Understanding Scottish Accents

Today our language school blog gives tips for L2 English users in Scotland.

Let’s begin with something that may not be obvious. If you don’t understand a conversation you overhear in the street…

  • Option A: those people have a strong Scottish accent.
  • Option B: they may not be speaking English at all.

This blog will help you better understand the language(s) being spoken around you in Scotland, including better understanding Scottish accents. 

How to Use this Blog

What’s written in this blog is not vocabulary for you to remember and learn. Rather it’s here for you to taste the Scots language and enjoy the sound of the words. 

It’s ok to do that in language learning!

Too often, we obsess about gaining vocabulary at the expense of enjoying the beauty of language.

This blog is written for international English speakers living in or visiting Scotland. 

Pause your usual English learning routine and enjoy some colourful language immersion instead.

Enjoying English is key to making lasting progress. 

So pour yourself a whisky and relax. 

Get ready to see how full of colour, fun and poetry Scots can be.

English Language School Whisky tasting with The Glenturret

Help, I Don’t Understand Scottish People

We’re going to have a look at the Scots language, its beauty and its history of repression. But first, let me correct an assumption.

‘I don’t understand Scottish accents’

I hear this often, with many people blaming the Scottish accent as if they would understand all the spoken English around them in England.

From the second you step off the plane/train you will find a rich variety of accents and English being spoken in the UK.

It is all English.

They are not wrong.

Nor are they contagious.

They are wonderful, rich and exciting.

I have a Scottish accent.
Can you understand me?


“From the second you step off the plane or train you will find a rich variety of accents and English being spoken in the UK. It is all English.

And it’s wonderful, rich and exciting.

Ruth, 2022


Why Don’t I Understand Anything?

If you are not used to it, at first you will struggle to understand conversational English. That’s because it’s fast and informal and has a different rhythm to what you learned in a classroom.

Listening to L1 (native) speakers is just a new skill to learn.

It takes practice. 

I promise that it’s really not because we are all only speaking Scottish around you, and that if only you were in a supermarket in Oxford you would understand every word.

It’s because you need to practice LISTENING to natural, conversational spoken English – which is fast.

Some of it Will be in Scots (not English)

Having said that, Scots is a national language spoken across Scotland every day.

If you are spending any time in Scotland you will encounter it.

In public service, people speak English as you know it, but when talking with each other – in bars, on trains and even in the workplace, many people will use a hybrid of Scots and Scottish English. 

Read on for a few fun examples and tips on understanding Scottish accents. 



“What’s written here is not vocabulary for you to remember and learn, rather it’s here for you to taste the Scots language – to see how full of colour, fun and poetry it can be.”

Ruth, 2022


A River Mouth, Heron, Ducks and Flounder

(or a Garth, Hern, Deuks and Flunder).

Try this wonderful poem by J K Annand…


A humphy-backit heron
Nearly as big as me
Stands at the waterside
Fishin for his tea.
His skinnie-ma-linkie lang legs
Juist like reeds
Cheats aa the puddocks
Soomin mang the weeds,
Here’s ane comin,
Grup it by the leg!
It sticks in his thrapple
Then slides doun his craig.
Neist comes a rottan,
A rottan soomin past,
Oot gangs the lang neb
And has the rottan fast.
He jabs it, he stabs it,
Sune it’s in his wame,
Flip-flap in the air
Heron flees hame.
J K Annand

Tips for Understanding Scottish Accents 

Tip #1: Don’t Panic

While the poem looks strange written in Scots, when you hear the words spoken they will make more sense.

Scots vocabulary has a strong Germanic influence, but contemporary Scots has a lot of Scottish English diluting it, making most conversations sound like old-fashioned English spoken through a thick Scottish accent.  

What Languages are in Scotland?

Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today (the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic).  Many argue that there is a fourth language which they call Scottish English. This category legitimises the linguistic differences between regional language differences and the official English language. 

Remember:  no one goes home after an English language immersion week with a Scottish accent! 

English Conversation Holidays in Scotland

We do include exploring the occasional Scots words and Scottish English expression in our English courses, as language is so expressive of culture and we want you to experience our land (people, place, history, art, music) as much as possible.

Don’t try to memorise them. It’s not more ‘work’. Just enjoy them.

Copying the sounds will help your global pronunciation skills. 


Tip #2: Have Fun

For example, what do you think,
‘Yer bum’s oot the windae,’ means?
(Clue, I’d never say it to a guest, but Kenny hears it quite regularly!).
In our language school social events, we tend to combine this kind of language ‘research’ with traditional food and a dram or two (whisky or non-alcohol equivalent).
We invite a guest storyteller (or two) and it all makes for a fun-filled evening.
Artist June McEwan reading Burns poetry at Blue Noun Burns Night 2020

Tip #3: Know the Cultural History – it’s Sensitive!

For many generations, forms of Scottish English and Scots were literally beaten out of children to ‘correct them.

Scottish children failed examinations for writing in their own tongue, and the pockets of language still existing across Scotland remain linked to traditional industries and workplaces and working-class areas.


Prejudice towards spoken Scots has held whole communities back for decades.

Times are changing.

Irvine Walsh and Trainspotting triggered a cultural revolution in my generation.

Academia is catching up.

There are fabulous resources such as the Scots Language Centre.


“James King Annand was born and brought up in Edinburgh. His bairn rhymes continue to delight Scots children, but he was also the author of poetry for adults, and an active promoter of the Scots language.”

Scottish Poetry Library

A Cultural Shift

Heron‘, by JK Annand, is one of the poems from ‘The Kist’ – an anthology of Scots (and Gaelic) poetry and prose that was digitised by Education Scotland and gifted to the Scots Language Centre so that teachers and learners can continue to benefit from this valuable resource. (Links below.)

This investment and nurturing of the Scots language and Scottish English is a huge national culture shift and mindset shift.

For many, it comes too late to rescue them from the limited choices of poor school qualifications – penalised as they were for speaking in their own tongue. 

Let’s hope it’s not too late for their descendants – and that the beautiful Scottish language will not fade away.  

Clip from the 1996 film Trainspotting, (Don’t click play if you are offended by swearing).

Bonus Tip | Change Your Mindset | Scottish English isn’t ‘Wrong’

All the Scottish English teachers I know face this prejudice daily. If you also carry this prejudice it will stop you from listening and learning from the English speakers around you.

Considering an English Immersion holiday in Scotland?

Don’t let a fear of the Scottish accent prevent you from learning English in this beautiful country! 

Any good English teacher knows how to pitch their communication to your level. This means their accent will only have a tiny role in overall comprehension.

    Further Information

    Want some further practice understanding Scottish accents?  Go to the Scottish Poetry Library.
    If you enjoyed this blog, you might like Scottish Traditions at New Year (Hogmanay)


    Your English Language Challenge

    Today, you have an English practice exercise in expressing your opinion.

    The Trainspotting clip I shared is packed with juicy swear words.

    Your use (or not) of swear words could be an obstacle in a professional collaboration – or it could indicate candour, intimacy and union.

    Knowing this is part of intelligent collaboration. 

    Choose an adverb of frequency from the list and let us know how often you dip into ‘bad language’ and how you feel about others doing so.


    “How often do you swear?”