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Ulster-Scots – Full Marks For Invention

Boord O Ulstèr Scotch – We Didn’t Make It Up – Honest We Didn’t…!

The Belfast Telegraph has got into the polling gimmick in a big way recently (blame it’s “sister” paper, the Oirish Independent, which positively thrives on them). The results have been mixed to say the least, and there is a lot of criticism both of the methodologies and the interpretations made of the results derived from them. Scepticism seems to be the overwhelming view but here, for what it’s worth, is the latest survey examining opinions on the Irish and English languages in the North of Ireland. Oh, and of course the “Ulster-Scots”, ahem, language:

“The poll shows that there is substantial support for government documents and letters to be issued in Irish and Ulster-Scots as well as English.

…35% of respondents wanted all three languages used with 11% wanting English and Irish (a total of 46% for Irish).

Just 7% wanted English and Ulster-Scots, giving 42% support for Ulster-Scots.

When the 21% who expressed no opinion were taken out of the equation a clear majority of respondents who expressed an opinion want both Irish (58%) and Ulster-Scots (53%) used with only a third of people opting for English alone.

Support was highest in the public sector (66% in favour of Irish and 61% in favour of Ulster-Scots).

According to the 2001 census 167,487 people (10.4% of the population) here claimed “some knowledge” of Irish.

Ulster-Scots wasn’t covered in the census so the most recent estimate was in the 1999 Life and Times survey which found that 2% of respondents claimed to speak the language (about 30,000).”

Interesting, though to be honest I find some of the figures debatable. However the recent survey by the northern Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure titled “Public Attitudes towards the Irish Language in Northern Ireland” which I examined here gave the following figures:

“56% thought that Irish should be offered as an option on documents, leaflets, notices etc. where other languages are offered.

Three-quarters of Catholics (75%) and just over two-fifths of Protestants (41%) said they would like to see Irish offered as a language option in documents, leaflets, notices etc. where other languages are offered.”

As for the Ulster-Scots issue. Well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said by many, many others? In fact I touched upon this thorny subject last year. I examined the origins of “Ulster-Scots” in the local dialect of the English language in the north-east of Ireland which was reinvented as a “national language” in the 1970s by a few crank academics from the British minority in the north-east of the country to give their community a greater sense of “national ethnicity”. They even gave it a brand new name: “Ullans” (which was quickly dropped from “official” use since most people knew just how ridiculous it sounded). Indeed many of these self-same gentlemen also believed in the “secret history of the Ulsterfolk”, a bizarre tangle of 19th century occultism, Protestant religious fundamentalism and Anglophone racial supremacy which preached that the British ethnic community in Ireland were one of the Lost Tribes of Israel.

As the journalist and cogent observer of northern affairs Jason Walsh wrote in 2009:

“‘Some years ago I was employed in a production capacity by an Irish Unionist newspaper and it was here that I first came head-to-head with the bizarre twilight world of Ulster Scots.

… a good friend of mine in the newsroom was responsible for laying-out ‘the Ulster Scot’, a free supplement all about this make-believe lingo.

At the time I thought it was nothing short of hilarious: clearly Unionists were chafing at the sight of the Irish language undergoing a genuine (though frequently overstated) renaissance…

What was the best thing to do about this, pondered Unionist politicians, until one had the astonishingly grandiose idea of actually inventing their own language. Of course, synthetic languages like Loglan and Esperanto are difficult to learn and it’s even harder to persuade people to actually learn the damn things, so in order to facilitate rapid growth the new language of Ulster Scots would be simply the dialect of English spoken in North Antrim with a kind of dyslexic phonetic spelling system and a few inscrutable phrases pilfered from Lowland Scots dialect of English. If Ulster Scots is a language then so are the dialects used in Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ or James Kelman’s ‘How Late it Was, How Late.’ When BBC Radio Ulster announced, sadly incorrectly, that the Ulster Scots term for mentally disabled children was “wee daftie weans” I almost fell over, so hard was I laughing at the antics of these clowns.”

