This article first appeared in The Glynns Volume 37 (2009).  It is reproduced here in full.

‘Hag the heid aff him!’ This is the legendary advice alleged to be customarily given by Glenarm hurling supporters to their man on the field when he is challenged for possession of the ball by a member of  the opposing team. It may of course be subversive propaganda, spread to inspire fear in Cushendall men that they are facing some new dimension in decapitation. But whatever the truth of the story, it is a fact that most of the parishes in north Antrim which boast a hurling team are in Scotch-speaking areas — namely, Armoy, Ballycastle, Carey, Cloughmills, Dunloy, Glenarm, Loughguile, not forgetting Larne in the east. The exceptions would be Cushendun, Cushendall and Glenariffe, which would usually be described as Hiberno-English­ speaking.

The term ‘Ulster Scots’, it should be noted, is a relatively new one, which came into vogue about 1930,and is used primarily by academics and outsiders. The people who actually speak it simply call it ‘English’, and when they mean standard English they qualify it as ‘polite’.

It is my aim in this article to attempt some clarification of the linguistic heritage of the Ulster Scotch dialect of English in the Glens of Antrim, and to dispel some of the myths and misunderstandings which are at present being peddled in the public domain.

The area

Being born and raised in the upper reaches of the Braid valley, with ancestral roots there and in Carnlough, Glenravel and north Co Derry, I would naturally favour a broad definition of ‘the Glens’. It has never been clear to me what the criterion was for inclusion in the Nine Glens. Some have suggested that this grouping is essentially coastal, or with rivers draining to the coast. A logical starting point might therefore be Glynn and Glenoe on the south side of Larne, as the very names of these places scream for inclusion in any catalogue of Antrim glens — as does Glenwhirry, a short distance inland, whose river goes towards the Lough Neagh basin. Just over the hill from Glenwhirry is the Braid valley, whose river also ends up in Lough Neagh.

According to Father J O’Laverty (History of the Diocese of Down and Connor), the Braid once gloried in the name of Gleann Fada na Feinne (‘Long Glen of the`Fenian Warriors’). Having such a long historical association with St Patrick, the Braid is surely to be ranked as first among equals in any reckoning of glens. ‘But,’ I hear some of you object, ‘might this not open the floodgates, and allow Glenravel to make a case?’ It certainly would, and indeed these two places were formerly united as one parish, and people used to walk from the upper reaches of the Braid over the side of Collin mountain and past where Quoile dam now lies, to come out at Cargan. So, in the interests of inclusivity, it is surely time to think in terms of the ‘Greater Glens’, which have such a close affinity in dialect. We might even manage to include one or two glens on the other side of the Bann, such as the Roe valley.

Learning a reduced vocabulary

My longest memory of having a language problem goes back to when I started primary school in Carnlough, and my parents instructing me that in school you were supposed to say ‘can’t’, ‘couldn’t’, ‘wouldn’t’ etc., rather than ‘cannae’, ‘couldnae’, ‘woldnae’ and such like. The language of the playground was, however, robustly Scotch and no boy would have brought down the ridicule of his classmates on his head by speaking classroom English in the school yard. Our Scotch dialect was even strengthened by mutual reinforcement: ‘now’ rhymed with ‘view’; ‘house’, ‘mouth’ and ‘out’ with ‘uncouth’; ‘wear’ with ‘spear’; but ‘beat’ with ‘great’.

We learnt quickly, however, to restrict our language in class to approved words and grammatical forms, essentially to speak a subset of words of the wider English, an impoverished version — to the detriment of the imagination, creativity and extended vocabulary which we were so often urged to display. And there was quite a lot to learn for school purposes: that words like ‘talk’, ‘walk’, ‘wall’, ‘water’ and ‘warm’ should have an `aw’ rather than an ‘a’ sound; that the past tense of ‘know’ is ‘knew’ rather than ‘knowed’; similarly with ‘threw’ and ‘throwed’; other alternative past tenses which would be heard at home and had to be re-learnt would be ‘shaked’, ‘catched’, ‘gaed’ (went), `gi’ed’ (gave) and ‘teached’ (standard English has gone down this route too, with ‘reached’ rather than the older ‘raught’).

Inclusion and exclusion

At post-primary school in Ballymena, my pronunciation of ‘beard’ (almost the same as ‘bared’ only shorter) attracted adverse comment from the Art teacher, while one of my classmates who had not done his French homework offered the excuse that he was ‘walin potatoes’. The French teacher was a diminutive lady about sixty years old with terrifying rimless glasses. ‘You were whot, Montgomery?’ says she of the rimless steely stare. In his confusion and struggle to get the word ‘potatoes’ for ‘preatas’ Montgomery had totally forgotten, or never considered, that ‘walin’ (sorting good from bad) also needed attention, and duly incurred the double wrath of the French teacher, who was not well disposed towards older varieties of English. It never occurred to the unfortunate Montgomery that the teacher would not understand ‘walin’, and he had no other word to explain the activity he was engaged in, which took precedence over French homework.

The above incident well illustrates the mechanism by which the fate of words was determined: ‘walin’ was not an activity which teachers knew much about, in the context of potatoes anyway. It was not an activity which occurred in the classroom, where you would instead be taught to ‘categorise’ things. So ‘walin’ got relegated to the context of potatoes and survived mainly as an agricultural term.

It was the same process which permitted the survival of many Gaelic words in the Scotch dialect in rural areas, when such words did not feature in the classroom. The Scotch dialect of course was, and is, banned from the classroom, and hence provides a non-judgemental space for banned vocabulary which people find useful and necessary. It contains a substantial component of Gaelic words, as do Hiberno-English dialects generally.

