Scots wha hae!

by Colin McIntosh​
Scotland has been called various things over the centuries, not all of them complimentary. Called Caledonia by the Romans, Scotia by the medieval Latinists, and Alba by the Picts and Gaels, Scotland continues to refer to itself by all of these names, depending on whether the situation calls for stirring patriotism, sentimental poetry, or down-to-earth realism. Perhaps the low point was reached after the union with England in 1707, when Scottish supporters of the union called their home country “North Britain” in an attempt to downplay Scotland’s cultural uniqueness. What would William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) have made of it?

Scotland is effectively a trilingual country, speaking Gaelic, the dominant language in the Middle Ages, Scots, the dominant language in the Early Modern period, and a distinctive Scottish variety of English, Scottish English, increasingly dominant since the union with England. Each of these three is still spoken today and each has had an impact on the speech of all the people of Scotland, as well as the English spoken by the world at large.

Despite the efforts of the North British to adopt a pure form of English, many Scottish words have entered the southern tongue over the centuries, some of which have been recently added to the Cambridge English Dictionary.

One of the best known is loch, thanks to the fame of the Loch Ness Monster. Loch comes from the Gaelic word for lake. Other Gaelic-derived words include skean dhu and sporran (both parts of traditional Highland dress), but not kilt (which is Scandinavian in origin).

Scots words used in English often convey something of the character of the Scots and Scotland, at least according to the Sassenach stereotype. Dour (rhymes with pure) describes a person who is unfriendly and unsociable, while canny describes someone who is quick and clever, often with the further connotation of being stingy. Dreich weather is the weather thought to be typical of Scotland, i.e. cold, damp, and miserable.

Now that Scotland has a measure of independence, this is reflected in greater linguistic independence. The new institutions, in particular a reborn Scottish parliament, have generated some new vocabulary, such as First Minister, the title of the head of the Scottish executive, and MSP, Member of the Scottish Parliament. These have entered the Cambridge English Dictionary, accompanying more traditional Scottish institutions such as the Kirk, the established Church of Scotland, and the Saltire, the Scottish flag of St Andrew.

Last year’s independence referendum in Scotland rejected the Scottish National Party’s plan for full independence, but certainly pushed Scotland further up the agenda. In recognition of this fact, the Cambridge English Dictionary has expanded its Scottish coverage. In the immortal words of Mel Gibson in Braveheart, “Frrreeeeeedommmmmm!”