Getting started with Scots

Many teachers will be familiar with ‘word of the day’, the popular lesson starter which also serves as a really effective vocabulary builder. This activity can provide a great opportunity to ease the class into some Scots vocabulary - Scots words can appear from time to time. A class dictionary can develop over the course of the term, using the whiteboard to project the words with accompanying pictures. Learners can note words, parts of speech and definitions in their jotters. This activity enables the teacher to introduce the concept of Scots as a discrete language, engaging pupils who already have some Scots of their own, and arousing the curiosity of those learners who may be new to Scots.

Learning about Scots can come out of - or lead to - all manner of interesting cross-curricular work within the context of learning about Scotland.

In my class, about half of the pupils have some Scots language, and all pupils love to bring in their own word of the day. Try it yourself: you may discover that a rich variety of Scots exists among your wider school community. Most of the words that come in will be adjectives or nouns, but this needn’t apply every time. Tap into common prepositions (oot, doon, owre, afore etc.) or verbs (mak, tak, gie, ken etc.) as well: this can help pupils to understand that there is more to Scots than just a few lively lexical items.

Stories behind words

In recent weeks, my S2 class have noted grimleens, sleekit, Merry Dancers, yowe and ku. Some of these words arose from conversations (grimleens and Merry Dancers were the results of casual chat about weather and the time of year). Others came from class reading - we found ku in a poem by Christina Costie.

Sleekit led to some good discussion. We noted that it is an adjective, and that it is a widely-known word because it is used in a famous poem by Burns. Then we looked for a definition and a usage. We discovered that the word had been recorded in the late twentieth century in Shetland (a long way from Ayrshire!), where it was used to describe a conger eel - so we used a dramatic picture of an enormous, sleekit conger to accompany the word.

Scots in the countryside

If you are intrigued by yowe and ku above, I’m guessing you might be a teacher in a rural school, or in a school with a rural catchment area. There’s a rich and broad range of Scots vocabulary to tap into in the countryside. I’ve used the following sentence in springtime to try to engage youngsters who are interested in farming: ‘The auld yowe lambed easily’. Once we’ve dealt with the meaning of the words it’s a simple step to identify the Scots adjective and noun, as well as going on to comment on the fact that the word ‘lamb’, which we would usually expect to be a noun, is actually being used as the verb here. What other Scots words do your learners know for farm animals, wild animals, birds, plants, or features of the landscape? Can they make up sentences using their Scots vocabulary and then go on to discuss the parts of speech?

Something for everyone

Scots language is spoken throughout Lowland Scotland and the Northern Isles. In the 2011 census, approximately 1.5 million people reported that they can speak Scots. But Scots will be interesting and valuable for your learners whether or not they already speak it. Even in areas where there may be less spoken Scots around, Scots remains the language of the place names, history and heritage of all of Lowland Scotland. Learning about Scots can therefore come out of - or lead in to - all manner of interesting cross-curricular work within the context of learning about Scotland.

If you're looking to get started with Scots and want to find out more, Simon recommends this resource from Education Scotland.

We have some great lists of Scots books for teens, for 8-11 year olds and 3-7 year olds.  

Simon Hall

Simon Hall is a Scots Language Coordinator at Education Scotland, based in Orkney.