Foremost among these words in Antrim is ‘preata’ for ‘potato’, and still prevalent are ‘clabar’ for ‘mud’ and ‘glár’ for very sticky mud or the stuff on a riverbed which geography teachers informed us was called ‘alluvium’, as well as ‘scrath’ (a green sod) and ‘crotal’ for the slow-growing moss on stones called ‘lichen’, which many people are still unsure how to pronounce. A common reproach for laziness or inactivity, which was often delivered to us as children by my mother, was: ‘Ye wold sit there tae the crotal grows on ye.’

Also persistent after the adoption of the Scotch dialect where it had an interface with the Gaelic language were words expressing strong feeling, for which people obviously found difficulty in acquiring a sufficiently expressive English alternative: words such as ‘goldar’ (an angry yell), ‘ goilpín’ (a fool), ‘gamaral’ (a stupid person) or ‘ scraidín’ (a wee twerp) and spailpín (a rascal). The word ‘hen’ was probably not hard to acquire, and might even occur in the classroom, but when more precision was required to define a young hen, or pullet, the Gaelic word ‘eireóg’ was retained, as was the word lachtar’ for a brood, and ‘crudh’ for a pighouse. Many Gaelic words for homely or domestic things and activities have also survived, some of them quite technical, e.g. ‘craosaire’ (a roaring fire), ‘stoich’ (fumes) and ‘buthal’ (a crook for hanging a pot on a crane).

Anglo-Saxon, or Old English as it is sometimes called, is also a fount of many expressive words long banished from polite society, such as ‘doof’ for a stupid person, ‘ceorl’ for a big strong man (‘c’ here is like ‘k’ — but the word is still in official English as ‘churl’) and ‘thaveless’ to describe a useless person (from Anglo-Saxon ‘theaw’ meaning an ability or attribute). If you were to ring the doctor and tell him or her that your finger was ‘bealin’ and that you could ‘thole it nae Langer’, he or she might want to see it, to verify that the finger was in fact suppurating (which you might not have known yourself), and that you had reached the limit of your tolerance for the pain. Other ailments might include a ‘byl’ (boil) on your neck, ‘the mouls’ (chilblains), or just feeling a bit ‘oorie’ (off colour) in the morning.

Differences in usage

There are also some subtle differences, in the usage of certain words, between standard English and Ulster Scotch: in Ulster Scotch you can be ‘starvin wi’ cauld’ as well as hunger (cf. Gaelic stiúgtha le fuacht/ocras); a ‘clever’ person could mean a generous person, and the same word could be used to describe a generously fitting garment; you could do a ‘fool’ thing even if you were not actually a fool; a ‘white’ is a physical cut or an acerbic remark (from Anglo-Saxon ‘ thwitan’ — to cut — still in English as ‘whittle’); a plumber could be ‘trysted’ (same vowel sound as ‘twice’) to repair a leaking pipe; it becomes ‘clear’ in the morning rather than becoming ‘light’; when the rain stops it has ‘faired’.

If I find myself at the same place every day, I ‘be’ there every day, whereas I ‘am’ there when physically present, and you ‘will can’ do something in the future as well as ‘will be able’ to do it. When emphasising a command by using the personal pronoun, for example ‘you stay there’, the order is often reversed to ‘stay you there’. This exactly mirrors the word order in Gaelic.

Ironically enough, many of the words which were erased from our formal English, and derided as uncouth speech, would have to be re-learnt as respectable and academic when people went on to study English at an advanced level. The man widely acclaimed as the 14th-century father of the modern English language, Geoffrey Chaucer, wrote about ‘broun breed’ when describing the diet of a poor widow (The Canterbury Tales), but the education system seems oblivious to the fact that for miles around Ballymena people use the same pronunciation. ‘Lang’ as a variant of ‘long’ was also acceptable mainstream English in the 14th and 15th centuries in both England and Scotland, as is clear from the literature.

Some precious words which are endangered

It is now rare to hear somebody say that they are ‘ga’in tae gie the table a dicht (wipe) wi’ a clout’, or that the corn is just ‘brairdin’ (peeping through the ground), or that they hear the ‘sough’ (sound) of the wind. Violence is now of course much less socially acceptable than formerly, and that could partly explain the demise in words for it, but previously anyone who suffered a beating might have been said to have got a ‘whalin’, a ‘knoolin’ (Anglo-Saxon ‘cnyllan’ — to strike) or a ‘suslin'(Anglo-Saxon ‘susl’ — torment).

To trust something was to ‘lippen’ it; to cut was to ‘sned’ and to cease was to ‘deval’. When a piece of wood shrank after drying it was said to ‘gazen’ or ‘geesen’, and allot her way of expressing shrinking was to ‘crine in’ (probably from Gaelic ‘críonadh’ — to shrink). If your hair was out of control you would need ‘tae gie your heid a clat’ (Gaelic ‘clad’ meaning ‘comb’), and having built a ruck of hay you had to ‘clat it doun frae the tap’ to run the rain off it.

Origins of English and its dialects

The story of what is now called the Scotch, or Scots, dialect with its Irish offshoot, now called Ulster Scots in mainstream English, really begins with the invasion of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century A.D. Their language was an offshoot of German and had several dialects, but the main division seems to have been a north /south one. Their social organisation comprised several warring kingdoms. Their Northumbrian kingdom extended well into present-day Scotland, and later became a highly respected Christian kingdom, entrusted by Rome with evangelising much of the continent.

Anglo-Saxon dialects were robbed of their function as an administrative language in 1066 by the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror, whose language was Norman French. However, the old language persisted among the common people in a debased form, and came to be the basis of modern English by having Norman French grafted onto it. This is what Chaucer successfully rendered as a written language in his Canterbury Tales at the end of the 14th century. His spelling was not as prescriptive as our spelling in English today, but it is recognisable as the basis of the modern language.

However, the claim that Chaucer is the father of the English language may well be disputed by the Scots. A Scottish priest, John Barbour — whose lifespan coincided almost exactly with the 14th century — wrote an epic poem, in much the same language as Chaucer, on the life and exploits of Robert the Bruce. It was Bruce who militarily refuted England’s claim to exercise overlordship in Scotland and secured the Scottish throne for himself.

