An Early Letter in Ulster Scots

Author: Michael Montgomery

Date: 1994

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 2 Spring 1994

Among the oldest of the 180-odd items in a collection of ‘Letters from Emigrants to America’[1] is a manuscript dated March 18, 1767, signed by a Mr James Murray of New York and addressed to a Reverend Baptist Boyd of Aughnacloy, County Tyrone. This letter is remarkable in its language and its unqualified description of the colonies as a true promised land (Murray refers Boyd to the description of Canaan in the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy and says the land around him is “far better”). Saying he is “Clark till York Meeting House”, Murray extols the land and economic opportunities available to any who would emigrate and settle there, and he implores Boyd to encourage Murray’s parents, siblings, and friends to come. Full of idiosyncratic and phonetic spellings, the letter’s flamboyant rhetoric and vivid imagery beg it to be read aloud. Its unusually vernacular language and early date make it of interest to linguists; in these qualities, as well as in length and degree of detail, the letter is quite different from others written by Ulster emigrants from the period that have survived.

However, the Murray letter is not an original. A reader should become suspicious when, in the middle of the third page, he writes, “Now this is the last of sax [six] Sheets of Paper I hae written to you”. Nor is it a copy of an original. Unknown to Professor Erickson and to the LSE archives staff, the letter (more accurately, a variant of it) was published thirty years before, as the lead item in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, The Pennsylvania Gazette (issue 464, October 27—November 3, 1737) published in Philadelphia. This earlier version itself had no date, and a manuscript original for it is now known, although the newspaper’s preface to the letter claims the existence of one.

How many versions of the letter might there have been? Why was it written and why was it revised? The 1737 and 1767 versions are quite similar in content and sentence structure, but have innumerable differences in spelling, word choice, capitalization, and punctuation. For instance, the wording in the earlier letter “yence mere my kind Love till yer sel, Reverend Mr. Baptist Boyd” is rephrased “ance mair to yere ane sell Reverand Doctor Baptiste Boyd” in the later one. Evidently the letter had a life of its own and was copied and altered at least once and maybe more often than that. Perhaps it passed into local folk tradition as a nostalgia piece read for the reminiscence it brought of earlier days of emigration; more likely it functioned as a propaganda statement to stimulate emigration, used by emigration agents and other parties. It is so unusual in style and so full of unconventional spellings that one might question why it was written in this form at all. Doubtless we will never know most of its history, nor have answers to most of our questions about it.

The two versions are reproduced in their entirety below. Could the one published in 1737 have been an authentic letter? Or was it fabricated by someone (maybe Franklin himself) who knew early Ulster emigrants well and who wanted to caricature their language, promote their further emigration, or both? Can the earlier version have reflected the circumstances and speech of a man named James Murray who lived in New York? So far as this writer can determine, there is no historical record either of a man by the name emigrating from County Tyrone or of a John Pemberton (“Minister of the Gospel in New-York”), to whom Murray requests that letters for him should be sent.[2]

Intriguingly, however, there is evidence a Reverend Baptist Boyd, who was alive and apparently preaching in Aughnacloy at the time of the earlier version but not the later one. According to A History of Congregations in the Presbyterian Church in Ireland 1610-1982 [3]

During the ministry … of Rev. Baptist Boyd, Aghalow begins to break up, and the name disappears from the records. He had been born at Carrickfergus and was ordained on 19 Apr. 1698. During his career he is referred to as the minister of “Aghaloo”, of “Aughnacloy”, and of “Aughnacloy and Ballygawley”. By the time of his death on 25 Nov. 1749, both the name and the old church ceased to be used.

So there is at least some historical basis to the letters. Next comes the question of the authenticity of their language. They are clearly written in some kind of Scots, featuring trademark Scotticisms like bonny, weans, ken, and braw, along with numerous grammatical usages and pronunciations. But do they reflect accurately what we know about the Ulster Scots tongue? Answering such a question is a task worthy of an entire issue of this magazine because it should examine and compare the two versions in detail. This writer (an American linguist who is not a speaker of Ulster Scots) will make a few observations here. Readers are invited to study the letters and to decide for themselves how accurately they render Ulster usage and pronunciation. A very important point to bear in mind is that there was no tradition of writing in such broad vernacular at the time that could have served as a model. The unusual spellings in these two letters are either phonetic or semi-phonetic forms or are fanciful creations; they are not copied from other sources.

