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Word Power – Scottish Review of Books
by Paul Henderson Scott

Word Power

August 10, 2012 | by Paul Henderson Scott

The editors of Scotland in Definition, A History of Scottish Dictionaries, Iseabail Macleod and Derrick McClure, have both spent most of their careers in the study of promotion of the Scottish languages, especially Scots. Macleod has worked for the Scottish National Dictionary since 1979 and from 1986 until 2002 as its Editorial Director. McClure was a lecturer in Aberdeen University from 1979 to 2002. He has written extensively about Scots and has promoted it in several organisations. The Saltire Society published  editions of his Why Scots Matters in 1988 and 1997.

Their introduction to this book is a masterly summary of the issues involved as far as Scots is concerned. (Gaelic is not their subject and it has its own strong team in part II of the book). They say that the great age of literature in Scots (from Barbour in the fourteenth century to Lyndsay in the sixteenth) was brought to an end by the introduction of printing because some of the first printers in Scotland were English. Then, as they say, ‘In the eighteen century, notoriously, a determined effort was made to excise all “Scotticisms” from speech’. Gaelic has had an even more violent history, with the defeat of the Jacobite Rising, the Clearances and the Education Act of 1872 which ignored the existence of the language. Even so its poetry remained in vigorous life.

It seems to me that this history of the neglect and the near abolition of both Scots and Gaelic needs more consideration. Was it simply that the overwhelming power and wealth of England (for a time the major power in the world) convinced the Scots that they should do their best to imitate them? Still, as this book demonstrates comprehensively, both Scots and Gaelic have been fighting back. Ruth Williamson has a chapter on the lexicography of Scots before 1700, and Derrick McClure follows with one on the 18th. It was then that Ruddiman published a glossary of about 3,000 entries to Gavin Douglas’s translation in verse of Virgil’s Aeneid. This became a fruitful source for subsequent lexicographers, including John Jamieson, the author of the first comprehensive dictionary of Scots. Susan Rennie has a chapter on this, but she has also just published a book which is the first detailed account of Jamieson’s life and work. She too is a lexicographer who has worked on both Scottish and English dictionaries, but she is also one of the founders of the Itchy Coo Books and she has written stories for children in Scots. Her latest book is a detailed work of research, but it is written in a fluent and lively style which makes it a pleasure to read.

John Jamieson was born in Glasgow in 1759 and grew up in a family of dissenters of the Scottish Secession Kirk. He entered Glasgow University when he was nine, remarkably early even at that time. His first appointment was to the   Secession Kirk in Forfar. After 17 years there he was appointed Minister of a Secession Kirk in Edinburgh where he served for 32 years. His major interest seems to have been, not religion, but the Scots language. He did say that Edinburgh was ‘much more favourable to literary research’, but even when he was in Forfar he made an extensive study of the Scots spoken there. He was interested not only in spoken Scots, but in the language of Scottish literature from the earliest times. This eventually became the content of his Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language published in two volumes in 1808 and of the further two volumes of Supplement in 1825. He worked on this for most of his life, even when he was ill.

One of the early influences on Jamieson was Grimur Thorkelin, an Icelandic scholar and Professor of History and Antiquities in the University of Copenhagen. Jamieson met him in October 1787 when he was on a tour sponsored by the Danish government to investigate evidence of Scandinavian connections. Thorkelin said that he had heard Scots words on his travels which were similar to his native Icelandic. Jamieson was delighted with this evidence that Scots was more than a dialect of English. On the title page of his dictionaries he said that they showed the affinity of Scots words ‘to those of other languages and especially the Northern.’ Jamieson never met Thorkelin again but they were in correspondence for fifteen years. Another influence on Jamieson’s ideas about the origin of many Scots words was the publication in 1786 of  John Pinker-ton’s Ancient Scottish Poems. This included a glossary of about 1,000   words and an Introduction which said that the Picts were a Nordic race and that their language was a dialect of Gothic.

In the course of Jamieson’s years of work on his Dictionary he met many people who, as Rennie says, ‘became lifelong supporters’ of his project.’ Among them from 1795 was the young Walter Scott . They became close friends and for years Scott suggested words for inclusion in the Dictionary. Rennie in an appendix includes a list of them of 15 pages.

On the other hand a potential rival also appeared on the scene. In March 1802 Jamie-son wrote in one of his letters to Thorkelin: ‘a clergyman, a native of England, Mr Jona-than Boucher, is compiling a dictionary of old English words and had proposed that he and I should put our works together, as he wished to include the Scottish as one of the Dialects of the English’. Jamieson, who was naturally concerned that such a dictionary would harm the sales of his own, made several proposals to Boucher, but he rejected all of them and eventually died without publishing anything.