Barbour’s poem extends to twenty ‘books’, each averaging about 600 lines, and is regarded as mostly accurate history. The language is accessible to a modern reader with a little perseverance, such as must be employed when reading Shakespeare. This is remarkable when one considers that it was written in the 14th century.

The Makars

Barbour is the earliest of a group of mediaeval Scottish composers or ‘makers’ of verse called ‘makars’ in their own dialect. In fact, the 14th-century dialect of John Barbour is actually more accessible to the reader of modern English than is the English of Chaucer. The northern version of Middle English may have shaken off, or not suffered, the influence of Norman French to the same extent as its southern counterpart, due to the influence of the Danish Viking settlements and the resulting permeation of Scandinavian words into northern speech. Here are a few lines from Barbour’s epic on Robert the Bruce, describing preparations to take refuge on Rathlin Island:

‘Syne gert he his mengye mak them yar

Then he required his retinue to make themselves ready

Towart Rauchryne be se to far

Towards Raghery by sea to fare

That is ane ile in the se,

That is an isle in the sea

And may weill in mydwart be

And may well midway be

Betuix Kyntyr and Irland

Betwixt Kintyre and Ireland

(Robert the Bruce, by Chris Brown, 2004)

Up until the 18th century the conception of literature was that it was history or poetry, especially long epic poems and plays. (The novel was invented only in the mid-1700s.) Barbour was followed by talented poets in pre-Reformation Scotland, of whom the best were Robert Henrysoun, who lived for most of the 15th century, William Dunbar, whose life spanned the second half of that century and a score of years
of the 1500s, and Sir David Lyndsay, whose life coincided with the half century just before the Reformation was established in Scotland in 1560.

Robert Henrysoun, a priest himself, wrote a long and eloquent poem on marital infidelity, ‘The Testament of Cresseid’, where the planets are invoked to give judgement on the errant wife. To give a flavour of his language, this is the verse in which he pays tribute to Chaucer:

‘I mend the fire and beikit me about,

Then tuik ane drink my spreitis to comfort,

And armit me weill frae the cauld thereout:

To cut the winter nicht and mak it short,

I tuik ane Quair, and left all uther sport,

Written by worthie Chaucer glorious,

Of fair Cresseid, and worthie Troylus.’

(Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, ed. Tom Scott, 1970)

William Dunbar was also a priest, as well as being a royal official at the court of James IV of Scotland. He was a master wordsmith and could write poetry which ranged from the movingly pious (`Of the Nativitie of Christ’) to the almost pornographic (‘The Tretis of the Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo’). Here is a quotation from the poem on the nativity of Christ:

‘Rorate celi desuper!

Hevins distil your balmy shouris,

For now is risen the bricht day ster

Fro the rose Mary, flour of flouris.

The clear Son, whom no cloud devouris,

Surminting Phebus in the est

Is cumin of his hevinly touris;

Et puer nobis natus est.’

(Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, op cit)

The second line translates the Latin of the first line, and the last Latin line (Unto us a boy is born) is repeated at the end of each stanza and rhymed with an English word.

‘The Passioun of Crist’ by Dunbar is interesting not only as powerfully emotive poetry but also for the light it sheds on the relationship between spelling and pronunciation, by examination of the rhyme scheme ABABBCBC. Take for example this stanza:

‘Than rudlie come Remembrance

Ay ruggin me withouttin rest,

Quhilk crose and nalis, scharp scurge and lance

And bludy crowne befoir me kest;

Than Pane with passioun me opprest,

And evir did Petie on me pow

Saying, Behald how Jowis hes drest

Thy blissit salvatour Chryst Jesu!’

(The Poems of William Dunbar, ed. James Kinsley, The Clarendon Press, 1979)

Very interesting is the ‘ow’ vowel combination, which can rhyme with ‘u’. So ‘pow’ (pull) rhymes with ‘Jesu’. This pronunciation of ‘pull’ may still be heard among good speakers of Scots in both Ireland and Scotland. One often sees it written as ‘pu”. Similarly, one may still hear this original pronunciation of ‘how’ (hu), ‘bow’ (bu), meaning ‘bend’, and ‘sow’ (su), signifying the porcine animal (Anglo-Saxon spelling in brackets).

Still in regular use is the word ‘ay’ (always), pronounced like the letter ‘i’; ‘ruggin’ (pulling) is now almost extinct, but it is still possible to hear the pronunciation of ‘pity’ with an ‘e’ rather than a short ‘i’, as indicated by the spelling ‘petie’ above. Among the strongest speakers in north-east Ulster you can still hear this vowel sound in words like ‘pity’, ‘live’, ‘minister’, ‘sick’, ‘die’. Where difficulties of comprehension arise, they are essentially due to archaisms in spelling, rather than to differences of language structure or basic vocabulary.

Sir David Lyndsay was a powerful propagandist and advocate of religious reform. His drama in verse, Ane Satyr of the Thrie Estaitis, is a masterpiece, which mercilessly lampoons the pre-Reformation church, state and society in general, because of their lax morals and venality. As with Dunbar and Chaucer himself, there is a penchant at times for sexual explicitness and coarseness, which would nowadays qualify as sexual harassment, particularly since with these writers the ‘humour’ always seems to be at the expense of women. It is a trait which carries right through to Burns.

Lyndsay’s play runs to well over 5000 lines and contains a vast array of characters, many of them personifications of human qualities or virtues and human defects, such as ‘Wantonnes’, ‘Sensualitie’, ‘Dissair (Deceit), ‘Gude Counsall’, ‘Chastitie’, ‘Flattrie’, ‘Veritie’, and one may detect homage to Chaucer in the character of ‘The Pardoner’.

Here is a short speech from `Wantonnes’ excoriating the morals of the pre-Reformation Catholic Church hierarchy:


‘Beleiue ye, Sir, that Lecherie be Sin?

