Friday, September 30, 2011

100 years ago this month...

...the mighty Bill Monroe was born. He invented bluegrass music in the 1940s, which was (and still is) a high-octane fusion of a variety of styles including the Scotch-Irish ballads of his rural Kentucky upbringing, the (often dark and quaint) old hymns of the wee country Baptist churches he attended on Sundays, and of the 'brother duets' tradition which he and his brother Charlie had made famous as The Monroe Brothers, with Charlie on guitar and Bill on mandolin. has posted this article and tribute online, along with an 8 minute audio clip. There's a brilliant 2.34 discussion about the Monroe Brothers, by Chris Thile and Michael Daves, further down the same page - click here to listen.

Bill Monroe often spoke of his Scotch-Irish cultural roots. I hope that this important musical centenary will be acknowledged on our side of the Atlantic in some way, by more than just this casual blog post.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

"It taks langer tae clim the loanen whun the blackberry's on the bush..."

It's that time of year again; the hedges have been loaded with blackberries for the past few weeks. However, Harvest Fair day (23 September) was the deadline that the older folk round here had for picking blackberries, none were ever picked after that date. And of course there's the old tradition that Ulster-Scots Presbyterians were/are nicknamed 'Blackmouths' because of the quantity of blackberries they had to eat (the juice stained their mouths - there's an interesting piece on the BBC Ulster-Scots website with a fuller study of the term - click here and scroll down). And here you see the term being used on official government census forms in 1911. The great Scottish Presbyterian minister, Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661), uses the term 'black mouth' in at least two of his renowned Letters, but these might just be poetic references rather than cultural. A great wee fruit and seriously under-rated. It definitely does 'tak langer tae clim the loanen whun the blackberry's on the bush'.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Auld Hoose, Donaghadee

Not sure of the date of this photograph, but would guess early 1900s. Men and boys hanging about outside James McDowell's billiards hall, with two women folk waiting for their workshy husbands? It was at the top of New Street, opposite Grace Neill's.


And here's the same building today:

Monday, September 26, 2011

The Harvest Fair and the Battle of the Somme

From Quintin Point to Carrowdore
Full many a lad will come no more;
In fields of France he sleeps serene
Nor heeds if fields of Ards be green

No more shall he behold with joy
The wooded heights of Clandeboye
Nor see, 'gainst burnished sunset skies
The bastioned bulk of Scrabo rise.

He does not hear the plover cry,
At daybreak, as his team goes by;
Now, on those wide and fertile lands,
His plough is steered by other hands

No more he loads, with ready art,
The soil's rich produce on the cart;
He goes no longer to the Fair;
Stilled is his voice in Newtown Square.

And many a maid, while drag the days
Broods upon bygone happier ways
And deep within her bosom guards
The memory of a Son of Ards

from Songs of a Port by W.H.F. (Belfast, 1920), a collection of poems written from Donaghadee and about many people and places of the Ards and north Down.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

"On September 23..." The Harvest Fair in Newtownards

Yes, tomorrow is Harvest Fair day in the Square in Newtownards. What was once the big event of the year is nowadays not much different than the regular Saturday morning market. There are some great photos of it here from the 1950s and 1960s - I can remember we used to take the afternoon off primary school in the late 1970s to go up to it, and my uncle William had a candy floss and toffee apples stand at it for a few years.

Its origins are hard to trace. Unlike the other towns in Ulster which had been granted a Royal Charter in 1613, the charter granted to Hugh Montgomery's Newtownards did not specify a particular date for the annual fair. Maybe King James I was happy to let Montgomery run Newtownards his own way with minimum interference.

By the time that the Newtownards Chronicle and County Down Observer was first published in 1873, the Harvest Fair was embedded in local culture. The report of that year's fair is entitled "The Rowdies at the Harvest Fair" and tells the story of a group of drunken townies from Belfast creating disturbances after the Fair was over, including fist fights at the bus station and a few arrests - as well as a wee Ards woman who rolled her sleeves up and gave them a taste of their own medicine.

