Jonathan Swift: his early writings in Ulster-Scots?

Author: Philip Robinson

Date: 1995

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 3 Spring 1995

In Ullans 2 (1994) an article was published by Professor Michael Montgomery called “An early Ulster-Scots letter”. This had been printed in the Pennsylvania Gazette of 1737 (October 27 - November 3), and had re-appeared in a later version in 1767. It was written by a James Murray of New York to Rev Baptist Boyd of County Tyrone, and its deliberate Ulster-Scots style raised a host of questions. Why was it written, and, did it mark the beginning of an important literary tradition — the writing of ‘fiction letters’ to the press in some form of naive Scots? In such letters we have some of the earliest examples of Scots prose writing (that is, of Scots consciously written in ‘Scotch’ by persons whose normal written language was English).

Professor Montgomery, since the publication of our last issue, has discovered that yet another version of the ‘James Murray’ letter had also appeared a month earlier in 1737 in the Virginia Gazette. However, even more exciting is his discovery that four years earlier still, in 1733, a completely different Ulster-Scots letter appeared in the Philadelphia Gazette (December 13-20), and a similar version of this new letter also appeared in the Virginia Gazette of November 12-19, 1736. This letter was headed “The North-Country Man’s Description of Christ-Church in Dublin In a letter to a Friend”. It was signed ‘J.S.’ and although the later version appeared in the Virginia Gazette during 1736, its earliest American printing was 1733. The letter claimed to be written from Portaferry in county Down, and appeared to be a copy of some original from Ireland — possibly printed in a Dublin newspaper of the early 1730s.

As we shall see, the 1733 Philadelphia Gazette version of the ‘J.S.’ Portaferry letter was an almost exact copy of an original printed in Dublin and London in 1733. The Virginia Gazette version of 1736 has a number of minor alterations. However, the discovery of the ‘original’ some months ago is a most exciting development in our attempts to understand the emergence of this type of early Ulster-Scots prose writing.

In 1733, in the middle of a fierce pamphlet war over the ‘Test Acts’ (which excluded Dissenters from holding any Public Office in Ireland unless they took the ‘Sacramental Test’ and publicly conformed to the sacraments of the Established Church), a booklet appeared with 5 short pieces in it. These were as follows:

(1) The Humble Remonstrance of the Five-Foot-Highians, against the Antichristian Practice of using a Standard in Enlisting of Soldiers. To which is added,

(2) The Wounds o’ th’ Kirk of Scotland, or a specimen of Presbyterian Eloquence, in a Sermon preech’d in St Geil’s, the Great Kirk, in Edinburgh, in the Year of the Lord 1638. With an

(3) Elegy on the late Revd Mess Alexander Sinkler, Teacher of Plunket-Street Meeting House, Dublin. As also

(4) The North Country-Man’s Description of Christ-Church, Dublin, with his

(5) Grace after Meat (A North Country Grace).

There can be little doubt that these items (which include our ‘American’ Ulster-Scots letter as item 4 above) were deliberately assembled in a single publication. They build on each other to ridicule not only Scots in general and Ulster-Scots in particular, but also religious dissenters in general and Ulster Presbyterians in particular, — and most clearly of all, to demonstrate the folly of exposing the state to the dangers that would follow repeal of the Test Acts. Nor can there be any doubt of the exceptional cleverness displayed by the author in terms of the wit and satire contained in this book.

The first item, A Humble Remonstrance of the Fife-Foot-Highians, against the Antichristian Practice of using a Standard in Enlisting of Soldiers, is the only piece written in English. It is a clever satire on the minimum height requirement for enlisting. A ‘man will not make one bit the better Soldier for being as tall as a Church Steeple’. ‘Judging of Men according to their Stature, is a very improper Test for the Admission of Soldiers into his Majesty’s Service’. Numerous examples are given throughout to expose the folly of excluding men from military service simply because of their height. The ‘standard’ is the height measure (or of course the flag of state), which must be approached bare-footed by those wishing to enlist, and therefore they honour the ‘Standard’ in an ‘anti-Christian’ way — ‘borrowed from the Religion of Mahomet’. Like much of the satire of Swift’s day, it almost could be misunderstood as an argument against the Test Acts. However, it came as part of a package, all the other items of which were written in Scots or Ulster-Scots, and develop into a collective caricature.

