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    A Look at Scots Language

    By Julie Steele
    More by Julie

    A Tale of Tongues

    At Wilderness Scotland, we love to share our beautiful country with visitors from all over the world: its landscape, wilderness, wildlife, culture, food, history – and language. Or, more accurately, languages. Did you know that there are three main languages in use in Scotland today? English is obviously the most prominent language, by custom and general usage. Although as we’ll see, ‘Scottish English’ is a more accurate description of what you’ll hear during your travels here.

    Gaelic was confirmed by law as an official language of Scotland in 2005 by the Scottish Parliament. Having been around for at least 1500 years as a distinct spoken language, Gaelic is now used by 1-2% of the Scottish population and the Bòrd na Gàidhlig promotes its development. Visitors to Scotland will be familiar with the prevalence of Gaelic signage, particularly around the Highlands and Islands.

    So what is our third language? ‘Scots’ is the collective name for our Scottish dialects. Chances are you already know some Scots words without even realising it – ‘aye’ and ‘wee’, perhaps. The traditional song derived from the famous poem by Scots poet Robert Burns, ‘Auld Lang Syne’, is sung the world over on New Year’s Eve – or Hogmanay, as it’s called in Scots!

    Take Me Straight To:

    A Brief History of the Scots Language

    The origins of the Scots language began 1400 years ago, around AD600, when the Angles arrived in southeast Scotland. They spoke the Germanic language ancestral to Scots. Over the following centuries, the language absorbed many influences from Latin, Dutch, French, Gaelic and Scandinavian.

    By the 1400s, Early Scots was the language used by the parliament, royal court and burghs. There are many historical documents written in Scots dating back to these times. Over the next hundred years or so, it evolved into the full language of the state. There then came significant change after Scotland broke away from the Catholic Church in 1560. Parliament abolished Catholic mass, and the Scottish Kingdom officially became Reformed Calvinist, but there was no ideologically approved text available in Scots. An English translation of the Bible was used and had to be paraphrased and translated into speech so that the Scots congregations could understand it.

    The Reformers favoured alliance with England, and over the following centuries, there was increasing influence from the English language. This was compounded by the Union between England and Scotland in 1707 when the Scottish ruling class adopted English as their language of politics, business and law. The division started to become more defined, between more educated, wealthy sections of Scottish society using English, while the workers continued to use Scots. This became more underlined after the failed Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the crushing defeat at Culloden. What followed was systemic clearances of the highlands alongside removing many of the cultural aspects of Scots culture. Through the 1800s and 1900s, the percentage of Scottish people using Scots faced a steady decline. English-only education and mass media became the norm.

    Scots Language usage was irreversably altered after Culloden.

    The Revival of the Scots Language

    Since around the turn of the 21st century, Scots has enjoyed somewhat of a revival. Scots has been recognised by the Council of Europe’s Charter on Regional and Minority Languages since 2001. In the 2011 Scottish Census, some 1.5 million people – making up around 30% of the population – identified themselves as Scots speakers. Since that time, there’s been a resurgence of interest in Scots, with increased enthusiasm for policy that will give it more recognition and prevent it fading from daily use in favour of English.

    There’s a feeling of swelling pride in our ‘mither tongue’, and the days when children were told off for speaking Scots in school are in the past. Instead, there’s increased interest in incorporating it into our education system. In 2019 the annual Scots Language Awards were established to recognise achievement in Scots, and bring it into the public and media eye. In 2022, the Scottish Government is consulting on its proposed Scottish Languages Bill, which seeks to cement its commitment to the recognition and status of Scots across our society.

    Scots in Scottish Art and Culture

    In Scottish arts and culture, there are important offerings that highlight the richness and beauty of our Scots language. Scottish folk music is vibrant, with new generations of musicians stepping into the fold, many singing in Scots dialects. Check out Iona Fyfe, Malinky and Shona Donaldson for starters. Scottish singer Eddie Reader has a beautiful album of Scots songs by our bard, ‘The Songs of Robert Burns’. It’s well worth a listen to her beautiful interpretations of these classic Scots songs.

    The world-famous children’s picture book ‘The Gruffalo’ by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler has been translated from English into Scots, and also into several other dialects including Doric, Orkney and Shetland. Scottish imprint Itchy Coo has also published Scots translations of many other popular children’s books including Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling, Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr.

