Friday, July 30, 2010

Ulster-Scots: Culture v Geography & Race

Had an email response the other day to my post below entitled "Congratulations Londonderry" in which I referred to the early Lowland Scots settlers of North Down and the Ards (the Hamilton and Montgomery settlement from May 1606 onwards), their equivalents in Derry, Donegal and Killybegs (who came as tenants of Bishop George Montgomery from Spring 1607 onwards). On that particular post I left out the third wave of Lowlander settlement in Ulster which was encouraged by the Earl of Antrim, Randall MacDonnell in June 1607 (see previous blog post about this important story here).

The email was along the lines of "but there were Scots settling in Ulster long before 1606/1607, so how come you don't include them as 'Ulster Scots'".

Personally, it's because Ulster-Scots is not a geographical or racial term - it's cultural. The answer begins in Scotland. Around 1380, "two Scotlands" emerged, one Highland and one Lowland, with identifiable cultural and linguistic differences, one Highland and one Lowland. That year John of Fordun wrote in Chronicles of the Scottish Nation that "the manners and customs of the Scots vary with the diversity of their speech. For two languages are spoken among them". The Introduction of the Chambers' Concise Scots Dictionary says that "by the fourteenth century this language had become the dominant spoken tongue of all ranks of Scots east and south of the Highland Line..." (see map below). Fordun also described a range of cultural differences, outlining a Highland / Lowland cultural "divide".

AB82726A-5DDF-4D24-986F-85B403C299CE.jpg By the time the Reformation arrived in Scotland, in the early 1500s (through figures like the Lollards and Murdoch Nisbet of Ayrshire, the Wedderburn brothers of Dundee, Patrick Hamilton of St Andrews, and John Knox) a whole new dimension of cultural difference was introduced - so much so that by the early 1600s, Gaelic/Gallic writers were using specific terms for the Lowland Scots to distinguish them from Gaelic Highland Scots (this book cites the term 'fir Alban' as one of them). It was these specific people, this specific cultural group, who began to arrive in Ulster as settled communities in 1606/1607.

Throughout written history the term Ulster-Scots has overwhelmingly referred to the Ulster outworkings of these Lowland Scots - to their culture. If Ulster-Scots is to be stretched to become a racial or geographical term, then perhaps the 1200s-1400s Gaelic Gallowglasses/Gallóglaigh and 1400s-1500s Gaelic Redshanks from Argyll (which Barry McCain has explored well) should be included. However if it is to remain as a cultural term, then they should not.

1606/1607 was when Lowland Scottish culture arrived in Ulster. There was no meaningful Lowland Scots communal or cultural arrival in Ulster before this. That's why 1606/1607 is "The Dawn of the Ulster-Scots".

Food for thought. Your feedback would be appreciated.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Any room for some jellied eels?

This handpainted sign in Paignton, Devon raised a smile last week...

Jellied Ells.jpg

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ulster Poetry Project - University of Ulster, Coleraine

This Friday evening sees the launch of a new initiative, the Ulster Poetry Project, at the University of Ulster (Coleraine). The project involves the digitisation of important Ulster poetry from the 1800s and 1900s. As you might imagine, many significant Ulster-Scots texts are included in the selection, such as:

• Campbell, James, The Poems and Songs of James Campbell of Ballynure : with additional songs not before published, (Ballyclare, 1870)

• Huddleston, Robert, A Collection of Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects, (Belfast, 1844)

• Huddleston, Robert, A Collection of Poems and Songs on Different Subjects, (Belfast, 1846)

• McKenzie, Andrew Poems and Songs on Different Subjects, (Belfast 1810)

• Porter, Hugh, Poetical Attempts / by Hugh Porter, a County of Down Weaver, (Belfast, 1813)

• Savage-Armstrong, George Francis, Ballads of Down, (London, 1901)

• Sloan, Edward L, The Bard's Offering : a Collection of Miscellaneous Poems, (Belfast, 1854)

Over recent months here at the 'Burn I've referred to both Savage-Armstrong and Campbell - it's great to see their work being brought to wider public availability. Dr Frank Ferguson is to be congratulated for developing the Project - and for delivering high quality, authentic, uncontroversial work with Ulster-Scots language and literature.

Monday, July 26, 2010

A conversation with a thatcher on the roof of King Billy's house

Now there's a surreal title for a blog post! It's all true - last week, while on a family holiday in south Devon, I visited a house at Aish (near Stoke Gabriel, outside Paignton) which is the location where William of Orange held his first Parliament having landed the day before at Brixham.The "Parliament Stone" outside the cottage marks the event and bears the inscription "William Prince of Orange is said to have held his first Parliament here on 6 November 1688". I'd seen a photo of the house in the Brixham Heritage Museum and decided to seek it out. (At nearby Totnes they have an annual orange rolling competition each August.)

