© 1996 - 2024



Thanks go to Dr. Dauvit Horsbroch for permission to present this here. First published in:
Scottish Language, Association for Scottish Literary Studies 1999, Nummer 18, pp.1-16. ISSN 0264-0198
© Dr. Dauvit Horsbroch

It is often assumed today (both in and outwith academic circles) that the Scots language has never been used for 'serious' matters. This is because most of us are never taught the history and development of the language. It will, therefore, come as a surprise to some to learn that the Scots language was once recognised in many quarters of Europe as the medium of diplomacy and trade. The reason for this, quite simply, was the de facto position of Scots as the language of state. This article is intended as a survey of the evidence which I have found relating to the status and use of the Scots language beyond the borders of Scotland. The dictates of space (and the need for further detailed research) mean that this is intended only as a general survey to whet the appetite. I hope my example will encourage others to look more deeply into this aspect of the language.1



It is not my intention here to repeat the many articles which have already covered English perceptions of Scots but to draw attention to some interesting records which throw more light on the subject. (See Bibliography) Throughout this period Scots was the language of state in Scotland. Since 1494 the language of the Lowlands had been known variously as Inglis or Scottis. Scotsmen and Englishmen thought of their languages as variously different dialects of a common language or as different languages depending on the social and political views of the individual. The common misconception today is in thinking that the people of this period considered the language of England to be the standard and Scots the variant.
King Philip and queen Mary of England addressed a letter dated 5 December 1556 to Mary of Guise queen dowager and regent of Scotland.

"Rycht excellent, rycht, heich and mychtie princesse our dearest suster and allia We recommend ws hairtlie unto yow, and quhair of laitt within these four or fyve yeiris certane of the subjectis of this our realme have with our gude licence usit trafficque into partis of Muscovia aboute the feate of mercheandice..."

This letter, written in Scots, concerns a Russian embassy to England which was apparently wrecked in the see off Scotland It is dated at the 'manour of Sainct James' and shows traces of English vocabulary (frome rather than fra, forasmuch rather than forsameikle) which suggests that either it was an English secretary writing in Scots to the Scottish court but retaining some English forms or the letter was translated from English (or another language) into Scots for the Queen Regent, even although her native language was French. At face value the first supposition would seem correct and represents the use of Scots as an accepted medium of communication from the English to the Scottish court. (Cameron: 1931: 30-32.) As the volumes of surviving state correspondence show (such as the Calendar of Scottish Papers, Boyd ed. 1936 ), it was usual to write from England to Scotland in the language of the English court. From Scotland to England Scots was normal. Perhaps Philip and Mary were being particularly diplomatic in using Scots as the medium in which they asked for Marie's help? On the other hand, they could have written in French. However, Marie represented the power of the Guises in France (with whom Spain and England were at war in this period) and the use of Scots may not only have been a diplomatic nicety but also a neutral choice.
The following letter of king James VI to Elizabeth I of England (February 15 1590/1) is given here as a good example of diplomatic correspondence written in Scots and delivered to the English court:

"Richt excellent, richt heich and mychtie princesse, oure dearest suster and cousine, in oure heartyest maner we recommend ws unto zow, thanking zow richt heartyle for the gude furtherance quhilk oure distressed subject Archibald Johnnstoun, burges of oure burgh of Edinburgh, hes be zour speciall favoure and directioun found be the ordoure of zour Counsale, in the prosecutiown of the heavye spoyle of certane guidis pertenyng to him and his pertiners, committed twa zeir syne be Roger Windhame, now inwardit upoun thair sentence in the Marschall seas...that thairby oure said subject may reap the benefite and confort of thair sentence quhilk equite allowis unto him, unfrustrat ony mair be his parties fruictles and ineffectuall imprisonment, quhilk can be to him na satisfactioun nor relief."
(Boyd: 1936: 461)

As with Philip and Mary writing to Scotland, James is writing to England on behalf of one of his subjects asking for Elizabeth's help. He does not, however, write in English. As I have stated, it was normal for a king of Scots to write to England in Scots. However, the Scots connection with Elizabeth I takes on a new importance when we consider the words of the Italian scholar Florio, tutor to the earl of Southampton, who wrote in 1578 that Elizabeth I of England spoke eight languages:

" Doth she [Elizabeth I] speak many languages?...Shee speaketh Greeke, Latine, Italian, French, Spanish, Scottish [Scozese], Flemish and English; Al these tongues shee speaketh very wel, and eloquent."
(Florio: 1578: 13) 2

There are few references from England as specific as this, in this whole period, which demonstrate an effort on the part of the English monarchy to learn and use Scots. Clearly, under Elizabeth I at least, Scots was recognised explicitly as a diplomatic language distinct from that used in England. There are also further confirmations of the distinct status of Scots at a slightly later period; in A Brief Relation, written by an Englishman early in 1649/50, it is reported that ' I received also from Rouen, from my correspondent there, a copie of that letter to Montrosse, written in a dialect so fully Scottish, that must argue the secretary no Englishman.' (SHS:1894: 12) In one letter from an English soldier in Scotland (September 1650) examples of sayings in Scots and items of Scots vocabulary are given (ibid.: 134-40). Also extant is An English Translation of the Scottish Declaration Against James Graham Alias Marquess of Montrosse ( London 1650). ( Thomson Tracts)
It is worth noting that many Englishmen regarded English and Scots on an 'equal footing', in that both were regarded as sister tongues descended from a common source. In 1604 the Englishman Henry Saville, in presenting a case for political union between Scotland and England, certainly wrote of the similarity between English and Scots. What is interesting though is that Saville did not claim English as the standard, as he might have done, but emphasised Scots and English were both variants of Saxon and German. In addition it was Scots which he regarded as the 'purer' language:

...both nations using the one and almost the same dialect, to wit the Saxon language. And the Scots and north people of England speak more incorruptly than the south, which by reason of the Conquest and greater Commerce with foreign nations, is become more mingled and degenerate from the ancient tongue, as will easily appear to him that shall compare the two dialects with the Germane, mother of them both.
(Galloway and Leveck: 1985:213)

Even into the 18th century and after the political union with England, some Englishmen recognised a distinct Scots language. In 1730 Nathan Bailey published the Dictionarium Britannicum: Or a more Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary than any Extant. It is significant that in the course of his dissertation Bailey mentions the following 'Languages of Larger extent'

The Teutonick or German, which is distinguished into two notable dialects.1. The Danish, Scandian and Gothick; to which the languages used in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Island do appertain. 2. The Saxon, from which much of the English and Scotch are derived, and also the Frizian language, and those languages on the north of the Elve; which of all the modern German dialects come the nearest to the ancient German, and in this work are called L.G."

In other words, Saxon, as used by both Bailey and Saville, was a general name, from which distinct languages descended, such as English, Scots and Frisian. (Alego: 1993: 226-7)


From the mid-16th century we may detect Scots speakers in Ulster and after 1609 they were organised into a plantation by James VI. To date Ulster is the only area outwith Scotland which has maintained a Scots-speaking community. Ironically though, our earliest example of Scots in Ireland is a letter by Agnes Campbell, the Gaelic wife of Turlough O'Neil, to Elizabeth I of England, and addressed from County Tyrone in 1571. The following are extracts

:It will ples your maiestie knaw yat I your maties suitore Agnes Campbell Lady of Cantire in Scotland hes happynit threw my chance and potoun to cum heir in Irland in yor maiesties realm and is marreid uponn Oneill quha is yor maiesties trew subject ...I am maist desyrous of any erthlie thing that zour grace will accept and recive my said husband Oneill in zour hienes service and subiectioun quha is verrie earnestlie bent thr unto...
(Jones: 1997: 586)

The English administration in Ireland during the 17th century found some difficulties with the different 'Scottish style' or way of writing, and because of the Scots-speaking communities in the north, found it needed to bring in men expert in reading Scots documents. Grant Simpson explains:

In 1624 it was decided to appoint in Ireland an extra clerk of the council to assist in dealing with petitions from Scotsmen, 'whose petitions being written in the Scotch hand are either not read or understood.' It is possible that the barrier consisted of difficulties with the Scots language as well as problems of handwriting, but taken at its face value, this statement records that Scottish hands were indeed unlike English ones.
(Simpson: 1983:16)

Ireland may well be a fruitful source for the use of Scots and much more research is waiting to be carried out, but these brief references indicate that the language was certainly employed in a diplomatic context in Ireland and considered to belong to a 'style' different from English.