The second item, The Wounds o’ th’ Kirk of Scotland, or a specimen of Presbyterian Eloquence in a sermon preech’d in St Geil’s, the Great Kirk in Edinburgh, in the Year of the Lord, 1638, is a stunning piece of work. This covenanter’s sermon was well known as the ‘Red-Shanks Sermon’ or the ‘Pockmantie Sermon’ and had been published and re-published many times after its first delivery in St Giles, Edinburgh. Here however the author has mocked the sermon and its Presbyterian covenanting manifesto by translating it from its original ‘Scottish-English’ to ‘Braid Scotch’. For example, mention of the pockmantie (a dispatch bag) in a 1642 printing of the Red-Shankes Sermon is as follows:

Our adversaries… were posting to Rome with a poakmantie behind them, and what was in their poakmantie trow ye?

The same passage in our 1733 version reads:

But what had he gotten behint him, wat ye? I’ll tell ye! Ah, a nee! There was a Pock-mantle! And what was in’t wat ye? There was the Book o’ Common-Prayer, the Book o’ Canons and the High Commission! Bonney, bonny Geer, God thou kens! But when the Ass cudna get by the Angel, she fell a flinging and plunging, and our gangs the Pock-mantle…

Another passage in the 1642 edition of the Red-Shankes Sermon does use the occasional Scots word, such as ‘langle’ (to tether an animal’s feet together):

The Kirk of Scotland was a bony trotting naig… but the Bishops… after they had gotten on her back cross-langled her and hopshaikled her.

The author of the 1733 satire translated this as:

The Kirk of Scotland wus yence a bonney trotting Neag, but then she trotted se heard that nene durst ride her, but the hard riding walloping Loons the Bishops; but ne shooner had they gotten upon the Back o’ her, but they cross-linnengled and ham-shakled her.

The torturous treatment of the word langled to linnengled illustrates how the author had enough knowledge of Scots vocabulary to ‘translate’ the basic forms, but got into difficulty with lesser-known words.

The Elegy on the Late Revd Mess Sawney Sinkler, Teacher of Plunket-Street Meeting House, Dublin, wha departed out o’ this World the first o’ April, the Year o’ our Lord 1722, begins as follows:

Their Harts mun be as hard as Stean,

That wonnot rift and greet and grean,

For Revd Sawney deed and gean:

He was a gracious Godly Preecher,

Alias, A Convent-tickle Teecher,

Yet had (unless the Synod lees)

As gud a Right to keep the Kees

As ony Priest beneath the Lift,

Fre Pope o’ Roome till Parson Sw—ft;

Leaving for the moment this reference to Swift, the Rev Alexander Sinclair had indeed been the Presbyterian minister of Plunket Street in Dublin, and did die in 1722. The satire is richly humorous and might be taken in places to be gentle, although on closer examination lines such as:

He pray’d as lang as he was able,

The Doonfa’ o’ the Whore o’ Babel,

And aw that Antichristian Rabble.

Wee Mahomet, that vile Imposter,

And aw that say their Pater Noster

In Language that they dinny ken,

And worship Deels and wicked Men

present a caricature of ridiculously intransigent Presbyterians that is a consistent theme throughout.

The ‘Epitaph’ at the end of the elegy is so witty that few hands in Dublin at this time could have been capable of penning it:

The Epitaph

Underneath this Yerd and Stenes,

Ligs Revd Sawney Sinkler’s Benes.

Wha little thought that he wad lie,

Among the Antichristian Fry.

