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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.
Scene from Henryson’s fables

Part 2. Langage of Scottis Natioun

The hundred years preceding the Reformation was undoubtedly the Golden Age of Scottish literature. It is no accident that the flowering of the country’s literature coincided with the period that marked the highest point in the developement of the national language. Since that period, geniuses such as Burns in the 18th century, or MacDiarmid in the 20th century have engaged in superhuman efforts to revive the native muse and prove that Scots could still be the medium of great literature. For both of them however it was necessary to go against the trends of their times to write in Scots and certainly in MacDiarmid’s case, much of his creative energy was expended in propoganda for the Scots language cause. He had to explain to an increasingly anglicised Scotland what he meant by the rallying cry for his Literary Renaissance, “Not Burns, back to Dunbar”. In that cri de coeur, MacDiarmid was holding up for scrutiny a period in which Scottish literature was unselfconsciously national and international, drawing from and adding to the European Civilisation of the Renaissance. For the great makars or poets of what we now call Middle Scots, there was no exhausting debate about the status of their language; their creative energy was spent adorning and extending it into the vibrant, flexible, forceful medium which makes their poetry a joy to read today. Concern about the use and prestige of Scots was not common in medieval Lowland Scotland, as it was quite unnecessary; from the King down, everyone spoke, read or wrote Scots and its supremacy was taken for granted. The makars were fostered and nourished by a tradition which valued their contribution to the national life. There is only room for a flavour of their work here, with examples from four of the greatest of them, Henryson, Dunbar, Douglas and Lyndsay.

in MacDiarmid’s case, much of his creative energy was expended in propoganda for the Scots language cause

The greatest achievement of both Robert Henryson (1425‑1505?) and Gavin Douglas (1475‑1522?) lay in their translation or reworking of tales and poetry from classical sources in the Scottish vernacular. Taking a classical theme and improving the telling of it was one of the ideals of medieval writers, and in doing that they wrought finely honed poetry which stood entirely on its own merits. Thus when Henryson approached the tale of Troilus and Cressida or Douglas Virgil’s Aeneid, their aim was not simply direct translation from Greek or Latin into Scots, but rather a vigorous creative recreation of the spirit of their work in a recognisably Scottish environment.

The God Saturn in Henryson’s The Testament of Cresseide appears to have been transported from the Plains of Troy to the Howe of Fife, an the founeran cauld is getting to him.

His face fronsit, his lyre was lyke the leid,

His teith chatterit and cheverit with the chin,

His ene drowpit, how sonkin in his heid,

Out of his nois the meldrop fast can rin,

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