II. The Continental Community

So long as Scots continued to use Scots for matters of administration, diplomacy and trade the language was to enjoy such status beyond its borders. When foreigners (including of course, the English) in this period referred to the Scottish language they were almost invariably talking about the Germanic language of the Lowlands. During this period the Scots appear to have had greatest contact as traders, adventurers and settlers with Scandinavia, north Germany and the Low Countries. One example from Dundee may illustrate this:

Ye 18 Julij Ao 1581 Cõperit Androw Stryvilling merchand fra duschte maistr of ane duschte schyp wt tymr fra norroway & gaiff up hes entriss be ane particklar tyket qlk is delyvrit to ye dene of gylde in presens of ye bailleis Judicially
(Millar: 1898: 203)

In other words, a Scotsman, captain of a ship trading out of Germany, had made a trip to Norway to purchase timber and then delivered these to the port of Dundee in Scotland, thus completing a triangle of trade criss-crossing the Baltic region. Beyond trade and 'adventure' Scots migrated to the continent in search of higher education, and in this respect the Low Countries and France were the most important destinations.


We find an early example of Scots recognised by an educated Frenchman from a university background. The Scottish philosopher and lecturer Florence Wilson (or Volusen) taught at Paris and Carpentras in the early 16th century and is mentioned by Barthelemy Aneau in Emblems of Alciat (Lyons, 1529) as speaking Greek, Latin, French, Italian and Escossois, and whose knowledge of these 'he highly extols'. Wilson was a native of Elgin, in a Scots and Gaelic-speaking region, but since that city was Scots-speaking, and we have Scots writings by Wilson, we can be sure that Escossois means the Lowland language. (Forbes Leith: 1915: 8)
In the case of the merchants of Nantes against Thomas Kennedy of Bargany as Admiral Depute of Scotland it is recorded in the Privy Council Register on 14th November 1561 that the queen and council '...ordanis baith the parteis to concur and cause the haill bukis, billis, and charter parteis apprehendit in the schip libellit to be translatit in Scottis be sum perfyte man of bayth thair consentis, to the effect that it may be understand to the Quenis Grace and Lordis foirsaidis...' This is interesting as a comment on the proceedure involved in an international case and the increasing use of the vernacular, rather than Latin, in dealing with such matters, though, admittedly, this is a relatively minor case and not an instance of Scots being used in foreign correspondence. (RPC: 1877:189)
During 1617 Henry Erskine, of the family of Mar, was touring through France for his education and wrote back home from Saumur on 22 December to John Earl of Mar '...if we had stayed still in Bourges we could not have lernit the Frence, in respek of the great number of Scotsmen that is thar for the present, for we met every day together at our exercise, so that it was impossible to us not to speake Scotis.' (Paton: 1930: 81) Though not relevant to diplomacy or trade this reference indicates the large numbers of Scots present in France who formed distinct groups wherever they went. Perhaps there are papers in French archives relating to observations made by Frenchmen and women on the language of their Scottish guests?
During the early 1640s the Scottish Jesuit Gilbert Blackhall acted as a link between the French government and certain Scottish Catholics in the North-East. In his published journal he states ' I did translate out of French into Scots their Majesties letters because some of those to whom I resolved to wreat did not understand the French.' (Spalding: 1844: 137. In October 1643 propositions by the French ambassador to the government of Scotland were recorded as 'The French Commissioner's propositions to the Counsell of Scotland translated in Scots in October 1643' (HMC: 1904: 201)
A further reference, if somewhat more lighthearted, comes from Sir John Lauder who was in France during the 1660s and endeavouring to learn the language. He said ' Any tymes I was angry at the Frenchmen, if so be I was familiar wt them, I fell to and abuse them in Scots, as logerhead, ye are a sheep, etc. Their was no way I could anger them worse than to speak in Scots to them.' (Crawford: 1900: 121)
In most of these instances with a French connection, the references are to Scots speakers having difficulty with French and having to translate French into Scots. It remains to be seen, however, whether Scotsmen employed their language for diplomatic contacts in France itself. What is certain is that Scots was employed in diplomatic contact further north.

