Ulster-Scots and the Scottish vernacular revival

Author: Dr Crawford Gribben

Date: 2004

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

Dr Crawford Gribben, Trinity College, Dublin


Editor’s note: This is the text of the paper delivered by Dr Crawford Gribben at the launch of A Blad o Ulstèr Scotch in the Linenhall Library on Monday 11 August 2003, reproduced with his kind permission.

Just north of Dungiven, in 1956, a labourer found a package of old clothing as he was digging in a ditch. The discovery, described in the first chapter of the book we celebrate today, comprised a large semicircular woollen cloak, a woollen jacket and a pair of tartan trews.[1] A paper in the Ulster Journal of Archaeology identified the cloak as of Irish and the trews as of Highland origin. The tartan was reconstructed, and its design reproduced on a handloom at the Belfast College of Technology. In 1958, in the entrance hall of the Ulster Museum, a model dressed in the recovered tartan welcomed visitors to an exhibition of life in Elizabethan Ulster. Visitors were afforded an unprecedented glimpse into the material culture of early modern Ireland, and the manner in which its artefacts could be interpreted and re-used in the present. But the exhibition was dismantled; the clothes were packed away; and the trews, along with the reconstructed tartan, were hidden in storage.

The excavation and exhibition of the Dungiven tartan is a parable of the excavation and exhibition of the Ulster-Scots language and culture it symbolises. Sadly, for many years, the Scots language and its Ulster variant have remained as museum pieces, a focus of scholarly interest, fascinating to devotees, generating learned discussion, but with little relevance to contemporary culture. For centuries, the Scots language has been denigrated by a society that refuses to admit its historical roots — Scots and Ulster-Scots have played their own part in colluding in the marginalisation of their identity. This book wages war with that project.

Decline of Scots

It is ironic that someone as interested in linguistics as Samuel Johnson should have played such an important part in reflecting the eighteenth-century denigration of the Scots language and the people who spoke it. ‘Much may be made of a Scotchman, if he be caught young’, Johnson famously stated; but he was also the man who stated that ‘the noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees, is the high road that leads him to England’. Unfortunately, in the context of the eighteenth century, his judgement appeared to be right. Eighteenth-century Scottish culture was caught in a crisis of identity. The Union of Crowns (1603) had been followed by the Union of Parliaments (1707), and radical constitutional revision had swept away the old linguistic order with the traditional court culture that had lent it official sanction. After the comprehensive defeat of the Stuart cause in 1745, English became the language of aspiration. An upwardly-mobile generation realised that Scotland was too small for its ambitions, that it was, as Rev. Sydney Smith described it, the ‘knuckle-end of England — that land of Calvin, oat-cakes and sulphur’. Throughout the eighteenth century we find evidence of the systematic disparagement and, the critics hoped, the decay of Scots. Touring the Highlands in the 1770s, Johnson gleefully noted, he heard hardly any Scots, except now and then from an old lady.

It is ironic that it took an Irish dramatist to convince the Scots of the merits of Anglicisation. Thomas Sheridan gained celebrity status by providing lectures in Edinburgh on the dangers of Scotticisms in speech — and this in the city that would lionise Burns, not as a tartan messiah, but as the epitome of the rhyming noble savage, the ultimate emblem of a culture they were glad to leave behind.

But, as Edwin Muir later stated, a people who lose their nation create a legend to take its place. Unfortunately, that legend, constructed by Romantics, fostered ideas of national origin that continued the marginalisation of Scots. After Sir Walter Scott resuscitated the culture of the tartan — which had been illegal after the 1746 Disarming Act — Scotland was repackaged as the Highlands writ large, the playground of an English elite. Scots was the tongue of untrustworthy Covenanters, but Gaelic the honourable and Romantic heritage of the past.

Throughout the nineteenth century, kailyard novels offered little to stem the decay. As Burns’ shadow enveloped the national literary tradition, the language and form of his poetry ossified the demotic potential of the Scots language. The effect of Burns’ growing reputation was to deny the classes he most closely represented their voice. As far as the middle classes were concerned, all that was left by the end of the nineteenth century was, as Stevenson put it, ‘a strong Scots accent of the mind’.