There's an interesting reference to the Fair in the famous local poem The Man from God Knows Where by Bangor poet(ess) Florence Mary Wilson, which is set in the years before and after the 1798 Rebellion:

"Well 'twas gettin' on past the heat o' the year
When I rode to Newtown fair;

I sold as I could (the dealers were near -
Only three-pound-eight for the Innish steer,
An' nothin' at all for the mare!)
I met M'Kee in the throng o' the street,
Says he, 'The grass has grown under our feet
Since they hanged young Warwick here."

It's hard to know how much creative license the writer used, but this implies a harvest fair existed in Newtownards around 1798. But let's be honest, there have been harvest fairs worldwide ever since harvesting began. And, as ever, the major commercial harvests in the Ards go back to the Scottish settlers of 1606 and 1607. The Montgomery Manuscripts record that:

"Now the harvests 1606 and 1607 had stocked the people with grain, for the lands were never so naturally productive since that time... to the degree that they had to spare and to sell to the succeeding new coming planters, who came over the more in number and the faster... the millers also prevented the necessity of bringing meal from Scotland"

A great local song, written sometime in the mid 20th century, tells the story of the Harvest Fair's heyday, but a heyday which even back then some regarded as a comedown from former glories:

On September 23 will you come alang wi me
And we’ll go and pay a visit to the Square
Everybody gathers in – tall and short and fat and thin
To join in the fun and see the Harvest Fair

There’ll be William James from Scrabo Hill and Hugh from Ballyhay
Mary Jane from Carrowdore and Sam from Drumawhey
Margaret Ann’ll leave the hens, she disnae seem tae care
For there’s none would take a pension for to miss the Harvest Fair

There’ll be piles of Yellow Man and we’ll buy some if we can
For the childer nearly ate the stall and all
Candy floss stuck on a stick, candy apples you can lick
We’ll enjoy ourselves beside the Oul Town Hall

You can buy a pound of pears or some second-handed chairs
You can listen to the preacher give the word
You can have your fortune toul by a gypsy brown and oul
You can pay 3d to see a four legged bird

If we talk to Farmer Fred he’ll say “The Fair is dead”
He’ll puff his pipe and nod his head and sigh
But he’s talking through his hat, aye I’m certain sure of that
For we’ll mind the Fair until the day we die

I don't think I'll be able to go to it tomorrow, but I know many folk of the older generation who still make a point of going. In our age of local produce, food miles and 'artisan' producers, there's a job for somebody to give the Harvest Fair its special status back again. Meanwhile here's a video clip of me playing the song's melody on the mandolin.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

"Tam's New Boots" - an oul poem aboot shoon fae Newtown.

............................................................................................................................................................ #alttext# ............................................................................................................................................................

This poem was given to me last Wednesday by a lady at Ards Historical Society, and I have her permission to post it here to share it with any readers who are interested.

A used tae buy grate muckle boots
That made my feet nae shape ava
An aye A stuffed the taes wi' cloots
But aye the heels wud gang athraw

A went tae Newtownerds yin Monday
An' jest whun passin' James McKee's
A stapt an glowered in his wunday
Thinks I 'There's sumthin there wud please'

A'm shair A seen a thoosan' pair
O' boots an' shoon o' ivery size
An' slippers bordered roon wi' hair
An' nice wee patent ankle-ties

A steppit in, a wee thin blate
The mester lauched - A think he pent me
He tell't me fur till tak a sate
An throwed a goat skin doon fornent me

My shoon amused him ower ocht
Sez he 'My dacent man, A tell ye
The shap, whauriver them was bocht
At ony rate haes gien ye velye'.

A wush ye seen the yins A tuk
An' whun he rowled them up in paper
He gied me sumthin back fur luck
Altho' A did not want them chaper

Man whun A put them on that nicht
A thocht A wuz some ither buddy
A felt that smart, an young an licht
A cudnae stan yin minit study

The fowk frae a' the country roon
Cummed in an' axed my boots tae see
An iver since they a' gang doon
An' fit themsels wi James McKee

James McKee, Practical Boot & Shoemaker, 80 High Street, Newtownards.


