An Academy established and the task begun: A report on work in progress

Author: Professor Michael Montgomery

Date: 2004

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 9 and 10 Wunter 2004

Professor Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina

As it nears its tenth anniversary, the Ulster-Scots Academy considers it timely to report on the progress of its work to date, as well as to look to the future. Incorporated as a Registered Company on 17 April 2003, the Academy for most its history has functioned on an informal, voluntary basis with modest grant aid to cover the costs of some publications and training sessions. Despite several submissions to the Government since its founding, the Academy has yet to receive funds to co-ordinate its programmes or to build the infrastructure it needs to serve the Ulster-Scots community. Its parent organisation, the Ulster-Scots Language Society, has been engaged in language development work since 1992 and now has a dues-paying membership of more than two hundred. Despite the lack of support, the Academy has made steady progress on a number of fronts, as this report outlines, through efforts of individuals within the Language Society.

From its beginning the Ulster-Scots Academy has been guided by principled goals. Among these are the following:

  1. To elevate the linguistic study of Ulster-Scots to that of a living European language in its own right, and to accomplish this by undertaking documentation, research and publication programmes of the highest academic standard; and by serving as a bridge between researchers, including academic specialists, and the native-speaking community.
  2. To encourage the use of Ulster-Scots and the confidence of its speakers and writers. To meet this goal the needs and practices of traditional Ulster-Scots native speakers are taken as the guide wherever possible.
  3. To recover the Ulster-Scots literary tradition through its collection and study, and to provide public access to it in electronic and print forms.
  4. To ensure that Academy projects support one another wherever possible, and are also beneficial to native speakers.

The priorities of the Ulster-Scots Academy have been formulated over many years in consultation with the native-speaking community and members of the Ulster-Scots Language Society, the only body established to promote and develop Ulster-Scots. Since the Ulster-Scots Academy was formed in 1994, it has been the aim of all those involved to model it on the Friesian Academy in the Netherlands. That body is in a much more advanced stage of development, but the demographics in Friesland closely parallel those in Northern Ireland. Friesian and Ulster-Scots are provincial languages closely related to national ones in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Two directors of the Ulster-Scots Academy have travelled to Friesland to research the structures and functions of the Friesian Academy to ensure that the latter should inform the design of the Ulster-Scots Academy. The priorities of the Ulster-Scots Academy are being further refined through discussions with members of other European regional or minority language communities and also with the advice of an international group of scholars from Northern Ireland, Scotland, and beyond.

Continuing consultation with native speakers has enabled the Academy to identify the major needs of the Ulster-Scots community, and an assessment of the skills of personnel at hand has enabled the Academy to progress projects that meet these needs. To date two major reference works have been published under Academy auspices: a comprehensive dictionary of traditional County Antrim speech (Fenton 1995; 2nd edition 2000) and the most authoritative treatment of the grammar of Ulster-Scots (Robinson 1997). Principal projects and programmes of the Academy are discussed below. These inter-related programmes do not represent the entirety of the academic work programme of the Ulster-Scots Academy, which includes the publication and promotion of creative writing and the development of Ulster-Scots language teaching materials and courses. It is also proposed that a fully-resourced Ulster-Scots Academy will be able to serve the native speaking and academic communities by providing access to its collections.

Tape-Recorded Survey of Ulster-Scots

Soon after the founding of the Academy it became clear that the Academy should urgently undertake a programme recording the accounts and recollections of older speakers on topics of community or family interest, to make a permanent record and to serve as a baseline for researchers. Like most regional or minority language varieties in Europe, Ulster-Scots has long ‘enjoyed’ low status, and its native speakers are rarely unguarded in their interaction with outsiders. For this reason, the Academy’s interviewing is being carried out entirely by native speakers working on a voluntary basis. The more than forty interviews recorded so far in Antrim, Down, and Donegal are only a fraction of what can be collected, should secure Governmental funding undergird the Academy’s efforts. These interviews have already produced extensive material for the dictionary programme (see below), but perhaps the surest measure of their value is the enthusiasm they have generated within Ulster-Scots areas. With its many contacts, the Academy had no difficulty in enlisting native speakers willing to conduct the interviews, and soon people were asking to be interviewed.

Once recorded, interviews are being transcribed according to established protocols and conventions by skilled personnel. These involve two levels of checks and double-checks, including those by the native-speaking interviewers. As they are completed, transcripts become part of the electronic textbase (also see below). The Academy intends to offer further training to its team of interviewers whose knowledge of traditional Ulster-Scots culture will be well put to use in an anticipated large-scale ethnological survey to document the traditional customs of Ulster-Scots areas of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Neither tape-recorded project will be a conventional survey using a fixed questionnaire to investigate a selected number of words and usages. The second project in particular is a larger undertaking to collect an oral record on the full range of traditional practices and folk ways, everything from seasonal rituals to traditional foods and farming practices. Among other things, the material gathered in a permanent, recorded form would establish how Scottish cultural and linguistic influence in Ulster has evolved into the 21st century.

As in choosing texts for the electronic textbase, the ‘representativeness’ of speakers being surveyed is of minimal concern. The goal of most tape-recorded documentation by the Academy is to seek out those individuals who are the richest bearers of tradition or are most immersed in the traditional culture. Other linguistic studies, such as syntactic elicitations, have also begun.

Electronic Textbase

The publication of John Hewitt’s ground-breaking study The Rhyming Weavers and Other Country Poets of Antrim and Down in 1974 brought to light an extensive tradition of local verse in Ulster-Scots from the late-18th century to the mid-19th century. Since that time researchers have become increasingly aware not only of the innumerable poems and songs written in that period, but also of many other, largely forgotten, traditions of writing in Ulster-Scots over the past four hundred years. This documentary legacy extends from correspondence and legal records from Ulster Plantation days of the early-17th century down to the present (see Montgomery and Gregg 1997 for the most detailed treatment).

While the advice of scholars elsewhere is of value in constructing the textbase and will be utilised, the Academy is, as with the tape-recorded survey, in the most natural and strategic position to produce it. Members of the Language Society have to date been responsible for nearly all of the recovery of Ulster-Scots literature in recent years. Many of the texts exhumed appeared originally in local, often ephemeral, publications and were pseudonymous or anonymous in authorship. Others exist only within local oral tradition. Relying on members from local Ulster-Scots areas to identify and retrieve such texts has proven necessary and invaluable. It is local citizens, not academic researchers, who usually know where appropriate texts — both historical and contemporary — are to be found. Further, the Language Society has joint copyright to all material in Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, published since 1993, which is the major organ of modern Ulster-Scots poetry and prose. These writings will form part of the textbase.

Once texts are identified for possible inclusion in the textbase, they are subjected to specific internal (ie, linguistic) and external (ie, geographical) criteria that have been proven consistently successful to identify authentic texts in Ulster-Scots. For texts that are on the geographical or linguistic boundary of Ulster-Scots, principled methods of quarrying them are being developed. The textbase of Ulster-Scots differs fundamentally from a ‘corpus’ in that the latter is often constructed for linguistic purposes that require it to have equal text portions from various historical periods or from different genres. Rather, the textbase is a compilation of as many texts judged to be authentic as possible.

The immediate goal of the electronic textbase is to prepare as much raw material as possible on which the analysis and definition of forms in the Academy’s dictionary programme will be based. But it is easy to see the larger value of a corpus of Ulster-Scots material for a range of scholarly initiatives and fields. Several hundred documents have been keyed in by Academy personnel already, again a ‘down payment’ on what the Academy can accomplish with secure funding.

Dictionary Programme

The Ulster-Scots Academy has embarked on a dictionary programme having several related strands, all of which make use of material compiled by the tape-recorded survey and electronic textbase outlined above. Recent lexicographical works (most prominently Fenton’s The Hamely Tongue and Macafee’s Concise Ulster Dictionary) represent major additions to the knowledge about language varieties in Ulster, but they provide little historical information and insufficient illustrative content to meet the needs of scholars or the Ulster-Scots community at large. The Academy sees the on-going work of the Scottish National Dictionary Association (now Scottish Language Dictionaries Ltd.) as its model. It has in a variety of ways been laying the groundwork for several distinct, but interrelated, dictionaries and glossaries.

Because the heart of a dictionary programme is its citation base, ie the excerpts of writing or speech that illustrate the use of items, the assembling of this material in a full and proper manner has represented the major lexicographical thrust of the Academy to date. As already indicated, Language Society members have identified many local, previously unknown sources (especially from the 19th century) that are, or will be, added to the textbase to provide historical dimensions.

In further establishing the foundations for a comprehensive, historical dictionary of Ulster-Scots, the Academy has compiled and annotated a bibliography of more than 250 items on Ulster-Scots language, encompassing the entire range of scholarly literature. It is also developing a master, or ‘Union’, list of publications that identifies, locates and catalogues all literature and documentation written in Ulster-Scots or containing material of Ulster-Scots interest.

In addition to material it is producing itself, the Academy has access to a variety of unpublished works and sources, such as local glossaries. More importantly, it has begun to assemble a team of committed native speakers to assist in the collection and verification of terms, meanings and currency. Established practice in lexicography since at least Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary has been to circulate extensive checklists or queries to local correspondents or consultants. The continuing input of a network of native speakers is the key to producing the authentic two-way Ulster-Scots/English - English/Ulster-Scots dictionary the Academy also envisions.

Translation Service

Another initiative in which the Academy is involved in a formal partnership with the Language Society is progressing development of translation and spelling standards. This work moves forward at the same time that native-speaking writers of Ulster-Scots engage in much healthy experimentation, as shown in contributions to Ullans. The Academy believes that guidelines or spelling conventions will gradually emerge as the historical texts are studied alongside the contemporary writing and work in progress. The Academy is concerned with process — a process that involves the practitioners (writers and speakers) — because any standardisation process which does not involve them will fail to influence their work. Also with this in mind, the Academy has begun an extensive series of exercises in Bible translation (see below) with a core group of native speakers, one of whose principal products will be agreed provisional spelling conventions. Being taken into consideration at the same time are precedents in the spelling of Scots in Scotland (both historically and today) and in Ulster, in which writers have sought to modify spelling to represent local speech for well over a century.

While a consensus on spelling and other conventions will grow, a more immediate need is to provide guidance, if only in a provisional way, to translators of English material into Ulster-Scots because of requirements to produce bi-lingual or tri-lingual documents. The variable and sometimes risible spellings and usages that have appeared in translations that have made it into the public domain only contribute to bringing the whole process into disrepute and show how essential it is to engage with native speakers. To ensure that public bodies provide capable translations, the Academy is producing a translators’ guide and glossary of modern Ulster-Scots terminology. It is also setting up a service that can oversee the accurate translation of documents on a timely basis.

Bible Translation

A fifth project of the Ulster-Scots Academy on which recent progress has also been made is a collective translation exercise by native speakers themselves. With the support of the Ulster-Scots Agency, the Academy has initiated a series of workshops chaired by professional translators to begin the process of Bible translation into authentic Ulster-Scots. While this project has great status-building potential for Ulster-Scots, it has merit on many other accounts as well. As community representatives take part in an extended translation exercise, they and those they represent will find an increasing sense of ownership of the language and will create bonds with and within the native-speaking community. The dynamics of the process will suggest alternative ways of expressing ideas or points and thus provide further raw material and insights for the dictionary programme. Development of more authoritative translation and spelling standards or guidelines will be a natural outcome as well. Substantial progress on the related programmes of spelling standardisation and the dictionary will be made even in the early stages of, say, translation of a single gospel. This process of translation is not simply an end in itself, but will be harmonised with the process of developing spelling standards and the requirement for a comprehensive two-way dictionary. The great virtue of the Academy’s Bible-translation programme lies not only in its native-speaker involvement, but also in the fact that it is led by translators with twenty years of experience in Bible translation who have knowledge of Greek and Hebrew.

Looking Ahead

A decade ago members of the Ulster-Scots Language Society had the vision to bring Ulster-Scots and awareness of it into the mainstream of the cultural life of Ireland. They sought those who could assist in fulfilling this vision in the proper place — the nativespeaking community. Today the work of the Ulster-Scots Academy has already done much to involve and revitalize the native-speaking Ulster-Scots community and to ensure that research and public information about Ulster-Scots is based on sound scholarship and readily available materials. Through its intertwined language development projects, it is laying the foundation upon which scholars from many fields, language planners, and other interested parties (including the Ulster-Scots Agency) can build for years to come.

While its work is well begun, the Ulster-Scots Academy is also consulting with other language academies to fine tune its articulation of programmes. Its international advisors represent many years of experience in historical lexicography and other fields. The Academy is neither a closed shop nor a small band of enthusiasts uninterested in being informed by the experience and practice of other European regional languages. It is open to ideas for its further development. It is also the only entity capable of delivering such products as a tape-recorded survey, an electronic textbase of Ulster-Scots, a bilingual dictionary, and the best translation into modern Ulster-Scots, not to mention establishing community-accepted standards of translation, because of its deep and continuing connections with native speakers and the expertise of its personnel.


Fenton, James. 1995. The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim (Belfast: The Ullans Press) 2nd edition 2000.

Montgomery, Michael and Gregg, Robert J. 1997. ‘The Scots Language in Ulster’ in The Edinburgh History of Scots, ed. by Charles Jones (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press), 569-622.

Robinson, Philip. 1997. Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language (Belfast: The Ullans Press).



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!

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