And yet, alas! near James’s Kirk,

He’s staw’d among them in the Mirk.

But when at Doomsday they revive,

’Tis mere than odds, by ten till five,

As quiet now as either lies,

They’ll hea a Scuffle when they rise.

The next piece in the composition is the ‘Portaferry’ letter signed ‘J.S.’ It is almost identical in every respect to the version published in the Philadelphia Gazette later in the same year (1733). We give the full text below.

THE North Country-Man’s Description OF Christ’s-Church, Dublin; IN A LETTER to a FRIEND.

Portferry, May 6th 1731.


I Have herewith sent you a Description of Christ Church, given me by a Person in our Parts, who is not yet thoroughly reconciled to himself (for his great Brak and Transgression o’ the Lord’s Day) as he terms it. But as his going there was by meer Chance, not Design, he is the better reconciled to himself. The Fact is thus, viz.

A Ship from Portferry in the County of Down, came to an Anchor at Astons-Key, loaded with Corn, on a Saturday in the Evening: There were two of the Hands (being bred to the Fishery in these Parts) that never were in Dublin before that Time. On Sunday Morning they asked the Master, (he being somewhat indispos’d) Whar will we gang now in this great City and hear the Word o’ the Lord the Day? Lads, reply’d the Master, (pointing towards Angle’s-Street, Ge yer wa that Gate, when ye get till the Heed o’ the Street, yell see a great mickle brass Horse, we a brass Man upon the Top o’ him, leave him on yer Backs, and ge straight on; turn neither till the Right Hand, nor till the Left, till yell come till a great House in Skinner-Raw, whilk is ca’d the Toulsey; dinna turn there, but go on straight till ye come to a Yat, it is caw’d Newgate, whare a’ the Cadys are kept, ge thro’ that Yat, then turn upon yer right Hand, they caw that New-Raw, and then speer for Usher’s-Kee, and there yell hear a good Preeching. There is a Preeching-House by the Gate, nearer Hand, but for the very Sals o’ ye dinna gang in till it; for they are New-Light.

WITH these Directions they went; but coming to the Tholsel, the Lord Mayor was going to Church with his Attendants; and they being curious to see what could be the Meaning of such a Concourse of People, lost each other in the Croud; one of them went up High-Street, according to Direction; the other went with the Croud down Christ-Church-Lane, till he came to the Church. At his Entrance he ask’d a Person what Place it was? who told him it was Christ-Church; he ask’d again, Pray ye, Sir, now; might any one gang in tilit? Yes, Friend, reply’d the Man, come with me and I will take you in. Where he continued all the Time of the Service, the which when over, he hir’d a Boy to shew him the Way to Aston’s-Key. When he came there, and being ask’d, where he had been? He stood for some Time silent, not being reconciled to himself for going to the Place he had been at. After some Time he spoke — But I shall give it in his own Words, as near as I can recollect.