Recovery of Scots

Fortunately that decay was challenged. With World War I a generation of Scottish soldiers were educated into the rights of small nations, the vitality of national culture and the importance of national self-determination. Their experience of war charged an artistic elite with a paradigm of Scottish cultural and political revolution. In the 1920s, the theorists of the ‘Scottish literary renaissance’ — Edwin Muir and Hugh MacDiarmid — developed the most potent manifestos of Scottish cultural and linguistic renewal. In theme, form and language, they rejected the kailyard and the nineteenth century culture of parochial sentiment; they rejected the Burns of the Burns Clubs and made their linguistic appeal, ‘back to Dunbar’. They made huge claims for their language and set about systematically making it suitable as a medium for modern discourse. The plan was hugely controversial, and Muir soon fell by the wayside while others pressed on. Their initial productions had much of the character of first fruits; but as the early reviews of MacDairmid suggested, the best way to prove the vitality of their claims, and the possibility of their language, was to write the literature that would put the question beyond all doubt.

Throughout the twentieth century, Scottish writers have responded to that challenge by producing a body of writing of truly international importance. Many of the best of our writers — Andrew O’Hagan and William McIlvanney, to name only two of our most celebrated novelists — are using Scots with all the pith and pathos of its potential. Today, in Scotland, it is possible to take full university degrees in Scottish literature — and in many other institutions worldwide, including my own in Dublin, it is now possible for students to incorporate Scottish literature courses into their English literature degrees.

Without question, tremendous progress has been made in the recovery of Scots within the academy and in the writers’ guild. But much of this has been at the expense of working with the settlers in Scotland’s first colony. In 1999, just ten or so days before his death, I heard the late Donald Dewar MSP, the architect of Scottish devolution, speak in Dublin at a conference entitled, ‘Ireland and Scotland: Nation, region, identity’.[2]

He spoke a great deal about the Irish in Scotland — and, as the names McIlvanney and O’Hagan suggest, the Irish in Scotland have done much to revivify the Scots language. Unfortunately Mr Dewar said nothing about the impact of the Scots in Ireland. In Ulster, where Scots have historically made greatest impact, the problem of the credibility of their language persists — how ironic that many Ulster people of Scottish descent are still colluding in the marginalisation of their identity. But how can this credibility problem be addressed? Surely the remedy is the same as it was in the 1920s. The best way to prove the vitality of the language is still to write the literature that will put the question beyond all doubt.

Recovery of Scots in Ulster

That’s why the publication of this book marks such an exciting moment in the worldwide campaign for Scots. Its contents are not merely of local significance — though they certainly are that. The book’s international editorial panel symbolises the contribution this collection can make in the growing self-confidence of Scots speakers worldwide.

So what does the book say about the current state of Ulster-Scots? Surely it represents a movement rooted in the life of the folk, a movement that is enthusiastically relating that experience to local, national and international audiences. Surely its humour and formal and linguistic experimentation reflect the increasing self-confidence of a movement that realises it has already resisted overwhelming threat. Surely it represents a movement coming of age, that sees the dangers of a new kailyard and seems determined, as the best of the creative writing shows, to grasp the nettle of modernity.

Remember the Dungiven tartan? I haven’t told you the end of the story. Over fifteen years after its reconstruction, the Dungiven tartan was registered with the Scottish Tartan Society and was given the title ‘Ulster Tartan’. Its variants are manufactured to this day. It forms part of the uniform of the Dragoon Guards. It’s reproduced on the cover of your book. That’s the power of the allegory. The tartan was excavated and exhibited, then legitimised, now utilised. Will the Ulster-Scots language share its success?

That kind of success cannot be taken for granted. Language use, as Professor Montgomery has noted, is too radically democratic for that. That’s why this volume should be celebrated. It’s a landmark collection celebrating a movement’s coming of age.

And so, ladies and gentlemen, editors and contributors, I congratulate you on ten years of the publication of Ullans; and on this book, which emphatically consolidates that success.


[1] Leslie Dickson, ‘Ulster tartan’, in Michael Montgomery and Anne Smyth (eds), A Blad O Ulstèr-Scotch Frae Ullans: Ulsler-Scots culture, language and literature (Belfast: Ullans Press, 2003), pp. 9-12.

[2] This address has been published in David Dickson, Seán Duffy, Cathal Ó Háinle, and Ian Campbell Ross (eds), Ireland and Scotland: Nation, Region, Identity (Dublin: Centre for Irish-Scottish Studies, TCD, 2001), pp. 1-12.



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