Scotland Languages

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Despite long being a multilingual country, most records used in Scottish research are in English, with older ones in the closely related Scots language. They may, however, be difficult to read because of unique Scottish words, Latin words, or different handwriting styles.

Occasionally records will also contain Gaelic, often written in English phonetics. In the medieval documents about Orkney and Shetland, you may also encounter Norn, an early form of Norwegian.

Online Resources[edit | edit source]

Courses[edit | edit source]

Dictionaries[edit | edit source]

Scottish Gaelic[edit | edit source]

Gaelic (Gàidhlig) is a member of the Goidelic branch of the Celtic language of Scotland. It is closely related to Irish and Manx, and more distantly to Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

The Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 gives some degree of recognition to Scotland's Celtic language. However, unlike Welsh, Scottish Gaelic has been written down far less frequently, and is not taught in many schools. The language is generally associated with the Highlands, but was historically spoken in most of the Lowlands as well. Many Lowland surnames and areas have Gaelic derivations, e.g. Dundee, Stranraer etc. It was not spoken in Orkney and Shetland

Scottish Gaelic gives rise to many Scottish surnames, including any beginning with Mac or Mc, as well as names such as Campbell, Dewar, Menzies etc. Some of these were written down in English phonetics, e.g. MacDonald or McWhannel for MacDhomhnaill and/or were later translated e.g. Smith can translate Mac a' Ghobhainn, which is also anglicized as Gow or MacGowan. The old Scottish Gaelic naming system is extremely complex, and exists mainly in oral tradition.

Many personal names such as Iain (John), Malcolm, Duncan, Fiona and Morag all ultimately derive from the language too. There are other, traditional, Gaelic names which have no direct equivalents in English: Oighrig, which is normally rendered as Euphemia (Effie) or Henrietta (Etta) (formerly also as Henny or even as Harriet), or, Diorbhal, which is "matched" with Dorothy, simply on the basis of a certain similarity in spelling; Gormul, for which there is nothing similar in English, and it is rendered as 'Gormelia' or even 'Dorothy'; Beathag, which is "matched" with Becky (> Rebecca) and even Betsy, or Sophie.

The most common class of Gaelic surnames are, of course, those beginning with mac (Gaelic for son), such as MacGillEathain (MacLean). The female form is nic (Gaelic for daughter), so Catherine MacPhee is properly called in Gaelic, Caitrìona Nic a' Phì. [Strictly, "nic" is a contraction of the Gaelic phrase "nighean mhic", meaning "daughter of the son", thus Nic Dhomhnuill, really means "daughter of MacDonald" rather than "daughter of Donald".] Although there is a common misconception that "mac" means "son of", the "of" part actually comes from the genitive form of the patronymic that follows the prefix "Mac", e.g., in the case of MacNéill, Néill (of Neil) is the genitive form of Niall (Neil).

Several colours give rise to common Scottish surnames: bàn (Bain – white), ruadh (Roy – red), dubh (Dow – black), donn (Dunn – brown), buidhe (Bowie – yellow).

Alphabet and pronunciation[edit | edit source]

Though the Scottish Gaelic and English alphabets are very similar, each has some letters not used in the other. The letters j, k, q, v, w, y, x and z are not used in the Gaelic language except in some 'adopted' words and foreign names. Gaelic also uses the grave accent above vowels, and until recently used the acute accent over some of them as well.

Putting an "h" after a consonant changes its sound (much like in certain English combinations) and serves a grammatical function:

  • bh/mh (a v or w sound)
  • ch (a guttural sound as in German - known as the velar fricative.)
  • dh/gh
    • dhe/ghe-, dhi/ghi-, -idh (like a y)
    • dha-/gha-, dho-/gho-, dhu/ghu-, -adh, -odh (guttural sound, similar to g)
  • fh (silent, occasionally "h")
  • ph (f as in English)
  • sh, th (an h sound)

Spelling is similar to Irish, although some combinations such as "ae" and "bhf" will not be found in modern Scottish Gaelic. Older documents will use a spelling more similar to Irish, or are often in English phonetics.

As an example of how different Gaelic spelling is from English, the Lord's Prayer is reproduced here:

Ar n-Athair a tha air nèamh, Gu naomhaichear d'ainm.
Thigeadh do rìoghachd. Dèanar do thoil air an talamh, mar a nithear air nèamh.
Tabhair dhuinn an-diugh ar n-aran làitheil.
Agus maith dhuinn ar fiachan, amhail a mhaitheas sinne dar luchd-fiach.
Agus na leig ann am buaireadh sinn; ach saor sinn o olc:
oir is leatsa an rìoghachd, agus an cumhachd, agus a' ghlòir, gu siorraidh.

