The Widenin Sheuch
Folk hae aye jooked atween Scotland an Ulster: the watter didnae sinder folk, it cleeked them thegither. I mind folk fae Ulster caain the North Channel “The Sheuch” tae mak the distance seem quare an wee, like ye near cud skite stanes owre.
There are sae mony connections ye wudnae know whaur tae stairt: aiblins the oul Gaelic kingdom o Dalriada that stretched fae Antrim tae the islands aff the wast o Scotland? Or Robert The Bruce himsel, wha had a wheen o faimly connections inaboot Ulster? Or whan Ulster was a scoot-hole for thran Covenanters, or a place that Scotch folk gaed tae mak new hames in haird times? Oor histories are that throuither ye cud near stairt onywhaur.
Yin place tae stairt wud be the escape o Conn O’Neill fae Carrickfergus Castle in 1605. O’Neill was the high-heid-yin o the Clandeboye O’Neills wha bided in North Down. Efter a daft bull-beat wi Queen Elizabeth’s sodgers, a wheen o years earlier, he’d been clodded in jail for treason. An Ayrshire Laird caaed Hugh Montgomery, wha traded wi east Ulster, had O’Neill wheeked fae unner the nebs o the English guards yin nicht. Montgomery put O’Neill up at his ain hoose an they cut a deal amang themsels: gin Montgomery cud get the new Scotch King, James VI & I, tae pardon Conn, he’d get a wadge o Conn’s oul lands in Ulster.
They gaed doon tae London thegither an King Jamie liked their crack weel eneuch; hooaniver, anither Ayrshire man, James Hamilton, nebbed in an nabbed some for himsel. Soon efter, Montgomery flitted owre wi a clatter o kith an kin an made Newton (Newtownards), clocked on the oxster o the Airds Peninsula, his hame. Hamilton gaed tae Bangor. This was afore “Plantation” was a policy. They didnae magg in wi airmies an the twa Ayrshire men, Montgomery an Hamilton, cudnae thole yin anither. Allegiances an frienships were aa throuither wi Scotch, Irish an English players warkin wi, an agin, yin anither. These things are aye mair complex nor mony folk let on.
I growed up no far fae whaur Montgomery bigged his hame, sae I’d hae a daicent claim tae come fae the oreeginal Ulster-Scots settlement. Yin o the things Montgomery an his Scotch folk taen wi them was Scots. It japped doon through the generations, stickin tae the land an the folk like Rabin-rin-the-hedge. It was aften in my lugs as a wean.
Hooaniver, it wasnae aabody that spoke it. Ulster-Scots was gien a wheen o begunks in the 20th century. Nae doobt mony are fameeliar tae Scotch folk. Schools cudnae thole Scots, an mony a crabbit teacher wasnae blate tae use skelps an dunches for tae redd it oot. Nae doobt mony’s a cratur had the tongue bate clean oot o them. “The Troubles” didnae help: I jaloose they garred folk tak sides. The hail notion o a Scotch or Ulster-Scots identity aiblins gaed oot o mony folks’ heids an the mair simple, “twa tribes” narrative o British identity forenenst Irish identity took houl. As weel as that, the rural clachans an mairket toons o north Down growed wi folk fae Belfast. New cooncil estates filled wi “blaw-ins” laein Belfast acause o The Troubles or industrial decline. Belyve hooses were bigged for middle class folk wha wanted tae commute tae Belfast. Thegither these things gied Ulster English a heeze owre the tradeetional braid Scots.
Hooaniver it wasnae completely redd oot by the time o “the peace process” o the late 1990s. Leids are poleetical in Norlin Airlann (in 2017 the Norlin Airlann assembly at Stormont gaed cowp-carlie owre an Irish Language Act, an it’s doon yet). In the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement o 1998 baith Irish an Ulster-Scots were gien recognition. Ye’d aiblins think this wud dae the tongue nae hairm, hooaniver ye cud argue that it didnae dae it ony guid ava. The Agreement gied us a “peace process” that was bigged on the oul notion o twa tradeetions, aye forenenst yin anither, wi checks an balances for tae stap yin raisin itsel abin anither. The folk in the oul Ulster-Scots hairtlands in Antrim an north Down are maistly Unionist in politics sae Ulster-Scots was put on the ither end o the shuggy-shoo fae the Irish language. There’s nae doobt that a wheen o politicians wha didnae know ocht aboot Ulster-Scots played politics wi it. Anither complexity is that the Unionism o mony Ulster-Scots speakers an enthusiasts sinders them poleetically fae maist Scots activists fae Scotland.
Haein Ulster-Scots inaboot poleetical processes (an giein it public money) gied it mair visibility, hooaniver, it made it fair game for ganshes an slabbers. A thunnerplump o ridicule dinged doon an no knowin ocht aboot a thing’ll no stap a coorse glipe bletherin aboot it. It’d gie ye a quare scunner at times tae hear them clashin aboot Ulster-Scots. Carnaptious bletherskites fae aa airts o the poleetical continuum think it a quare geg tae crack that Ulster-Scots is naethin but a “DIY language”, “farmer talk” or a “Ballymena accent”. Belyve, the Ulster-Scots fundin that folk gie aff aboot is maistly swallaed by projects on “the attendant culture” no the tongue itsel, or its leeterature.
The folk that slabber dinnae know ocht o oor lang tradeetion o writin in Scots. Hokin through oul leeterature fae Ulster gies ye a quare sense o the “Scotchness” o the place. Ulster-Scots poetry stairts wi William Starratt, wha corresponded wi Allan Ramsay, the 18th Century Edinburgh machar. Mair poets, maistly fae the coonties Down and Antrim, follaed Burns intae print: they aye thocht him yin o their ain. We hae novelists forbye: mony characters inaboot the Ulster novels o John Gamble an James McHenry speak braid Scots an later Ulster writers gied us “Kailyard” style yarns. Naebody toul us ocht aboot ony o this at school. The leeterature’s quare an important: it begunks the notion that Ulster-Scots is “wrang” English an gars the reader see it as anither thing aathegither – aiblins no equal wi English, but no the yin wi it. Hooaniver, we hae been sindert fae oor Scots tradeetion in Ulster – there’s no mony folk in Ulster readin or writin in Scots the day. Maist folk, fae critics an acamedics tae general readers dinnae, or cannae, read it. James Fenton an Philip Robinson are the twa modren Ulster-Scots poets wha houl their ain wi the writers fae the tradeetion, hooaniver they dinnae hae the readership nor the recognition they shud hae.
I’m no sure does Ulster-Scots hae a bricht future. 140,000 folk toul the Census o 2011 that they hae “some knowledge of Ulster-Scots”; hooaniver, I’m no sure thon tells us ocht. Yin thing I dae know is that maist o the braidest speakers I mind fae whan I was a wean houl their wheest noo, for they’re happed in kirkyairds. Maist o the lave are oul. Gin we lose it, it’s gane – an the tradeetional grammar is maistly gane, mair nor mony oul Scotch wurds hae been swallaed up by Ulster English. I wunner as weel is “The Sheuch” itsel widenin? I’m no sure the “imagined community” I mind as wean has tholed. Nae doobt there’ll aye be connections atween Scotland an Ulster, hooaniver, I’m no sure the cleeks are as strang as yince they were.