The Low Countries

The evidence from the Low Countries is far more diplomatic and formal in nature. For example, in a diplomatic paper by Leonard Voocht and Jan de Warck concerning their embassy to James VI in 1589, which was presented to the Meeting of the States-General of the United Netherlands on 11 August 1590, it was reported that the envoys spoke with James VI and his court in French and one '...Colonel Stuart had drawn up a certain writing, first in Scotch, which was afterwards translated into Latin..' (Ferguson: 1899: 139) This initial recognition of the Scots language is followed by more direct references. On November 7 1594 the Lord of Brederode and the treasurer Jacob Valck reported to the States-General concerning another embassy to James VI during which they heard preaching in Leith church delivered in Scots which was afterwards explained to them in French. (Ibid:155) They were also present at the baptism of prince Henry that year and heard '... preachings, first in Scotch and afterwards Latin...' (Ibid:164) It is worth noting that these two were also on embassy in England immediately after giving them the chance to hear the differences between Scots and English.
Perhaps the best evidence for Dutch awareness of Scots is the book printed in Dutch entitled Den Slach Van Lepanten Des Coninex Van Schotlant, Iacobi des Sesten tegenwoordichlick regerende. Van hem eerst beschreben in Schotsche Dicht, Ende overgeset in Nederlandsche Dicht (Middelburgh 1593) which is the poem by James VI on the battle of Lepanto against the Turks in 1571. (Craigie: 1955: xcvii) There can be no doubt as to the meaning of Schotsche Dicht. In another version, In Scotschen dicht beschreven, the translator says in Address to the Reader:

For as I take it du Bartas himself knew no Scots, and had to make his translation through another, 3 he has now and then not followed closely in the straight path of the king; which to follow well I have done my best, as he will be able to judge who understands the Scottish tongue." (d'welck wel nae te treden ick miyn beste gadaen hebbe gelijck die moghen oordeelen die de Schotsche spraeke verstaet).
(Ibid: xcviii-civ)

There are two indirect references from the end of our period which may be interpreted as references to Scots-speaking. In the first, which is a Contract with the Staple of Campveer, in a treaty between Charles II king of Scots and the States General of the United Netherlands in 1676, of which clause 6 reads:

To the end that the people of the Scotts nation be not frustratt of the word of God and exercise of the reformed religion in their own propper languadge, the magistratts of the toun shall hereby be oblidged to provyde for them a convenient church.. .
(Davidson and Gray: 1909: 430 )

Also "The anxiety of the session in regard to education was more clearly expressed in 1718, when they "took into consideration the great loss the children of the Scots nation were in for one to instruct them to read and write in their own language, and how that their being bred up only in the Dutch was a hindrance to the increase of this church in that when they came to years they were incapable of joyning with us for want of the language." These two references appear to support the existence, during the 17th century, of a Scots-speaking community at Campveer, which, through time, was diminishing through the loss of its children to Dutch-speaking. (Ibid:.312) There is also direct evidence that preaching in Scots was accepted in Prussia (see below).

