Writing Today in Ulster Scots

history, language, Poetry, translation, Ulster Scots


Why is it so hard to find writing in Ulster Scots among contemporary publications? Has it gone for good or is it poised to make a come-back?

Up to the mid-twentieth century it was commonplace to find Ulster Scots poetry and prose in literary magazines or in newspapers but now it is exceptional. Although there is a body of Ulster Scots work appearing in specialist sources this work often deals with the past. In contemporary creative writing, Ulster Scots is 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.

In the last census in 2011, there was, for the first time, a question about capacity in Ulster Scots. Based on the census returns, the Ulster-Scots Agency states “there are approximately 140,000 people who have indicated some ability in Ulster-Scots.” However, the number claiming a capacity to speak, read, write and understand Ulster Scots is only 0.9 per cent of the population of Northern Ireland. The spoken language is under pressure and the gap between the spoken and the written word has been allowed to widen.

Ulster Scots is the speech that developed (or whose development intensified) as a result of the in-migrations of Lowland Scots to Ulster from the early seventeenth century. Samuel Thomson’s poem, To A Hedge-hog captures its flavour from 1799:

Fok tell how thou, sae far frae daft,
Whar wind fa’n fruit lie scatter’d saft,
Will row thysel’, wi’ cunning craft,
An’ bear awa
Upon thy back, what sairs thee aft
A day or twa.

The presence of Ulster Scots as a sinewy strand in Ulster speech and writing is traced in Seamus Heaney’s ‘Burns’s Art Speech’ (to be found in the collection of his prose, Finders Keepers). Few Ulster writers would deny its potential to influence the rhythm and cadence of their work but Ulster Scots as a spoken language and as a medium of literary expression has received less attention in the last thirty years than Ulster Scots heritage and history. In Northern Ireland it is not possible to take a public examination in Ulster Scots, as can be done with Irish, and its absence from the curriculum suggests a self-censoring for several complex reasons.

Looming large among these is a cultural cringe. There are two types: one is an association of Ulster Scots speech with the wilfully backward, the unsophisticated and can be met with even among those who are otherwise comfortable identifying with Ulster Scots heritage and culture. The other arises from the over-identification, in some circles, of Ulster Scots culture with Protestantism and Loyalism. This emphasis hampers the capacity of the language to appear open to all.

The absence of an agreed orthography is another challenge to Ulster Scots writing. However, in my view, the level of friction over issues of accuracy and authenticity has been damaging in itself, even though it originates in a passion for the best interests of the medium. As with other minority languages, there is a spectrum of approach among proponents. In the case of Ulster Scots this ranges from those whose preferred version looks very unlike English (a stress on its distinctiveness), to those whose version is like highly accented English (a stress on accessibility) with at least two positions in between these. Revivalists, Revisionists, Modernisers…

My own engagement with Ulster Scots as a writer has been like a plunge into the turbulent waters off the coast of Northern Ireland: invigorating and, at times, abrasive. While researching for a novel set in Northern Ireland I was drawn to a story about conflict over language: Irish and Ulster Scots.  This tussle was one reason for the collapse of the Northern Irish Assembly in 2017. Because language is linked to identity and place, to influence and power, the politics of language can be harsh. In order to write the first draft, I had to face down assertions that Ulster Scots cannot be learned or, if learned, that its nuances are ungraspable. My experience of working in several other languages inclined me to disagree. I put my trust in the sense of it which I’d inherited, application to the grammar rules and the generous help of those to whom Ulster Scots is a language of the hearth.

This is an extract from the beginning of my novel-in-progress, Thorn, set in 2016/17. Dairy farmer, Patterson Caulfield is aghast to hear from his life-long associate, Raymond (the estate agent acting for the Church of Ireland) that he has been outbid by a city man over land and property to which he felt entitled:

“A caun see tha place frae here! A see it day an daily – aye, an ma faither afore me, an his faither afore him, an his faither that let it be built. Iverie day! An agreement we haud, Raymond. Fer God’s sake, man. Daes that mean naethin tae a Christian vestry? Furst refusal oan tha rectory an its lan, whun it wud come tae mairket. A hunner an thurtie-six yeir the Church haes haud thon lan frae us Cauffles…”

“And paid you well…”

“But tha lan, Raymond, tha lan. We giv it up so the Church o’ Airlan cud hae a mannysther livin in tha pairish, richt agin tha roadside. Whut haes tha cost o’ that bin tae us ower the yeirs? An noo, whun oor chance is afore us, ye’r lettin someyins ootbid me? Yer hans are free eneuch whan it’s yer ain snoot in tha troch, Raymond Fullerton.”

“Deil the wurd ye got, Patterson Cauffle!” Raymond couldn’t help exclaiming

Raymond, who has been trying to maintain a professional detachment, ‘descends’, as he sees it, into Ulster Scots in the heat of the moment. Throughout the novel, language reflects the positions of characters in relation to each other.