1. The 1737 version uses the Scots forms grund, hund, and pund, while the 1767 one uses English equivalents ground and pound.

2. The 1737 version uses yen (any yen, etc.) for “one”, the later letter only ane (oney ane, etc.).

3. The 1737 letter is more consistent, though not entirely so, in the usage of traditional Scots. For example, it generally uses till and ane before words beginning with a consonant, but to and a before vowels. The 1767 letter uses till and ane less discriminately. Similar evidence comes from the marking of concord between subjects and verbs; the traditional rule in Scots is to mark a plural verb with the suffix -s if its subject is a noun (“There is Servants comes here out of Ereland…”). This is followed in 7/16 cases in the 1737 letter but only in 2/12 in the later one.

Many other comparisons can be made. Here are the complete texts.

Preface and Text of James Murray of New York to Rev. Baptist Boyd of County Tyrone, (Published in The Pennsylvania Gazette, 1737)

The following Letter is said to have been sent from a Person settled in New-York, to his Countrymen, to encourage them to come over thither; which, that it might have the better Effect on the People, was printed and dispers’d in Ireland. A Copy of which being brought over, in one of the late Ships, We present our Readers with it.

A LETTER from James Murray, Thus directed; For the Kingdom of Ereland, in the North of Ereland, near to Aughnacloy, in the County of Tyrone, To Baptist Boyd, the Reverend Minister of the Gospel, in the Parish of Aughelow. Let aw Persons that see this, tak Care to send it to the Reverend Baptist Boyd, Minister of the Gospel, in the Parish of Aughelow, in the County of Tyrone, living near Aughnacloy. With Care.