    Scots Language and the Present Day

    Although the majority of native and settled Scots may not speak fully in Scots day-to-day, our language is peppered with Scots words, turning it into ‘Scottish English’. It’s so embedded that at times it’s almost hidden from us. Often we don’t even realise ourselves that what we are saying is a Scots word, or has developed a particularly Scottish usage or meaning. I worked in London some years ago, in the publishing industry.

    I remember one misunderstanding when I pointed out a problem with a book cover design, telling my manager that it was ‘squint’. He didn’t have a clue what I was talking about! In southern England, the word ‘squint’ is a verb or noun relating to one’s eyes, whereas in Scotland, it’s also used as an adjective to describe something that’s not straight or level. Cue much frustration on my part, being told that what I was saying ‘wasn’t a word’!

    Scots Dialects

    The four main dialects of Scots are Insular, Northern, Central, and Southern. But within each of those are further sub-dialects, and even sub-sub-dialects! As you travel around Scotland and listen to the locals speak, you’ll notice the differences in speed, accent, vocabulary, pronunciation and expression. The longer you spend here, the easier it will become to understand what people are saying!

    A couple of the more distinctive dialects you might encounter on your travels include Doric and Shaetlan.

    ‘The Doric’

    You’ll hear this in the north-east of Scotland, mainly around Aberdeenshire and further north. It’s an area with farming and fishing traditions, and a good awareness of its own dialect. To the untrained ear, a person speaking Doric in full flow can be quite difficult to understand, even for other Scots! You’ll notice that ‘f’ is often used instead of ‘wh’ so that ‘how, what, where and when’ become ‘foo, fit, far and fan’. The classic novel trilogy ‘A Scots Quair’ by Aberdeenshire author Lewis Grassic Gibbon is a fantastic immersion in Doric Scots and the history of farming life in the early 20th century.

    Examples of Doric:

    quine – girl
    loon – young man
    fit like? – hello, how are you?
    foos yer doos? – how are your pigeons? (meaning the same as Fit like!)

    The Scots Language dialect of Doric hails from Aberdeenshire.


    ‘Shaetlan’, as it’s known by Shetlanders, is similar in many ways to other Scots dialects but noticeably different in terms of its Norwegian influence. The ancient Pictish island society was invaded and settled by the Norse (Vikings) during the 9th century AD. The local form of Norwegian, known as Norn, developed and was used as the language of administration until the 16th century. Vowel sounds are similar to those used in Scandinavian languages. There’s a beautiful lilting quality to the dialect that makes it a pleasure to listen to while you tune in.

    Examples of Shaetlan:

    du – you
    peerie – tiny, small
    dey hed dem a fun – they enjoyed themselves
    ah my mindin – as long as I can remember

    Shetland plays host to the Shaetlan dialect of Scots Language.

    Examples of Commonly Used Scots Colloquialisms

    auld lang syne – literally ‘old times since’ –  ‘times gone by’ ‘times long past’

    aye – pronounced ‘eye’, meaning ‘yes’

    bahookie – bum/backside eg ‘sit yer bahookie doon there’

    baffies – slippers

    bairn or wean – child

    blether – a long-winded chat

    cannae – can not

    clyping – telling tales

    coorie – cuddle, snuggle

    crabbit – grouchy, grumpy, bad-tempered

    dook – dip in liquid/water

    dour – gloomy in manner or appearance

    dram – a measure of whisky. Example ‘Aye, I’d love a wee dram’.

    dwam – daydreaming, not paying attention – ‘Ah wis in a dwam’

    een – eyes

    faff – to take some time to sort something out/get something done, often involving some inefficiency and/or delay. Example ‘That was a total faff’.

    fankle – to entangle, a confusion or tangle

    gallus – cheeky, mischievous, bold

    glaikit – foolish, stupid, thoughtless, not ‘with it’

    greet – to cry

    guising – equivalent to trick or treating at Halloween

    hackit – ugly

    hee haw – nothing

    keek – a quick look, a stolen glance

    haver – to chat away foolishly – heard in the song ‘500 Miles’ by The Proclaimers – ‘And if I haver, hey, I know I’m gonna be, I’m gonna be the man who’s havering to you’

    hoachin’ – disgusting, ugly, smelly

    ken – to know something or someone. Example ‘Ah dinnae ken’ – ‘I don’t know’.

