Wednesday, June 16, 2010


The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green
He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
Thou anointest
my head with oil;
My cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
And I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Several weeks ago Good Shepherd Sunday was celebrated at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. During the service the congregation enthusiastically recited this, the King James version of the 23rd Psalm aka The Shepherd's Psalm, bringing back many pleasant and, aye, emotional memories for me. It was my favorite psalm as a child and for me represents the different facets of Jesus as ultimate caregiver and protector for all Christians, yea, for all Mankind (Believers or not). The psalm is easily taught and understood by young and old and ultimately allows the committed reader to embrace and make a statement of absolute confidence and assurance in that promise.

Not only has this most beloved psalm been inspiring verse and basis for much of my early church life, it has inevitable cross cultural ties that even evoke my more contemporary Scots experiences (and not just for funerals). Witness that the Psalms have achieved an especial status amongst the Scots and in all those cultures that have embraced Calvin/Knox Presbyterianism.

In Scotland and in the rest of Europe prior to the Reformation of 1560 church services were conducted in Latin (well, mostly as we shall see). The Bible was also written in Latin and any attempt to translate into English, Scots, Gaelic, French, German or any other language was considered treasonous and would have been (and was) treated as heresy (witness Tyndale). Since few ordinary folks in the civilized (?) world could read or write, let alone unintelligible Latin, it really didn’t matter. But, then along came education of the masses and folks like John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, John Rogers, Martin Luther, John Calvin and John Knox, among others, and the barn door flew open.

While the official Church translation of the Bible was far from the original Greek and Hebrew, the Latin Bible allowed the Church to exert further power over their illiterate masses. An alarmed English Church (and Rome) scared that the English translation would result in a breakdown in their moral and legal authority responded predictably. As absurd as it sounds today the Church continued to forbid “God’s laws in their own language” The reality is, of course, that any translation of the Bible would ultimately break their monopoly on Salvation not to mention their livelihood. Then, as we have noted, along came The Reformation and the printing press and everything changed.

Fittingly, there is strong evidence that the Scots translated the Latin into the Scots dialect early on. Even after the English translations were readily available they were paraphrasing the English and preaching in Scots as this was the only language understood by their congregations. Even after the Union of the Crowns and attempts to discourage the use of Scots, evidence that Scottish ministers would routinely “speake in plaine Scots words” abounds. This same phenomenon existed for those Scottish congregations in Gaelic communities (mostly in the Highlands and Islands – but also elsewhere in Britain) where that eventually extended into Canada (Cape Breton) and the United States. We can easily surmise that in the early history of The Church that St. Ninian nor St. Columba (Calum Cille) preached to the Picts in Latin. More than likely they used interpreters and preached in Gaelic.

The translation of the 23rd Psalm reflects some of the changes taking place in the church to include the following version by outstanding Scottish (Protestant with Catholic allegiance) poet/writer Alexander Montgomerie (1545 -1610) who was well known for his sonnets and lyrics and, aye, psalm translations. Montgomerie was poet laureate to King James VI of Scotland and author of the following translation mostly borrowed from A Scots Garland – an Anthology of Scottish Vernacular Verse by Thomas Henderson, Edinburgh, 1931.

The Lord maist hie I know will be and herd to me;

I cannot lang have stress, nor stand in neid,
He makes my lair In fields maist fair, quhair I bot care,
Reposing at my pleasure, safely feid.
He sweetly me convoys to pleasant springs
Quhair naething me annoys but pleasure brings.
He brings my mynd fit to sic kind,
That fors, or fears of foe cannot me grieve,
He does me leid In perfect freid,
And for his name he never will me lieve.
Thoch I wald stray, Ilk day by day, in deadly way,
Yet I will not dispair; I fear none ill,
For quhy? thy grace In every place does me embrace,
Thy rod and shepherd’s crook conforts me still.
In spite of foes my tabil grows
Thou balmes my head with joy; my cup owerflows.
Kyndness and grace, mercy and piece,
Sall follow me for all my wretched days,
And me convoy to endless joy,
In heaven quhair I sall be with thee always.

Without getting into a rather complicated and ever evolving debate about Scots (English-Scots or Scots-English) it’s interesting to note the contributions of those in and out of the Church, Protestant and Catholic alike, during that period even to this day.

At the annual Kirking of the Tartans service at the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games probably ten years ago a visiting Church of Scotland minister offered up the 23rd Psalm in Scots. It went a little like the version that was read and interpreted by the accomplished Scottish stage and radio actor James L. Dow who also happened to be a minister of the Church of Scotland.

It seems that in 1960 the Scottish Home Service of the BBC, recognizing the Reverend Dow's especial qualifications for the job (including his facility in The Lowland Dialect), commissioned Dow to write and read a series of short Biblical texts in Scots. They were broadcast in a radio magazine program that proved extremely popular. Not surprisingly, those texts included the Psalms of David and among them the beloved
23rd Psalm. Our sincere thanks to Mark Thompson, former Chairman of the Ulster-Scots Agency for recovering and publishing a growing collection of old Scots language hymns and gospel songs on his blog, Sacred Scotch Solos.

It takes us home and back to our roots where the Bible wasn’t chained in some church sanctuary, rather made readily available and palpable to the masses prompting history to take a different turn.


Ned Buxton

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