Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Field Marshal Montgomery @ The Ulster Hall

The Ulster Hall concert went well last night. I took a few pics of the band rehearsing - here's one of them. On a previous post I said I'd take some pics of the crowd, but the house lights on the stage are so bright that there was no point trying to take a pic of the audience, so you'll just have to use your imagination!

Also on stage during the evening were Brian Kennedy (I must admit I'm not much of a fan, but he sang brilliantly last night) and Frank Cassidy (a superb 10 string bouzouki player). A big thank you to Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band for the opportunity, and to the audience for the unexpected cheer when I took to the stage! (I wonder if it was that Aiblins fellow who co-ordinated that?)

Sunday, March 29, 2009

My uncle Wully Gray

I was at a big family event in Portadown on Saturday night. Most of oor folk were there. I ended up sitting beside my uncle, Wully Gray.

It was a standard big Ulster sit-down-meal-in-a-church-hall-with-long-folding-tables-and-paper-tablecloths evening. There were about 150 folk there. Mountains of grub that a big team had been making since about 9 o'clock that morning. So we all queued up, filled our plates, and then filled our (ample) bellies. Good packin.

Wully had ate that much he was ready to burst. Then a wee woman came round offering everybody second helpings. He declined her offer, looked at her and said:

It's a gye full barn when ye cannae thresh anither stook at the door.

From Kintyre to Antrim

Places and culture are connected. You hear the name of a place, or see a dot on a map, and you jump to a particular cultural conclusion. In crude local terms, if someone introduces themselves to you as being from west Belfast, you'll make a cultural assumption. Likewise, if someone tells you they're from the Shankill once again you'll make a cultural assumption. You can apply this to any country or region in the world. It's human nature. But life's often more complicated and interesting than that.

The age-old Highland / Lowland divide in Scotland, and its impact upon Ulster-Scots history, is not always as clear cut as we might think. The broad view has always been that Ulster-Scots all have Lowland/Scots-speaking/Presbyterian origins. From 1640 when the term Ulster-Scots was first recorded, to the present day, this has been the dominant view.

So, when accounts of people from other, non-Lowland, parts of Scotland are found in old books, there's often a simplistic assumption that those folk are not Lowlanders. Maybe they're Gaelic, Highlanders etc.

Let me give you an example that shatters that assumption:

• KINTYRE 1599 - 1607: In June 1607, there was an outbreak of trouble on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland. It's just 13 miles across the sea from County Antrim. The trouble was caused by the usual factors - competing land claims, two local lairds who both claimed the territory, things getting difficult for the people living there - so much so that significant numbers of the people upped-sticks and sailed over to the safety of north Antrim "with their goods and cattle to inhabit there". Then two of the warring lairds - Angus McConnell and Donnell Gorm - assembled their own fleet of boats and began to plan an "invasion" of north Antrim, maybe to round up their escaped tenants and bring them back over? It was a complex and messy time. But the refugee Scots stayed in north Antrim, on the MacDonnell estates.

At first glance, most would assume that the escaping refugees were Gaelic western isles people or maybe even highlanders, and that their migration would have established a Gaelic community in North Antrim. In this case, that assumption would be wrong.

To go back a few years, there had been an "insurrection" on Kintyre in 1599. Following this, the Earl of Argyle repopulated Kintyre with Lowland farmers - "presbyterians from the shires of Renfrew, Dumbarton and Ayr". They lived there in relative peace until 1607, at which point there was another uprising and the Lowland settlers looked like they were going to be booted out -

"the settlers, who indeed did not wait to be expelled. Fortunately for them, better lands awaited them on the Antrim coast, and many of them made their way with their cattle and goods across the Channel. Sir Randal MacDonnell received them, presbyterians though they were, and these people were the more welcome no doubt, because of their bringing with them the means of stocking their farms. In this came many Lowland settlers to the Antrim estates, who were literally driven thither by the circumstances above-mentioned..."

(references above are taken from The MacDonnells of Antrim by George Hill; the story is recounted in The Birth of Ulster by Cyril Falls, p 153)

The planting of people from the Lowlands to other parts of Scotland happened in other places too:

• ISLE OF LEWIS 1598 - 1610: Lewis is one of the islands known as the Hebrides, on the far north-west of Scotland. It was the focus of another settlement/plantation scheme of Lowlanders into the Highlands at exactly the same time. In autumn 1598, King James VI of Scotland invited a party of "gentlemen adventurers" from (Lowland) Fife to relocate to the isle of Lewis. The venture failed by about 1610, and it's fair to say that the cultural differences were a factor in that failure.

> Wikipedia link here
> Detailed chronology of the venture here
> PDF and list of the adventurers - it would be interesting to see if any of these had Ulster connections.

These stories both deserve further study, but they do show that a dot an a map, or a placename in an old document, is a shaky basis for cultural assumptions.


