The Vernacular Scots language

Jemma Field

I am currently transcribing a host of Scots courts records relating to Anna of Denmark’s Scottish period (1588 - 1603) in the Scottish National Archives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Having married King James VI of Scotland in 1588, she spent some 13 years in the country before moving south to England when James’s cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, passed away without issue, and he took up the crown. Having spent almost all my archival life working on early seventeenth-century English documents, I have had a couple of very interesting learning curves in the last few weeks that I think are noteworthy.

Scots really is its own language. The use of phonetic spelling and grammar has preserved some of the idiosyncrasies of spoken Scots from the period, which presents words that can seem completely bewildering to a modern English reader. Perhaps for many this is a very obvious point to make, but as an English historian working on a time period when the question of union became particularly pertinent, the distinctive differences between England Scotland isn’t something that gets mentioned or discussed enough. All too often, Scotland seems to be subsumed into the history of “Great Britain” or the “British Kingdom”, tacked on as an adjunct to its larger, richer, and more powerful neighbour (and periodic ruler) England. There are, of course, some excellent Scots historians, but it’s worth underscoring that Scotland is a country with its own linguistic, cultural, political and religious traditions and history. Even now, polls show that the vast majority of people living in Scotland do not identify as “British” but as Scottish. 



Some interesting Scots words with their English equivalent:












Coif (as in the close fitting cap)









Hingar; hyngar; hingaris:

this doesn’t have a direct translation in English and can mean a variety of things. It is essentially a device to hang things on, so it can be an earring, a pendant, or even a belt for hanging a sword.



Unique Dates

Secondly, the Scots have a unique way of writing the year. This is illustrated in the document image above. What this tells us is that the year is 1593.

Signed by Anna R. (Queen Anna), the bottom line reads:  “day of [blank] the yeir of god Jaj vc fourscoir threttene yeiris.”

Jaj’ is a corruption of ‘im’ meaning 1000

v’ is the roman numeral for 5

c’ is an abbreviation of the Latin ‘centum’ meaning 100

fourscore’ is literally 4 times 20, so 80 and with an added 13 years, the whole comes to 1593.


For anyone wanting to delve into some of the surprsing delights of the vernacular Scots, I highly recommend using this free online dictionary