More recently Frank McNally recorded his encounter with Ulster-Scots in the pages of the Irish Times:

“Anything that leans one way or another in the North is open to suspicion: including, as I mentioned here before, a notorious punctuation mark in the title of the [Ulster-Scots] language agency, the Boord O Ulstèr Scotch.

At a press event promoting the Boord some years ago, I asked – out of genuine curiosity – what the effect of the accent on the E in Ulster was. Whereupon a spokeswoman admitted it had none: “we just thought it looked good”. And so it does. But I couldn’t help noticing that the accent pointed in the opposite direction from the Irish fada, which was hardly accidental.”

Indeed not. An entirely invented language for a less than invented people whose linguistic origins were actually a mix of the Irish, Scottish and English languages. Even the people tasked with its promotion admit, tacitly, that it is all stuff and nonsense. So where is the genuine need for all these Tolkienesque antics? The historic or “ethnic” languages of the British or Ulster-Scots minority in Ireland were Scottish (Scottish Gaelic) and English. Some Unionists have realised that and latterly embraced their Scottish heritage and in doing so have inevitably found themselves confronted by the shared Gaelic identity of Irish and Scottish speakers in both countries. And that is no bad thing.

But for once and for all let us drop the fairy tale of the Ulster-Scots tongue. If origins for its supposed existence can be claimed in Scots or Scots-English (the now developed dialect of English spoken in Scotland) and 17th century Scottish and northern English colonial settlers in Ireland, that existence passed centuries ago. What meagre local differences in English speech that existed in that pre-industrial age quickly faded into the common English tongue of the British colony in Ireland (if they ever existed in the first place). Those who spoke a Borders variant of English adopted “the Queen’s English” while those that were bilingual Scottish-English speakers simply followed suit (though, perhaps, at a lesser pace since a knowledge of Gaelic was actually advantageous to them in dealing with the Native Irish).

Let’s get down to the real language politics of the North of Ireland. And let’s get the promised civil rights legislation for Irish speaking citizens and communities in place.

That is the greatest need of all.

16 comments on “Ulster-Scots – Full Marks For Invention

  1. James Todd

    I agree with your argument regarding “Scots” and its Ulster variety completely. I just have one small observation. It isn’t specific to this article, but is rather a trend I’ve noticed lately whenever you mention the Scottish language.

    Lately you’ve been putting “Scots Gaelic” in parenthesis whenever you mention the Scottish language, despite “Scottish” being the only rightful term for the language, a fact that you’ve successfully argued before. It seems to me, that when you do that, you tacitly give the term legitimacy. I’m not sure that it deserves it.

    I’ve heard Irishmen balk at the use of “Gaelic” to describe Irish, because it cheats the only living language native to Ireland since ancient times of its rightful term – “Irish”. It seems to me that the same can be said of Scottish. Indeed, the only reason Scottish isn’t still called Scottish is because the Lowlanders started calling it Irish, or “Erse”, to deprive the Highlanders of a title that the Lowlanders once sneered at and despised, but now coveted for themselves. I always just call the Scottish language Scottish, and call Scottish English Scottish English – while keeping in mind that it can, in some ways, diverge widely from the Queen’s. This is simple, easy to understand, and more importantly, accurate.

    I’m curious why you feel the need to call a language by two separate names.


    • catrionamg

      Just a note on “Irish” vs “Gaelic”: “Irish” is the English word for the language but native speakers of the language have always refered to it as “Gaelic”. From talking to Irish and Scottish speakers of Gaelic, the general consensus is that neither “Irish” nor “Scots Gaelic” should be used to describe it but instead just “Gaelic” since it is the same language. Making distinctions between dialects is redundant which I think is the point of the above article.


      • Not quite true, Catríona. “Irish” and “Gaelic” have been used side-by-side in the English language since the 16th century by Native Irish speakers when referring to their own language. In fact the term “Irish” pre-dates “Gaelic”, a word which is a later anglicisation of “Gaeilge” (or more accurately an anglicisation of the older, pre-modern form of Gaeilge). English-speakers invariably referred to the Irish language as “Irish” (Irisce, Irysce, Irysche, etc.)

        Similarly Gaelic in Scotland was originally called “Scottish” in the English language. Gaelic was a later imposition in both countries.

