have," spelled as Scottish. Barbour in the fourteenth century would have written "Scottis at hes," Dunbar or Douglas in the sixteenth "Scottis quhilkis hes," and Henry Charteris, sixty years later, "Scottis quha hes." But Burns is not all "fancy" Scotch, as will appear in the lines of his songs that occur first to memory. "O a' the airts the wind can blaw," "Quo' she, this duel will be nae cuif" - each of these contains something which cannot be as keenly expressed in English. Cuif and chiel and airts are as pure Scots as is anything in Barbour's "Bruce," or Lyndsay's "Satire of the Three Estates." Braid Scots was, perhaps, not entirely the natural language of Robert Burns. This seems to be shown by a story which is told regarding him. At one of his places of abode it is said that his next-door neighbour was a cooper, and the poet, it appears, was in the habit of stepping in occasionally for a chat with the craftsman at work. Upon one occasion lie appeared with rugged brow and abstracted air, saying there was a Scots word which he wanted but could by no means remember. The cooper looked up at him, and by way of preparing for the talk which might elicit the missing epithet, bade his visitor "whummle up that byne and sit doun on't." "That's the word I wanted," said Burns, and with a smile of relief he turned and went home to make use of it. -No one, nevertheless, will question that Burns could use what Scots lie knew as well at least as any poet who had gone before or has come since.

One peculiarity of braid Scots, even to the present day, is to be remarked in the number of purely French words which have become acclimatised in it. The adoption of these words is to be attributed to the alliance which existed from very early times between Scotland and France as the common enemies of England. This alliance existed informally as early as the days of Wallace, for that hero is known to have visited the French Court, and to have excited the admiration of the French chivalry by his deeds of valour in the field; and all the world knows of the first formal treaty, forty years later, between Scots and French against Edward Baliol and Edward III., for it was that treaty which led to the Hundred Years' War, and the battles of Crecy, Poictiers, and Agincourt. But throughout the middle centuries, whenever there seemed any danger of their armour rusting at home, the Scottish nobles were in the habit of carrying their swords, as soldiers of fortune, to the service of the French King. In this way an Earl of Douglas won the Dukedom of Touraine; Robert Stewart, one of the Darnley and Lennox family, became in the beginning of the sixteenth century Lord d' Aubigny, Captain of the Scots Guards, and Mareschal of France ; and the Duke of Hamilton, though rather for diplomatic services regarding the marriage of Queen Mary, received the title of Duke, of Chatelherault. The services of these soldiers of fortune were more than once repaid in the sixteenth century by French troops, under such leaders as De la Bastie and d'Este, who came to the aid of Scotland alike against English foes and internal disturbance. Queen Mary must also be credited with bringing a strong French influence into the country. And no doubt the wandering Scottish scholars of Mary's time, like Major, Buchanan, and the Admirable Crichton, brought back with them a tincturing, greater or less, of French words and modes of expression.

Such a tincturing, at any rate, by whatever means imported, remains conspicuous enough. Before the days of drainage and sanitation the rubbish and filth of the houses in Edinburgh used, after a certain hour of the night, to be freely shot from the windows into the streets, and in order that any chance passer-by on the causeway might have warning of the blessings descending upon him from above, it was the custom for the discharger to shout "Gardyloo!" before the deluge. In later times the places to which the rubbish of the city was carried were known, from the old expression, as the gardyloo pits. The term, however, is of course pure French - gardez l'eau, or "beware of the water." Again, perhaps no expression of laziness is more classic in Scotland than the terse " I canna be fashed," which involves the use almost in its original form of the French word fache. A jigot (gigot) of mutton and a china ashet (assiette) are further examples of the same importation. Others occurring at hazard are Maister (maitre), gean (guiqne), corby (corbeau), douce, dour, Hogmanay (au qui menez), moulins (crumbs), caddie (cadet), aumry (armoire), tassie, jamb, gab (gaber), bein (bien), gou (taste), genty (gentil), foumart (the marten), brotikin (broclequin, a buskin or half-boot), and pruchy-lady (approchez), the milkmaid's common call to a cow. It might even be made subject of speculation whether the peculiarity of pronunciation which makes some people in the West of Scotland say "teu" for "to" and "bleu" for "blue," may not also be a remnant of the influence of French accent. Norman-French, imported at the Conquest, was the Court speech of England for three hundred years; but it has left slighter traces in modern English than the tincture got through other channels which still colours the "auld Scots tongue."

