William Starrat of Strabane: the first Ulster Scots Poet

Author: Philip Robinson

Date: 1997

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 5 Simmer1997

William Starrat was a Strabane schoolmaster who penned the earliest known Ulster-Scots poem as early as 1722. He was no rural rustic, however, nor was he a ‘rhyming weaver’ or even a Dissenter. Indeed he was a Churchman who supported Queen Anne’s infamous Test Acts which prevented Presbyterians from holding any public appointments or commissions. Why, then, did such a man decide to write a number of poems in Ulster-Scots?

In fact, William Starrat was better known as a surveyor and mathematician than as a schoolmaster. He was one of the foremost land surveyors in Ireland, mostly active between 1716 and 1738, with major estate surveys completed for important landlords in counties Armagh, Donegal, Fermanagh, Londonderry, Leitrim, Cavan, Antrim and Tyrone. In 1723 he was made a freeman of Lifford, County Donegal, just across the bridge from Strabane in County Tyrone. But he owned several properties in Strabane, including his schoolhouse, where he taught Arithmetic, Algebra and Geometry. He appears to have had academic connections with Trinity College, Dublin, since his book published in 1733 on The Doctrine of Projectiles was dedicated to the ‘Provost and Fellows of Trinity College, Dublin’. He died circa 1768.

In some of his estate surveys, Starrat wrote extensive notes on local folk customs, local history and explanations of the Irish townland names. His references to Scots place-names or customs are incidental, and he appears not to have had any particular interest in these — although he may have presumed that the landlords who had commissioned the surveys would not be interested either.

Starrat was a ‘landlord’s man’, who approved of the use of his estate surveys to justify the raising of tenant farmers’ rents. His social standing in the North-West must have been significant. This area, however, was strongly Ulster-Scots and Presbyterian, particularly in the countryside around Strabane and Lifford.

About 1720, when Starrat was a young man, a remarkable renaissance in Scots vernacular poetry began with the publication of Allan Ramsay’s first works. These took Scotland — and Ulster — by storm, thus beginning a Scots literary movement which exploded into a world-renowned phenomenon two generations later with the first publication of Robert Burns’s book of poems in 1786.

Allan Ramsay’s most popular single work — The Gentle Shepherd — was first published in 1725 as a Scots pastoral comedy. Although it was written as a ‘play’ it seems to have been read as ‘poetry’ for its literary merit, rather than acted. Soon after the date of its first local advertisement for sale in Ulster in 1731, editions were published in Belfast in 1743, 1748, 1755, 1768 and 1792. Other Ulster editions were printed in Newry in 1764, 1776 and 1793, and in Strabane in 1789.

Ramsay’s earliest works, before the Gentle Shepherd, must have struck an inspirational chord with William Starrat, for in 1722 he sent a manuscript to Ramsay of the following poem which was annotated “Straban May 15th 1722”. In Ramsay’s own hand a note was added: “Mr Starrat Teaches Mathematicks at Straban.” Starrat’s poem was published in 1725 as a broadsheet, “A Pastoral in Praise of Allan Ramsay By Willy Starrat”, and in most versions of the collected works of Allan Ramsay it appears as follows:

“Epistle From Mr William Starrat Teacher of Mathematicks at Straban in Ireland.”

Ae windy Day last Owk, I’ll ne’er forget,

I think I hear the hailstanes rattling yet;

On Crochan Buss my Hirdsell took the Lee,

As ane wad wish, just a’ beneath my Ee;

I in the Beild of yon auld Birk-tree Side

Poor cauldrife Coly whing’d aneath my Plaid,

Right cozylie was set to ease my Stumps,

Well hap’d with Bountith-hose and twa soil’d Pumps;

Syne on my Four-hours Luntion chew’d my Cude,

Sic Kilter pat me in a MERRY MOOD:

My Whistle frae my Blanket-nook I drew,

And lilted owre thir twa three Lines to you.

Blaw up my Heart-strings ye Pierian Quines,

That ga’e the Grecian Bards their bony Rimes,

And learn’d the Latin Lowns sic Springs to play,

As gars the Warld gang dancing to this Day.