Na, trow nocht that: this is my resson quhy:

First, at the Romane Kirk will ye begin, —

Quhilk is the lemand lamp of lechery, —

Quhair Cardinals and Bischops, generally,

To luif Ladies thay think ane pleasant sport,

And out of Rome hes baneist Chastity,

Quha with our Prelats can get na resort.’


And from ‘Veritie’ exhorting judges to moral probity:


‘Diligite lustitiam qui iudicatis terram.

Luif Iustice, ye quha hes ane Judges cure

In earth, and dreid the awfull ludgement

Of him that sall cum iudge baith rich and pure,

Rycht terribilly, with bludy wounds rent.

That dreidfull day into your harts imprent;

Beleuand weill, how and quhat maner ye,

Vse Iustice heir, til vthers, thair at lenth,

That day, but doubt, sa sall ye iudgit be.

Wa, than, and duill be to yow Princes, all,

Sufferand the pure anes for till be opprest!

In everlasting burnand fyre ye sall

With Lucifer richt dulfullie be drest.’


Echoing Dunbar, Lyndsay begins this address by ‘Veritie’ to the judges appropriately enough with a Latin line, which is translated by the following line. It is a powerful exhortation, rather than a venomous attack. Again, there is not much that is prohibitive to a modern reader, except that ‘cure’ is ‘care’, ‘luif’ is now spelt ‘love’, `wa’ is ‘woe’, ‘but’ is ‘without’, ‘duill’ (French ‘deuil’) means ‘sorrow’ and remains in modern English only in the adjective ‘doleful’. Note also that the verbal nouns ‘sufferand’ (suffering) and ‘burnand’ (burning) are differentiated in their ending (-and) from the verbal adjective (everlasting) which has an -ing ending.

Echoing Chaucer’s Pardoner in The Canterbury Tales, Lyndsay has The Pardoner soliciting spiritual business for worldly gain:

‘Bona dies! Bona dies!

Devoit peopill, gude day I say yow.

Now tarie ane lytill quhyll, I pray yow,

Till I be wit yow knawin.

Wait ye weill how I am namit?

Ane nobill man, and vndefamit,

Gif all the suith war schawin.

I am sir Robert Rome-raker,

And perfite publike pardoner,

Admittit be the Paip.

Sirs, I sail schaw yow, for my wage,

My pardons and my pilgramage,

Quhilk ye sail se and graip.

I giue to the deuill, with gude intent,

This vnsell wickit New-testament.’

(Reprint of 1602 Edinburgh edition printed by Robert Charteris)

Only a few words here would be inaccessible to the modern reader of mainstream English, even given the antiquated spellings: ‘wait’ (a variant of ‘wat’ or ‘wot’ meaning ‘know’). ‘Graip’ meaning ‘feel’ is still a common usage in Ulster Scotch (‘grope’ in mainstream English), as is the pronunciation ‘de’il’ for ‘devil’ in idiomatic expressions, such as ‘de’il the bit o’ it’, meaning ‘not at all’. The Pardoner, presumably a priest or monk, is portrayed as offering spiritual favours for financial reward, and decrying the printed scriptures as evil. ‘Unsell’ is an archaic word for wicked or evil, from Anglo-Saxon ‘un-sael’ with the same sense.

The century prior to the Reformation was the age of the great ‘Makars’ and of a culture which did not exhibit any sense of inferiority to, or indeed of alienation from, English culture. In both cases culture was firmly rooted in a European tradition which was informed by Classical Latin scholarship and maintained by contact with Europe. They did not regard themselves as writing in anything but English, and while it may have differed in varying degrees from the dialects of England, no dialect had priority or supremacy. It should be noted of the Makars that they were familiar with what are now standard English forms as well as Scotch alternatives, and that they used both forms quite happily as the rhyme scheme required.

Scots may feel justifiably aggrieved that the modern language is called ‘English’ rather than ‘Scotch’ or ‘Scots’. The tradition of trying to differentiate the two by home-made spellings, and claiming that ‘Scots’ is or was a separate language, originated only after the final subjugation of Scotland at Culloden and is no more authentic than the geometric patterns on a modern kilt. In any case, the language was originally called ‘Inglis’ in Scotland itself, and ‘Scotch’ originally referred to Gaelic, ‘Scotus’ being the Latin word for ‘Irish’.

The Reformation in Scotland and the Union with England

So what defines a ‘valid’ pronunciation or spelling? Any pronunciation is valid when it has an established history; uniformity of pronunciation can be enforced only by social exclusion in its various guises, just as the Ulster Scotch dialect is still in practice excluded from the media, education, the justice system and social administration.

A language usually achieves an accepted standardised written form when it achieves a mature literature which is acknowledged as worthwhile. Standard English achieved this to a limited extent with Chaucer and, a couple of hundred years later, with the King James bible. Scotch English achieved a standard comparable to that of Chaucer with the Makars, but thereafter fused with southern English.

Any emergent divergence of Scottish English from its English counterpart was cut short by the Union of the Crowns in 1603, when the Scottish court moved to London. It was probably aborted even earlier due to the Reformation and the establishment by the Scottish parliament of Calvinism (albeit with bishops) as the official religion of Scotland in 1560. The Scottish reformer John Knox and his contemporaries did all their preaching and pamphleteering in standard English, and the Scotch dialect was portrayed as an unreconstructed Catholic form of speech, which was not compatible with the new religion.

It was common for preachers around this time to write their pamphlets in southern English, but to tell a story in the sermon in Scotch dialect when they wanted to get a message across. In Knox’s writing it is essentially sinners and ignorant people who have Scotch dialect words put into their mouths. The Reformation necessitated a re-formation of the language to some extent: for example the word ‘priest’ was relegated to the Catholic domain, although it is simply the Anglo-Saxon form (preost) of the Latin ‘presbyter’, ultimately from the Greek word for old.

