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A History of the Scots Language

Billy Kay is the author of Scots The Mither Tongue and over the next few months, he will tell the story of the Scots language from its ancient origins to the present day.
1820 Portrait of Lord Jeffrey by Andrew Geddes

Part 6: The Last Scotch Age?

Two very different patriots from the Scottish aristocracy, Sir Walter Scott and Lord Cockburn, were torn between love for Scottish culture and the feeling that the future lay with ever closer ties to England. Scott was very much a Tory who revelled in the feudal past, Cockburn a committed Whig whose drafting of the Scottish Reform Bill in 1832 did much to create a more democratic Scotland. Cockburn was convinced the 18th century had been “…the last purely Scotch age. Most of what had gone before had been turbulent and political. All that has come after has been English.”

Yet neither really made a committed and sustained stand against the erosion of specifically Scottish institutions such as the law or education which was going on in their lifetime. The deep dilemma of their compromised Scottish patriotism is illustrated by an incident described in Lockhart’s Life of Scott. Following a debate about reforming the Court of Session on English lines, Scott leaves the Faculty of Advocates with Jeffrey and some of his reforming friends:

“…The last purely Scotch age. Most of what had gone before had been turbulent and political. All that has come after has been English.”

…who complimented him on the rhetorical powers he had been displaying, and would willingly have treated the subject-matter of the discussion playfully. But his feeling had been moved to an extent far beyond their apprehension: he exclaimed,”No, no -’tis no laughing matter; little by little, whatever your wishes may be, you will destroy and undermine, until nothing of what makes Scotland Scotland shall remain.” And so saying, he turned round to conceal his agitation -but not until Mr Jeffrey saw tears gushing down his cheek -resting his head until he recovered himself on the wall of the Mound. Seldom, if ever, in his more advanced age, did any feelings obtain such mastery.”

Language figured prominently in both men’s notion of Scottishness. Their contemporaries recall that both spoke broad Scots, and their writings are full of references to their pride in Scots, a pride tinged with their belief that the language is changing. The same Scottish patriotic feeling was behind the publication of Jamieson’s An Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language in 1808, and the founding of publishing clubs such as the Maitland and Bannatyne, which sought to encourage interest in Scotland’s past history and literature. The Scots language was regarded by the type of Scotsman behind these ventures as a national asset under threat. Lockhart recalls Scott’s reverence for his aunt who had spoken “her native language pure and undiluted, but without the slightest tincture of that vulgarity which now seems almost unavoidable in the oral use of a dialect so long banished from Courts.” In his Journal of 11 August 1844 Lord Cockburn wrote:

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About iScot Magazine

The 52nd issue in the colossal series that is iScot The Mag! The magazine for folks who don’t do mags!