In vain I seek your Help; ’tis bootless Toil

With sic dead Ase to muck a Moorland Soil

Give me the Muse that calls past Ages back,

And shaws proud Southren Sangsters their Mistake,

That frae their Thames can fetch the laurel North,

And big Parnassus on the Frith of Forth.

Thy Breast alane this gladsome Guest does fill

With Strains, that warm our Hearts like Cannel Gill,

And learns thee in thy umquhile Gutcher’s Tongue,

The blythest Lilts that e’er my lugs heard sung.

RAMSAY! for ever live: For wha like you

In deathless Sang sic Life-like Pictures drew?

Not he wha shilome with his Harp cou’d ca’

The dancing Stanes to big the Theban Wa’;

Nor he (shamefa’s Fool Head) as Stories tell

Could whistle back an auld dead Wife frae Hell;

Not e’en the loyal Brooker of Bell-Trees

Wha sang with hungry Wame his want of Fees;

Nor Haby’s Dron cou’d with thy Wind-pipe please,

When in his well kend Clink thou manes the Death

Of Lucky Wood and Spence (a matchless Skaith

To Canigate) sae gash thy Gab-trees gang,

The Carlines live for ever in thy Sang.

Or when the Country Bridal thou pursues,

To redd the Regal Tulzie sets thy Muse,

Thy soothing Sangs bring canker’d Carles to Ease,

Some lowps to Lutter’s Pipe, some birls Bawbies.

But gin to graver Notes thou tunes thy Breath,

And sings poor Sandy’s Grief for Edie’s Death,

Or Matthew’s Loss; the Lambs in Consort mae,

And Lanesome Ringwood youls upon the Brae.

Good God! what tuneless Heart-strings wudna twang,

When love and Beauty animates thy Sang?

Skies echoe back, when thou blaws up thy Reed,

In Burchet’s Praise, for clapping of thy Head:

And when thou bids the paughty Czar stand yon,

The Wandought seems beneath thee on his Throne.

Now, be my Saul, and I have nought behin,

And weil I wat fause Swearing is a Sin,

I’d rather have thy Pipe, and twa three Sheep

Than a’ the Gold the Monarchs Coffers keep.

Coly, look out, the few we have’s gane wrang,

This se’nteen Owks I have not play’d sae lang;

Ha, Crummy, ha — trowth I maun quat my Sang.

But, Lad, neist Mirk we’ll to the Haining Drive,

When in fresh Lizar they get Spleet and rive;

The Royts will rest, and gin ye like my Play,

I’ll whistle to thee all the live lang Day.

This poem reveals that William Starrat had an impressive command of Scots. Indeed, as a literary work it was regarded sufficiently highly by Ramsay for him to pen the following response:

“To Mr. William Starrat on receiving the above Epistle”

Frae fertile Fields where nae curs’d Ethers creep,

To stang the Herds that in Rash-busses sleep;

Frae where Saint Patrick’s Blessing freed the Bogs

Frae Taids, and Asks, and ugly creeping Frogs;

Welcome to me’s the Sound of Starrat’s Pipe,

Welcome, as Weslen Winds, or Berries ripe,

When speeling up the Hill, the Dog-days Heat

Gars a young thirsty Shepherd pant and sweat:

Thus while I climb the Muses Mount with Care,

Sic friendly Praises give refreshing Air.

O! may the Lasses loo thee for thy Pains,

And may thou lang breathe healsome o’er the Plains:

Lang may’st thou teach, with round the nooked Lines,

Substantial skill, that’s worth rich Siller Mines;

To shaw how Wheels can gang with greatest Ease,

And what Kind Barks sails smoothest o’er the Seas;

How Wind-mills shou’d be made, — and how they work

The Thumper that tells Hours upon the Kirk:

How Wedges rive the Aik: — How Pullieses

Can lift on highest Roofs the greatest Trees;

Rug frae its Roots the Craig of Edinburgh Castle,

As easily as I cou’d break my Whistle.—

What Pleughs fits a wet Soil, and whilk the dry;

And mony a thousand useful Things forby.

