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Why Scots?

Welcome to this course on Scots, one of the three indigenous languages, native to the British Isles, spoken in Scotland alongside English and Scottish Gaelic. Scots only received official recognition as a language in its own right in 2015, when the Scottish Government published its Scots Language Policy. This also resulted in recognition by the UK government and the European Union.

As opposed to English and Gaelic, Scots is a non-standard language. This means that it does not have a written standard and has less ‘institutional support or sanction [compared to] a standard language. Like any dialect/language however, it has its own vocabulary and an internally consistent grammar and syntax; and it [is] spoken using […] a variety of accents’. As a non-standard language, Scots ‘has historically been stigmatised, and a debate continues about the extent to which non-standard [use of Scots] should be encouraged, and even simply tolerated, [e.g.] in education’ (‘What is the difference between standard and non-standard languages? Pal, 2018).

When exploring this debate in depth throughout this course, you will become aware that the story of Scots can be told in two versions: the official history of Scots as told through policy changes, and the ‘lived experiences’ of Scots-speaking people.

Despite differing points of view, Scots remains an essential part of Scotland, its history, culture and identity. In accordance with this, the Scots Language Policy published by the Scottish Government in 2015 outlines the reasons why it is important to engage with and promote the Scots language:

Scots is an essential element of the culture and heritage of Scotland. For many of us, it is a familiar aspect of our song, poetry and literature and a recognised feature of how we express ourselves in our community life. The Scots language is only spoken within Scotland and it is not used anywhere else in the world by a community of significant number or extent. Therefore steps need to be taken within Scotland to ensure its preservation.

The Scottish Government will promote and support Scots, and encourage its respect and recognition in order that, what for many is the language of the home, can be used in other areas of Scottish life.

This course aims to contribute to realising the vision outlined in the Scots Language Policy.

The course

This course is not a conventional language course – it teaches the Scots language through the culture where it is spoken, underlining the role of Scots in Scottish society past and present. The course has been written by 16 different authors who are prominent individuals and experts in the field of Scots language and culture. These authors bring their expertise and individual viewpoints to this course and your learning, yet their units also connect with current debates, publications and the observations of others.

Aims and objectives

The course is written for a wide-ranging audience.

If you already speak Scots, you will be able to learn more about the role of the language in Scottish history and life in today’s Scotland, its importance for many Scottish people’s sense of identity, its prestige in some parts of society, and reasons for the lack of it in others. You will establish that Scots is a language in its own right with a wide range of dialects spoken in most parts of Scotland. You will discover where many Scots words come from and how their use has changed over time and, last but not least, that speakers of Scots as well as English, or more languages, should be considered bi- or multilingual.

If you speak little or no Scots, you will, in addition to the above, be able to develop your understanding of written and spoken Scots in different dialects, as well as the structure of the language. You will also be able to practise writing and speaking Scots and build your Scots vocabulary.

Alongside lots of Scots words and phrases, this course teaches the following key aspects of Scots as a living language:

  • its use and recognition in Scotland today

  • its history,

  • its links with other European languages

  • its vocabulary

  • its grammar

  • its use in different literary genres and other art forms.

How to study this course

The course is designed to cater for different study approaches and intentions. You can study this course by, for example:

  • following the chronological order of the units and going through all parts of the units step-by-step
  • ‘dipping’ in and out of the course according to your specific interests
  • focusing on the culture element, i.e. if you are a confident speaker of Scots
  • studying the core unit materials first of all and then returning to the Further Reading sections at a later stage.

We estimate that you will spend 2 to 3 hours studying each unit, depending on your previous knowledge of Scots language, your level of academic skills, and the intensity of your engagement. Please note that the study time estimate only takes into account the engagement with the core study materials.

Benefits of enrolment

You will be able to make the most of your study when being enrolled as a learner on this course, as being an enrolled learner allows you to use all the features the course has to offer.

Please note that you also need to be enrolled on the course and complete parts 1 and 2 in order to gain the course badge and statement of participation.

Course structure

The course consists of two parts, which each contain 10 units.

Part 1

This part requires academic skills at Higher Education introductory level.

Study level language

Part 1 contains the following units:

  1. Scots today by Matthew Fitt

  2. Vocabulary (old and new) by Diane Anderson

  3. Education by Simon Hall

  4. Dialect diversity by Bruce Eunson

  5. Politics by Ashley Douglas

  6. Food and drink by Annie Mattheson

  7. Arts and crafts by Liz Niven

  8. Scots and pport by Ged O’Brien

  9. Drama, television and film by Ian Brown

  10. Scots and work by Bruce Eunson.

Part 2

This part requires academic skills at Higher Education intermediate level.