Much, of course it must be allowed, of the speech which is used nowadays by the less cultured classes in Scotland is merely corrupted English, mutilated by slovenliness and ignorance. A common form of such mutilation is to be heard in the pronunciation of words like Saturday and Wednesday in the form of "Sa'urday" and "Wensday." Nothing, either, can be said for the transformation of such words as "dew" and "duke" into sounds like "jew" and "Juke." Corruptions like these are made by the vulgar of all countries, and form precisely the distinction by which, first of all, the people who perpetrate them may be set apart from folk of taste and refinement. Exactness of speech, it is true, may be carried to pedantic extremes. But "diamond" has three syllables and "parliament" has four, and it is by nicety of pronunciation of such words that the man or woman of delicacy and discernment is at once distinguished.

Actual corruptions apart, however, it may be noted with what reluctance any new word, such as a proper name, is adopted in its original form by the people who habitually use Scottish dialect. However easy the word may be to the tongue, it is sure in a very short time to be converted to a shape apparently more comfortable to the user's mouth. Boyd becomes "Byde," Lightbody "Lichtbody," ancient "auncient." This cannot be attributed to carelessness or bluntness of perception; it is nothing less than translation from one distinct language to another, and exhibits the transference, by a latent instinct, of modern English words into the ancient Scottish language. The three examples given at random illustrate fairly enough the difference of genius of the two separate tongues. The sound of the vowels was different, and gutturals were much more distinct and common in the Scottish than in the English dialect.

But even when an apparent fault of grammar is detected in the speech of the less lettered folk of Scotland, the idiom may sometimes be shown to be absolutely correct according to the antique northern standard. No more glaring apparent error, perhaps, could be cited than makes itself evident in such a sentence as "Thae folks lies nae sense." The stickler for grammatical correctness would at once point out the apparent use of a singular verb with a plural noun. But as a matter of fact, by the ancient standard, as may be shown by reference to all the early poets, the sentence is correct in every respect. From the examples quoted above in speaking of Burns's "Scots wha hae" it will be seen that "hes" was the ancient plural, folks is the ancient "folkis," also a plural, thae is the form of "those" used by Barbour and all the early poets.

To take another striking example, there is a word in frequent use which is apt on hearing to be set down as mere vulgarity. An over-laden woman in a car or on the street will complain to her companion of the weight of "thir parcels." The expression contains a strength of meaning not conveyed by any single English word. It is genuine ancient Scottish, its nearest equivalent being the French ces-ci, while its English translation involves the use of two words "these parcels here," more aptly represented perhaps by the Londoner's "these here parcels." Countless other apparent vulgarisms might be cited, which upon reference to the ancient classic poetry of the country may be found to be correct and pure language. "Intil" for "into," "ane" for "one," "tane" for "taken," "askit" for "asked," "the tane and the tother" for "the one and the other," all these and a thousand like them are to be found on every page of writers like Barbour, Dunbar, and Sir David Lyndsay. The free use of these words in almost unaltered form at the present day shows, as clearly as any proof could, that the genius of the ancient language lives, and to a great extent still dominates the speech of the less literary classes of Scotland. It would appear, indeed, that while literary languages may alter and pass away, the speech in the common use of a people remains almost indestructible even to minute details.

It may easily be shown that in many cases the common usage has retained Scottish words of infinitely greater pith and significance than any which can be substituted for them in modern English. Of words already cited above, the familiar "airt" and "cuif" may again be noted. These are in no way adequately represented by their English substitutes, "direction" and "fool." And an entire English sentence is needed to translate the common Scots word "flype." In the same way thousands of deft and striking words could be instanced, not only from the Scottish poets, like Allan Ramsay and Burns, but from the every-day intercourse of ordinary folk, labourers, and artisans. Every Scotsman is familiar with the use, forcible and effective, of such words as "jouk" and birse," "caller" and "thowless," "smeddum" and "stour."

Regarding the difference between the two dialects, modern English and braid Scots, the late Dr. Charles Mackay, in the preface to his Scottish Dictionary, remarked that while English was perhaps the most muscular and copious language, in the world, it was harsh and sibilant. Scottish, on the other hand, he pointed out, with its beautiful terminational derivatives, was almost as soft as Italian. An Englishman, he said, speaks of "a pretty little girl," a Scotsman of "a bonnie wee lassie." Withal, the fact is worth attention that the speech to be heard at the present hour on the streets of our cities, as well as in the cottages of the country, remains in its general character, as well as in nearly every particular, the separate ancient language of historic Scotland. And it must be added that to the ear, not only of the enthusiastic Scotsman, but of the expert in word-study, this language for many reasons possesses a charm unknown to our "more elegant" modern speech.


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