Middle Scots

Middle Scots

Middle Scots was the Anglic language of Lowland Scotland in the period from 1450 to 1700. By the end of the 13th century its phonology, orthography, accidence, syntax and vocabulary had diverged markedly from Early Scots, which was virtually indistinguishable from early Northumbrian Middle English. Subsequently its orthography differed from that of the emerging Early Modern English standard. Middle Scots was fairly uniform throughout its many texts, albeit with some variation due to the use of Romance forms in translations from Latin or French, echoes of Chaucerian words, turns of phrases and grammar in recensions of southern texts or the writings of Scots in exile in England influenced by southern forms, misunderstandings and mistakes made by foreign printers in Paris or the likes of Chepman and Myllar’s English craftsmen in Edinburgh and the use of archaisms in poetry.



The now established Stewart identification with the lowland language had finally secured the division of Scotland into two somewhat antagonistic parts, the Gaelic Highlands and the Anglic Lowlands. The adherence of many Highlanders to the Catholic faith during the Reformation led to the 1609 Statutes of Iona forcing Clan chiefs to establish Protestant churches, send their sons to Lowland schools and withdraw their patronage from the hereditary guardians of Gaelic culture – the bards. This was followed in 1616 by an act establishing parish schools in the Highlands with the aim of extirpating the Gaelic language. Just over a hundred years later this endeavour gained almost genocidal proportions after the Jacobite uprisings.

The Danish dependency of Orkney and Shetland had been held by Scottish magnates from the late 14th century. These had introduced the Lowland tongue which then began to replace Norn. In 1467 the islands became part of Scotland.

By the early 16th century Scottis (previously used to describe Gaelic in Ireland as well as Scotland) had been adopted for what had become the national language of the Stewart kingdom. The term Erse (Irish) was used instead for Gaelic, while the previously used term Inglis was increasingly used to refer to the language south of the border. The first known instance of this terminology was by an unknown man in 1494. In 1559 William Nudrye was granted a monopoly by the court to produce school textbooks, two of which were Ane Schort Introduction: Elementary Digestit into Sevin Breve Tables for the Commodius Expeditioun of Thame That are Desirous to Read and Write the Scottis Toung and Ane Intructioun for Bairnis to be Learnit in Scottis and Latin but there is no evidence that the books were ever printed.

From 1610 to the 1690s, during the Plantation of Ulster, some 200,000 Scots settled in the north of Ireland, taking what were to become the Ulster Scots dialects with them.

Later in the period southern influence on the language increased, owing to the new political and social relations with England prior to and following the accession of James VI to the English throne. By the Union of Parliaments in 1707 southern Modern English was generally adopted as the literary language though Modern Scots remained the vernacular.


On the whole Middle Scots scribes never managed to establish a single standardised spelling for every word, but operated a system of free variation based on a number of spelling variants. Some scribes used their own variants, but this was relatively rare. The least variation occurred in the later 16th century as printers moved towards fixed spellings. This ended in the 17th century when printers began to adopt imported English conventions. Middle Scots used a number of now obsolete letters and letter combinations:[1]

  • þ (thorn) was equivalent to the modern th as in thae. þ was often indistinguishable from the letter y and often written so.
  • ȝ (yogh) in was /ɲ/ as in the French Bretagne. It later changed to /ŋ/ or /nj/ leading to the modern spellings with z and y as in Menzies /ˈmɪŋʌs/ and Cunyie /ˈkʌnjiː/.
  • quh [xw] was equivalent to the modern wh.
  • sch was equivalent to the modern sh.
  • A ligature of long s and short s, similar to German ß, is sometimes used for s.
  • The initial ff was a stylised single f.
  • The inflection -ys, -is was realised /ɪz/ after sibilate and affricate consonants and other voiced consonants, and /ɪs/ after other voiceless consonants,[2] later contracted to /z/ and /s/ as in Modern Scots -s. The spelling -ys or -is also occurred in other words such as Inglis [ˈɪŋlɪs] and Scottis [ˈskotɪs] . The older Scots spelling surviving in place names such as Fowlis [fʌulz], Glamis [ɡlɑːmz] and Wemyss [wimz].
  • d after an n was often (and still is) silent i.e. barrand is [ˈbarən] = barren.
  • i and j were often interchanged.
  • h was oftten silent.
  • l after a and o had become vocalised and remained in use as an orthographic device to indicate vowel length. Hence the place names Balmalcolm /ˈbɑːməkoːm/, Falkirk /ˈfɑːkɪrk/, Kirkcaldy /kərˈkɑːdi/, Culross /ˈkuːrəs/ and Culter /ˈkuːtər/.
  • i after a vowel was also used to denote vowel length, e.g. ai /aː/, ei /eː/ oi /oː/ and ui /øː/.
  • u, v and w were often interchanged.
  • After -ch and -th, some scribes affixed a pleonastic final -t (-cht, -tht); this was unpronounced.
  • The word ane represented the numeral ane as well as the indefinite article an and a, and was pronounced similar to Modern Scots usage. For example, Ane Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis was pronounced a satyre o the thrie estaits.
  • The verbal noun (gerund) -yng (-ing) differentiated itself from the present participle -and /ən/,[3] in Middle Scots, for example techynge, cryand and bydand—-the motto of the Gordon Highlanders. Both the verbal noun and present participle had generally merged to /ən/ by 1700.[4]


