Beyond Burns - Howlat the Owl

Scots screivings beyond Burns

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Discover the wealth of Scots literature beyond Burns’ poetry using ‘Wee Windaes’

Robert Burns is undeniably a national icon. However, Burns’ poetry is just the tip of the iceberg of a great body of Scots literature. The National Library of Scotland has created ‘Wee Windaes’, a website that showcases examples of Scots literature from their rich collections. As the website’s name suggests, the site features a series of windows (windaes), each containing a link to further information about the various texts.

Scots poetry

The starting point for the site is The Buke of the Howlat, a 15th-century poem by Richard Holland. In the poem, all of the characters are birds with human attributes. The main character is Howlat the owl, who wants to become more attractive in this comedic tale about pride and vanity. Edinburgh’s Angus McIntosh Centre for Historical Linguistics (AMC) have created resources to help you learn about Howlat the owl on the Wee Windaes website.

Unclear origins

The origins of the Scots language used by Burns and Holland are in many respects still unclear. Fortunately, AMC at the University of Edinburgh, continues to delve into the centuries-old history of Scots. Most surviving documents written in Scotland before the end of the 14th century are written in Latin. This makes it very difficult to trace how Scots emerged! What we do know is that the most significant component in the make-up of Scots is Old English.

From Inglis to Scots

This evolution of English and Scots is currently being studied at AMC. The project entitled, From Inglis to Scots, is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and traces variations in both sound and spelling until 1500AD.

So, when you’re tucking into your neeps and tatties this Burns’ night, remember Howlat and the scholars who bring him to your table.

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