The union with England started a rush to learn southern English pronunciation, and the author Billy Kay notes in his book The Mither Tongue that there was a proliferation of elocution schools in Edinburgh, some of them run by people from Dublin! All this was happening, of course, just before the dialect was first transplanted to Ulster with the settlers in the early 17th century.

The revived written Scotch

It is important to realise that there is a hiatus of at least 200 years between the writing of the pre-Reformation Makars and later attempts at writing in a self-conscious Scotch idiom in the 18th century. The Reformation cut Scotland off from her traditional links with European culture, due to fear and suspicion of European powers.

When people began to think about the loss of the dialect and the need to revive it —around 1800 — the cultural heritage and Classical Latin learning of the great Makars had been lost. Probably very few people knew where their manuscripts were, and the political tenor of the times would have discouraged their publication. The revived Scotch was to look to more domestic themes as sources of inspiration — the so-called ‘Kailyard School’, who were men of much reduced educational background. There was no link to the great literature of the past. The new Scotch was to be built again from scratch, and given a non-intellectual flavour in keeping with the spirit of the imperial times. These observations apply to both Scotland and Ulster, and in Ulster it was only the kailyard version of the Scotch language which was transplanted: a great literature had previously existed here only in Gaelic.

The revived written Scotch reached its highest point with Robert Burns at the end of the 18th century, but it had no literary tradition to fall back on. Burns based his work on the oral tradition, especially on collecting songs, and this had its own value and importance because Calvinism was vehemently opposed to the secular song tradition. But because later writers and editors had little knowledge of the etymology of words, their improvised spelling is often embarrassing and acts as a barrier to reading.

It seems to get notably worse in the 20th century, and appalling with the new synthetic ‘Ulster Scots’ of the present day. At least Burns could assume that most of his readership could pronounce the words in their own dialect even if the spelling was standard. For example, consider these lines from his brilliant satire ‘The Holy Fair’, which describes a religious revival meeting: 

‘See, up he’s got the word o’ God, An’ meek an’ mim has viewed it,

While Common-sense has taen the road, An’ aff, an’ up the Cowgate’

It is clear from the rhyme scheme that ‘Cowgate’ is to be read to rhyme with ‘viewed it’.

Burns had his devotees in Ulster, notably the best Ulster Scotch poet of all, James Orr of Ballycarry. Orr was a revolutionary who fought at the Battle of Antrim in the 1798 rebellion, and his brother William is famous for his courtroom speech of defiance and patriotism before his execution for treason — a circumstance arising from his association with the United Irishmen. James Orr was very critical of his comrades for alleged cowardice at the Battle of Antrim, but he himself had no wife or children to consider. This verse is from ‘Donegore

‘Come back, ye dastards! — Can ye ought Expect at your returnin’,

But wives an’ weans stript, cattle hought, An’ cots an’ claughin’s burnin’?

Na, haste ye flame; ye ken ye’ll ‘scape, ‘Cause martial worth ye’re clear o’;

The nine-tailed cat, or choakin’ raip’

Is maistly for some hero,

On sic a day.’

(Collected Poems By James Orr Ballycarry, Wm Mullan & Son)

While most of his poems are in standard English, he is a master of Ulster Scotch when he wants to be. But he does not use it to tackle the weighty themes which concerned him, such as patriotism, religion, slavery and the plight of the poor. In contrast to Burns, Orr was an extremely morally upright man. He was a Presbyterian and a Freemason and very much in the vein of tolerance and egalitarianism.

Following Burns and Orr (who died in 1816) there was in Scotland and in Ulster a resurgence of interest in dialect poetry by local authors, especially weavers, who were authentic carriers of the Scotch tongue even if they were poorly educated. Orr himself was educated entirely at home by his father. It was not always easy to publish in book form because of the cost, and writers really needed to have pre­paid subscribers or else the backing of some organisation like the Freemasons. So their work is mostly scattered through newspapers and current journals.

Excellent work has been done by Wilbert Garvin of the traditional music group Ailsa in researching and transcribing some of these local poets, mainly covering the 19th century. The group has set samples of their poems to music and published them as two CDs with accompanying illustrated booklets containing the text and explanatory notes. The poets covered are from County Antrim, and they deal with homely themes, local concerns, humour and social change. So they are valuable as documentary evidence of 19th-century life as well as being a linguistic record.

The collector Sam Henry recorded a number of Scotch dialect songs in Antrim but most of them seem to be basically local versions of songs which were originally from Scotland, as far as I can judge from Dr John Moulden’s book Songs of the People, which is a selection of the best of Henry’s collection. Some of them such as ‘The Bonnie Wee Lass’ and ‘Nae Bonnie Laddie tae tak’ me awa” were relatively well-known, at least until recent times, when the spread of television killed off so much local culture.

Children’s rhymes have been another casualty of dialect suppression, rhymes such as the following (italics indicate dialect pronunciation of normal spelling):

‘Nievey nievey knick knack

What hand will you tak?

The richt or the wrang

I’ll beguile ye if I can.’

‘Nieve’ is an obsolete English word for fist. The rhyme was used when deciding by chance who was to go first, say, in a game. A small object like a coin was hidden in the hand behind a nominated player’s back. Both fists were then closed and rotated in front of the nominee on the opposite team, while repeating the rhyme. The person opposite had to guess which hand contained the object.

The early 20th-century Gaelic writer Sean MacMaolain of Glenariffe, in his autobiographical book Gleann Airbh go Glas Na says he heard strong Scotch dialect spoken by relatives of his who owned a farm in Glenravel. He also records a fragment of a song. It is a localised version of a Scottish song called ‘The Corncrake’:

‘The corncrak’ is noo awa’

The burn runs tae the brim,

An’ Skerry’s taps are covered wi’ snaw —

It caps the highest yin;

An’ caul winds comin’ frae the north

Would pierce a whiteret’s skin.’

This song was sung in the Braid as well by the late Mary Magill, one of Sam Henry’s informants. Her version connects the song with the town of Ayr in Scotland.

