- The New Testament in Scots translated by William Laughton Lorimer
Canongate, 476 pp, £17.50, October 1983, ISBN 0 900025 24 7
- Scotland and the Lowland Tongue edited by J. Derrick McClure
Aberdeen University Press, 256 pp, £17.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 08 028482 5
When William Laughton Lorimer, formerly Professor of Greek at St Andrews, died in 1967, he left behind him the manuscript of a translation of the New Testament into Scots, on which he had been working for the past ten years. A quarter of the translation was in more or less final form; the rest of it was in a revised first draft. His son, R.L.C. Lorimer, has edited it very faithfully, and has also, with others, established the W.L. Lorimer Memorial Trust Fund, which has made possible the handsome printing of this book: the list included in it of the Scots peers and notables who contributed is reminiscent of the lists of members in the old Bannatyne Club publications, except that ladies are now tolerated.
W.L. Lorimer’s qualifications for the translation were impressive: his annotations indicate that he had a thorough command of New Testament scholarship, and he had been interested in Scots since he was a boy. From 1946 on he played an important part in the Scottish National Dictionary, as contributor, and, from 1953 until his death, as chairman of its executive council. His son’s introduction suggests that the translation is not, in the usual sense, a work of piety – Lorimer lost his faith as an undergraduate, and remained an agnostic – but an attempt to rehabilitate Scots. His prejudices, apparent in his annotations and confirmed by Sir Kenneth Dover’s excellent memoir in the Proceedings of the British Academy, were a dislike of the English and a hatred of Catholicism (Anglo- as well as Roman, I suspect). Dover records that ‘he often spoke as if he regarded the Border as a fast-decaying rampart designed by nature to protect good from evil.’ In an appendix to the translation there is an alternate version of the Temptation (Matthew 4.1-11) that is all in Scots except for the Devil’s speeches, which are in standard English (spelt as mispronounced Scots in Lorimer’s manuscript, but his son changed this to ordinary English spelling). While I never doubted that the Devil spoke standard English – why else would all Englishmen have tails? – the point is made forcefully. (It should be noted, however, that according to his son’s introduction, Lorimer never intended this bit for publication, and thought that he had destroyed all copies of it before he died.)
It was perhaps from his ancestors – his father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all ministers of the Free Church – that he acquired the contempt for external spiritual authority that Dover refers to. He would not have missed, or appreciated, the irony that the Scottish Reformation was based, in some sense, on a non-Scots spiritual authority – that is, on first the Geneva Bible and then the Authorised Version – nor, perhaps, would he have liked the strong influence which the Authorised Version has had, as some of the contributors to Scotland and the Lowland Tongue testify, on Scots speech and writing.
The difficulties of translating the New Testament into Scots are formidable, since Scots, as a language for serious non-fictional prose, has been dead for a long time, though in the last decade there have been attempts to revive it. The date of death is unknown, but it was ill before the Union of the Crowns; it then became mortally ill, and it did not last out the 17th century, except for an occasional later curiosity. Modern Scots can hardly be called a language: a linguist who was oblivious to politics might define it as ‘one or all of the dialects of English which are spoken in the Lowlands of Scotland, except for the varieties of Scottish Standard English (that is, Standard English as spoken in Scotland)’. This, however, is not very satisfactory, partly because it is difficult to decide when the more Scottish varieties of Scottish Standard English start becoming Scots, but mostly because there are few people left who are monolingual in a local dialect: most Scots speakers also speak a variety of Standard English, and jump or slide between the two.