(the advert above has been recreated from WG Lyttle's The Bangor Season (1885)

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

'Scotch brick', a sink and 'plenty mair'

Some photos below of my growing collection of bricks from Scottish brickworks, mainly along the west coast of course. About half of them I've picked up here on the Ards Peninsula of Northern Ireland, and the rest have been collected in the west of Scotland (thanks again to Joe and Billy for gathering a brave wheen of these up for me.)

I've been cleaning at them today (a wee bit of vinegar is great for dissolving mortar, so be careful when you're eating chips and don't sit too near the wall). You'll see that many of these are marked 'Bourtreehill, Irvine' - well today I found the sink pictured below in a salvage yard near Newtownards, and as you can see from the maker's stamp it was also made at Bourtreehill, but this time Dreghorn, Kilmarnock. The man who owns the yard told me that he gets a lot of folk from Scotland buying things to 'repatriate' them back to the country where they had been made.

I then went over to Saintfield and found a wee matchbox holder in an antique shop there, with the message 'Help yersel' there's plenty mair' printed on it. Got it for just £3! As ever, you dinnae hiddae go terble far tae fin connections wi' Scotland roon aboot oor pairt o' County Down. Click to enlarge:

Monday, September 19, 2011

Newtownards: Tesco, CastleBawn and Walker's Oul Horn

Quite a few folk have contacted me about the song 'The Big Stane' which I posted here last week. Aside from the general story of a shotgun wedding, there are two interesting references in its words:

1) One is 'John Barleycorn', a name often used for whiskey. The story there is that the neck of a whiskey bottle was the perfect size to fit the rubber teat of a baby's bottle, and so empty whiskey bottles were sometimes used as an alternative.

2) The other reference is to 'Walker's Oul Horn' - this was the horn at the former George Walker & Company Linen Mill. The photo below has been taken from Derek Beattie's excellent website about Newtownards. I've added the yellow arrow to point out Newtownards Priory (one of the ruined churches which was restored by Sir Hugh Montgomery in 1606-07, where he lived for a time, and beside which he built an enormous 'bawn' wall). The four white arrows mark the corners of the 'bawn' wall, two of which have circular 'flankers'. Regular readers here will be all too aware of the history of the Priory and the Bawn wall. Click to enlarge:

Today, there is a massive new Tesco superstore being built nearby, said to be the biggest in Northern Ireland, close to the proposed 'CastleBawn' shopping centre. At one stage the Castlebawn property developers said they were going to build a 'Museum of the Wall' to tell the story of the bawn and the history of Newtownards.

Will Tesco, and the developers, acknowledge the history of the site, or will they just suck money out of local people's pockets without putting something back?

> Castlebawn website
> 'Museum of the Wall' plans (scroll to bottom of the page)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

'A Forenoon Aroon the Ards' - on the Sir Hugh Montgomery 1606 Tourist Trail

This photo is from today's bus tour which I led for Ards Borough Council, focussing on the life of Sir Hugh Montgomery (1560-1636), one of the men who the esteemed local historian the late Ted Griffith described as a 'Founding Father of the Ulster-Scots'. We had 18 people, just an ideal size for a group day-long tour. Most were local people from the greater Belfast area, with one man from Australia and a couple from San Francisco. The pic here was taken at Rosemount Estate, Greyabbey, the home of today's Montgomery family. The weather was perfect all day, and the crack was good.

•ps - if you were on the tour, please remember to email Alastair at the Council with your feedback, and if you want to, you can also leave a comment here (just click the blue "Comments" text below, which is beside today's date.)


Friday, September 16, 2011

Ards Historical Society: an evening of Ulster-English history, with a wee taste of Ulster-Scots poetry and song

A few weeks ago I mentioned here that I would be giving an illustrated talk for Ards Historical Society, in the old Town Hall, on the story of Sir Thomas Smith's attempt in 1572 to establish an English colony here. On the night it turned out that some of the members are familiar with this blog, so I feel the need to give a short report! I spoke for about 50 minutes, showing a variety of maps, photographs, documents and other artefacts, and tried to tell the story in as interesting a way as I could. Thankfully everyone who spoke to me at the end was very complimentary, and all of the audience went away with at least one copy of the booklet which I had published last year, through Loughries Historical Society (with funding to cover the printing costs from Ards Borough Council, North Down Borough Council and the Ulster-Scots Community Network).

