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

What is Ulster-Scots?


Ireland lies on the periphery of Europe, but it has long been a cross-roads, as people from many directions - Britain, Scandinavia, Iberia, and elsewhere - have come to its shores to settle. In the process they have brought different languages with them. A millennium ago or so speakers of Germanic (Old English, Old Norse), and Romance (Norman French) tongues arrived to join (and often assimilate to) a Celtic-speaking population. The results of these migrations can be seen today on Ireland's linguistic landscape, especially in its place names.

Historical accounts usually sketch a succession of languages competing with and supplanting one another in Ireland. English was a relative late-comer, arriving with Anglo-Normans in the twelfth century. The fortunes of Irish Gaelic and English since Elizabethan times have affected life on the island in innumerable and profound ways, so it is not surprising that relations between these languages have preoccupied language historians and given rise to the view that the island's language situation has in recent centuries been a dichotomous one.

However, the Irish vs. English picture of language relations obscures what has differentiated Ulster from the rest of Ireland. For example, a Scottish type of Gaelic came (some might prefer to say 'returned') to northeast Ulster in the 14th century from the Western Isles and Highlands of Scotland. Dwarfing these Gaelic speakers in number, however, were Scots mainly from the west-central and southwestern Lowlands coming in the 17th century. With relatively few exceptions, these settlers arrived speaking not Gaelic or English, but the Germanic tongue Scots, and they extended the territory of this language to much of Ulster. In the migration of languages and in countless other comings and goings, the narrowness of the north channel of the Irish Sea (scarcely a dozen miles from Fair Head to the Mull of Kintyre) made, according to one historian, the 'connexion between West Scotland and North-East Ireland ... a constant factor in history'.1 This proximity was pivotal in giving Ulster its own linguistic diversity. In other words, what more than anything else differentiates the linguistic landscape of Ulster from the rest of Ireland today is the presence of the Ulster forum of the Scots language, Ulster-Scots.

The migration of languages and their ensuing relations in Ulster would seem to be abstruse, academic concerns of interest to scholars alone, and for a long time this was the case. Until a decade ago information on Ulster-Scots could be found only in a few scholarly tomes and academic journals, and these were usually published abroad. As many readers will know, this has changed completely. Today a significant proportion of Northern Ireland's population recognizes the term 'Ulster-Scots' and its newer alternative 'Ullans' amid increased discussion of cultural and linguistic diversity in Northern Ireland. A revival of Ulster-Scots is in progress. Two watershed events have been the founding of the Ulster-Scots Language Society and its magazine Ullans in 1992 and establishment of the Ulster-Scots Agency in 1999 as part of the new cross-border language body created under the Good Friday Agreement. One of the Agency's most recent accomplishments is the launching of the Institute of Ulster-Scots Studies at the Magee College branch of the University of Ulster in January 2001.

Lively public discussion of language issues has followed the increasing visibility given Ulster-Scots. Information on the language is now more widely available and the serious study of Ulster-Scots history, culture, and literature has increased. However, public discussion in Northern Ireland has often been animated and sometimes derisive, and very often predictable and repetitious, routinely relying on personal experience, preconceptions, and political orientation rather than serious or open-minded consideration. Some assert that Ulster-Scots is a 'recent invention', others that it has an 'ancient heritage'. More and more believe that it deserves government recognition and support. This state of affairs highlights the need for accurate, scholarly information.

The Good Friday Agreement of April 1998 is the first official document to mention Ulster-Scots, stating in part that:

"...All participants recognize the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance in relation to linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland..."

This statement indicates that formal recognition of Ulster-Scots is expected to play a role in the continuing Northern Ireland peace process.

I will not address the question here of the status of Ulster-Scots, ie whether it is a 'language or a dialect', or at least not directly. Linguists do not agree on how best to define these terms. They do agree that this distinction is artificial and simplistic and that it cannot be used meaningfully to classify a large number of the world's thousands of tongues. They agree that among other traits a language has a historic speech community, its own grammatical rules, and differences in style. Further, they agree that in a profound way it is speakers themselves to whom the right belongs to designate the speech of their historic community to be a 'language' or a 'dialect'. This principle of self-definition is of crucial importance. Linguists are willing to see a separate history as one element that makes a variety of language distinct. They are less inclined to use political, demographic, or cultural factors than non-linguists are in a variety's status and identity. However, they agree that the views of native speakers should be taken into account in assessing status, and these news may be decisive.