As further illustrations, Sir James MacDonnell was described around 1597 in a Scottish document as: " ane man of Scottis bluid, albeit his landis lye in Ireland. He was ane bra man of person and behaviour, but had not the Scots tongue, nor nae language but Erse."

And elsewhere in Hill's Macdonnells of Antrim it says "...even until about the commencement of the last century, the lowland Scotch always spoke of their countrymen in the Highlands and the Isles as the Yrishe, or Yrischemen of Scotland..."

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Obituary notice: Old friend passes on

(I was sent this today by an unnamed source, who thought it would be perfect for my blog. He's right!)

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape.

He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:
• Knowing when to come in out of the rain;
• Why the early bird gets the worm;
• Life isn't always fair;
• and maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don't spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate, teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children.

It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an Aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

Common Sense took a beating when you couldn't defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death, by his parents, Truth and Trust, by his wife, Discretion, by his daughter, Responsibility, and by his son, Reason.

He is survived by his 4 stepbrothers;
• I Know My Rights
• I Want It Now
• Someone Else Is To Blame
• I'm A Victim

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone.

Donaghadee Sea Fishing

Ever caught your own dinner? Here's a quick advert for one of my favourite spring/summer activities - sea fishing from Donaghadee.

Quinton Nelson's wee boat runs from the harbour twice a day, at 10am and 7pm. It costs about £10 for the 2-3hr trip (duration is weather dependent) and is great fun. He can fit about 20 people into the boat, so group bookings must be a possibility.

Highly recommended - here's his website

I first went out on his boat when I was about 15 - and it's one of the things I've introduced my three weans to. And as the boat returns to the harbour when the fishing is done, it gives me a perfect opportunity to tell them the story of Hamilton & Montgomery arriving at Donaghadee with boatloads of their relatives in May 1606!

This also reminded me of some of the Scots language names for fish, names that are still used down the Peninsula. We call a pollock a lythe, and a coalfish is a blockan - there are probably mair. Herring are called hern, and folk that live in Portavogie are sometimes insulted by local outsiders by being called hern-hogs, which is the name for the variety of dolphin/porpoise that feeds on shoals of hern. A big crab (one that you can eat, no yin o the wee yins that skites aboot ablow the roaks) is a crubin.

Here are some pics from last August:

Jacob and his mate Andy -

Maggie-Jane and Charlie -

The box of mackerel!

UPDATE: In his Description of Ardes Barony, in the County of Down, 1683, William Montgomery - grand-nephew of Sir Hugh Montgomery - wrote that "...all the Eastern coasts thereof abounds with fishes, as herrins in harvest; also Cod, Ling, Graylords (which are near as big as Cod), whiteings, Bavins, large dog fish, Haddocks, Mackrells, Lithes, Blockans, Lobsters and crabs..."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Josias Welsh's Letter - 1632

In two articles in recent editions of The Ulster-Scot newspaper, Nelson McCausland has dealt with the issue/myth that a substantial proportion of the first Scottish settlers who came to Ulster in the 1600s spoke Gaelic. There is virtually no evidence to support this claim.

Here's an example of the writing of the period. Rev Josias Welsh was the minister at Templepatrick in County Antrim. He was John Knox's grandson. This is a letter he wrote to Anna Montgomery, Countess of Eglintoun in Ayrshire, on 19 October 1632:

Madame - I have made bold to writte these few lynes to your ladyship, hauyng the conueniencye of this bearer. I confesse my neglect in this duetye; but truelie my indisposition and waunt of ane heart fit for anye good duetye hath beene my hyndraunce: but now, dead as I am, I aduenture, and speciallye beeying encouraged with good tydyngs that I haue to writte to your ladyship, which I know wil be as refreshyng as cold watters to ane wearye and faint person, to wit, the Lords worke prospereth gratiouslye in this countrey; it spreadeth abroad (blessed be His name!), and notwithstandpg the great opposition it hath, it flourisheth indeed lyke the palme tree : and euen the last Sabath in Antrim, ane English congregation, the superstitious forme of kneelyng at the sacrement put away, and the true paterne of the institution directlye followed, which was ane thyng that wee could neuer looke for in that place. It is true the worke hath beene opposed and sore set too, but, blessed be His Holines, it hath done no harme but good; for now the Lord worketh more in one day then in ten before; and where they flocked before, they flocke ten tymes more; sua that in this little church, Sunday was senyght, wee had aboue 14 or 15 hundreth at the sacrement; and neuer such ane day had wee from mornyng to nyght, without faintyng or wearines (prayse to His name). Such motion I never saw; new ones commying in that neuer knew Him before.