For me, the best parts of the evening were when one lady (who I'll not name here) gave me a copy of an Ulster-Scots poem she had found in her attic, entitled 'Tam's New Boots'. Many of the folk there were also aware of the song 'The Big Stane' and so a number of them have gone away to try to trace its origin for me - there are a few theories and potential sources appearing already. I've been invited to bring my mandolin along to a local music session by one man, who had brought with him his set of jaw harps (also called 'Jew's Harps), an instrument that my granda also played.

I can happily encourage anyone, whether speaker or listener, to get involved with Ards Historical Society. There is more to our area than new Tesco shopping centres. Plenty of people care about heritage, tradition and local cultural identity. We have special stories here which deserve to be better known.

Here's a photo of the happy gathering!


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A 65th birthday, Ballyfrenis, and the Scotch tongue doon oor road

My mother is 65 today. Sadly she will be 'celebrating' it in the Ulster Hospital where she has been encamped since early May almost uninterrupted, except for a few days out at the 12th of July and the odd day out every few weekends.

She was rared at Ballyfrenis, one of a batch of nine, the same place as my oul school freen Darren Gibson (who blogs here as the Low Country Lad). Writer, poet, accordion player and singer Wilbert Magill also grew up brave an nearhaun - he tells me that the specific part of Ballyfrenis where our folk lived - Islandhill townland - was also called Blacktoun or Blackstown, a name which was brought from Ayrshire in 1606 by one of the Montgomeries (Blackstown was said to have been a small estate adjacent to Sir Hugh Montgomery's Braidstane).

Wilbert once told me a great story about a relative of mine from nearby Ballyraer / Ballyrawer who I'll not name, who became a preacher and was invited to London to speak. When he came back home to tell stories of his trip he gathered Wilbert and co together and advised them - 'young men, there are two words you must never EVER use on the platform... fornenst and oxter.' Wilbert's two books - his self-published family history story Blood Ties of Craigboy (2007) and his poems collection Aboot tha Airds (2009) are worth getting hold of. Wilbert was good enough to ask Graeme and I to play a wee bit of music at the launch of his second book, so we asked him to recite a poem on our Thompson Brothers CD 'Soda Farls and Redemption Songs'.

Not far from here is Ballyhay, where writer, storyteller and broadcaster Hugh Robinson grew up. I designed the cover of his book Across the Fields of Yesterday (1999) which he dedicated as being 'For My Ain Folk'. It's a great book with yet more Ballyfrenis references in it, including twa mair far oot freens o' mine who were the local pig-killers. Darren knows them well! You can listen to a wide range of clips of Hugh on the BBC Ulster-Scots web portal.

It would be a mistake to assume that these Ulster-Scots language writers and bloggers are a new phenomenon in this wee corner of the Ards; remember this is the landscape which inspired W.G. Lyttle's Ulster-Scots kailyard classic 'Sons of the Sod' which he published in 1886. Ballyfrenis Presbyterian Church was where our folk all went on a Sabbath, it was once a United Free Church of Scotland congregation, connected to an Ayrshire presbytery up until the 1940s. It was at Ballyfrenis where my mother remembers that the visiting Rev Moses Thompson would explain the gospel by using the wee rhyme "Three in Yin and Yin in three, but the middle Yin, He dee'd for me!", which I put a tune to a few years ago.

Just outside Carrowdore is the former Ballyboley National School, now an outpost for the local further education college, where Philip Robinson held a successful Ulster-Scots OCN-accredited course for some years, a school where Sheena McCullough had been principal for more years than she will probably admit!

I still pick up wee stories and expressions from family who live around Carrowdore and Ballyfrenis - and Darren's blog is a great example of just how rich it still is in our generation. In just this one wee pocket of the Ards there's a midden of vocabulary, language, literature, history and talent.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Name that Tune?