The thatcher was very interesting to talk to - he uses Devon-grown materials with some items (spars) imported from Poland. He also said that about 50 years ago the local authorities offered grants for thatched houses to be preserved. I am pretty sure that here in Northern Ireland, their counterparts were offering grants to replace thatch with slates, a major reason why there are hardly any thatched cottages here any more. My overall experience of south Devon is one where local identity, history and produce are all valued, where organisations like the Torbay Coast and Countryside Trust are doing a good job. If only that were the case here in our increasingly suburbanised consumerised Northern Ireland. Click the pics to enlarge.

Friday, July 16, 2010

The Ulster-Scots origins of Golf


With the recent exploits of Ulster golfers Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy, I was reminded of this post on Nelson McCausland's blog. Whilst Nelson is right about Thomas Sinclair, golf actually appeared in Ulster much earlier than this. In the 1620s, Sir Hugh Montgomery (1560 - 1636) had a sports green created in his town of Newtownards, for the students at the classics school to enjoy golf, football and archery when taking a break from their tuition in Latin, Greek and Logycks. Not far away, at Mount Stewart, Robert Stewart (Viscount Castlereagh, 1769 - 1822) had a portrait painted of himself around 1780 playing golf, with club in hand and ball at his feet. You can see the painting if you visit Mount Stewart today. I've only ever played one round of golf, with a few schoolfriends at Kirkistown about 20 years ago, but the ball went at 90º to the angle I intended, so that was the end of that! But I've recently found my natural level - Pirate Golf at Dundonald, or the much cheaper putting green at Donaghadee Commons - with the three weans. Sometimes they let me win...

An excellent overview of Ulster-Scots and golf in Ulster can be found in Ullans, 1998 edition.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Congratulations Londonderry


To be named as the first ever UK City of Culture is a remarkable achievement. I hope that the Scottish / Ulster-Scots contribution to the city's history and culture will be included in the activities and events in 2013.

Whilst the Ards and north Down holds the cherished position of "Birthplace of the Ulster-Scots" (note - awaits backlash from Co Antrim readers :-) ), Derry wasn't far behind. It's important to remember that while Hugh Montgomery was bringing lowland Scottish families into east Ulster (via Donaghadee) from May 1606 onwards, by Spring 1607 his younger brother George Montgomery was doing the same in west Ulster. Specifically, he brought people from Glasgow, Ayr, Largs, Greenock and Irvine into the ports of Donegal, Killybegs and Derry - all a good six months prior to the Flight of the (Gaelic Irish) Earls from nearby Rathmullan.

George had been made Bishop of Derry, Raphoe and Clogher and he took a great interest in the church lands which went with the job and in making them a commercial opportunity; his portrait still hangs in Clogher Cathedral today. George Montgomery is said to have kept records of the seamen and passengers who arrived - I don't know if these papers have survived, but what a discovery it would be to find them! However just a few years later Derry became a centre of English enterprise and the small Scots community was overwhelmed. Here's a glimpse of the early Scots in the city -

"...When Derry was granted to the City of London in 1610, the former residents had to be compensated. Among those were five or six men, about one tenth of the total, who were almost certainly Scots. Their names were preponderantly those of the south west of Scotland, such as Boyd, Patterson and Wray..." (from Perceval Maxwell).

Towards the end of the century, the English authorities' regard for the Ulster-Scots of the area hadn't improved. During the Siege of 1689, when thousands of Ulster-Scots from the surrounding hinterland sought refuge within the walls of the city (an exodus caused by the infamous Comber Letter which was addressed to Hugh Montgomery III, the Earl of Mount Alexander) a comment was made that "No matter how many of them die, they are but a pack of Scotch Presbyterians". Mount Alexander turned to the Covenanters of the Ards, led by their minister David Houston, for protection. So the ever-resolute Houston gathered a force of Covenanters and... headed for Derry, the city that his old friend and colleague Alexander Peden had foretold on 4 February 1685 (while at the mid-Antrim home of a Mr Vernor) as follows - "Oh hunger, hunger in Derry, many a black, pale face shall be in thee and fire, fire..."

So, the Ulster-Scots story of the city is (in my view) the mortar that holds the bricks of its many other stories together. Let's hope somebody does a brilliant job of bringing that story to life for 2013 and beyond.

(PS: it is of course tragic that Ballyhalbert's brave bid for the title was unsuccessful. Perhaps we will stand a better chance next time, now that the water treatment plant is finished. The untreated sewage in the bay meant that the first bid was just going through the motions...)

