The Early Language, pp.56-68.

[Old Glasgow Contents]

Another interesting subject of inquiry is the language spoken by the early inhabitants of Glasgow. In remote times it was undoubtedly that of the Celts or Kelts, the first of the many divisions of the Aryans which found its way to our country. At first inhabiting the greater part of Europe, and either exterminating or partly mingling with the Stone Age men whom they found there, we find this people inhabiting the British Isles – for the ancient Britons belonged to that family, as did also the old Gaelic population, until they were ousted by another branch of the same Aryan race, the Teutons, from whom the English are descended. This early Celtic language, in the form in which we first have any knowledge of it, was Irish or Welsh, and with it the language now spoken in the Scottish Lowlands has little or no affinity. When we read of the early “language of the Scots,” it was undoubtedly, Mr. Skene says, “the Irish language still spoken there, and which is identic with the Gaelic of the Scottish Highlands and the Manx of the Isle of Man. They form indeed but one language, which may be called Gaelic, and show no greater variety among each other than those which characterize the vernacular speech of different provinces of the same nation.”1 The common belief is that the Western Highlands were peopled from Ireland, but there can be little doubt that this Irish or Dalriadic tradition was an invention of the Scottish monks, and that the Highland clans are, with very few exceptions, descended from the northern Picts, and formed one peculiar and distinct Gaelic nation, who have inhabited the same country from time immemorial.2 But it is equally true that it is to the Columban Church, issuing from Ireland, that the northern Picts owed the introduction of letters and a written language. To it we owe the standard of the written Irish, and in that most interesting old manuscript, the Book of the Columbite Abbey of Deir, there is preserved a specimen of it. The portion of this MS. which contains an imperfect copy of the Gospels in Latin, is in a character which may be ascribed to the ninth century. The other portions – written on what had been the blank pages – which contain legends of the foundation of the church and memoranda of grants of land, are in Gaelic, in the Irish character, in a handwriting of the early part of the reign of David I. It is identic with the written Irish of the period, and it was in this language no doubt that the “little volume” of the Life of Kentigern found by Jocelin, the monk of Furness, was written. It was then called Scottish, the Lowland Scotch being termed English, as indeed it was. In the beginning of the sixteenth century the spoken language of the Highlands came to be different form its written form, but after the Reformation the first literature introduced in the Highlands, consisting of some religious books and the Bible, were all in the written Irish language. The version of the Bible read in our parish churches in the Highlands was, till within quite a recent period, Bishop Bedel’s translation into Irish. The general use of written Scottish Gaelic is comparatively recent. The only charter of Scotch lands in Celtic speech extant is one by McDonald, lord of the Isles, which is dated on “the sixth day of the month of Beltaine,” 1408.

The British language – that which was spoken in Clydesdale in the time of Kentigern – must have been very much the same as what is still spoken in Wales, though not now in Cornwall, though a variety of it lingered there till the middle of the last century.3 The Gaelic spoken by the Picts who people the Highlands and Islands, and the Irish spoken by the Scots, were displaced by the language of the Angles, except in localities where each of them continued to exist to a greater or less extent in its own country – these localities being in each case the maritime and mountainous parts.4