WHAR I was I can ge ne Account of, but I can tell ye what I seed. When first I ged in, I ged doon a great Place that a’ the Floor was cover’d we bread Stens, and a Warld o’ Foke gaing up and doon thro’ yen another. We cam tell twa great Stairs, and ged under them, whar was a Door gaing in. This Place was amest foo o’ Foke; as weel aboon as whar I was, this they cad the Kirk. But as I shall answer, there was not a Pulpit in a’ the Place. Looking round me, the first Thing that I seed was a mickle man brass Bird, wee a Buke on the Back o’ him; at the leagh End o’ the Kirk there was a Table that was a’ railed round; there was twa Bukes upon that. On ilky Side there war twa great Brass Candlesticks, and Candles on them, (but they war ne lighted) amest as thick as my Arm. In the wa o’ the Side, there ware some ald cheels we Beards cut out o’ Sticks, as I thought; and there was a Cheel we a hantle o’ Kees in his Hand, running about letting the Folk into their Places. Belive came a Cheel we a black Goon upon the Back o’ him, a white siller Wan in his Hand, and a wee Bird on the top o’t. There followed him a great fat swinging Cheel we a white Sark on, and mere Cheels we white Sarks and lang Wiggs on the Heeds o’ them, and wee weans we white Sarks on them. A wheen ged intill the yea Side, and a wheen till the other. At last ye Cheel we a white Sark tuk up a Buke and readed, and, as I shall answer, they had Word about we him on the other Side, and a’ the Folk about me were glabbring among themselves; what they said, only God and they ken. The whistle Pipes fell a lilting, the Cheels and Weans in white Sarks skirl’d and screed till them, and I sweeted. On ged they this gate for some Time; at last yen o’ the Cheels we a white Sark ged awa til the brass Bird, and opened the Buke. Now, as I live, what he readed there was the Scripture! He had ne shooner done, but the whistle Pipes fell a blawing, and they skirled till them. Then another Cheel tuke his Turn at the Buke; I am sure it was the Scripture that he readed. He was not long about that til’t they went again. Now I stood about the middle o’ the Kirk, and there was a Stick that I leen’d upon; the Cheel we a hantle o’Keys in his Hand cam, and tuke it intill the middle o’ the Kirk, and laid a Buke upon it; then came the Cheel we the Siller Wan, and a Cheel we a white Sark follow’d him; he kneeled down upon it, and there he readed, but they had aways Words about we him aboon. He was ne lang at that, but up gets he, and awa till his Place.

They ged on for a wee while this Gate; then the whistle Pipes fell a lilting, and doon came that Cheel we the Siller Wan, (and a bissy Body was he that Day) the fat Cheel we a white Sark, and doon ged they to the leagh End o’ the Kirk, whar the Table and Candles war, and they boued as they ged in. The fat Cheel tuke the Buke intill his Hands and readed; I cou’d understand weel enough what he readed, it was the Commandments, but, as I shall answer, the whistle Pipes lilted till every yen o’ them. He had soon done there; up comes he again and the Cheel we the Siller Wan; but the fat Cheel did not gang intill the Place whar he sat aboon, but get intill a Place in the middle o’ the Kirk, whar I stood; I luk’d a we while at him, and then turning my fell about, — now, as I shall answer and wish to go heme and see the Wife and Barens, there was a Pulpet within twa or three Yards o’ me; whar it came fre, God only kens; for I luked a boon, and ne Hole ava to let it doon. There came a Cheel intill it, we a black Gown on the Back o’ him; he tuke a text out o’ the Scripture; I cou’d understand him, and in gud troth he tald his Tale gilly weell. Ne shunner had he doon, but twa Cheels we white Sarks, and a wee wean with a white Sark gat aboon whar the whistle Pipes war; the yen lilted, and the other skirled and screeded till them, and still I sweeted; I thought they never wad hea done. Luking about, the Pulpit was gene; how it came, or whar it ged, I cud na find out. Then, agen doon came tht busy Cheel we the filler Wan, and a Cheel in a white Sark followed him, awa whar the Table was, and there he reeded a wee while; as soon as he had done the fat Cheel, wha was just at my Lug in the middle o’ the Kirk, gave us a’ his Blessing. The Folk came a’ out, and se did I. I got a wee Caddy for a Babee to shew me the Gate down here. And now I hope the Lord wull forgive me for spending the Sabbath so ill. THIS, Sir, is what I had from himself, if you think fit to communicate it to the Publick, it is at your Service.

I am, Sir,

Your most humble Servant


Standing by itself, as it did in the Pennsylvania Gazette, this ficti.on-letter can read as an early piece of Ulster-Scots humorous prose; a Presbyterian lampooning of High Church hocus-pocus in Christ Church Dublin. The Established Church had of course two Cathedrals in Dublin — St Patrick’s (of which Jonathan Swift was Dean) and Christ Church. However in the broader context of the other associated pieces which were undoubtedly written by the same hand, it becomes clear that the writer’s purpose was to ridicule the Ulster-Scots, Scots and Dissenters all — with the chief end of resisting the crisis in 1733 that almost resulted in the repeal of the Test Act.

