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An introduction to the Scots language

This article seeks to understand the principles of the Scottish language and how it varies from English. Let's explore.
© University of Glasgow

What is Scots?

Scots is a Germanic linguistic variant spoken in the lowlands of Scotland and parts of Ulster (the dialect known as ‘Ulster Scots’).

The language is distinct from Scottish Gaelic, which was spoken predominantly in the highlands, islands and parts of Galloway at the beginning of our period (c. 1500).

Gaelic/English road sign at Invermoriston Gaelic/English road sign at Invermoriston by Renata [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Scots and its relationship to English

The status of Scots and its relationship to English has long been a source of controversy among linguists and historians. However, a rough chronology has been established:

  • Old English to 1100
  • Pre-literary Scots to 1375
  • Early Scots to 1450
  • Middle Scots to 1700
  • Modern Scots after 1700

Speakers of Old English settled in what is now south-east Scotland in the seventh century. Celtic and Brythonic languages were spoken in the south and Pictish in the north, although we know very little about the latter.

Gaelic speakers from the west also began to move eastward, and in the far north Viking raids brought Old Norse into Caithness, Orkney and Shetland.

Pre-literary Scots

Tracing pre-literary Scots has been rendered exceptionally difficult due to the Viking invasions, medieval Anglo-Scottish wars, and destruction wrought by the protestant reformation. As the records are scarce, scholars have had to rely on place names, archaeology, and anomalies in Latin documentation for evidence.

In the twelfth century, Middle English spread northwards. It was from this dialect that Early Scots developed. It was known as Inglis, and its spread has been associated with the establishment of burghs by David I.

However, the aristocracy continued to use French and Gaelic. Contact with Scottish Gaelic resulted in such geographical loan words as ben, crag, glen, loch and strath. The language of legal and ecclesiastical records remained Latin, while other influences, such as Dutch and Middle Low German, came through trade and migration.


By the sixteenth century, Inglis had become the language of elites, government, and literature. At the time speakers referred to the language as Scottis – the name previously given to Scottish Gaelic, which was now titled Erse (Irish). It had diverged significantly from the language spoken south of the border.

However, following the Reformation in 1560, the circulation of English bibles and the Anglo-Scottish dynastic union of 1603, writing in Scotland became increasingly anglicised.

By the end of the seventeenth century, English forms of spelling had come to predominate – especially in print. Although there was an initial distaste for Scotticisms in the polite culture of the eighteenth century, literary Scots was revived by the poets Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) and Robert Burns (1759-1796).

Robert Burns (1759-1796) Robert Burns (1759-1796) Alexander Nasmyth [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Further details of the history of Scots are available below.

The first link provides a history of Scots to 1700, covering its origins, characteristics, vocabulary, orthography, phonology and grammar: click here.

The second link provides details on the southern and western boundaries of Scottish speech, the development of Middle Scots, the decline and revival of Scots literature, spelling, dialect and phonetic change: click here.

© University of Glasgow
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Early Modern Scottish Palaeography: Reading Scotland's Records

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