Whether you believe it’s a language or a dialect, lazy myths persist
Certain things come with the territory if you admit to an interest in Ulster-Scots. It’s likely people will suddenly become linguistic experts, with strong opinions on what is a proper language and what isn’t.
It’s a serious failure that a couple of decades after Ulster-Scots was included in the Belfast Agreement there is still so much public confusion and misinformation over the basics.
Ulster-Scots has been spoken for centuries and has been used by writers since the 1700s. You no longer need to ransack libraries to find older Ulster-Scots texts as many are available online through the efforts of Ulster University’s Ulster Scots Poetry Project and the Ulster-Scots Academy website.
Let’s start with the ‘Scots’ element. Ulster-Scots is the product of millenia of cultural interactions between Ulster and Scotland. It is important to consider Ulster-Scots in relation to the Scots language from which it developed. Some maintain Ulster-Scots has deviated enough from Scots to be a language in its own right, others see it as a variety of Scots.
It is important to realise the Scots language exists. It has a long and rich tradition, a range of grammars and dictionaries and has been the subject of extensive research. It features on school and university curricula.
Familiarity with the Scots language shows Ulster-Scots is not mispronounced English, but that its words have historical provenance. The chances are those old words you’ve heard or said but never written are catalogued in Scots dictionaries.
Thinking about Ulster-Scots alongside Scots should bust some of the myths. For example, it is absurd to accuse the Renaissance poets King James IV of Scotland gathered to his court of writing ornate verses in a language invented in the 1990s.
Robert Burns would be bewildered to discover he wrote in a Ballymena accent, and presumably Scotland’s current national poet (Makar) Kathleen Jamie would be disappointed to learn it is a form of communication used only by old men with nothing to say.
It’s also important to understand that occasionally saying “quare” or “wee” does not make someone an Ulster-Scots speaker. Ulster-Scots has influenced the language of almost everyone in Ulster, but most speak a variety of Ulster English.
When pioneering linguist Robert J Gregg mapped Ulster-Scots in the 1960s he realised staple pieces of Scots vocabulary — words like wee, aye and skelp — had spread well beyond the Ulster-Scots speaking areas. Instead, he used a series of more specific markers to map the Ulster-Scots heartlands.
As a minority language Ulster-Scots doesn’t have its problems to seek. Its speech community is geographically fragmented. Its speakers, in many cases, are ageing and often unused to seeing the written form of their language.
It has declined in geographical scope and some of its distinctive features have eroded to the point of near extinction. Furthermore, many commentators remain dismissive or openly hostile.
Even the arrival of Ulster-Scots onto the political landscape after the Belfast Agreement has been double-edged. With increased funding and visibility came a backlash. It seems at times Ulster-Scots is one of the few things commentators can be spiteful about without consequences.
In a way it is a pity Ulster-Scots has been co-opted, for political expediency, into the binaries of our politics, as it represents a third, complicating, dimension to them.
It has the potential to enrich the pervasive “two tribes” narrative.
Despite the problems, Ulster-Scots endures. In the last few years a number of writers have discovered their voices: encouragingly, there are too many to mention here. This is in addition to those long-standing grassroots enthusiasts.
These days it also has a presence in broadcasting and on social media. These are foundations on which to build, and in some quarters there is talk of a growing confidence, even a revival.
It’s ill tae thole tha blethers o folk that dinnae know ocht aboot Ulster-Scotch. We cud dae wi takin a wee bit mair care whan colloguin publicly aboot it. I doot we cud dae that richtly, for guid manners disnae cost anybody ocht.
Stephen Dornan, originally from Newtownards and now living in Scotland, has studied and written about Ulster-Scots. His collection of poems in Ulster-Scots was published in 2020