Scots language[edit | edit source]

The Scots language is the language of the Scottish Lowlands, Caithness, and the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland). It is closely related to standard English, and there is a long running, heated debate as to whether it is a dialect or a language in its own right. It is not to be confused with Gaelic, although there has been some mutual influence.

The Scots language goes by many different names. It is often called Broad/Braid Scots or Lowland Scots to distinguish it from Gaelic. In the north east especially, it is often referred to as Doric. In Buchan, it is known as the Claik, and in Glasgow as the Patter. In older writings it is often referred to as Scottis, or as Scotch, although the term "Scotch" is not liked by many Scots today.

Many Scots words can be found in older documents, as it was written down more frequently than Gaelic. It is common for Scots to use the dimunitive, e.g. James frequently becomes Jamie, Robert becomes Rab or Rabbie etc. This is done more often than in standard English and is not frowned upon.

Scots has no legal status, and there are no reliable figures for how many people speak it. However, it is much more common to hear it in Scotland than Gaelic. Due to its similarity with English, there is considerable debate as to what constitutes Scots as well.

Spelling is not standardized now, and is often influenced by English. A notable difference from standard English is the guttural (velar fricative) in which the likes of "loch" and "nicht" would be pronounced as in German, rather than as "lock" or "nickt".

Many Scots words survive in Scottish place names, e.g. street names such as wynd, vennel, close, pend, port (in the sense of gate), gate (in the sense of road), and in placenames such as howe (hollow), mains (important farm), burn (small river), brae (hill or slope) etc

Unique Scottish Words[edit | edit source]

Some words you will see in Scottish records are not used in standard English. Please note that there is often considerable variation in spelling

The English past participle -ed, is usually represented by -it in Scots. Older documents may also form the plural or possessive in -is. The English "wh" is often rendered as "quh" in old Scots, and as "f" in north east Scots (Doric).

The following list contains some Scottish words more commonly used in documents:

Scottish Words English Translation
Aberdonian of Aberdeen
ae "A" (indefinite article), occasionally "of"
afore/afoir before
airt direction (Gaelic: àird)
aisle as well as being an aisle in a church, this can also refer to a family grave, often enclosed in a small building or fence.
aith oath
allenarly solely
ane one, an
anent about, concerning
auld, ald, eld old
bairne, bairn child or baby
bairnis children, or children's
Bairn's Pairt The right of the issue (including adult issue) to not less than a defined share of the value of the moveable estate of the deceased
baptist baptized
bard poet (Gaelic: bàrd)
bastle, bastill house a fortified house in the Borders (from French bastille)
beand being
befoir before
befeir before
Borderer someone living near the border with England.
brither brother
burgh borough, town with special status
burn small river or large stream (common in place names)
by near somewhere (sometimes found in addresses)
caird a member of the Scottish travelling folk (Gaelic: ceàrd, meaning artisan)
Caledonian of Scotland
callit called
calps rents (Gaelic: calpa)
cateran a Highland raider (Gaelic: ceatharnach)
clachan village (usually with a church; Gaelic: clachan)
clan A family or kinship group. Mostly in the Highlands and Border area. (Gaelic: clann, meaning children)
Clearances, the Clearances Forced eviction from homes. The Highland Clearances are the best known.
close a collection of apartments
compear appear before a court
con versus, against (abbreviation of "contra"); abbreviation of constituted
cott cottage or hut
cottar tenant farmer
Covenanter Signatory of the Scottish Covenant, a religious protest against the king. Mostly found in southern Scotland.
croft small agricultural holding worked by crofters.
dale valley in southern Scotland. Dalesmen is an old name for Borderers
debitor debtor
defender defendant in court. (The word "defendant" is not used in Scottish courts.)
defuncti, defunct the deceased
delict torts
deponit deponed (witness)
do. abbreviation for ditto
dochter daughter
docquet authenticating signature on a deed
doits money (coins)
Dundonian of Dundee
easter east, eastern
eld Old, found in compounds like eldfader (grandfather)
Episcopalian Member of the Scottish Episcopal Church (Anglican). Nickname "Pisky" (sometimes seen as offensive)
Erse, Erisch meaning Irish, referring to Gaelic culture or language. Often considered offensive. Erischry is equivalent to "Irishry"
evite avoid
executor a person who is empowered by the deceased to carry out the terms of his/her will
fae from
fay, fayr, faither father
fermtoun "farm town", small village often without a church.
Fifer Someone from Fife
firth a sea inlet, fjord, estuary
folk, fowk folk or people. This is also used in Scotland to refer to one's family traditionally, like the American "folks". Fisherfolk would be families engaged in fisheries.
forby(e) besides, beyond, in addition
fower four
fra, frae from
Free Church, Free Kirk One of several Presbyterian groups which broke from the Church of Scotland over landlord control.
furth beyond (often "furth of")
Gallovidian, Galwegian of Galloway in South West Scotland. Not to be confused with Galway in Ireland.
Glaswegian of Glasgow
glen valley (Gaelic: gleann; the Great Glen is the area stretching from Inverness to Fort William)
grayne A clan or kinship group in the Scottish Border region, and sometimes in far north of England
hae have
haes, hais has
haid had
Hebridean of the Hebrides (island group)
heir portioner inheriting daughter
ieroe great-grandson (Gaelic: iar-ogha)
ilk ("of that ilk") having a surname of the same place
Jacobite Supporter of the Stuart succession to the throne, especially Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie). Named for his father James Stuart.
jeroy great-grandson (Gaelic: iar-ogha)
Jus relictae/jus relicti The right of the surviving spouse in the movable goods of the deceased spouse. Jus relictae is the term used for a surviving wife, and jus relicti is the term used for a surviving husband.
kirk, kyrk church, capitalised as "the Kirk" is somwtimes a reference to the Church of Scotland, the legally established Presbyterian church.
kirkton, kirktoun "church town", a village with a church
kirkyird, kirkyard, kirkyaird churchyard, graveyard
Kist coffin or casket (Gaelic: ciste); also a box or chest. Someone who is "kistit" has been put in their coffin.
laird title of landholder; related to, but not equivalent to lord
Lammas, Lammastide formerly 1st August, now the 28th August, corresponding to Celtic festival of Lughnasa
landward inland (as opposed to people living on the coast)
lass, lassie girl
lawful legitimate offspring
Legitim, legitimum The right of the issue (offspring - including adult issue) to not less than a defined share of the value of the moveable estate of the deceased.
loch Usually a lake or a pond, but also a sea inlet (Gaelic: loch). A small one is known as a lochan. Very common in place names.
loon, loun lad or boy (usually in north east)
Lord Lyon So called "King of Arms", the chief herald in Scotland, decides succession to chiefdoms and approves coats of arms.
luvebairn lovechild, one born out of wedlock, a bastard in the old sense.
M' An archaic form of Mc, found in surnames, from the Gaelic Mac meaning son. "Mc, Mc, M'c, and Mic".
maid bairn girl child
main bairn boy child
mains the main farm of an estate, known as the home farm in England
mairrit, marriet (upon) married (to)
manrent a type of contract, usually military in nature and involving Scottish clans
March, Mairch A border area with England. The West March was an area in Dumfriesshire for example.
miln, myln mill
mind remember or recollect
mither mother
Moravian to do with Moray (north east Scotland)
mormaer type of earl in mediaeval Scotland (Gaelic: Mòr-mhaor)
mortcloth cloth covering body during burial ceremony
mortsafe a building in a graveyard for locking up bodies to preserve them from graverobbers prior to burial.
moy, moyr mother
muir moorland, upland grazing. A muirman was someone who lived in such a place.
narrate tell, relate (not just a story)
natural often refers to illegitimate off-spring but could be used for legitimate offspring as well
nether lower, often found in farm names to distinguish it from the "upper" farm of the same name nearby.
nevoy, nephoy nephew
new born usually unbaptized child
Nic Daughter of. Traditionally the feminine form of Mac, but can occasionally be found in non-Gaelic language records as Nik etc.
not proven, guilty not proven a unique Scottish verdict which confirms the person as neither guilty, nor innocent
o, o' of, more often to do with a location rather than a grandson as in Ireland.
oe, oy grandson (Gaelic: ogha)
Orcadian of the Orkney Islands
outwith outside
Papist, Pape Roman Catholic (note that this term is considered offensive, but does turn up in some old documents)
part with child miscarry
per stipes a clause in a will saying that the grandchildren can inherit if the children predecease them
plead, pled pleaded
pns presence (of)
producit produced
provost used instead of "mayor" in Scotland as in Lord Provost
putit presented
puir, pwir poor
quwh (such as who)
quha who
qlk, quilk, quhilk, quhilck which
quairfoir wherefore
quine girl (esp in north east)
raiefeit ratified
reiver Border raider.
relict widow, widower
resile, resiled withdrawn (such as an offer of marriage)
Sasine A Scots law term for the delivery of feudal property, typically land. The Register of Sasines is a government office.
schew, schaw, shaw show
screivit written
seik sick
seivin seven
sept a dependent family within a clan
shennachie, shenchie an oral historian, often a traditional genealogist (Gaelic: seanchaidh; the "ch" is guttural)
sic such
siccan such, of a type already mentioned
siclike, sicklike, syklyk likewise
sicna such, of a type already mentioned
solatium compensation for the injury or loss of a relative
stillborn born and died same day, born dead
strath wide river valley (often found in place names; Gaelic: srath)
tack yearly rent paid to a Highland landlord (Gaelic: "taic")
tacksman member of the Highland middle class, paying a tack to the laird, and often subletting
tenement a type of flat or apartment found in large Scottish cities
Tinker, Tink A member of tbe Scottish Travellers (distinct from the Romany). This name is seen as offensive nowadays.
tocher dowry (Gaelic: "tachartas")
toun, toon town
twa, twae two
udal relating to traditional Norse law in the Northern Isles (Orkney and Shetland)
udal law the remnant legal system of the Northern Isles, similar to odelsrett
udal tenure tenure under udal law
unquhile, umquil late, former, deceased
unthank a property on which no rent was paid. This was sometimes so tenant could improve the land.
varnit warned
vide see (such as, see page)
water, watter a medium sized river (common in place names) or just water
wester west, western
wha who
whaur where
whilk which
wife, wifie, wyfe woman - note that this does not always refer to a spouse in traditional usage.
wreitting writing
wmquil, umquil now deceased
wyld Scottis Wild Scots, i.e. found in remote areas, and frequently Gaelic speaking.
Yuill, Yule Christmas
Zetland Shetland, Zetlander - of Shetland

