One of the most fun and challenging parts of writing Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries Book 5, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity was crafting the dialogue of the cast of Scottish characters—many of whom speak Scots. The day we luikit this braw an’ fascinating langage o’ the Scottish fowk!
I love language. The history, variety, and evolution of how we speak and write has fascinated and delighted me as long as I can remember. In high school, I took an independent study history course to learn more about the history of the English language, and I went on to study linguistics and linguistic anthropology in college. You may have noticed some of this fascination has rubbed off on Myrtle, too, as she notes etymologies of her favorite words in many of her footnotes!
As I sent Myrtle & Co. off to 1894 Scotland, I wanted to do justice to the setting—not just the landscape, but the people, culture, and language of the era, too. Scotland is home to three native languages: English, Scottish Gaelic, and Scots, and many Scots speak some combination of all three, especially as many place names still reflect their Gaelic and Scots roots. Gaelic words, like sgian dubh, are quite obviously not English… but Scots grew up alongside its English cousin, from a common ancestor, so Scots can sound sound tantalizingly familiar to English speakers (and vice versa).
For many years, Scots fell into decline, as many people—Scottish people included—considered it merely “bad English,” due to the commonalities shared by the two tongues. During the Victorian era and well into the 20th century, schools would punish students for speaking Scots, but thankfully there have always been efforts to preserve and promote Scotland’s linguistic heritage.
Not surprisingly, the literary world featured some of the strongest proponents of Scots. Perhaps the most famous writer of Scots is 18th century poet Robert Burns.
Born in Ayrshire, western Scotland, in 1759, Burns wrote in a “light Scots dialect” that made the language accessible to native English readers, expanding the reach and interest of Scots throughout the British Isles. In addition to his own original poetry, Burns collected and published Scottish folk songs and stories, helping preserve another aspect of Scottish culture. His poetry is well-known around the world even today—many people find themselves quoting Scots without even knowing it!
Wee, sleeket, cowran, tim’rous beastie,O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!Thou need na start awa sae hasty,Wi’ bickerin brattle!I wad be laith to rin an’ chase theeWi’ murd’ring pattle!
In recent decades, there has been a resurgence of passion for Scots, making sure that this vital part of Scottish culture continues to thrive. In 2001 the UK ratified the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages, with the aim of protecting Scots and other native languages of the UK (including Cornish, Welsh, and Gaelic), and in recent years the Scottish government has made further strides to integrate Scots into civic life. For the first time, Scotland’s 2011 census included a question about the Scots language, and nearly 2 million Scots (about 35% of the population) identified as Scots speakers. Read more here.