Pithy Scots brogue and throwaway insults punctuate Outlander, the phenomenally successful TV series that explores the final great Jacobite uprising of 1745 – the rebellion against King George II led by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Like 18th-century period dress or columns of troops, the Scots language is colourfully employed to lend authenticity to the drama.
The Scots spoken in Outlander may not be the language spoken today in Scotland, but rather a stage-Scots – essentially English dressed in tartan and cockade – yet it is still to be cheered. In fact, the presence of Scots in Outlander is a sign of how far an historically repressed language has come in just a few decades.
But what is Scots exactly, and what is it doing in this time travel drama? Scots is the tongue of much of Scotland, particularly the rural areas. According to the 2011 census, Scots has 1.6m speakers in Scotland, with more in Ulster (which straddles Ireland and Northern Ireland), making it one of the largest minority languages in Europe.
Germanic words such as “ken” and “bairn” are used where in English you might say “I know” and “child”. There are many loan words from Gaelic, such as “glen”, “loch” and “burn” (a small stream); from Dutch there is “keek” (to look), and from French “assiette” (plate). There are also 400 shared words between Scots and Norwegian.
But this language has been repressed – forced out of education, media and business life. Interestingly, the fate and fall of Scots were bound together with those of Jacobitism, a movement intended to restore Scotland’s former independence, religious tolerance and the Stewart dynasty to the Scottish and English thrones.