Ding doon tha mairch dykes: a new impetus in Ulster-Scots writing

Angela Graham on the writers who are putting Ulster-Scots back on the page

 Lines from the poet James Orr decorate a page of an Irish passport.

Lines from the poet James Orr decorate a page of an Irish passport.

 

Take a look at an Irish passport. You’ll find lines from the poet, James Orr:

“The hedge-hauntin’ blackbird, on ae fit whyles restin’,
Wad fain heat the tither in storm-rufflet wing”

Orr was an Ulster weaver poet, a contemporary of Robert Burns and a Protestant United Irishman. Here he represents one of the languages of Ireland and a significant type of Irishness. Until the early 20th century the work of others writing, as he did, in Ulster-Scots was found readily in the North of Ireland.

But such voices almost vanished from the literary landscape even though Ulster-Scots was the hearth-language of many of Northern Ireland’s citizens when the state was founded a century ago.

If Ulster-Scots reclaims its place in the canon of the island’s writing it will be due to a remarkable energy coming from writers themselves.

The Stormont government did not cherish Ulster-Scots, the language that developed in the wake of the Ulster Plantations from the 17th century on, as the speech of Scots incomers encountered Irish, with English in the mix. By the 2011 census only 0.9 per cent of Northern Ireland’s population claimed that they could speak, read, write and understand it. One cannot take a public examination in Ulster-Scots. Yet Ulster-Scots writing is re-emerging, transformed and, potentially, transforming.

Among the new writers is Angeline King, an Ulster-Scots speaker from Larne, Co Antrim. She gained confidence in crafting Ulster-Scots dialogue through writing several self-published novels. She is now a doctoral candidate and writer-in-residence at Ulster University and has launched a series of workshops, New Ulster Scots Creative Writing, for writers with similar ambitions.

“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.”

This statement from the project’s website highlights a key challenge – the move from speech to the page for those who have not ventured to write as they speak. One hears expressions of delighted surprise: “I didn’t know I was speaking Ulster-Scots” or “I thought I was writing in some way unique to my family”. Ulster-Scots has been so thoroughly unhooked from schooling and literary practice that it seems new-found.

Ulster-Scots has been branded as provincial and pilloried as an invented language (or dialect – there is regrettable weaponising of the distinction) coming to prominence from nowhere. In fact, over decades, several strands were inter-weaving quietly to produce an apparently sudden result.

I worked on the 1988 Channel 4 series The Divided Kingdom about identity in the UK and met one of these strands in the historical theories of the late Dr Ian Adamson which he’d been developing since the 1970s. According to the series book: “Adamson argues that the earliest inhabitants of Ireland were not the Gaels but the Cruthin who had lived there for at least 6,000 years before the Gaels invaded… Regardless of the historical authenticity of these assertions, here is further Irish mythology in the making, and all the more striking because of its explicit relation to modern political issues… Adamson’s account of Ulster’s history enables him to claim that… the Scots who came over from the Lowlands were in fact descendants of the Cruthin race returning to the land of their birthright.”

This inspired some thinking unionists and loyalists towards a new identity. Adamson firmly distanced himself from those who saw in his theories a justification for sectarianism.

The major boost to Ulster-Scots came a decade later. The Good Friday/Belfast Agreement negotiations had passed their deadline. Provision for Irish was still unresolved. Ulster-Scots entered the equation. Tony Blair’s memoirs record the taoiseach Bertie Ahern “suggesting that maybe David (Trimble) 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…” After a further knife-edge tussle, provision for both languages was incorporated in the agreement.

The Ulster-Scots Agency (Tha Boord o Ulstér Scotch) and its Irish-language equivalent, Foras na Gaeilge, were set up as part of the North/South Language Body. Ulster-Scots acquired a budget and institutional influence. The agency has an all-island remit and aims to “promote the study, conservation, development and use of Ulster-Scots as a living language; to encourage and develop the full range of its attendant culture; and to promote an understanding of the history of the Ulster-Scots”.

The “attendant culture” received much more attention than the language. But community language activists, academics and writers persisted. This conjunction is the basis for any optimism about new Ulster-Scots writing because it offers street-level authenticity, informed perspective and practitioners. Without it, the result will be nostalgic pastiche or constipated formalism.

In a welcome shift in the agency’s approach, it held an Ulster-Scots Language Week in 2019 which included a workshop for writers and there was a second week in 2020. With Belfast’s Linen Hall Library it has a new project to promote Ulster-Scots writing.

The New Decade, New Approach deal, which helped restore the Northern Ireland Executive, mandates a Commissioner for Ulster Scots (sic) and Ulster British language, arts and literature. How will this affect writers? And, controversially, the UK undertook to recognise Ulster Scots as a “national minority”.

The language is not exclusive to Protestants or the descendants of Planters. Do Catholics speak Ulster-Scots? Yes. Collaboration such as that between Ulster-Scots writer Liam Logan and Irish-language activist Linda Ervine rebuts the stereotype: he is a Catholic, she a Protestant.

Ulster-Scots writing is breaking out of its corral. The Ulster-Scots Community Network has just called for contributions to a one-off journal to showcase contemporary Ulster-Scots writing, with hopes for further development. This is funded by the Ulster-Scots Agency. Accustomed to bilingualism, the Welsh publisher of my short story collection A City Burning (Seren Books, 2020) welcomed its Ulster-Scots tale.

Departures in new directions are greatly enabled by Prof Wesley Hutchinson’s Tracing the Ulster-Scots Imagination (Ulster University, 2019) and by Stephen Dornan’s ambitious poetry collection Tha Jaa Banes (Ulster-Scots Academy Press, 2020). Its Ding Doon Tha Mairch Dykes originates in an Azerbaijani poem about breaking down fences to create broader horizons:

“Aye, ding doon tha mairch dykes
an cowp tha waas o tha bawns,
for tae keek at ither airts,
ootby, oot thonder.”

Angela Graham is a writer and film maker from Belfast. Her short story collection A City Burning is piublished by Seren Books

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