Reverend Baptist Boyd,

Read this Letter, and look, and tell aw the poor Folk of your Place, that God has open’d a Door for their Deliverance; for here is ne Scant of Breed here, and if your Sons Samuel and James Boyd wad but come here, they wad get mere Money in ane Year for teechin a Letin Skulle, nor ye yer sell wad get for Three Years Preeching whar ye are. Reverend Baptist Boyd, there ged ane wee me in the Shep, that now gets ane Hundred Punds for ane Year for teechin a Letin Skulle, and God kens, little he is skill’d in Learning, and yet they think him a high learned Man: Ye ken I had but sma Learning when I left ye, and now wad ye think it, I hea 20 Pund a Year for being a Clark to York Meeting-House, and I keep a Skulle for wee Weans: Ah dear Sir, there is braw Living in this same York for high learned Men: The young Foke in Ereland are aw but a Pack of Couards, for I will tell ye in short, this is a bonny Country, and aw Things grows here that ever I did see grow in Ereland; and wee hea Cows and Sheep, and Horses plenty here, and Goats, and Deers, and Racoons, and Moles, and Bevers, and Fish, and Fouls of aw Sorts: Trades are aw gud here, a Wabster gets 12 Pence a Yeard, a Labourer gets 4 Shillings and 6 Pence a Day, a Lass gets 4 Shillings and 6 Pence a Week for spinning on the wee Wheel, a Carpenter gets 6 Shillings a Day, and a Tailor gets 20 Shillings for making a Suit of Cleaths, a Wheel-wright gets 16 Shillings for making Lint Wheels a piece, Indian Corn, a Man wull get a Bushell of it for his Day’s Work here; Rye grows here, and Oats, and Wheet, and Winter Barley, and Summer Barley; Buck Wheet grows here, na every Thing grows here. — Now I beg of ye aw to come our here, and bring our wee ye aw the Cleaths ye can of every Sort, beth o’Linen and Woollen, and Guns, and Pooder, and Shot, and aw Sorts of Weers that is made of Iron and Steel, and aw Tradesmen that comes here, let them bring their Tools wee them, and Farmers their Plough Erons; a Mason gets 6 Shillings a Day; fetch Whapsaws here, and Hatchets, and Augers, and Axes, and Spades, and Shovels, and Bibles, and Hammers, and Psalm Bukes, and Pots, and Seafaring Bukes, and fetch aw Sorts of Garden Seeds, Parsneps, Onions, and Carrots; and Potatoes grows here very big, red and white beth, fetch aw the Bukes here you can get, fetch a Spade, wee a Hoe made like a stubbing Ax, for ye may clear as muckle Grund for to plant Indian Corn, in ane Month, as will maintain Ten Folk for a Year. Dear Reverend Baptist Boyd, I hea been 120 Miles inn the Wolderness, and there I saw a Plain of Grund 120 Miles lang, and 15 Bred, and there never grew nor Tree upon it, and I hea see as gud Meadow grow upon it, as ever I see in Ereland. There is a great wheen of the Native Folks of this Country turn’d Christians, and will sing the Psalms bonily, and appear to be Religious, that gee Ministers plenty of Skins for his Steepend, and he gets Siller plenty for the Skins again; Deer Skins and Bear Skins: Ye may get Lan here for 10 L a Hundred Acres for ever, and Ten Years Time tell ye get the Money, before they wull ask ye for it; and it is within 40 Miles of this York upon a River Side, that this Lan lies, as that ye may carry aw the Guds in Boat to this York to sell, if ony of you comes here. It is a very strong Lan, rich Grund, plenty of aw Sorts of Fruits in it, and Swin plenty enough; There are Cay, and Stirks, and Horses that are aw wild in the Wolderness, that are aw yer ean when ye can grip them: desire my Fether and my Mether too, and my Three Sisters to come here, and ye may acquant them, there are Leds enugh here; and bid my Brether come, and I wull pay their Passage: Desire James Gibson to sell aw he has and come, and I weel help him too; for here aw that a Man warks for is his ane, there are ne ravenus Hunds to rive it fre us here, ne sick Word as Herbingers is kend here, but every yen enjoys his ane, there is ne yen to tak awa yer Corn, yer Potatoes, yer Lint or Eggs: na, na, blessed be his Name, ne yen gees Bans for his ane here.

I bless the Lord for my safe Journey here, I was Cook till the Ship aw the Voyage, we war Ten Weeks and Four Days on the See before we landed; this York is as big as twa of Armagh; I desire to be remembred to aw my Friends and Acquaintance, my Love to your sel Reverend Baptist Boyd, and aw yer femily; I do desire you to send this Letter to James Broon, of Drumern, and he kens my Brether James Gibson, and he weel gee him this Letter: It shall be my earnest Request yence mere, to beg of ye aw to come here, I did value the See ne mere then dry Lan: Let aw that comes here put in a gud Store of Otes Meel, and Butter, and Brandy, and Cheese, and Viniger, but above aw have a Writing under the Han of the Capden of the Ship ye come in; if I was now in Ereland, I wad ne stay there, yet I think to gang there as Factor for a Gentleman of this City of York, he is my Relation by my Father, he is Returney of the Law here. There is Servants comes here out of Ereland, and have serv’d their Time here, wha are now Justices of the Piece; I will come to Ereland gin the Lord spare me about Twa Years after this, and I wull bring Rum, and Staves for Barrals, and Firkins, and Tanners Bark for to sell, and mony other Things for this Gentlemen, and my sel, for I wull gang Super Cargo of the Ship, so that if none of ye come I wull bring ye aw wee my sel, by the Help of the Lord.

Now I have geen you a true Description of this York, luke the 8th Chapter of Deuteronomy, and what it saith of the Lan there, this is far better: Now this is the last of 6 Sheets I hea writt to you on this Heed, I hope that you Fether wull be stoor and come, and aw that I have named, fear ne the See, trust in God, and he wull bring ye safe to shore, gin ye plees him, now the Lord make ye so to do. Ne more fre me, but my Duty till my Fether and Mether, and Sisters and Brether, and yence mere my kind Love till yer sel, Reverend Mr. Baptist Boyd; if any yen sends me a Letter, direct till Mr. John Pemberton, Minister of the Gospel in New-York, send it we ony Body comin till ony of these Parts, and let it be given to the Post Hoose in America, and I will get it fre John Pemberton, and now my Love till ye aw.

