‘Scots: The Mither Tongue’ by Billy Kay

Author: Jack McKinney

Date: 1994

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

(a review of the new edition)

My colleague, Ernie Scott, and I first met Billy Kay when he came over with a BBC film crew to a pub in Ballynure near Ballyclare in 1985. This was in connection with his very successful television programme on the history of the Scots language. Ernie had agreed to meet them off the ferry at Larne and, sporting a large military moustache at the time, had typically told the strangers to look out for the chap with a face like a burst horse-hair sofa. This was their introduction to Ulster-Scots humour and appropriately prefaced a jolly session in the Ballad Inn with Alex McAllister, the Larne folk poet, joining Ernie in recitations and yarns. The two minute excerpt which eventually appeared in the programme did the evening scant justice.

This is a revised edition of the book which accompanied this television and a subsequent radio series on the Scots language and, sadly for Ulster folk, it was transmitted only in Scotland. Billy Kay is a distinguished writer and broadcaster who for many years has relentlessly promoted the Scots language and culture in Britain within the wider context of European culture.

As his regular visits and the contacts he has built up in Ulster clearly demonstrate he has a keen interest in Ulster-Scots and recognises its significance as an important dialect of Scots. He is a member and ardent supporter of the Ulster-Scots Language Society.

If it is accepted that Ulster-Scots is a most important element of our mother tongue it follows that this book will help anyone to understand the origin of our language. The section on Ulster-Scots in the chapter on the dialects of Scots is especially relevant, but the other chapters also make an important contribution to a fuller knowledge of the development of the language. Here the writer describes how many of the words and forms of old Scots, though since lost in Scotland, have survived in Ulster from the time of the 17th century settlers and now contribute to a more complete picture of the early Scots language.

The main theme of the book is the history of Scots from its earliest beginnings through its peak as the officially recognised language of Scotland to its subsequent decline under the influence of English after the union of the English and Scottish crowns. Billy Kay compares the situation in Scotland with that in Ulster from this period and highlights the pressure and stigma applied by all degrees of officialdom to the traditional language in both these parts of the United Kingdom.

This will strike a chord with many Ulster readers. He argues passionately for the necessity today to retain and extend Scots and, by association, Ulster-Scots, as a vibrant, living language.

But it must be emphasised that while this book has a definite scholarly appeal its informal style ensures that it is a pleasure to read. Many examples of the mother tongue are used in the text and as these are in the broad Ayrshire and other Scots dialects, even the strongest Ulster-Scots speakers will find it helpful to have the accompanying translation. They certainly provide colour and are complemented by stanzas from a variety of poets. It is pleasing to read the verses from our own folk poets, James Orr and Hugh Porter, and realise how easily they match those of the Scots for quality.

The natural link between the two languages, and the cultural links between the Scots and many Ulster people is no better illustrated than in the quotation used from The Humour of Druids Island by the Ballyclare author, Archibald McIlroy (1859-1915), in the section on Ulster-Scots. This is a description in broad Ulster-Scots of a visit made one evening by an old country woman to the Presbyterian Manse where she unexpectedly disturbs a gathering of ladies of ‘quality’. The language and the way in which the potential for humour of the situation is exploited will be understood and appreciated by any Scots or Ulster folk with a strong rural background.

Billy Kay’s lively and useful account of the development of the Scots language will deservedly attract a wide readership not just in Scotland but also on this side of the sheugh.

Jack McKinney

Scots: The Mither Tongue by Billy Kay. First published 1986, Revised Edition 1993 by Alloway Publishing, Hastings Square, Dervel, Ayrshire. Paperback 199 pp. Price £6.50. Available from the Secretary of the Ulster-Scots Language Society for £7.00 including postage and packing.

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There’s twa heids on aa his sheep (boast).

Gie a dug a clout wi a bane an he’ll no yowl.

The auld horse tae the oot dyke (saying).



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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.


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