James Fenton was born in 1931, and spent the first eighteen years of his life on his father's farm in the adjoining townlands of Drumadarragh and Ballinaloob, a few miles south of Ballymoney and in the heart of that part of rural Antrim where broad Ulster-Scots is spoken by the great majority of the people. Maintaining close contact with family and neighbours, he compiled over many years a detailed record of contemporary local speech. Subsequently, he extended his study methodically with the help of (mostly elderly) native-speaking informants selected to be representative of different parts of the county. His aim was to "compile an authentic, comprehensive record of a living language: its vocabulary, idiom, characteristic turns of phrase and modes of expression, its aphorisms and its humour". When, in 1995 "The Hamely Tongue: A personal record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim" was first published for the Ulster-Scots Language Society by the Ulster-Scots Academic Press, it was immediately hailed as having achieved his own aims magnificently.
Written as a labour of love by James Fenton "The Hamely Tongue" stands as the definitive record of surviving Ulster-Scots in county Antrim. It has achieved international recognition as an outstanding work of scholarship, and although in dictionary format, the individual entries are written with examples of usage that are so colourful and authentic that it also is an outstanding work of literature. A second, revised edition was published in 2000 by the Ullans Press, and in 2006 a third edition was published (Ullans Press, 2006).
James Fenton is of a generation of academics that pioneered phonological and lexical studies of Ulster-Scots, such as the late Brendan Adams, Professor John Braidwood and Professor Bob Gregg (Founding President of the Ulster-Scots Language Society). It was therefore particularly appropriate that James Fenton made a significant contribution to "The Academic Study of Ulster-Scots: Essays by and for Robert J Gregg" (Edited by Anne Smyth, Michael Montgomery and Philip Robinson, NMGNI, 2006), entitled: 'Ulster-Scots in the Twenty-First Century'.
Since the first publication of The Hamely Tongue, James Fenton has also gained widespread acclaim as the outstanding Ulster-Scots poet of current times. In 2000 he published "Thonner an Thon: an Ulster-Scots Collection" (Ullans Press), which demonstrated, in poetry and prose, that the literary nuggets contained in The Hamely Tongue were only a sampler of an exceptional poetic talent. In Thonner an Thon, his native language comes vividly alive as we can glimpse a fast-disappearing human and natural landscape. "On Slaimish" (Ullans Press, 2009), James Fenton's second book of (mainly) poems, was published. Frank Ferguson, in his "Ulster-Scots Writing: An Anthology" (Four Courts Press, 2008), states that:
'James Fenton is one of the most gifted poets currently working in Ulster-Scots ... His collection of poetry and prose Thonner an Thon, is one of the finest examples of writing in Ulster-Scots. His approach to the language is innovative and fresh and he attempts to propel the traditionforwards while maintaining a strong association with the world of his native county Antrim.'
James Fenton attended Dalriada Grammar School, Stranmillis College and Queen's University Belfast. He is a retired school principal now living in Glengormley, an Honorary Vice-President of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, and his interests are poetry, the novel and conservation (he is a member of the Ulster Wildlife Trust and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds).