A brief introduction to the Scots language



Scots is the name for the language of lowland Scotland. It is a Germanic language, closely related to English. It developed from the northern Old English (or Old Northumbrian) that was introduced into south-east Scotland (south of the Forth) from the 7th century AD onwards, as the kingdom of Northumbria expanded northwards. It was reinforced later by northern English that had been exposed to strong Norse influence after the Norse (Danes and Norwegians) occupied what is now Yorkshire and Cumbria. It started to be more widely spoken in eastern Scotland, north of the Forth, in the 12th century; by the early 15th century it was well established as the language of the Scottish court and parliament; and by the end of the middle ages (that is by about 1500) it had superseded Gaelic in almost all the southern and eastern lowlands. It was introduced into the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland) in the later middle ages, and by the 18th century it had superseded the local Norse language (Norn), which, however, has left its strong mark on the Scots spoken in those islands.

When it was first introduced into Scotland north of the Forth the language now known as Scots was described as ‘Inglis’, and it did not start being described as ‘Scottis’ until the late middle ages. In southern Scotland (south of a line running between the Firths of Clyde and Forth) it is sometimes difficult to distinguish place names that were coined in the post-1100 period from those that date from the earlier Northumbrian occupation, which are referred to as Old Northumbrian, Old English, or Anglian.

While the bulk of the more important place names in the Scottish Lowlands, such as those of settlements and parishes, are either of Celtic origin (Gaelic, Pictish, British), or, in the south-east, of Old Northumbrian origin, Scots place names predominate on detailed maps of almost any part of this Lowland area. This is because most of the surviving names of the smaller hills, burns, bogs and other minor features, as well as later settlements, were coined within the Scots-speaking period. This applies especially to divisions of older estates or landholdings thimagesat have adjectives known as ‘affixes’ attached to them to describe the various divisions. Typical affixes are west(er), east(er), nether, laigh, heich or high, over, meikle, and so on. All of these are Scots, but mostly attached to place names that are much earlier. Such affixes usually describe the position or size of different divisions of a settlement-area relative to each other. However, they can also describe the nature of the land typical of the particular division. For example, the extensive lands of Cairnie (a Celtic name) north of Cupar in Fife were divided early in the Scots-speaking period and have come down to us with Scots affixes such as Hillcairnie NO3618, Lordscairnie NO3517, Myrecairnie NO3617, and Newcairnie NO3519. More typically, and probably of slightly later date, the various features of the divisions of an old holding are expressed by such Scots compound nouns as ‘Hilton (hilltoun) of’, ‘Bogton (bogtoun) of’, ‘Newton (newtoun) of’, as in Hilton of Culsh NJ8748, Aberdeenshire. Hilton of Culsh distinguishes it from other divisions of the lands of Culsh such as South Culsh NJ8847 (Scots south), Mains of Culsh NJ8848 (Scots mains of) and Milton of Culsh NJ8848 (Scots milntoun of).

The high number of Scots place name elements in names on modern maps of the Scottish Lowlands is obscured by two factors. Firstly, because of their close relationship, there are many elements that Scots shares with English, more precisely Scottish Standard English, the standard form of the English language spoken in Scotland. Because of the cultural and political dominance of English over the last few centuries it is often assumed that a place name element that is the same as English is English, when it is in fact Scots. Elements such as hill, side, and field, are as Scots as burn, brig, and brae, and belong to the very earliest layer of Scots place names. In areas of Northumbrian occupation (especially East Lothian and the eastern Borders) names with such elements as hill, side, field could even be as early as the 7th or 8th century.

The other factor that has obscured the high number of Scots place name elements on modern maps is the strong English influence on the written language over recent centuries. This was reinforced by the fact that when the Ordnance Survey first surveyed Scotland in the 19th century the language mould into which it was cast was Standard English rather than Scots. The result of all this has given a spurious, and often misleading, English veneer to Scottish place names. For example, places ending in Scots haugh have often been depicted as hall, or similarly the Scots word fa(w) rendered as fal. It has led to uncertainty as to whether a place name coined in the last 200 or so years should be defined as Scots or Scottish English.

Structure of place names

Place names can consist of a single generic element, usually a noun, either in the singular or the plural (Knowe NJ2835, Kaims NT2768). These are sometimes preceded by the definite article ‘the’ (The Bught NX8782). Most place names, however, are made up of more than one element, with a linguistic relationship between the elements. The closest relationship between two elements is known as a compound noun, two words put together to form a new word, which is then used as a place name. Examples of this are hatto(u)n ‘farm or settlement at or with a hall or main residence’, made up of Scots hall or ha ‘hall’, ‘main residence’ and Scots toun ‘farm’, ‘settlement’; hil(l)toun ‘farm or settlement on a hill or upland’, made up of Scots hill and Scots toun; and milntoun ‘mill farm or mill settlement’, ‘milton’, made up of Scots miln ‘mill’ and Scots toun. In effect these can be treated as single generic elements.

The generic can also be qualified by:

  • an adjective, such as black in Blackford NN8909;
  • another common noun put before the generic, such as bow ‘cattle’ in Bowmuir NS9942;
  • a proper noun put before the generic, either a personal name, such as Thomas in Thomaston NS2409 or Mary in Maryhill NS5569 or an existing place name, such as Earnock in Earnock Burn NS6954; and
  • a place name put after the generic (with or without the definite article), followed by of (often reduced to o), such as of Bute in Kyles of Bute NR9966 or o Muckhart in Yetts o Muckhart NO0001.

The element qualifying a generic element is called a qualifying or specific element. An element can be generic or specific, depending on how it is used in a name. For example, in Blackford NN8909 black is the specific, ford is the generic element; whereas in Fordmouth NS9850 ford it is the specific, mouth the generic element. […]

(from The Ordnance Survey)

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