How to speak Scots – a wee trick to try

Speaking Scots naturally outside the “hame” environment of friends and family can be challenging. People often lapse into English as they are afraid of being misunderstood or even appearing a bit odd.

There are three interrelated reasons for this.

  1. Scots is still a heavily stigmatised language, so any attempt to use the language at full strength as will be noticed i.e you will be regarded as ‘taking a stance’.
  2. Even in Scots speaking areas, using non-dialectical Scots can also be slightly provocative as people may think you are inaccurately mimicking their speech. This has happened to me!
  3. Only a minority of lowland Scots (some say about 40%) have a working knowledge of the tongue. So if you use 100% Scots grammar and vocabulary, the other person may simply not understand you.

At first sight these problems seem a bit unsurmountable. There is however a way of using Scots in everyday speech that takes advantage of the way Scots is usually mixed in with English.

We are all accustomed to changing the speech we use in formal situations like work to the more chatty way we speak to friends and family. We spontaneously dial up or down the ‘tone’ depending on the circumstances. Most Scots speakers can also easily increase and decrease their use of Scots words and grammar forms in a conversation. How can we make use of this innate ability?

  1. People keen on using Scots pepper their English with ‘markers’, wee words like aye, wee, no or nae (for not), ken (know) and so on.
  2. If the other speaker responds by using Scots themselves, more Scots words, phrases and grammar forms are gradually stirred in.
  3. If either participant gets confused or uncomfortable the Scots words and grammar forms are simply dialed back to more standard English.

This sliding between Scots and English happens all the time, usually without thinking.

If you want to use Scots more in conversation I suggest you just try to do this a bit more consciously. Gradually increase your use of Scots words, phrases and grammar in natural conversation and you may be surprised how many people will be happy to speak at least some Scots back to you.


The ‘secret’ grammar of Scots

Grammar is the glue that holds any language together and is made up of the rules that make our speech and writing comprehensible to others. Although native speakers of a language usually have an instinctive feel for these structures, learners usually need some formal presentation. In the case of Scots, however, even fairly fluent native speakers are likely to be unaware of the language patterns they are using.

It is only when these are written down can it be appreciated how rich Scots grammar is, how it differs often quite markedly from standard and colloquial English and how the forms used today often derive directly from older Scots usage. Given the status of Scots as a primarily spoken tongue, many researchers report a loss of distinct grammatical forms due to convergence with English, but what is really astonishing is how much remains.

Until about 15 years ago anyone wanting to find out about Scots grammar had an uphill task. Only two comprehensive grammars had been published; James Wilson’s largely forgotten study Lowland Scotch based on interviews with inhabitants of the Perthshire village of Dunning, published in 1915 and William Grant and James Main Dixon’s 1921 classic Manual of Modern Scots centred on the literary language. Both these essentially ‘descriptive’ grammars were out of print for decades – though can now be ordered as reprints from Amazon.

However from the late 90s there was a comparative avalanche of Scots ‘prescriptive’ grammars, aiming to set out rules of usage. David Purves’ booklet A Scots Grammar was published in 1997; about the same time as Andy Eagle’s Wir Ain Tung, essentially a reworking of Grant and Dixon, appeared on the web. Also in 1997 Philip Robinson produced the masterly Ulster-Scots – a grammar of the traditional and spoken language, again something of a homage to Grant and Dixon. These reference works were joined in 1999 by Susan Rennie’s Grammar Broonie, a workbook aimed at young learners and in 2002 by L Colin Wilson’s Luath Scots Language Learner, the first-ever Scots language course for the complete novice with extensive sections on grammar. Alexander Bergs also published Modern Scots in 2001, a detailed review of literature which essentially updates Grant and Dixon based on more recent sociolinguistic research, providing us the most definitive descriptive grammar of Scots to date.

It should be noted that Scots being a primarily oral language there is a very close link between descriptive works like Grant and Dixon and Bergs and prescriptive texts. This has been less true of English where prescriptive grammars dominated until comparatively recently when English ‘corpus’ grammars based on databases of actual usage appeared.

As David Purves reminded us in 2002 “in any language revival, an essential stage is the fixing of standards amongst the welter of variation that is always found in the untended garden of natural speech“. So far no ‘official’ body has emerged in Scotland to ‘fix standards’ but the publications above provide the next best thing; a remarkably consistent description by language scholars of how the core grammar of Scots currently functions. This is as close as we currently have to ‘standard’. The somewhat overstated dialectical variation in Scots pronunciation and vocabulary Purves alludes to does not seem to extend to grammar.

The Scots Haunbuik Scots Grammar will be published here very soon.

