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

A History of Ulster-Scots

A Talk for Ormeau Gallery, 11th November, 2005, by Anne Smyth

Scotland got its name from this island. Ireland was once considered to be one of the Western Isles of what we now know as Scotland. Everyone knows of the ancient Pictish kingdom Picture of shipof Dalriada, which took in the western part of Scotland with its islands and the north-east corner of the island of what is now Ireland. The historical continuum therefore tended towards a strong link and away from separation.

The Scots language - a version of the West Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family - has a long and complex linguistic history. It was spoken for the first time in what we now call Scotland by settlers from Continental Europe (possibly Denmark, Frisia and Northern Holland), and the language may have appeared as early as the sixth century in the territories now called the Lothians and Berwickshire, where an indigenous population spoke some form of what is now the Welsh language. Within a few hundred years the ancestor of modern Scots came to be the dominant linguistic medium throughout Southern Scotland and the Forth and Clyde Valleys. Although a general cognate of English, Scots is most closely akin to Northumbrian and Anglian versions of early English and both it and they show a similar, yet in many ways separate, historical evolution.

By the tenth and eleventh centuries Gaelic speakers - who probably settled in Scotland at about the same time as the Continental settlers who brought in the Scots language, and who gained political dominance in the north and west of Scotland - came to look upon the lowlanders south of the Forth as English. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that King Malcolm went with an army out of Scotland into Lothian and England. The earliest records of the Scots language are few indeed. Possibly the best known is the inscription on the Ruthwell Cross shaft and arms near Annan, in Dumfries-shire, and this dates from the 7th century. It was written in early Northumbrian, the direct ancestor of Scots.

But the linguistic record is sparse. Even by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries we still find only a few Scots words used as glosses to Latin texts together with fragmentary materials from legal documents and political records. However, by the middle of the fifteenth century we begin to find extensive literary materials - notably Barbour's Brus - that give us some insight into the language. Even at this period the language is still called Inglis, with the term 'Scots' restricted with reference to Gaelic/Erse. By the sixteenth century, the author of the Complaynt of Scotland describes his propir toung materne (his ain mither tung) as the Scottis langage.

While it is true that from the sixteenth century on there was increasing influence from English literary and liturgical forms, nonetheless the speaker of vernacular Scots was unlikely to change his 'mither tongue' to accord with the norms of the south-eastern dialect of English that had achieved status as the English language proper. Even in the reign of James II, the written language of formal legal materials appears to be distinct from English.

In a statute addressing the appropriate female mode of attire, we are told that ladies were to be seen to be wearing: on their hedis short curches with litill hudis, as ar usit in Flanderis, Ingland and uther cuntreis; and as to their gownys, that na woman weir mertrikis (martens) nor letvis (grey fur) nor talys of unfittande lenthe not furryt under, bot on the Halyday.

Meanwhile, what was the situation in Ulster? In the year 1600, the Gaelic-speaking MacDonnells were in the Glens of Antrim and in the Route. Apart from them, there were only a few Scots in Ulster, despite the short sea-crossing, a bare twenty miles. A few years transformed the situation. Large numbers of Scots began to come to the northern half of the Ards Peninsula from 1606, to settle on lands granted to Montgomery and Hamilton, two Ayrshire men. By 1614 they numbered 2000 fighting men. From the Ards, they soon spread through Newtownards and Comber and across the northern half of Down. From Belfast to Islandmagee were the English, on land granted to Sir Arthur Chichester in 1603. There were English settlements at Lisburn, at Hillsborough, and up the Lagan Valley, stretching from Donaghcloney in Down, along the Lough shore, and up as far as Killead. The Scots were settled from Islandmagee to Glenarm. They were in the West as far as Antrim town, and in the North at Ballymoney and the Route. Outside 'the Glens', in every Scots settlement there was the Scottish language, and today we can still recognise the Scots settlements by the residual elements of that language. We find the first instance of the term 'Ulster Scots' (used to define the people) in a source dated 8 October 1640 ('The Life and Original Correspondence of Sir George Radcliffe, Knt.', cited in James Seaton Reid's History of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland).

Then came the Ulster Plantation, which dealt with six other counties.

