Sunday, August 28, 2022

Ulster-Scots Music: "Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws"

The quote above is from Scottish writer and politician Andrew Fletcher. He understood the power of music, story and song. Few of his ilk do so today.


Music is the universal expression of the human race, whether through rhythm, song, or instrument. It's a creative endeavour and so is seldom, if ever, 'fossilised' and frozen in time.

A trawl through the earliest printed Ulster-Scots sources always reveals some great material: 

• The Montgomery Manuscripts, collated in the late 1600s by William Montgomery, from first-hand accounts and family traditions, are always a great place to start. It includes references to the lute, bagpipes, drums,  trumpet, violin, flute, recorder, cornet, hautboys, and 'the huntsman's musical instrument' which must have been a type of horn.

• The 1700s sources are pretty scant, because printing was still a fairly limited industry, but towards the end of that century the printing presses of Ulster were busy churning out volumes of local poetry and local songs by the Weaver Poets. Within the same era as the far more celebrated Belfast Harp Festival of 1792, these are full of references to music and songs.

• The Scottish sources from the 1700s also overlap into Ulster – some of the tunes in the Scottish Musical Museum which Robert Burns worked on included tunes from Ulster and Ireland, Burns confirmed so in his notes – including the melody he used for Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon

• The 1700s was the century that saw massive Ulster-Scots emigration to the USA. People take music. The two sounds which were exported from Presbyterian Ulster were the fiddle of a Saturday night, and the unaccompanied vocal harmonies of a Sunday morning.

- FIDDLE: The first published collection of American fiddle tunes was George Knauff's renowned Virginia Reels in 1839, of which about 20% are Scottish in origin. So any references before 1839 are highly important. Here are two: 

1) There's a reference to an unnamed fiddle-playing Presbyterian minister at Londonderry, New Hampshire, circa 1730, one of the second wave of Ulster emigrants to arrive there.

2) Larne-born and raised author James M'Henry (1785–1845) emigrated to America in 1817, aged 32. His novel The Wilderness was set in 1750s Ulster-Scots Western Pennsylvania and has a short, but very important, list of dances and specific tune names. This is especially valuable because The Wilderness was published in 1823 – 16 years before Knauff's Virginia Reels.

- VOCALS: An Anglican minister in the frontier Carolinas, Rev Charles Woodmason, an avowed opponent of the Ulster-Scots, had to admit in 1760 that in a church service he had conducted "On the 31 (Sunday) I gave service to about 400 people among whom a great number of Baptists and Presbyterians… excellent singing. The women sing as well or better than the Girls at the Magdalene Chapel, London – they all come from Virginia and Pennsylvania – not an English person or Carolinian among them".

There is so much richness and depth. More to follow...

Monday, August 22, 2022

Irish, Scots and Anglo-Normans in Portaferry, 1641 (from 'The Savage Family in Ulster', p 128)

The Savage family of the Upper Ards and Lecale were originally Anglo-Normans. They had dominated Antrim and Down up until the Bruce 'invasion' of 1315–18. This list of their tenants from 1641 on the Portaferry estate shows that their territory there became home to English and Scots as well as Irish people. 

"...In an old Rental preserved at Portaferry the number of tenants in the town of Portaferry at this time was stated to have been twenty. It is interesting to read the names of the then tenants on the estate in the year 1641. They are:—

Patrick Savage, Esq., his demeasne;
Conboy O'Neale and others during pleasure;
Rowland Savage (three townlands);
James Coffy and others;
James Savage and others, during pleasure;
Rowland Savage, five half-quarters Ballyvranagan, in freehold;
Henry Savage, Ballefunerergh, in freehold;
John Martin, during pleasure;
Patrick Savage and others, during pleasure;
Arthur Moneypenny (two townlands);
James McCullen and others, during pleasure;
Hugh O'Tomolte and others;
William Waghop, during pleasure;
Nicholas ffitzsymons, in freehold;
Patrick Harnot and others, during pleasure;
Thomas Carr, in freehold;
William Dunbar;
William McCea;
James Savage;
Divall Smith and others (Quintin Bay);
John Echlin;
Nevin McCormick, during pleasure;
Dualtagh Smith (the half-town of Tullenecrevy);
Patrick Steward, during pleasure;
Henry Smith, during pleasure;
Dualtagh Smith (Knocknellett), freehold;
James Capy Widow;
Thomas Malmont..."

Friday, August 19, 2022

Psalm 91 by Renew Collective

This isn't my musical cup of tea, but its a great example of how versatile the inspired Psalms are. The 1650 Psalter was put together by a team of people including Rev James Hamilton of Ballywalter, Dumfries and Edinburgh. He may not have ever seen a person of a different ethnicity, but he would definitely have known 'For God so loved the World', and he would definitely have read of the Ethiopian of Acts chapter 8. What a legacy.

From some research I did a few years ago:

'...The General Assembly of 1649 appointed Hamilton, with John Smith, Hugh McKail, Robert Traill, George Hutcheson (he had been sent to Ulster by the General Assembly in Feb 1644 ) and Robert Lowrie, to “overtake the review and examination of the new paraphrase of the Psalms”. The final volume, entitled The Psalms of David in Meeter: newly Translated and diligently compared with the Original Text and Former Translations, etc. Allowed by the Authority of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland was published in 1650. This remained the only authorised version of the Psalms in Scottish Presbyterian churches until the revision of 1929...'



Wednesday, August 17, 2022

Jimmy Hawthorne, Douglas Carson, and taking a risk

Back in October 2004 when I was invited to be the new Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency I sought advice from various work colleagues. I knew that, if I accepted it, it was going have a significant impact upon my life. At that time I was Managing Director of GCAS Design, and just a year before had completed the project to create and implement a new corporate identity for the Northern Ireland Executive and its then eleven departments. So people at Stormont knew me. Our sister company, GCAS Public Relations, had a number of external consultants including senior former BBC Northern Ireland people James Hawthorne and Robin Walsh. Via a colleague in GCAS PR, Jimmy Hawthorne's advice to me was "don't touch it with a barge pole".

