Some Words with James Fenton: Destined to be a Dictionary Maker

Author: Michael Montgomery

Date: 2010

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 11 Ware 2010

Michael Montgomery

Hamely Tongue

Many readers will be familiar with James Fenton’s poetry, featured in previous issues of Ullans and in two volumes published by Ullans Press, Thonner and Thon: An Ulster-Scots Collection (2000) and On Slaimish (2009). Countless residents of Northern Ireland and not just a few from more distant parts know and have enjoyed his masterful dictionary, The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim (3rd edition, 2006). But hardly a one of them knows that this modest and meticulous man spent more than half his life producing his record of Ulster-Scots, or anything of the stories behind his putting it together. The following interview with Fenton was conducted by Michael Montgomery in August 2003 in the living room of the Fenton home shared with his wife Pam for many years on Antrim Road in Newtownabbey. In it he recounts the incidental way in which a project started that was to grow into his life’s work and be assisted by more people than he could ever remember to count. He explains, among many other things, what his motivations were, how he went about systematically collecting and compiling the native Ulster-Scots of the Antrim countryside, and how the boundaries of the Ulster-Scots speech area he discovered compare to those outlined by the late Professor Robert J. Gregg, linguist and first President of the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

M: Jim, I know that The Hamely Tongue has occupied quite a large part of your life. Can you give us an idea how you got started, how this project came to be?

F: Yes, it certainly didn’t come to my mind with any intention of publishing or writing anything whatever. About 1960, I think it was, when we were down the country visiting my parents in Ballinaloob, it occurred to me that I was hearing words that I had almost forgotten, words which I realised, because of the way things were changing in the countryside, might be lost. I simply began to write words down as I heard them and as they occurred to me myself.

I happened to mention this and show it to an old friend now dead, Willie Dennison, who lived in a farm just outside Antrim town. The adjoining townlands of Drumadarragh and Ballinaloob, where I grew up, lie at the heart of North Antrim’s fertile farmland and of the region where Ulster-Scots is widely spoken. He at that time was attending meetings of the Folklore Society in Larne. He informed them, without consulting me, that he had someone who would give an interesting talk on the North Antrim dialect, as he called it, and I went along and talked about what I was doing.

I asked the people in the audience — one of them was the sister of Bob Gregg, who had of course done a lot of work on that subject — about their interest in all this. Several people offered words and phrases which were not in my collection. There, really, was the beginning: why not get people of my own age roughly, or older if possible, round different parts of County Antrim, to collect words for me? I had no plan in mind, but when I began to collect these words, I realised there was no point in having words from East Antrim unless I checked whether they were also known in North Antrim. So each time I got a few words from a place, I had to go round all the others, and gradually, bit by bit, the collection began to grow.

Then, in total ignorance about the work that had been done up to then, I heard about Brendan Adams (1917-1981), then Dialect Archivist at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and I went down to Cultra and sought his guidance.

M: This would have been about when?

F: This would now have been the late 60s, possibly 1970, round then, because my work on checking the origin of these words was intermittent. I had no sustained programme or anything, but just kept adding to my record as things came to me. It may seem odd to say it now, but several of the people that were collecting words for me weren’t on the telephone, so I had to actually go round and visit them and check these words. The thing was going along slowly, but then there was no goal in mind — I wasn’t intending to publish anything.

At the Folk Museum I began to look up words and use their library and was fascinated to discover a whole lot of work, such as William Patterson’s A Glossary of Words in Use in the Counties of Antrim and Down (London: for The English Dialect Society, Trübner & Co., 1880), which somebody gave to me, and Michael Traynor, The English Dialect of Donegal (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1953). Then I found the English Dialect Dictionary, ed. Joseph Wright, 6 vols. (Oxford University Press, 1898-1905) and the Scottish National Dictionary, ed. William Grant et al., 10 vols. (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press, 1939-1976). I realised that the words I was collecting were of ancient provenance, of which I knew very little.

Now just in 1972, I was appointed head of a school, and I’m afraid for a couple of years at least, or three, after that, I was far too busy with new staff getting established to do much at collecting, but then I took it up again. Having looked at Patterson’s list, I realised he didn’t say where the words came from, nor which were in current use and which were obsolete. Then I began to draw up what turned out to be a kind of dictionary. Finally I heard that Caroline Macafee was working on the Concise Ulster Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1996) at Cultra and I went down and met her.

