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The Poetic Language of Scots

Scottish poet and scholar Sarah Stewart conducted research in the Poets House archives this spring as part of a doctoral internship. Here, she showcases the richness of the language of her native country and presents some Scottish poets who incorporate dialect into their work. Stewart’s own chapbook is entitled Glisk, a Scottish word she defines as “a gleam of sunlight through cloud; a glow of heat from a fire. Figuratively, a glimpse of the good.” 

As I’m currently working with the Poets House audio archives, during the United Nations International Year of Indigenous Languages, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to come from Scotland, a country where many people grow up speaking English as their “official” language and Scots at home. If you are curious about language, or are one of the 25 million Americans of Scottish descent, you might be familiar with some Scots words, like “aye” for yes, “muckle” for many, “the noo” for now…but how about “shoogle,” “peely-wally,” or “glaikit”? (If you’d care to take a guess, the translations can be found at the bottom of this article.) Scots is a rich, poetic language, full of onomatopoeic sounds, as we can see from the opening line of Robert Burns’ “To a Mouse”:

Wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie…

But the history of Scots is a complex one, and, as with many indigenous languages, its value and status have been violently contested over the years. My father, teaching high school in Scotland in the 1980s, remembers the headmaster walking into his classroom and making a pupil do ten press-ups as a punishment for replying “aye” rather than “yes” to a question. It was, my father says, “the tail end of a deliberate process of fitting Scottish youngsters for the world by making them see that their vernacular was not appropriate for any discourse beyond the profane and/or humorous.” (My father, on the other hand, was one of many teachers determined that his pupils should feel respect for their natural way of speaking.)

This process, which in some schools extended to belting pupils for using Scots, is long gone, but it did some damage: further reducing Scots to the language of the pub and the playground. Journalist Alistair Heather tells me, “This prejudice is still wi us the day…noo we’re stuck wi a psychologically damaged generation wha associate their Mither Tongue wi pain an shame.” You can see Alistair Heather speaking Scots in a recent BBC film right here.

Fortunately, Scots is undergoing a small but significant renaissance; recently, we’ve seen an upsurge in the number of writers using Scots in both print and social media, and I’ve enjoyed more Scots spoken-word events and poetry performances. In addition, the Oxford English Dictionary have just updated their lexicon for 2019, and some great Scottish words have been added, including:

bidie-in: live-in partner

geggie: mouth

rooked: swindled/fleeced

Weegie: a native of Glasgow

Scots is tricky to pin down, however, as it is spoken in many forms, with at least four main dialect regions, each one unique. For example, the Doric spoken in the northeast of Scotland, where I grew up, often uses an “f” sound instead of a “wh”—to ask how somebody is doing, they say “fit like?” (meaning “what like?” or “how’s it going?”).

Scotland’s “makars” (poets) often dip in and out of Scots, but of course our famous Robbie Burns wrote entire poems in his vernacular, which I will happily, if clumsily, try to translate for you below. If you’d like to explore our vivid, contested language, why not take a look these wonderful collections in the Poets House stacks?


Robert Burns: Selected Poems & Songs

Ralph Waldo Emerson characterized Burns as “the poet of the poor, anxious, cheerful, working humanity, so had he the language of low life.” Celebrated for his ability to chronicle the existence of everyday working people, Burns’ poems run the gamut of human experience, dealing with the agricultural, social, and political changes of his lifetime and interrogating subjects like love, lust, and morality. Burn’s legendary ode to equality “A Man’s A Man for A’ That” features the lines:

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.

You see that fellow called a lord,
Who struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a fool for all that.

In Scotland, Burns Suppers are celebrated every year on the anniversary of Burns’ birth. It’s January 25, so put it in your diary for next year, and try out some whisky and haggis…


Jen Hadfield: Nigh-No-Place

Hadfield may seem like an unusual addition to this list, as she was born in England and generally writes in English. However, Nigh-No-Place is a beautiful example of how a poet can take snippets of an alternative language and thread them through English. Many of the poems in this collection were written in or about Shetland—a collection of islands closer to the Arctic Circle than to London. These islands are officially part of Scotland, but they retain their own distinct identity and language; their lexicon is separate from any Scots dialect. I am half-Shetlandic, and I adore Hadfield’s use of Shetlandic words such as “blashey-wadder” (unsettled, wet weather), “snuskit” (sulky), and “uncan” (strange or unfamiliar) in these surprising poems.


Liz Lochhead: A Choosing

Poet and playwright Lochhead is one of Scotland’s best-known contemporary writers, and A Choosing contains a poem called “Kidspoem/Bairnsang” which shifts between Scots and English, making it a brilliant entry point for anyone curious about Scots. “Kidspoem/Bairnsang” also contains some of my favorite closing lines, which are likely to resonate with many young artists. Lochhead chooses to render these final lines in English:

Oh saying it was one thing
but when it came to writing it
in black and white
the way it had to be said
was as if you were posh, grown-up, male, English and dead.


Hugh MacDiarmid: Complete Poems Volume I

Widely accepted as one of Scotland’s most influential and controversial writers, MacDiarmid left behind a huge archive of work; this first volume of his collected poems fills 750 pages. Over the course of his long career, MacDiarmid explored a cultural identity that encompassed Gaelic, Scots, and English, though many of his earlier poems were in Scots, and his later work in English. This book contains what is perhaps MacDiarmid’s best-known long poem, “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle”—a meandering, satirical, metaphysical exploration of a Scots “Everyman.”


Don Paterson: Landing Light

Paterson is the recipient of many honors, including the T. S. Eliot Prize and the Forward Poetry Prize. His collection Landing Light (described by Zadie Smith as containing “images of such particularity and elegance, it makes you jealous to look at them”) holds a couple of stunning Scots poems. Just take a look at “Twinflooer (Linnea Borealis)”:

Times ye feel
the mair we gang
intil thon tongue—
hidden, fey
an’ ayebydan—
the less wi hae
the need o ane…

I’ve rendered this below so U.S. readers can get a feel for it, but I cannot do the poem full justice in English…

Sometimes you feel
the more we go
into that tongue—
hidden, doomed,
and eternal—
the less we have
the need of one…


For further reading on Scots literature, I invite you to take a look at the Scottish Poetry Library website or the literary corner of the Undiscovered Scotland website.

And the translations from above:

“shoogle” – shake

“peely-wally” – pale or pallid

“glaikit” – foolish or stupid


Sarah Stewart is a SGSAH-funded PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She also writes children’s fiction as Sarah Forbes and is Director at Lighthouse Literary. Her poetry pamphlet, Glisk, is published by Tapsalterie.

Posted In: Essays, In the Stacks