Sunday, May 11, 2008

My Culture, Our Culture

This article was printed in the News Letter (07.02.07)

When I was a wee lad it was King Billy. I always wanted to see King Billy with his wig and his sword and his big horse. Even though we all knew it was just yer man from down the road dressed up for the day, it was still great. Eating sandwiches out of the big tupperware box from the back of the Morris Minor, tea poured from tartan thermos flasks and a big rug for the grass. My granny was always late – she couldn’t stick seeing the bands twice in the one day, so she stayed at home in the morning, fed the hens and did the work about home, and then battled through the midday traffic and crowds to get to the field to see the bands going home in the afternoon. Along with the Sunday School trip, the 12th was probably the only day of the year my da didn’t do any work - except for Sundays of course. He sometimes worked on Christmas Day, but never on the 12th.

When we got home we’d put the kettle on, finish off the warm sandwiches and the melted biscuits, and kick a few hours in trying to twirl our home-made bandsticks in the back garden (tennis ball, bit of a brush shaft and about 6 rolls of red, white and blue insulating tape) until we could all stay up late and see the 12th programmes on tv later that night. That was it when I was wee – that was the sum total of my culture. The 12th Day, and it was brilliant.

But when I got older, I discovered that my culture was far more than one day of the year. Far more than one event in 1690. Far more than the story of a Dutchman who became King and won a battle in Ireland. Far more than King Billy on a gable wall.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not criticising or belittling that element of Ulster culture. But yet there is more, so much more, to our story.

For me, and for increasing thousands of people, the “more” is Ulster-Scots – history, culture, language and identity. Ulster-Scots is the story we had all nearly forgotten, the part we’d overlooked when it was right under our noses all along. Ulster-Scots is the bit that tells us who we are and where we came from, where we went to and what we’ve contributed to the world.

From King Robert the Bruce on Rathlin in 1307, to the Hamilton & Montgomery Settlement of 1606, right up to the present day with the current World Champion pipe band Field Marshal Montgomery and the forthcoming European Highland Dance Championships in Belfast this April, the Ulster-Scots connection is now taking its rightful place at the heart of cultural life.

Now I know that not everyone in Ulster has Scottish ancestry – my wife is English, and there are thousands of people here whose roots go right back to the English planters of the early 1600s and before. And of course there are people who see themselves as Irish (whether geographically, culturally, politically or linguistically – or maybe all four). French Huguenots, Moravians, the Jewish community, Italian immigrants, Asian people and now Eastern Europeans have all come to Ulster and contributed to our way of life. Yet for me, of all of these nations and peoples, Scotland has had the greatest and most long-lasting impact. Who doesn’t feel at home when we visit Scotland?

And even though I began this article about my own personal childhood and the 12th of July, I firmly believe that Ulster-Scots, properly presented, has the ability to cross our historical divides.