Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Ulster-Scots and the Platypus

Published in "AgendaNI" magazine, February 2007

From Australia to America to Scotland and Back Hame

The Platypus had lived in eastern Australia since the beginning of time, but it wasn’t until 1797 that European explorers first encountered one. Two years later the first specimen was sent to the British Museum in London, the headquarters of the intellectual élite of the day. The greatest scientific minds of enlightened, educated, pompous Europe viewed the bizarre creature and couldn't understand it - after all what bizarre concoction has four legs, a furry body, beady eyes, a wide beaverlike tail, a duck's bill, and webbed feet? Had the Chinese taxidermists once again tricked them, as they had tried to do before by stitching mummified fish-tails to the bodies of monkeys, and who then sold them for exorbitant prices to gullible sailors as mermaids?

One of Britain’s most renowned zoologists, George Shaw, examined the specimen and was so convinced that it was nothing more that an “art of deception” that he tried to remove the duck-like bill. The platypus defied every known classification, so they concluded that because it was so unusual, and of course completely new to them, that it must be a recent invention, a fake.

However as time passed, more and more specimens arrived, and more Europeans travelled to witness the platypus in its natural habitat. Those with an open mind acknowledged that it was a real, living creature. But it wasn’t until almost a century later that the platypus was finally, grudgingly, accepted by the scientific establishment as a genuine product of nature.

I’m sure most of you see what I’m getting at. Since it was thrust centre-stage following the Belfast Agreement of 1998, Ulster-Scots has been the easy target of choice for the media and the chattering classes – a recent invention and a fake - maligned by people who have never bothered to discover what Ulster-Scots is all about yet who used their positions to criticise, belittle and mock not just a cultural and linguistic tradition, but a significant cross-section of the Ulster population. And it is Ulster, for Ulster-Scots is a nine county heritage which predates the border. But just like the once-scorned platypus, I believe it is now time for Ulster-Scots to shrug off its detractors and take its rightful place in the mainstream of cultural life in Northern Ireland.

Another thing that pompous Europeans still love to do is to criticise America. Ten years ago, on my honeymoon, I spent just over two weeks travelling the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains from Washington DC to Nashville Tennessee. We had planned our accommodation for some of the trip, but we left some open so we could just follow our noses and do a bit of exploring. Tucked away in the hills of south west Virginia, many miles from the nearest freeway, we stumbled upon a small, privately-financed museum. It was a converted farmstead with a large white wooden farmhouse and some outbuildings - and in one small display room talking with an elderly volunteer guide I learned more about my own heritage that I had ever done at home. It was both an epiphany and a disgrace. The Anglo-Irish history I learned at both primary and grammar school had no Scottish chapter. I had to travel over 3000 miles to learn my own story aged 25. Rural America knew me better than I knew myself.

Thankfully today we have direct flights from the USA to Belfast, and thanks to the current Lord Mayor Pat McCarthy, the Belfast/Nashville Sister Cities relationship is being revived. Will the relevant tourism bodies start to deliver product and experiences on the ground for incoming Scotch-Irish tourism – one of Tourism Ireland’s identified target markets?

The reality
For hundreds of thousands of people in Northern Ireland today, Scotland has an undeniable connection. Only 13 miles separate County Antrim from the Mull of Kintyre; only 18 miles separate Donaghadee and Portpatrick. Yet today we are so land-locked that we view the sea as a barrier. It was not always so – the connections across the North Channel have been ongoing for thousands of years, but most permanently since 1606.

One of the biggest knowledge gaps with Ulster-Scots concerns how the Scots came to be in Ulster to begin with. I was fortunate in that my first year as Chair – 2006 – was the 400th anniversary of what many people believe to be the foundational event in Ulster-Scots history – the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of 1606. We had a fantastic experience with the story and I hope you saw the excellent BBC Northern Ireland programme “The Dawn of the Ulster-Scots” presented by Flora Montgomery. The viewing figures were superb, but this is nothing new. BBC2’s “A Nicht o Ulstèr-Scotch” back in 2000 had the third highest audience of the entire year.