There are five points about which scholars have formed a consensus regarding Ulster- Scots.

First, scholars generally consider Ulster-Scots to be a regional variety of Scots. The latter is a close sibling to English and is the historic language of Lowland Scotland. Any assessment of the status of Ulster-Scots rests on an assessment of Lowland Scots. Having a common source with English in the Anglo-Saxon of a thousand years ago, Scots in some respects has remained closer to its roots than has British English. In the 15th and 16th century it became an all-purpose, national language, used as the medium for education, literature, law, and the Royal court in Scotland.

Toward the end of the 1500s the written form of Scots began to erode at the expense of English, and it slowly disappeared except for use in certain limited, especially poetic, uses. Its spoken forms continued, and today vernacular Scots remains distinct from English in countless ways in its pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar. Because it has no role in public or institutional life, however, its status as a language is less clear-cut than in centuries past.

Beyond its history and a distinguished tradition of literature, other factors support the status of Scots as a language. It has many dialects of its own, including several used in local literature today. Its long tradition of dictionaries surpasses that of many continental languages, of special note being the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue and the Scottish National Dictionary. Further, Scots is a subject of study in its own right at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities.

Despite its loss of prestige in relation to English, Scots has long been considered inseparable from Scottish cultural life and the identity of Scotland as a nation. According to Professor A J Aitken,

"...Nonetheless, despite stigmatization in school, neglect by officialdom, and marginalization by the media, people of all backgrounds since the 16 c[entury] insisted in regarding the guid Scot tongue as their national language, and it continues to play an important part in people's awareness of their national identity..."

This view is held by a cross-section of Scotland's population today, from literati to educators on all levels to the general populace, including many who do not speak Scots, and it may now be on the increase, given growing national consciousness and the recent reinstitution of the Scottish Parliament after nearly 300 years.

Scots is most appropriately seen today as a regional language that under the pressure of English has lost many of its functions, particualarly for writing. It is now far from a full-fledged language like English, French, or German, but this hardly denies it the status of language on other grounds.

Family letters and legal documents from Scottish settlers in Ulster in the 17th century reveal that Scots was their primary language. Through plantation schemes and less formal migrations, tens of thousands of Lowland Scots arrived in Ulster in the first third of that century, forming a rural heartland that further movement from Scotland and internal migration expanded in succeeding decades. As many as 100,000 Lowlanders had come to Ulster by 1700, in the course of which Ulster-Scots became the only recognizable variety of Scots outwith the mainland of Scotland. English became the language of urban life, education, commerce, government, social institutions, and writing in Ulster, and this relegated both Ulster-Scots and Irish Gaelic to the countryside and the home. There Ulster-Scots has remained a medium of daily life in parts of four counties (Down, Antrim, Derry, and Donegal) and has now had a stable community of speakers for four hundred years. According to James Milroy, a linguist originally from Scotland, 'In the Scots areas there are a great many rural speakers who speak a dialect of Scots rather than English: in its strongest forms it is almost indistinguishable from the Scots dialects of West and Central Scotland. The Scots character of these Ulster dialects is most salient in the pronunciation of common lexical items'.2 In short, Ulster-Scots is unmistakably Scots.

A second point of consensus is that Ulster-Scots today is foremost a spoken variety of language. Its character, distinctiveness, and livelihood lie in the speech of the rural areas settled by Scots in the 17th century. Though its written form disappeared early, research on church records, emigrant letters, and other documents provides indirect evidence that spoken Ulster-Scots has thrived continuously on the ground over the past four centuries. More direct evidence is that Ulster-Scots has from time to time found a voice in a literature of its own that, though limited in scope and genre, has been grounded in speech. Collectively this literature shows that Ulster-Scots has remained available, sometimes preferable, for written purposes.