M: That was 1990 or so?

F: Yes, but I had been collecting and writing all the while in the meantime, you understand, and giving talks round the country and getting feedback and words from all over the place.

M: And you’d been back and forth to Cultra to look things up?

F: Yes, and I was very grateful to Caroline Macafee, because she gave a lot of guidance and taught me caution, especially not to go leaping to conclusions about where words came from. It was there that I met Philip Robinson, to whom I owe so much.

Caroline and I were having a cup of coffee one day at the Museum, and she said to me in her best Scottish tongue, ‘Well, what will ye dae aboot gettin it published?’ I hadn’t really thought about it, and to my astonishment Philip said, ‘We’ll publish it’. I didn’t know who ‘we’ were, but it was the nascent Ulster-Scots Language Society. I had seen a few things in the paper about it.

Really from then on I got down seriously to work. I had got to know the late Professor John Braidwood (d. 1988), Professor Emeritus of English Language at Queen’s, and had some guidance from him. I decided that I wasn’t going to have a dictionary of just words with etymologies. The words themselves give no notion of the colour or richness of the tongue, so I decided to give at least as much weight to the idiom of actual speech, with the occasional anecdote and so on in the text. Eventually that led to labelling the words according to what districts they were known in, by checking with all the people who were helping me (listed in the introduction to The Hamely Tongue, p. viii), and whether they were rare, occasional, local, regarded now as archaic, still flourishing, and so on. I set myself the task of labelling all those.

The big problem of how to spell the words I solved quite simply by deciding to spell them as a guide to pronunciation, not necessarily in what would be an accepted form for written Ulster-Scots. I wasn’t thinking of that at all. I just wanted people to know, for example, that bowl was pronounced like English bowel and not like English bowl, so in that case, I simply put ‘rhymes [with] howl’. How to represent the interdental d and t as in drive and turn and water presented a big problem as well, to which I think nobody has proposed a perfect solution. There are various answers suggested for that and of course for the short i in words like pin. Now I could have written pan for that vowel, and that would be all right for an Englishman. But if people from Ballymoney saw it, they would say, ‘Och, but the word’s pin, it’s no paan’. The latter is how they pronounce ‘pan’.

When the first edition of The Hamely Tongue came out, I thought it might sell fifteen copies if I was lucky, but to my astonishment it was just bought up and people were contacting me. They were looking for it and buying it as a Christmas present. I was asked to address groups and societies all over the county, and in County Down too, where people would again tell me of missing words.

M: This was after the first edition came out in 1995?

F: After the first edition. So with all these suggestions I decided to put together a second edition, but not until the flow of new information had dried up. My County Antrim people had the book, and now they had the additional words I’d got. Gradually one by one and all over the country they told me, ‘Naw, we cannae think o ocht that’s missin’. It’s a’ there noo’. (It’s all there now). When I finally got just nothing more coming, I set about trekking in the old style round all my informants, to see which districts these additional words were known in and so on, and that led to the second edition. That is really the story of The Hamely Tongue. I started with no goal in mind whatever, other than for my own interest, and it ended up — well, you know the rest of the story yourself.

M: So who were these groups that you went around to? These were the local history societies?

F: Local history societies, such as the Glens of Antrim one which published the Glynns magazine, the Larne Folklore Society, Coleraine, Kilrea, Limavady, and really all over.

M: I see — even beyond County Antrim you were going?

F: It was nearly all County Antrim, but there were a few outside the county, and of course twice I addressed the John Hewitt Summer School, which was mostly an audience of academic people or literary people. But that’s what followed on, and that’s what enabled me finally to reach what I believe, and what all those associated with it did believe, is now a definitive account of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim, let’s say during the twentieth century.

I was brought up in an extended family which included two grandparents born in the 1850s, so it was going back quite a bit. The people helping me had similar family backgrounds. Quite a few had been born in the early years of the century, so the dictionary covered the entire century. While you would get a little local variation here and there, you could no more cover all of those than the Oxford English Dictionary could cover all the variations in English. You simply can’t do it.