This language of the Angles – Anglo-Saxon, as it is often called – is known to have been, in its early forms, the national speech of the same race since at least the end of the fifth century, when the first settlers by whom it was spoken came to our island. It is interesting to find the roots of it – to find, indeed, many of our English words themselves – in the Gothic, the oldest representative of the Teutonic branch of the Aryan or Indo-Germanic family of languages as it was written so early as the fourth century. All that remains to us of this old language is a portion of a translation of the New Testament from the Greek, written about A.D. 370 by Ulfilas, a Gothic prince, who had been converted to Christianity, and afterwards preached to his countrymen in the region of the Lower Danube. From this precious fragment a few words as examples cannot fail to be interesting. In Mat. v. 35 footstool is rendered fotubaurd, i.e. footboard. The same phonetic resemblance in our language between sun and son is found in this old Gothic. Sun is sunna, and son sunns – both being derived from the Sanskrit su, to beget. Our word steal is representative of the Gothic stelan. Gate and door are rendered by the word daur. The term used for woman or wife is qino or quens, from which two words of very opposite meaning with us, queen and quean, have their common origin. The mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are, in Gothic, its runes, runa: hence our runic. The word for millstone, asiluquairnus, is the relic of a time when the mill was worked by asses. The second half of the word survives in our word quern, the rude handmill till quite recently used so much in the Highlands. When our Lord is described as twelve years old it is rendered twelve winters – tvalib vintruns. When the disciples are told that they shall tread on serpents the old Gothic is trudan ufaro vaurme, i.e. tread on worms. Dust is rendered mulda, mould. When St. Paul calls himself the least of the apostles the rendering is the smallest, smallista. Thrones are rendered sitlos, i.e. settles. Such are a few specimens of English words used by the Goths fifteen hundred years ago.5

Since the introduction of the Anglo-Saxon language into our country it has been moving – now faster, now slower – throughout the twelve or thirteen centuries over which our knowledge of it extends, and it appears to have at an early period come northwards to Scotland, and to have continued to make the same progress there as in England. Many causes conduced to the establishment of the English tongue over that of the Normans. Among others, as Professor Innes observes, the Anglo-Saxon language had been cultivated in prose and poetry. It was endeared to the people from having been written by their great Alfred and by the fathers of the Church before any of the vernacular tongues of Europe had been studied by the learned; and the cultivated and written language prevailed over the rude and unwritten.6

King Alfred left a collection of “Proverbs,” one of which, taken from an early version, shows that the matrimonial experiences of some in his time were not different from many in our own:-

Monymon singeþ
Þat wif hom bryngeþ
Wiste he hwat he broughte
Wepen he myghte.7

That is,

Many a man singeth
That a wife home bringeth
If he knew what he brought
Weep he might.

Among the MSS. of Sir William W. E, Wynne at Poniarth is a gift of land made in the year 942, in which occur the words, “now is thisses landes feourtie hyde.”8

The English of the eighth century differed nearly as much from that of the nineteenth as Latin differs from Italian.9 But the change after that was rapid, and by the beginning of the eleventh century the language was fast assuming its present form. An interesting example of the English of that period is preserved in the fragment of a song composed by Canute. It refers to the music which came floating from the choir of Ely as the king was rowing on the Nen:-

Merie sungen the muneches binnen Ely
Tha Cnut ching rew there by
Roweth cnichtes noer the lant
And here we these muneshes saeng.

That is,

Merry (sweetly) sang the monks within Ely
That (when) Cnute king rowed thereby.
Row, knights, near the land,
And hear we these monks’ song.

The lines are recorded by a monk of Ely who wrote about 1166, and being in verse and in rhyme it is, with reason, conjectured by Dr. Craik that the words are reported in their original form.

The English of Canute’s song was – making allowance for ordinary provincial differences – the same language that was spoken at that time in the little fishing village founded by Kentigern on the banks of the Clyde.

Passing over a period of more than two hundred years it is the same language which we find in Chaucer,* only advancing farther to its present form. The writings of Chaucer can be read now with little assistance from a glossary, and the same is to be said of the vernacular of Glasgow and of the rest of the Lowlands of Scotland at the same time. The language spoken in the Lowlands at that period (circa 1370) sprang from the same sources and had been affected by the same influences as the language of England. In fact it was the same language.** What we are accustomed to call the Scottish dialect differs less from that of England than do the dialects of different counties in the latter kingdom at the present day. Divested of the cumbrous spelling of the old manuscripts, the verses of [John] Barbour [1320-1395] are quite as intelligible to an English reader as are those of Chaucer; and, indeed, Barbour’s great poem of Bruce, though earlier in date than the Canterbury Tales, is, in some of the grammatical forms, even more modern than those which we find in the poetry of Chaucer. For example, Barbour uses our present they, them, and there (thai, thaim, and thar), while Chaucer and his countrymen were still adhering to the Saxon hey or hi, hem, and hir or her.

