Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ulster-Scots : time to get serious.

This article was printed in the News Letter (22.03.07) in response to
EU Calls for Ulster-Scots Promotion

So the Council of Europe report says that UK authorities should make greater efforts to promote the Ulster-Scots language (see News Letter Friday 16th March). For all of the criticism Europe takes it oftens gets things absolutely right. Like the Waste Water Directive – the legislation about sewage treatment and the threat to fine the government millions of pounds per day until it puts in place proper systems to protect Northern Ireland’s coastline - Europe is absolutely right. UK authorities should indeed be doing more for Ulster-Scots. But do you want them to?

For thousands of people today, Ulster-Scots language is a central part of their identity. And as Ulster-Scots takes hold, thousands more are embracing the language and despite decades of scorn are rightfully reclaiming it as their own. But for Ulster-Scots to truly flourish, these thousands of people need to become tens of thousands, and then hundreds of thousands. You can help us get there.

Do we value our own heritage?
The problem is that some of us in Northern Ireland just don’t value our heritage enough. In fact, we’ve been taught that it’s good to reject it. We flatten our listed buildings and build Spanish-style bungalows in areas of outstanding natural beauty. We cut down ancient trees and woodland in the middle of the night. We all threw out our inherited mahogany antique furniture decades ago and rushed out to buy laminated chipboard substitutes. Heritage out, modern consumerism in.

Official Recognition
Back in 1992, the Council of Europe and the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages recognised Ulster-Scots as a regional and minority language. Then in 2001, the UK Government signed up to the European Charter for the Ulster-Scots language in Northern Ireland, and for the Scots language in Scotland.

Do you want Ulster-Scots?
But for all of this official recognition, the bigger question is do you, does the Northern Ireland population, does the Ulster-Scots community truly value the Ulster-Scots language and your linguistic heritage? The days when ivery hame was said tae hae twa books - a copy of the Bible and a copy of Burns - micht be lang gone noo. But hoo mony o’ ye read The Broons? Do you say “Aye” mair often than you say “yes”? When you hear someone say they’re away to get their “head showered” do you know that it’s an Anglicised version of an old Scots expression “heid shired”, with “shired” meaning to let a cloudy liquid settle and become clear? That’s a far more accurate definition than “showered”! And after the weather over the last few weeks, I’m sure a brave wheen of you were foundered.

It’s all about Identity.
For years the education system, the media and polite society told us that we spoke “bad English”. In fact it was good Scots, good Ulster-Scots. Today, my appreciation of the language I grew up with at hame, that I heard my parents, neighbours and grandparents speak, helps me understand who I am. It gives me a powerful sense of my own identity.

Not that long ago one of my aunts dug out her antique original copy of “Sons of the Sod”, a brilliant Ulster-Scots novel set in the late 1800s in Carrowdore in the Ards Peninsula (reprinted in 2006 by Books Ulster – get your copy from But why had it been lying in a box in her roofspace for my entire lifetime? Why did nobody read it to me when I was growing up? Why did our schools not explain this huge dimension of our linguistic identity to us? We have been taught to not care about our own heritage. Let’s put things right for this generation and the generations to follow.

Signs of Revival
As the tide turns and people begin to reconnect with their own Ulster-Scots history, heritage and culture, I can see signs of interest in the language gaining momentum. But how much the Ulster-Scots language grows is really up to you. No amount of promotion will sell a wonderful product that people don’t want.

My question to you is ‘Dae ye want tae houl on tae yer ain language or no?”.

If ye dinnae, that’s up to you. If ye dae, let’s get tae work.