Jesus at the lochside

The New Testament in Scots

First published in 1983 (and by Penguin Books since 1985), the translation of the New Testament into Scots by William Laughton Lorimer, completed except for some final revisions during the last ten years of his life up to 1967 - and edited for the press by his son R. L. C. Lorimer - is a work of extraordinary power. Although the English reader might need to read it with a version in modern Standard English (or the Authorised Version) side by side, in order to grasp the precise meaning or general sense of certain less familiar Scots words, it is pretty immediately accessible - and it speaks (seemingly) with the voice of a whole culture, reflecting a long and living tradition of thinking, feeling, sharing, and communicating - plain speech, human warmth, precision, forthright colloquial vigour. There is also a classnessness about the Scots, which is neither archaic like the AV, nor suggestive of a middle-class Christian subculture, like the NEB. To me there seems an enormous difference between the prim, school-masterly briskness of ‘Up with you to the mountain top’ in the NEB’s version of Isaiah 40.9, and the Scots ‘Awa wi ye’ with which Lorimer renders Jesus’s response in Matthew, 8.32:

Nou, a gey gate aff there was a muckle herd o swine feedin; an the spirits socht him, gin he wis tae cast them out, tae send them intil the herd o swine. ‘Awa wi ye,’ qo Jesus; an they cam out o the men an gaed intil the swine; an, swith, the haill herd breinged awa doun the stey braeface intil the loch an perished in its watters.

There is an added force to certain familiar phrases when they can take advantage of Scottish vocabulary and what seems its natural, inevitable alliterativeness. In Mark 14.38 our familiar ‘The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’ becomes ‘Tho the spirit be freck, the flesh is feckless’. And in the storm over Galilee, ‘the jaws (i.e. the waves) cam jow-jowin owre the boat’. Lorimer is a careful biblical scholar, adding textual notes, also in Scots, to the debatable passages - but he can also be daringly original in some of his renderings. According to his son he thought twice before translating I Corinthians 14.11 (in which Paul affirms the possibility of communication despite language difference, when the message is urgent) in a way which reflects the habitual Greek comparison of ‘barbarian’ languages to the twittering of birds:

My speech will be like the cheepin o a spug (i.e. a sparrow) tae him, an his will be like the cheepin o a swallow tae me.

But this reading is adopted in the published text. Such language both dignifies, and is dignified by, the message which it conveys - the humanity of Christ as encountered in men and women of every age and culture. And how powerfully this language can rethink the thought and re-express the feeling of the most profound or poetic passages, can be judged from the opening of St John’s gospel:

IN THE BEGINNIN o aa things the Wurd wis there ense, an the Wurd bade wi God, an the Wurd wis God. He wis wi God I the beginnin, an aa things cam tae be throu him, an wiout him no ae thing cam tae be. Aathing at hes come tae be, he wis the life in it, an that life wis the licht o man; an ey the licht shines i the mirk, an the mirk downa slocken it nane. There kythed a man sent frae God, at his name wis John. He cam for a witness, tae beir witness tae the licht, at aa men micht win tae faith throu him. He wisna the licht himsel; he cam tae beir witness tae the licht. The true licht, at enlichtens ilka man, wis een than comin intil the warld. He wis in the warld, an the warld hed come tae be throu him, but the warld miskent him. He cam tae the place at belanged him, an them at belanged him walcomed-him-na. But til aa sic as walcomed him he gae the pouer tae become childer o God; een tae them at pits faith in his name, an wis born, no o bluid or carnal desire o the will o man, but o God.

Sae the Wurd becam flesh an made his wonnin amang us, an we saw his glorie, sic glorie as belangs the ae an ane Son o the Faither, fu o grace an trowth. We hae John’s witness til him: "This is him," he cried out loud, "at I spak o, whan I said, ‘Him at is comin efter me is o heicher degree nor me, because he wis there afore iver I wis born’." Out o his fouth ilkane o us hes haen his skare, ay! grace up˛ grace; for, ath˛ the Law wis gien throu Moses, grace an trowth hes come throu Jesus Christ. Nae man hes e’er seen God: but the ae an ane Son, at is God himsel, an liggs on the breist o the Faither, hes made him kent.

Robert Cockcroft
ę St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 27th February1999