Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Placenames and Ulster-Scots - a wheen o Burns and Rocks

I drive the North Channel coast road of the Ards Peninsula every week. Once you get into North Down to the north of Donaghadee it feels different - more developed and more 'marketed'. There's a kind of line from Donaghadee to Six Road Ends and then down to Newtownards which is the unofficial boundary of the Ards Peninsula. Life feels different on each side.

The coastal road from Donaghadee southwards to Ballywalter now has plenty of caravan parks, and the villages need the summer income that the caravanners bring. It's less than 8 miles and according to Google Maps it takes about 15 minutes to drive. On a clear day the view across to Scotland is very good. But right here, under your feet, or under your wheels, or even under your hull if you are on the water, there are centuries of Ulster-Scots history. Some of that can be found within placenames.

Townland names are almost always Irish in origin. Scots were happy to use them, and the old Con O'Neill estate was shared out and sold off on a townland basis, which made the continued usage of those Irish names even more essential. But there are some of Anglo-Norman origin too, dating from the old 'Earldom of Ulster' of the 1200s. But within townlands, at the 'hyper-local' level, is where Ulster-Scots can be found.

The road takes you over four small rivers, which are of course called burns – Ganaway Burn (immortalised in a poem by Andrew M'Kenzie), the Mill Burn that flows down to Millisle and which powered at least two of Carmichael's mills, Ballycopeland Burn which reaches the sea at the tiny graveyard of the same name and where there was once a Presbyterian meeting house, and Ballyhay Burn with its wee stone Galloway Bridge. My mother and her parents were buried in the more recent Ballyvester Cemetery which is bounded on the north by Ballyhay Burn, and from the car park there the view of Scotland is superb. In between there's the Ballyrolly Burn and also, outside Carrowdore, the Woburn Road.

Many of the larger rocks along the shore have names, many of which show that same Ulster-Scots heritage – Wee Saftlin, Wee Park, Parthan Rock (partan is a name for a large eating crab), yet more Selk Rocks (selk is the word for seal, lots of rocks in east Down are called this), and Bavan Rock (bavan is a name for the wrasse fish; William Montgomery recorded it in 1683). 

The Peninsula was wet boggy ground when Scots families arrived here from May 1606 onwards. The hard work of field drains made a difference, but after a heavy days rain vast ponds still form very quickly. Some of the burns have been culverted by developers and the Water Boards, or straightened by farmers who wanted to maximise machinery access to the edges of their fields.

This is just one wee stretch of road. How many more could be found if someone took the time to look at every part of Ulster?

Rabbie gets the headlines, but there are mair Burns than him.