Romance Ulster-Scots Style

Author: Anne Smyth

Date: 2013

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 13 Hairst 2013

Anne Smyth


Advice to the lovelorn

Never let it be said that research into Ulster-Scots language is dull. Our trusty member, Laura Spence, diligently researching in the William Fee McKinney Collection at Sentry Hill, was leafing through A Collection of Poems and Songs on Rural Subjects by Robert Huddleston, when she came across a piece of paper tucked into the back of the book. A closer look revealed that it contained the transcript of a letter from Robert Huddleston, which read as follows:

Moneyrea, May 3rd

My dear Semple

I wish information concerning Widow Brown’s family and circumstances at the foot of the Mountain, across the Forth Water.

All the intelligence you can give me of them making inquiry of them to the purport, will be agreable to me. I shall tell you my reason for this the first time I shall see you.

Do you think I could court the Daughter. She is not a perfect Heris[1b].

Keep it secret all that I require of you.

Post yours as soon as possible mentioning the townland they live in and I shall pay the postage.

Directions care of Postmaster Ballygowan.

Robt Huddleston

Moneyrea Gunsmith

This discovery initiated an email to the members who had previously worked with the Huddleston material, and back came a message from our former Secretary, Fiona McDonald, who had transcribed more Huddleston texts than is good for anyone’s sanity in the days of the Ulster-Scots Academy Implementation Group’s sojourn at Regent House. Fiona attached her transcript of Huddleston’s next letter to the said ‘Semple’, in which he asks his advice on how to proceed.

The letter identifies Huddleston’s correspondent as Mr John Semple, Edenderry Tollgate. It is fortunate that he has got that straight, because it appears from the text of his letter that in his first appeal to Mr Semple he has forgotten to ask the Christian name of the object of his desire. In this second letter we learn that the year was 1843, so by that time Huddleston was 29, hardly a callow youth.

The smitten Robert asks, ‘Is her baptismal name Isabela or Isabel?’, and then plunges on with:

‘It must be Miss B — the younger who has so trampled on a heart which never before throbbed so much with the genuine feelings of intriguing love. Alas! that man was ever formed to be captivated by woman, or, that haughty woman had ever the power to triumph on the anguish of a love sick swain. What a charming sensation love is! Confound the excrutiating bitch. Miss B — is pretty; and must I languish? Cast your scouts abroad, and sift out, has she many suitors — is she haughty, or, are they haughty around her, her guardian trio, mother and two brothers? Is she of a lively, sprightly cast? Would the grave air of a Sunday saint, yet a moonkissing rake, or, the frank and candid demeanour of an honest man, most aptly initiate itself into her graces? I hate hypocrisy: jolitry most suits my turn of action. How would it do in the wooer of my lord’s daughter, to step boldly forth as a pirate would do to his prize? But no — less must do than flourish round the lady in question, in such a manner …’.

Lest you share with our USLS researchers any misconceptions as to the charms of the Bard, be assured that it gets better. Later in a letter that occupies almost two A-4 pages of typed text, he muses:

‘But there is no way left for me except to throw shame aside, put on the horse face of sincerity, and draw my visage long as a “haeperth” of twine; and try to make up by my cheerfulness and pleasantry the other defects which weigh heavy against me in the scale of comliness. Though the misnomer of old maid may be applicable to her sister, the epithet shall never rally against her can I get admission to her company and win her favour. If she handles as well as she looks, and adorns her sex by the gentle and feminine softness, which, I think, is spontaneous in her person, I shall stable my colt like a boy; and, as divines would have it, chain him by the honourable links of matrimony. …’

Nevertheless, let no-one say our Bard is unprepared. It seems he has already been drafting letters and seeks advice on their editing:

‘Tell me dear Semple — how would this do? There could be no harm in writing her a simple epistle anyhow. As you are a good deal indebted to experience, and can forder the work if you wish, I would like you would inform me how to proceed. On the heel of a rainy day, some time ago, I wrote two letters, intending to cull them both and send her an epistle of the composite order, but my heart failed me. They are here before you — how would any of them do to try how her pulse beats in the first place? For the first onset, I suppose, you would reccomend shorter than either, in a simple but pathetic style. …’

The approach

We do not have to speculate about the content of these letters, because we have them to hand. Miss Isabela B—n’s first indication of the lie of the land comes in a letter dated May 3rd 1843, in which Huddleston addresses her as ‘Dear Madam’. Again Huddleston is not the soul of brevity. Moreover, he clearly understands nothing about subtlety, as instead of asking permission to woo Miss Brown the younger he states his objective as making himself ‘the happy hero and her the heroine of conubial felicity’, so in his mind he already has them married, and all without even asking. The letter employs the most flowery of language, and Huddleston has by this stage already occupied three lengthy paragraphs with such effusions. Typically, though, like a tinker in hobnail boots blundering onto a stage full of ballet dancers, the ‘Bard of Moneyreagh’ has included some expressions that are anything but graceful:

‘It cannot appear to me as reason, that woman could be man’s mischief and his love; nay the augmenter of his woes yet source of his consolation and comfort. However inconsistent woman may appear, this would be inconsistency indeed. Let not man do bad and lay the crime on woman. A pretty rule, in faith, one that will answer a good many I fear some day. A comely hoax indeed, thus to commit error and lay the fault on another. It will never do. All herrings, as the expression is, must hing by their own heads at the long run. …’

Later he says:

‘Therefore seeing that the two classes charm each other, and are essential to each other’s welfare and wellbeing, I end my sermon with saying that the sexes should unite; and with hoping that I will never be guilty of a greater misdeed than loving courting, and kissing a pretty wench. — On the other hand, if love is like horse stealing, as the morose demure, and chill-blooded friends of the veil would have it, one may as well place his affection on a high mettled racer as an old galled garran. …’

That’s sorted that out, then. One wonders how Miss Brown liked being compared to a horse.

It takes Huddleston to almost the end of this long epistle to explain that he is not writing to her out of the blue but has encountered the fair Isabela at least once, when he came with ‘grazers’ to her family home ‘on the Friday before new May[2]’. He goes on:

‘As a token to your memory, while engaged in the mastication of a repast at your generosity, he enquired at you who stuffed the birds that so neatly decked the cornice of the fire place? Your answer was “Nichol”. I am he; and you are the fair woman I admire. … On beholding the fair one in question, the pride of women, my mind was almost fired to madness. On my homegoing rout [route] I set about calling on the Muse; and coning [conning] as I joged [jogged] along I thrashed your charms into verse, forming a lyric which I dedicate to your lovely self. The song you will find in the envelope, going under the appelation of the “Lassie of the Braes”. Hide not your head sweet “lassie”, you are worthy of the best strains the best bard in Europ could produce. …’

No doubt the object of his affections was suitably impressed. Huddleston rounds the letter off with a Gallic flourish (‘Vive l’esprit — vive l’bagatelle — vive l’amour — vive un tel — The Lassie o’ the Braes for ever’) and signs off as ‘Yours lovely mortal, Robt Huddleston’. Huddleston makes reference to ‘the foot of Devis’, and later in the correspondence we find that the fair one resides at Ballymurphy.

Delight deferred

By the fifteenth of the same month, Huddleston has not heard from Miss Brown in response to his initial letter, so he again takes up his pen. Opening by assuring her of his respect, he continues:

‘As to my character you can easily enquire, lest you may be trepaned by a villain. Few you will get to say much good of me; and as to my rank, still as few will tell you that I am among the fashionable of the day. … I am poor, I am not rich …. Neglecting, then, the little differences, which wealth may raise betwixt us, I plead your forbearance …’

To quote a common 21st-century expression, ‘You’re not really sellin’ it to me’. So what can Huddleston offer Isabela that might make up for his lack of money? Why, of course, there is his talent as a poet: ‘Let me have it in my power to commemorate to the world an Antrim Bella the same as Robt Burns did a Hiland Mary’. He goes on to make her an offer she can’t refuse:

‘In my next I promise to write you a plain and dispassionate song if I meet any encouragement. Name the idiom you would wish it to make its appearance in; whether in English or Ulster Irish which some would confound as Scotch. (But as sure as the Tipperary boys and the Hilanders are one and the same people; as certain the north country Irish and the lowlanders of Scotlan are a people sprung from the same progenitors). The measure of the rhyme, and the air that would best suit your taste I would also wish to be informed of; as for the theme, to be country like again, I must have it of my own picking’.

This time it is Latin that Huddleston employs in his farewell: ‘Vive vale. Yours with more than ordinary feelings’ (etc.).

By the next letter, dated 14th June, the Bard is giving in to desperation. Clearly, Isabel is not educationally challenged, because Huddleston states in the last letter (15th May): ‘No excuse I have heard your pen glide sweet and swiftly erst now; and I know for paper and ink your writing desk is not vacant’. It must be beginning to dawn on him that the one on whom he has set such store is avoiding contact, written or otherwise. This time he addresses her as ‘Lovely woman’. From there on, the text veers between a lecture for her hardness of heart (‘Could you know how tardy the hours, my moments roll with me; and the weary days and sleepless nights I pass, you could never have been so cruel’) and persuasion (‘That my suit will be preffered and me no longer neglected I sincerely trust …’). He signs off with the words ‘Yours with affection’.