I own ’tis cauld Encouragement to sing,

When round ane’s Lugs the blatran Hailstanes ring;

But feckfu’ Folk can fron the bauldest Wind,

And slonk thro’ Moors, and never fash their Mind.

Aft have I wid throu’ Glens with chorking Feet,

When neither Plaid nor Kelt cou’d fend the Weet;

Yet blythly wald I bang out o’er the Brae

And stend o’er Burns as light as ony Rae,

Hoping the Morn might prove a better Day.

Then let’s to Lairds and Ladies leave the Spleen,

While we can dance and whistle o’er the Green.

Mankind’s Account of Good and Ill’s a Just,

Fancy’s the Rudder, a Content’s a Feast.

Dear Friend of mine, yet but o’er meikle roose

The lawly Mints of my poor moorland Muse,

Wha looks but blate, when even’d to either twa,

That lull’d the Deel, or bigg’d the Theban Wa’;

But trowth ’tis natural for us a’ to wink

At our ain Fauts, and Praises frankly drink:

Fair fa’ ye then, and may your Flocks grow rife,

And may nae Elf twin Crummy of her Life.

The Sun shines sweetly, a’ the Lift looks blue,

O’er Glens hing hovering Clouds of rising Dew;

Maggy, the bonniest Lass of a’ our Town,

Brent is her Brow, her Hair a curly brown,

I have a Tryst with her, and maun away,

Then ye’ll excuse me till anither Day,

When I’ve mair Time; for shortly I’m to sing

Some dainty Sangs, that sall round Crochan ring.

Perdition! Sathan! is that you!

I sink! — am dizzy! — Candle blue.

Wi’ that he never mair play’d pew,

But with a Rair,

Away his wretched Spirit flew,

It maksna where.

Starrat described himself romantically as a herd ‘on Crochan’ in Donegal, a location which Ramsay picked up in his response: “Some dainty Sangs, that sall round Crochan ring”. It would seem that Starrat became known as the ‘Bard of Crochan’ in Donegal, rather than the Bard of Strabane.

Almost a century later, in 1812, an Ulster-Scot poet called David Colhoun, from Newtownstewart in County Tyrone, published “An Epistle to the Crochan Bard” in his Poems on Several Occasions by David Colhoun, or, The Shepherd of Mary Grey (Strabane, 1812).

Colhoun’s self-styled hardship of ‘Mary Grey’ refers to the twin mountains of Bessie Bell and Mary Grey near Newtownstewart. The 17th century Scottish legend of Bessie Bell and Mary Grey was adapted and popularised by Allan Ramsay in his song “O Bessy Bell and Mary Grey”, but it is uncertain whether the Newtownstewart mountains were named after Ramsay’s song or the original Scottish legend. However, this (along with the work of David Colhoun) is a story for another occasion. Colhoun’s epistle to the Crochan bard identifies “Starratt” in the third verse:

An Epistle To The Crochan Bard

I’ve foun’ thee out, my canty chiel,

Wha sings wi’ notes sae sharp and leel,

And few can tune their pipe sae weel,

By hill or stream;

And sure the Muse, wha wreath’d your brow

Wasna’ mista’en.

I ken whar Fin’s calm waters glide,

Whar Morne, in his giant pride,

Rolls his huge waves aboon the tide,

Wi unco roar!

An’ spreads his waters far and wide

On either shore.

I aft hae view’d auld Crochan’s side,

Whare Starratt wi’ his flocks did bide.

And aft in philosophic pride,

His skill display’d,

’Twas there the deathless Bardie woo’d

The heav’n-born maid.

• • • • •

Gae back, my flocks, why in sic haste,

Altho’ the night is hast’ning fast,

Gae, Colly, turn them, ’tis your last,

For this guid e’en!

I hae some verses yet to write,

And then we’ll hame.

Lang, brither bardie, very lang,

O’, may I hear your happy sang

Resounding wi’ the gratefu’ twang

O’ wit and fire;

And may the frien’ly sisters still

Your pipe inspire!

Soon i’ the dust I’ll lay my head,

Be numbered wi’ the happy dead,

Nae mair in Sorrow’s garb be clad,

To grieve or pine,

Or thy keen stroke misfortune dread,

Sae aft unkind.

