Wuid ye twa quit yer fechten?

[This post has been provoked by this one, by Ian James Parsley]


Before I embark on this short essay, sure to find no more than a single other in agreement, let me tell you of an encounter I had in Ballymena a number of years ago.

One evening, having given on talk on the Gaelic of the Antrim Glens, now extinct save for the song Airde Chuain being a regular party piece amongst Irish speakers today, I encounter a gentleman from the town, himself an Irish speaker.

He naturally, spoke with a local accent compelling me to inquire if he could he speak Ulster-Scots, he replied that he could not, being from “the wrong end of the town,” the other end being Ulster-Scots speaking in his youth.

He informed me that he could understand Ulster-Scots and that he believed that few could speak the tongue  today.

He related how, whilst he worked with the Forestry Commission, back in 1960s that he would often be called apoun to act an interpreter!

The turquoise in the map indicates 'traditional' Ulster-Scots speaking areas.

The Belfast bosses being unable to understand the Scots speech of his fellow workers, whilst he of course could.

But you ask, did he not have a Ballymena accent, therefore, is that not Ulster-Scots?

Evidently not.

Since the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, much of the debate around Ulster-Scots has centred around its position with regards to the Irish language, incredibly with little reference to its relationship with English.

Some politicians, notably, Nelson McCausland and Lord Laird demand equality with the Irish language – ‘pound for pound equality’.

‘Pound for Pound’ is in my view not practical but with regards to the principle, my opinion has always been, “fadhb ar bith” – no problem.

Recently, in an online debate with Ian Parsley, the politician and Ulster-Scots activist, I have discovered that not all Ulster-Scots activists agree with the McCausland / Laird view.

Parsley being of the opinion that Ulster-Scots as a tongue is simply not in the developed position that Irish is and therefore that this type of ‘equality’ with Irish is not possible.

Many would suspect that Minister McCausland and Lord Laird would agree with this. However, I would think that they would  therefore assert that provisions for the Irish language should therefore be restricted.

In my experience, most Irish speakers would hold that suspicion.

Unfortunately, I must report that in recent years the attitude of Irish speakers to Ulster-Scots has deterioted. Once open minds now closed save for an enlightened few.

The is now no discernible difference between the attitude of Irish speakers and the those of the majority monoglot English speaking majority. It is my view, that this is unfortunate.

Interestingly, I have noticed that some Sinn Féin figures have voiced support for an Ulster-Scots GCSE (perhaps mischievously, perhaps not) whereas Ian Parsley has spoken strongly against – even going so far as to state that such a development would be “dangerous.”

I believe that ultimately, ones attitude to Ulster-Scots, Ulster-Scots and education etc and to as to the stage of development of Ulster-Scots rests on what one defines as Ulster-Scots.

Therein lies the root of the problem.

I confess that my knowledge is unscientific, despite my efforts I have been unable to source academic resources on the current status of Ulster-Scots, my knowledge is based on some limited field work and my knowledge as a journalist.

Some claim that Ulster-Scots is the language of hundreds of thousands, if this is the case then of course, I would think that getting the language onto the school curriculum and formalizing examinations etc and of course, Ulster-Scots medium education would be a priority.

If on the other hand, Ulster-Scots is moribund and we are in a revivalist situation, then Parsley’s points are  valid.

So where does the truth lie?

My observations lead me to the following conclusions:

There are hundreds of thousands of people who speak a dialect of Ulster-English influenced by Ulster-Scots.

This is sometimes thought of as Ulster-Scots, it is not.

There are tens of thousands of people who speak a dialect of Ulster-English quite influenced by Ulster-Scots. This is this speech that one hears in Ulster-Scots broadcasting.

This is often thought of as Ulster-Scots, it is not.

The perception of the pair above colour the public perception of Ulster-Scots, negatively.

There are however, a number of people, perhaps no more than a handful, who can speak a dialect of Scots in Ulster.

This is Ulster-Scots.

If my perceptions are correct then Parsley’s assertions have some validity, but if the linguistic situation is much stronger than I perceive then perhaps his fears are unjustified.

I would point out that I refer in no part, to the artificial written language known as Ullans, I refer merely to vernacular speech.

Ian Parsley has stated : “The fact there has been zero progress linguistically, despite millions of our money being thrown at it for more than a decade.”

This point is obvious.

In my work as a journalist, I have investigated the subject of Ulster-Scots teaching.

I found that Ulster-Scots is not (according to the Boord a’ Ulster Scotch themselves) taught in any school or apparently anyway else aside from one group in South Antrim.

This article was accompanied by an editorial calling for support for Ulster-Scots, which aside from the obvious, good well, called for a ‘tape’ survey, a linguistic atlas, language teaching materials etc., (as opposed to hats, papers in English etc.).

Unfortunately, the possibility of my own journalistic short-comings taken into account. the story lacked impact as people were simply unwilling to engage with the subject.