        Gaelic is certainly a very important qualifier and has many applications, both specific to the language being discussed and to common Gaelic attributes. It is the Irish and Scottish (and Manx) equivalent of Scandinavian or Slavic, etc.

        However, though Danish and Swedish or Finnish and Estonian may be mutually intelligible to their respective speakers (with difficultly) they are not referred to as one language. They are designated by their nation. Irish and Scottish are the same. Though of course one can also refer to their common Gaelic, and above that common Celtic identity and links.

        And don’t forget, in Ireland those who use the word Gaelic instead of Irish tend to be anti-Irish anglophones, especially on the extreme edge. They hate or despise the indigenous Irish language and culture (and those who associate with both) and wish to separate the Irish language from Ireland and Irishness. Hence the use of Gaelic, Gaelic speakers and Irish-speaking areas as “the Gaelic reservations”. An especially nasty but increasingly common term.

        Thanks for taking the time to Comment.


    • Fair points, James. I’ve used “Scottish (Scots Gaelic)” in a few recent posts where I believed there might be some confusion for the reader. Especially international readers who might not be familiar with the linguistic and cultural background to the stories (around 60% of my traffic these days is outside of Ireland). But I’ve kept it restricted to one or two uses per post, with “Scottish” alone in most cases alongside it.

      The discussion of “Ulster-Scots” was so complex I thought it would be useful to provide a bit of clarification.

      Otherwise you are 100% right 😉


      • michaeleverson932

        Scots is a Germanic language. It is best to avoid confusion by avoiding “Scots Gaelic” and always using “Scottish Gaelic”.


        • You are quite right, Michael, a fault of inconsistent usage on my own part. I will amend the article to read “Scottish Gaelic” in parenthesis.


  2. michaeleverson932

    I have been to Ulster in homes were Ulster Scots is spoken. There is definitely a real dialect of Scots in Ulster. It’s not English. The people with whom I’ve worked (on two publications) disdain some of the makey-uppy words of the Boord just as much as you do. But the language is real and deserves some support.

    I’ve published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Central Scots and Ulster Scots, with Northeast Scots and Shetlandic in preparation. Scottish Gaelic is also in preparation.

    Most likely the biggest challenge Ulster Scots has is a stable orthography and real dictionary. Steps towards that goal were taken in Alice’s Carrànts in Wunnerlan and in The Furst Readin Book.


    • Okay. Some believe that there exists an historic dialect of the Scots language in the north-east of Ireland. But an entirely separate language? Or even a “national language”?

      Dialect is one thing and language quite another. There are many dialects of Irish, some certainly worth preserving and promoting (Donegal, etc.). But they are dialects. Not languages in their own right.

      And even then, accepting Ulster Scots as a dialect, many supposed words seem little more than local colloquialisms – derived from the English language. As for the constant neologisms. Some are fair enough. Adapting new post-industrial words into a “language” is commonplace (television to teilifís, for instance). But many are new words for things that should already exist in the language. They are clear inventions for words or terms that never existed in the first place: in many cases with deliberate or artificial archaisms or obscurantisms to lend some air of verisimilitude.

      Finally, the overwhelming impression of Ulster-Scots or Ullans is that of a language artificially created for one reason and one reason only: to give the British separatist minority in Ireland a “national language” to counter that of Irish. Every attempt to provide Irish language rights and services are blocked by the invocation of Ulster-Scots. It seems little more than a move to create a permanent linguistic stalemate in the region of the north-east.

      And the links to the whole Scots-Irish Protestant fundamentalist Cruithnigh and Lost Tribes of Israel cult certainly doesn’t help either.

      But, in fairness, if a genuine argument for a genuine local variant of the Scots speech in Ireland could be made I would be supportive. However I have yet to see any genuine proof of that. If it does exist then let it be helped. At the moment, though, I remain deeply sceptical…


      • michaeleverson932

        No, Séamas. Not “some believe”. It’s there. I’ve heard it. I’ve been in my colleague’s home and heard her children speak it to her. If I hadn’t previously typeset Sandy Fleming’s Central Scots Alice, I would have been hard pressed to understand much that was being said. There is a dialect of Scots spoken in Ulster. This is no myth.

