Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Rivers and Burns of Belfast: Town Burn, Pound Burn, Knockburn and Mary Burn

Intro: They say that history is written by the 'victors'. That's true in the aftermath of a war. But for the mundane normalities of everyday existence, in every society in the world, daily life is recorded by the dominant culture which has a kind of social power and 'majority privilege'. Ulster-Scots has never been dominant here – it was and is the speech of ordinary folk – and so much of it has gone unrecorded. So finding gold nuggets gleaming out of the dull silt is exciting.

There are still many very familiar 'burns' still today around greater Belfast, such as Minnowburn, Purdysburn, Tillysburn. Further out there are Muttonburn, Woodburn, Redburn, Crawfordsburn and maybe even Lisburn. I am sure there are more. These names reflect the parts of the Belfast hinterland where Lowland Scots settled over the centuries. Here are four more examples I recently came across which are new to me:

• The Presbyterian Banner of Ulster newspaper reported on 29 March 1860 that an old forgotten stone bridge had been discovered during works on High Street, referring to –

'... the turgid waters of the "Town Burn" from the Bank Buildings to the embouchure of the stream, opposite Queen's Square ... The "Town Burn" was perfectly opened down to the river, and navigable, at flood-tide, for very small craft and boats ... The "Town Burn" or "Belfast River" as it was sometimes called, had, it is supposed, an artificial course through the town – as would seem to be shown by its comparative straightness from the Belfast Flour Mills to its junction with the Lagan ...'

Today, that 'straightness' runs from Andrews Flour Mill down Divis Street into Castle Street and Castle Place and then into High Street – certainly the description sounds a lot like the famous final section of High Street which ships used to be able to sail into from the River Lagan, as depicted in the Carey illustration above. It was all culverted and built over in the later 1800s.

• The Northern Whig of 4 November 1902 refers to another, called the Pound Burn. According to Councillor J. N. M'Cammond surface water was 'running like a millrace from the Pound Burn' due to flooding problems in Belfast. It was located between Glengall Street and Grosvenor Street, eventually joining the Blackstaff River. The bad weather had resulted in the Pound Burn being 'in a filthy condition with two or three feet of mud, old tin cans, and refuse of all sorts ... had the Pound Burn and Blackstaff River beds been cleaned out there would not have been the flooding in this district to the same extent, and possibly none at all'. It is marked on the 1957–1986 OS map, close to the junction of the Grosvenor Road and Durham Street.

There was a street called Old Pound Loney there too (link here) - a familiar corruption of the Scots word loanen meaning lane. There is also a Pound Burn in Monkstown in Newtownabbey.

• The Belfast Telegraph of 28 December 1956 front page showed a photograph of houses being severely flooded around the Castleview Road area captioned as 'owing to the rain and thaw, the Knockburn River flooded houses and gardens in the area'. This is just directly across the road from the famous entrance to Parliament Buildings at Stormont. On OS maps it is called the Knock River, but yet must have been known locally as Knockburn – there is a street called Knockburn Park still there today.

• An old OS map I picked up a while ago in a second hand shop shows a Mary Burn in the countryside around Andersonstown which is now West Belfast, and which looks like it might have been a tributary of the Blackstaff River. It seems that a large house of the same name was nearby. The Kennedy Centre retail complex is on the site today.

These are just a few examples of once-familiar Ulster-Scots names in the landscape of Belfast which have fallen into disuse. Urban improvements, Anglicisation (both by officialdom, but also by gradual social erosion) and 'progress' have phased them out of usage. But just because they are not visible today doesn't mean that they never existed. It would be good to collate and record these in some way.