The language of Wycliffe – whose translation of the New Testament was made in 1380 – is, although subsequent to Barbour, still less modern than the language of that writer. It is proper to add, however, that the earliest manuscripts of Barbour extant must have been transcribed fully a century later than the time when he wrote the poem, and the language, therefore, cannot be absolutely relied on as that of the writer. The change after Wycliffe was very rapid, and the language of Tyndale’s Testament – the first printed in English, and which appeared in 1525, only forty-five years after Wycliffe – differs little from that of our own day.

Of the vernacular language used in Scotland in legal writs Professor Innes has given, as the earliest known example, a writ of the year 1389;10 but there exists an example still older in a document preserved among the family papers of Sir Patrick Keith Murray of Auchtertyre, which, apart from the language, is curious as a record of early judicial proceedings. In early times the local courts of the great barons were held on a hill or mound called the Moot-hill, and the document to which I have referred shows that these courts survived till towards the end of the fourteenth century. It is peculiarly interesting as a record of probably one of the last of these early baron courts, and it is perhaps the only example in existence. The proceedings took place in the year 1385, and had reference to a disputed right to certain lands. The record bears that the court was held on a Moot-hill called the hill of Longforgund, and that the baron was attended by the same officers as figure in the courts of the sovereign, while the special character of the proceedings is their strict adherence to legal formalities. The locality is away from our city, but it will not be without interest to quote the final decree as a specimen of the same vernacular which was spoken in Glasgow in an age contemporary with Barbour’s great poem.

It is recorded that at the final court, held at the Hund hill on the 21st of April, 1385, “throw Sir Patrick Gray lorde of the chefe barony of Langforgande, mony nobilles thare beande, with consale of tha nobillis and of his curt, he wele awisit that the forsayde personaris contenyt in his prosces souch hym nother with grace lufe na with lauch to edlay him dome na his proces, with consale of the forsayde curt and noblis that thare was, throw the moutht of Robert Louranson than dempstare of oure lord the kingis curt and of his, it was diffyn for dome that the Lytilton and Lourandston of Ouchtercomane suld dwell in the handis of the forsayde Sir Patrick and his ayeris quhill the tyme that all the forsaydis personaris, and all thaire namys nemmyt, suld recouir the landys othir be grace, trety, or prosces of law: and thus endyt the proces.”11

But if Professor Innes is right in supposing that the interlined glossings which occur in a conventio, or lease, between the Abbot of Scone and the Hays of Leys, in the year 1312, are contemporary with the deed itself, we have in these interlineations a specimen of the Scots language more early still – perhaps, with the exception of local names and terms, the earliest in existence. It is possible these glossings may have been introduced at a later period, but after carefully examining the facsimile of the deed which is given in the Chartulary of Scon,12 I am disposed to think that they are, within a very few years at least, as old as the text. The following are a few of them. I give the Latin words first, adding the gloss of translation (which is written over them) in italics:- Triginta, thretti: Annuatim, iere bi iere; quod motent pro sustacione sua, yt yai sal grind for yair fode; in circuitu, abute thaime; percipiunt focale, sal take fuayl; et eorum successoribus, tha yt comis in thair stede; (Abbatis) dominio, ye laurdscape; residenti, dwelland; revocare, cal again; demittat edificata, sal leve biggit; exorte fuerint, haf gruyn; solebant, war wont; (sigilla) appensa, hingand; rectis divisis, richtwis divisis; cyrographi, hand chartir; construi facient, sal ger be made.