For example, the ways that people pronounce the word road, from road to ro-ad, some of these are almost peculiar to a family — if you included these, you would end up with a book twice the size with very little extra information.

M: So you get diminishing returns after a while. When you talked to these

societies, did you issue an appeal, or did people just respond by saying, ‘Here’s another word for you’, or ‘I’ll go home and collect material and send it to you’, or what?

F: Even when I was there giving a talk, you see, there was always a question and answer session afterward, and people would have brought out this word and that word. One of the correspondents I had was from Vancouver. She was brought up in North Antrim, and she wrote to me with two words she couldn’t find in the first edition of The Hamely Tongue. Yes, people responded on the spot. They were saying, ‘I’ve got your book, and I can’t find this word in it’, or ‘I can’t find that word in it’. These were words which in fact I usually knew. Then sometimes they would ring me — especially Liam McCurdy, who was brought up in Mosside, and John McKinney from Drumdo. They would ring me and say, ‘Talking among our friends about The Hamely Tongue, somebody would say, “You know, he hasn’t got this” or “He hasn’t got that”’. It was really coming from all over until, as you say, the diminishing returns set in. It became clear that virtually all the fish were in the pool, you know, and we’d caught the whole thing. Nowadays nobody ever says to me that I missed this word or I missed that word. Not any more.

M: So either you have all the words, or those people have pretty much died off who knew the old terms.

F: Yes, but I still don’t think there would be any words that are peculiar to the tongue that were extant at any time during the twentieth century that are not in the book. I really don’t. You had to be careful because you could find somebody in Ballymoney who would give you a word, but it turned out in fact that he was brought up in Tyrone and he had brought that word with him, a Hiberno-English word or whatever, and it wasn’t part of the tongue in Antrim at all.

M: So how did you decide what to include and what not to include? Would a person born in County Antrim, regardless of what part of the county, be included automatically?

F: I started off with but had to quickly modify Gregg’s Antrim-to-Whitehead line.

M: And anyone from south of that part of County Antrim you would disqualify?

F: That’s right. Well, I checked. Willie Dennison was brought up on a farm just outside Antrim town, and had heard the broad tongue on the streets of Antrim town from the farmers in there and even the local people. But later under an official government scheme a lot of city people, mainly from West Belfast, moved out to live there and Antrim was literally transformed. At the same time, and since then, quite independently of that scheme, population shift has seen a steady growth of Whitehead, Ballynure and Doagh. Extensive development in Doagh, Ballynure and Ballycarry has radically altered the size and linguistic ‘mix’ of the inhabitants.

I did a lot of questioning round Templepatrick and Dundrod of people I knew. No, they just didn’t talk the old way. They used the odd word, you know, but it obviously wasn’t part of their native tongue.

I decided to stick to County Antrim for two reasons: it was where I was brought up myself, and I knew people in all areas of the county that I could use to help me. In any case, I don’t think that has mattered much, because now when I’m talking to people like Will Cromie of Greyabbey in County Down or Conal Gillespie of Donegal and so on, they’ve no new words for me. They might differ a wee bit. We say fower for four, but they may say fivver, which is not that different really, but I decided then that I’d include Antrim fringe areas if there was a word there which clearly belongs to Ulster-Scots.

I included Aughtercloney, where Willie Reid lives, Cushiebracken (near Rasharkin), where Jim Reid (no relation to Willie) lives, and Dunloy, which is, or was in my day, worth a study on its own. Yes, I stuck to County Antrim. It was perfectly clear that the Glens didn’t belong, but I interviewed quite a lot of people and I’ve listed those at the beginning of the book. There’s a big influence of Ulster-Scots in Carnlough. In Cushendall and Cushendun you’ll hear echoes of it, but it’s quite clearly not as I defined and explained it, where true speakers say hoose, hame, doon, roon, cannae, and wudnae. If places don’t have such words in their everyday conversation, then they’re excluded, other than for fringe reasons as noted.

M: If you started with the line that Gregg had drawn around 1960, how did your own conception of the speech area develop from that?

F: Mostly by visiting. The Gregg line, by the way, I came across in the Symposium book put out about the Ulster dialects, Gregg and Brendan Adams and so on (Ulster Dialects: An Introductory Symposium, Holywood: Ulster Folk Museum, 1964). I knew that the line just would not hold any longer. Since then to describe Antrim town or Whitehead as Ulster-Scots-speaking areas would be quite misleading. The point I want to stress is the care one has to take.