Study level language

Part 2 contains the following units:

  1. History and linguistic development of Scots by Simon Hall

  2. Scots song by Steve Byrne

  3. Storytelling, comedy and popular culture by Donald Smith

  4. Scots and the history of Scotland by James Robertson

  5. Scots and religion by Donald Smith

  6. Scots abroad by Billy Kay

  7. Grammar by Christine Robinson

  8. Literature – poetry by Alan Riach

  9. Literature – prose by Alan Riach

  10. Standardisation of Scots by Michael Dempster.

Unit structure

All units in parts 1 and 2 adopt the same template and consist of the following core elements:

  1. Introduction

  2. Handsel

  3. Content sub-sections

  4. What I have learned

  5. Further research

  6. References

  7. Acknowledgements.

This course teaches you through four main aspects:

  1. Content input – which provides you with subject matter related to the topic of the unit

  2. Activities – which guide you through the learning by explaining how to work with the content

  3. Answers – which give you an indication of the kind of things you should be taking away from this course, whether your answers to the questions in the activities were correct, and we provide model answers to show how you could have answered questions

  4. Resources – which you can use to undertake your own further research into aspects taught in the units.

Learning the Scots language

Each unit comprises specific features to help you:

  • familiarise yourself with the Scots language

  • learn through acquiring new vocabulary and developing your receptive skills

  • develop your productive skills by writing and speaking.

1 Handsel

This feature introduces you to two Scots words related to the content of the unit. The Handsel also shows examples of how these words are used in context, and you will see an image reflecting the meaning of the words. You will be able to listen to spoken example sentences, record yourself speaking them, and then compare your pronunciation with the model.

Each Handsel links to the entry for the word in the Dictionary of the Scots Language to encourage you to explore the meaning and history of the words further.

Here an example of this for the word Handsel.

  • Handsel
  • Definition: a gift, bestowed to commemorate an inaugural occasion, event or season; a first payment received by a trader bringing good luck; a first taste or experience; a present of food.

    • Example sentence: “Come awa', Mrs Timmerman, an gie's hansel, an' I'll gie ye th' pick o' ma pack” (Helen Beaton, At the Back o' Benachie, 1915).

    • English translation: “Come on, Mrs Timmerman, be my first customer and I’ll give you the best of my lot.”
Described image
Giving flowers

Further reading

Find out some more about the tradition of a Handsel when reading about the “Mareel” project, a music, cinema and creative industries centre on Lerwick’s quayside. As the Mareel was being built, during the construction phase, people were invited to record their feelings for the building in the form of a hansel, which were then collected in the form of glass jars. The jars were then buried within the walls of the building. There is a link here with more information blog/ hansel-for-mareel-project-to-launch-on-23-december

2 Reading

You will come across many different extracts for reading in Scots. These will not only help you learn to read the language, they will also exemplify the differences in spelling Scots words that occur due to the fact that Scots is a non-standard language. The course uses a wide range of types of written texts in Scots from personal letters to policy documents.

You will work on translating parts of reading texts from Scots into English to find out more about the differences between and similarities of both languages.

Please note that all Scots words in the course are written in italics, or in standard font should the surrounding text be in italics.

3 Listening

To support you in learning to understand spoken Scots, the course will provide you with a wide range of audio resources alongside transcripts of recordings and study tips on how you can work on developing your listening skills.

In addition, you will find many links to audio-visual resources in which people speak different Scots dialects.

4 Writing

Although there is no commonly agreed standard for written Scots, you will gradually develop your writing skills in Scots using words from different Scots dialects. In connection with being exposed to a variety of Scots examples in different text types and using the knowledge of Scots grammar you will acquire, you will be guided in starting to write in Scots.

5 Speaking

To help you learn to speak some Scots and develop a good awareness of Scots pronunciation in different dialects, you will be introduced to different speakers and use the recording and playback tool, you will be able to practise imitating the pronunciation of words, phrases, sentences and longer speech of these speakers.

6 Language links

Through the feature of the ‘Language links’ you will be taught how Scots has close links with many other European languages. You will learn to identify similarities in words from other languages with Scots words and expressions, and you will explore the origins of foreign words used in Scots and how these came to be included in Scots vocabulary.

7 Dictionary skills

This course teaches you how to work effectively with the Dictionary of the Scots Language to help you explore nuances of meaning in Scots words and expressions, translate from and, partly, into Scots, and to take your study of the Scots language further on your own.