Your ladyship shal be pleased to marque Gods wisdome, that since the Bishop beganne to question us, there is, I dare say, aboue three hundreth that God hath taken by the heart that neuer knew Him before, and this within this 7 moneths : upon this condition long may we be in question, and neuer may the Bishop rest. And blessed be the Lord moroeuer, His wisdome hath sua disposed the matter that stil the scourge hath beene shakyng ouer our heads, and neuer remoued, but the execution delayed from tyme to tyme. He wil not let be laid on yet, hauyng ane respect of the weakenes of some who hath need to be better strengthned yet, and that others may yet be brought in ; neither wil be remoued altogether, and sua keepeth the people a flocht, and giueth them not leaue to settle in securitye, but maketh them greedye to use their tyme wich is allotted them : and sua our God is wise, and turneth their courses against themselfs for the furderance of His owne cause. Wee haue gotten tyme yet til May day, and that unexpectedlye contrarye to theer purpose ; and I hope more good wil be done in this tyme, then all the malice of both diuels and men will be able to undoe.

As for you, elect ladye, what shal I say to you but what the Apostle sayeth to the Thessalonians, I. ep. 5 ch. 24 v., Faithful is he that hath called you, that wil also doe it; and thynk not straunge that you be exercised with tryals within and tryals without : most you not be baptised
with the baptisme wherewith your Lord was baptised; if rare for grace, why not rare for crosses also? The Lord keepeth that wyse proportion with His owne : if you haue gotten the gold, will you not get the fyre also? I am of the mynd that yet greater tryals are abydyng us : The Lord prepare us and make us readye. Now I most draw to ane end, hauyng troubled your ladyship with these confused and undigested lynes onlye to show my duetye to your ladyship, wich, if they be seasonnable or acceptable, I shal endeaoure myselfe ofter in this.

Now the God of all grace, who hath called you to the fellowshyp of His Sonne, and endowed you with rare grace, after you have suffred ane whyle, make your ladyship perfect, stablish and strengthen you ; and with my dayly poor wysses to that effect for your ladyship, I rest

Your humble seruant in the Lord,

Mr Josias Welsch

Templepatrick, this 19th of October 1632.

(Taken from the Memorials of the Montgomeries, compiled by Sir William Fraser, 1859. It is also quoted in full in the footnotes on page 18 of The Macdonnells of Antrim by Rev George Hill (1873). In Noble Society in Scotland by Keith Brown, it says that Anna had been converted in 1629 and "...became an active supporter of dissidents in Ayrshire and Ulster, using her household to promote their religious views..."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Objections to Ulster-Scots: Part Three

because the Ulster-Scots "industry" itself makes Ulster-Scots look stupid and controversial

Call me a coward, but for the time being all I'm going to say here is that yes, it occasionally does - and I know that the vast majority of you will agree. And the low-quality high-profile "fluff" is sometimes all that the wider public see. So the flip side of that - the high-quality, low-profile work - has little or no impact.

And therefore the public perception of Ulster-Scots is badly skewed. People aren't stupid, but when the only encounter that they have with Ulster-Scots subject matter is trivial and lacking in depth, they then assume that Ulster-Scots as a whole is trivial and lacking in depth. Which is a disgraceful disservice to a wonderful legacy.

Back in February 2007 I wrote this article for AgendaNI, which concludes with:

"...To be fair, most people I’ve met in my time with the Ulster-Scots Agency have an open mind, and are open to being persuaded that Ulster-Scots has depth and credibility. But they have no time for nonsense and fluff – and neither do I. Our story is too important to be cheapened, or to allow it to be denigrated..."

More to follow once I've worked out how to tiptoe through this particular minefield...

Further Reading: What exactly is Ulster-Scots?

Friday, March 20, 2009

By the Mark - Dailey & Vincent

Here's a clip of great harmonies (brother duet style again) and very simple instrumentation of the Gillian Welch song "By the Mark". This is one of the songs we played at our wedding back on 26 Sept 1997. Great song.

And... proof that you're never too young to get into the Carter Family - a great version of "On the Sea of Galilee"

And a classic archive clip from the Grand Ole Opry tv show, presented by Roy Acuff, of Hank Williams and a galaxy of other hillbilly stars singing "I Saw the Light". Turn your speakers up!!

Great stuff!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ulster Hall - coming soon

If all goes according to plan, I'll be on stage in Belfast's spectacular, newly-refurbished Ulster Hall on Monday 30th March, with my good friends in Field Marshal Montgomery Pipe Band. It's all still to be finalised, but I'll let you know more once I've negotiated my five figure appearance fee, and when all the brown M&Ms have been removed from the bowl.

The evening is entitled "Traditional Acoustic" and is a sell-out. I'll maybe take a few pics from the stage and post them here.


Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Charlie and St Patrick

Charlie (6) came bouncing in from school this afternoon -

"Daddy, daddy, we learned all about St Patrick today - he was from Wales, he was kidnapped and came to Northern Ireland, and then he escaped and went back home, but then God spoke to him in dreams and told him to come back. And he did - he came back and preached to the people in Northern Ireland and told them all about God. It was a really long time ago, and he died and was buried at Downpatrick and that's where his grave is...