Loreto Todd comes from County Tyrone, and in the Oxford Companion to the English Language she makes some extraordinary statements about Ulster-Scots, for example, that we roll the r, which we don’t. She says it’s a social thing and depends on one’s social level, but on the contrary. The great majority of the folk living in the countryside covered have Ulster-Scots as their everyday tongue. It has nothing to do with their ‘social status’ nor with their political or religious affiliations. She gives some examples which are found in all of Ulster.

My work had to be done by a native speaker with the help of other native speakers. It’s no use, with the greatest respect for scholars from Tyrone or from South Carolina, unless the work is done by actual natives. You really can’t come in from outside, because it just it’s not on. In fact, you yourself found it very difficult to get them to communicate with you in their tongue unless you’ve got somebody with you who can talk to them in that way.

M: Yes, I did. They were on their ‘Sunday-best’ behaviour.

F: Well, let me give you an example which might be of interest. The first person I asked to tape record was my father. They were cutting peats in the moss at Dunloy. My father was a very ‘braid’ speaker. He cleared his throat and he said, ‘My name’s Samuel Fenton. I was born in the year eighteen ninety-one …’, in his very best English, taking care to exclude every trace of his own tongue. So that’s what you’re up against. The only way I could be sure of recording the authentic tongue was by sticking first to my own territory of County Antrim and second to people that I knew to be life-long native speakers. Those two parameters really decided where the collection would be set and what form it would take.

M: Did you use a tape recorder, or just a notebook?

F: I used a tape recorder purely for my own use, when I was giving talks round the country. I could never have thought of recording the conversation, because they were talking their own way and I was talking the same way to them. That was simply our way of talking.

I should add here that what I did would not be nearly so easy to do nowadays. Several of my informants are now dead, and others are now very old. The younger generation, even those in their thirties and forties, would not speak as broadly. If you were using them now as your guide, you would never hear many of the words I’ve collected. They might well know most of these words, but would seldom or never use them. I have great doubts about what will be heard in that part of the country in another fifty years, because the tongue is in slow decline.

M: Did you ever meet Robert Gregg?

F: No, I knew his sister reasonably well, and I met a lot of the people that he’d worked with, but I never met him at all.

M: Did you correspond with him?

F: No. Until Brendan Adams gave me that Symposium book, the contributors — Bob Gregg, P. L. Henry, and so on — were only names to me. I had done no research on the matter at all. I was making this collection purely for my own interest. Corresponding with anyone doing work in that field was the last thing I wanted to do, because I wanted to be sure what I got was straight from my neighbours who spoke the tongue to myself who spoke the tongue. I didn’t want anybody else’s ideas or suggestions that might just in the most innocent of ways contaminate the whole situation, so that it would not be as authentic as I’d hoped it would be.

M: Well, you had, was it thirteen, people that you mainly relied on?

F: Chiefly, yes, but even that’s misleading. There were far more in one way or another. Willie Linton of Artnacrea, down near Glarryford, was one of my informants, but his brother and wife lived there, so when I went there I was talking to three people, you know, and he was asking his neighbours this word and that word. Those people were really information centres, if you like, as much as individuals.

There were others, not listed in the book, who contacted me by telephone, once that became the common way of communicating. I couldn’t have listed all those, but as soon as I got words from them I went round all my informants to see if they knew them. If none of them did, I put down the townland of the person who rang me, so you’ll find as well as the thirteen chief informants a whole lot of words with just the townland noted for them. That means someone sent me the word or rang me up and gave it to me.

M: So you would leave lists with people, and then they would show them to neighbours — is that it?

F: That was it originally, but the maddening fact was that time and again when I would go round the people and talk to them, one of them would turn round and say, ‘Och, Ah wus takkin tae so-an-so the ither day, and he gien me a word, an Ah hae forgot it’. I would suggest always writing it down — but that’s often quite impractical. Gradually people who’d forgotten words would then contact me and say, ‘I got that word …’.