More resources

  1. The The Aiberden Univairsitie’s Scots Leid Quorum’s Innin Ti the Scots Leid (1995) is a useful 44 page booklet and where I started with the grammar of Scots. Strong on spelling and of course grammar with some useful vocabulary lists.
  2. Alexander Bergs (2001) Modern Scots draws together a wide range of 20th century research on the modern tongue to provide the best detailed descriptive grammar of current usage.
  3. Andy Eagle (2002) Wir Ain Leid [] An extensive re-working and up-dating of Grant and Dixon and currently the most comprehensive work on Scots grammar currently available. Particularly strong on dialects.
  4. William Grant and James Main Dixon (1921) Manual of Modern Scots. A superb attempt to describe a standard ‘literary’ Scots based on contemporary East Central speech and (mainly) 19th Century literature. The wide range of sources include ‘Kailyard’ writers (eg Barrie, Crockett, Maclaren), Bell (see below), Burns, Scott and Stevenson as well as local papers and ‘reminiscences’. Available as a reprint from
  5. David Purves (2002) A Scots Grammar (Revised Edition) published by the Saltire Society, Edinburgh is as close as we have to an ‘official’ grammar for standard Scots. Lots of examples.
  6. Susan Rennie and others (1999) Grammar Broonie published by Polygon, Edinburgh is aimed at children (and their teachers) and is a basic introduction, with exercises.
  7. Philip Robinson (1997) Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language, published by The Ullans Press, Belfast. Outstanding scholarship; a re-writing Grant and Dixon for the Ulster dialect.
  8. L Colin Wilson (2002) Luath Scots Language Learner published by Luath Press, Edinburgh, the first Scots language course for the complete novice , has excellent sections on grammar.
  9. Wilson, James (1915) Lowland Scotch Meticulous investigation of the speech of the Perthshire village of Dunning (where I used to live!): pronunciation, grammar, wordlists, sayings, idioms, expressions. Legend has it this was the book that inspired Hugh MacDiarmid to start screivin awa in Scots, and I’m not surprised. Available as a reprint from
  10. The Concise English-Scots Dictionary (1993) and its companion Essential Scots Dictionary (1996) from The Scottish National Dictionary Association and published by Chambers, Edinburgh are the best prescriptive dictionaries available and were used to attempt a standardised spelling for this grammar.

The case against Scots

Whenever Scots dares to raise its head above the parapet, self-important critics line up to take aim. Money for old rope, eh? Here are a few articles that map out the critics’ broad anti-Scots arguments.

Allan Massie– One of the Scots language’s most vocal critics, lays out his case in five articles from 1999 to 2004.

  • Massie A (1999) Scots language is a load of Auld Lallans For the truth, sadly, is that there is no such thing as the Scots language. By that I don’t mean that people don’t speak some variety of Scots, or Scots-English but there is no standard form of Scots either spoken or written.
  • Massie A (2003) Cultural Arena The existence of “what we now call the Scots language” means we can’t be described as a Celtic nation.
  • Massie A (2003) We Scots have a sober and enlightened nationalism – let’s be thankful Bizarre article suggesting that the lack of a linguistic culture to defend has made Scottish nationalism nicer. “For once you start by insisting on linguistic purity, you are all but bound to move on to insisting on other sorts of purity too. Such a nationalist movement is likely to become exclusive and consequently intolerant.”
  • Massie A (2004) Makkin a right mess o’ the Scots language Makkin yer voice heard in the Scottish Pairlament (sic), ….is a truly wretched and dismal little document, though published, I’ve no doubt, with the very best intentions. What it shows, sadly, is the debility of the Scots language today…My own view is that the most we can hope for is that more of us will write and speak English in a Scots fashion, with a good larding of Scots vocabulary. But the phoney Scots of the “Pairlament” document has really nothing to be said for it …The original document  The text of the original document.
  • Exposed to ridicule (Feb 2004) Allan Massie is entirely right: poorly-written documents in some ill-thought-out linguistic mixter-maxter offered as “Scots”, far from doing any service to the language, merely expose it to ridicule, …Language development is not a task for amateurs; nor can it be achieved by slapdash, undirected efforts, however well intentioned. Why, then, is it being left to them? (letter responing to above article)

William McIlvanney, one of Scotland’s great writers adds his support to Alan Massie.

  • McIlvanney W (2002) Reviving the Scots language But any serious rehabilitation of the Scots language? Forget it. A language lives on the streets and, when its ability to be creatively subversive dies there, so does the language.

Other critical articles

  • K Wilson (1998) Scots: Language or dialect? Kenneth Wilson examines the question of what actually constitutes a language (and decides that frankly Scots isn’t one). Extract from a 1998 Cencrastus article.
  • A Morris (2002) Communication complexities rich in verbal whigmaleeriesThe Scots tongue was something spoken only by the ill-educated who knew not high, true English as probably spoken by God and His angels. Scots, it seemed, carried seeds of social destruction, since those speaking it were likely to become wood-hewers and water-drawers“.
  • MSPs in ‘Lunatic’ Proposal to Teach Scots Language (extract 2003) “This is an appalling waste of time and valuable resources – it’s absolute madness. Scots is not a living language, it’s an entirely artificial construct being promoted by a gang of people who are trying to tell us that what’s effectively slang ought to be taught to children”. Daily Mail (London)
  • Scots fails to cross language barrier (2010) “A key component in any definition of language is that it is held by those most associated with it to be one. But according to a new study, almost two-thirds of the Scottish public do not believe Scots is a real language.” Scotsman
  • Fury over SNP campaign to boost Scots ‘language’.(extract 2011) “Taxpayers are to fund a ‘spending spree’ on the Scots language under SNP plans to hire an army of bureaucrats and erect new street signs“.
  • Crumley A (2003) Boldly going where only Trekkies have gone before, Oregon gets to grips with Klingon The author seems to find amusing the SLRC aims “ti gie a heeze ti the implementation o… schemes for trainin teachers, actors, braidcasters or ither fowk uizin Scots in public… ti uphaud an assist ither bodies wi similar aims an ti mind whit they ar daein”.


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