In another letter to the ‘Lovely “lassie”’ dated six days later, in deeper gloom, Huddleston is casting around for possible explanations for Miss Brown’s lack of response, and attempting to answer her unexpressed objections. The list includes poverty, the fact that she does not know him, and his plain appearance; and again Huddleston cannot resist chiding her obliquely for her ‘cold disdain’. He states: ‘If your answer does not come a tripping some of these days with good newse, making me the happiest of men, rest assured this is the last time I ever shall write to you’. Before ending the epistle with the words ‘Attached and devotedly’, however, he is impelled to continue: ‘I would fondly come some of these evenings to see you; but till you recognize me I could not rightly perform; as I am one of the most bashful creatures you have, almost, beheld’. Miss Brown would have to make her own judgement on that.


The next time the poet puts pen to paper, he is acknowledging receipt of the long-delayed reply from Isabela. There is a snag, however. The message has apparently been round the half of the country before it came to him and is covered in post marks.

The good news is that at long last Isabela has permitted him to call on her; the bad news is that the date has already passed by the time our hero is aware of it, due to the problem with the post. He writes back immediately, on 24th July, to tell her that ‘the last Saturday in July’ he will call on her. It appears the wording of her letter is far from conclusive: ‘In your exquisite epistle you have given me to understand that I may hope, but at the same time, fear and tremble’. Whatever grip Huddleston may have had on the English language seems to have deserted him, for he says: ‘My dear Madam, my feelings is hurt by your doubitableness of my fidelity’.

It does not appear that by ‘fidelity’ Huddleston is referring to any implication that he has another sweetheart, but simply that his language has been so extreme that Isabela has expressed her doubts about his sincerity. He protests his innocence of this charge, and then becomes embroiled in even stranger vocabulary:

‘If honest truth cannot carry the day, I shall never attain it by any other succadaenum. In bestowing fulsom ecomiums or incongruous elogiums I could be reckoned to nothing more or less than a canting jobber in black cattle putting forth a rigmarole of nonsense’.

Let us be understanding and considerate: the Bard has received some hope of success:

‘As to the drinking of your tea; it will be a luxury indeed. Nay, soda water (though guid knows it isna good) would be a pleasing treat in your company. But the appointed eve is long gone by — no matter — the last Saturday in July I shall be with you in time for it. Then for the wife, nay, the partner through life: and if you be not ill to coax we shall make short work of it’.

Our hero has learned nothing. Where is his friend Semple, to advise on the best way to pursue his suit?


In his next missive, dated 5th August, Huddleston commences:

‘My dear Miss

I doubt not ere this you are acquainted with my visit at your worthy mothers. Owing to the unfortunate, circutious rout of your letter, by the neglect of some “glaikit” post boy putting it into the London bag instead of the Comber, it was impossible for me to attend any other evening than the one mentioned in my last letter …’.

It transpires that Huddleston has turned up at the house, and the bird has flown. We are led to believe that no-one in the house has any idea why he is there, but he is ‘glaikit’ enough to sit there and only after ‘a good little while’ does he ask ‘the old lady’ (presumably her mother) whether Miss Isabela is at home. To his intense frustration, Isabela, or so he is told, has gone off ‘some time ago’ to the seaside with a sick sister and has not yet returned. As many a sharpshooter has found, it is hard to hit a moving target.

Even yet, Huddleston refuses to admit defeat:

‘Thus you see with all my anxiety to gain an interview and your generosity to grant it fortune jilted me on the very brink of doing well. Well, well, the worse luck now the better again: they tell me that a hardy beginning is often a good end …’.

He embarks on another flowery address in which he praises ‘the sunny flush of (her) countenance and rosy tint of her cheek’, and then tries to persuade her to make another arrangement to meet:

‘(S)ay the night once more, for depend upon it I am faultless in neglecting the former “tryste”, and I shall ferret my way, if health permit, though it wer never so wet and as dark as before light was. Then for honey tales, pleasure, and pastime the sweetest in this vale of existence: And shall poor Bob be happy then? Yes! As happy feasting my eyes and senses on the charms of a lovely woman, as an antiquarian would be in visiting the pyramids of Egypt or exploring the grotto of Antiparos’.

The Bard appears to have done it again: is any young woman likely to be receptive to the application of such a simile to her fair young self? He compounds the felony by concluding with a P.S.: ‘Give old madam B—n to know that I was inquiring for her, with my kind compliments’. Well, maybe the social graces were in short supply in Moneyrea generally, in 1843.

The dénouement

The next letter is undated, but the internal evidence is that it was sent ten days after the last one, bringing it to the 15th of August. It is now almost exactly three months since the Bard began the process of trying to persuade Isabela Brown that he was the man for her. Now the predominant tone is one of recrimination:

‘Reckless fortune, wilt thou ever be cruel? You cannot help thinking by this time that I am moddeling the ancients who used to sigh for seven years at the feet of their mistresses before they could extort from them a smile of approbation or a tear of compassion. It is now ten days since I wrote you; and your answer is that dillatory it has never arrived. What do you mean, my dear woman; do you take a pride in being unkind? The barrier between our fortunes is not so great. … Though some say, wealth can cure the smallpox and make the face that is scarrified with the ringworm hansome, I cannot believe it. A pretty face to me is more hansome than money. … Again I am cutting against myself; guid knows I’m no bonnie’.

