Nelson McCausland the ex-DUP politician, is still beating his “Culture” drum. It has become a kilted obsession with the little, bearded red-cheeked man . He’s been banging on about Ulster-Scots; paradiddling and drumrolling his tartan roots and promoting this odd, local lucky-bag dialect as an independent language ,for a few years now .It’s all a bit of a nonsense , of course.;an invention no better than a tin-hat conspiracy theorist’s best blatherings that aliens landed in Area 51.
The truth is that this particular obsession is of only comparative recent vintage and has been introduced as the Yin to the Irish Yang in the language stakes, possibly less than twenty years ago.When I was a boy , a young man, a middle-aged man and now progressivly an older, creaking citizen, I never once heard mention of a language called” Ulster Scots”. That’s a simple fact. I grew up with a mixture of friends who spoke English , tinted with some colourful slang , I’ll grant you, but never a word about such a creature as Ulster -Scots.
I’d heard about the Irish and the Scots going to America and was aware that the descendants of some of those long-ago “Billy-boys” had become the same “hillbillies” who later helped to invent rock’n roll when they weren’t brewing moonshine .They have been referred to as the Irish and the Scots or the Irish-Scots.Some of them may have run plantations full of slaves and some of them might have become presidents, warriors or white- trash.
I spoke no Irish , that I can remember ,until I entered Grammar school at the age of eleven where the rudiments of that language were taught, until A-level standard.Like Latin, French and English , some of it stuck and some of it was forgotten almost immediately.There was one boy in primary school who spoke Irish and English because his parents were fluent in both languages and they conversed soley in Irish at home, school -legend had it .My parents did not and never showed any need to speak in Irish at all .At school we never learned German, Spanish or Greek or Chinese , either ,in those far -away days , but one thing is sure, there was never any mention of a language called “Ulster -Scots”. No-one anywhere had ever come across anything like this and I doubt that it ever appeared on any school -curriculum across the land.None of the fellows I knew from the Unionist/ Protestant community , who went to different schools ,but whom we hung out with in the cafes after school had ever heard of it either.They never mentioned, it if they did and none of the girls we all attempted to chat -up ever mentioned it either.. I dare say that there are precious few linguists who have ever heard of such an arcane lost language either.
The idea of a special wee language which was spoken, alone, by Protestants and unionisists of Scottish descent was unheard of in my circles .That’s because no such “language” ever existed. There were plenty of colloquialisms, though, much as you’d get anywhere throughout the islands.. We used plenty of “slang” words though and plenty of “makemeup” words which were rooted in everything and originated in every place, from America, Ireland, Scotland , Wales , England and every country beyond .
Oh, back in the 1950s when I spend summer days at my country grandfather’s house…my mother’s old home, I can still remember him digging up his favourite fresh blue-skinned “purties”….spuds( Is “spuds” Ulster-Scots?!) which tasted wonderful with only butter and salt, or the two wee “bantie” eggs he might serve up especially for my breakfast. He had “chuckies” and “chooks” running about pecking in the yard and the wee bantams were part of that farmyard circus.I recall the stinging, acrid , sulphur smell of the “chuckie house” that made my nose twitch and my eyes weep and there was that odd, dry dusty odour of the old thunderbox outdoor toilet with the little squares of paper hanging on a wire hook, inside. There was the big sow that escaped into the cabbages which was met with some choice Anglo -Saxon expletives. I only recall the incident because when I searched for the shovel he had requested and I arrived back with the tiny little thing used for putting coal in the big stove , he dismissed it and ran to the shed for the big long-tailed affair for shovelling stones and cement…a much more useful tool for herding large recalcitrant pigs intent on gorging on fresh greens.A shovel to me, a wee townie, was something for putting coal on the fire ..way back in those entirely fossil -fuel days.
Language!!!!! Well , like I said,I was a “townie” and everything beyond those town limits was different , exotic and a bit foreign; even if it was only five mile bus-journey , “out the road”. The language of the country -folks was slightly different from the language us “townies” used. It was English, of course , but the accents were slightly novel only a mere few miles away and there were some words that were sounded differently. My cousins sounded different to me, anyway and my aunties and uncles had slightly different accents, but I understood exactly everything that was being said.. I didn’t think of any of it as a different language , any more than the many slang words and names for all the new foods that were drifting into common use from America, Europe and across the world were any less part of the English language we all used.
Who knew that “bungalow” was an Indian word? I hadn’t even thought about it , but I found out that little fact somewhere along the line. When my mother cooked spaghetti bolognese for us as 1950s children ,we took it for granted without even considering the Italian origins or the fact that both words had faraway origins .It was the same when she made “kedgeree”; we never considered that this lightly spiced dry -curry rice dish was an Indian word.
“Burger” was another one . you never saw a proper burger when I was growing up, except possibly in American films or in a “Wimpy Bar” in the cities. What an odd word that was .Its origins are German, probably from “Hamburg” and then immigrants to America took it in hand, but in a time before everyday “burger-joints” and the advent of the “Big Mac”.the word was a rare enough beast here in Norneverland. We grew up in a world where Italian immigrants to our shores eventually introduced us all to “English” fish and chips and ice-cream.At one time there was only fish and chips on sale when the pubs closed at night.After that there’d be no problem in assimilating such exotics as saag aloo , samosas, biryani ,tandoori or chapatis….not to mention chow mein or tortellini.our local English was growing by leaps and bounds but it was still English .