James Murray

• • • • •

Address: For the Kingdom of Ereland in the North of Ereland, near Aghnacloy in the County of Tyrone, To Baptiste Boyd the Revarend Minister of the Gospel in the Parish of Aghnacloy. Let aw Persons that see this take Care to send it to the Revarend Baptiste Boyd, Minister of the Gospel in the Parish of Aghnacloy in the County of Tyrone living near Aughnacloy, wee Care.

Revarend Baptiste Boyd

March 18th 1767 New York

Read this Letter & look and tell aw the Poor folk of your place that God hath opened a Door for our deliverance, for here is nae scant of Breed here, & if your Son Samuel & John Boyd wad but come here they wad get mair money in ane Year for teeching a Latin School, nor your sell wad get for three Years preeching whar ye are. Ah Revd Baptist Boyd ther geed ane with me in the Ship, that new gets ane Hundred pounds ilka a year for the teeching & keeping a Latin School, and God kens, little was he skilled in Learning when I left ye, & new wad ye think it, I hea Twenty pounds a Year for being Clark till York Meeting House & I keep a School for wee weans…

Ah dear Sir there is braw liveing in this same toon for high Learned Men, the young folk in Ereland are aw but apack of Cowards, for I will tell you in short this is a bonny Country & aw things grows here that are I did see grow in Ereland, & we hae Cows and Sheep & Horses plenty here, & Goats & Deer & Raccoons & Beavers, & Fish & Fowls of aw sorts, Trades of aw sorts are gude here, a Wabster gets twelve pence ayard for a Tweel Hundred weaving, Eighteen pence for a Woolen Yard, a labourer gets four Shillings & Sax pence the Day, a Lassy gats four Shillings & sax pence the Week for spinin on the wee Lint wheele a Carpenter gets sax Shillings the Day, a Taylor gets twenty Shallings for making a Suit of Cleaths a Wheelwright gets twenty Shallings for making lint Wheels apiece. Indian Corn a Man will git a heal Bushold of it for his Days work here, for Rye grows here, & Oats & Wheat & Winter Barley & Summer Barley and Buckwheat grows, na everything grow here — New I beg of ye aw to come here & bring our wee ye aw the Cleaths ye can of every Sort beath of Linen & Woolen & Guns & pooder & Shot & aw sorts of wars made of Iron & Steel and aw Tradesmen, let them bring their Tools wee them and Farmers their Plugh Irons, A Mason gits sax Shallings the Day, Fetch Wheep Saws here, & Hatchets & Augures & Axes, & Spades & Shovels & Bibles and Hamers & Salm Buckes fetch aw Sorts of Garden Seeds & Pots & Seafaring Buckes, & Parsnips & Onions, Kale & Karrots, fetch aw the Buckes here you can get, fetch a Spade & Hoe made like ane Stubbing Axe for here you may clare as muckle ground in ane Month as will maintain Tenfolk a heal Year.

Dear Revarend Doctor Baptiste Boyd, I hae been 120 Miles in the Wilderness and there I saw aplain 120 Miles long & 14 Bread & there never a Tree nor Bush on’t & as gued Medow Ground as oney in Ereland, there are a great wheen of the native Folk of the Kintry turned Gued Christians & weel sing the Salms bonoly & appear Religious, & gee the Ministers plenty of Skins for his Steepings & he gits plenty of Siller for them again, Deer Skins to make Brecks of and Beaver Skins.