        Is it an entirely separate language? Well, from what? It is a dialect of Scots. There are many, and they each have their own peculiarities. And indeed they each have their own conventions for being written. I’ve published Alice in Central Scots and in Ulster Scots; Northeast Scots (Doric) is next and Shetlandic along with it.

        Is it a “national language”. Sure it is. If there are 30,000 native speakers of Ulster aScots in Antrim and elsewhere, and if there are 30,000 native speakers if Irish in the Gaeltachtaí and elsewhere (never mind the million or more speakers of Irish who learnt it), why shouldn’t that tongue o the hame get the same sort of support as our teanga na ndaoine does?

        You say “accepting Ulster Scots as a dialect”. Of what? Do you accept it as a dialect of Scots, or of English? I can tell you as a linguist, it’s a dialect of Scots. Yes, it’s borrowed standard English into it. Just as Ulster English has borrowed a measure of Scots into it. (And the same thing happens in Scotland.)

        The people I work with are not very interested in the fancy neologisms being made in Belfast by people who they argue don’t even speak Scots at home. I can’t speak to that, as I have not met the neologism-makers. Those neologisms, however, do obscure the language, and you won’t find those in the Ulster Scots publications I’ve worked on. Those are being distributed in schools, and evidently the weeyins quite like them.

        I’ve no interest in arguments about the British separatist minority or anything like it. I have published Alice in Irish, and I’ve published Alice in Ulster Scots, and I’m proud of both publications. (Because Ulster Scots orthography is being established, I’m working through our Alice again finding inconsistencies. But that’s orthography, not neologism-creation, note.) One of the interesting things we noted also in our Foreword to Alice is that Ulster Scots writers sometimes make mistakes when writing Ulster Scots because they were trained write Standard English even though they thought in their own lang9age.

        I’m glad that kids in Northern Ireland schools who don’t have Standard English as a home language are able to see their language in print. I suspect it will help them to do better with Standard English and they realize that they are in a diglossic situation. Eventually I hope to work with my colleagues on a practical Ulster Scots dictionary.

        And I’ve just published The Hobbit in Irish and The Hound of the Baskervilles is next. For my part, I don’t see any conflict in supporting both Irish and Ulster Scots.


        • In fairness to your argument, Michael, I admit to having no direct experience of “Ulster-Scots”. My knowledge comes from academic and journalistic sources, both printed, online, and on television and radio (as well as conversations with people working in cultural circles in Belfast, Antrim, Derry, etc. And a Dublin official who has dealt with Unionist political and community representatives.). However most of those are quite sceptical about the whole Ullans project (and that includes people from within the British community in the north-east of the country).

          The majority impression seems to be that Ulster-Scots is indeed a dialect of Scots (Scots-English) mixed with Irish and Scottish language influences. However with the caveat that it is so far removed from its origins, and so influenced by Modern English, that it represents little more than a dialect of contemporary British English (an English friend pointed out to me that calling Ulster-Scots a “language” is like arguing that his English Geordie dialect is distinct language of its own – which it most certainly is not).

          However, even accepting your points, the artificial nature of the present Ulster-Scots project, and the political motivations behind it, make it much more than simply a homely tongue. It is a weapon in a war, a culture war, in the North of Ireland. A counter to Irish. That is why whatever sources lie behind it have been perverted far beyond their original form. Just look at how it was used (and abused) in the negotiations around the Belfast Agreement.

          Though, again, I will accept your points. They are well made. There is much to say for the rich diversity of human life and culture, and even dialects are worth preserving. And much more than merely “preserving”. If promoting Ulster-Scots (or Scots-Irish?) adds to the cultural milieu of Ireland and Europe, then all the better.

          But I fear that at the end of the day the view of many that this is simply a means of preventing any progress for Irish-speaking citizens and communities in the North of Ireland will remain. Sadly enough.


  3. michaeleverson932

    The grave is used (very rarely) in my Ulster Scots publications to indicate stress where it differs from where it would be were the word in Standard English. (Carrànts is stressed on the second syllable.) That practice derives from mainland Scots biblical texts.