The final piece in the book, had it been re-printed with the ‘J.S.’ letter in America, would have painted a different, and more offensive, picture of the narrow-minded Dissenter as equally intolerant of Protestant and Papist:


OH gud G—, weed aw the Papishes out of the Land, weed them as we do the Thistles out of the Corn Ground. Thou can do it, and mun do it, and do it hastily. Digg a muckle Dyke between us and Hell, but a far far muckler between us and the wild Irish. Keep the brow Cow, and the cromed Cow, and Rutty. Grant that the poor ald Heffer stalk not in the Mire, nor smoor in the Dike. Grant that the Meer break not her Tether, nor the Wind blaw down the Keal Stocks. Bless us free aw Witches and Warlocks, and aw lang nebbed Things that creeps intill Heather; but fre that exhorbitant Power o’ France, oh, deliver us! — And, ah thou! that loves neither Priests, Monks, nor freers, nor the Gillywatsits, the Folk that wears the lang Skeans; wee the Horn till the left, and the wee pickle Snuff in it: Bless and sanctify aw thy good Creatures that weers the good Blue Bonnets, sick as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob weard, when they ged till the Holy Land o’ Canaan — Rain down a Shower o’ Whuttles upon the B—s, the wallopping Loons, that wears the Lawn Sleeves, that eats up aw the Fat o’ the Land, and will not let a poor Man gan till the D—l wee bare Banes; Oh! we beg o’ thee till take the Kees out o’ their Hands, for mony wrong Cast has the Lock gotten fine they had the Turning o’ them; take them out o’ their Hands, I say, and gay them play clitter clatter upon their Crown, till they cry Maw, like a Cat, — Branks, oh, branks the Pope; brun him, and burn out again, crush him like yen ald Peet Creel, and brun his bens till Ashes; put down the Whore of Babel, brun her Beeds into Saw-dust, whap them into the Papists Een, that may not find the Gate till ge till Mass. Bless the Lord and the Lady of the House, and aw the Foke that’s here, and my sel as muckle as ony Six of them aw. Gannet, stick too the Door, see there be ne Irish Loons about the House; gee the Coggs till Barry till Lick, and give us a Coag of Swats. Yer aw kindly welcome, Gentle Folk; and the muckle horned D—l scad aw our Neighbours.


There can be little doubt that the letter published in the Philadelphia Gazette in December 1733 was directly taken from the book described above (which had appeared earlier the same year). All the articles in the book were printed as a single collection, as the page numbers run consecutively throughout. The title page states that it was Dublin, Printed. London, re-printed for J Roberts, in Warwick-Lane, MDCCXXXIII (1733).

The final page carries an advertisement for five other Books printed for J Roberts, in Warwick-Lane — all of which were concerned with the Sacramental Test issue. One was a book of Poems on Several Occasions and other items Revised by Dr Swift. Another was certainly written by Swift: The Advantages propos’d by Repealing the Sacramental Test impartially considered, By the Dean of St Patrick’s.

The 1733 book printed for J Roberts may have been a compilation drawn from several separate Dublin printings. The only article in the book which was written in English (The humble remonstrance of the five-foot-highians), was published separately in Dublin by George Faulkner in 1733 as An appeal to the publick; or, the humble remonstrance of the five-foot-highians, against the antichristian practice of using a standard in enlisting of soldiers. Faulkner is known as the Dublin printer most closely identified with Swift, and was sometimes referred to as “Swift’s printer”.

