Robert Huddleston and the Ulster-Scots Tongue
Robert Huddleston (1814-1887), the 'Bard of Moneyrea' was one of the most productive of all the Ulster-Scots writers. He wrote hundreds (if not thousands) of poems, ballads and songs, mostly in his own vernacular language. Huddleston was, to put it mildly, an eccentric with strong views on almost every subject. As far as his own writings were concerned, he detested most of all having his poems described as 'mimic Scotch' - and worse still (from his point of view) as 'sprung from Burns'.
In the preface of his second book of poems published in 1846, Huddleston wrote a lengthy tirade against his critics, saying that '...pretaes in my vernacular language is as good to me as potatoes to them in theirs'. All he asked of the world, he said, was that it believed him to be 'an original':
...though I may not be a Robert Burns to the lowland Scottish peasantry, let me hope, at least, that I shall one day be a Robert Huddleston to the Ulster Irish.
What Huddleston meant by 'Ulster-Irish', he had already explained in the preface to his 1844 volume:
In Ulster Irish (which some in their unmeaning eccentricity may term Scotch, to tear even the credit of language from its mother home), I sing the most of my songs. Know, that until the 5th century, this was the ancient Scotia, and the now modern Scotland, only the minor plant; and it is a questionable point yet by some, but given in by all men of profound knowledge and erudition, that the inhabitants of Scotland are the descendants of the people of Erin. Then Erin must be the mother land.
Among the manuscripts of hundreds of unpublished poems by Huddleston, he scribbled more thoughts on this same subject:
To strangers who may say that I am the follower of Burns and the Scottish Bards both in idiom and rhythm. To such men I say how could it be otherwise, unless I walked out of my country and idiom - a thing that the poetic bosom won't do - nay, unless I outstepped my nature, a thing no man can do. You may as well say a man will write out of his senses as out of his dialect. No man can do. People who imagine the Irish idiom, in every part of the isle, to be smattering of English coupled with a brogue, are quite mistaken. Almost the half of Ulster, my native province, speak the very dialect in which my poems is written. Born and brought up in the County of Down and parish of Comber on the northern shores of the island, within forty miles of Scotland, what wonder if my language and that of the Scot almost agree. What a mockery it is then, for intelligent men, to be calling the writings of some authors those of others, because they resemble them in language. Thus it is, that so many rustic authors of Ulster are said to be sprung from Burns. Alas, what a mistake! And what a mischance that people who even talk the very dialect cannot read it - nay - even when they see it in print.'
150 years later the need to have our native tongue properly recognised remains, to say the least, an unfinished task.
[From Ullans, Nummer 1, Spring 1993]