    The grave in Ulstèr in the orthography promoted by the Boord indicates the strong dental pronunciation of the preceding t, as though it were Ulstther.


  4. hilarychapman

    I want to reply to the comments of Jason Walsh in 2009, and reported here, that “Of course, synthetic languages like Loglan and Esperanto are difficult to learn and it’s even harder to persuade people to actually learn the damn things,” Not quite true of Esperanto which has had speakers in Northern Ireland (admittedly, in small numbers for well over a century. Indeed, Esperanto pre-dates Ulster-Scots.

    My own experience after many decades of using Esperanto is that a planned language can be “internalised” as well as any mother tongue. This suggests to me that the distinction between natural and artificial language is more apparent than real.


  5. I really do wish that we would call a truce in the “Irish” vs “Gaelic” debate.

    We who tend to refer to the language as “Irish” need to stop “correcting” those who make mention of “Gaelic”. I am guilty of this and have stopped. No one who expresses an interest in any language, especially “critical languages” should ever be made to feel ignorant.

    Yes, “Irish” is the technical appellation used by linguists, but “Gaelic” was the common name for the language for a long time.

    It is often remarked that Irish call it “Irish” and we yanks call it “Gaelic”.

    I really believe that family histories have much to do with this. My first Irish teacher, my maternal grandfather, never called it anything but “Gaelic” as did my grandmother, and both came from Irish speaking homes. (From what they tell me, it seems that East Galway would have been what we now call a “Breac-Ghaeltacht”.) My grandfather’s maternal uncle was a school master and taught Irish for several decades in the local National School.
    Both grandparents came to NYC with Free-State passports. The progeny of their brothers and sisters left behind, would be drilled by the State education apparatus and learn to call it “Irish”.

    In the 1980’s, a new wave of educated Irish came to America and straightened out us yanks, so that we too now call it Irish, so satisfied with our newly sophisticated selves, leaving “Gaelic ” to Scottish Gàidhlig.

    Yes, at the same time, I took notice, while visiting the Gaeltacht, some of the muintir na háite called it “Gaelic” while speaking English! More so, these tended to be people who seldom left the Gaeltacht and were obviously more comfortable with Irish than English. And I was certainly in no position to correct them!

    A number of years ago, I stumbled across two wonderful pocket-sized books, “Gaelic Proverbs” and “Gaelic Idioms”. At first, I was startled by these titles and assumed that they were Scottish Gàidhlig books. They aren’t and their author is by no means ignorant. “Gaelic” they are!

    Over the past few years, I hear more and more Irish young people use the term “Gaelic” while referring to the language. I really think the term is making a come-back and I welcome it.

    I would like to use “Gaelic” again myself. It is less cumbersome than using “Irish-language” as an adjective when we need to distinguish language-based endeavors, such as books clubs (No, we’re not reading Ulysses) , classes, lectures, seminars, et c.
    Sometimes, I really wonder whether we should call it “Irish” at all, given the apathy and in some cases, overt hostility to the language.

    Club Leabhar Nua Eabhrac recently took a page in the New York Irish Center’s annual journal. We discussed it among ourselves and decided against including English in the advertisement for three reasons. 1.) Irish is a living and useful language and should not be a stranger to New Yorkers and especially not to Irish who live here. 2.) Those who can read books in Irish can read a page of it, and 3.) None of the English-language advertisement were expected provide Irish-language translations.

    While your struggle in Ireland is to have Irish spoken, ours is to merely let folks know that it exists.

    None of us can afford a war over what to call it in English!

    Yes, it is “Irish” and yes, it is “Gaelic”.


    • Hi, Daithí, and thanks for the Comment. I’m happy with both terms, since they have subtle layers of meaning depending on the context. Day-to-day “Irish” or “Irish language” is appropriate. “Gaelic” or “Gaelic language” is appropriate in other situations or use. I agree that the whole debate can go too far. And is largely unnecessary.