Another Dublin publisher, James Carson, printed The wounds o’ the Kirk o’ Scotland. In a sermon preech’d in St Geils, the great kirk in Edinburgh, in the year, of our Lord, 1638. By James Row, O’Strowan. To which is added, an elegy on the Reverend Mess Sawney Sinkler in 1730. Two years later, in 1732, the same J Carson of Dublin re-printed these two pieces (the ‘wounds o the kirk’ and the ‘elegy on the reverend Mess Alexander Sinkler’), but this time added to them As also, the north country-man’s description of Christ-Church; with his grace after meat. The ‘Portaferry letter’, therefore, had been published a year before the 1733 book appeared, in association with the other Ulster-Scots pieces, (but not with the ‘five-foot-highians’ article which had been published separately by Faulkner in 1733).

In 1743 a further edition of some of these pieces was published by James Carson: The wouns o’ the Kirk o’ Scotlan. In a sarmon preech’d in St Geil’s, the great kirk in Edinburgh, in the year of our Lord, 1738 [sic]. By James Row,To which is added, proposals for setting up a north country eating hous… As also, the north country ordinary opened…

We have not, as yet, been able to examine this last publication, but the inclusion of two more articles in a similar vein concerning a ‘north country eating hous’ and a ‘north country ordinary’ is fascinating. Presumably they had also been written in Ulster-Scots and in the same satirical vein as the other ‘north-countryman’s’ pieces. An ‘ordinary’ was a common, regular meal for a fixed price at an inn, or could mean the common ‘eating-house’ itself where such a meal could be obtained. It seems reasonable to anticipate that the ‘north country eating hous’ is a satire on Presbyterian ‘Meeting Houses’, and probably an even more distasteful pun on the Presbyterian forms of taking the Bread and Wine of communion at a common table in the aisles.

In 1733 George Faulkner published in Dublin the best known of Swift’s tracts against the repeal of the Sacramental Test: The Presbyterian Plea of Merit in order to take off the Test Impartially examined. Here Swift argues at length that “…a Scottish or Northern Presbyterian hates our Episcopal Established Church more than Popery itself,” and the Ulster Presbyterians he then shows to have been prepared to support rebellion in the past. Swift is unable to restrain himself from a rather unsavoury attack on Dissenting forms of worship, and in so doing reveals similar ideas to those contained in the ‘north-country eating hous’ and the ‘North-countryman’s Grace’:

As to their great Objection of prostituting that holy Institution, the blessed Sacrament, by way of a Test, before Admittance into any Employment, I ask, whether they would not be content to receive it after their own manner, for the Office of a Judge, for that of a Commissioner in the Revenue, for a Regiment of Horse, or to be a Lord Justice. I believe they would scruple it as little, as a long Grace before and after Dinner; which they can say without bending a knee. For, as I have been told, their Manner of taking Bread and Wine in their Conventicles, is performed with little more Solemnity than at their common Meals.

In 1733 a debate in the Irish Parliament on the Test Act was pending, and Swift was moved to near panic with the arrival in Dublin of a delegation of Ulster Presbyterians to lobby for repeal:

But, the Session now approaching, and a Clan of Dissenting Teachers come up to Town from their Northern Head Quarters, accompanied by many of their Elders and Agents, … I think it high Time, that this Paper should see the Light. However, I cannot conclude without freely confessing, that if the Presbyterians should obtain their Ends, I could not be sorry to find them mistaken in the Point which they have most at Heart by the Repeal of the Test; I mean the Benefit of Employment. For, after all, what Assurance can a Scottish Northern Dissenter, born on Irish Ground, have, that he shall be treated with as much favour as a TRUE SCOT born beyond the Tweed.

In this same pamphlet, Swift appears to make a footnote reference to the Wounds o th’ Kirk of Scotland, or a Specimen of Presbyterian Eloquence… article which was included in the 1733 volume we have been examining. He argues that Presbyterians, if given power, would “…establish Iniquity by a Law:”, as evidenced by the writings of the Covenanters. His footnote here states: “See many hundred Quotations to prove this, in the Treatise called Scotch Presbyterian Eloquence”.