So back to this “language ” of Ulster -Scots which Nelson McCausland wished to promote on a par with Irish. I think he will find if he looks long enough and hard enough ,that the dialect he speaks of is really a mixture of local oddness, welded on to the already- existing languages.Every one of us use odd local words on occasion and consider it no more than fertile local slang which has been slipped down from one generation to the next, just as many Americanisms , Italianisms , indianisms or whatever, have entered our own speech and have become embedded in English.
The list is endless and can be very entertaining, but hardly constitutes a separate language : “bread” for money, “peckerwood” for idiot, “queen” for homosexual man, “chilling” for relaxing, “hooker” for prostitute, “cool it” for relax,”cruising for a bruising” for looking for trouble, “dough” for money,”flicks” for films, “gig” for job, “give me a bell” for phone me,”kicks” for good things, “Mickey Mouse” for something stupid…even “bad” for “good”……it goes on and on and becomes part of the language without us even realising…..but a separate language it isn’t.
Someone needs to tell Mr McCausland the hard facts of life and for the Dear’s sake, nobody should mention Cockney rhyming slang to him ,either! ……or Geordie “Toonspeak” for that matter.He’ll be looking for language acts for them too!


  1. Michael April 18, 2017 at 8:56 am #

    Like yourself up until 15/20 yrs ago I never knew of the existence of a “language” called Ulster Scots. You can imagine my amazement that without a single lesson in this “language” I was able to understand it, both in written and spoken form, extremely well. I never knew I had such language skills.
    While I found myself quite adequate in French, Spanish and Irish after many lessons, it was quite astounding that not having a single lesson I could understand this language so well.

    • paddykool April 18, 2017 at 11:24 am #

      Apparently there are some 90 different words for the humble spud in Irish. My grandad’s “purties” is probably his version of “praties”, I’d imagine.

  2. fiosrach April 18, 2017 at 9:22 am #

    Just because you can’t understand what the Lowland Scots colonists – guests – in our country are saying, doesn’t mean that they are talking in a different language.

  3. Eolach April 18, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    God love them , they’ll do anything to try an make these ,unnaturally separated , 6 counties of Ulster appear as a country. The majority of them are Celts like ourselves… as Gregory “broken-mouth” Campbell’s name testifies….. but there is a need to appear different….they carefully cultivated ,over many many decades , the myth of a “Protestant work ethic” a motivated and labouring people distinct from the native work-shy Catholics …..if they only had a language to make it more complete ? I’m convinced that the DUP’s motive for a Brexit leave vote was for the implementation of a hard border ….no matter the consequences ,they could then sit back ,walled in , content with idiosyncratic ideas of nationhood.

    • Michael April 18, 2017 at 12:05 pm #

      No, no, no.
      This isn’t a Celtic country.
      Nelson says so….

      In September 2002 Mr McCausland defended a Belfast City Council decision not to fund a film festival on the grounds that the title of the event included the word ‘Celtic’.
      ”Northern Ireland is not a Celtic country or a Celtic region and its people are not Celtic,” he said.”Support for this festival would involve recognising the spurious claim that Northern Ireland is a Celtic country. “It would be a denial of the cultural rights of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.”