To hammer home the danger of rejecting him, Huddleston has recourse to a classical allusion: the tale of Venus, goddess of love, and Vulcan, the lame god of fire, to whom she flees when her beauty has faded and she is rejected by her more desirable suitors. He draws out the moral:

‘Be wise then woman nor fall a prey to care, never nurse the idea that the more renowned or beautiful your admirer may be you are the safest in his keeping; when behold your verdure may be mellowed: a few weeks of bloom flown, overshawdowed by sorrow, eclipsed of your glory you may be left to your own shift to dight the doggerl as you may; wandering the world perhaps a downcast and languid lump of woe, sighing that you ever had the luck to be decoyed from the side of your more humble suitor’.

Will this persuade her? Maybe not. The reader hesitates: will Huddleston persist regardless? Only when we read the salutation at the close of the letter are we sure. It reads: ‘Farewell — Robt. Huddleston’.


Did poor Bob languish for ever, rejected and downcast? Well, we cannot accuse him of unfaithfulness to Isabela, but dated March 1845 we find another letter, this time to ‘Miss J—e McK—a’. Huddleston commences:

‘My dear Jenny

A bashful boy is about to write a letter to the object of his affection for the first time and what shall he say?’

Have mercy — we cannot endure the emotional upheaval again. We shall draw a veil over the rest of the correspondence.

Fast forward

Regular readers of Ullans will know the end of the story, because our good friend Sandra Gilpin supplied us with a very comprehensive account of Huddleston’s wedding day in our Wunter 1999 issue:

‘I was a small child when my father told me the story of the Poet Huddleston’s wedding in our church at Moneyrea. The bride was waiting at the Church but the groom had not turned up, so someone went to look for him. “The Poet”, as he was known locally, was found working in the field making drains. When they told him it was high time he was at the church he replied that he didn’t know it was that far on, untied the sacking wrapped round his trouser legs, left them to one side, wiped his hands to clean them and made his way directly to the church. After the ceremony, he turned to his new wife, telling her to go on up to the house as he had a piece of the drain to finish, and would be up later for a bite to eat!’

Don’t you just love a happy ending?

Maybe on account of Robert’s rather tortured love life, he did not marry until he was nearly fifty, and that to a bride who was not yet twenty.

The language of love

It will not have escaped notice that the text of Huddleston’s letters contains very little Ulster-Scots. Examples are not totally absent, however, as we find the following hidden within the text: haeperth (halfpenny-worth); onset (the act of setting in motion); forder (advance); heel (presumably by analogy with at the heel o the hunt); cull (pick out and reject [something] as inferior); hing (hang); garran (stiff or worn-out horse); lassie; guid (used here for ‘God’); isna (is not); glaikit (stupid, foolish); tryste (arrangement to meet); that (in that dillatory) (so); dight (wipe, clean — the meaning of doggerl here is unclear); and bonnie. On one or two occasions he encloses Ulster-Scots words or short phrases in quotation marks, which gives the impression of a certain distance from the language.

Yet if we compare this with Huddleston’s poetry, we do not need to look very closely to see that in this latter medium he is comfortable and fluent, and that the text is full of the old Ulster-Scots vocabulary that has largely been forgotten today. So why is there such a contrast with his letters?

One cannot help conclude that in the letters he is trying to impress the recipient, and further that he feels the only way he can do this is in standard English — although there is little that is ‘standard’ about the English he employs. The spellings given in this article are an accurate reflection of the actual handwritten text. With that in mind, it should be explained that, despite recourse to all the major dictionaries, no definitions are available for moonkissing and succadaenum. However, we can make an educated guess at the meaning of most of the other words he uses, despite unusual spellings.

The clear implication is that in Huddleston’s day if you wanted to get the girl you must communicate in English (and use long words). Many of our older native speakers maintain that in their youth their use of Ulster-Scots was discouraged by authority figures outside the home environment, so that they could progress in life. Today, what with the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and the Belfast Agreement, both supposedly supporting the status of Ulster-Scots, the language continues to be a target for ridicule (usually politically-motivated). Really, only the emphasis has changed — the effect is the same. People are hindered from using Ulster-Scots because of apprehension about what people may think of them. That is why the Ulster-Scots Language Society has always placed such emphasis on enhancing the status of Ulster-Scots.


[1] Possibly ‘heiress’.

[2] Friday before the 1st of May. The use of the word ‘new’ reflects the change in the calendar when the Julian calendar was replaced by the Gregorian at the end of the eighteenth century. Thus the 1st of July before the late 18th century becomes the 12th of July after it.



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