The purpose of this article is to ask the question: Did Swift write significant and competent prose articles in Ulster-Scots? If so, the paradox of having our earliest known ‘modern’ Ulster-Scots writings penned by an arch-rival of the Ulster-Scots is enormous — not to mention the significance of having these composed by someone who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest author of English satirical prose. Unfortunately, we can at present only ask the question — not answer it — for much further research will be required to establish the authorship of our Ulster-Scots pieces.

In the meantime, as this research quest continues (hopefully with the assistance of Swiftian scholars), other ‘pointers’ to a likely Swift connection can be summarised:

(a) Jonathan Swift, on taking Holy Orders in the Church of Ireland, took up his first position as the Prebend of Kilroot in 1695. He remained at Kilroot in east Antrim for a little over a year. His only ‘working’ church was at Ballycarry in the Parish of Templecorran. Throughout his three parishes at Kilroot Swift had only a handful of Episcopalian Church members, the rest being almost exclusively Presbyterian. Indeed the ruined Templecorran Church at Ballycarry where he preached contains no memorial to Swift, but the burying ground is dominated by the memorial to James Orr — the ‘Bard of Ballycarry’ and probably the greatest of Ulster-Scots poets. Swift’s time at Kilroot was miserable, and it is often alluded to as the period when he took what we would call a ‘scunner’ against the Ulster-Scots. Some even believe that this period among the Ulster-Scots was the time when he drafted his first great work, Tale of a Tub.

(b) Swift’s greatest satires Tale of a Tub and Gulliver’s Travels focus on his two fixations: the dissenter versus conformist debate in political and religious life, and, his feelings of superiority as an English ‘giant’ in Ireland, contrasting with his feelings of inferiority as an ‘Irishman’ in England.

(c) The contradictions in Swift’s Anglo-Irish identity found expression, and some relief, in his regular attacks on the Ulster-Scots in Ireland. These were usually paralleled by attacks on the Scots of ‘North Britain’ and the threat they posed to England. Indeed his views on the Scots were not simply based on political and religious convictions — he had a deep-seated prejudice against all things ‘Scotch’. This is most clearly revealed in the published notes that Swift made on the book Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion. Any mention Clarendon made of things or people that were Scottish drew comments in the margin from Swift such as “Scottish scoundels!”, “Scotch dogs!”, “Cursed Scots for ever”, “A cursed true Scot”, “Confounded Scots”, “all Argyles, cursed Scottish hell-hounds for ever!”, “Scottish traitor!”, “Cursed hellish Scots for ever!”, “Greedy Scotch rebellious dogs”, “Cursed Scots, brethren in iniquity”, “Dogs, villains, almost as bad as the cursed Scots”, “Damnable Scots”, “A rogue, half as bad as a Scot” … and so on ad nauseum.

(d) Swift was ever observant of ‘bad English’ as he saw it, and no less so of ‘Scotch’. In his Remarks on Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion he frequently criticised the author for using ‘Scotch’ phrases and words:

eg: (Clarendon)(Swift’s Notes)
“but just gloriation”Scotch phrase:
“may timeously and speedily”Scotch:
“in plain English …”[in] Scotch [he means].

Similarly in Swift’s Remarks on Bishop Burnet’s History of His Own Time he criticises the author for his style which is “…rough, full of improprieties, in expression often Scotch, and often such as are used by the meanest people… clapt up, decency, and some other words and phrases, he uses many hundred times… All these phrases used by the vulgar, shew him to have kept mean or illiterate company in his youth.” When Burnet wrote of Paradise Lost as the ‘beautifullest and perfectest poems that ever was writ, at least in our language’, Swift commented, ‘A mistake, for it is in English’. On Burnet’s description of Sir John Cunningham as ‘one of the piousest men of the nation’, Swift asked “Is that Scotch?”, and elsewhere he provides an ‘English translation’ eg (Burnet) “He was cast” (Swift) “Anglicé, found guilty”; (Burnet) “liker the lungs than the heart”, (Swift) “Anglicé, more like”.

