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Scotland Handwriting

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Scottish handwriting parallels that of England in that secretary hand was introduced in the late 15th Century. It was well established in Scotland by the mid-16th Century, and was eventually replaced by italic.

A distinctive form of Gaelic hand can be found in some older documents, similar to the Old Irish script. This had largely disappeared by the nineteenth century.

Online Resources[edit | edit source]


Many words used in early documents were written in Latin. However, in later years Scotland was more heavily influenced by French handwriting than was England. After the introduction of italic in the 16th Century, a number of documents contained a mixture of secretarial and italic scripts.

Those keeping records, such as scribes, used a fashionable italic. However, for certain records or documents, such as testaments, secretary hand continued to be used until the early 18th Century.

The two major languages used to write most documents in the 16th and 17th Centuries were Latin and Lowland Scots (basically similar to lowland dialects of English during this time period). Gaelic was spoken in many places, but will tend to be encountered mostly in an anglicised transcription of Gaelic names.

Legal documents were written in Latin until the 18th Century and in Scottish Secretary hand or italic. Testaments were written in Scots and secretary hand.

The difficulty in reading the early handwriting is that the words they use in the documents may be unfamiliar to you. The best way to learn to read the old handwriting is to practice. The following strategies may be of help.

  • Begin with a more recent time period and work toward earlier periods.
  • Make an alphabet of the writer’s style.
  • Read for sense.
  • When you cannot read a word, decipher it letter by letter.
  • If you cannot read a letter, compare the letter with the same letter in words you recognize.
  • People spelled phonetically and may not be as it is spelled today.
  • Many times there are extra letters added to words such as head or bed (hede, hedde, bedde, bede, etc.)
  • Words like "such(e)" or words that do not end with an 'e' ordinarily may have an 'e' added at the end of the word.
  • An 'i' or 'y' were interchangable, such as in "heires" or "heyers."
  • An 'i' and 'j' are interchangable and may be written in dates. The 'j' may appear as an 'i' at the end of a date. For instance viiij would be eight.

Yogh[edit | edit source]

Yogh (ȝogh) is an old letter which may be encountered when looking at some very old documents. It resembles the number 3 or a cursive Z. This represents a "y" sound.

Later the yogh was turned into Y. It ended up fossilised as a Z in some words and names. McKenzie and Menzies, for example would have originally been written with a yogh, i.e. McKenȝie and Menȝies.

Reading Gaelic[edit | edit source]

A distinctive form of Gaelic hand can be found in some older documents, similar to the Old Irish script. This had largely disappeared by the nineteenth century. Readers of modern Scottish Gaelic (since that time) will also encounter diacritics - the grave accent over vowels, and also formerly the acute, as well as the occasional use of 7 as an ampersand. It is recommended that anyone trying to read Gaelic documents studies the language first, as the spelling system is radically different and this leads to errors.

Gaelic is most likely to be encountered in bastardised form when non-speakers transcribed the names of people and places. Sometimes these are extremely corrupt.

Sadly, many native speakers of Gaelic were illiterate in their own language, due to the educational system, so it was common to see them writing in English instead even when they were not fluent. Gaelic is more likely to be found in family Bibles, Psalters and the like than official documentation.

Aids for being able to read Scottish Handwriting[edit | edit source]

  • Allison Rosie. 'Scottish Handwriting 1500-1700' a self help pack. Published by Scottish Records Association, 1994; ISBN 1 870874 04 8.
  • Grant G Simpson. 'Scottish Handwriting 1150-1650.' Published by Aberdeen University Press, 1986 (140 pages); ISBN 0 900015 41 1 (Hardback), 0 08 034516 6 (Paperback).

The National Archives of Scotland[edit | edit source]

There are websites available to explain methods of reading Scottish handwriting. The The National Archives of Scotland is the primary site. They provide a tutorial and background information that helps decipher each document that they have for you to transcribe.

The National Archives of Scotland is a very good resource for you to learn more about the letters, the language, and how they wrote. They have many dictionaries they refer to and they tell you which ones are the best to use depending on what time period you are working in.

To learn more about sources for reading and translating Scottish documents, see the above web site and click on the link to Scottish Handwriting. Then click on the Bibliography link. Here you can use the tutorials to learn about Scottish Handwriting how to read the handwriting.