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.

Comments (9)

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  1. David Shaw says:

    Ah thank ye fur writin’ thys. Ah’m fæ th’ West Coast masel.. an’ huv been fur the last few years rediscoverin’ writin iyn Scots.. made ma ain Scots keyboard a’naw fur Windows. needs Microsoft MKLC keyboard utility tæ install.

    Miby yon’s the riȝht wan.. Ah hud a few. adds mare tæ oor alphabet.. ȝȜ Yogh an’ æÆ Ash .. lit ‘tæ’ .. oar ‘loȝh’. Ay guid tæ see writin’ iyn Scots. cheers!

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thanks to the author for this piece, which I found I could read pretty easily. I was born and raised in Glasgow and Scots was the language I and my friends grew up speaking. Of course, when we went to school, we had to speak the ‘King’s English’, as it was called (King George VI was still the monarch) and our own speech was ridiculed as degenerate. While I cannot recall anyone receiving corporal punishment we were routinely ridiculed if we spoke in class as we spoke in the playground.

    Of course, when I learned to write, I wrote, as I do now, in Standard English. It is deeply habituated, and, is the medium of thought while I write. However, when my wife and I converse, we do so in Scots (she tends towards the Doric) and have done so increasingly since we retired. This was not a conscious decision. In the course of our work, we had to use ‘received pronunciation’, much of the time, but, now had less reason to use it and so, increasingly reverted to our historic speech modes.

    Like David Shaw, I have begun to write poems in my ‘normal’ voice. Initially, I wrote things phonetically, and, still, to a large extent, do. However, it has been liberating! I no longer feel that I am indulging in a conceit, in the way some people write poems in Vogon!

    Unlike this piece, when I wrote poems, I fix myself in a Scots or Standard English mindset and ‘create’ accordingly. Sometimes, the two elide and I compose, unintentionally, hybrid pieces, only becoming aware when some puzzled listener asks about particular words or phrases. When that happened first, I was a bit apologetic about the Scots, but I am well past that now!

    In conversation I could have a discourse like this mainly in Scots, but, to write, I revert to the habits of 60 years. However, I will keep at it!

    PS I am on my first visit to Northern Ireland and, I am staying in Newtonards Road. Nearby, the various flags of unionism flap and the walls carry well maintained loyalist murals, although their creators and guardians speak in the language of Ulster Scots!

  3. Ally says:

    Whit a braw bit scrievin, exactly the sort o dialgue we maun keep alive atween oor twa countries, sae wee dinnae tyne the guid pairts o oor connection in mang the trash

  4. Edward Andrews says:

    Am a ballymena man and a have been in Scotland sine 1979. Ma cradle tongue was lallands or Ulster Troughtl is that it wis a verbal language, and its gar herd tae write.
    What worries me is that the Norn irlnd see themsives as Scots, na, lang syne that are a form of Irish and when we came here I had to get used tae the Scots. But thanks fir the screeving made me think

  5. William Davison says:

    Ah leeve in the Braid Valley aboot ten mile fae Bellamaina (Ballymena) : ah was daein a job yisterday wi a wheen o boys, twa Presbyterians like maesel, yin a Cethlic, aa speakin what wud nooadays bae caaed “Ulster-Scots,” so it’s no deid juist yit. Ah agree wi Stephen that it’s maistly ouler folk that takk broad nooadays, but aroon here there’s still a brave wheen o young’r yins that can houl their ain in it.

  6. Alf Baird says:

    We need to be a bit like Singapore (and other ex colonies) in terms of linguistic education, where English is taught to all as an ‘administrative language’, yet other indigenous languages are also taught – e.g. either Mandarin, Malay and Tamil in the case of Singapore. Almost all Singaporeans are bilingual since Singapore’s bilingual language education policy promotes a dual-language learning system. We need the same ‘offer’ in Scotland and NI where people can choose from English and Scots or Gaelic (Scots or Irish). At the moment it is Scots which is not taught, and it should be, and there is no real reason for not doing so other than cultural oppression (i.e. doon hauden) wi only a furrin Englis garred doon aw bairns thrapples. Respect for our languages could actually solve other social and political problems.

  7. Lochside says:

    This is a braw insicht intae the common leid that lang syne hae been spicken baith sides o’ the ‘Sheuch’. Inhappily, the ‘divide and conquer’ o’ the Inglis fowk an’ thur grievous oppression o’ baith oor culturs and leid…an the ‘plantation’… a blicht oan Ireland baith norn and sooth hae capooskered no’ jist the pace fur thre hunnert year, but alloowed Inglis tae become ascendant forbye.

    In baith countries we hae need, as Alf Baird sys, tae teach oor leid in the schules tae the weans sae that they ur bilingual and prood o’ their leid and awncestry.

  8. Davy says:

    Some historical background to Ulster Scots

  9. Hamish says:

    Skelpin wee article. Whit better tae follae than some thochts in rhyme on the Ulster Scots tradition, past an present, frae Seamus Heaney:

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