A poem which I learnt from my father is called ‘Bowl About’. I have never seen any written source for it, although it was known and recited by other people in the Braid a generation ago, so I give it here in full. Words which are pronounced in the Scotch way are simply italicised if normal English spelling can accommodate them:

‘Lang Jock McLean the tousle loon

Was famed the country round and round;

For drink he couldnae let a be

When e’er the sign burd took his e’e,

But in wold bang with richt guid will

Cryin “Landlady bring in a gill.”


Then if some tipsy friends cam in

The glasses round and round wold spin,

Tae ilka yin begun tae feel

His noddle spinnin like a wheel.


But Jock, if he got safely hame,

Ay contrived tae lay the blame

On Jean that sut her lane, poor body,

Cursin late hours and steamin tody.


At length she heard him at the snick;

Jean never gee’d nor turned her neck,

Tae in Jock comes wi’ yin lang stagger

And lokin round him wi a swagger,

As he tries tae be steady,

Roars “Jean whar’s my supper, get it ready.”


But Jean she sut upon a stael,

Ne’er spoke a sentence guid or ill;

Tae Jock haes tae the dresser gane,

Ta’en up a bowl, heaved it up abeen his croun

And smashed it doun upon the flaer

In fifty different bits and mair.


Then Jean mad as mad could be,

Goes tae the dresser, taks up anither,

And clashed it doun ‘ithout a swither.

Then mercy me! What work begun,

As bowl after bowl in splinter spun,

Tae Jock half ruein at his fate,

“A Jean,” he cried, “this hauld it a’ begun wi you,

But no anither bowl by token,

This nicht atween us’ll be broken!”

“Aye Jock, it’s lang

I hae listened tae the same auld sang.

I sut up mony a weary nicht,

My heart upon my throat wi fricht,

Thinkin ye micht fa’ ower the brig,

When the rain had made the waters big.

But let it turn out guid or ill,

This nicht I’ll let ye hae your fill — there’s mine!”

And afore Jock was aware,

She clashed her bowl upon the flaer.


Then Jock, his peace forthocht in vain,

Swore and fell tae his work again.

Tae bowls, broth-plates, caskets and a’

That sut sae neatly in a raw,

Lay on the flaer a broken harl,

The ruins o’ a crockery world.

The very pepper-box in fact

Had added tae the general wreck.


Next mornin when Jock rase he scarce

Could draw his trousers on; as he glowered at the hash

He nearly cut his feet.

But just as he was ga’in out

He gi’ed a host and turned about,

Throwed doun his purse upon the chair

And pointin tae the dresser bare,

“Sic action Jean!” says he fu’ plain, “There, get the dresser filled again!”


That nicht when Jock frae work cam hame,

The fire shot out a cheerfu’ flame.

Aside it Jean sut a’ the while,

Upon her face a cheerfu’ smile.

Jock glowered and wondered when he saw

His house sae neat, sae trig and braw:

A dresser filled wi’ shinin delf,

Neatly arranged upon each shelf.

“I thocht,” says he, “and still I think,

I hae been ower lang the fool o’ drink.

Now there’s my hand and that’s a proof.”

Jean rase and took his honest loof.


As far as I heard,

Jock ay stickit tae his word.

Comes hame baith sober, ticht and square

Frae every big Drumshakle fair.

And when he goes tae fairs and markets and sic-like thrangs

She snods him aff wi’ a great respect,

Twines a great big muffler round his neck,

Convoys him half-roads doun the green,

Then wi a smile about her e’en,

Turns, pu’s his beard and whiskers out:

“Now Jock, you mind our bowl about!”


The only words which might not be fully understood here are ‘forethocht’, meaning ‘regretted’, and ‘host’, which is a ‘cough’ or clearing of the throat (cf. Norwegian ‘hoste’ — a cough).

Attempts at prose writing in Ulster Scotch were very patchy and unsatisfactory. They tended to consist of columns in local newspapers, and were inserted only for novelty value. Such a column by ‘Bab McKeen’ ran for some time in the Ballymena Observer in the mid-20th century, but could by no means be described as full-blown Scotch. Most such pieces are self-conscious efforts at Scotch, which do not quite come off, and they usually include a mix of other unspecific Hiberno­-English dialect. 

An example of the truly cringe-inducing, which has recently come to hand, is the glossy booklet with CD that is being pushed unsolicited through people’s letter-boxes in north and east Antrim. It is called The Bushside Letters; it is sponsored by the official Government ‘Ulster-Scots Agency’, styling itself ‘Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch’ (sic) as a subtitle, and is a reprint of early 20th-century contributions to the Northern Constitution by someone calling himself ‘Tha Aul Han’ (sic). Here is a sample:

The King’s hame agen. Maybe this wull be news tae sum o’ yer reeders that niver knoad he wus awa’. Am shure they’ll be michty gled tae hear’t. Noo, sur A’m gled an’ happy tae be able tae gie a bit o’ local news this week, an’ its this nae less, the Presbyteerians o’ Armoy ir gan tae hae a big bazaar an’ fansy fair in August. What dae ye think o’ that? No’ that Bazaars ir rare things roon here nae feer. The wy it cum aboot wus this. Sum time ago they made a lot o’ alterations tae the church costin’ ower 1,000 pun, an’ tho’ they made grate efforts, yit they ir 250 pun behin’. They’re noo tryin’ tae mak’ a big effort tae clear this aff. The ladies ir very enthoosiastic aboot it, an’ bein’ the case, it’s boun’ tae be a suksess, sae a want a’ yir reeders tae keep the 21st an’ 22nd o’ August in min’, an’save up their munny for that time, an’ A hae nae doot they’ll be releeved o’t then. A expec’ there’ll be sum word aboot it in anither pairt o’ the Constitution, sae All say nae mair heer.