North Germany and Prussia

Scots were involved in the affairs of Germany from an early period as traders and mercenaries, and, during the 16th century, as religious reformers and counter-reformers. Some of the more noted individuals are worth mentioning here particularly as they have a linguistic connection.
One such individual who certainly deserves a biography in his own right is Ninian Winzet (d.1592) who fled Scotland in 1562 and was made abbot of Ratisbon, Germany in 1577, and '...he wrote epigrams and occasional verses in his leisure hours and translated the large Catechism of Canisius, the Jesuit, into the Scottish vernacular.' (Fischer:1902: 145) Alexander Alane (known as Alesius),who was a native of Edinburgh, was forced to flee to Malmö in Sweden because of his reformist views and was there supported by certain Scottish merchants. He went on to Wittemberg in the 1530s and befriended Melanchthon and '...composed his treatise against the prohibition of the Scottish bishops to read the Bible in the mother tongue...' which was entitled Epistola Contra Decretum Quoddam Episcoporum in Scotia. (Ibid: 165-66) John Wedderburn, a Dundee merchant, fled to Wittemberg 1539-40 and appears to have known Alane, and in years 1540-42, took as model Geistliche Gesänge, Psalmen und Lieder (Spiritual Songs, Psalms and Hymns) for his Scottish version, The Gude and Godlie Ballatis. (Ibid:172)
The petition of the Scottish merchants to the magistrates of Danzig in 1597 records as the Scottish interpreter Michael Kock, presumably for the Scots language and not meaning simply an interpreter who is Scottish. (Fischer: 1903: 17) Some of the records of the Scottish merchants in Prussia have survived, including testamentary papers. These include that of Robert Porteous (Porcyus) in Krosno, Poland, dated 1661. In this he states:

I leave to my sister's son, Johan dasson, and to Francis Gordon and his wife, with the strict instruction to be guided entirely by my information written in the Scottish language and signed by two witnesses

This was translated from either German or Polish. In another will and testament, this time of William Robertson who died at Danzig in 1670 'It was translated from the 'Scottish into the German language' by one Robert Mello, a broker and an interpreter: but this was done with a total disregard of grammar and idiom, making it difficult at times to arrive at the proper meaning of the document'. (Ibid: 96)
An important letter from the Elector of Brandenburg and Duke of Prussia to the Revd Schlemüller in Königsberg (3 April 1668) reveals the existence of preaching in the Scots language allowed to the Schottländischen Nation in Königsberg by the Elector '...sie beide das publicum und privatum religionis exercitium in Schottländischer Sprache einstellen sollen...' (Ibid: 219)
In both the Netherlands and Prussia there were resident Scottish communities who, not surprisingly, employed their own Scots language for administrative purposes. In each country Scots was also recognised as a medium of worship; in the Dutch evidence it is implied but in Prussia it is explicit. It was natural then that Scots should find its way into the diplomatic realm through its explicit provision by the Elector of Brandenburg and in its recognition by Dutchmen who had contact with the court of James VI. However, it is in contacts with the Scandinavian kingdoms that the use of Scots in matters of state is most evident.


a) Denmark
James Sørensen (also called Charisius, d.1651), a native of Copenhagen, matriculated from St Salvator's College St Andrews in 1606, was magister of the University of Copenhagen in 1619, lector of Bergen 1619, and Parson of Fane 1621. Presumably Sørensen communicated through the medium of Latin at St Andrews but evidently thought about learning more Scots though ' His brother-in-law Prof. Johannes Stephanius dissuaded him in 1607 from learning Scots and French.' It is quite fascinating now, in light of the present status of Scots, that it was regarded, at that time, as simply another language comparable with French. (Riis: 1988: 287-8)
Scots was also used as a diplomatic language by the Scottish servants of the Danish Crown. Take for example Andrew (Anders) Sinclair, Danish ambassador to London, who was born in Scotland but was a Danish subject. On 12 May 1610 he wrote to Lord Salisbury in Scots. (PRO: 165) On 16 August 1610 he wrote to Salisbury in Scots again, regarding king Christian IV of Denmark-Norway: "..forder, his hines prayes zour L. to get zour L. Does vrett to him yt zou wald tak ye time as to vrett to his hines in Latin becas he can not ride Engles, and I am not alwayes at court withe his Majesty." (Ibid: 181) The spelling Engles probably represents the Danish pronunciation (Engelsk), and it should not be forgotten that Inglis, as an umbrella term, could mean either Scots or English. In a report to the Scottish regent Morton in 1577/8, from Sir Andrew Keith in Sweden, it was stated that a letter by Morton to Sir Andrew was shown to king John III ' quhilk his Majestie onderstuid weill, becaus his Majestie can speik and onderstand guid Inglis'. Clearly, in this context, Inglis can only be taken to mean the Scottish idiom. (RPC: 1880 :344) It is also clear that as long as Sinclair was king Christian's ambassador to London then his non-Latin correspondence would continue to be in Scots rather than the idiom of England. And this is an important point; the use of Scots in such situations was not an institutional convention but depended on individual Scots who were in the right place.
It appears to have been the practice of the Danish Chancellery to commission certain skilled individuals to translate foreign correspondence, and, in this respect, Scots was certainly specified; on 17 May, 1639 one Jacob Gronnevald, burgess in Helsingor, was given commission to translate all English, Scottish and Irish letters arriving in the Sound. The Chancellry is specific that these are different languages-disse Spro -and, on this occasion, commission arose out of complaints by Scottish and English captains whose letters were being incorrectly translated by the existing translator. (Marquard: 1944: 781)