My collection of short stories, A City Burning (Seren Books, 2020) is set in Northern Ireland, Wales and Italy. One story features a speaker of Ulster Scots in a contemporary setting. The publisher is based in Wales and addressed the Ulster Scots material on the same grounds as that of the Welsh and Italian that appears in the book – is the story strong, the character voice convincing and the language accurate in the view of those who speak it? In Coasteering, a coasteering instructor, swimming with his client along a rocky coastline, describes for her why he finds the place endlessly fascinating,

“D’ye see oot thair? Whut’s oot thonner? Icelan mebbe? Naethin but watther… A year bak, A came here i’tha dairk. Aye. Mad, it waes. An thaim Northren Lichts  − can ye picthur it? − big green curtins ower ma heid. Sae far aff… We shud be goin in, but, ̕ less ye be agin it, we cud take a wee dannther roon tae tha en. It’ll be a while or iver ye get oot this lenth agane. Go you on, tae tha nixt wee bay. Let yersel in an A’ll be wi’ ye afore lang.”

It was a great pleasure for me recently to hear this read on Kintra, the weekly Ulster Scots programme on BBC Radio Ulster and to have its use of language in a present-day setting warmly endorsed. The story was featured as part of a wider discussion on the Ulster Scots Language Week (23-27 November) a welcome initiative, now in its second year, from the Ulster Scots Agency.

Why should the Ulster Scot in me be silent? My grandparents, from Antrim and Tyrone, were Ulster Scots and from my late father I heard the swing of that speech. It exists in my inner ear. I worked to amplify it. But even if I had no grounds to make any personal claim, the writer in me would feel entitled to do my best to convey the speech of an Ulster Scot. How important it is, then, that those inherently closer to the language are encouraged to write in it.

Where is the literature of Ulster Scots today? In my experience writers are energising each other in an exchange of experience and resources, side-stepping entrenched attitudes. Some initiatives are afoot in the academic world too. Angeline King has been appointed as writer-in-residence at Ulster University which, through its Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies, is developing its long-standing engagement with Ulster Scots – its Director is Dr. Frank Ferguson, editor of Ulster Scots Writing: an Anthology (Four Courts Press, 2008). On 27 November Angeline held the first of three workshops, New Ulster Scots, for writers, an initiative funded by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. A telling statement on the project’s web page states, “It disnae matter if ye hae niver writ in Ulster Scots afore. Maist o us writers hinnae yit learnt tae be literate in Ulster Scots.” Is this a language in the process of re-acquiring a literature? Twenty writers attended − surely a demonstration of appetite. There was a very constructive airing of concerns, hesitancies and optimism, as well as resources; some writing was done and a truly significant step taken towards the unleashing of a writerly ‘presence’ for Ulster Scots. Angeline hopes to publish a collection of work arising from the workshop series.

Steve Dornan will presently have his collection of poetry Tha Jaa Banes (Ulster-Scots Academy Press) published. In his short video promo for the volume he has said of his use of Ulster Scots that it:

“is not trying to represent spoken Ulster Scots as it is today.. Lots of the idioms will be familiar, however… I’ve used archaic words, rare words that I’ve learned from the literary tradition, that I’ve even learned from dictionary-hoking…This is a literary language… possibly looking forward and trying to show the potential and the resources that Ulster Scots has in terms of being an actually  functioning literary language, which is kind of the aim of this, to push the boundaries of the tongue.”

This is one approach to authenticity. Some will take a more conservative stance. Others will deny that Ulster Scots still exists as a feasible spoken medium. This is not an easy atmosphere in which to write but it is an exciting one.

The stance of Irish-speakers towards Ulster Scots is also crucial. The languages need not be set against each other. It was heartening to see that Angeline Kelly’s workshop was warmly supported by Dr Niall Comer, President of Conradh na Gaeilge. A veteran of Ulster Scots writing, Liam Logan who recently published Nine Rhymes (Galdanagh Press, 2019) has for some years been doing joint readings with Linda Ervine, project leader of the Turas initiative which aims to connect Protestant communities with their Irish-language heritage.

Ulster Scots developed because of the Planation of Ulster. It has elements of Irish and English within it. It exists on the tongues of those who speak it, on the pages of those who write in it, whatever their cultural, religious or ethnic roots. Ulster Scots looks to Scotland for much of its sense of self.  It is rooted in Ulster and that places it within Ireland and within the writing of the whole island. It could enjoy the best of both worlds. For that it needs the attention and engagement of the whole island.


Much energy is expended over whether or not Ulster Scots is a language or a dialect. I have concentrated here instead on its viability as a mode of expression today. For excellent background on Ulster Scots I recommend the late Aodán MacPoilín’s essay What about Ullans?: Ulster Scots and the Irish Language in his Our Tangled Speech: Essays in Language and Culture (Ulster Historical Foundation and Ultach Trust, 2018)

In Tracing The Ulster-Scots Imagination (Ulster University, 2019) Prof Wesley Hutchinson takes us into the world-view that influences cultural production and social and political action. An interview with him last year gives an insight into his findings. There is more to be explored, including the experience of the young, of those who are not from the Protestant tradition and the low profile of Ulster Scots in the school syllabus.

Many further examples of Ulster Scots poetry can be found via the  Ulster-Scots Poetry Project.

Angela Graham’s new short story collection ‘A City Burning’ is available from Seren Books. She was formerly a producer of documentary and drama, a feature film screen writer and university tutor in documentary practice.