One of the most interesting of the glosses is that over the word nativi. It is inbornmen, confirming the hypothesis that these were the remains of the native-born population compelled by the invaders to become their serfs. The date of the deed is two years before Bannockburn and nearly fifty years before Chaucer, and it shows that the language was very little different then from what it was a century afterwards. And it was the same in England, In a Latin document in the reign of Edward II. among the papers of the corporation of Bridport, there occur various English glosses over the Latin terms; for example, vebbis (webs), vedercoc (weathercock), stokes (stocks), bordis (boards), &c.13

Of the vernacular language of Glasgow in local writs, one of the earliest examples is to be found in a deed which I have referred to elsewhere – an agreement between “Frer Oswald Priour of the Freris of Glasgow and the Convent of the Samyn on the ta part and John Flemyn of the Covglen on the tother part,” bearing date 22d January, 1433.14 It is a curious document apart from its interest as an example of what the language in Glasgow was four hundred and fifty years ago. It bears that “the said Johne has set in to feferm tyll the said Priour and the Convent, or quha sa be Priour in that said Convent, a rud of lands lyand on the gat at strekis fra the Markat Cors tyll the he kyrk Glasgu… the said priour and convent payit tha for yherly tyll the said Johne hys ayris or assignyis ten schylling of vsuale mone of the kynryk of Scotland… and stabylling for twa hors in that samyn place or ellis within the Freris tyll the said John Flemyn qwhen hyn lykis tyll cum tyll do hys erandis or mak residens within the toun / And attour gyf it lykis the said Johne Flemyn tyll cum and dwell and mak residens within Glasgu / the said priour and convent, or qwha sa be priour in the tym, sall byg tyll the said Johne an honest hall chamir and butler, with a yard to set cale in, sic as effeiris in thir thyngis, till the said Johne Flemyn till be herberÿt in / the said Johne ressavand nan annuell of the said plase sall lang as he maynures it in the maner as is beforsaid but fraud or gyle / To be haldyn and had the said landis with thair appertenans fra me myn ayris executoris and assignyis tyll the priour and the convent of the said freris in fourme and maner as is befor spokyn… with all profitis commoditeis and eysmentis and als frely as ony land is broukyt or possedyt in fe and heritayge within the burgh of Glasgu.”

We have a specimen of the language spoken in Scotland of an earlier date than this – although much later than the Scone fragments – which is interesting from the curious circumstance in connection with which it has been preserved. Thomas of Walsingham tells that when the Scots of the Borders were making inroads on the English territory in the fourteenth century, they found a pestilence prevailing, and on inquiry were told by the inhabitants that it had come on them “by the special grace of God.” The Scots did not quite appreciate a “grace” that came in this fashion, and in their inroads they used as an invocation, Walsingham says – and he gives it in the vernacular, instead of the Latin in which his work is written – “Gode and Sainct Mungo Sainct Romayn and Sainct Andrew schield us this day fro Goddis grace and the foule death that Englisch men dien upon.” This was in 1379, five hundred years ago.15

Among the papers in the Glasgow Chartulary is a curious and, so far as I am aware, a unique document, which is also worthy of notice not only as another specimen of the vernacular language of the period (1477), but as the record of a peculiar process of law observed at that time in Glasgow, which cannot fail to be interesting to the legal antiquary.

The vicars of the choir of the Cathedral were in right, it appears, of “a certain annual yearly” – what we would now call a ground annual – payable from a tenement in the Rottenrow. The “annual” had ceased to be paid, and the vicars were unable to recover it from the property in consequence of the tenement having fallen into disrepair – being, indeed, in an utterly dilapidated state. The proprietor had died, and his heirs having failed to pay the arrears, the vicars took proceedings to obtain possession of the ground in satisfaction of the debt. With this view the following process is adopted. The document from which I quote is an instrument under the hand of a notary, entitled “Adjudicatio curie civitatis Glasguensis vasti tenementi in favorem Vicariorum chori Glasg. pro solutione annuo reditus vicariis ex eo tenemento debiti.” The notary, after the usual commencement in Latin, proceeds to embody in his instrument the proceedings from the records of the court “in wlgare” – that is, in the vernacular tongue – as follows. I avoid the old contractions of words:-