The development of Middle Scots vowels:[5]

Middle Scots
Long Vowels
1: ei ɛ(ː)i
2: i(ː)
3: ɛː
4: ɛː e(ː)
5: o̞ː
6: u(ː)
6a: u̞lː#, u̞lːC u̞l öl
7: øː ø(ː) () → øː
8a: ai# → ɛi ɛi
8: aiː æi ei
8b: ?äː#, ?ɑː# → e̞ː
9: o̞i o̞i
10: ui u̞i öi
11: ei i#
12: au ɑː(aː) ɑː(aː)
12a: al#, alC# ↗ → al al
13: o̞u o̞u o̞u
13a: ol     ↗ → ol
14a: iuiu iu iu, ju
14b: ɛːuɛu     ↗
Short Vowels
15: ɪ ɪ (ɛ̽) → ɪ(ɛ̽)
16: ɛ ɛ ɛ
17: a a a
18: o o
19: ö

The Scottish Vowel Length Rule is assumed to have come into being between the early Middle Scots and late Middle Scots period. Here vowel length is conditioned by phonetic and morphemic environment. The affected vowels tended to be realised fully long in end-stressed syllables before voiced oral continuants except /l/, in hiatus, before word or morpheme boundaries and before /rd/ and /dʒ/.

The major differences to contemporary southern English were the now well established early merger of /ei/ with /e/ (dey 'die', ley 'lie'), early 15th century l-vocalisation where /al/ (except intervocalically and before /d/), /ol/ and usually /ul/ merged with /au/, /ou/ and /uː/, medial and final /v/ was lost (deil 'devil', ser 'serve'). The Great Vowel Shift occurred partially, /u/ and /øː/ remained unaffected, /ɔː/ became /oː/, /iː, , ɛː/ and /aː/ became /ɛi, , eː/ and /ɛː/.


Sample text

On Praying in Latin. by Nicol Burne (1581)
An anti-reformation pamphlet printed abroad and circulated in Scotland.

