The New Testament in Scots 
translated by William Laughton Lorimer.
Canongate, 476 pp., £17.50, October 1983, 0 900025 24 7
Show More
Scotland and the Lowland Tongue 
edited by J. Derrick McClure.
Aberdeen University Press, 256 pp., £17, September 1983, 0 08 028482 5
Show More
Show More

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.

Lorimer, perhaps, had two options. He could translate into a single dialect, as it is now spoken, in which case the translation would not appear all that Scottish, since most dialects have been heavily influenced by modern English. Or he could, as he did, create a sort of ‘synthetic Scots’ by using his own regional dialect as a basis (he was born near Dundee, and spent most of his adult life in St Andrews, on the other side of the Firth of Tay), and fleshing it out with other notably Scottish words, wherever they could be found. His son records how he read a great deal of Scots in preparation for his translation, and when, for instance, he came upon the rare word doit (‘darnel’), plucked it up to use in place of the Authorised Version tares. Conversely, he avoided anything that might appear as an Anglicism. In I Corinthians 11.18, for instance, he, like the Authorised Version, uses the word divisions, and then has an unhappy note: ‘Is there a Scots wurd for “cliques, sets”?’ But division is well recorded in Scots from the early 15th century on.

It is possible that Lorimer may have thought of his translation as a step towards establishing what linguists call a grapholect, a national written language which is used, as English is, by speakers of a number of different dialects, though no one speaker will draw on all of its lexical resources. There is some evidence for this: his son says that ‘study had convinced him that, if Scots was ever to be resuscitated and rehabilitated, two great works must first be produced: a good modern Scots dictionary, and a good modern Scots translation of the New Testament.’ And it is suggestive that he uses qo, a spelling I have not seen before, for the Scots form of quoth: the usual Scots pronunciation is normally spelt quo, but there is a variant, normally spelt co or ko, and qo might serve for both pronunciations. On the other hand, his son quotes him as saying that ‘I have deliberately refrained from writing in a uniform “standard” Scots,’ and he does vary dialects, though only slightly, between different speakers. It is more certain that he was trying to write a pure and uncorrupted Scots – though the concept of such a tongue seems to some illusory. One might as well try to write a pure American by confining oneself to the items in a dictionary of Americanisms.

The translation is at least a relief from the pablum served up by some other modern translators of the Bible. The most familiar parts of the New Testament are perhaps the ones that come through most clearly and effectively:

For I wis yaup, an ye gae me mait; I wis thristie, and ye gae me drink; I wis an outlan, an ye gae me bed an bicker; I wis nakit, an ye cleadit me; I wis sick, an ye tentit me; I wis in jyle, an ye cam inbye tae me. (Matthew 25.35-6)

The passages of invective follow handsomely the tradition of Scots flytings:

They ar pang-fu o aa kin a wrang-daein, wickitness, greed, malice; invyfu, bluid-thristie, canglesome, sleekie, ill-hairtit, sae as they coudna be mair; clash-pyats, ill-speakers; hatesome tae God, bangsters, scorners, sprosers, drauchtie, camstairie wi their paurents; dull i the wit for richt an wrang, covenant-brakkers, and the ne’er a styme o luve or pitie i the breists of them. (Romans 1.29-31)

And Scots is also a good, if occasionally opaque language for proverbs:

Bawtie gaes back tae snowk at his bockin ... Grumphie douks i the burn, an syne rows again i the glaur. (II Peter 2.22: ‘The dog is turned to his own vomit again; and the sow that was washed to her wallowing in the mire’).

Except perhaps for a few scholars, no one, however Scots, is going to know all the words in this translation; most Scots will not know a great many. There is no glossary, which is probably just as well: a glossary would have added a great many pages to an already thick book; another translation can be used as a crib; and anyone wanting to use the translation seriously would in any case have to work with the ten volumes of the Scottish National Dictionary.