b) Norway
Scots traders settled across Scandinavia in the early modern period but Norway, just across the sea, was a particular destination. For example there are records of Scottish merchants receiving burgess tickets; in 1618 Jacob Anderson of Friselbroch (Fraserburgh) was made burgess of Bergen as was Joen Michelssen of Fridtzel I Skotteland (Fraserburgh in Scotland) in 1626. In 1627 Thomas Joenssen of Enster Skotte (Anstruther, Scotland) was also made burgess of Bergen. (Nicolaysen: 1878: 32-3, 46-7) There are also records of the Norwegian-born families of these Scottish settlers who continued to speak Scots. One authority cites Karen Mowat, a daughter of Andrew Mowat, who was born in Norway c.1600 and lived in Bergen. It is stated that she spoke Scots and could write it better than she could Norwegian:

Karen. Hun blev som følge av slegtens skotske familieforbindelser opdraget like meget i skotske som norske forhold. Hun hadde hat en skotske guvernante og skal efter sigende ha skrevet bedre skotsk end norsk, likesom hun var meget kyndig i italiensk og fransk.
(Bergens: 1930: 92-3)

Another example of Scots being spoken in Norway/Denmark by the family of settlers is to be found in the diary of Robert Monroe, and refers to Daniel Sinclair a shipbuilder: 'His Majesty [Christian IV] every yeare hath some [ships] builded by his owne master builder, a worthy gentleman begotten of Scots ancestors, called Mr Sinclaire, who speaks the Scottish tongue, and is very courteous to all his countrymen which come thither." Sinclair had been raised in Norway and this meeting took place in Laaland in Denmark. (MacKay: 1885:) The most obvious explanation for Scandinavian-born 'Scots' speaking the language must be the numbers of Scottish settlers whom they were in contact with and the links back to Scotland itself. Examples of such immigrant communities are unremarkable in history but, so far as Scotland is concerned, little research at all has been conducted into the maintenance of Scots-speaking abroad.4

