The Ulster-Scots Language Society, formed to promote the Ulster-Scots language, our own hamely tongue

David Bruce: Ulster-Scot-American Poet

After a long period of neglect, poetry in Ulster Scots has in recent years begun to receive the attention it deserves. A watershed was the publication in 1974 of John Hewitt's book, The Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down. After a lifetime studying a school of working- class poetry that flourished from the late-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth century, Hewitt wrote this insightful account, to which he added selections from sixteen poets, all of whom wrote in Ulster-Scots. More recently, the collected poetry of three early-nineteenth-century Weaver Poets (Hugh Porter, James Orr, and Samuel Thomson) has been published in separate volumes of the Folk Poets of Ulster series (Bangor: Pretani Press, 1992).

Although Hewitt tracked down hundreds of long-out-of-print verses written in Antrim and Down, he was apparently unaware that the writing of poetry in the Ulster Scots language was rather more extensive - in fact, it was international, which is to say, it had spread to North America. It is well known that thousands of Ulster Scots emigrated to the newly opening continent in the 1700s, so it should be no surprise that some of them carried along a poetic muse. It will be instructive for us to examine and assess this matter in some detail. The poets Hewitt wrote about have yet to achieve more than a very modest reputation or recognition outside the north-east of Ireland. Hewitt identified connections between the Weavers and poets of Scotland, particularly Robert Burns, but this has led some critics to view (albeit erroneously) the Weavers as only a loose grouping of Burns imitators who happened to be from Ulster, where Burns was hardly less popular than on the Scottish mainland. Hewitt himself also viewed the school in fairly local terms.

The most notable of what may be called the "Ulster-Scot-American" poets was David Bruce, whose 1801 collection, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Originally Written under the Signature of the Scots-Irishman, embodies the conviction that the Scots language was an entirely fit and effective medium for literary expression. Most of Bruce's poems appeared originally in the Western Telegraphe and Washington Advertiser, a weekly newspaper published in the western Pennsylvania town of Washington, near Pittsburgh, under the pseudonym "The Scots-Irishman" (Bruce's name was revealed by the editor/printer of the collection, John Colerick). In the author's facility with the language and his choice of Scots over English for many of his poems we see a man who viewed Scots as appropriate for both serious and comic literary purposes. More important, Bruce's use of Scots implies that there must have been a considerable readership familiar with the language.

Who was David Bruce? Scholars have sketched a partial biography from comments in his poems. Born around 1760 and son to a farmer from Caithness, he apparently spent his formative years in north County Londonderry, for he says of a compatriot:

Ware na I sure yer' nae the same,
I wad hae trow'd ye came frae hame,
From Londonderry or Colrain.

Nothing is known of his education, though he may well have been self- taught. Nor is anything known of him from his arrival in Maryland in 1784 until he came to Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, in 1795. Establishing himself as a store-keeper, he became an active member of that community involved in political, real estate, and other affairs. It was state and national politics that most often sparked his poetry, which dealt not only with current events of the day, but often pilloried and bantered with public officials. The eastern part of the state had been settled by Europeans for well over a century, but Western Pennsylvania was frontier territory at the time. Bruce found the unfettered life there exhilarating but confounding. The new nation's experiment with democracy was taking uncertain, sometimes alarming turns, allowing men Bruce considered to be demagogues to have free rein and seeing many being misled by radical republicans intoxicated by the French Revolution. The time was a tumultuous one especially in the hills of Western Pennsylvania, where local rights had come to be sharply at odds with national laws in the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794, which imposed a stiff tax on home- distilled liquor. The conflict, which was to smoulder for some time, chiefly pitted the common citizens of the area, the great majority of whom were of Ulster extraction and who supported the right to freely produce liquor for personal consumption, against the excise men of Philadelphia and Washington, and finally federal troops were ordered in by George Washington. Though he warmly praised the many qualities of good liquor, the elixir that inspired much of life's useful activity, Bruce accepted the tax and sided with the rule of law and the federal government on the issue. It is significant that, to express this allegiance, he was inspired to write his first poem in Scots, "To Whiskey", four of the twenty-two stanzas of which appear below:

I wat ye are a cunning chiel,
O' a' your tricks I ken fu' weel,
For aft ye hae gien me a heel,
And thrown me down,
When I shook hands wi' heart so leel,
Ye wily loun.

When fou o' thee on Irish grun',
At fairs I' ve aft had muckle fun,
An' on my head wi' a guid rung,
Gat mony a crack;
An' mony a braw chiel in my turn,
Laid on his back.

But wou'd tak a leaf and mair it
To tell o' a' your virtues rare;
At weddings, gossipping and fair,
Baith great and sma'
Look unco dowff if ye'r na there,
Great soul o' a'.


Then foul befa' the ungratefu' deil
That wou'd begrudge the pay right weel,
For a' the blessings that ye yiel,
In sic a store;
I'd nae turn round upo' my heel
For saxpence more.