Latin[edit | edit source]

Some Scottish records may contain Latin. Knowing some Latin will help you read these records. For help with Latin words, see the Latin Genealogical Word List (34077).

There are also a handful of Latin terms only used in Scotland.

Handwriting[edit | edit source]

Handwriting styles have changed over time. In early records, the handwriting is quite different from what it is today.  Visit Scotland Handwriting in  Research Topics.

Abbreviations[edit | edit source]

Abbreviations are common in early handwriting. When recorders left letters out of a word, they indicated the fact by using various marks, such as a period, a colon, a tail on the last letter of the word, a curvy line over the word, or a raised letter at the end of the word. Abbreviations can be indicated in many ways, and it is important to study individual writers to see how they made abbreviations.

In Scottish church records, ministers often used only the first letter of the words, for example:

L.S. = lawful son

L.D. = lawful daughter

N.S. = natural son

N.D. = natural daughter

ch. = child

Ch. N. = child named

N. = named

Instead of writing the words father, mother, witness, son, or daughter, the minister may have used f, m, w, s, or other letters.

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.

Dates[edit | edit source]

Dates, instead of being numerical, are sometimes referred to by the name of the feast day or by one of the terms listed below:

Term Meaning current, instant Same month (Sometimes used to mean "within 30 days" or a month.)
proximo next month
ultimo last month
penultimate day, penult day the day before the last day of the month
jajvii, jmjvii, mvii indicates the century, such as 1700s
eodem tempore, eod tempore at the same time (the same date)
eodem die, eod die, E.D. the same day
Gods die God’s day, the Sabbath
Feb 1st Sabbath Exact day of month not stated
Feb 2nd Sabbath Event took place in Feb on the 1st, 2nd, or  (whatever) Sabbath in the month

Language resources[edit | edit source]

Scottish Dictionaries[edit | edit source]

To find definitions for other words that are unfamiliar to you, you can use one of several Scottish dictionaries:

Craigie, Sir William A. A Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, from the Twelfth Century to the End of the Seventeenth. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1937-. (Family History Librarybook 403.41 Sco87c.)

Dwelly, Edward Faclair Gàidhlig gu Beurla le Dealbhan/The Illustrated Gaelic–English Dictionary (various editions)

Graham, William. The Scots Word Book. 3rd rev. ed. Edinburgh, Scotland: Ramsey Head Press, 1980. (Family History Library book 427.9411 G76s 1980.)

Jamieson, John. A Dictionary of the Scottish Language. Edinburgh, Scotland: William Tait, 1866. (Family History Library book 427.941 J242j.)

Warrack, Alexander. A Scots Dialect Dictionary. London, England: W. & R. Chambers, 1911. (Family History Library book 427.9411 W25s.)

Robinson, Mairi, ed. The Concise Scots Dictionary. Oxford, England: Aberdeen University Press, 1985. (Family Hhistory Library book 427.9411 C748c.)