“The hed court of the burgh and cite of Glasgw haldyn in the Tolboth of the samyn be Johne Stewart provest James Stewart and Johne Robynson Bailzies of Glasgw the xxij day of the moneth of January in the ʒere of God a thousande four hundreth lxx and sevyn yers. the soyts (suits) callit, the court affermyt &c. the quhilk day in presens of the said hed court and al the members thereof planly comperit Sir Thomas of Bargille ane vicar ministrand in the queyr of Glasgw and procuratour til al the vicars of the said queir as his power was thair sufficiently knawin And openly said that ane tenement within the said cite lyand within the Ratonraw and on the south side of the samyn, betwyx ane tenement of Master Gilbert Reryk archiden of Glasgw on the est syde and the tenement of Schir Johne Browne vicar of the quehyr of Glasgw on the west syde the quhilk acht [owed] the vicars forsaid certane annuel ʒerly as was noterly knawin to al the membrs of that court was destitut of all bigging and reparacion in al parts at [that] it mycht not be strenzeit be thaim for the payment of the annwell bot alanarly the groonde remanande wast and wnhabit. Quarfor he besoch the juge and court forsaid til deliver hym erd and stane in falt of payment of the grund annuell accordand to the kyngis lawis maid tharupon And that considerit to be consonande to ressone thai assignit to the said Sir Thomas procurator Johne of Monfode sergeand to pass to the said tenement and deliver to the said procurator erd and stane of the samyn befor witnes. the quhilk sergeand at comand as said is passed to the grunde and fand wast and uninhabit and not strenzeable and therfor deliverit to the said Sir Thomas procuarot erd and stan closit efter the consuetude of the cite in sik things as for the first court of recognicioun befor thir witnes George Robynsoun and Johne Mcclelane citenars of the samyn and therof the said Sir Thos Bargylle procurator askit ane rowment and tuk the court to witnes et sic finit rotulament.”

This, which is called, it will be observed, “the first court of recognition,” takes place on the 27th of January. Then the instrument goes on to record a proceeding of precisely the same kind – verbatim, indeed – on the 7th of April following. This is called “the second court of recognition.” And once more the whole proceeding is again repeated and recorded word for word at a head court held on the 13th of October, thus completing what the notary calls “rotulamentum tercie curie.”

Earth and stone having been thus delivered to the vicars on three several occasions, the instrument proceeds to narrate the conclusion of the process by which the vicars were invested in the absolute property of the tenement. It states that on the 26th of January following, at another head court of the burgh, the previous procedure was referred to, adding that proclamation had been also made at the market cross “openly warnand the lochful heritars of Ayrs of xl dais to cum and pay the said annuell acht of the said tenenment efter the forme of the lawis of the burgh the quhilk payment was not maid.” The instrument then proceeds thus:- “And therfor continuand the said Sir Alexander procurator present, erd and stane of fortyme deliverit as said is after the forme of the lawis, and askyt in plan court ward and dome of the said wast tenement as it was lachfully recoverit in full of payment of the annuel acht of the samyn efter the forme forsaid and effect of the rowments maid tharupon at the thre hed courts And this beand said, the foresaid Sir Alexander procurator remouyt, the court wardit and ryply and weil avisit, and therefter the said Sir Alexander called in againe, Sir John Michelson borow clerc at the special command of the provest and bailzeis forsed judicialy informyt the demestar John Nerlson the quhilk gaif for dome at [that] the said procurator to the vicars of the queir of Glasgw had lachfully wonnyn and obtenyt the foresaid tenement with the pertinents in defalt of the payment acht of the samyn. The quhilk dome the said Sir Alexander procurator askit to be rowit and therof ane instrument of the samyn.” The instrument concludes with the usual attestation by the notary in Latin.

It is interesting to note that in the proceedings preparatory to and after giving judgment the same forms are here observed which still prevail in our ecclesiastical courts. Before the court proceeds to deliberate the party is “removed,” and he is “called in again” to hear the sentence.