Few read beyond the first line. Ulster-Scots does not exist, end of.

I find it saddening that some people simultaneously dismiss Ulster-Scots as simply English, yet difficult to understand, not existing and yet harsh and ugly at the same time.

You can’t claim both.

You cannot cite a host of words, declare them ugly, strange and indecipherable and simultaneously declare that they do not exist.

That is simply prejudice triumphing over reason.

Most people today believe that Ulster-Scots simply does not exist. My experiences and knowledge indicate to me that that is not true. But that is unlikely to change anyone’s view.

But  I would remind people, and Irish speakers in particular, that some unionists simply do not believe that the Irish language exists.

That may seem ridiculous, but the parallel is obvious.

I have met people in the Loyalist / Unionist community who believe that Eamon de Valera actually invented the Irish language personally. I have met highly educated Unionists who believe that the Irish language was essentially invented by the Irish Free State, drawn from long extinct medieval Irish.

Now, does that second scenario not remind you of Ullans?

And there lies the problem, I see the (official) Ulster-Scots movement as representing a reflection of how the Unionist community sees the Gaelic revival movement.

I believe that it is for this reason the the Ulster-Scots Agency has been led to essentially abandon Ulster-Scots speech to its fate.

Perhaps, it should be insisted that the Ulster-Scots agency ulster-scotticise itself and use Ulster-Scots as its working language, just as Foras na Gaeilge operate solely in Irish?

Why have I picked on Irish speakers specifically?
Frankly, I would expect a little more understanding from Irish speakers for Ulster-Scots speakers than I would from English speakers in Ireland.

Ironically, I see a scenario where Gaelic speakers could be the most interested in Ulster-Scots. We do have the much of the expertise required.

Féach chomh maith.

Ulster-Scots – An Teanga Oifigiúil nach bhfuil á teagasc



  • changeisneeded

    Sorry , I speak and understand “Ulster Scots”
    It is just a dialect and slang …
    It has only been described as a language since the the prods thought that the Gaelic was going to get funding and the billy boys couldn’t have “themuns get everything”
    Before this it was “ballymena spake, hi sham bodie, so it is”

    Anyway I love the dialect and the poetry that has come from it, to call it a language is an insult to those who use it everyday who never knew they knew a 2nd lanuage until some idiots came up with it.

    Your piece is interesting but i think you are giving slang too much credit

  • Neil

    Ye say yersell (as they say):

    There are however, a number of people, perhaps no more than a handful, who can speak a dialect of Scots in Ulster.

    This is Ulster-Scots.

    It seems to fulfill the criteria of a dialect and is viewed as such by many. Irish is viewed by many as a language and so you have an apples and oranges kind of argument.

    The only way I can think of to determine Ulster Scots is to view some. I found this:


    And while some of it is a little bit difficult to instantly translate much of it isn’t:

    treat schuilars fair an wi respect

    Which I assume means pupils should be fairly and respectfully treated. And I can do that with the majority of those sentences (I may have a head start from my background).

    From my linguistic knowledge (admittedly nil) Ulster Scots (a dialect) just seems like what was left where English and Irish (two languages) crashed together some time back.

    As for the deployment of resources, I suppose it comes down to demand more than equality, and I know I phoned the Ulster Scots hotline when it made the news (supposedly increasing the number of people who used it by 20% in so doing). The irony is that I can probably speak more Ulster Scots than Irish as my grandparents were farmers in North Antrim.

  • salgado

    “There are however, a number of people, perhaps no more than a handful, who can speak a dialect of Scots in Ulster.

    This is Ulster-Scots.”

    I assume this is the Scots you refer to
    It seems to have as much trouble being recognised. I’m one of these unionist types who’d normally dismiss it as a bit ridiculous, so I don’t know much about the state of things.

    How is Scots dealt with in Scotland? If compared to Scots Gaelic, are there any lessons we could take for NI?

  • salgado

    “I see the (official) Ulster-Scots movement as representing a reflection of how the Unionist community sees the Gaelic revival movement.”

    I would add that I have no such problems with Gaelic – and I’ve certainly never met anyone with the belief that Irish is a new invention. My experience of the general unionist attitude would be ambivalence with a few childish comments thrown in to wind people up.
    Though most people I know wouldn’t be too positive about Ulster Scots, so it probably depends what circles you move in.

  • IJP

    Among many interesting points, you raise the point that Ulster Svots can’t be “indecipherable” yet “simply English” at the same time.

    Yet actually it can – what could be happening (in fact, what most people believe is happening) is that Ulster Scots is simply English but a few lunatics have set out to invent an indecipherable written form to make out it’s an entirely different language, as distinct from English as Irish is.

    What is actually the case is the reverse – Scots is generally decipherable for English speakers, the point being that Dutch is generally decipherable for German speakers (and so decipherability does not necessarily breach the requirements of “language” status).