W Axl Rose and the first Bailies and Roses in Ulster

I was a teenage "metaller". My hair never got too long (my mother threatened to cut it in the middle of the night; my black Status Quo t-shirt mysteriously vanished in the laundry...), but I bought my copy of Kerrang! every Thursday morning at Page One Newsagents in Newtownards, had a tab at a dingy record shop in North Street in Newtownards called Music World, and bought my first guitar aged about 14 - a Yamaha acoustic that Graeme still has.

I was 15 when Guns N Roses hit the airwaves, and I was the first one in school (as far as I can remember) to buy Appetite for Destruction - on black audio cassette. Up until then, I'd never really got into the Iron Maiden and Metallica that my friends were into. But this was different - brilliant songs with melody and power, with anger and a fire that you'd never get from permed Bon Jovi or Def Leppard in a billion years. Appetite was like a musical petrol bomb (or, for those of you who know it, it was "a molotov cocktail with a match to go"). The video for Welcome to the Jungle had newsreel footage of Belfast riots - and the music media and UK tabloids went into overdrive. That summer I remember being chastened at a Christian youth event by a total stranger of around the same age as me because I was wearing a Guns N Roses t-shirt, who he loudly declared to be "the most immoral band in the world". (I think he was annoyed because he only had a Marillion t-shirt on...) Right enough, the amount of swearing on the album was unprecedented at the time (I'm not condoning it, but it added to the atmosphere around the band and just increased their notoriety), but it was the force and magnetism of the music that gripped me - Izzy Stradlin's rhythm guitar, Slash's lead guitar breaks, the quality of the songwriting... and of course the unique voice of their singer, W. Axl Rose, who could sing in about three different registers. His real name was William Bruce Rose, with the surname later changed to Bailey, and then back to Rose again. In a summer when the UK charts were topped by the likes of Rick Astley and the Pet Shop Boys, Appetite for Destruction was my soundtrack for 1987/1988. It signposted me towards Lynyrd Skynyrd, "Exile"-era Rolling Stones, and other great classics - real bands with guitars, bass and drums. No synthesisers, sampling or overdubbed nonsense. Appetite went on to become the best selling debut album of all time, selling 28 million copies. When they released their next album, a 4 track acoustic EP called "GN'R Lies", I tuned my Yamaha down a semi tone and mastered the EP's hit single "Patience".

Guns N Roses' epic double album - a far more polished release entitled Use Your Illusion I & II - was released on the same day in 1991 as Nirvana's Nevermind. Their singer Kurt Cobain soon replaced Axl Rose at the top of the rock music tree, with Nevermind selling 26 million copies to date. Earlier this year Cobain's roots were traced to County Tyrone.

Fast forward 23 years and next month Guns N Roses (well, Axl Rose and a completely different band) will play in Belfast for the first time. At 38 I'm too old to be bothered going, and too skint to spend £55 on a ticket anyway. But when I heard they were coming, I remembered an old article which said that Rose had grown up as a member of a Pentecostal church in rural Indiana, and was of Scotch-Irish descent. He's in the Wikipedia list of Scotch-Irish Americans, and in the band's heyday was often pictured on stage wearing a long kilt. (Incidentally, another band I was really into at the time was superb Atlanta five piece The Black Crowes. I bumped into the two founder members and brothers, Chris and Rich[ard] Robinson, in the Virgin megastore in Belfast on the afternoon of their first concert here. In a magazine interview at the time they also said they were Scotch-Irish).

So what about Axl Rose's family tree? I don't know if he's ever traced his roots (Axl, if you're reading this, I can recommend the Ulster Historical Foundation as your best starting point!). In general terms, the first Bailies to come to Ulster from Scotland were tenants of Sir James Hamilton. In 1613 a William Bailie was one of the twelve burgesses of Bangor, later some Bailies settled at Inishargy (north of Kircubbin) and some sailed across Strangford Lough to Ringdufferin. Some later travelled to Hamilton's lands in County Cavan where they founded Bailieborough. There was also a Scottish settler called George Rose who had moved to Ulster sometime before 1641 and became a tenant on Sir Foulke Conway's estate at Lisburn. Around the same time back in Scotland a John Rose is recorded as writing Latin poetry for the King.

Nowadays in our house it's my oldest son Jacob who cranks up the Guns n' Roses (he's one of the Guitar Hero generation, who is now playing the real thing. His mates have guitars too and it's a billbate*), but the other day we played Sweet Child O' Mine together - me on the acoustic rhythm guitar and him doing the Slash impersonation. He has clips of himself on YouTube. I've posted one below of him playing along to the original.

So when Axl Rose arrives in Belfast in August, maybe he'll be yet another American descendant of that first generation of Ulster-Scots, walking in the footsteps of his forefathers.

