Developments in Ulster-Scots Writing

history, irish, language, northern ireland, Poetry, Ulster Scots

Angela Graham considers progress in the last two years.

In December 2020, in a blog I wrote for the Irish Literary Society, I asserted that in contemporary creative writing (that is, in the general run of mainstream publications) Ulster-Scots was all but invisible,

A language without a lively, multi-genre, modern literary and cultural presence is one that is struggling. The degree to which Ulster-Scots achieves such a presence is a litmus test of feasibility and relevance, even of its existence as a spoken medium.

Nonetheless I pointed to the growing impetus I perceived in Ulster-Scots creative writing.

Has the momentum I noted gained pace in the last two years? Yes. Are there still obstacles to its flourishing? Yes, but the means to confront them are maturing.

Since 2020, we can celebrate development in at least four areas. I will exemplify them through reference to the work of several writers.

First of all, there has been noteworthy development in the work of individuals. For example, Anne McMaster’s use of Ulster-Scots has grown in range since her début collection Walking Off The Land (Hedgehog Books, 2021). There, Ulster-Scots is present, but more like a muscle flexing itself for use − or re-use, as Anne McMaster describes in her poem from that collection, Hame:

This living tongue was one I once misplaced.
Moving out into the world, I withdrew from it. Laid it by.
Now I am ready to taste these words again.
Set them loose upon my tongue.
This newly remembered voice.
My coming home.

In her new poetry collection Póames (Ulster-Scots Agency, 2022) this voice has achieved full strength. The 29 poems are given in Ulster-Scots and English versions. “One is not a ‘translation’ of the other” she explains, “but rather both function as respective points of reference.” She says, “Póames, my first book of Ulster-Scots poetry, has allowed me to explore the muscular beauty of the language. I write differently in Ulster-Scots than in English; there’s a visceral immediacy about Ulster-Scots…”

An oul fairmer mines love in wuntèr
Fur why shud I be afeart tae be alane
this empie wintertim nicht
wi' th' coul muin awa' abain me?
Whaniver I mine th' heat o' summer
an' the' quait touch o'ver haun, 
it's eneuch tae houl me nearhan an' wairm

The collection includes a set of imagist poems and Anne writes elsewhere in a variety of forms including haiku and sedoka.

Another writer demonstrating a steady expansion of range in Ulster-Scots is Angeline King. She is writer-in-residence at the University of Ulster and is working towards a doctorate in creative writing, part of which explores female writers in Scots and Ulster-Scots. Her 2020 novel Dusty Bluebells has English narration and Ulster-Scots dialogue. In October 2022 she produced a version in which both are in Scots.

A second development is the emergence of an informal network of writers. Enabled by social media, it provides encouragement and a sharing of resources. Stephen Dornan and Robert Campbell have recently created The Hamely Pen website. Set to expand, it provides an excellent means of encountering some of the latest work. It is also holds a useful listing of publication highlights from 2022. These include Philip Robinson’s translation of Revelation and the Letters of John (Ulster Scots Academy Press, 2022).

Stephen won First Prize for Poetry in the recent Frances Browne Literary Festival with his poem Threeds. This finds parallels between a youngster navigating her ipad and earlier generations of women ‘flooerin’, busily embroidering.

Tha lums, their dooncast een, their soople
fingers are threeds that rin atween them.
It’s aa tha yin: tae wark on cloot streetched 
on bans o ash, or interactive touchscreen.
Whan tha oul yins pit doon their threeds
flooers riz on dookin goon an snoot-cloot;
noo tha interwab’s a peasewusp, an weans
maun fin their ain threeds amang its snurls.

The Frances Browne festival is held annually in Donegal’s Finn Valley, an area where Ulster-Scots, Irish and English are spoken. It exemplifies a third significant factor, a growing willingness to go beyond cultural boundaries to celebrate these strands together. Organiser Shirley-Anne Godfrey says:

“Many of our Ulster-Scots writers treasure the ‘safe cultural space’ here, where they can experiment with their… re-engagement with Ulster-Scots uncoupled from any sectarian associations. That all the poets listen to all the winning poems in the three languages, in such an atmosphere of warmth and mutual respect, is key to the success of the event.”

Such opportunities for Ulster-Scots writers to perform with their peers offer an important broadening of reach and encounter.

