29 May

400 years of Ulster-Scots language heritage/leid heirskip By Al Millar

ULSTER-Scots language came to Ireland in the throats of Scottish colonists and settlers, arriving in various waves before, during and after the Plantation of Ulster, initiated in 1609. William Starrat, a land surveyor and mathematics teacher from Strabane, has been regarded as the first poet of the tradition. In 1722, he wrote a verse epistle, or a letter in verse, to the Scottish poet, Allan Ramsay, a forerunner of Robert Burns. Starrat, with others, complied the Scotch Poems section of the Ulster Miscellany in 1753, the first collection of Ulster-Scots poems in Ireland. Ironically, Starrat was a Church of Ireland, establishment man.

The first woman in the tradition was Olivia Elder (1735 – 1780), a Presbyterian Minister’s daughter from Aghadowey, Co. Londonderry. Her only poem in Ulster-Scots An Elegy on J. S., J.G – gg’s Clerk, also mentions Ramsay. She claimed it was an ‘alteration’ of one of his satirical works; so altered for her own satirical purposes. Her manuscript was finally published by the Irish Manuscripts Commission in 2017.

The 1790s saw the first large scale flowering of the tradition, with Samuel Thomson (1766 – 1816) of Carngranny, near Templepatrick and others, forming a poetic circle, centred around the radical Northern Star newspaper and also the Newsletter. Thomson, who visited Robert Burns in 1794, published three volumes of poetry during his life, in 1793, 1799 and 1806. He penned the following popular lines:

I love my native land, no doubt,
Attach’d to her thro’ thick and thin;
Yet tho’ I’m Irish all without,


I’m every item Scotch within.  Thomson’s friend, James Orr (1770 - 1816), a revolutionary United Irishman, published his collection in 1804, with a posthumous volume in 1817. Classics such as Donegore Hill and The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial, have resulted in Orr being styled ‘The Burns of Ulster’ and is still regarded by many as the greatest Ulster-Scots poet.

During the first decades of the 19th century succeeding generations of bards published their collections, most by public subscription. Andrew M’kenzie of Dunover, Co. Down; John McKinley of Dunseverick, Co Antrim and James Orr’s cousin, Tom Beggs of Mallusk, Co Antrim are but a few of them. Blind poet, Sarah Leech of Lettergull, Donegal was opposed to Daniel O’Connell, Joseph Carson of Lurgan, Co Armagh, a supporter.

FUSE Ulster-Scots Centre Ballymoney April 2022, when a few of the new Ulster-Scots writers met up  for the first time. From left Alan Millar, Angeline Kelly, Steven Dornan and Robert Campbell.

Men like David Herbison of Dunclug, near Ballymena and Robert Huddleston of Moneyreagh, Co Down, carried the flame into the later decades of the century. In his must -read Ulster-Scots Anthology, Dr Frank Ferguson described the two men above, along with Orr, Thomson and Beggs, as “among the most accomplished and prolific of the 19th century Ulster-Scots poets”. 1900 saw the publishing of Poems from College and Country by the three Given brothers, from Cullybackey, Co Antrim. Some of Thomas Given’s work is at the top end of creative output during this period:  

The blackbird keeks oot frae the fog at the broo,
Gees his neb a bit dicht on a stane;  

Also active during this period, Archibald McIlroy, of Ballyclare and Drumbo was one of the best Ulster-Scots ‘Kailyard’ novelists. He was killed when the Lusitania sank, in 1915.

The beginning of the 20th Century gave way to leaner times. Ulster-Scots was of little use to either of the two emergent political ideologies; the upheavals of 1916 and the formation of two states in Ireland, a consequence of religious polarization. Though side-lined, interest in Ulster-Scots literature never died out. James Orr’s poems were republished in 1936, in a volume I’m lucky enough to own myself.

By the 1940s two of the most important Ulster-Scots writers of the century were emerging. Sam Hanna Bell’s December Bride, 1951, is enthused with wonderful Ulster-Scots dialogues. John Hewitt’s ground breaking overview of the Ulster-Scots poetry tradition Rhyming Weavers, published in 1974, kick started the modern revival of interest.

The formation of the Ulster-Scots Language Society (USLS) in 1992, was another significant development, with modern editions of Samuel Thomson ’s, James Orr’s, and Hugh Porter of Moneyslane’s work, edited by Dr Philip Robinson, soon appearing. The USLS journal Ullans published periodically since, is an unrivalled treasure trove of poetry, researches and articles. James Fenton’s Hamely Tongue appeared in 1995.
Both men soon had their collections out too.

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement of 1998 set up the Ulster-Scots Agency, with European minority language designation following. North Antrim writers Charlie Reynolds and Charlie Gillen and others, had collections published. The work of many earlier poets became accessible through Ulster University’s Poetry Project.

This past decade social media has radically transformed the Ulster-Scots scene, creating a space for people, once geographically isolated, to meet and share their interest. This has facilitated the emergence of a loose but tangible cohesion within the tradition, as people discuss vocabulary, poems and sayings, share research discoveries and so on.

Many new writers have emerged. The Linenhall Library now runs a competition. The USCN publication Yarns, has showcased new work, these past two years. More publications are willing to accept Ulster-Scots work, with translations or glossaries. But problems remain. The political impasse has stalled progress on the language strategy; funding is very scarce; a bespoke Ulster-Scots publisher is needed. In traditional areas the vocabulary continues to decline, especially among the young. People need to be encouraged to reclaim lost words.  

The recent re-discovery of John Bonar’s unpublished 1631 manuscript poem outlining a sea crossing from Bangor to Ayr, described as “the most important 17th century discovery of our generation” by Dr Philip Robinson, pushes the tradition back another 90 years. With my own first collection of poems, Echas frae tha Big Swilly Swally, now published, my hopes for the future, part digitally rooted, remain positive.

Front cover of Alan Millar's first collection recently published Echas frae tha Big Swilly Swally.

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