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23 Jan 2024
updated 23 Jan 2024

Scots, Scottish or Scotch?

Fine linguistic distinctions are a notorious minefield, and so with all due diffidence I put forward the following infallibly fallible guide to just a few of them.

Speaking as a reasonably well-educated Englishman,1 I personally would refer to the inhabitants of Scotland as Scots (instinctively steering clear, I don't know why, of Scotsmen or Scotswomen), their culture, customs and countryside as Scottish, and their traditional produce (such as broth, shortbread, salmon, beef, whisky and mist) as Scotch.

Having been closely influenced by my beloved paternal grandmother, an expatriate Scotswoman of impeccable taste and discrimination in the niceties of social discourse and seemly comportment, my inclinations necessarily derive from her own example. But she could equally well refer to an even more elderly relative as an old Scotch body, or the Scotch-Irish Americans she and her Scottish husband encountered during their lengthy sojourn in Seattle. (Note that the descendants of Scots who emigrated directly to America are less provocatively known as Scottish Americans – analogous distinctions applying in Canada also, of course.)

But in addition to Scots as a plural noun, it has an adjectival usage as a faintly mediæval alternative to Scottish, as in Scots pines, The Scots Guards and Scots Law (the legal system of Scotland).2

And it could well be argued that it exists as a genitive, as Scot's or Scots' – especially with the impending disappearance of the apostrophe (except in OrnaVerum, of course).

More seriously, it exists as the singular noun Scots, which one might describe as the Doric4 alternative to Gaelic, before running for cover.

There is a traditional linguistic divide between the Lowlanders (Scots-speaking) and the Highlanders (Gaelic-speaking), and I once endured a whole week on a relatively small yacht with two Scotsmen, one of each sort, who verbally abused one another – in standard English but in Scottish accents, indistinguishable to me – throughout the trip. The 'Lowlander' routinely referred to his colleague as a teuchter, and the 'Highlander' retaliated with what generally rhymed with 'banker'.

Glaswegian is definitely Doric, but the Edinburgh patois is much couther to the English ear, though mercilessly parodied (not least by my father) for its more polished intonation. I shared a small office for a year or so with a specimen of both varieties, much younger chaps, chalk and cheese, who unwisely agreed to flat-share – one simply sat well back and waited for the inevitable fireworks.

I'm no historian, and the whole thing's a minefield anyway, but Scots seems to have been the language of choice for chroniclers, lawyers and educated Scots from the Middle Ages until perhaps the Union in 1707. My great-great-grandfather, the Rev Peter Hateley Waddell, however, bucked the trend by translating a considerable part of the Scriptures into Lallans (Lowlands Scots as opposed to the Northern variety) in the mid-19th century.

Lallans lives, however – though continually evolving via Modern Scots towards Scottish English – for example in the comic strips Oor Wullie and The Broons, published by The Sunday Post, and annuals published by D C Thomson (progenitors of Dandy and The Beano) – and in the two immortal literary creations Wee MacGregor and (more Gaelic than Doric) Para Handy. They're all wonderfully funny, very touching, and the dialect and vocabulary are remarkably easy to assimilate once you get going.

1: Both Englishman and Englishwoman have a slightly dated, imperial, Cecil Rhodes-y air to them, as per his dictum "Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life".3 But the trouble is that the English language entirely lacks any single word to represent an individual citizen of England (or Ireland for that matter) – we can say a(n) Scot, Orcadian, Shetlander, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, German, Italian etc etc, but an English is meaningless, except in the well-worn cinematic phrase "Now I weell keell you, Engleesh". Perhaps we could borrow the Gaelic word Sassenach, deriving from Saxon, and it would have pleasingly pejorative undertones from the Scottish point of view.
2: It recently (11 Jul 2014) surfaced on the Letters Page of The Times, as the heading Scots Science – presumably sanctioned by their style guru Oliver Kamm, a proponent of vox pop. It looks totally inappropriate to me – they could equally well (but don't) refer to the Scots Independence movement, for example.
3: Lest that sound invidious, let's remember Winston Churchill's observation that of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind. He is also said to have remarked (though I can't verify the quotation) that the Jews are the elder brothers of humanity, and in exactly the same way it could well be argued that in their culture, science, legal and educational systems, and in Glasgow Celtic FC being the first football team from these shores to win the European Cup, the Scots are the elder brothers of the British Isles.
4: Doric was the language of the Dorians, a rural tribe who inhabited Greece long before the Golden Age of Socrates et al, and so any harsh-sounding rural dialect came to be thus described. Perhaps the name was popularised by the emergence of Edinburgh as the Athens of the North during the Scottish Enlightenment that began in the 18th century.

Scottish Gaelic, on the other hand, is mellifluous and softly-spoken, a language dear to the heart of my Aunt Jane who spent 12 years in studying it thoroughly after settling in Victoria BC, and greatly enjoyed singing with the local Gaelic choir.

For some reason, Gaelic is supposed to be pronounced like Gallic, not that it has anything to do with France (except for Brittany, but that's another story). Be aware that there is also Irish Gaelic – which is taught in the schools of the Republic, and used as a language of instruction in other subjects too.