This reaching out is also seen in the striking success enjoyed by journalist, Alan Millar in gaining recognition from Scotland for his work. In 2021 he scored a significant victory by winning the Mac Diarmid Tassie for his poem Wee Weaver Birdie, the first person from Ireland to achieve such success – the poem is included in the Scots Language Society’s 50th Anniversary Anthology (Grace Note Publications, 2022); he is one of the very few, perhaps the only, Irish person to have work in the book. He was also runner up in in the Society’s Robert McLellan Tassie short story competition. His debut collection of poetry, Echas Frae the Big Swilly Swally will be published in March this year by the Ullans Speakers Association. He has launched a weekly column in the Ballymoney Chronicle called Ulster-Scots Leid Loanen (Language Lane) using accessible Ulster-Scots language and pictures to entertain, engage, educate and challenge readers. Alan won the Prose Prize in the inaugural Linen Hall Ulster-Scots Writing Competition, 2021. This competition is a good example of the fourth significant development: the positive impact of backing from cultural institutions. Launched by Belfast’s prestigious Linen Hall Library in partnership with the Ulster-Scots Agency, this was an important test of calibre and scale. Gratifyingly, Julie Andrews, director of the Library, was able to say:

“The quality of work submitted for this competition was excellent and confirms the popularity of the Ulster-Scots language.”

Entries written by winners and runners up in its prose and poetry sections were published in pamphlet form by the Library.

I won first prize in the poetry section for my poem A Heerd Tha Sodjer On Tha Radio about someone in Ulster listening to a British soldier describing his traumatic experiences during the evacuations from Kabul in August 2021. Here is an extract.

Resilient, tha sodger went. We’re trained to be… to be…
Ach! Thair shud a bin yin wile lament, clocks stap’t,
flegs loored!  Thair’s me in ma wee kitchen,
tha Ulstèr rain on tha wundae,
tha onlie ‘mïnit’s silence’ his lang seech.
Scunnèrt tae ma sowl, A wus, wi shem.
Yin o a hirsel o herdless sheep,
forfoughen, thaveless.
Yit an wi aa, thon sodjer gien us his wurd o wutness.
Whut, then, shud we dae?

The poem is published in my collection of poetry Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere (Seren Books, 2022).

The winners of the 2022 Competition have just been announced. For Poetry the First and Second Prize winners were Steve Dornan and Glen Wilson; for Prose, Ronnie McIlhatton and Morna Sullivan. One of the judges, Dr Frank Ferguson, Director of the Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies at Ulster University, commented,

“It is very exciting to see the Linen Hall Competition go from strength to strength. There was, again, a great range of authors offering their work, and thrilling to witness new work by our important established writers alongside emerging voices. The competition highlights a growing confidence in the use of Ulster-Scots as a literary language and evidences a breadth and depth of literary talent that bodes very well for the coming years.”

In January this year an eight-part series of programmes was broadcast by Northern Visions TV, a cable channel serving the Belfast area. A Mighty Mallet: a story of the weaver poets devotes five episodes to some of the established poets of the Ulster-Scots canon: Orr, Thompson, Porter and McKinley, Herbison and Leech. It also features three contemporary poets, Angeline King, Gary Morgan and me. This bringing together of the past and the present is a brave endeavour!

In the spirit of reaching out, I have been advocating for Ulster-Scots writing to aim at sharing platforms with the best. A remaining obstacle to this is the shortage of editors capable of assessing work. To address this I’m currently involved, with others, in actively seeking potential editors to propose to journals so that they can consider accepting submissions in Ulster-Scots.

It is encouraging to note that new publishers, Yellow House Press are about to launch a literary journal, New Isles Press “with one section dedicated to supporting and promoting the Gaelic and Ulster Scots language writer.”

Today’s publishing world is more open to multi-lingualism. For example, the impressive project Poetry as Commemoration About – Poetry as Commemoration accepts work in Ulster-Scots. My Ulster-Scots poem about the Somme will appear later this year.

Similarly, the Irish Poetry Reading Archive, in keeping with its goal of being inclusive and representative, accepts proposals of work in Ulster-Scots.

Ireland and Northern Ireland now have citizens from many language communities. Some of them will become speakers of Ulster-Scots. We are all the richer when we recognise Ulster-Scots as an important element in the dynamically evolving culture of the whole island.

The Irish Writers Centre (an all-island body) has, this month, awarded me a place on the Mentoring Support Scheme for Northern Irish writers, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. This relates to my draft novel, substantially in Ulster-Scots along with Irish and English, about the politics of language and land in Northern Ireland. I hope it’s not fanciful of me to see this mentorship as an example of the inclusive approach I recommend.

Angela Graham’s 2022 poetry collection Sanctuary: There Must Be Somewhere and her short story collection A City Burning are published by Seren Books. She was formerly a producer of documentary and drama, a feature film screen writer and a university tutor in documentary practice.