One of the best sources of information not listed in the book at all is Jim McNeill of Broughshane. He sold The Hamely Tongue in his shop and would chat to people who had bought it from him. There was, for example, the word skeenklin, of frost glittering on the road — he gave me that. Jim put me in touch with Edith Cupples, from the Braid, who introduced me to fegs!, meaning ‘by my faith!’ I haven’t mentioned Jim because that word happened in conversation, you know, and you simply couldn’t have recorded everybody who spoke to you. The people who are listed were those I went to with every word I got and asked them each whether they knew that word.

M: Why did you choose those thirteen in particular? Was it because they helped you to determine the boundaries of Ulster-Scots, or for some other reason?

F: Well, I picked Sam Cross for East Antrim, for example, because he was a prominent member of the Larne Folklore Society and already had a list of his own, which I mentioned in an essay I wrote elsewhere. He was very interested in what I was doing and knew a great deal about it. He also had lived in Loughmorne at one period of his life, had lived outside Magheramorne and so on and was able to cover East Antrim very efficiently. Several of the others were known to or suggested to me.

We were talking there about examples of speech which would bring out subtle differences in the meaning and use of words, where a word, for example, might be used facetiously rather than seriously, in one context, but quite differently in another. The examples I found in the Oxford English or other concise dictionaries were very truncated, very terse phrases, but I wanted to give the feel and colour of the whole tongue.

Let me give you an example — the word ootins, meaning a day’s outing, a trip, a journey. At the time of the first American ‘moon launch’, as I’d call it, a man we call a surface man, that’s a man who works on the roads, keeping the hedges in trim and so on, was sitting having his lunch, which he would call his piece, when the farmer down at Corkey, that’s near Loughguile, came running out and referred to his cousin, who was a Professor of Physics in America. He says, ‘Charlie, Charlie, wur cousin’s gan tae the moon!’ And Charlie says, ‘He’s fand o ootins!’ Now, that embodies such understated scorn or scepticism there is no equal way of expressing it. He didn’t say, ‘He should stay at home, the fool’ or anything like that, but ‘he’s fand o ootins’.

So I tried to include even little stories, so that an outsider would then get the feel and colour of a tongue that they’d never get from simply reading a word list. The one thing that The Hamely Tongue is not is a word list. It’s not like that at all. It is a dictionary which I hope is definitive in providing the meaning of words, but I would want to give the same weight to the examples of speech in it. When you say he likes the deep en o the troch (the troch is the container you feed pigs from), that means ‘he’s got a healthy appetite’. There is no way you could explain that other than by giving such an example. If somebody is contributing nothing whatever to a situation, especially a dilemma or problem, you might say A’ ye can dae is stan there wae yer twa airms the yin lenth. Now, an outsider might wonder what the length of your arms has to do with the situation, but the whole idea is that the man’s not doing anything, he’s not mismakkin himself — not putting himself about at all.

I wanted to give people not just the tongue itself, but the tongue that has disappeared to a certain extent. It’s my father’s tongue, because even in my day I might have said, ‘He’s no the height o two daisies’, while my father would have said, ‘He’s no the hicht o twa daisies’. When you were bringing or carting out peats, you had to avoid the holes (or slunks) in a lane (or rodden) going into the moss because if the wheel went down, the whole load would tip. But figuratively, if you advised somebody starting out in life to ‘try and keep oot o the slunks,’ you could not represent that usage of slunk, just as you couldn’t represent the varied meanings of ootins other than by giving an example. I hoped along with the three bits of prose that I put at the back, on lint and the moss, on cutting peats in the flow, and other words about lint or flax, that I could put it all in context. Putting words into context was at least as important a part of The Hamely Tongue as defining the words themselves.

Let me give a few more examples. The word ‘hold’ is usually howl, which is Hiberno-English and Scots as well, but there’s another form, had. If for example you were telling a horse to keep (go) to the right you’d say had aff. A woman who’s careful with money and looks after it and spends it wisely is said to hae had in her han — she has a careful way with her. You would say that a woman who is not sensible and is careless with money has nae had in her han. But if I just put down the word had and said ‘care with money’ and then in brackets ‘hold’, this would tell you nothing about the feel of the tongue at all.

M: It wouldn’t give you any of the flavour.