Of early examples of local names in the vernacular tongue as early as the Inquisition of David (1116) we have “Aschchyrc” (Ashkirk) and “Drivesdale.” In a charter in 1130 we have “Strevelinschire.16 In 1179 “Kirkpatric,” “Cludesdale,” “Annansdale,” “Glenkarn.” In 1189 “Neuton.” In 1283 “le Weynde.”17 In 1304 “Meduwell” (Meadow well). “The Bromilaw” (broomy law) occurs in 1325; “Gallowgate,” of the same date; “Bogtoune” in 1336.18 In a Latin charter of a tenement in Rutherglen in 1405 the subject conveyed is described as called “vulgariter Thendehows” (the end house), in the street called “la Watryraw” (the watery row). In a charter of a property in Roxburgh in 1309 it is described as situated “in vico qui vocatur Kyngstret.”19 In other charters as early as the reign of William the Lion (1190) we have specimens of Lowland Scotch, such as “standand stane,” “stane cross,” and others. From these and various other names and terms occurring in the earliest writs which exist there is every reason to believe that from the beginning of the twelfth century, and probably earlier, a genuine Teutonic language was spoken in Scotland, and that the vernacular language of Glasgow was very much then what it was down to a comparatively recent period.

In later times the intimate relations which prevailed between Scotland and France were the cause of the introduction into the Scottish language of many words which are still retained, and which are unknown in the vernacular of England; such as jigot, ashet (assiette), caraffe, and many others; and in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries we have frequent examples, in stating sums or dates, of the use of French idiom. For example there is mention in our burgh records of a head court held at Glasgow on “the xix day of Januare, the ʒeir of God IMVclx “threttene yeirs” – the soixante treize of the French. In an entry in the council records (13th August, 1660) a sum is written “thrie scoir twelfe pounds.” In another minute mention is made of the occasion when the tanners “paises” their hides – that is, weighs them – from peser; and there are many other similar examples.

To save recurring to the subject I may mention here that the same close relations with France were the cause of the introduction into Glasgow of great quantities of inferior French coin. The expression that something useless is “not worth a doyt” is still in use among us. The doyt was a French copper coin of the value of the twelfth part of a penny sterling, and under date 19th March, 1660, there is an entry in the burgh records bearing “that the toune and country is lyke to be abused be the frequent inbringing and passing of French doyts,” and strictly prohibiting the introduction “of all sort of such bais capper coyne.” Anorth French coin with which the town council had also to deal because of its large circulation in Glasgow was “dinnaries,” as they are called in the minute.20 This was the French denier, the tenth part of a sous.

1  Celtic Scotland, vol. i. p. 193.
2  The Highlands of Scotland, by W. F. Skene, vol. ii. p. 16.
3  Celtic Scotland, vol. i. p. 193.
4  Craik’s English Literature, vol. i. p. 320.
5  The Gothic Fragments of Ulfilas, by Professor Stanley Leathes.
6  Scotland in the Middle Ages, p. 75.
7 Old English Miscellany, London, 1872, p. 118.
8  Second Report on Historical MSS., p. 105.
9  Craik’s English Literature, p. 36.
10  Scotland in the Middle Ages, p. 260.
11  Third Report of Royal Commission on Historical MSS., App., p. 410.
12  Liber Eccles. de Scon, Maitland Club, p. 104.
13 Sixth Report on Historical MSS., p. 490.
14  Lib. Coll., p. 166.
15  Chronica Thomæ Walsyngham, Edit. Carndeni 1602, p. 228.
16  Lib. Cart. Sancti crucis, p. 8.
17  Reg. de Passelet, p. 385.
18  Lib. Coll., pp. 156, 158.
19  Reg. Epis. Glasg., No. 280.
20  7th Sept. 1867.
*  At an Open University onsite tutorial day at Caledonian University our tutor introduced us to a wee rapped rendition by 2 American students of the Prologue to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales that I think is brilliant, though it’s in no way Scottish. Have a wee listen here.
**  Other sources disagree with this statement. Head to my answer to ‘Is Scottish a Fake Language?‘ for other ideas on this.