Two principal periods of literary expression can be identified. One lasted from the 1780s through the mid-1850s and involved the 'Weaver' poets, a school of popular versifiers who wove linen by trade. Many of them assumed the stance of community spokesmen and were given nicknames signifying this; James Orr (1770-1816), perhaps the most notable of them, was called the 'Bard of Ballycarry'. This poetic movement drew from local themes and was by no means a mere imitation or derivation from Robert Burns' work. A definitive account, The Rhyming Weavers, was authored by John Hewitt in 1974.

Another stage of Ulster-Scots literature began in the 1850s and extended well past 1900. It consisted of popular sketches, commentaries, and stories that appeared in local newspapers in Antrim and Down (an example was the work of W. G. Lyttle, who wrote for the Newtownards Chronicle in the 1880s and 1890s). These were typically written in a folksy first-person style and addressed a range of social and political topics and issues. This literature also saw itself as a voice of the people and was strikingly paralleled in Scottish newspapers of the same period. Ulster-Scots literature is important for what it reveals of everyday life and society of former times and the creative skills of individual writers, but its greater significance lies in its implication that spoken Ulster-Scots has had a distinctive character and continuous existence for centuries.

A third point of consensus is that Ulster-Scots has both regional and social dimensions. Forty years ago Robert Gregg mapped its geographical boundaries. That Ulster-Scots is a regional folk variety long confined to the countryside is indicated by its extensive vocabulary for rural and domestic life and by the fact that Catholics speak it as well as Protestants in the same districts. According to James Fenton's The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim 'its use rarely depends on the social or material status of speakers, and never at all on their political or religious convictions'.3

Apparently all speakers of Ulster-Scots also command one or more varieties of English. Because it lacks prestige in comparison to English, Ulster-Scots even within its core region gives way today in certain situations (especially in the presence of outsiders or those having social authority), in certain locales (especially towns), for certain subject matter, and for speakers having or seeking greater education or social position.

I do not wish to imply that the boundary between Ulster-Scots and English is a strict one. In many respects it is not. Though the extreme forms of English and Ulster-Scots are quite distinct, the two languages form a structural, stylistic, and geographical continuum. At one end is unmonitored rural Ulster-Scots as used in its core territory and exhibiting distinctive Scots features such as toon 'town' and disnae 'does not', fully comprehensive only to native speakers. At the other extreme is what is in this part of the world called 'Standard English'.

Because of this continuum Ulster-Scots has an utterly different relation to English than does Irish Gaelic, but one similar to that often found in continental Europe between historically related language varieties like Low German and High German (the latter being the modern standard variety). In northern Germany, vernacular Low German is used in the home, High German in the school, and mixed varieties in social interaction. Within the Ulster-Scots speech community most speakers command two or three varieties along the Ulster-English Scots scale, so they can in some sense be described as bilingual. They have acquired through education, employment or contact one or more varieties of English, which they use with non-speakers of Ulster-Scots. Over the years many natives of Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast, have remarked to me that they don't believe Ulster-Scots exists (even though Gregg's Ulster-Scots territory comes within a few miles of the city) because they have never heard it. This means simply that they are not themselves speakers of Ulster-Scots and that native speakers recognize this and use only English when speaking with them.

A fourth point of agreement is that, as a result of continuing pressure from English and mainstream culture, Ulster-Scots is now stigmatized. Until quite recently it had no status or recognition outside its home communities in the countryside except, to a limited extent, in academia. Mistakenly labelled 'poor English', it has long been denigrated and suppressed by the educational system and scorned in polite society, the object of censure and social prejudice. In the popular mind, speaking Ulster-Scots usually came to represent inferior social class and a lack of education. Without positive associations in the culture at large, Ulster-Scots became, not surprisingly, covert, used only with other native speakers, and as a result of which there are almost no recordings of it. Even in remote rural districts he typical visitor may hear many linguistic features of Scottish ancestry in the local speech, but never Ulster-Scots as a variety of language per se.

What then accounts for the continuing livelihood of Ulster-Scots? Why has it survived at all? For generations English has been the language of wider society, economic nobility, and power, so the survival of Ulster-Scots must be due to the strength and cohesiveness of its culture and the solidarity of its speakers and their speech communities.