I weighed that up for a while, but eventually disregarded it. I accepted the invitation and attempted that role for a full four year term from June 2005 – June 2009. It was unpaid*, and meant to be just three days a week. But it took over almost all of my non-GCAS life, and not always positively.

I think it was in Wendy Austin's landmark 1996 BBC Radio Ulster series 'Pioneers and Presidents' that another BBC giant, Douglas Carson, pictured above from this Irish Times obituary, poured scorn on the idea of being proud of ancestry. Perhaps it was the common upbringing that Carson and I had in the 'Brethren' Gospel Halls that caused his remarks to resonate so strongly with me.

He was right. You can only be proud of achievements, things you have done, not of what you accidentally are – and even at that, pride is of course the very first original sin. I remember being queezy when I was asked to say something on a TV script about being proud of heritage. The vocabulary that we use shapes our world. Be precise with words. 

* the fee for board members was from memory about £600 per month, but it was all paid to my employers, for them to release me for those three days per month. 

Tuesday, August 09, 2022

A Texas movie where "King Billy's on the wall"

THE SOUTHERNER (1945) was a successful and Oscar-nominated movie of its time, directed by Jean Renoir. It depicts the hardships of pioneer life in the ‘share-cropper’ cotton farms of Texas in the early 1940s. In a sequence showing a community fiddle square dance, the famous portrayal of King William III on his horse can be seen hanging on the wall. 

Saturday, August 06, 2022

Erasure and Absorption – 'Irish' music and America

I recently remembered that a kind civil servant that I used to see from time to time when I was Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency gave me this double album – the select soundtrack of the momentous 1990 BBCNI & RTE, Emmy award-winning, five part TV series Bringing It All Back Home, about the musical connections between Ireland and America. She was (and probably still is) a lovely person, well-intended, and I had high hopes of the music.

When the series, and soundtrack, came out in 1990 I was a hard rock devotee in my last year of school – Def Leppard, Guns N' Roses, the Black Crowes, a bit of Iron Maiden and Metallica. By the time the CDs were given to me around 2007 I'd already spent a good few years immersing myself in Ulster-Scots heritage, I'd been through Appalachia twice and had become enthralled by how well our story was told over there, and was preparing to head to Washington DC to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in July 2007.

The musical standard of Bringing It All Back Home is exemplary, played by a galaxy of world class stars. However, the narrative that underpins the soundtrack leaves out the story of the Ulster-Scots (see the track listing here). The tv series is available online and I have been re–watching some of it.

The influence of Bringing It All Back Home can't be exaggerated, it was something of a game-changer. It was broadcast two years before the genre-blending landmark Another Country album by The Chieftains (link here) and five years before the global phenomenon of Riverdance. Some time around 2005/2006 a photographer friend gave me a mix tape, inc The Chieftains' version of 'Tennessee Waltz' with Tom Jones on vocals. The societal impact of all of this was huge.

What might be called the Irish 'national project' of the twentieth century has created world-shaping perceptions, and a singular dominant story. But the orthodox account of the history Irish music that many consequently tell has seldom, if ever, acknowledged the uniquenesses of the Ulster-Scots – the exact musical forms which were exported by Ulster-Scots, the early era in which the Ulster-Scots emigrated, and the differing American geographies to which various waves of migrations from Ireland went, both the Ulster-Scots, the 'Famine Irish', and others too.

None of this is to claim that any cultural tradition is better than another, but simply to acknowledge that there was, and is, variety.

Some oppose that cultural variety. Some find it to be inconvenient. Many just don't know about it, because of the dominance of the singular 'national project' narrative. For people in any walk of life there is commercial/financial security in repeating and reinforcing 'conventional wisdom' stories. So the Ulster-Scots story is typically either erased, or else absorbed into the island's story.

I might post some specific observations of precisely how the tv series missed the mark.


As a welcome corrective to the creative imaginations of musicians and marketing people, the Irish-centric orthodoxy is expertly redressed in this 2012 lecture at Emory University which is available on YouTube, where Paul Wells, former Director of the Centre for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University (situated south east of Nashville) challenged the narrative. He said:

"... there are a great many assumptions being made ... however it is quite clearly a Scottish, rather than Irish, strain. The widespread assumption about the existence of the strong Irish element in southern fiddling is relatively new. It has become a popular notion only within the past 20 – 25 years, in other words during the period in which Irish traditional music has risen to unprecedented heights of popularity.

Perhaps even more striking than the assumption itself is the degree to which people want it to be true... it is my understanding that prior to the famines of the 1840s and 1850s the vast majority of those who came to these shores from Ireland were the so-called Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots... 

... If the music in Knauff’s 'Virginia Reels' (1839) tells us anything about the music of the Ulster-Scots who settled in the South, it is that it was much more strongly Scottish than it was Irish in flavour..."


George P. Knauff's collection was the very first published volume of southern / Appalachian fiddle music, and the only one in the 1800s. The simultaneously "geographically Irish" but also "culturally Scots" people who filled early Appalachia and American South were the Ulster-Scots. Even the most basic grasp of the demographics of Ulster/Ireland and America will confirm that. 

The earliest known fiddle music in Appalachia was Scottish, via the north of Ireland, and transported there by the Ulster-Scots.

• PS: Paul Wells' talk became the 2019 paper Examining the Irish Connection in the Southern American Fiddle Repertoire for the Elphinstone Institute of the University of Aberdeen and is online here as a PDF file.