Eighteen months ago, in an article in the Irish Times, I heralded a new impetus in Ulster Scots writing. As we celebrate Ulster (Leid) Scots Language Week (November 21-26), that momentum has become unstoppable. Ireland today cannot be understood without an appreciation of this essential part of the island’s culture.
Although there have always been many furrows of the “Sheugh” (ditch), as the Irish Sea is affectionately called in these northern regions, it was the Plantation of Ulster that systematized the settlement of the region by the Scots. Most of them were Protestants and owed their new opportunities to the crown.
From their contact with the natives, elements of the Irish language entered their speech. The resulting rich mixture of Scots, Irish and English flourished in literary form over the next two centuries. But, in the 20th century, this print culture lost momentum.
This is ironic, given that one might have expected that the creation of Northern Ireland in 1921 would guarantee nothing but good to the tongue-in-cheek of so many of its supporters. Yet, although Ulster-Scots played a role in Unionist political strategy at the time, perhaps a ‘cultural retreat’ from its rural roots led to it being undernourished. by the new state. The emphasis may have been on emulation of Britain’s metropolitan elite.
A more recent bias condemns Ulster-Scots as an invented “non-Irish language” or as nothing more than “English with a Ballymena accent”. This stems from ignorance of his literary pedigree. It is also a reaction against an unfortunate tendency to over-identify Ulster Scots with one community. Ulster-Scots does not belong to a single cultural group in Northern Ireland. It was born from the exchange and this is its great strength.
The challenges it faces in integrating new realities into its vocabulary are no different from those faced by other languages and dialects which have undergone a process of revival or recovery – for example Welsh, Hungarian or Irish.
And Ulster-Scots has excellent language resources, such as Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language by Philip Robinson., published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society.
The company is growing The Complete Ulster-Scots Dictionary. This is eagerly awaited by writers as it will increase the breadth of vocabulary and understanding of context. In 2021 the society published a useful guide to Ulster-Scots writers.
The Ulster-Scots Agency’s increased engagement with the language is welcome. The agency was established in 1998 as part of the North/South Language Body under the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. Its Irish language counterpart is Foras na Gaeilge. The agency is responsible for promoting the language, culture and heritage of Ulster-Scots.
In 2019 the agency launched Ulster-Scots Language Week and included a workshop specifically for writers. In 2021 it partnered with Belfast’s oldest library, the Linen Hall, to launch the Ulster-Scots Writing Competition for Poetry and Prose.
This caliber of competition recognizes Ulster-Scots’ ability as a modern literary medium. My award-winning poem deals with the catastrophic evacuation of Kabul airport in August 2021.
…someone mad sprachle tae git ower tha waa,
tha hale crood rice…
sweep forrit. She was screwed!…
Somehoo A pu’d hir oot.
My billies hel tha line.
Safe in this field,
hir an tha chile
dee’d in my airms
(“sprachle” – an unsightly jump; “bield” – safe place/sheepfold; “billies” – comrades)
The Linen Hall published the winning projects and the project was nominated for the 2022 Scots Language Awards.
In 2021 the Ulster-Scots Community Network released Yarns, an anthology of poetry and prose. A second edition is planned soon.
The budding activity of the local council’s Ulster Scots language officers and the council’s funding of new work are important resources and stimuli.
The initiatives of the writers themselves are particularly inspiring and social media have greatly enabled fruitful networking. Angeline King is writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster. She has published four novels (and has just completed a fifth) in which she explores combinations of Ulster Scots and English. Dusty Bluebells originally appeared with English narration and Ulster-Scots dialogue. She later produced a version in which both are in Scottish. His work also reflects changes in the Ulster-Scots dialogue over the generations.
King characterizes the Ulster-Scots writing scene as having “an organic movement of women poets, playwrights and novelists from several centres, including Women Aloud NI, the University of Ulster and the Frances Browne Literary Festival, not only producing their own work but generously reviving lost voices. ”.
The annual Frances Browne Festival is held in Donegal’s Finn Valley where, says organizer Shirley-Anne Godfrey, ‘under one roof you can hear members of the same family speaking Irish, English and Scottish d ‘Ulster”. All three are on platform. “Many of our Ulster Scots writers cherish the ‘cultural safe space’ here, where they can experience their… re-engagement with Ulster Scots uncoupled from any sectarian association. That all the poets listen to all the winning poems in the three languages, in such an atmosphere of warmth and mutual respect, is the key to the success of the event.
This year’s Ulster-Scots Poetry Prize was won by Steve Dornan, author of the poetry collection Tha Jaw Banes.
Al Millar, from Donegal and editor of the Ballymoney Chronicle, was highly praised. His new weekly column Ulster-Scots Leid Loanen (language language) uses accessible Ulster-Scots language to engage readers. His first poetry collection, Echas Frae the Big Swilly Swally, is imminent.
Anne McMaster of Garvagh celebrates the growing enthusiasm for Ulster-Scots. “I run both school workshops and board-funded creative writing workshops,” she says. “I have made short films, given talks and used various poetic forms – haiku, image poetry and sedoka being three. I will rely on poetic/short story hybrid forms when telling stories of a fictional rural village as part of Leid Week events. Póames, my first book of Ulster-Scots poetry, allowed me to explore the muscular beauty of the language. I write differently in Ulster-Scots than in English; there is a visceral immediacy about Ulster-Scots…”
To reclaim its place in mainstream publication, Ulster Scots writing needs publishers with both linguistic and editorial skills. This combination has failed. But I’m helping to develop a package to encourage and enable publishers to open the door to this nervous and essential voice.
Angela Graham is a writer from Belfast. His collection of short stories A City Burning (Seren Books, 2020) was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. Her collection of poetry is Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere (Seren Books, 2022)