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Ulster-Scots Hub the culmination of 20 years' work

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Scottish shipbuilder William Ritchie

Scottish shipbuilder William Ritchie

Scottish shipbuilder William Ritchie

Last Thursday evening, a new Ulster-Scots Hub was officially opened in the old Corn Exchange building in the Cathedral Quarter in Belfast.

It provides office space for the Ulster-Scots Agency, the Ulster-Scots Community Network, the library of the Ulster-Scots Language Society and the Ministerial Advisory Group on an Ulster-Scots Academy.

There is also an excellent visitor centre on the ground floor, with great information about the history, culture, language and identity of the Ulster-Scots community and I would certainly recommend a visit.

As chair of the Assembly's Culture, Arts and Leisure committee, I was asked to say a few words at the opening and was delighted to do so.

Of course, with a mother who was born in Coatbridge in Scotland and an Ulster-born grandfather, who signed the Ulster Covenant in Coatbridge in 1912, I suppose I'm half-Scots anyway and the other half is Ulster-Scots.

When I spoke, I recalled that, around 1993, I had picked up a copy of the magazine of the Ulster-Scots Language Society. Reading it was like switching on a light.

All those years ago, as I read the prose and poetry in the Ulster-Scots language, I understood for the first time that the Scots language, which was brought to Ulster in the 17th century by Scottish settlers and which became Ulster-Scots, had a profound influence on the language that most of us speak every day.

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There are native speakers, but there are also many of us who, while not native speakers, are familiar with many Ulster-Scots words and phrases.

I began to understand why, in north Belfast where I lived, there was a Flush Road, a Sheep's Pad, a Buttermilk Loney and a White Brae.

Flush is an Ulster-Scots word for "boggy ground", pad is the Ulster-Scots word for "path", a loney is a "lane" and a brae is a "hillside".

I even understood why a very polite BBC newsreader was wrong when he referred to Sandyknowes roundabout on the M2 as "Sandynose", rather than "Sandynows", because knowe is an Ulster-Scots word for a "small hill".

It also helped me to appreciate why, as a child at school, I was "corrected" by a teacher when I used the word fornenst, even though the teacher was standing fornenst me.

Of course, that magazine didn't come about without a lot of hard work and I commended the small group of Ulster-Scots speakers who gathered together just over 20 years ago to form the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

It was their vision and perseverance that made it all possible. Things have certainly come a long way in 20 years, but there is still a long way to go.

The Ulster-Scots Broadcast Fund has supported the production of some very popular television programmes, although there are some issues about quality control, but things are moving in the right direction on that front and others.

However, there has been a determined attempt by many within the Irish, or Gaelic, tradition to absorb, or assimilate, or re-educate Ulster-Scots into another culture and another cultural identity.

I remember being told by one such person, "You're Irish… whether you like it or not." As you can imagine, I was not impressed by that; indeed, I was fair scunnered. We are a thran people and compulsion won't work.

As I was speaking, I recalled that there was a time when Belfast was almost entirely an Ulster-Scots-speaking town.

When Amyas Griffith came to Belfast in 1780 as Surveyor of Excise, he noted that "the common people speak broad Scotch".

Another speaker recalled that we were meeting just a short distance from where the Scottish shipbuilder William Ritchie set up his own shipyard and became the father of Belfast shipbuilding.

On Saturday afternoon, when I visited the new Ulster history exhibition in the Ulster Museum, I was thinking about the influence of the Ulster-Scots on that history, but my thoughts on the museum are for another day.

  • Nelson McCausland MLA is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee

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