      My only qualification is that we should not move entirely to “Gaelic” when speaking in English since it makes little sense following English language practice. French speak French, Germans speak German. Irish speak Irish. If you move from that position then you have “Gaels speak Gaelic”. That is something some Anglophone extremists believe most fervently since they see Irishness and Gaelicness as quite separate things.

      As they would argue the Irish are English speaking, reading, thinking. To them Irish/Gaelic is alien. Almost foreign.

      It then becomes a battle of ethnicity – and straightforward bigotry.

      The now constant references by Anglo-Irish zealots to Irish-speaking communities as the “Gaelic Reservations” is all too telling of a racist mindset. I expect that to get far worse in the years ahead.


  6. Quite an interesting debate! Please be patient with me as I may come to this from a completely different angle, though I hope relevant.
    First, all terminology should be consistent, but it is often not. For me to sort things out, I try to use objective, unrelated examples to see if they apply. Canadian English, American English, Taiwanese and try to use those to see if what I say still makes sense.

    I also use the term “language varieties” which expresses what I feel about languages: all equal (equal, irreplacable, wholly unique and humanity’s greatest gift to the generations) and finally impossible to rate in terms of language Vs dialect (I never approach any kind of discussion of that type).

    1.Language is both personal and communal. So one community may call their own language anything they like and they will always be partly right. For ex. Canadian English (most people in the world would say it is virtually identical to American English) is felt in Canada as *completely* separate from American English. So be it. Objectivity only goes so far in these debates.
    2. By saying it isn’t American English or British English, Canadians are also saying they are different politically, different in terms of their identity. And they will correct you every time you say it “wrong.” So be it.
    3. Finally(?), it is not nice to call someone by a name you feel is more objective but the other feels it doesn’t quite fit his situation. So be that to.

    In Québec I say I speak Québécois though most people in Québec will say they speak French. I think the starting point of who gets to name yourself should be yourself.


    • Very fair points, and interesting ones too (Québécois versus French!). Though I would say that in the circumstances of the North of Ireland the overriding fact of competing identities and nationalities colour everything. Even language.

      Take this from the autobiography of Tony Blair, the ex-British Prime Minister and his memoirs of the negotiations around the Belfast Agreement of the late 1990s:

      “Now you might think that co-operation on these two issues [trade protection and the Irish language] would be relatively uncontentious. In fact the Unionists screeched to a halt. It turned out there was some obscure language called Ullans, a Scottish dialect spoken in some parts of Ulster which was the Unionists’ equivalent of the Irish Langauge. By this time nothing surprised me. They could have suggested siting the Assembly on Mars and I would have started to draft options.

      Everyone was now tired and fractious. I had an awful meeting with Bertie [Ahern, Irish Taoiseach or Premier] and David Trimble [Unionist leader], in which Bertie did not take quite the same relaxed view of the importance of Ullans as I did, suggesting that maybe David would like to speak some of the ‘fecking thing’ so we could hear what it sounded like; and David taking umbrage at the idea that the dialect was a Unionist invention, explaining solemnly and at length the Scottish roots of Ullans with all the sensitivity of a landowner talking to a village idiot.”

      Or this recent (admittedly overly blunt) summation of Ulster-Scots/ Ullans:

      “1. They made this up in the ’70s and ’80s off the back of Ian Adamson’s mental Ulster origin mythology about the Cruthin [A mix of myths focusing on the Lost Tribes of Israel, alleged pre-Celtic peoples in Ireland and Scotland, the Picts and even links to “Scythia”].

      2. They called it a separate language to get parity of funding in the GFA [Belfast Agreement] with Irish.

      3. Lord Laird [Chief proponent of Ulster-Scots] admitted they’re making it up as they go along.

      4. Less than 2% of Ulster people even speak it – they speak Mid-Ulster English instead.

      5. An EU commission could not find one single native speaker.

      6. The U-S [Ulster-Scot] Agency has been plagued with scandal from day one, whether it be a CEO doing time for kiddyfiddling or Lord Laird’s many taxi rides to Dublin in his kilt.

      7. Ulster-Scots heritage is real, vibrant and worth acknowledging. This ‘language’ is not real, and should not be funded by the taxpayer of any state.”


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