...and now he's in Heaven as a leprechaun"

I kid you not.

1859 Revival, Dr J Edwin Orr and Ulster-Scots

Here's a small excerpt from the next edition of ReachOut magazine, from an article by the current Moderator, Dr Donald Patton:

J Edwin Orr quotes one example of homely testimony by a man who declared,
“God is aye ready to pardon ye, but God wunna drag ye into Heaven by the nape o’ the neck. Ye maun come to Him yersels, my freens.”

Nice to see a wee bit of Ulster-Scots in print. From "Every Member Ministry", ReachOut Magazine, April/May 2009 edition.

A wee thought for St Patrick's Day

I know, I know... but I hope you'll let me off with this. Compare and contrast, the writings of two ancient shepherd boys:

“...I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and he who is mighty came and in his compassion raised me up and exalted me very high and placed me on the top of the wall...”

from Patrick's Confessio

“...I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock...”

Psalm 40 v 1&2

Pic below is of Slemish, from June of last year.

Slemish Small.jpg

Update: On Talkback today, Malachi O'Doherty said that Patrick's theology was essentially Protestant, and that if he came back today he'd be more at home in a mission hall than in a cathedral!

Monday, March 16, 2009

Objections to Ulster-Scots: Part Two

because the media makes Ulster-Scots look stupid and controversial

There is no doubt that this is generally true, and no doubt that this then makes the job of convincing people of the merits of Ulster-Scots far more difficult. The media does not simply reflect public opinion and interests - it shapes public opinion and interests. In the case of Ulster-Scots, the sheer volume of the media's scorn and mockery is colossal. And, if we're going to be honest about it, the quality of how Ulster-Scots presents its own message is often sorely lacking, and is often put forward by people who don't know much about it in the first place (now if that statement doesn't get me into bother, what will? :-) )

If you're familiar with this blog you'll know that the media and its influence are regular topics. But that's a story that's far too big a subject for this wee post. If you want to look at it in detail I'd recommend you start with Neil Postman's writings.

The focus of this post is to show that today's hostility and scorn is a recent phenomenon.


"Ulster Speaks", BBC Radio Ulster, 1935 - a series of six programmes presented by Rev W F Marshall, "The Bard of Tyrone". In 1936 they were published in a booklet. One of the talks was entitled "The Brand of the Thistle": He said:

"...Tonight we'll look at Scottish speech in Ulster... Lowland Scots is a language. It's far more than that, it's a literary language..."

Marshall went on to compare the speech of Comber with the Ards, then with Ahoghill and the Braid, then over to Claudy and the north of Co Londonderry. A simple, well presented, interesting and respectful series of programmes.

Ulster Links with the White House, Belfast Telegraph, 1945 - this was a series of articles about the Ulster-American Presidents, published at the end of WW2 and after General Eisenhower's visit to Belfast. These were also published later that year in a booklet. Its mission was to set the record stright - its preface begins:

"Time and again the Irish-American link is stressed, while the contribution of the Ulster Scots to the foundation and development of the United States is forgotten..."

Lays of an Ulster Paradise, Irish News, 1960 - this book published hundreds of poems which had appeared in the Irish News from 1938 onwards. Most are satirical commentaries from (as you might expect) an Irish nationalist point of view. There are some interesting insights:

A poem from 1945 begins:
"Repeat I may, my Loyal tots
How foes decay, dear Ulster Scots"

An another, from 1952, when the Royal Commission on Scottish Affairs visited Stormont:
"Nights with Burns are all the fashion"
Said the host, "our Province o'er
Bonnie Scotland is our passion
Ulster Scots we, to the core"

The examples above show that, at various points during the first half of the 20th century, the mainstream broadcast and print media were at ease in talking about Ulster Scots, indicating that their readers and listeners had an existing awareness. And as this recent post shows, Ulster-Scots was even invoked during the Civil Rights marches of 1968.

2. 1960s - 1980s
As the world knows, life in Northern Ireland in the first half of 20th century was very different to the second. The slaughter and terrorism of the "Troubles" fostered a generation of NI media channels, journalists and a general public who were each day fed a dual diet of politics and violence - which reinforced the two-tribes British/Irish narrative. The historical Scottish connection was hardly mentioned at all.

And so a generation grew up who were more detached from their Ulster-Scots roots than any previous generation. These roots were neglected by the media, the schools, and (in my case, as touched on in the first post of this series) even parents too, who failed to pass on aspects of Ulster-Scots heritage to those of us who grew up during these dark years in Northern Ireland.