If one takes it on its own terms, the translation is a meticulous and impressive achievement. How far it will be useful in resuscitating Scots is another matter. A great deal of light on the possibilities of reviving written Scots is cast by the festschrift for David Murison, Scotland and the Lowland Tongue. The collection contains a number of pieces of very high quality, which is perhaps not surprising, since few people would want to present anything but their most respectable work to Murison, the wittiest of scholars, and the most skilful at evading fame and honours. His great achievement, of course, is that he has now completed the Scottish National Dictionary, which records Scots usage since 1700. It is rare for a great historical dictionary to be completed, and rarer for so much of one to be the work of a single man.

A.J. Aitken, himself the editor of the pre-1700 Scots dictionary, contributes the most important article, on ‘The Language of Older Scots Poetry’. By categorising the genres, metrical forms and styles, as well as the linguistic registers, of Middle Scots verse, he provides what is now the best available map of this complex region. It is necessarily a small-scale map; someone else would have made a book out of this – and doubtless someone else will. Aitken shows how the variety and strength of this poetry comes from its linguistic openness. The poets regarded other languages, not as threats to the purity of Scots, but as fields for plunder, and stole enthusiastically from Latin, French and, especially, southern English, taking all the southern poets possessed, even down to their southern linguistic forms.

Mairi Robinson, on the other hand, produces an excellent large-scale map of variation between Scots and English in the versions of the Scots Confession of 1560. Her conclusions, crudely, are that ‘written English was regarded as being “our commoun toung” by Scots in 1558,’ and that the scribes and printers of the Confession mostly used a mixture of Scots and English forms, more or less at random, though Scots would have pronounced the work in Scots. She points out that the failure, then and later, to develop any consistent style for Scots prose guaranteed its demise.

Both Thomas Crawford, writing on 18th-century Scots verse, and Hamish Henderson, on the ballads, stress the interplay between Scots and English. While the poetry Crawford deals with does not, perhaps, travel well outside of Scotland, his sympathetic and honest account of it puts it in a good light; he miraculously manages to compare Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson with Gay to the latter’s disadvantage. Henderson is certainly not concerned to minimise the Scottishness of the ballads, but he does emphasise how close formal ‘ballad Scots’ is to ‘ballad English’, and he remarks that ‘Scots folksong employing a fairly thick dialect is either very localised or comparatively recent.’

J. Derrick McClure provides a discriminating survey of the use of Scots dialogue in novels, some of which, one suspects, have not found many non-Scots readers: ‘Fat like a day o’t hae ye hid oot by?’ The most obvious point, of course, is that Scots is used especially to mark speakers from the lower classes. Complementary points are implied by the late John Thomas Low, writing on the wealth (or at least number) of modern historical plays in Scots – if you want to have Scots-speaking characters who are not peasants, you must go back in time – and by W.F.H. Nicolaisen, who shows how often novelists use invented place-names of an obtrusively Scottish cast for comic purposes. Written Scots, then, seems to have certain connotations: low-class, bucolic, obsolete, comic. These connotations do not bother one all that much in Lorimer’s translation – the New Testament has its own authority, and is in any case not overly concerned with maintaining the dignities of the upper classes – but are likely to be a nuisance elsewhere. The eight pages of notes that Lorimer adds give a remarkably polyglot impression, not so much because he quotes from at least eight languages, not all of them universally known, as because he himself uses two languages: Latin, for some of the notes dealing with Greek readings (the habits of a Classical scholar, or because Scots is insufficient?), and otherwise Scots. Some of the Scots notes seem, to my ear, to have a faintly bucolic, comic and obsolete air, as, for instance, when he is explaining why he uses the non-Scots word gazelle:

The wurd gazelle is Arabic, an wis barriet bi the French i the XIIIth cent., an lang efter (1600) bi the Pokepuddins. It is a kin o antelope, some like a rae.

Pokepuddin, a word which might well be revived, is explained by the Scottish National Dictionary as ‘a dumpling or steamed pudding [anglice sausage] cooked in a bag of muslin ... Hence (ii) a jocular or pejorative nickname for an Englishman from the supposed fondness of the English for steamed puddings, with an additional implication of omnivorousness and stolidity ... obsol.’.