  4. Willie D. April 18, 2017 at 6:58 pm #

    Oh if only Nelson McCausland could keep his mouth shut and spare us yet another tedious confrontation between Irish and Ulster-Scots. Of course, if we had any real knowledge of either we would come to the obvious conclusion that both are part of our rich shared cultural and linguistic heritage. But some Unionists, particularly the D.U.P. don’t like Irish and some Nationalists, principally Republicans, don’t like U-Scots, this prejudice being largely based, as typified by Harry’s article, on almost complete ignorance of the subject upon which they choose to pontificate.
    I was brought up on a farm in Co. Antrim, close to Slemish, speaking this barbarous patios, in common with most of the population, both Protestant and Catholic. Nobody referred to it as “Ulster-Scots,” this term would have been the preserve of academics, like Prof R.J. Gregg and Brendan Adams. It was a natural, organic part of our lives and insofar as it was referred to at all it was described as “takkin broad,” usually alluding to the way the dialect was spoken (or not) by an individual, or in other locations, viz “they dinnae takk broad aroon Rannalstoon.” Though the academic term would have been unknown to most speakers before the early 1990s, it was accurate, as what we spoke was an Ulster form of the Scots language, or dialect, of the South-West of Scotland, but with a syntax influenced by Irish and with a considerable number of Irish loan words. This was natural, as Irish and Scots would have co-existed for a considerable period and Irish speakers would have adopted Scots as the local form of “English.” Unfortunately, rather than being left as the preserve of academics, some D.U.P. politicians decided to adopt U-S in the 1990s, as a convenient counterweight to Irish, needless to say they had no intrinsic interest in either the dialect, or its speakers, it was simply a means to an end, and no doubt they would have been astonished to learn that many of its speakers were Catholic and Nationalist. And so a dialect, which had always been low status, was exposed to further ignorant derision by those for whom anything presented to them as “Unionist” was bound to illicit such a reaction. Paradoxically, this has simply accelerated the process of speakers choosing not pass on the dialect to the next generation. I blame not the ignorant, but those cynical and opportunistic Unionist politicians who facilitated the process.
    For anybody interested in U-S beyond believing that it is English with a Ballymena accent, or was invented in 1993 by the D.U.P. as a language for Orangemen, I would suggest some further reading. “The Hamely Tongue : A personal Record of Ulster-Scots in Co. Antrim,” by James Fenton is a good read, though not definitive, I believe it was a favourite of the late Gerry Anderson, as it reminded him of the dialect of his relatives in East Donegal. There is a good article in Vol. 37 (2009) of “The Glynns” the magazine of the Glens of Antrim Historical Society, i.e. “Ulster-Scots in the Glens,” by Brian MacLochlainn. Brian was brought up near me, speaking U-S, but is also an Irish and Scottish Gaelic scholar. And for those who need convincing that U-S didn’t emerge fully formed from Nelson McCausland’s office in 1993, you should get hold of any of the Volumes of the “Ordnance Survey Memoirs of Ireland,” edited by the Institute of Irish Studies at Queen’s, written in the 1830s and a great source for pre-famine Ulster socio-economic, linguistic and cultural history. Numerous mentions in them of the strength of Scots language/dialect, particularly in Co. Antrim. Generally speaking, the Anglo-Irish or English compilers of the Memoirs didn’t like either the language/dialect, or the people who spoke it, they found them far too familiar and lacking in deference and their enthusiastic participation in the events of 1798 was a black mark against them as well.
    And finally, the word for potato in U-S in prita, or proota, it would be the latter in my district, and according to James Fenton is derived from the Irish word “prata.” So how’s that for cultural cross-fertilisation.

  5. fiosrach April 18, 2017 at 7:51 pm #

    Actually you will find that republicans are not antagonistic to the Scots dialect and it is just one of the dialects that the native Irish picked up from the planters. Strange non English dialects and pronunciations are found all over Ireland especially in the north east. But what really gets up nationalists’ noses is the weaponising of the dialect by the DUP. If they get a pound we want a pound. Let the supporters of this dialect fight for a stand alone Act if they want one. If they can show they need one then they deserve one. In mid Ulster they are called pirates,further south they are praties.

  6. fiosrach April 18, 2017 at 7:52 pm #

    Pirtas not pirates.

    • paddykool April 19, 2017 at 7:23 am #

      That’s probably what my grandad was saying with his “purties” …or “pirtas”..fiosrach The spelling is mine , but the sound is the same…..Language, eh !?.What seems to be referred to as Ulster -Scots , i just considered to be “country” ..which , although only a few miles away , was the only place i ever heard it.

  7. ANOTHER JUDE April 19, 2017 at 6:21 am #

    Ulster Scots is of course a daft invention. However it makes my rudimentary Irish sound fantastic. Even if you can only count to twenty and even if you can only tell people to open the door or close the window, it is still a lot more than any Ulster Scots speaker can manage in their dialect. Without it I would hang my head in shame!

  8. Freddie mallins April 19, 2017 at 8:22 am #

    Let’s get an Ulster Scots school up and running then and encourage those with an interest in their native language to send their children there. I’d be very interested to see how many do. The problem with the earlier contributor is to use the terms,’ language’ and ‘dialect’ variously and think we won’t notice or something.

    • Willie D. April 20, 2017 at 5:54 pm #

      I used the terms language and dialect in my earlier contribution in reference to Scots, of which Ulster-Scots is a dialect. Some academics would say that Scots is a separate language from English, others would disagree and say that it is a dialect : most Scots nationalists would take the former view. I was trying to make two simple points in relation to Harry’s article. If you wish to pontificate on a subject it would be a good idea to do some research first, he obviously hadn’t. Culture is not something which can be created by passing an act, it should be natural and organic