Monday, January 05, 2009

What exactly is Ulster-Scots?

This is one of those things that crops up every now and again. At risk of boring you all, I'll hazard a post in the hope of stimulating a wee bit of thought and maybe debate...

For me, the term has always been primarily about people, the people who left the Lowlands of Scotland in large numbers from 1606 onwards and came across the narrow sea to live in Ulster. The first written usage of the term was in 1640 by Sir George Radcliffe, and described them as people who had a general inclination to the Covenant. Those people brought culture, heritage, industry, language, music, sport, religion and a myriad of traditions with them. And many of these have become mainstream, not narrow cultural markers but broad themes in our society. None of these things were fossilised, frozen in a 1600s timewarp. The traditions have developed, changed and grown over time (and now even have Highland aspects to them, to the horror of many. Even Lowland Scotland today shows many examples of how what was once just Highland culture has effectively become Scottish culture, but we've been there before...). The people and traditions have also been spread to other parts of the world in the 400+ years ever since, as shown in this recent post which touched on Psalm singing in America.

But weren't they just Scots in Ulster? And as someone patronisingly said to me over Christmas, aren't Ulster-Scots just wannabe Jocks? At what point did they cease to be Scots in a different land, and became something else? That's harder to pin down, some would say that by the 1650s when the first generation were becoming adults there were clear signs of them being different than mainland Scots. Certainly when some of the Ulster-based Presbyterian ministers went back to Scotland in the late 1630s, the Scottish ministers were not impressed by some of their practices and in 1640 the General Assembly criticised many of these practices as "Irish innovations" - so even by 1640, they were becoming different.

Over recent years, particularly in the past post-Belfast Agreement decade when Ulster-Scots has become popularised - some might justifiably say "contrived", or the cynics and opponents will say "invented" - the term is sometimes (in my view) mis-used in a much broader context, to describe anything which connects the two places of Scotland and Ulster. Surely a more appropriate and distinctive term for this geographical connection could be Ulster-Scottish?

But what about pre-1606? The Bruces were in Ulster in the 1300s, the Gallowglasses flitted between Ulster and Scotland for about 300 years before the 1600s. Even before these two examples there were famous, ancient, migrations back and forth. Can these be described as Ulster-Scots? But wait a minute, if the term wasn't in use until 1640 is it wise to apply it retrospectively to events and people before the 1600s? In fact, before King Robert the Bruce, some would say that Scotland didn't exist as a single nation and certainly not as a single people - so can the term "Scots" even be used?

Maybe it's okay to use the term "Ulster-Scots" more broadly than the fairly pure definition in the first paragraph of this post. But perhaps in making it too elastic, it will lose its meaning. Email me with your thoughts.


On another note, I had a conversation over Christmas with a friend who is very much a Calvinist. He dismisses modern evangelicalism as "Tesco Christianity" by which he means God is presented as being available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, just come on in whenever you want. He usually has a wee dig or two at me and implies that I'm one of these "Tesco Christians" because of my non-Calvinistic upbringing.

But he got me thinking - when I was a wee boy the old-time Brethren men would often pray that the Holy Spirit would bring people to recognise their need of salvation, and for conviction of sin. They would also often close a Sunday evening gospel meeting with a hymn from the "Warning and Entreaty" section of Redemption Songs, and would plead with any one in the hall who might be under conviction to get right with God while they had the opportunity, for tonight might be the last time He calls - all of which are ideas not too far removed from Calvinism itself... but I see that Colin Maxwell has beat me to this one! The old-timers also regularly scorned what they called "easy-believism" (there was no Tesco in Northern Ireland back in those days!)

[ You can find out more about the Calvin 500 events in France and Switzerland this summer on this website.]