Sunday, May 11, 2008

Introducing the Ulster-Scots Language

This article was one of eight from Northern Ireland contributors which were published in the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival official programme. This page contains a) the original article, and b) the published version, which had been dramatically edited by the Washington DC-based editor!

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Original Version:

Background
In May 1606, exactly one year before the Jamestown Settlement in Virginia, east Ulster was the location of the first permanent Scottish settlement in Ireland – the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement. It wasn’t the first contact between Ulster and Scotland, but it was the beginning of a century of large-scale migration, and of a shared heritage that continues to this day.

Robert Burns and Ulster
Among the traditions, customs and folk culture which the Scots brought to Ulster was their language. The most easily understood example of the Scots language, which would later develop into Ulster-Scots, is “the language of Robert Burns”, the author of world-famous poems and songs like “Auld Lang Syne”. Yet Scots poems were being published in Ulster before Burns was in print. After the publication of Burns’ first volume in July 1786 extracts were published in the Belfast newspaper The Belfast News Letter. Burns’ second edition was published in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh, in 1787. And the third edition? Not Glasgow, Aberdeen, Dundee or London. It was published in Belfast, Ulster, also in 1787.

James Orr “The Burns of Ulster”
The late 1700s saw a stream of publications of politically radical Ulster-Scots “Rhyming Weaver” poets. The most famous of these was James Orr, often described as the Burns of Ulster. He was a “United Irishman” in the failed Presbyterian Rebellion of 1798, and he fled to America before eventually returning home to Ballycarry in County Antrim.

Ulster-Scots in America
Through transatlantic emigration, the language was carried to America. In western Pennsylvania, David Bruce’s Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman (1801), and in New Hampshire, Robert Dinsmoor’s Incidental Poems (1828) are the best examples of how the language crossed the Atlantic with emigrant Ulster-Scots communities to the United States.

The close relationship among Scots, Ulster-Scots and English means that many people naturally use Ulster-Scots words or expressions every day, even in the US. The 2006 book From Ulster to America – The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English documents nearly 400 terms which Ulster-Scots has contributed to American English, from “afeard” (frightened) to “young’un” (child).

Official Recognition
For almost 20 years, Ulster-Scots language has been enjoying a revival. Boosted by the tireless work of the grassroots organisation the Ulster-Scots Language Society, Ulster-Scots was officially recognised in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages in 1992, which was endorsed by the UK Government in 2001. This commitment to support the language has brought a fresh impetus. From centuries of marginalisation and scorn, the situation has now turned full circle; there is an ever increasing confidence and pride in the language.

A Worldwide Impact
Globalisation is often blamed for the demise of regional identity. Yet Ulster-Scots is a regional language with an international impact. A language of the field, the heart and the home which is now officially recognised by the UK Government and the Council of Europe.



Ten years ago, on my honeymoon, I visited the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tennessee. To my amazement I discovered an antique cross-stich sampler there with the message “Gang East, Gang West, Hame’s Best”. (Go East, Go West, Home’s Best). Thanks to the global reach of eBay, I’ve since found two of these for my own home collection, one from a farmstead in rural southern Canada and another from east Texas.

The soundtrack of the award-winning 2004 movie Cold Mountain, set in North Carolina, features bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss performing the song My Ain True Love – yet another example of the Scots language and the Scots/Ulster-Scots heritage of Appalachia. And when John Steinbeck used Ulster-Scots words like “scunner” in East of Eden, this is a clear reference to his own Ulster roots (his paternal grandfather was a Samuel Hamilton from County Londonderry).

Scotland, Ulster and America – linguistically, historically and culturally, we share a three-way “auld acquaintance” that should never be “forgot”.

Maybe we’re just starting the rediscovery.

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Published Edited Version:

In May 1606, one year before the British established Jamestown in Virginia, the Hamilton and Montgomery Settlement became the first permanent British settlement in Ireland. The Ulster Plantation was not the first contact between Ulster and Scotland, but it marked the beginning of a century of large-scale Protestant migration that lead to a shared Catholic-Protestant heritage in Northern Ireland.

Among the many traditions that the Scots brought to Ulster was their language, which shared the same ancient Germanic roots as English but developed independently to become the internationally recognized “language of Robert Burns.” Ulster-Scots, the dialect of Scots spoken in Ulster, was rich in song, stories, and sayings. The late 1700s saw a stream of publications in Ulster-Scots by the Weaver Poets, a school of self-educated textile workers whose politically radical verse appeared in Ulster newspapers. The most famous of these men was James Orr (1770-1816), the Bard of Ballycarry, who is often called “the Robert Burns of Ulster.” This “United Irishman” participated in the failed Rebellion of 1798, fled to the young United States, and eventually returned home to County Antrim.

When Ulster-Scots immigrated to America in the eighteenth century, they took their language with them. Publications such as David Bruce’s Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman, which appeared in western Pennsylvania in 1801, and Robert Dinsmoor’s Incidental Poems, published in New Hampshire in 1828, are the best examples of the language from the early days of the United States. Michael Montgomery’s study, From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English, documented nearly 400 Ulster-Scots words in contemporary American English, from afeard (frightened) to young’un (child).

Today, Ulster-Scots is enjoying a revival in Northern Ireland. A language of the field, the heart, and the home, Ulster-Scots is a regional tongue with an international impact. Boosted by the tireless work of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, a grassroots organization, Ulster-Scots was officially recognized in 1992 in the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages. (Its inclusion in the charter was endorsed by the U.K. government in 2001.) After centuries of marginalization and scorn, the situation has now turned full circle: there is an ever-increasing confidence and pride in the language.

Linguistically, historically, and culturally, Scotland, Ulster, and the United States share a three-way auld acquaintance that should never be forgot.

1 comments:

Bryce said...

That was a very interesting history of the Scots language!

Here is a site you might enjoy in the Scots language:

Scots wiki browser