B. Thair be tua kynd of prayeris in the kirk, the
ane is priuat, quhilk euerie man sayis be him self, the
vthir is publik, quhilk the preistis sayis in the name of
the hail kirk. As to the priuate prayeris, na Catholik
denyis bot it is verie expedient that euerie man
pray in his auin toung, to the end he vndirstand that
quhilk he sayis, and that thairbie the interior prayer
of the hairt may be the mair valkinnit, and conseruit
the bettir; and gif, onie man pray in ane vther toung,
it is also expedient that he vnderstand the mening of
the vordis at the lest. For the quhilk caus in the
catholik kirk the parentis or godfatheris ar obleist
to learne thame quhom thay hald in baptisme the
formes of prayeris and beleif, and instruct thame
sufficiently thairin, sua that thay vndirstand the
same: Albeit the principal thing quhilk God requiris
is the hairt, that suppois he quha prayis vndirstand
nocht perfytlie the vordis quhilk he spekis, yit God
quha lukis in the hairt, vill nocht lat his prayer be in
vane. As to the publik prayeris of the kirk, it is not
necessar that the pepill vndirstand thame, becaus it
is nocht the pepill quha prayis, bot the preistis in the
name of the hail kirk, and it is aneuche that thay
assist be deuotione liftand vp thair myndis to God or
saying thair auin priuate oraisonis, and that be thair
deuotione thay may be maid participant of the kirk.
As in the synagogue of the Ieuis, the peopill kneu not
quhat all thay cerimonies signifeit, quhilk vas keipit
be the preistis and vtheris in offering of thair sacri-
fices and vther vorshipping of god, and yit thay
did assist vnto thame; ye, sum of the preistis thame
selfis miskneu the significatione of thir cerimoneis
Than gif it vas aneuche to the pepill to vndirstand
that in sik ane sacrifice consisted the vorshipping of
God, suppois thay had not sua cleir ane vndirstand-
ing of euerie thing that vas done thairin, sua in the
catholik kirk, quhen the people assistis to the sacrifice
of the Mess, thay acknaulege that thairbie God is
vorshippit, and that it is institute for the remem-
brance of Christis death and passione. Albeit thay
vndirstand nocht the Latine toung, yit thay ar not
destitut of the vtilitie and fruit thairof. And it is
nocht vithout greit caus that as in the inscrptione
and titil quhilk pilat fixed vpone the croce of Christ
Iesus thir thre toungis var vritt in, Latine, Greik,
and Hebreu, sua in the sacrifice and the publik prayeris
of the kirk thay ar cheiflie retenit for the con-
seruatione of vnitie in the kirk and nationis amang
thame selfis; for, gif al thingis var turnit in the
propir langage of euerie cuntrey, na man vald studie
to the Latine toung, and thairbie al communicatione
amangis Christiane pepil vald schortlie be tane auay,
and thairbie eftir greit barbaritie inseu. Mairatour
sik publique prayeris and seruice ar keipit mair
perfytlie in thair auin integritie vithout al corrup-
tione; for gif ane natione vald eik or pair onie
thing, that vald be incontinent remarkt and reprouit
be vther nationis, quhilk culd not be, gif euerie
natione had al thai thingis turnit in the auin propir
langage; as ye may se be experience, gif ye vald
confer the prayeris of your deformit kirkis, togidder
vith the innumerabil translationis of the psalmes,
quihlk ar chaingit according to euerie langage in
the quhilk thay ar turnit. It is not than vithout
greit caus, and ane special instinctione of the halie
Ghaist, that thir toungis foirspokin hes bene,
as thay vil be retenit to the end of the varld. And
quhen the Ieuis sall imbrace the Euangel than sall
the sacrifice and other publik prayeris be in the
Hebreu toung, according to that quhilk I said befoir,
that on the Croce of Christ thai thrie toungis onlie
var vrittin, to signifie that the kirk of Christ suld
vse thay thre toungis cheiflie in his vorshipping, as
the neu and auld testament ar in thir thre toungis
in greitast authoritie amangis al pepill.

See also


  1. ^ Smith, G. Gregory (1902). Specimens of Middle Scots. Edinburgh: W. Blackwood and Sons. http://books.google.com/books?id=GpglAAAAMAAJ. Retrieved 2008-02-17. 
  2. ^ King A. The Inflectional Morphology of Older Scots in Jones C. (ed) The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Edinburgh,University of Edinburgh Press. p.161
  3. ^ King A. The Inflectional Morphology of Older Scots in Jones C. (ed) The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Edinburgh,University of Edinburgh Press. p.180
  4. ^ Beal J. Syntax and Morphology in Jones C. (ed) The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Edinburgh,University of Edinburgh Press. p.356
  5. ^ Aitken, A.J. (2002) Macafee C. (Ed) The Older Scots Vowels: A History of the Stressed Vowels of Older Scots From the Beginnings to the Eighteenth Century. Edinburgh, The Scottish Text Society. ISBN 1-897976-18-6

Further reading

  • A History of Scots to 1700 in A Dictionary of Older Scots Vol. 12. Oxford University Press 2002.
  • Aitken, A.J. (1977) How to Pronounce Older Scots in Bards and Makars. Glasgow, Glasgow University Press.
  • Jones C. (ed) The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, Edinburgh, University of Edinburgh Press. ISBN 0-7486-0754-4

External links

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