Kenneth Burlay, in his dispassionate and frequently very funny piece on Hugh Mac-Diarmid’s predecessors and contemporaries (‘An Awkward Squad’), shows how poets, too, sometimes felt obliged to adopt a humble persona when writing in Scots. The poets, like Lorimer, were faced with difficulties in using Scots: some of them used Middle Scots, or tried to develop it; some used the pure dialect of, say, the North East; MacDiarmid himself disliked this solution (‘less than human as to my een/The people are in Aberdeen’) and used whatever words, Scots or English, caught his fancy. But the problems are more solvable for a poet, since each poem will justify – or not justify – its individual language.

A new accent is added by Edwin Morgan, himself a distinguished poet, whether writing in English, Scots or Computerese. He argues that though the language of Glasgow is traditionally condemned as an ‘impoverished and bastardised Scots’, it is in fact ‘the rural dialects of Scotland which are impoverished, not the thriving and inventive urban speech of Glasgow’. From the striking examples he produces of the use of Glasgow speech in recent novels, plays and poems, one suspects that this dialect is going to be increasingly important in Scottish literature – as he points out, the Glasgow area contains half the population of the country. But what a Glasgow worker would make of Lorimer’s translation is hard to tell.

Two articles, while not very closely related to the announced subject of the collection, are notable for their patriotism. Matthew McDiarmid gives a new view of the heroic poetry of Scotland. He begins with the Gododdin, ‘so much superior in sensibility to those later and better-known Germanic and Romance narratives, Beowulf, Le Chanson de Roland, El Cid’ (the incomplete and exceedingly obscure Gododdin, c. 600, is in early Welsh, which is closer to Breton than to Gaelic, but it is thought to have been composed in Scotland); moves on to the Bruce and ‘Scotland’s historically precocious sentiment of democracy’; then to the Wallace, ‘the most original and the greatest of Scottish heroic poems’ (and so far far superior to Beowulf et al.?); to Douglas’s translation of the Aeneid, inspired by these ‘two later heroic poems’ (not by Virgil?); and finally to James Macpherson’s Fingal, ‘the latest and not the least influential of Europe’s national epics’.

Professor John MacQueen’s contribution, I was surprised but flattered to find, is an attack on me. In a review in Notes and Queries, in 1972, I evidently enraged Professor MacQueen by demurring at his theory that the first part of ‘Lo what it is to love’, a poem in the Egerton MS (1535-7), usually ascribed to Wyatt, was by Alexander Scott, a Scots poet known to have been alive in the 1580s. I will gladly let him have the last word, for what it is worth. His insults, though, did seem to me to fall below the usual high Scots standards.

But where, it might be asked, does all this leave Lorimer’s translation? The cruel answer, I fear, is ‘in the virtuoso’s cabinet’. The parallel which comes to my mind is Kinaston’s excellent 17th-century translation of Chaucer’s Troilus into Latin verse. The parallel is far from exact, since Kinaston translated from an obsolete dialect of English into a dead language, and Lorimer translated from a dead language into a non-existent dialect of English, but I expect that Lorimer’s translation, like Kinaston’s, will survive without having much effect. If it gives comfort to its readers, this is all to the good, but it would be unfortunate if any Scot should think his dialect more or less ‘good’ according to its closeness to Lorimer’s ‘pure’ Scots.

There are perhaps two reasons why any attempt to establish a written language, a grapholect, for Scots is doomed to fail. One is that there is neither a common Scots tongue nor any single dialect which might be allowed hegemony. The other is that Scotland already has a written language. E.D. Hirsch, discussing the attempts which have been made to raise the social status of some non-standard varieties of American English, writes sensibly: ‘the normative status of a grapholect is an historical-linguistic fact which no ideology can overcome or evade. Once a grapholect has become established, it is as fruitless to resist its conservative and normative power as to tilt at windmills or battle the sea’ (The Philosophy of Composition). I hope that the Scots will continue to speak as variously as they please – and I am very glad that Scottish Standard English, a dialect that to many foreigners is both more pleasing and more intelligible than some of the southern gobbles, has gained so much prestige. But if they continue to attack windmills and the sea (not bad metaphors, in various depressing ways, for modern written English), I hope they don’t mind losing.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences