Ulster-Scots: View from Donegal

Author: Conal Gillespie

Date: 1999

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 7 Wunter 1999


Conal Gillespie

The ongoing debate in the media concerning the status of Ulster-Scots as a language or dialect has generated more heat than light. While the same debate was ongoing in Northern Ireland cultural circles during recent years commentators with broadly unionist perspectives tended to endorse the claims of Ulster-Scots to linguistic status enthusiastically, while many nationalists were wont to dismiss it as a synthetic fig leaf for culturally naked loyalism. The crude politicization of such an important cultural debate is regrettable but, in the context of Northern Ireland, probably inevitable. That the status of Ulster-Scots is being discussed in similarly facile terms in the Republic is both unnecessary and unfortunate.

Ulster-Scots is the dialect of the Scots language spoken by 100,000 people in a coastal crescent extending from the Ards Peninsula to Mulroy Bay through Down, Antrim, Derry and Donegal. It is recognized in Scotland and Northern Ireland by the European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages.

Shorn of status and cultural respectability Scots might well have withered and died in the 20th century were it not for the revivalist zeal of a quite remarkable group of intellectuals and writers in the 1940s. Known collectively as the “New Makars” chief among this group was Christopher Murray Grieve, a hugely talented poet and thinker, better known by his pseudonym of Hugh MacDiarmid. In seeking to revive Scots as a literary language after generations of its existence as a purely spoken tongue MacDiarmid and his collaborators confronted a difficulty encountered by Irish language revivalists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Put simply the New Makars had to synthesize their native Scots vocabularies and grammatical conventions with additional words and constructions gleaned from dictionaries, older written sources and various regional dialects. The results of this synthesis, called “Lallans” by its supporters, enabled MacDiarmid, Douglas Young, William Soutar and others to write prose and poetry of international calibre in their native language. This achievement was similar in its audacity to Dante’s creation of modern literary Italian from regional dialects 700 years previously. The achievement of the New Makars did not meet with universal approval. Some Scots speakers denounced Lallans as artificial and dubbed it “Plastic Scots”. This echoes the criticism of “Civil Service Irish” made by many who bemoaned the ignoring of regional forms and dialects in the construction of modern written Irish.

While the revival of awareness of Scots and the status of the language slowly gathered pace in Scotland through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Ulster-Scots remained a purely spoken language of the rural fringes of the north coast bereft of status or encouragement. The revival of interest in Ulster-Scots as a language with a rich literary heritage and a potentially culturally vibrant future did not begin to gather pace until the early 1990s. The formation of the Ulster-Scots Language Society and the critically acclaimed publications of James Fenton’s dictionary of Co Antrim Ulster-Scots, The Hamely Tongue (1994) and Philip Robinson’s Ulster-Scots — A Grammar of the Written and Spoken Language (1997) have equipped Ulster-Scots with the tools necessary for its development of a modern written form. Like Scots revivalists in the 40s and 50s and the Gaelic League sixty years prior to that Fenton, Robinson and others (the present writer included) have been accused of inventing a language. As with their Irish and Scots language forerunners they have merely codified and formalized literary conventions of a living spoken language long bereft of a modern written form.

It is perfectly true that the revival of Ulster-Scots was, from the outset, warmly embraced by a large number of politically active people from various strands of unionism eager to embrace a distinctly Ulster literary and cultural heritage. David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Bob McCartney and Billy Hutchinson are all on record as supporting the revival of Ulster-Scots. This is no more to be wondered at than the support given to the Irish language by republican and nationalist politicians. In a society where everything else is politicized it is naïve to think that culture can avoid competing orange and green analyses.

The Belfast Agreement recognises the Irish language and Ulster-Scots as “part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland”. East Donegal is one of the most important strongholds of Ulster-Scots. Located as they are in the Republic, the Laggan and surrounding districts could potentially provide a unique environment for the study and nurture of this vital element of the island’s linguistic and literary heritage in a cultural atmosphere free from the politico-linguistic mud-slinging which bedevils much of what passes for cultural debate in Northern Ireland. The Agreement provides the political imperative for this. The survival as the vernacular for everyday discourse of the language of Fergusson and Burns, Starrett and Orr provides a very pressing and entirely authentic cultural imperative to engage seriously with survival and revival of Ulster-Scots. As Burns put it in another context: “It’s coming yet for a’ that”.



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.

Ulster Scots Academy


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.



This site is being developed on a purely voluntary basis by the Ulster-Scots Language Society at no cost to the taxpayer. 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!

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!

(Friends of the Ulster-Scots Academy group)