MetroPCS is a US-based provider of 4G telecom services (website here). This advert has been emailed to me - Ulster readers will be as bemused, and amused, as me I suspect. Imagine the uproar...

Monday, September 12, 2011

'The Big Stane' - an old song of the Ards


I was born in oul Newton', not far from the Bowtown,
The first sound I heard was Walker's oul horn
Me ma rocked the cradle, me da played the fiddle
And I sucked a bottle of John Barleycorn

I can still hear the laughter of the girl I ran after
I still feel delight at the sound of her name
At the first kiss she gave me, nothin could save me
She kissed me at the bottom of the oul Dummy's Lane*

When walkin for pleasure one fine summer's evenin'
I met with my true love down by the big stane
We fell into courtin' while gatherin' cockles
Now cockles and courtin' can be a rough game

As the shadows of sunlight began to get dimmer
I felt a bit rough round by the big stane
Now sand's good for buildin; but it's no good for courtin
So stay on the grass when you're at the big stane

The days they got shorter and my love got bigger
Her da got crosser and I got the blame
A shotgun was loaded and nearly exploded
"You'll pay for your coortin' doon by the big stane!"

One early spring morning our weddin' was dawnin'
We met at the church on the oul Dummy's Lane
Her ma she was cryin' - her da he was cursin'
And my son was born before we got hame

He was born in oul Newton', not far from the Bowtown,
The first sound he heard was Walker's oul horn
Now she rocks the cradle and I play the fiddle
And he sucks a bottle of John Barleycorn

*'Dummy's Lane' is said to have been near today's Greenwell Street, opposite the former Dominican Priory (which of course Hugh Montgomery restored in 1606-7).
- with thanks to the late George Holmes for giving me this oul song from Newtownards.
- photo of the 'Big Stane' near Cunningburn on the shore of Strangford Lough from this website

Friday, September 09, 2011

375 years ago today...

on 9th September 1636 the emigrant ship 'Eagle Wing' set sail from Groomsport for America carrying 4 Ulster-Scots ministers from North Down (Bangor, Ards, Ballywalter and Killinchy) and 136 people from their congregations. I am not aware of even a whimper of commemoration for this event. Has anyone else seen anything to mark it?

Monday, September 05, 2011

Another Letter from America: John Moten Freeman, writer of 'What Would the Profit Be"

(I've just posted this over at our Thompson Brothers Music blog, but thought it would be of interest to some readers here as well). We received the marvellous email below just last weekend, which we are posting here unedited with permission:


Hi Lads,

I discovered your music after a Google search for “What Would the Profit Be”, and so very much enjoyed your “brother duets” from Youtube and your website.

I am a lady in her 60s that lives in Georgia, USA. My father is John M. Freeman, one and the same who wrote “What Would the Profit Be”. I was aware of the Bill Monroe recording but didn’t know about yours. I bought it from iTunes but I would like to know if you have any more CD’s as I would so much love to have a “real” CD. My dad would be so proud. He was a deeply religious man and musically talented. He was born in the southern Appalachians in the little town of Gerton, North Carolina in 1879. I was the last of his 14 children by two wives. I was born when he was 68 years old and he passed when I was 14. He was a prolific songwriter.

Here he is in 1903 in front of a blackboard that he had prepared his Sunday School lesson for Henrietta, NC Baptist church. He was descended from the Scotch-Irish that settled in that area in the late 1700s.

Thank you again for a wonderful recording, your voices are heart-stirring.

Best Regards,

Martha Freeman


Sunday, September 04, 2011

Rock of Ages

Over the past week I have had three 'encounters' with the old 1700s hymn Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me. The first was on a local choir recording; the second was an old framed tapestry-style sampler which was in behind the piano in a mission hall; the third is below.

Preview For The Mercy Seat-The War Split EP from Sojourn Community Church on Vimeo.