Yet, ere I go, ae kind adieu,

Sweet Crochan Bard! I sen’ to you.

And all the singin’ brithers true,

Wha lu’ the lay,

Mayhap the latest verse you’ll hear

Frae Mary Grey!

William Starratt’s motives for writing in Ulster-Scots could be questioned, but his ability certainly could not. It is remarkable enough that he penned the earliest known Ulster-Scots poem, one which had significant acknowledgement from Ramsay. However, he was also the ‘Northern Bard’ who published what the present author had previously believed to be the earliest Ulster-Scots poem, printed as a broadsheet in Dublin in 1734:

An Elegy on the Much Lamented Death of Quarter-master Brice Blare; Who died at Strabane. By a Northern Bard.

Scarce had the bells the News began,

That honest Brice his Threed had span;

But Wives frae Cam’s to Moran’s ran,

And rugg’d their Head,

Crying, Alass! we’re quite undon,

Since Blare is dead.

Oh! Wha will hansel our New Tapp,

Or sit Twelve Hours without a Napp,

An when they scarce can turn the Capp,

Will reckon fair;

Trouth there is few cou’d e’er do that,

We’ honest Blare.

We weel black’d Shoon, and dressed right Neat,

He’d cantily come o’er the Gate,

We’ ane or two that was na bleat,

To tak their Mault;

And gin they stay’d till it was late,

’Twas ne’er his Fault.

For the first Hour, nae new made Priest,

Or maiden at a Christning Feast,

We’ Hicky Stick hang at his Briest,

Cou’d be mair mim

Nae Ill he said, but bad the neist,

His Bicker trim.

But gin he pleas’d nae Ale or mug,

Nae Carle frae Congregation Tub,

Wad round a fault into the Lugg,

Of list’ning Sinner;

Or we’ a mair Emphatick Shrugg,

Point out his Finger.

To Quart, or Glass, or Pint, or Flask

He’d tack the Wife or Lass to Task,

For Faults in either Maut or Mask,

Right weel he kenn’d;

He’d garr them Peg another Cask,

Their Hand to mend.

But gin it was right Nappy Beer,

Like it he by degrees wad clear,

And say, for seldom wad he swear,

Trouth its good ale;

Come Neighbours, will ye let us hear

Som Song or Tale.

Then Down the Tweed he wad begin,

Whar some Lilt Fethers, others Wing,

Syne Thro’ the Broom, the bonney Spring,

Batt Gallaway Water,

Wha wad not Laugh to hear him sing,

And shake it at her.

Here Nansy ends we’ Grief opprest,

Ursty her kimmer thus Addrest,

Friends, Here’s a Barrel o’ the Best,

And e’er he’s Caull;

Let’s drink a Bumper o’ the best,

To his Kind Saull.

Come, tak your Bicker, never think,

That I a Papist Health wad Drink,

I guess your Meaning by your Wink,

Ne’er fash your Heed;

Nean but a Jacobite wad shrink

To mind the Dead.

Nae whistling Winds thro’ Chink o’ Dore,

Or Winock-Breeds, did e’er before,

Sound sick a melancholy Glore,

As this sad Tale,

Now may we we the Trade gee o’er,

O brewing Ale.

Burst be this bare goul Banns o’ Death,

For stopping o’ our dear Freend’s Breath,

I wish our Pate and Willy beth,

Had paid the Fee;

For trouth it had been far less skaith,

To me and thee.

Sterrard, they say, foul fa his Heed,

Three twal Months sine fortall his Deed,

But, ah! it was ne out of Feed,

He lov’d him weel —

And bid him mix we carefou heed,

His Maut wi Meel.

But he unwilling to oppress

His stomach, ay eat less and less;

And it was this, as most Foks guess,

That wrought his Feed,

For he us’d neither Teeth nor * * * *

Lang e’er he Deed.

Good Freends, let me advise you all,

Wee Fish or Flesh, or Mutton Spaull,

We’ Beef, cram weell yer Money-saul,

Then never shrink,

Or fear yer * * * * shou’d be mad cald

We muckle Drink.

