The Bible in Gaelic and Scots
Despite calls within sixteenth-century Scotland for translations of Scripture in the languages of its people, no progress was made. In Gaelic-speaking Scotland, no Scottish Gaelic Bible translations existed before the eighteenth century. The gap was filled by the Irish Gaelic Scriptures, translated from the Greek and Hebrew by Irish Protestant bishops. The Irish Bible, being written in ‘classical common Gaelic’ was comprehensible and usable in Scotland, if not ideal. Classical common Gaelic was a literary language shared by Scottish and Irish Gaels but with which the average Gaelic speaker would have had very limited familiarity.
Between 1766 and 1801 a Bible in specifically Scottish Gaelic was undertaken and published by the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. In part the Society may have seen this project as a means of using Gaelic as a bridge to teach English. Nevertheless, the translation arguably slowed the language’s decline. It helped to stabilise Gaelic orthography and to establish a formal written register which would serve as a model for Gaelic writers for decades to come. Interestingly, later revisions of the Scottish Gaelic Bible owed much in tone to the King James Bible, imitating its English phrasing and pointing.
The language or idiom that fared least well among Bibles in Scotland was Scots, the natural tongue of the vast majority of the non-Gaelic speaking population up to the eighteenth century. One reason was the Kirk’s adoption of English Bibles. The dominance of these publications began to accustom literate Scots to the norms of writing south of the border, and so contributing to the decline of writing in Scots. The arrival of the King James Bible hammered a further nail in the coffin of the Scots language: the written language of the authorized version of the sacred book in one of the most powerful social institutions in Scotland was officially English.
As the King James Bible gained in popularity and influence in Protestant Scotland, it was often the main or only text a poorer family possessed. Literacy in post-Reformation Scotland was driven by the religious impulse to have a populace equipped with the skills to read the Bible – which, of course, was in English. Schooling was increasingly associated with English literacy.
A popular example of the influence of the Authorized Version on Scottish cultural life occurs in Robert Burns’ poem, The Cottar’s Saturday Night. The poem sets the scene of rural life in broad Scots, until the point at which the father takes down the Bible to begin family worship. At this very point the poem switches into English, the language that by this time was clearly thought suitable for elevated topics.
Even so, late in the day some Scots biblical texts appeared in the nineteenth century. In 1857, Henry S. Riddell (1798-1870) produced a ‘Scotticised’ rendering of the Psalms in the King James Bible. In 1871, Peter H. Waddell (1816-1891) published the Psalms in Scots translated directly from Hebrew, and in 1879, a Scots Book of Isaiah. In 1901, William W. Smith (1827-1917) brought out a New Testament in Braid Scots, rendered from English. The New Testament in Scots of William Lorimer (1885-1967), translated from Greek and published in 1980, is a landmark, and is used in some Scottish churches today.
The Book of Psalms in Lowland Scotch. From the Authorized Version. London, 1857. By Henry Scott Riddell.