c) Sweden
An early (and well known) example of the Scots writing in a foreign country is the publication of The Richt Way To The Kingdome of Hevine by John Gau (d.1553), who was a graduate of St Andrews and a Scottish reformer. Gau fled to Sweden and his work was printed at Malmö in 1533. This work is in Scots (translated from Danish) and Gau states it is intended that 'al quhilk onderstandis the Scotis tung ma haiff with thayme and reid and wss it dailie...' (Bann: 1855: 349) Gau was subsequently prebendary of Our Lady Church, Copenhagen. (Donaldson: 1888:82) Perhaps one day some scholar will undertake a comparitive study of the Scots writings of John Gau and Ninian Winzet and the influences of foreign environments upon their work.
There are several references which demonstrate that Scots was employed as a diplomatic tongue between Scotland and Sweden during the 17th century. The policies of king Gustav Adolph (1611-32), his daughter Christina (1632-54) and their successors ensured a large Scottish diplomatic and mercenary presence in Swedish territories during this time. There are several references from the letters of the Scottish diplomat James Spens which mention language. On 3 August 1614 he wrote to the Swedish chancellor Axel Oxenstiernia and apologised for writing in his own language but added the letter was accompanied by a Scottish relative to explain it in detail. (Sv.Ra.: Anglica: vol 5) Spens wrote to Oxenstiernia on 13 December 1623 from Hamburg and was specific about his native language ' I have written to your lordship at length in Scots about everything to date which has befallen me on my journey; I could find no one here whose assistance I could venture to employ to write it in Latin...' (ibid.) There are further references to the Scots language and Spens's employment of it for his diplomatic correspondence. For example he wrote to Oxenstiernia on 15 December 1625 in the Scots script accompanied by a short Latin covernote '...attamen omna generaliter ad sandersomum nostra vulgari lingua, do.v. commumtanda seripisi, si sandersomus absens fuerit do.v. Scoto quidam cui fidem adhiberi potes ad perleyendum det' (ibid.)
On 3 April 1624 Spence enquired of the Swedish chancellor in Latin 'I wish to know for sure if my letters have been received, some of them addressed to the king, some to your lordship and others to count Johan Skytte. The first was written in Scottish [ Scotico sermone] to your Lordship from Hamburg on 13 December'. (ibid.) Spens was obviously concerned about his correspondence getting through to Oxenstiernia and wrote on 'Ye 8 of Januar 1625/6 The hestie going away of the berar hes maid me to be bold to wreitt in my owne languadge...I dav not wreitt as I wold becaus ye many letteris ar intercepted be the Dunkirkers [...] the news hier ar yt the king and qwein beis coronet the 2n off Februar, ye parliament sall sit doune the 6 of ye sam mounthe [...]' These letters afford a fascinating glimpse of a Scotsman using his native language for diplomatic matters in another country.
The use of Scots was not only confined to Scotsmen. No less a person than Chancellor Oxenstiernia himself made use of the language. In 1644 Oxenstiernia wrote a letter to the chancellor of Scotland in a language which is best described as an anglicised Scots. For example, he wrote 'this long tyme begand' which makes no sense in English but does when read as the Scots this lang tyme bygane. In addition he used Scots spelling conventions, and we find Scots sic, qlk, sall, lift, be, hes and yitt rather than English such, which, shall, collect, by, has and yet. ( Loudoun: 1/1) Oxenstiernia's writing in this language can only be explained in terms of the Scottish influence at the Swedish court in this period and his familiarity with Scottish diplomats.
The fact that Scots were present in Sweden using their own language for official correspondence was not lost on the Swedes who make passing references to the language. In the Minutes of the Swedish Riksråd (Royal Council) for 20 July 1653 a stenographer or scribe of the council recorded that Colonel Hugh Hamilton (born in Ireland of Scottish parents) had a discussion with Robert Buchan and 'Hammeton tahlte Hånom till på Schottsche..' This record is doubly interesting because the discussion took place in the Royal Council itself, and, not only that, the Swedes understood it to be Scots and not English.5 (Bergh: 1920: 425) Some provision was also made by the Swedish authorities for translating the languages so that we find one William Guthrie appointed interpreter for the English and Scots languages by the magistrates of Stockholm on 7th July 1680. He is described as a Notarius Publicus and a minister in Scotland. (Fischer: 1907: 266) We may compare this with the provisions already noted for translating Scottish correspondence in Denmark in 1639 (see above).

Southern Europe

Records from, or relating to, southern Europe are less specific and far less numerous, but one or two are worth noting. From the beginning of our period we have the now famous report by Don Pedro de Ayala in 1498 who was present at the court of James IV as ambassador from Castile and Aragon. Don Pedro remarked of James IV 'His own Scotch language is as different from English as Aragonese from Castilian.' In this case Don Pedro is comparing Scots and English with Catalan and Castillian (Spanish), which should indicate the differences between the two, as he saw it. (Bergenroth: 1862:169)
On the occasion that Scottish Bishop Andrew Forman (early 16th century) was made a papal legate he prepared a meal for the pope and cardinals of the day ' bot hapnit out in goode Scottis in this maner, the quhilk they understud not, sayand, 'The dewill gif [tak] zow all fallis cairllis, in nomine patris et fili spiritus sancti...thairfor he gaif thame all to the Devill in goode Scottis..'. This story was related by the historian Lindsay of Pitscottie who implies that the none of the cardinals in Rome understood a word of Scots which should come as no great surprise. (MacKay: 1899: 249) This story takes on more importance in light of the reference from the report by the ambassador to Venice (October 1532 ) that a Scottish noble, John Scot, has come to Venice from Rome and '...has with him a Scot, who can speak nothing but Scotch, and no one understood him.' It is not clear whether this refers to Gaelic or Scots but considering the Pitscottie story, Scots cannot be ruled out. (Brown: 1871: 356) In a further report, this time by Daniel Barbaro, on his legation to England (delivered to the Senate of Venice in 1551) he refers to the languages of the inhabitants of Scotland: 'They use two dialects, that of the civilized ( i domestici), which differs but little from the English; the other of the uncivilized ( i selvaggi), being quite different.' Barbaro ws writing from England, from the point of view of the English, and, indeed, compared with Gaelic, Scots was certainly close to English. But he makes a distinction all the same, as most English of the time appear to have done. (Brown: 1873: 359) Finally, a Venetian report from 1567 mentions the revolt of the Confederate Lords against queen Mary who, in battle, carried a banner '...and the banner is encircled by a motto saying, in the Scottish tongue, "I hope to see vengeance done for my father', that is, for the murder of Lord Darnley. (Brown: 1890: 398) These Scottish references written by Italians were as asides to English affairs and probably represent what the Venetians heard from Englishmen.