Now, fare ye weell, my dear Freend Blare:

To part with Thee, my heart’s right sair;

But this I’ll say, — And say ne mair,

For a thy Thirst;

Thou was as Honest and as Fair,

As ever Curst.

The Epitaph

Wha views this Tomb without a Tear,

That e’re sald Brandy, Ale, or Beer;

Ill be their change, may Maut be dear,

An Wort ay Blink

The King of Customers lies here

For Buying Drink.

That baith Paid weell, and Counted fair,

Here lies the Corps o’ Mr. Blare,

Wha o’ his Drink took far mear Care,

Than o’ his Meet,

That gar us a’ beath Rout and Rare,

And Gowl and Greet.

Although this elegy was printed in Dublin in 1734, it refers to a leading Presbyterian figure — Brice Blare or Blair — who died in 1722. The Funeral Register of First Belfast Presbyterian Church from 1712-1736 records for January 11, 1722, the death of “Mr briss blear”. He had been a Belfast bookseller and haberdasher, an elder of “First Belfast” and — most importantly because of the ‘quarter master’ jibe — the distributor of the Regium Donum since 1708. (The Regium Donum was an annual grant by the Crown, initiated by King William III, for the support of Presbyterian ministers).

The ‘elegy’ was written in the Scots stanza form known as ‘Standard Habbie’, and on the surface mimics Ramsay’s similar early penny broadsheets in Standard Habbie such as ‘Elegy on Maggy Johnstone’, an ale-wife who died in 1711. Without knowledge of who Brice Blare was, Starrat’s elegy would appear to contain little by way of religious or political message, apart from a few lines indicating that the writer was neither ‘Papist’ nor ‘Jacobite’. A certain hint of anti-Presbyterianism similar to that of Jonathan Swift’s ‘Tale of a Tub’, emerges from the lines

But gin he pleas’d nae Ale or mug,

Nae Carle frae Congregation Tub,

Wad round a fault into the Lugg,

Of list’ning Sinner;

Or we’ a mair Emphatick Shrugg,

Point out his Finger.

Another verse mentions the author’s name:

Sterrard, they say, foul fa his Heed,

Three twal Months sine fortall his Deed,

But, ah! it was ne out of Feed,

He lov’d him weel —

And bid him mix we carefou heed,

His Maut wi Meel.

Now that we know more about the work of William Starratt, the ‘Crochan Bard’, it can be argued confidently that he may have been the inspiration behind the ‘Scotch Poems’ published in 1753. This was a collection of nine poems by an anonymous author (or authors) in good Scots, and is mostly set in the Laggan area of east Donegal. However, these too were written from an ‘Establishment’ rather than a ‘Dissenting’ perspective, were in support of Tithes and the Test Acts, and the final poem, which has 144 lines of Scots couplets, was written dialogue style between ‘Patrick’ (Delaney, Dean of Down) and ‘Johnny’ (Earl of Ossory) in “A pastoral Elegy on the Death of Jonathan Swift, D.D. late D.S.P.D.”

The following abstract confirms the sentiment:

Laird Johnny heght, he, daund’ring came the gate,

Whare by good chance, he fan lamenting Pate.

Bless me, quo’ he, what cause can I assign,

That gars the blythe sweet singing Patrick pine.

Be chearfu’, man, let nought afflict you sae,

Dight off your tears, and be nae langer wae.


Ah, sir! I’m lost in grief, I’m left alane,

My better half, my SWIFT is dead and gane,

Whom hae I now to fill my heart wi’ glee

Or sing a pleasant roundelay to me!

It is paradoxical that William Starratt, as an ‘Establishment’ churchman with strong anti-Dissenter feelings, should be the first ‘Ulster-Scots’ poet. However, in Ullans 3 it was demonstrated that the first person to deliberately write Ulster-Scots prose may have been Jonathan Swift — a contemporary of Starrat’s with a similar mixture of talents and prejudices.

Philip Robinson







hap’dwrapped up








umquhilelate, former



weil I watwell I know



Fair fa’ yegood luck, greetings



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