F: That’s right. A dog’s snarl is called a gurry, but a crude way of speaking or shouting at somebody is also a gurry. If I say, ‘He lut a gurry oot o ’im lake a doag’, everyone knows exactly what sense you are using the word in. In he lut a gurry oot o ’im lake a doag the whole thing’s encapsulated in that one form of expression, in that one saying.

There’s also the special use of words. Take the definite article — here are a few illustrations of its use: the day, the morra or the nicht; Ir ye awar the age he is?; jist stied the week; the worse o the drink; A hae naen in the yeir; foriver at the gemmlin; Only the yin o them wuz there; The hale echt o them come; But he’s the sore eedyit; That’s the boy; and G’on the girl ye. To give a straightforward formal grammatical account of these would leave out the tone and feel altogether. It simply wouldn’t be there. The woman who goes out wearing clothes that don’t suit her, don’t suit her age, is referred to as a lukkin ornament. Now if I just defined the word luk and the word ornament, there wouldn’t be much; but if you said, ‘Wudn’t she luk an ornament in thon claes?’, you’ve got the whole sense of the scorn. The whole idea is in the sentence. If you say ‘She let a scraich oot o her ye’d a thocht she wus a-killin’, you hear the scorn. You’re not taking her seriously. Or if you say of somebody who’s always running to tears, ‘Och, yer blether’s near yer een’, now that could not be expressed in any way in individual words. I could say een means ‘eyes’ and blether means ‘bladder’, but that’s hardly going to cover the feel of the expression at all.

The whole way people would express themselves, the amount of feeling put into their speech, was the important thing about it. Where you could get the nice shade from sympathy to scorn in a person’s remark I put that in, and all those examples I’m giving you, the sayings, the aphorisms, they are not in any sense inventions of mine. They are simply reports and recordings of authentic speech that I heard down the years of my life in that area and when I was talking to these people.

M: How did these — the people themselves — respond after The Hamely Tongue came out in 1995, in particular your thirteen primary informants and other people you’d worked with for many, many years? After so long a time this baby was born. How did they react to its appearance?

F: We’re all human, and those whose names were listed at the front were, needless to say, quietly pleased, you know, to see their names in the book. They were maybe a wee bit embarrassed, but there’s no doubt at all that they were proud to be associated with it, especially when people said, ‘I sa your name in the front of that book’. ‘Oh, aye, aye, I helped wae it’. The publication of the book was something they’ll never forget. They were just so delighted to have been associated with it and to have themselves recognised publicly as contributing to it. I’ve stressed always that I put the book together, but without them it could never have been there the way it is at all. There’s no question about it. They participated directly in the production of the book.

M: What about the larger community — the villages that were represented by the people and so on — to what extent do you think the book gave them a general pride in their language?

F: There’s no question about the pride. The first indicator of that is the extent to which the book sold. Eason’s and Cameron’s in Ballymena, McNeill’s Broughshane store, Waterstone’s in Belfast and other outlets were reporting that people were forever coming in asking, ‘Have you got The Hamely Tongue?’. The word of mouth went round, and the book was something that people welcomed. They enjoyed it. People would tell me ‘It’s by my bedside, it’s there all the time, I just sit down and read over it quietly’. They’ll say anything from ‘it taks me bak’ or ‘it’s lake gan bak tae whun A wus a wain’, and I’d say that I’m speaking for all those who were involved, not just myself. The Ulster-Scots tongue has become a thing of conscious pride to those people. They had taken it for granted, never thought about it.

M: They never thought about it until the book came out.

F: That’s right. Now earlier I did refer to or anyway hint at the fact that in the past there have been developments in the Ulster-Scots line, some of which I’m afraid have met with a great deal of negative reaction down the country, a feeling that there are outsiders who have been taking our tongue for their own purposes and that they’re expanding it in a way that isn’t our tongue at all. There’s no doubt about that. If you talk to people who try to write a bit in it, like the two Charlies — Charlie Gillen and Charlie Reynolds — and other people like that, they’ll tell you the same story. In other words, their attitude really is, ‘Hans aff, it’s oors’.

M: Leave my language alone.