The traffic between Ulster and Scotland during the 17th century must have been considerable. Sir William Brereton states that in 1634 and 1635 10,000 people from between Aberdeen and Inverness passed through 'Erwin' on their way to Ulster. Of course, from that area of north-eastern Scotland, comes 'The Doric', a regional variant of the Scots language. The majority of the settlers hailed from the west of Scotland - Ayrshire and Galloway - but it would be wrong to assume that this was exclusively so. As an additional complication, there were still Scots Gaelic speakers in Galloway at that time, as is documented by Brendan Adams. Furthermore, in the early days of Presbyterianism in Ireland, there was a demand for Gaelic-speaking Presbyterian ministers to evangelise the native Irish.

We cannot say with confidence that in every case the ordinary settlers came from the same areas of Scotland as the Undertakers. At the top social level of Undertaker and landlord, the precise original locations of the English and Scottish 'planter' families are known, but it is a fundamental error to assume that their tenants came from the same locations. It would also be easy to gain the wrong impression from the name of the London Companies. In county Londonderry each company got its own estate (such as the Drapers, Grocers, Goldsmiths, etc.), and, acting together, they were to be responsible for developing the two new city ports of Londonderry and Coleraine. Because of the proximity of these ports to Scotland, they actually became dominated by Scots merchants and artisans by 1630, despite their London-English ownership and control. Similarly, those London Companies with estates in the north of the county between Londonderry and Coleraine employed Scottish land agents to manage and 'plant' the lands, so here too the actual population was soon more Scots than English in origin. Occasionally, contemporary records are specific. In addition to Brereton's figures (already quoted), we find that in 1638 the Scottish Covenanters believed that there were 40,000 Scottish men in Ulster, while Sir Thomas Wentworth estimated in 1639 that there were 100,000 of the Scottish nation in Ireland.

Nor can we assume that, having arrived in Ulster, the Scots settled down to lives circumscribed by the boundaries of their own townlands and that traffic across the Irish Sea ceased. There are many instances of people travelling back and forth to Scotland, particularly in connection with their religious affiliation. It is recorded that Rev. John Livingstone of Stranraer, who had been minister of Killinchy in County Down, on one occasion baptized 28 children brought over from his former charge, and on another administered Communion to 500 people who had crossed to receive it (Rowe's Life of Blair).

The rebellion of 1641 slowed the tide of immigration, but to make up for this a Scots army served in Ulster for many years, and when peace came the Scots flocked across in greater numbers than before. In 1689 many fled to Scotland, to return later with a multitude of new settlers attracted by the offer of favourable leases of land. The immigration continued to a certain extent in the 18th century, particularly after 1715 and 1745. The Scots settlers were always more numerous than the English, and from 1717 till 1780 were able to spare at least 100,000 of their number to America.

In America, for a time at least, there continued to be a sense of homogeneity and identity, exemplified by the retort of a representative of one of these immigrants to a colonist who described them as 'Irish'. 'Sir', he was told, 'we are the Scottish nation in the North of Ireland'. In the New World they distinguished themselves for their pioneering spirit and sheer dogged courage, as well as for the ability to rise to positions of prominence. So we find that 'Davy Crockett' was an Ulster-Scot, 'forbye' a veritable roll of honour of U.S. Presidents. This is well documented by the great W. F. Marshall in his Ulster Sails West. These early settlers in America (who preceded the waves of Irish migration) assimilated into American society to the degree that their descendants within a relatively short time forgot 'the bowl they were baked in', and for a long time confusion largely reigned among those who by then were described as 'Scotch-Irish Americans'. One very positive result of the more recent efforts of the Ulster-Scots Agency has been to raise awareness of its true origins among America's Ulster-Scots community.

Linguistically, the 'flittin' proved very productive. 'Immigrant letters' were written 'home', often by those who had never really been put to the effort of expressing themselves in writing before, and they are a rich source of information on the language of the Ulster-Scots folk of the time. Also, the upheaval threw up a number of Ulster-born poets writing in Scots. Two notable examples of these are David Bruce (c.1760-1830) and Robert Dinsmoor (1757-1836), writing in southwestern Pennsylvania and southern New Hampshire respectively. Their poetry originally mostly appeared in newspapers and other ephemeral publications, but this suggests that there was a sizeable audience of readers who understood the language they were using. Further information on these two poets can be found in Ullans magazine, volumes 4 and 6.

So, to recap, Ulster-Scots was very largely a vernacular language, with little in the way of literary expression. However, over the intervening years the popularity of writing in Ulster-Scots waxed and waned to some degree.

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