In November 2014, on the Feast of Columbanus, the Ullans Academy, in accordance with its Memorandum of Association, published two initial volumes of the Bible in Plain Scots or standard Ullans. Until this time the Bible has not been completely translated into Plain Scots. 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 the attack by Martin Luther on the Papacy from 1517. The register chosen was defined by the fact that Ullans, by a process called “colonial shift”, is a purer form of Scots than that spoken in Scotland itself, but readily useable throughout the Scots-speaking world. It is therefore not a dialect, but a unique and precious remnant of the language itself.
Sometime before 1539, Murdoch Nisbet, from the parish of Loudoun in Ayrshire, produced a Scots translation of the New Testament. Nisbet was associated with a group of Lollards and worked from John Purvey’s 1520s revision of the famous John Wycliffe version of the fourteenth century. However, because of initial fears of religious persecution, that work remained an unpublished manuscript known only to his family and Bible scholars until it was edited and printed by the Scottish Texts Society in 1901-5, under the auspices of Lord Amherst of Hackney.
The Scottish Parliament briefly enacted in 1543 that people were permitted to own a Bible in Scots or English, but that dispensation was repealed soon after. Only in 1560, when Scotland became Calvinist, did a vernacular Bible finally become legal. The new Scottish Church adopted the English Geneva Bible because it was the only full translation available which was ideologically acceptable to them, and also since it was in a language so close to the vernacular that it could be commonly read. Nisbet’s Bible would in all probability not have been acceptable to Calvinists, and that is the reason why it remained unknown outside his family. In 1579 the Scottish Parliament passed an Act which said that every householder of substance should own a Bible in the vernacular, and the Bible in English, with a preface in Scots, was reissued.
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 Scots. 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. Instead of Scots, therefore, 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 texts in English. 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 ordinary people. Later, after 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 often paraphrased texts, and because of the increasing impetus towards Anglo-Scottish political union, the idea of a Bible in Scots did not seem an important enough issue, especially among the aristocracy.
Indeed, by the 1750s the so-called Moderate Party, which now dominated the Scottish Church, chose to preach in English. Certainly, by 1800 the idea of a Bible in Scots would have seemed increasingly irrelevant to many among the upper classes. Despite that, academics and others continued to take an interest in Scots translations. For instance, 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 largely literary translators would often choose to retain many features which were not Scottish.
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 to instant acclaim. 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 was 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 available to download freely 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 J. 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 Ullans Academy. I have outlined the history of this 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); “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); 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, by Wesley Hutchinson (Rennes, Presses Universitaires 2014).
We were highly honoured that Gavin Falconer and Ross G. Arthur had chosen us to act as sponsors 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 renewed interest in cultural expression. We are grateful to the former Ministerial Advisory Group on the Ulster-Scots Academy of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for their financial support for these Volumes I and III, 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 Ltd. , Consultants in Common Identity, and to Wordzworth printing services for their invaluable assistance in producing the Old Testament in Scots, which we distributed free throughout the community.
Dr Ian Adamson OBE