When Jamieson was ready to publish his Dictionary he failed to find a publisher. He decided to do the job himself and bought two hand presses. As he said in a letter to Rich-ard Heber, ‘It was more than fifteen months hard labour’. The Dictionary was published in two volumes on 20 February 1808, and the Supplement in another two volumes in 1825. Jamieson also handled the sales and distribution himself. Scots therefore now had an Etymological Dictionary tracing its origin from early times. English had Samuel Johnson’s, but it was confined to current usage.

Since Jamieson, Scottish dictionaries have become more scholarly and elaborate. The first of them, The Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue (DOST), was proposed by Sir William Craigie. After his education in St Andrews University and Oriel College, Oxford, he was appointed to the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary. He became its third editor in 1897 after another Scot, Sir James Murray. In 1925 Craigie was appointed Professor of English in the University of Chicago and began working on the DOST. The Chicago University Press agreed to publish it in 25 parts, each of 120 pages and they continued until 1981. Craigie died in 1952 and Jack Aitken took over as editor. The DOST was eventually completed in 62 parts amounting to about 8,000 pages. It was not completed until December 2000.

The chapter on DOST by Margaret Dareau is followed by one by Iseabail Macleod on the Scottish National Dictionary. She begins by saying that at the beginning of the twentieth century ‘there were gloomy views about the future of the Scots language, and indeed forecasts of its imminent demise’. Now, she continues, ‘with more enlightened attitudes to minority languages and some official support (though not enough) its outlook is not as grim as it was’. The long years of work on the DOST and the SND are perhaps an indication of belief in the value and future of the languages.

The work on these dictionaries was certainly long and intensive. The publication of the first part of the SND to the last took 45 years. Iseabail Macleod says that the fact it was completed in this time was due in large measure to the almost superhuman patience of the editor, David Murison. This is something which I witnessed from year to year. I was a subscriber to the Dictionary and the ten large volumes sit on a shelf above my desk as I write. At the time I was working abroad, but whenever I came to Edinburgh on leave I used to call on David in his office (or shall I say workshop) in George Square. You could almost be sure that he would be there because he worked long hours and took no holidays. He even failed to turn up at a dinner held to celebrate the completion of the task of editing the Dictionary. To my mind he is one of the real heroes of Scottish cultural endeavour.

Iseabail Macleod adds another chapter on the diversity of dictionaries which have been published using the material now available in the SND. They range from an official condensation, the Concise Scots Dictionary (of which Iseabail was one of the editors) to such light-hearted books as Scoor-oot, A Dictionary of Scots Words and Phrases in Current Use.

Part II of the book is devoted to Gaelic dictionaries. The authors are William Gillies, who was Professor of Celtic at Edinburgh University from 1979 to 2009, and Lorna Pike, who has been on the editorial team of both the Concise Scots Dictionary and the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue.

The first dictionary of Gaelic was published in 1741 by the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) which is curious because one of the objects of the Society was to ‘root-out’ in the Highlands and Islands what they called the Irish language. Subsequent dictionaries were the work of enthusiasts for Gaelic.   The first was in 1780 by the Rev William Shaw. He met Samuel Johnson during his tour of the Highlands   with James Boswell and this encouraged him to produce a dictionary in two volumes, Gaelic-English and English-Gaelic. In 1825 Robert Armstrong produced what Gillies calls ‘arguably the first major dictionary in Gaelic’.

Many others have followed, but, so far, nothing on the scale and professionalism of the DOST and the SND for Scots. To meet the need a group, including Norman Gillies and Lorna Pike, met in May 2002 to discuss the way forward. They agreed that there should be a historical dictionary project, to be called Faclair na Gaidhlig (Dictionary of the Scottish Gaelic Language) and the Universities of Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Strathclyde and the University of the Highlands and Islands should be invited to participate. All agreed and a Strategy Committee for the project met for the first time in October 2002. Work proceeds and our authors are confident that Faclair na Gaidhlig will add ‘accessibility and dignity to Scottish Gaelic as a properly respected language in the world’.

It seems to me therefore a safe conclusion is that both Scots and Gaelic, with their admirable literatures and now the support of major dictionaries, are likely not only to survive, but to flourish.


Iseabail Macleod and J.Derrick McClure, eds

BIRLINN,  PP342, £25. ISBN: 978 1 90656 649 4


Susan Rennie

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, PP303, £70. ISBN: 978 0 19 963940 3

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