The Bible in Plain Scots


Map highlighting the areas where the different Scots language/ dialects are spoken.

Today is a historic day when, on behalf of the Ullans Academy, the Dalaradia Historical group and Pretani Associates bring the first ever Bible in Plain Scots to the community at Reidvale Housing Association in Glasgow, Scotland….Please see the Dalaradia Facebook page….

Until this time the Bible has not been completely translated into Plain Scots. The Bible in Plain Scots uses core Scots words so that it does not favour one Scots dialect over another and all who speak Scots can understand it. In Scotland prior to the Reformation Parliament of 1560, church services were usually conducted in Latin. The Vulgate version used was also a Latin translation because using the vernacular languages was regarded as heresy by the Roman Catholic Church, particularly so after Martin Luther’s attack on the Papacy from 1517.

In 1513-39, Murdoch Nisbet from Ayrshire, who was associated with a group of Lollards, produced a Scots translation of the New Testament, working from John Purvey’s 1520s revision of the famous John Wycliffe version of the fourteenth century. However, that work remained an unpublished manuscript known only to his family and Bible scholars until it was edited and printed by the Scottish Texts Society in 1901-5. The Scottish Parliament briefly enacted in 1543 that it was permissible to own a Bible in Scots or English, but that dispensation was repealed soon after, and it was not until 1560 when Scotland became Calvinist that a vernacular Bible became legal.

The new Scottish Church adopted the English Geneva Bible because it was the only full translation available which was ideologically acceptable — and that in a language close enough to the vernacular. Nisbet’s Bible would probably not have been acceptable to Calvinists, and that is the reason why it remained unknown outside his family. In 1579 the Scottish Parliament enacted that every substantial householder should own a Bible in the vernacular, and the English Bible, with a preface in Scots, was printed again.

In 1601 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland met at Burntisland, and discussion took place regarding a new version of the Bible being produced in the vernacular of Lowland Scotland. However, that came to nothing because in 1603 King James VI succeeded to the British throne as James I. James was keen to bring about conformity in culture, language and religion across his kingdoms, based on court practice in London, and instead he commissioned the King James (Authorised) Version (KJV), in English. That is not to say, of course, that Scottish sermons and preaching were conducted solely in English from 1560. Indeed, there is evidence that Scottish Presbyterian ministers commonly preached in Scots well into the nineteenth century.

On occasion, there were complaints about the drawbacks of using English texts. In the 1630s the Church of Scotland wrote to Charles I about his new Prayer Book. Objections were made to many of the terms which were unknown to the common people. For example, in 1703 the Reverend James Kirkwood commented “Does not everybody know that in our English Bibles there are several hundred words and phrases not vulgarly used nor understood by a great many in Scotland, who have no other Translation?”. However, because Scottish ministers paraphrased texts, and because of the drive towards Anglo-Scottish political union, the idea of a Scottish Bible did not seem a pressing issue, especially among the aristocracy.

Indeed, by the 1750s the so-called Moderate Party had risen to dominance within the Scottish Church, and the Moderates chose to preach in English. Certainly, by 1800 the idea of a Scots Bible would have seemed irrelevant to many among the upper classes. Despite that, academics and others continued to take an interest in Scots translations. For example, Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte (1813-91), nephew of the former French Emperor, was a keen linguist who commissioned translations of parts of the Bible into various languages, including Scots, during the 1850s and 1860s. However, those translations were made from English rather than Greek, and the translators, largely literary writers, often chose to retain many non-Scottish features.

It was William Laughton Lorimer (1885-1967), a native of Angus and celebrated classical scholar, who finally translated the New Testament from the original koine Greek (and other sources) into Scots during the 1950s and 1960s (though when Satan speaks, he is quoted in Standard English). Lorimer’s son completed revisions, and the result was finally published in 1983, when it became an instant success. It has justly been recognised as one of the great works of literature in Scots in the modern era, during which time the beautiful language of the KJV has become increasingly archaic.

Most Scots Bible translations have traditionally taken English texts as their source. A translation of Old Testament texts from the original Hebrew would require a substantial investment of money, time and expertise over as long as a generation, probably involving generous state backing and the expertise of one or more university departments. It is a distinct possibility that no such translation will ever be completed, and it was to plug the resulting gap that the present project was conceived.

The source text for the current translation is the Bible in Basic English (BBE), which first became available in the 1940s. Published without any copyright notice, it immediately and irretrievably fell into the public domain and is today freely available to download from the Internet.

In this translation, the word order has in many cases been changed, and the core 1,000-word vocabulary used in the BBE greatly expanded. Circumlocutions used to reduce the number of distinct lexemes (for example, using phrasal verbs or combinations of verb and noun) have been replaced with fewer words but employing a larger vocabulary (for example, a single less common or higher-register verb). For those reasons, the text now being published bears only limited relation to the BBE and may stylistically be regarded as a translation in its own right.

The Ullans Academy was formed prior to the Ulster-Scots Language Society in July 1992, following a meeting between the linguist Professor Robert Gregg and myself in Vancouver, British Columbia. One of its prime objects was the undertaking of a Bible translation into Scots supportive of and appropriate to the other language development work of the company. I have outlined the history of our movement in three articles, viz.: “The Ullans Academy” in Legislation, Literature and Sociolinguistics: Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and Scotland, edited by John Kirk and Dónall P. Ó Baoill (Belfast: Cló Ollscoil na Banríona 2005) ISBN 0-85389-874-X; “The Ulster-Scots Movement. A Personal Account” in Language Issues: Ireland, France, Spain, edited by Wesley Hutchinson and Clíona Ní Ríordáin ( Brussels: P.I.E. Peter Lang 2010) ISBN 978-90-5201-649-8; and “Common Identity” in Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland Today: Language, Culture Community / L’Ulster-Scots en Irelande du Nord aujourd’hui: langue, culture, communauté, compiled by Wesley Hutchinson (Rennes, Presses Universitaires 2014) ISBN 978-2-7535-2887-1.

We are highly honoured that Gavin Falconer and Ross G. Arthur have chosen us to act as publishers of their superlative and historic translation of the Bible in Plain Scots. There could be none better than they for the task of bringing to the Scottish people such an inspirational work during this time of modern cultural expression. We are grateful to the Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for their financial support, to my friends and colleagues in the Ullans Academy, to Professor Wesley Hutchinson of the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle – Paris 3, and to Helen Brooker of Pretani Associates, Consultants in Common Identity, for their invaluable assistance.


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