A history of Scottish languages – part 1


by Paul Kavanagh (Click here for part 2)

In November 2010 the Ministerial Working Group on the Scots Language delivered its report to the Scottish Parliament.  Discussing the promotion of Scots in the educational system, the report noted that the pervasive lack among teachers and the general public of a clear understanding of the status of Scots as a language or the issues surrounding it was a fundamental problem in improving the status of the language.

This lack of public awareness doesn’t just apply to the Scots language, the knowledge gap also includes an almost complete lack of awareness of the role that the Gaelic language has played in Scotland, both the Highlands and in the Lowlands.  Almost nothing about Scotland’s rich linguistic history is taught in schools.  Into the vacuum created by a knowledge gap rush myths, stereotypes and confusion.

But before we can have any sensible and informed debate about Scotland’s linguistic heritage and how we want to protect and foster it, we first have to distinguish between the myths and the facts.  Later this month Newsnet Scotland will be starting a weekly series of in-depth articles examining the widespread myths about Scottish languages.

As an introduction to this later series Newsnet Scotland today begins a ten part series on the history of Scottish languages.  This short history will explain how languages have spread and contracted across Scotland over the past 2000 years.  Each historical period will be illustrated with a map showing the distribution of languages in Scotland at that time.  Today we publish the first map, dealing with Scotland at the dawn of written history when the Romans embarked upon their invasion of Britain.  Tomorrow we publish a map showing Scottish languages during the Roman occupation of Britain.  Successive maps will cover Scottish language history at 200 year intervals until the present day.

There are a few important points to bear in mind when considering the historical spread of various languages.  Firstly, languages evolve and change over time.  For example the form of Gaelic introduced into Scotland over 1500 years ago was not the same as modern Scottish Gaelic.  It was an early form of Old Irish, identical to that spoken in Ireland.  Over the centuries the Old Irish which established itself in Scotland evolved into a distinct language, now known as Scottish Gaelic.  This process has occurred several times in Scottish history and involves every language which has been introduced into the country.

The spread of languages is often equated with the spread of “peoples”.  However the spread of Old Irish, Old Norse or Old English over parts of Scotland did not mean that the original inhabitants were exterminated or driven out by groups of invaders.  Under certain cultural and political circumstances, people find it convenient to adopt a new language.  When many people in a community speak a language as a second language, the children in the community acquire the second language in childhood and often prefer to speak it amongst themselves.  These children then pass on only the “second” language to their own children, and language shift has taken place.  When a society adopts a new language in this way, it often also adopts a new set of myths about its own origins which typically serve to grant political and cultural legitimacy to powerful and influential groups within the population.  These processes have also been important in Scottish history.  In fact Scots have exhibited a remarkable propensity to play musical chairs with languages throughout our history.

Maps showing the geographical spread of languages are simplifications.  In reality there are few hard and sharp borders between languages which can be represented on a map by a line.  The examples of this kind of linguistic frontier which do exist always coincide with political frontiers, the modern Scottish-English border is an example.  Usually when two languages are spoken in contiguous territories, there is a bilingual zone of varying depth between them.  This has always been the case with language boundaries within Scotland.  The coloured areas on the maps are meant to give a general idea of the spread of each language at each point in history, they are not intended to represent exact and abrupt frontiers.

The maps are an attempt to simplify a very complex and multilayered story involving several different languages.  Some may regard them as an oversimplification.  The information upon which the maps are based comes from a range of sources, mostly academic discussions of the Celtic languages and Scots, studies of Scottish place names and studies of the language and names used in historical documents.  I have tried to incorporate the most up to date information available to me.  Some aspects of Scotland’s linguistic history (such as the spread of Gaelic at the expense of Pictish) are very poorly known and so there’s a fair amount of educated guesswork in some of the maps, especially those depicting the earlier periods of Scottish history.

150 AD : Scotland was inhabited by various tribes whose names were recorded by the Classical geographer Ptolemy around 150 AD.  Each of these tribes was politically independent. It is believed that most if not all of the Iron Age tribes of Northern Britain spoke a northern dialect of the same Ancient Brittonic language then spoken in what is now England and Wales.  Historical linguists and archaeologists believe that an early form of Celtic was introduced into the British Isles either in the late Bronze Age or the early Iron Age and then spread rapidly across Britain and Ireland.  It is unknown what language or languages Celtic speakers encountered when they first arrived in Scotland.

The tribal names recorded by Ptolemy come down to us in Latin or Greek guise as they were preserved in Latin and Greek manuscripts, but most of them are apparently Celtic in origin.   Unfortunately in the process of repeated copying by scribes who did not understand the significance of the original form, the names became corrupted and some are now difficult to understand.

Many Celtic tribes named themselves after animals, perhaps the tribal totem or emblem.  The name of the Taezali of Aberdeenshire may contain a Celtic word for badger *tazgos, the Caeroni take their name from the sheep or goat *kairos (compare modern Gaelic caora ‘sheep’), whilst the name Orcades is derived from a Celtic word for pig or boar *orkos.  The Epidii of Argyll took their name from the Brittonic word *epos ‘horse’. This last name is clearly “P-Celtic”, the contemporary Goidelic (Q-Celtic) word was *ekwos from which Sc. Gaelic each ‘horse’ descends.

The names of some other tribes reflect the warlike preoccupations of Iron Age peoples, Smertae means “the smeared ones”, those who smeared themselves in the blood of their enemies.  They may have been devotees of a Celtic goddess known from other sources, Rosmerta ‘the exceedingly smeared one’.  The name Caledonii most likely derives from the word *kaletos ‘hard’, they were ‘the hard men’. The Selgovae claimed fame as hunters, their name means ‘the huntsmen’ (compare Gaelic sealg ‘hunt’).

The tribal organisation of the northern end of the island of Britain was deeply affected by the Roman occupation further south.  Even after the Romans abandoned their brief attempt to make the Antonine Wall their northern frontier, Roman power extended far beyond Hadrian’s Wall.  The tribes in the region between the Walls became client states of Rome.  Those beyond Roman control formed alliances for mutual protection and eventually merged to become the people known to later history as the Picts.

Although all the linguistic relics which can be identified from this remote period of Scottish history are Celtic, there are also some important names which resist explanation and which have not, so far, been identified as belonging to any known language family.  They include the names of some of the larger islands like Skye, Islay and Lewis as well as the original name for the Hebribes recorded in Latin texts as Eubudes.  Some of these names may turn out to be Celtic, but some may very well reflect the now lost language of the pre-Celtic inhabitants of Scotland.


Next – 300 AD and the birth of the Picts