How to record your learning and monitor your progress

1 Activities

Each unit starts with an introduction and a list of its key learning objectives. This is followed by Activity 1, which has a similar format in each unit. This activity is designed for you to make a note of:

  • what you might already know about the topic of the unit

  • what you might expect to find out in the unit.

At the end of each unit, you will revisit what you have written in Activity 1. This happens in the last activity of the section, labelled 'What I have learned', which is part of every unit. There, you will be able to see what you noted in Activity 1 and compare the notes you made at the start with the things you have actually learned throughout the unit, ranging from new Scots words and sentences, useful sources and links to external websites, to specific aspects of the unit topic.

This last activity is designed to help you consolidate what you have studied and decide what you want to take away from each unit, depending on your previous knowledge and individual interests.

Please note: Throughout the course you will be making notes in free text boxes, which are only visible to you. These will be there for you to look back at as you progress through the course. In addition, in some text boxes the information is stored and what you wrote is shown to you again later in the section.

There are also activities which allow you to record your spoken Scots. These recordings are saved on the course so that you can revisit them and your recordings can only be accessed by you.

However, in order to be able to see all your notes and replay your voice recordings, it is important that you do not clear your browser history for this course site, otherwise they will be lost.

Also note: If you are an Apple Mac user, it is important to know that the Safari browser versions 12 onwards do not support the Java software needed to use the tool for listening and making audio recordings. Using an alternative, such as the free Firefox browser, you can enable and use this tool.

Finally: You might find that some of the drag-and-drop activities are difficult to do on your screen. In these cases please use your browser’s zoom function to be able to see all items of these activities.

2 Your own learning log

As you go through each unit, we suggest you keep a learning log by taking notes on paper, in a Word document or any other format of your choice on aspects that are of particular interest to you. This will then constitute your summary of key things to take away from each unit.

To help you identify the parts of the course where it is useful to reflect and take notes you will see this icon.

In addition, you might want to take a note of some of the weblinks and other resources introduced in each unit for future reference.

3 End-of-course quiz and digital badge

By studying this course, you will have the opportunity to gain an Open University digital badge and statement of participation for your achievement. More information on badges is given in the next section Badge information.

Badge information

What is a badged course?

Badges are a means of digitally recognising certain skills and achievements acquired through informal study, and are entirely optional. They do not carry any formal credit as they are not subject to the same rigour as formal assessment; nor are they proof that you have studied the full unit or course. They are a useful means of demonstrating participation and recognising informal learning.

If you'd like to learn more about badges, you will find more information on the following websites:

  • Open Badges – this information is provided by Mozilla, a leading provider of the open badges system

  • Digital Badges – this information is provided by HASTAC (Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory), a global community working to transform how we learn, and particularly making use of technology.

Gaining your badge

To gain the Scots language and culture badge, you will need to:

  1. Read all of Parts 1 and 2 online.

  2. Complete the quiz that you’ll find at the end of Part 2, and achieve at least 60%.

When you have successfully achieved the completion criteria you will receive your badge for Scots language and culture. You will receive an email notification that your badge has been awarded and it will appear in the My Badges area in your profile. Please note it can take up to 24 hours for a badge to be issued.

Your badge demonstrates that you have achieved the learning outcomes for the course. These outcomes are listed at the start of each unit.

The digital badge does not represent formal credit or award, but rather it demonstrates successful participation in informal learning activity.

Accessing your badge

From within the Scots language and culture course:

  • Go to the navigation block and under My Profile you can access My Badges. When you click on My Badges you will be taken to your My Badges page on OpenLearn Works.

  • To view the details of the badge or to download it, click on the badge and you will be taken to the Badge Information page.

Now go on to Unit 1: Scots today.


Beaton, H. (1915) At the Back o' Benachie, Aberdeen, Central Press (John Milne).
Dictionary of the Scots Language (n.d.) [Online]. Available at (Accessed 3 January 2019).
Pal, A. (2015) What is the difference between standard and non-standard languages? Quora [Online]. Available at What-is-the-difference-between-standard-and-non-standard-languages (Accessed 3 May 2019).
Scottish Government. (2015) Scots Language Policy English version, 3 Septemeber [Online]. Available at publications/ scots-language-policy-english/ (Accessed 10 January 2019).


Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following sources:

Every effort has been made to contact copyright holders. If any have been inadvertently overlooked the publishers will be pleased to make the necessary arrangements at the first opportunity.

Course Image: Supplied by Bruce Eunson / Education Scotland

Giving flowers: Image by GLady from Pixabay