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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.
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 Mac, 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
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. Gaelic also uses the grave accent above vowels, and until recently used the acute accent over some of them as well.
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.
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
Some words you will see in Scottish records are not used in standard English.
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.
The following list contains some Scottish words more commonly used in documents:
|bairne, bairn||child or baby|
|croft||small agricultural holding|
|docquet||authenticating signature on a deed|
|Erse, Erisch||meaning Irish, referring to Gaelic culture or language|
|executor||a person who is empowered by the deceased to carry out the terms of his/her will|
|forby(e)||besides, beyond, in addition|
|heir portioner||inheriting daughter|
|ieroe||great-grandson (Gaelic: iar-ogha)|
|ilk ("of that ilk")||having a surname of the same place|
|jeroy||great-grandson (Gaelic: iar-ogha)|
|laird||title of landholder; related to, but not equivalent to lord|
|lammas, lammastide||formerly 1st August, now the 28th August|
|maid bairn||girl child|
|main bairn||boy child|
|mains||the main farm of an estate, known as the home farm in England|
|manrent||a type of contract, usually military in nature and involving Scottish clans|
|mortcloth||cloth covering body during burial ceremony|
|natural||often refers to illegitimate off-spring but could be used for legitimate offspring as well|
|new born||usually unbaptized child|
|not proven, guilty not proven||a unique Scottish verdict which confirms the person as neither guilty, nor innocent|
|per stipes||a clause in a will saying that the grandchildren can inherit if the children predecease them|
|provost||used instead of "mayor" in Scotland|
|quwh||(such as who)|
|qlk, quilk, quhilk, quhilck||which|
|resile, resiled||withdrawn (such as an offer of marriage)|
|siccan||such, of a type already mentioned|
|siclike, sicklike, syklyk||likewise|
|sicna||such, of a type already mentioned|
|stillborn||born and died same day|
|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|
|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|
|vide||see (such as, see page)|
|wmquil, umquil||now deceased|
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 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 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.
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.)|
|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|
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.)
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.)