F: That’s it. Now I can understand that. I can understand why, as I’m told, native Irish speakers in the West of Ireland when they hear some of the neologisms that have appeared in their tongue greet them with scorn. I agree that if you’re going to use the tongue, if you decide to use it, then you’re going to have to have neologisms. But it’s a very, very awkward point, and if you’re doing that, with what success are you doing it, if you’re alienating the very people who are the native speakers?

Those are some thoughts and reactions to the book and to subsequent developments. Yes, there’s a real affection for the ‘owl tongue’, and that has been given a reality, something they can see, now that the book is out and is there. The situation, I would like to think, with how the tongue is regarded and how it’s assessed by the people themselves will never be quite the same again. What was accepted as just being there is now taken with conscious pride, in the sense ‘it’s ours’. It’s no longer just oor owl wie o takkin now when they see that the words they’re using are not just old local inventions but go away back into other tongues, into history. That’s fascinated a lot of people. So I think the book has made a big change, yes.

M: Have you had contact with school teachers?

F: Not a great deal. Jackie Morrison in Balnamore does a lot of excellent work, as did the other teacher, retired now, down in Ballyrashane, Rae McIntyre. I went to a Ballymena school at secondary level, and because they include Irish to some extent, the idea was to include Ulster-Scots as well.

I went down and took each form in the school for a lesson on Ulster-Scots with the teacher sitting there. The idea was, start off very simply, that we’d teach them one thing — let’s say wildlife. The arts classes would draw or make pictures, representations of this, and then below that you’d have the names of, say, a wild flower, the English name, the Ulster-Scots name and the Irish name. However I do not know what, if anything, developed from that. That was the only serious thing I did in school, in that sense.

The trouble with that is that even the parents who are very proud of their tongue will still say to you ‘Och, no, I want them to learn at school … ’ There’s plenty of that about. They go to school to learn the ‘proper thing’, and that’s it. I have my doubts about how far it will go, but time will tell. The one thing sure is that you would need the teacher to be a local person who speaks the tongue himself or herself, because an outsider will struggle — unless, of course, he/she has somehow mastered it. There is nothing more embarrassing than somebody attempting to talk in Ulster-Scots who doesn’t know it. It sounds so wrong, so completely wrong.

I’m not saying it couldn’t be learned, of course. You might learn somehow to speak that way, but if you learn, it’s never quite so natural or spontaneous as what you grow up in. No matter how clever you were, or how good you were at languages, I don’t think you’d ever learn to speak French or German and think in it as naturally as you would do the tongue you grow up in. I’ve my doubts about it. Good luck to those who are at it, and I hope it does well.

It certainly seems very exciting for the children. I’ve no doubt whatever that instead of their usual work if they were able occasionally to sit down and talk and write in their local tongue, the exercise would be both exciting and productive as has been shown, indeed, at Balnamore and Ballyrashane. I think they’d find it very exciting, to do that in school. Whether the schools would find it exciting, or whether the parents would encourage it are other matters. Only time will tell. The sad thing is or anyway the fact of the matter is that the pressure is more and more towards results for examinations.

M: Yes, I think you’re right.



The Ulster-Scots Academy has been an integral part of the Ulster-Scots Language Society since 1993. The name "Ulster-Scots Academy" is registered to the USLS with the Intellectual Property Office.

Ulster Scots Academy


A new edition of Michael Montgomery’s From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English recounts the lasting impact that at least 150,000 settlers from Ulster in the 18th century made on the development of the English language of the United States. This new edition published by the Ulster-Scots Language Society documents over 500 ‘shared’ vocabulary items which are authenticated by quotations from both sides of the Atlantic. A searchable online version of this dictionary is now also available here.


The Ulster-Scots Academy is currently working on the digitisation of Dr Philip Robinson's seminal Ulster-Scots Grammar and the English/Ulster-Scots part (with circa 10,000 entries) of a two-way historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots. These projects are planned to be completed and available on the site in 2016.



This site is being developed on a purely voluntary basis by the Ulster-Scots Language Society at no cost to the taxpayer. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

This site is being developed by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (Charity No. XN89678) without external financial assistance. USLS volunteers have been involved in preserving and promoting Ulster-Scots for more than 20 years. All donations, however small, will be most gratefully received and contribute towards the expansion of the project. Thank you!

(Friends of the Ulster-Scots Academy group)