Swift’s observations on correct usage of English are well known, and in his Polite Conversation (1738) he recorded accurately the banal language of the English upper class. About the same time he had been noting down some of the peculiarities of the English language as spoken in Ireland. He arranged this ‘Hiberno-English’ material into a conversational exchange under the title A dialogue in Hybernian stile between A. and B.; and, in the form of a letter, under the title Irish eloquence.

(e) Almost all Swift’s writings — especially those which contained contentious political or religious satire — were published anonymously. Frequently Swift disguised his authorship; occasionally he denied works when they were indeed his; and on occasion ‘suggested’ others to be the authors of his own work.

Proof that Swift did or did not compose the ‘J.S.’ letter from Portaferry in Ulster-Scots, along with the other associated compositions, may be elusive. Certainly Swiftian scholars must be asked to help, and this task is just beginning. To return, however, to the start of this exciting piece of literary detective work. The ‘J.S.’ letter now stands (besides its possible Swift connection) as the earliest known example of a Scots or Ulster-Scots ‘fiction’ letter to the Press, appearing as it did in the Philadelphia Gazette in 1733. We now know a great deal more about the origins of this distinctive and important type of Scots literature.

The other early Ulster-Scots letter from James Murray of New York to Rev. Baptist Boyd of Aughnacloy which Michael Montgomery presented in Ullans 2, had appeared in both the Pennsylvania Gazette and the Virginia Gazette during 1737. This letter had a very different purpose — it was not written to ridicule the Ulster-Scots, but rather it seems that it was intended to encourage more ‘Scotch-Irish’ to migrate from Ulster to America. If this was the case, an earlier prototype to the ‘Murray’ letter might yet be discovered in Ireland.

The Intelligencer was an early Dublin newspaper established by Swift and his friend Thomas Sheridan. To this paper Swift regularly contributed ‘fiction letters’ (in English, of course), and in 1728 he penned a particularly interesting one signed in the following manner:

I am, SIR,

Your most obedient,

Humble Servant,

A. North.

County of Down

Dec. 2. 1728.

Swift introduces himself in this letter by stating that “the Author personates a Country Gentleman in the North of Ireland”. It is an essay concerned with the poor state of the local economy, but in it he expresses great concern about the thousands of families fleeing to America in search of work and a better life.

It is remarkable, that this Enthusiasm spread among our Northern People, of sheltering themselves in the Continent of America, hath no other Foundation, than their present insupportable Condition at home.

At this point in the letter, Swift makes mention of a letter from America, written to encourage this traffic:

Somebody, they know not who, had written a Letter to his Friend or Cousin from thence, inviting him, by all Means, to come over; that it was a fine fruitful Country, and to be held for ever at a Penny an Acre.

Such letters were little short of treachery in Swift’s eyes, but he observed with some satisfaction that:

The governing People in those Plantations, have also wisely provided, that no Letters shall be suffered to pass from thence hither, without being first viewed by the Council.

The ‘Murray’ letter has many of the characteristics that fit Swift’s description. It is even possible that Swift may have seen the ‘Murray’ letter, and that a prototype of it may have existed as early as 1733.

The importance of the discovery of such a significant body of hitherto unknown Ulster-Scots literature from the early 1700s cannot be over-emphasised. However, with a strong possibility that this material had a connection with Jonathan Swift, and may even have been written by him, we can anticipate future academic interest well beyond the limits of our own Ulster-Scots, or even American ‘Scotch-Irish’, studies.

Philip Robinson

The author is deeply indebted to Professor Michael Montgomery of the University of South Carolina for the ‘discovery’ of the ‘J.S.’ letter in the early American press, and for his continuing help with this project.

• • • • •

Oul Saws

It’s a lang loanen haes nae turn.

As the day lenthens, the coul strenthens.



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.

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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.


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.



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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!

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