Friday, September 02, 2011

John McNeill, The Scotch Spurgeon - "A Shaggy Master of Pathos"

John McNeill (7 July 1854 - 19 April 1933) is someone I have just recently discovered. Through most of his preaching career he was nicknamed 'The Scotch Spurgeon', a name which was used as the subtitle for his 1895 book 'Popular Sermons' (click here to buy from

His father, also called John, was born in Lisnagunogue (pronounced Lis-na-gun-yug) between Bushmills and Ballintoy. He was a quarry worker, and left Ulster for Scotland (described as 'the land of his forefathers' in his son's biography). He settled near Houston in Renfrewshire and married Katie McTaggart. A neighbour once said to John Jr. 'Yer faither's the best man o' oor sort I ever kent; but, Johnnie, he has just yae faut. He's far ower ootspoken for a puir man.' No wonder his son became a famous preacher.

Here is a short timeline of his life:

1854: Born in Houston in Renfrewshire.
1866: Family moved to Inverkip
1869: Began working at the local railway
Was promoted and moved to Edinburgh, joined the YMCA. Began to study for the ministry
1886: ordination, became a minister of McCrie-Roxburgh Free Church in a poor district of Edinburgh. Crowds in the church grew so big that he had to hire a circus tent with 3000 seats.
1889: became minister at Regent Square Presbyterian Church, London.
December 1891: McNeill's wife (Susan Spiers Scott) died just 3 weeks after giving birth to their 4th child; he resigned from the church to become a travelling evangelist
January 1892: preached with D.L. Moody in Aberdeen. Moody's assessment of McNeill was that "He is the greatest preacher in the world."
1893: Preached at the World's Fair in Chicago (as assistant to Moody).
1894 - 1908: McNeill spent many years as a travelling evangelist preaching at many US churches inc Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church (where Armagh-born Rev Dr John Hall was minister. Hall was a leading figure in the founding of the Scotch-Irish Society of the USA) and Central Presbyterian Church, New York City, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand.
1908: Became pastor of Christ Church, Westminster Bridge Road, London
1910: Became minister of Free St George's Presbyterian Church, Liverpool
1912: Minister of Cooke's Church in Toronto
1914: Minister of Central Presbyterian Church, Denver, Colorado
1916: Takes up a wartime role with the YMCA, serving in France, Egypt and Malta
1919: Back to the USA to become minister of South Highlands Presbyterian Church, Birmingham, Alabama
1920: Fort Washington Presbyterian Church (Broadway & 174th St, New York City)
1928: returns to Britain
1933: Died on 19 April, aged 79. Buried at Inverkip old churchyard, alongside his parents.

"...low-browed, shock-haired, stocky, he would arrest attention anywhere as a man of force and indomitable will. He is nearly six feet tall, and when he stamps his foot the very platform quivers... [he speaks with a] delicious Scottish burr which graces his speech..."

• A quote sometimes attributed to McNeill is "Salvation is perfume, religion smells, hypocrisy stinks."

James H. Burke (1858-1901) travelled with McNeill around the world, as his musical partner, Burke had been the Minister of Music at the New York Gospel Tabernacle from 1889-1891. Burke wrote the tune for the world famous hymn 'Yesterday, Today, Forever - Jesus is the Same'. (listen here on

• In his published sermon 'Marah Better than Elim', Spurgeon said of McNeill: "I noticed some of the papers writing unkindly of our dear friend, John McNeill, and saying all manner of hard things of him — and I rejoiced in my heart! I hoped that they would go ahead at that work. I remember how they did it to me — all the bitterness they could invent, in years gone by. Every form and fashion of abuse was heaped upon me — and what a wonderful advertisement it was! What a kindness they were doing me without intending it!"

• I know of some folk called McNeill who still live in the Lisnagunogue area, they are more than likely somehow related to the John McNeill who left for Scotland.

Further Reading:
Rev John McNeill: His Life and Work by Alexander Gammie (Pickering & Inglis, 1934)
• 1897 Article from the New York Times entitled "A Shaggy Master of Pathos"
• His brother Will McNeill was also a preacher (1894 article here about Will's role in the Brooklyn Revival)