The new synthetic Ulster Scots

Could it get any worse? The answer unfortunately is yes. The Government is promoting and subsidising so-called Ulster Scots which is written by people who not only make up their own spellings, but who cannot actually speak Ulster Scots. They are usually anonymous, and are employed to ‘translate’ ordinary English in to what is alleged to be Ulster Scots. Their efforts appear in all sorts of Government publications from rates bills to education (yes education) correspondence. This is why you may see the mysterious heading ‘Mannystrie o Lear’ at the top of Department of Education notepaper. The Ulster-Scots Agency has had virtually no success in attracting native or fluent speakers to its project. It has done the Ulster Scotch dialect a great disservice by portraying it in an intellectually distorted way and usually in a non-inclusive context, whereas it is in fact a community-inclusive dialect with an equally inclusive history. The Agency’s recent launch of a new glossy magazine, virtually all in standard English, but entitled Oot an Aboot has attracted some very hostile press comment. They also produce an occasional publication called The Ulster Scot, again virtually all in standard English with some synthetic Ulster Scotch, and with a very definite non-inclusive code language.

The project is a political one, and it is to invent something which is deliberately incomprehensible so that it looks like a different language and can qualify for funding by taxpayers on that basis. This is obvious even in the purported Ulster Scotch rendering of their title, namely,’Tha Boord o Ulster-Scotch’: there is absolutely no reason to put a grave accent mark on a neutral vowel, such as the ‘e’ in the word ‘Ulster’. The Agency is actually supplanting and destroying the genuine Ulster Scots language heritage, rather than supporting it. The nameless ones have also invented a new name for the dialect, i.e. ULLANS, a contrived acronym supposedly standing for something like ‘Ulster Language Literature and Native Speech’ (all standard English words!).

The linguistic vandalism extends even to environmental desecration: at a roundabout outside a north Antrim town a plaque has been erected bearing the words ‘Welcome, Failte, and “Fair Fa’ Ye”‘, the last phrase presumably thought to be a translation of ‘welcome’. But the phrase has no currency in Ulster. It is lifted from Burns’s poem ‘Address to a Haggis’, which begins:

Fair fa’ your honest sonsie face, Great chieftain o’ the puddin-race!

It literally means ‘fair befall your honest sonsie face’, i.e. good luck to you. It appears to be the poet’s own construction, and is not an idiom of speech. It certainly does not translate as ‘welcome’.

Writing and broadcasting in Ulster Scotch

There is no point in trying to write differentiated Scots by a wholesale introduction of ill-informed, home-made spellings, as is normal with the new synthetic Ulster Scots, simply by choosing arbitrary conventions of standard English spelling. Scots does not have its own phonetic system.

Spelling should be modified only to a minimal extent and only when the established English spelling will not accommodate the sound. This was the historical practice of the Makars when writing Scots; they did not seek to be incomprehensible to readers of the then current spellings of English. Words have a history, an etymology and an actual physical appearance. Any substantial alteration of this appearance is a barrier to reading, and thus to communication of the written word. Some words have achieved recognition of an alternative form, even in the best standard English dictionaries: words such as ‘richt’ (right), ‘twa’ (two) and ‘tae’ (to). Adherence to established authorities should be regarded as mandatory.

Alternative Scotch pronunciations most often follow a predictable pattern: words beginning with ‘w’ or ‘wh’ have a ‘u’ sound following in speech, no matter what the written form. Examples are ‘wit’, ‘win’, ‘will’, ‘twist’, ‘twenty’, ‘when’ and ‘where’. So there is no need to write unaesthetic inventions like ‘wun’, ‘wull’ etc., which have no respectable historical provenance in established literature. The major exceptions are ‘wha’ (who) and ‘whar’ (where). It should be noted in passing that words beginning with ‘wh’ normally retain the original Anglo-Saxon pronunciation ‘hw’ throughout Ulster (e.g. ‘when’ is from Anglo-Saxon hwonne’) except in Belfast and Derry where the ‘h’ is regularly dropped as in England.

Words written with an ‘aw’, such as ‘jaw’, ‘law’, ‘paw’ and ‘raw’, have an ‘a’ sound in speech, as have a whole swathe of words spelt with an ‘o’, such as ‘top’, ‘stop’, ‘song’, ‘wrong’, ‘soft’ and ‘loft’. ‘Swop’ may be spelt ‘swap’, however, even in standard English. The ‘a’ sound is also regular in words such as ’cause’, ‘haul’, ‘daunt’, ‘flaunt’, ‘jaunt’, ‘haunt’, while many words spelt with a simple ‘a’ are spoken with an ‘e’ sound — words like ‘blank’, ‘crank’, ‘cart’, ‘dart’, ‘glass’ and ‘part’. The ‘o’ in words such as ‘cost’, ‘lost’, ‘cord’, ‘sort’ is the same as in ‘host’ or ‘most’, so there is no need to write abominations such as ‘coast’ for ‘cost’ as we often see in the new invented Ulster Scots.

‘The mair haste the less speed / Like the de’il’s nee’le and the lang thread’ was a common saying regarding anyone getting into a mess as a result of being in too much of a hurry. The ‘de’il’s nee’le’ (devil’s needle) was a name for the insect known as the ‘daddy-longlegs’. When it becomes entangled in a spider’s web it panics in order to free itself, and as a result becomes more enmeshed in the long threads. In this epigram it will be seen that ‘thread’ is rhymed with ‘speed’. This vowel quality applies to quite a few other words as well, such as ‘breast’, ‘dead’, ‘head’, ‘lead’ (the metal), ‘swear’, ‘sweat’, ‘tear’ (as in lacerate)’, while conversely, ‘beat’, ‘seat’, and ‘measles’ conform in their pattern to ‘great’.  