3. THE LATE 80s AND 90s
Thankfully there were a few wee flickers of Ulster-Scots life in the media in the late 80s and early 90s. Rory Fitzpatrick's acclaimed book and four part series God's Frontiersmen - The Scots-irish Epic was broadcast on UTV in 1989. In the same year Billy Kay presented a six part radio series on The Scots of Ulster which won a silver medal at the New York Radio Festival. Six years later in December 1995 Wendy Austin presented the excellent Pioneers and Presidents six part series for BBC Radio Five and Radio Ulster. A further four years passed with nothing on air until Helen Mark's Radio Ulster six part series in 1999 entitled The Ulster Scots. One obscure gem from this era was filmed for RTE up in the hills of County Antrim, an intimate portrait of two elderly brothers which had to be subtitled in English, such was the density of the language they spoke (I've only seen this once - let me know if you can get me a copy).

All of these were solid, informative, respectful broadcasts. No hostility or mockery - just sensible treatments of the subject. But four short series in a decade is still little more than crumbs from the table.

Ulster-Scots traditions continued to exist quietly throughout the whole period of the Troubles, far from the airwaves and the opinion columns, far from the urban violence and urbanised political reporting - in peaceful, rural Ulster. In a sense Ulster-Scots had retreated, perhaps Ulster-Scots was dwindling - but at the same time the low profile of Ulster-Scots probably preserved it.

Then suddenly, out of thin air, Ulster-Scots was thrust centre stage following the political trade-offs which brought about the Belfast Agreement, one of the outworkings of which was the formation of the Ulster-Scots Agency in 1999. The urban/suburban Northern Ireland media went into cynical overdrive about this new-fangled thing called Ulster-Scots which they had never heard of before, and which they immediately selected as the whipping boy of the post-Agreement period.

In the main, a patronising, sometimes vicious, smugness characterised how the modern media in Northern Ireland has treated Ulster-Scots from that point to the present day. The very few Ulster-Scots programmes - either on tv or radio - can't even begin to counterbalance the relentless negative prime-time output.

With a general public who were largely unaware of the authenticity of Ulster-Scots, the media set the agenda, and created an environment of ridicule. This made the task of convincing what you might call "middle Ulster", the folk who had lost their roots, even more difficult. A few high-profile scandals and controversies (which I'll not give oxygen by describing here) did further damage and handed the hostile elements in the media yet more juicy ammunition. And as everyone knows, controversy sells newspapers...

But, believe it or not, there are good reasons to be optimistic! There have been a few positive moments through the gloom. The viewing figures which have been published prove the huge appetite that persists for Ulster-Scots - for example the only Ulster-Scots programme broadcast in 2000 was BBC NI's "A Nicht O Ulster Scotch", and attracted the third highest viewing figures of the entire year. You might think that this would encourage the broadcasters to produce more, and quickly? Nope. It was four years until another Ulster-Scots television programme was made and broadcast. Sadly for the viewing public, I was in it...

The mainstream media is facing huge challenges right now. The economic downturn, the hundreds of competing channels and the dominance of the internet all threaten the existence of television, radio and newspapers as we know them. It's very likely that the MSM's impact is reducing by the day, and that it increasingly merely feeds itself. So perhaps the impact of the traditional media is declining and we shouldn't worry overmuch about it.

In the media's defence, I'll acknowledge one other issue - a glimmer of sympathy for those who may well want to produce quality Ulster-Scots material for tv, radio, print or online. Producers and editors can only work with what's available. In my own world of graphic design, over the years I've had starry-eyed prospective clients show up with big ideas - but without the content (eg the quality of concept, the depth of information, the creativity of image, the relevance of message) never mind the budget - to achieve what they have in mind. This is absolutely critical point for the Ulster-Scots community to grasp. Sow's ear and silk purse.

Personally, I do believe that the quality of material is available - if the media have a willingness to present Ulster-Scots to the standard that it deserves.

Overall, the presentation of Ulster-Scots heritage across every media platform needs to move up about 5 gears - from being presented as stupid and controversial, or trashy throwaway kitsch, or (as a good friend often says) akin to a "pigs in the parlour" low-grade cliché - to a new quality-focussed, knowledge-rich approach.

The range of output needs to be broad, from light entertainment to solid factual stuff, from animation to documentaries, from huge epics to wee 5 minute "Days Like This" style personal insights. Half an hour on radio once a week and a very limited freesheet 9 times a year is quite simply not enough.

That kind of broad mix will interest the public, convince the skeptics and maybe repair some of the harm that's been done over the past number of years. And it's what we all deserve.

Further Reading: What exactly is Ulster-Scots?

