4.2 Dialects of Scots in today’s Scotland

This section will draw your attention to the different dialects within the Scots language and their role and meaning for the speakers of these dialects. Over 30 years ago, prominent Scots activist and acknowledged authority on the language, Billy Kay, wrote,

“the myth that Scots is only intelligible within a short radius and that one dialect speaker cannot communicate with another one from a different area has also resulted in a reduction in the use of Scots and a reinforcing of the local rather than the national identity with the tongue.

I have heard many Scots-speakers say that they are only comfortable talking Scots to someone from the same locality. With everyone conditioned to some extent by official disdain for the tongue, it takes a strong person to speak Scots in a formal situation where people may classify them according to one or other stereotype as coarse or uneducated...”

(Kay, B. Scots: The Mither Tongue, 1986, pp. 150-151)

Kay’s comments are as true today as they were then. Despite recent developments, such as the Scottish Government launching a Scots Language Policy in 2015 [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , the years of low status afforded to Scots at a national level, are one reason why in some areas of Scotland an increased feeling of pride has developed for the various regional dialects of Scots.

An essential lesson in learning about Scots language is that the top 2 local authority areas for percentage of Scots speakers identified in the 2011 Census, Shetland and Aberdeenshire, are both places where the Scots speakers are not in the habit of describing themselves as “Scots” speakers – but as speakers of “Shetland dialect” and “Doric” respectively.

This section will describe and discuss some of the factors for how, and why, this is the case.

Activity 5

In this activity you will learn about the 10 dialects of Scots that are considered the ‘main’ dialects.

First of all, study the map of Scotland below and try to work out which are the different areas of dialect.

Now drag the names of the dialects to their correct position on the map.

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Please note: In some categorisations, Ulster Scots is added to the listings of Scots dialects. It is spoken primarily by the descendants of Scottish settlers in the regions of Ulster, and particularly counties Antrim, Down and Donegal in Northern Ireland. This dialect is also known as ‘Ullans’.

The dialect Southern Scots is also known as the ‘border tongue’ or ‘border Scots’ as it is spoken in the areas near the border to England. In addition, some make a distinction between the dialects spoken in rural and in urban areas.

Consequently, a new Scots dialect category has been defined by Robinson and Crawford, the ‘Scotspeak’, which refers to the modern variants of the Scots spoken in Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow (Robinson & Crawford, 2001).

The complexities of defining a dialect of the Scots language are outlined in this useful categorisation published on the Scots Language Centre website.

Scots is the collective name for Scottish dialects known also as ‘Doric’, ‘Lallans’ and ‘Scotch’ or by more local names such as ‘Buchan’, ‘Dundonian’, ‘Glesca’ or ‘Shetland’. Taken altogether, Scottish dialects are called the Scots language.

The Scots language, within Scotland, consists of four main dialects known by the names (1) Insular, (2) Northern, (3) Central, and (4) Southern. These dialect regions were first defined and mapped in the 1870's. The sub-dialects exist because people who belong to a main dialect also have ways of speaking, such as words, phrases, or pronunciations, which are only found in a smaller area within a main dialect. And even within sub-dialects, it is also possible to find forms of speech used in very localalised areas, such as particular towns and cities.

So, to give one example, Central Scots, which is a main dialect, has a sub-dialect called West Central Scots, and within West Central Scots the city of Glasgow has long had a distinct city dialect. This means that people who speak Glasgow city dialect are speaking a form of West Central Scots and also belong to the wider Central Scots region because they share many features with other speakers in that larger dialect region.

We can then take this one step further, onto a national scale, and say that people speaking Glasgow city dialect are Scots speakers because Central Scots is one of the main dialects of the Scots language as a whole.

(Scots Language Centre: The Main Dialects of Scots.)

Activity 6

Now would be a good time to note and develop your own thoughts on the Scots language and its dialects.

You may have personal experience, as either a Scots speaker, or as a speaker of a dialect of another language, which can help to frame your thoughts.

Or there may be examples online which can help to build your knowledge.

For example, consider and take notes on the following:

  • Do you think that the fact that Scots is mainly a spoken language has an impact on its standing and recognition as ‘a language’?
  • When Scots language is used in mainstream contexts, is it for a particular effect beyond simply representing the speaker(s)? Compare this for example with Swiss German. This is a spoken language only, but a language used by people from all social groups. It is even spoken in the parliament of the German-speaking part of Switzerland.
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This is a model answer. Your own answer might be different.

Many Scottish people tell the story of how the film Trainspotting was subtitled in other countries – even in countries like America where English is spoken as a first language. Does that say more about Scots and its distinctiveness from English, or more about audiences and perceptions of “proper” English?

The Pixar film Brave featured a distinctly Doric speaking character who was not subtitled, but you can tell the character is supposed to be difficult to understand to suit comic purposes.

Even within Scotland where there are 1.5 million Scots speakers, dialect diversity and a distinctive voice can be divisive in terms of whether speaking with a strong accent means one will not be understood by others.

This news article from the Shetland News reports on one such controversy, where the actor Brian Cox had to re-record his lines and tone down the dialect he was speaking in a BBC series.

4.1 The Scots dialect of the Shetland Isles

4.3 A brief history of the Shetland dialect