    lugs – ears

    nae – not or no

    naw – no

    numpty – stupid person

    oxter – armpit

    peelie-wally – looking off-colour, ill, sickly, pale

    sassenach – ‘outlander/foreigner/English – heard in the Outlander TV series – Jamie often calls Claire a ‘sassenach’, although initially meant offensively, it becomes a term of endearment between them.

    scunnered – annoyed, weary, maybe bored

    shoogle – to shake, shoogly – wobbly – Scottish band Shooglenifty

    squint – off the straight, set at an angle/awry

    stramash – commotion, braw

    wee – small

    Scots Terms For Outside


    barry – great

    boggin’ – as for ‘mingin’’ below.

    bonnie – pretty or lovely

    braw – beautiful

    brig – bridge

    burn – a stream

    cauld – cold

    clarty – dirty or muddy

    crackin’ very warm and sunny

    dauner – to stroll, saunter, walk idly

    dreich – pronounced ‘dreech’, meaning overcast/drizzling/grey/cold weather

    drookit – very wet/soaked/drenched

    gloaming – dusk

    gubbed – to defeat heavily/thrash, or very tired

    howff – a natural or improvised shelter in the mountains

    jaggie – spiky, prickly; example ‘those nettles are a wee bitty jaggie’

    mingin’ –  to describe anything from not very nice to awful. Example ‘that weather was pure mingin’’

    nippy – cold

    pech – to pant

    roastin’ – very hot (which in Scotland can be anything over 18 degrees C!)

    skelf – splinter

    stravaig – to roam, stroll, wander, ramble

    taps aff – ‘tops off’ – in very hot weather, Scottish men like to take their ‘taps aff’

    trauchled – exhausted, tired out, dishevelled

    wabbit – tired, exhausted

    wee beasties – small, pesky insects

    Some Scots Animal Names

    A Scottish Coo.

    brock – badger

    coo – cow

    craw – crow

    cuddie – horse

    deuk – duck

    doo – dove

    dug – dog

    hoolet – owl

    moose – mouse

    puddock – frog

    tod – fox

    Eating And Drinking Terms in Scots

    blootered – very drunk

    boak – vomit; example ‘It gies me the boak’ – ‘It makes me feel sick’

    chow – to chew

    druthy – pronounced ‘droothy’, meaning ‘thirsty’

    piece – sandwich

    poke – bag; used to describe a bag of chips or sweets

    scran – food

    spurtle – a wooden porridge stirrer

    swallie – a big gulp or mouthful; a drink or drinking session

    totie – tiny, small; example ‘a totie tattie’ – ‘a tiny potato’; ‘oan ye go, a totie bit’ll no dae ye oanie herm’ – ‘on you go, a tiny bit will not do you any harm’

    Some Other Scots Phrases

    Scots language used between musicians.

    ‘Skinny malinky long legs’ 
    Meaning – a tall, thin person

    ‘Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye’
    Translation: what’s for you will not go by you
    Meaning: what’s meant to happen will happen

    ‘Lang may yer lum reek’
    Translation – Long may your chimney smoke
    Meaning – I wish you well for the future

    ‘Haud yer wheesht’
    Translation – Hold your tongue
    Meaning – Be quiet!

    ‘Keep the heid!’
    Translation – keep your head
    Meaning – stay calm and carry on!

    ‘Many a mickle maks a muckle’
    Translation – Many a small thing makes a big thing
    Meaning – All the small things add up (For example: one step may add up to a big distance)

    ‘Ye mak a better door than a windae’
    Translation – You make a better door than a window (sarcastic)
    Meaning – You are obscuring my view!

    ‘Dinnae fash yersel’
    Translation – Don’t anger/trouble yourself
    Meaning – Don’t worry (reassuring).

    ‘It’s blowin’ a hoolie ootside’
    Translation: It’s very windy outside

    ‘Gie it laldy’ 
    Meaning – give it a bit of oomph/gusto

    ‘Up to high doh’
    Meaning – all worked up about something

    Meet the Author: Julie Steele

    “Julie moved to the beautiful Cairngorms with her husband in 2012, where they are raising their children in the freshest air you can imagine. She is a freelance writer and editor with a background in Scots law and publishing, and a passion for travel. Naturally curious, she loves to write about all things Scottish, from its language, history and culture to where to find its best baked goods!”

    View profileMore by Julie

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