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Calvin 500 Lectures - Belfast, Fri 20 & Sat 21 March

Got an invite to this event in the post today:

Calvin 500 - Exploding the Myths

Venue: Shaftesbury Square Reformed Presbyterian Church

• Fri 20 March 7.30
Calvin's Missionary Zeal
Prof David McKay
(Shaftesbury Square RP Church)

Calvin's Preaching
Rev Gareth Burke
(Stranmillis Evangelical Presbyterian Church)

• Sat 21 March, 10.00am
Calvin's Pastoral Care
Prof Robert McCollum
(Lisburn Reformed Presbyterian Church)

Calvin's Doctrine of the Holy Spirit
Rev Stafford Carson
(1st Portadown Presbyterian Church - incoming Moderator)

A bit more info available here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Objections to Ulster-Scots: Part One

(because I didn't grow up wearing tartan or eating haggis and to start doing that now would be ridiculous)

This is one I hear now and again, and I have a certain degree of sympathy with it. Ulster-Scots, visually speaking, is to a large extent still stuck on the shortbread tin.

Much of Ulster-Scots cultural iconography and history has been lost over the generations - but particularly so during "The Troubles" - and so there is a need for cultural restoration, putting back the things that have been almost forgotten. For example, my parents (born at the end of WW2), grew up with all of the New Year traditions like first footing, but they didn't pass them down to us weans. From speaking to many folk over the years, this seems to be a common experience across Ulster. Consequently when cultural icons are restored, many people who are unfamiliar with the pedigree of these icons wrongly assume that they have been recently invented - or else recently imported from Scotland by people who want to create a non-Irish cultural identity for themselves.

I'm not a member of a pipe band, I didn't grow up around the pipe band or Scottish country dance communities, both of which use tartan to powerful effect. But, there's not a sight that can compare with 120 pipe bands on Glasgow Green every August. Both of these cultural traditions has an authentic Ulster pedigree - the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society (Northern Ireland) was founded in 1923, and the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association (Northern Ireland) was founded in 1950 as an umbrella body for the pipe bands, who had been holding competitions since the 1920s. Over the past few summers I've started to go to pipe band competitions, in sunshine and torrential rain, and I am mightily impressed by the dedication of the bands, their families and devoted following of spectators. The standard of musicianship is proven year after year to be truly world class. There are more pipe bands per capita in Northern Ireland than there are in Scotland. So there clearly is a credible tartan tradition, which countless thousands of Ulster-Scots folk have worn for generations.

Exhibit A: White's Speedicook Pibrocht Porridge Oats (taken from an advert in the 1957 Ulster Ideal Home Exhibition Programme), milled in Co Armagh

I don't have a kilt - the farthest I go into tartanry is two pairs of knackered old Nike trainers and maybe four tartan ties. I'd feel strange covering myself in tartan now - it would feel put-on, made up.

Exhibit B: press clipping from 4 November 1968, reporting on the "Fashions in Fabrics from Ulster" exhibition in London which was opened by the Duchess of Kent.

The article refers to the famous Ulster tartan which was found on the Dickson farm at Flanders townland near Dungiven - I have visited the farm, and have met the man who as a small boy made the discovery. I have also seen and held fragments of the fabric (these really should be DNA tested to identify the breed of sheep the wool came from) - the article concludes by saying "...it is known that tartan cloth was woven in Ulster during the 17th century by the Ulster Scots..."*

Which is absolutely correct - The Montgomery Manuscripts refer to linen, wool and breakens, which in the footnotes is defined as being "tartan... commonly worn by Ayrshiremen at the commencement of the 17th century. Lady Montgomery's breakens were tartans, and the wearers... were settlers from Ayrshire...". I'm told that there were some "bog bodies" found in the peat bogs around the Peninsula side of Newtownards a generation or so ago, which are said to also have been clad in tartan.

Here's another article, this time from 2 January 1970:

[You'll notice the bit at the end that says "...perhaps, in order to ensure that the promotion of Ulster tartan never diminishes, a relevant government body should stage an annual contest for suggestions as to new applications for Ulster tartan cloth..." Hmmm...]

When I visited, Mr Dickson took me out to the spot where the tartan clothing was found. Growing on the very spot was a single thistle. I asked him if he'd planted it earlier that morning just to impress me! When the tartan clothing was found - a large cloak, a jacket, a pair of trews - there was huge local interest. Radio and tv crews landed in on the small farm, newspapers were full of stories about the discovery. It was whisked off to the Ulster Museum for extensive testing by Audrey Henshall, who reproduced the fabric for the Museum's 1958 Elizabethan Ulster exhibition (see the invitation below), and a 23 page paper about the tartan was published in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology 1961/62 edition.

As I've shown above, by the end of the 60s the Ulster tartan was gracing the fashion shows of chic "swinging sixties" London, around the time that our own George Best scored in the European Cup Final for Manchester United. This was all before I was born, before the mayhem of the Troubles. The story and the knowledge was lost...

Coming right up to the present, tartan was loud and proud once again last autumn - but even when high fashion welcomes tartan onto the catwalk, there's still a possibility that it's still perceived to be a cultural cliché.