And, with over 34.5 million views on YouTube, the original:

* I can't find the word billbate in any Scots dictionary, or The Hamely Tongue. Maybe it's unique to Ards Peninsula Ulster-Scots.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Ulster-Scots and the Union

F3ECD6AB-A148-4053-BD2B-DC2CE080BF90.jpgThere's a series in the News Letter at the moment with various contributors giving their views on what the United Kingdom might be like in 2021 - the centenary of the foundation of Northern Ireland. Often in recent years, Ulster-Scots and Unionism have been portrayed as the same thing. They're not. The Ulster-Scots community predates the Union, as a community the Ulster-Scots have sometimes supported the Union, and have sometimes opposed the Union, and if at some point in future the Union comes to an end (perhaps by being broken up, or by being absorbed into a bigger European "superstate") then Ulster-Scots will outlive the Union.

This is another example that demonstrates how cultural identity and political identity are not the same thing.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

"Soda Farls and Redemption Songs" - review by Diane Amov on

I'm absolutely blown away by a review of our new CD, by American writer and music blogger Diane Amov. Diane found us on YouTube a few weeks ago, bought the CD from iTunes and has written this amazing review on the website I can't tell you how honoured I feel that someone who is clearly highly knowledgeable about early 20th century gospel musical styles, and who lives on the other side of the Atlantic, really gets what we're trying to do. Sometimes we've wondered if the songs we learned sitting at the stove at Ballyfrench, or at the wee simple mission halls around the country, are just special to our family or our locality. This review is another example of that cultural highway that links lowland Scotland, Ulster and America.

Diane has been kind enough to include further references to our music on her own (very impressive) blog, Jerusalem Tomorrow, where she has seen fit to place us among people we regard as the best in the genre and musical heroes - artists whose music we soaked up growing up, passed down to us from the older generation.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Happy 4th of July

Today is of course Independence Day in the US; this short post is for all American readers.

"...Through the American War of Independence, the American Civil War and right up to the present day, the Ulster-Scots/Scotch-Irish influence upon the state of Virginia has been a constant factor. A popular quotation often attributed to General George Washington during the War of Independence is "...if defeated everywhere else, I will make my final stand for liberty among the Scotch-Irish of my native Virginia...", although it is more likely that he didn’t use those specific words, but something very similar. A book published in 1788 quoted Washington as saying, in November 1776, that if defeated everywhere else, he would make a stand in Augusta County, Virginia. Augusta County was a Scotch-Irish heartland...". With this landscape, you can clearly see the appeal of Augusta County for Ulster emigrants.

(Excerpt above is taken from a website I worked on in 2007,

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Private James Thompson of Kirkistown, killed at the Somme, aged 20

With the Battle of the Somme commemorations today, I thought this would be a relevant poem to post here. As far as I know he was my grandfather's cousin. My grandfather, William Thompson (1901 - 1957) was just 15 when he wrote this memorial poem. It was typeset and printed by the Newtownards Chronicle for the family, who kept a framed copy on the wall for many years.

Private James Thompson poem.jpg

In Loving Memory of our Dear Son Private James Thompson, R.I.R of Kirkistown

Who was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval on 1st July 1916, aged 20 years
“What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” - John 13 v 7

A loved one has been called away, he’s in our midst no more
In a land afar his body lies far from his native shore

He bade us all a last farewell, a happy brave “Good-bye”
And with the gallant few went forth to suffer and to die

Upon the first day of July amidst the shot and shell
‘Twas in the battle of the Somme he in the conflict fell

What anguish fills each fainting heart and many cheeks grow pale
And in that sorrow-stricken home how many mourn and wail

None in that home shall e’er forget the one so bright and fair
Who young in years was called away, now sits a vacant chair

No one was near when in that hour he breathed his latest breath
But Jesus led him gently on thro’ the dark vale of death

He answered not the roll call here but in that world so fair
When Jesus calls the roll above he’ll not be missing there

We know ‘twas in that solemn hour his spirit took its flight
To dwell with God above the skies in realms of love and light

Oh, sorrow not, but cast your care on Christ, the Unfailing One,
Who ever doeth all things well and say “Thy will be done”

Let this a warning be to all to cease their sinful strife
Thy soul may be required of thee escape thou for thy Life

Oh, be prepared to meet thy God this warning he doth give
Consider now your latter end, believe and thou shall live

And then, where parting is unknown, all sorrow shall be o’er
For strife and conflict never come on yonder happy shore.

Note: according to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the memorial of rifleman James Thompson of the Royal Irish Rifles (A Company, 13th Battalion) is at Thiepval, Pier and Face 15A and 15B. His parents are recorded as William and Margaret Thompson, Kirkistown.

"I am not an Ulsterman but yesterday, the 1st. July, as I followed their amazing attack, I felt that I would rather be an Ulsterman than anything else in the world." - Captain Wilfred Spender.