In standard English there are words where the final letter is essentially knocked out by the preceding one. Thus we do not hear the ‘b’ in ‘climb’, ‘comb’, ‘dumb’, ‘lamb’, ‘limb’, ‘tomb’ or ‘womb’. In Scotch dialect this also applies, but is extended to words ending in ‘nd’ and ‘ld’. In these we often do not hear the final ‘d’, as in ‘blind’, ‘hand’, ‘land’, ‘pound’, ’round’, ‘sand’, ‘wild’ and ‘world’. This is a regular feature and well understood, but the final ‘d’ needs to be retained in spelling to facilitate use of the word as a verb in the past tense, e.g. ‘landed’ or ‘handed’. This has not been thought through by those who would write ‘land’ as ‘lann’ for no reason which is necessary to a fluent speaker. Again, the ‘ng’ in words like ‘finger’, ‘singer’ and ‘langer’ is regularly nasalised as in ‘bring’.

The verb, in its irregular manifestations, is tricky for many English speakers, including media people who make a career of speaking. How often do we hear ‘I have rang’ or such like enunciated by television presenters? At school we had ‘ring, rang, has rung’ drilled into us, but of course when we come to deal with ‘wring’, the formula is ‘wring, wrung, has wrung’. This simplification is more prevalent in the Scotch dialect; for example we have ‘sing, sung, has sung’, ‘swim, swum, has swum’. But there are other complications: while ‘let’ in standard English has only one form, in dialect it goes ‘let, hit, has lut’. ‘Sit’ has past tense ‘(has) sut’ and ‘hit’ has past tense ‘(has) hut’. ‘Run’ in dialect has present tense ‘rin’ and past tense ‘(has) run’. These are subtleties which are invariably missed by the non-native speaker and are glaringly obvious in writing. Another common error is failing to note that when a plural subject is a noun or nouns, rather than a pronoun, the verb is in the singular, thus: ‘John and Mary is comin doun the nicht’, but ‘they are comin doun the nicht’.

For well over 100 years now, since the establishment of a more or less universal system of primary education, children in Scotch-dialect­ speaking areas have grown up with their own dialect and school English. This has progressively weakened the local dialect. It has meant that they were acquiring a wider knowledge of the dialect from the neighbourhood at the same time as they were acquiring standard English at school. No doubt, sometimes the standard English would actually be the one which was learnt first, depending on the level of exposure to the outside world. Learning standard English could mean learning different words for existing concepts or new ways of saying a known word. This could lead to ridicule at home and accusations of ‘jumpin out o’ the bowl ye were baked in’. 

The ‘ow’ in ‘bowl’ is of course pronounced as in ‘growl’. Older, stronger speakers would also sound ‘grow’ in this way, and ‘soul’ would rhyme with ‘foul’. These words have to be learnt individually, as in standard English where ‘bow’ can have two different pronunciations, depending on whether it means an inclination of the head, or a bend. The Scotch dialect retains the original Anglo-Saxon sound ‘bu’ for a bend.

Some of the examples of pronunciation given above demonstrate the unpredictability of English spelling, and hence the absurdity of trying to use the spelling conventions of established English arbitrarily to write a differentiated Scotch. This is usually an unnecessary, as well as futile exercise. If the English spelling will bear more than one pronunciation it should be left as it is. The fluent speaker of Scotch will know how to pronounce it and is only annoyed by home-made spellings. Writing ‘hoose’ for ‘house’ does not really clarify anything, since you have to know that it is ‘oo’ as in ‘loose’ and not as in ‘door’ or ‘floor’, and the ‘ou’ in ‘house’ can be read as in ‘uncouth’. These spelling conventions were largely fixed before there was any conscious differentiation between the English of Scotland and that of England. They were established by people nurtured on Norman French and trying to write Anglo-Saxon according to foreign conventions. So ‘house’ was their rendering of the Anglo-Saxon ‘hus’, and ‘out’ was how they rendered ‘ut’.

A source of chronic confusion to traffic reporters on BBC radio is how to pronounce ‘Sandy Knowes’, and it comes up every single morning with its traffic jams at the point where the A8 from Larne meets the M2. Well, for those people who never get out of south Belfast, a ‘knowe’ is a recognised Scotch form of the English word ‘knoll’, meaning a small hill, and it sounds exactly like ‘now’ in standard English.

Another source of grief for BBC reporters is the gutteral sound indicated by the ‘gh’ in ‘lough’ (same as ‘loch’ in Scotland), Ahoghill and many other place-names. ‘Lough’ is invariably pronounced as ‘lock’. If it was a German word they would get it right, so one can only presume that there is an official or unofficial policy on the matter. But even among fairly good Scotch speakers the guttural sound in ‘richt’, ‘boucht’, ‘thoucht’, ‘broucht’, etc. is very rarely heard now, and only among the oldest and best speakers. The latter group might also sound the final ‘e’ after ‘p’ in words such as ‘jumped’ or ‘clipped’, but this is now very rare. 

Some people think that Ulster Scotch is merely synonymous with a Ballymena accent. This is a complete misconception. The Ballymena accent is characterised by the glottal stop, i.e. the missing ‘t’ after a vowel, and this feature has spread throughout County Antrim due to the bussing of children from rural areas to post-primary school in Ballymena. But Ballymena is not an Ulster Scotch-speaking town. The ‘t’ was probably suppressed because the inhabitants thought the broad ‘t’ of Gaelic and Ulster Scotch was too unsophisticated for urban dwellers, yet they were unable to do a ‘proper’ English ‘t’.

For anyone thinking of writing or broadcasting in Ulster Scotch, the recommendation would be that you be a good native speaker for a start. If you are not, the subtleties will betray you, especially the tendency to ‘over-Scotch’, i.e. to use terms inappropiately where a native speaker would not. For example, some people have learnt the term ‘heich heid yin’ and use it for ‘chief executive’, ‘leader’ etc. What they fail to realise is that among native speakers it is always ironic and means someone with an inflated sense of their own importance. Secondly, you should have at least a working knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, Gaelic and preferably French as the main sources for the derivation of words. Add to this an acquaintance with the work of the great Makars — and, finally, make sure you have something worthwhile to say.

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