There are thousands of tartans today, for families, corporate organisations, and as far as I know every county in Ireland has its own tartan too. There has been a degree of commercially-minded tartan invention over the years. But for Ulster, the historical pedigree is 100% sound, from the 1600s right through the 20th century to the present day. There is no lack of historical credibility for Ulster-Scots folk to wear and enjoy tartan. Tartan in Ulster was not a 1998 post Belfast Agreement invention.

When it comes down to it, the cringe factor with tartan is either:

a) a lack of knowledge about the historical pedigree, or
b) a simple matter of fashion sense and personal taste.

Robert Burns, and haggis, suffers a similar fate. There's a sound Ulster pedigree - the third edition of Burns' poems was published in Belfast, the first newspaper to print some of his works was the Belfast News Letter, his daughter moved to Dundalk and is buried there, his son spent time in Belfast, his granddaughter lived in Belfast and so on. The Ulster-Scots Community Network produced a superb booklet and exhibition back in January entitled "Burns Belfast", in conjunction with Homecoming Scotland.

But I didn't go to Burns suppers when I was growing up - I'd never even heard of one. The first haggis I ever tasted was when I was about 25. At first it was strange for me, as an adult, to graft Burns onto my annual calendar - but now I'm utterly convinced of his importance and lineage. Exactly 150 years ago, in 1859, there was a Burns Festival in the Belfast Music Hall, and the Belfast Burns Club - which still exists to this day - was founded in 1872.

Burns' Ulster connection is yet another example of cultural restoration - not invention - with a solid gold historical pedigree.

It's very simple - like with tartan it's a matter of personal taste - you're either into Burns and all that goes with him these days, or you're not. The kneejerk autopilot mockery of Ulster-Scots by some people will continue regardless of the evidence that can be presented. For the rest of you, perhaps for whom this post is new information, read it over again a few more times, do some research, and like me you'll slowly be persuaded.

For some Ulster folk, not having grown up with tartan or haggis, these can seem a bit too Scottish, a bit too clichéd, a bit too obvious to comfortably embrace as personal cultural statements. I can understand that, because I partly feel that way too. But let there be no doubt as to their historical pedigree - both are powerful, irrefutable, examples of the authenticity of Ulster-Scots identity.

Further Reading: What exactly is Ulster-Scots?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Objections to Ulster-Scots - the topics

Last post of today, and it might whet your appetite - here's a summary of the forthcoming series of posts:

Part One: because I didn't grow up wearing tartan or eating haggis and to start doing that now would be ridiculous

Part Two: because the media makes Ulster-Scots look stupid and controversial

Part Three: because the Ulster-Scots "industry" itself makes Ulster-Scots look stupid and controversial

Part Four: because the whole language / dialect debate is ridiculous

Part Five: because it's just a politically motivated recent invention

Part Six: because it doesn't really exist "on the ground"

Part Seven: because I know quietly, inside, that I am an Ulster-Scot, but I don't feel any affinity with what is now packaged and presented to me as Ulster-Scots culture and heritage

Part Eight: because Ulster-Scots stuff is all low-quality and Mickey Mouse

There may be other posts to follow. Some of the above are the opinions of people I know - others are my own opinion. Speaking freely on these topics could also get me into some serious hot water with a wide range of people, but the appeal of blogging is that it provides an independent, unedited, uncensored platform. Keep checking back over the coming weeks to see the articles unfold...

Ballycopeland Windmill

Was driving from Millisle to Bangor today, and had the camera in the car. Here are two pics of Ballycopeland Windmill for y'all.

My mother's family were all from nearby here (about 6 fields away) at Islandhill or Blacktoon to be precise, and I still have relatives who live along the Killaughey Road. The windmill can be clearly seen from my mother's old family house (just a wee three room cottage which even today still has a corrugated iron roof and an outside toilet). Leading from the house towards the windmill is a small country lane that they all used to call the Scotland Road - because on a clear day, on the horizon, you can see Scotland as you look down the lane.

Killaughey Mission Hall is a few hundred yards away from the Windmill. It's only open in the summer months, but still works, and is one of the few real landmarks on the Ards Peninsula.

Objections to Ulster-Scots - part one

I had a few interesting emails in response to my post below. These have got me thinking, and whilst I'll spare the blushes of the folk who have emailed me, the points they raise are worthy of further exploration. So I'm going to roll some thoughts around in my head over the next few weeks, with the aim of posting a series of connected pieces under the broad title "Objections to Ulster-Scots". I imagine some of those thoughts will be similar to those that I touched on in this post from May of last year.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Robert Burns and the Covenanters - again

I've blogged about this before, but have just found some new information in The Covenanters of Ayrshire by Rev R Lawson (Paisley, 1887). On page 14 he says:

"...the Kirkoswald copy of the Covenant is inserted in the Kirk Session Records there, and is signed, amongst others, by the maternal ancestors of Robert Burns..."