During the 16th and 17th centuries Scots was the state language of Scotland and so it is unremarkable that its speakers should have employed the language in relations with other countries. On their part, the host countries often demonstrated an awareness that Scots was a distinct language and they were willing to extend privileges based on that recognition, for example, the right to worship in Scots or to appoint interpreters. Evidence is much fuller for northern Europe, though, in this case, I have been lucky in having access to recent research from Scandinavia.6 In some cases, such as the Spens-Oxenstierna correspondence,we see in some detail Scots as a language of diplomacy. But this often depended on the individuals involved and the familiarity of foreign courts with certain Scots merchants or ambassadors. A great deal of research needs to be carried out in foreign (including English and Irish) archives in order to see this process at work in more detail and to identify specific Scots communities outside Scotland. Only then can we begin to answer such questions as; in which situations was Scots employed or not employed and to whom, and in which conditions did a Scots-speaking community maintain itself abroad? I have also dwelt on the core issue of Scots as a language with an identity distinct from the language of England; we can never have enough examples of foreign perceptions of the language to further rebut the assumption that after James VI assumed the English throne the Germanic language of Scotland suddenly ceased to be acceptable as a medium for the above practices. What is clear from this small selection is that wherever the 'lowland' Scots went their native language followed.

  1. See Bald (1928) for examples of references to sixteenth century Scots speech, many from an English point of view. McClure (1982, reprinted in McClure 1995) draws attention to some of the weaknesses in Bald's argument. [back]
  2. I an indebted to J. Derrick McClure of the Department of English, Aberdeen University, for alerting me to the existence of this valuable reference. The book is principally a phrase book consisting of Italian and English vocabulary. The reference to Scots occurs in chapter 13. [back]
  3. [The Huguenot poet Du Bartas had made a translation of James's Lepanto into French.] [back]
  4. A considerable amount of research has been done on Gaelic in Canada and the USA, but the concept of Scots-speaking communities abroad has received little attention. Exceptions to this are: 'Scotland's Three Tongues in Australia: Colonial Hamilton in the 1860s and 1870s', Kerry Caldwell and Cliff Cumming in Scottish Studies: The Journal of the School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, Vol. 31 1992-93; the Edinburgh History of the Scots Language, ed. C. Jones, Edinburgh 1977, also contains a chapter on Scots in Australia; 'Gaelic influenced Scots in pre-revolutionary Maryland', Robert McColl Millar in Language Contact across the North Atlantic, P. Sture Ureland and Iain Clarkson (eds) Tübingen, 1996. [back]
  5. It is woth noting here that a transcript of a letter by Hugh Hamilton, dated January 1661/2, is described as 'in bad English' by the translator on p. 186 of Calendar of State Papers Ireland 1660-1662, P. Pentland Mahaffy (ed.), London, 1905. It is quite possible the original letter had been mistranscribed due to ignorance of the Scots language on the part of the Irish (or English?) transcriber. [back]
  6. I am indepted to my friend Dr Steve Murdoch whose research in Norway, Sweden and Denmark provided most of the Scandinavian references used in this article. [back]


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