Working with other organisations like the Environment and Heritage Service, the National Trust, the National Trust for Scotland, Ards Borough Council, North Down Borough Council and Stena Line, 2006 was an exciting year in terms of building credibility and relationships have now begun which I hope will develop over the coming years. This year one of the stories we’re looking at is an earlier event, King Robert the Bruce’s refuge on Rathlin Island in 1307 where he famously encountered the determined spider and returned to Scotland, ultimately to win Scottish independence at the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314.

Why bother?
A truly culturally pluralist society values all of its cultural identities, and celebrates them. There are major equality and rights issues which cannot be ignored, and there are issues of mutual respect which must be developed to further our own understanding of ourselves and our neighbours. A shared future surely grows from an understood past. We have found time and again that it is the enormous appetite for Ulster-Scots history which then cultivates a natural interest in language and participation in cultural activity.

Just as importantly, there are economic benefits which should not be dismissed. The Scottish Executive estimates the Robert Burns brand to be worth £157m per annum to the Scottish economy. Is an incoming Northern Ireland Assembly going to waste the opportunity of joining with Scotland in 2009 for their major Robert Burns “Year of Homecoming”, and in sharing in some of the cultural benefits and revenues? After all, Scots language poetry was being published in Ulster as early as 1753, 33 years before Burns was in print. Even at that, Burns was first published in Kilmarnock, then Edinburgh – and then Belfast. We have four centuries of Ulster-Scots language and literature which have not yet been presented in an accessible form – this is something I hope the Agency and the soon-to-be-established Ulster-Scots Academy will co-operate on to deliver.

Last year the magnificent Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band were once again crowned World Champions. The “Worlds” event in Glasgow generates £14m to the Scottish economy each year, with hotel occupancy from Dumfries to Perth. If the opportunity arises, will the relevant organisations step up to the plate and help the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association to bring this world class event to Northern Ireland in 2010?

Aside from all of the high-falutin’ stuff about economics and suchlike, what has Ulster-Scots contributed on the ground? I’ll point any skeptic to one example – the once-paramilitary murals which have been replaced by Ulster-Scots-American murals all over Northern Ireland. Why? Because those local communities recognise the value of their own cultural identity being presented in a positive way, and Ulster-Scots gives them the opportunity to be outward-looking, to see what our ancestors achieved - in particular in the building of America. The kids who are growing up in those estates may not have read Hanna, Ford, Fitzpatrick, Webb or Woodburn’s masterful accounts of the Ulster-Scots story (have you?), but the change of imagery in the places where they live will have a huge impact on their young lives. George Washington or balaclava-clad gunman – which do you think has the more positive effect?

Next steps
There are some people for whom the closest encounter with rural Ulster is the car park at M&S, people whose upwardly-mobile lifestyle aspirations have caused them to reject their own roots - and in doing so they have cut themselves off from the deep well of their own heritage.

To be fair, most people I’ve met in my time with the Ulster-Scots Agency have an open mind, and are open to being persuaded that Ulster-Scots has depth and credibility. But they have no time for nonsense and fluff – and neither do I. Our story is too important to be cheapened, or to allow it to be denigrated. It is undoubtedly the job of the Ulster-Scots Agency, and every other Ulster-Scots organisation, to present our message with authority and in an appealing manner, and to fully engage with the community and voluntary groups Provincewide who cherish their heritage so much.

Let’s make sure that the younger generation will grow up in a peaceful society and will also have a sense of their own outward-looking identity, and will be able to confidently share it with others.

I hope you will assist us on our journey of rediscovering heritage, celebrating culture and living language.

(By the way, it is said that George Shaw’s platypus specimen can be seen at the British Museum to this day, with scissor marks to show where he tried to remove what he believed was the fake bill.)