Kirkoswald is between Maybole and Turnberry, on the A77 that many Ulster folk will be familiar with when driving from Stranraer to Glasgow.

Friday, March 06, 2009

The cultureless, consumerist, middle class, erstwhile Ulster-Scot

How many people do you know who fit this description? The reason I ask is that I spent a fair bit of time earlier this week with a man not much older than me who grew up not that far away from where I grew up. Spent much of his life in a farming community (like me), went to the local secondary school... but has completely rejected his own Ulster-Scots language and identity.

He's in some warped but slightly smug kind of denial, never missing an opportunity to scorn and ridicule Ulster-Scots and those of us who are into it. He excels in this when taking a hand out of me (translation - making fun of me), but especially in public when there are other folk within earshot. Fortunately I'm fairly accomplished at slapping people like this (verbally of course), but it's got to the point where I meet so many of them that I have decided there is clearly some kind of widespread cultural identity malaise within Ulster Prods.

So, for the time being and until I can think of a better acronym, I'm going to call these people CCMCEUS - cultureless consumerist middle class erstwhile Ulster-Scots. (It trips of the tongue as easily as UCU-NF - which is another good example of Ulster Prods and identity crisis).

Self-loathing is not a pleasant sight. For example, some folk I know from the posher bits of Belfast really wish they were English - they want it so bad it hurts, and they Anglify their accent as part of this ambition.

Listen for words like "great" being pronounced "grayt" instead of "gree-it" - it's a dead giveaway.

Real English people are no doubt really glad that these Belfast wannabes (and the other similar UK-based wannabes, like the ones in Edinburgh) are NOT English. And anyway, many English folk I know who live in southernmost England don't want to be English - they want to be French - nipping across the Chunnel for cheap wine and a weekend break in Brittany a few times a year. Air kissing is uncomfortably frequent in the south of England... this is not a practice an authentic Ulsterman can tolerate. Either do it right (and only with a woman you have a romantic attachment to) or don't do it at all. Mind you, it's hilarious seeing an Ulsterman frozen in terror having received his first air-kiss, and not knowing how to retaliate - will he reciprocate or head-butt?

There is a bit of a class dimension to this, because ordinary folk are too busy working and making ends meet to wallow in self-analysis. And they have far too much common sense forbye.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Do we want to claim this one?

One of the royalist troops who killed Richard Cameron on Airds Moss in 1680 could be described as an Ulster-Scot. Hmmm....

Captain John Creighton's great grandfather was Alexander Creichton. He was from Dumfries and had become embroiled in a classic Lowland Scots / Reiver clan feud between the Maxwells and the Johnstons. He was on the Johnston side, and killed some of the Maxwells himself. So he had to flee Scotland, and came to Ulster around 1603. He settled near Caledon in County Armagh, but about 2 years later he was hunted down by some of the Maxwells who set an ambush and shot him dead on his way to church.

His son, John Creighton, lived through the brutalities of the 1641 Massacres - his house is said to have been the first one that the Irish attacked - and he joined up with Sir Robert Stewart's army.

Captain John Creighton was born in Castlefin in Co Donegal on 8 May 1648. About 1674, right in the middle of "The Killing Times" he was invited to join the army in Scotland.

His first mission was to capture a Covenanter field preacher called David Williamson ( Williamson features in the 1847 book Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence Display'd ). This was just the start - what followed was a long military career of anti-Presbyterian persecution. He even took one of his Ireland-born soldiers, James Gibb, who Creighton knew "was skilful in praying well in the style and tone of the Covenanters" and sent him as a decoy to infiltrate the Covenanters of Kilmarnock. Gibb did so by claiming that he had come across from Ulster to join the fight at Bothwell Bridge. The story was so plausible that he was welcomed with open arms. Inside a month Gibb had gathered full intelligence of the Covenanters activities in the west of Scotland.

Creighton claimed to have shot dead two of the nine Covenanters who died at Airds Moss with Cameron. After the Glorious Revolution, Creighton was imprisoned for a time and was refused bail or pardon "...if Captain Creighton should obtain his liberty, he would murder all Scotland in one night...". He was eventually released and returned to Ulster to live in County Tyrone with his father. Aged 83, he said "...I am still hated by those people who affirm the old Covenanters to have been unjustly dealt with..."

(Source: The Memoirs of Captain John Creighton from his own materials, by Jonathan Swift, 1731. Available here on GoogleBooks. During a visit to meet Sir Arthur Acheson at Markethill in County Armagh, Acheson advised Swift to visit Creighton)

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Presbyterian Church House advert - "Reached a major Crossroads?"

Here's a computer mock-up of a project I've just finished, which might be going on-site this coming weekend. It'll be the biggest advertisement in Belfast, and therefore probably Northern Ireland, dominating the city centre over the coming months.

Church House LR 3.jpg

For those of you who don't know the location, it is indeed on a major crossroads.