A final point is that Ulster-Scots is declining, even within its limited domain. This has very often been overstated (eg as it was predicted over a century ago to occur in another generation or two) but the precise nature of this 'decline' deserves, along with many other topics, careful investigation by scholars. There can be no doubt that at present Uster-Scots is endangered. Language choice is ultimately democratic, often brutally so. People decide for themselves whether to keep their language of nurture or replace it. If Ulster-Scots is to survive, its native speakers must consciously choose to maintain it. All the language planning, official support, required study, and inducements in the world cannot ensure that a language not considered serviceable by a native-speaking community will endure, much less flourish. Irish is a prime example of this in modern Europe.

In sum, Ulster-Scots is recognized by scholars as a historic spoken variety of Scots used in rural Ulster for four hundred years, a mode of expression maintained in the home and community but having had little public use and no institutional life. Within its territory it varies geographically and socially, and it has a non-discrete relationship with English. Because of great pressure from English, it now has low prestige and is on the decline. Ulster-Scots has many limitations, most notably its lack of modern vocabulary, since it is tied to an eroding folk culture, and in real-world terms it is and will remain inferior to English in so many ways. However, it is unreasonable to say that either Ulster-Scots or Lowland Scots is a 'dialect of English' simply because it is not a 'fully fledged language'.

A different way of looking at languages is that adopted by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages (EBLUL), an agency of the Council of Europe that has fostered public education and awareness of what it calls 'regional' and 'minority' languages, terms that until recently would have been oxymorons for many Europeans. Under the European Charter for Regional and Minority Languages approved in 1992, the Council of Europe agreed that '... the protection of the historical regional or minority languages of Europe, some of which are in danger of eventual extinction, contributes to the maintenance and development of Europe's cultural wealth and traditions'. EBLUL's approach is applicable to western European varieties of language like Ulster-Scots that have a close genetic relationship to a dominant language of power, literacy, and nationhood.

According to the European charter, a minority language is one 'traditionally used within the territory of a State by nationals of that State who form a group numerically smaller than the rest of the State's population and different from the official languages of that State'. The genetic relation of a minority language is either distant, if it exists at all, to an official or national language (eg Irish and English in Northern Ireland) or it is quite close, of the same branch of the family (eg English and Scots). The European Charter extends the category of minority language from the first type, which has long been recognized, to the second, because the two types of languages have similar real-world dimensions. They stand in the same political and social relation to a modern national language. However, lacking a clear identity, languages of the second type (forty of which have now been recognized by EBLUL) have for centuries been considered dialects, sometimes non-entities. These include Occitan in France, Valencian in Spain, and Friulian in Italy.

Within a European context, Ulster-Scots is a rather typical regional language. Its history dates to the Early Modern period, it has close kinship with the official language of the nation but has been marginalized in recent centuries. The work of EBLUL highlights the ideology of modern western cultures when it comes to language status. One can hardly overestimate how far educational systems have used the idea of the centralized nation state to deny the value and sometimes the existence of regional cultures. In western Europe spoken varieties are inevitably belittled because of their lack of a written tradition.

When written, a full account of Ulster-Scots will profoundly affect our understanding of the linguistic history of Ireland. It will throw into sharp relief the necessity of seeing the language situation in Ulster over the past four centuries as pluralistic and trilingual, involving continuing contact between English, Scots, and Irish Gaelic and the influence of each upon the others. Along with this will come a fuller appreciation of the complexity of language variation in the British Isles in the modern era and, among other things, a more accurate description of American English as it subsequently developed from contact between English and Scots, varieties of both of which came from Britain and from Ireland, and other European, African, and Amerindian languages.

We must surely agree with the Good Friday Agreement that Ulster-Scots deserves respect. Though declining like many regional languages, it is of value because of the community and the tradition it represents. If it is to play a role in the building of mutual respect and understanding in Ireland, it must be seen within proper context as representing one of three historic language traditions in Ulster.


1 Trevelyan, G. M. A Shortened History of England. (Baltimore 1959) Penguin, 60.

2 Milroy, James. Regional Accents of English: Belfast (Belfast 1981) Blackstaff, 23.