Beneath the poem Bruce appended the following note, which gives some indication why he chose not to write in English:

Poets (an airy race, who live on fame) are ever fond of seizing popular subjects; and what subject more popular at this time than Whiskey? The Author thought too, as the people, who are distinguished by the name of Scots-Irish, were the most numerous in the country, and were remarkable for their attachment to the subject of this Poem, to assume the language and appellation of a Scots-Irishman, would add to his celebrity.

Though not written in pure or deep Ulster-Scots, there is much of the language in "To Whiskey". Some of the vocabulary is English, and some constructions (your virtues rare) reflect English poetic conventions. But the poem uses Scots on every line. Bruce employs conventional Scotticisms like unco, muckle, guid and ken. The Scots forms hae, mony, baith, sic, and deil are used rather than English equivalents have, many, both, such and devil. Final consonants are elided to produce a' ("all"), wi' ("with"), fou ("full"), etc, all quite familiar to the ears of Scots and Ulster Scots.

Altogether, twenty-one other poems and songs in the volume are written in Scots, from "The Author's Political Opinion" to "A Canny Word to the Democrats of the West" to "To Peter Porcupine". This shows that Bruce did not employ the language in only a fanciful, experimental poetic effort extolling the "water of life". Interestingly, several of his fervent satires on Pennsylvania political officials were written in Scots, while he penned an elegy to Burns in English. Bruce wrote as an individual, not part of a group or school. We know he read Burns and Allan Ramsay, but there is no evidence that he was in touch with poets or even family members in Ulster or Scotland. We know of no followers or associates in Pennsylvania, but that he used Scots so freely and often suggests the existence of an audience that could appreciate his verse. It would be easy to imagine that there were others of his ilk in Western Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the American back country (the western or mountain portions of the Eastern states).

Other than Bruce's own note cited above, we can surmise little other than that he felt entirely comfortable writing in Scots and must have believed it would secure an audience for him.

There is little evidence that Bruce felt a strong ethnic affiliation. His adopted pseudonym implies that he welcomed being identified as a Scot from Ireland, but his writing dealt with American topics and almost never touched on national or ethnic groups in the new nation. He stated that the Scots and Irish often formed the backbone of British armies, yet he was more adamant against the French than the British cause in the 1790s. He feared the influence of French revolutionary ideas in the United States, but made no reference, at least in his poetry, to their role in Ireland, which contributed to the Irish rebellion of 1798.

Bruce lived nearly thirty years beyond the publication of his one volume of poems. He maintained his store-keeping until his death in 1830 and in later years became an elder in his community of Burgettstown, as many sought him for advice. Much earlier in his career he had written "An Advice to Old Bachelors" (in English) repudiating the blessed estate of matrimony. He followed this counsel well and was buried beneath a simple stone in the United Presbyterian Cemetery in Burgettstown.

Bruce must have spoken regularly in Ulster Scots, which is itself hardly surprising; emigrants take their language and other cultural luggage with them. But that he wrote in Ulster Scots is far more significant. It indicates that Ulster Scots was for a time an international language, that it could to some degree compete with English abroad, and that a fair number of people must have been literate in Scots, at least in some places. Bruce's writing and that of others indicates that the Western Pennsylvania frontier was a very diverse place; in addition to Amerindian languages, French, German, and other European tongues, there were at least four related varieties from the British Isles - Scots, Ulster Scots, British English, and Irish English. And then there was the newly developing American English, to which all four contributed. But that is a subject for another occasion.

Excerpts from the Poetry of David Bruce

A "CANNY WORD" to the Democrats of the West;
or, "What the Deil wad ye be at?"


Ye Democrats a'
Wha mak a fraen',
Wha seauld, an' wha gabble, an' prat,
Gif ane o' ye kens well,
Come here now a while,
An' tell's what the deil ye'd be at?

Hae ye na plenty
O' what's haelsome and dainty?
Wheat bread, meat an' mil, an' a' that;
An' may, when you please,
Eat an' drink at your ease,
Then, what the deil wad ye be at?

Is there ony proud Laird
To mak ye afeard,
To whom ye maun haud off your hat;
Or ony great man,
To rack-rent your land?
Then what the deil wad ye be at?


Ye paukie, wanton, hum'rous witch!
Had'n't been for ye, I might been rich
For Fortune's nae sic a blind bitch,
As people say;
She aft will gie a lucky hitch,
When ane's i' th' way.

She's just like a' the rest o' your sort,
Gif ye wou'd hae her, ye maun court,
An' he wha maks the best push for't,
Wi' bauld advance—
It is nae aft that he comes short
O' a good chance.

But this to ye does nae alude;
For should ane o' the forward crowd
Come to court ye, pert, brazen-brow'd—
Lord! how you'd gloom!
You're nae light taupie, wha'd be woo'd
By ony loun.

She's just like a' the rest o' your sort,
Gif ye wou'd hae her, ye maun court,
An' he wha maks the best push for't,
Wi' bauld advance—
It is nae aft that he comes short
O' a good chance.

But this to ye does nae alude;
For should ane o' the forward crowd
Come to court ye, pert, brazen-brow'd—
Lord! how you'd gloom!
You're nae light taupie, wha'd be woo'd
By ony loun.

Michael Montgomery

University of South Carolina