Revarend Doctor Baptist Boyd, ye may get Lan here for L 10 ane Hundred Acres for ever, & Ten Years forbearance till ye get the Money before they’ll ask it fro you & it lies within 46 Miles fro this same York & upon a River Side it lies sae that ye can carry aw the Gueds in a Boat to this same York to sell if oney of you comes here it is a very strong Lan & very rich ground plenty of aw sorts of Fruit grows on it. Swine plenty enough — there are Kay & Stirks & Horses that are aw wild in the Wilderness & the are aw yer ane gin ye can grip them, desire my Father & mither & my three Sisters till come here & I will pay aw their passages, desire James Gibson to sell aw he has & come here I will help him too, for here aw that a Man works for is his ane, there are nae ravenous Lans to rive it frae us here, nae sick a word as tythe or herbige is kenned here but ilk ane enjoys his ane, there is none till take away your Corn, yeer Keel, yere Potatoes, yere Lint, or yere Eggs, na, na, na, blessed be his Name, na ane gees bands for his ane Gueds here.

I bless the Lord for my safe Journey here, I was Cook till the Ship aw the Boyage, we war ten Weeks & four days on the Sea afore we lawnded. — This same York is as big as twa of Armagh. I desire to be remembr’d to aw my Friends & Acquaintances my Loove to your Sell Reverand Baptiste Boyd & aw your gued Family, I do desire you till send this Letter till James Broon of Drumurn & he kens my Brither James Gibson & weel gae him this Letter, it shall be my earnist Request ance mair till beg of you aw till come here, I did value the Sea nae mare than the dry Lan, Let aw that come here put in a Sea Store of Oaten Meal & Butter & Brawndy & Cheese & Vinegar but above aw things have a writing under the Han of the Captain of the Ship, are ye come in, if I were in Ereland I would not stay there yet I thin to gang there as a Factor to a Gentleman in this City, he is a Returney of the Law here, there are Servants here that came out of Ereland who are now Justices of the Peace, I wall come to Ereland, gin the Lord spare but twa Years after & will bring Rum & Staves for Barrels and Firkins for till sell & maney other things for this Gentleman & my sell for I will gang Super cargo of the Ship, sae that if nane of ye come afore I will bring ye aw wee me sell by the Help of the Lord.—

Now I have given you a true Description of this new York look untill the 8th Chapter of Deutoronomy & see what it saith of the Lan there, this is far better.

Now this is the last of sax Sheets of Paper I hae written to you upon this head I hope that your Father will be stoot & aw that I nam’d feer nae the Sea, trust in God & he will bring you safe to the Shore geen you please him Now the Lord make you aw so to do, nae mare frae me, but my Duty till my Father & Mither & my Sisters and Brithers & now ance mair to yere ane sell Reverand Doctor Baptiste Boyd, if oney ane write me a Letter direct to Mr. John Pemberton Minister of the Gospell in New York you may send it wee any body that is coming till these parts & it will come very safe and now my Love to aw Farewell.

Jas Murray


[1] This collection of 18th and 19th-century ‘Letters from Emigrants to America’ is on deposit at the London School of Economics. The letters were written home by English, Scottish and Irish emigrants to North America and have been gathered over many years by Professor Charlotte Erickson (a historian now at Cambridge University) when she was on the faculty of the LSE.

[2] According to Susan Sullivan on the staff of the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia, there is no record of John Pemberton in the Index of Presbyterian Ministers 1706-1871 by Willis Beecher or in the Society’s own Presbyterian Biographical Index. Of course, Pemberton may possibly have been a clergyman in another denomination.

[3] This volume was published by the Presbyterian Historical Society of Ireland, Belfast, in 1982. I am indebted to Dr Philip S Robinson of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum for locating this information for me.

Michael Montgomery

Professor Michael Montgomery of the University of South Carolina is engaged in a linguistic study of Ulster-Scots influences on Appalachian speech in America.

• • • • •


There wus an oul seceeder cat

An it wus unco grey

It brung a moose

Intil the hoose

Upon the Sabbath Day

They tuk it tae the Session

Wha it rebuikit sair

An made it promise faithfully

Tae dae the same nae mair

An noo a’ Sabbath Day it sits

Like some oul clockin hen

An cannae unnerstaun ava

The ways o mice an men



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