  • Ian,

    You should know as well, if not better than, most of us that it matters not a hoot whether it is a language or a dialect. It has become politicised and there is no way that themmuns are going to get better treatment than usuns.

  • JR

    Interesting essay Ciarán, as an Irish language enthusiast I have nothing but enthusiasm for the Dialect/language of the people of parts of Antrim. I do however disagree with this being lined up as a competitor for the Irish language. For the Ulster Scots movement gain credibility it cannot be dressed up as the Unionism answer to any moves for greater recondition of Irish in the six counties.

  • Neil

    (and so decipherability does not necessarily breach the requirements of “language” status

    It would appear that would be down do which types of status you consider, legally due to agreements, it’s a language. Linguistically wikipedia has this:

    Using the criteria on Ausbau languages developed by the German linguist Heinz Kloss, Ulster Scots could qualify only as a Spielart or ‘national dialect’ of Scots (cf. British and American English), since it does not have the Mindestabstand, or ‘minimum divergence’ necessary to achieve language status through standardisation and codification.

    Presumably Dutch ‘had the minimum divergence necessary’ to make it not a dialect of German using the linguistic method of determining dialect vs. language status.

    All of which proves Joe’s point. It’s politicised now.


  • wild turkey


    interesting post. both my son and i enjoyed it.

    the son has just started secondary level education. he is particularly inspired by his history class at the moment, the meta topic being the relationship, if any, between language, culture and political/economic development. he needs to write his first essay on the history and synergy of these topics. ambitious little shits these days, huh?

    specifically, he is thinking along the lines of that if you want to get on the curve, just on it never mind be ahead of it, you should be learning Chinese and programming in C++.

    ah, mind if he cites your post and associated comments?

  • wild turkey,

    I never cease to be amazed at what kids are expected to produce at school today compared to my experience 50 years or more ago. Even in grade (primary) school. But, they have the internet.

  • IJP

    Joe, Neil – yes.

  • lamhdearg2

    turk, mandarin or cantonese?. thats what we should be pushing our kids towards and spending our money teaching, something that will put them in good stead, in their future, what will ulster scots or Irish (gaelic) do for them, well done your boy.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    The Mindestabstand point seems to refer to Ulster-Scots’ divergence from Scots, rather than from English – or have I got that wrong? My understanding is that Ulster-Scots’ claims to language status are the same as the claims of Scots itself. If Scots is divergent enough from English to be a ‘language’ then a fortiori so is the Ulster version of Scots.

    Here’s Wikipedia on the status of Scots:

    “Scots is the Germanic language variety spoken in Lowland Scotland and parts of Ulster (where the local dialect is known as Ulster Scots) …

    Since there are no universally accepted criteria for distinguishing languages from dialects, scholars and other interested parties often disagree about the linguistic, historical and social status of Scots. Although a number of paradigms for distinguishing between languages and dialects do exist, these often render contradictory results. Focused broad Scots is at one end of a bipolar linguistic continuum, with Scottish Standard English at the other. Consequently, Scots is generally regarded as one of the ancient varieties of English, yet it has its own distinct dialects. Alternatively, Scots is sometimes treated as a distinct Germanic language, in the way Norwegian is closely linked to, yet distinct from, Danish.”

    Doesn’t get us much further, but it seems Scots is usually seen as a dialect of English. Ultimately, it’s semantics – the point is, it’s a distinct form of speech, also with a literature, that is worth cherishing and preserving. Languages and dialects are precious things, they contain whole ways of thinking; once they’re lost you rarely get them back, Hebrew aside. Reason enough to try to keep the Ulster-Scots flame burning.

  • Here’s a thing. Sometimes when I am chatting with people from, say, the Ballymena area, I have a bit of difficulty with understanding them but, I get there.
    Exactly the same happens when I am working with and chatting with a Geordie. Before “standard” English, was introduced to us plebs with radio, then TV, the language drifted. That’s why indo-european gave rise to many “different” languages. People rarely got further away from where they lived than the nearest market town.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Anyone heard of Yola btw? An extinct Anglic language spoken until mid-19th C in parts of Co Wexford. Diverged from standard English from Middle Ages onwards due to geographic isolation. Ultimately subsumed by standard Hiberno-English. Bless Wikipedia.

  • mollymooly

    The issues in providing official support for a regional dialect alongside a national standard dialect are very different from the issues in providing official support for a minority language alongside a majority language. Norway and German Switzerland are positive models for Ulster Scots. Irish Gaelic is a red herring, a bogus parallel.

    Revivalism vs preservation is another story…

  • molly,

    Understand that totally. But it’s no longer a language issue here; it’s a political issue.

  • sonofstrongbow

    The whole Irish v Ulster Scots thing is akin to two guys arguing over a can of leaded petrol. They each of an old jalopy back home that runs on the stuff which they take out for a spin now and again, weather permitting.

    Meanwhile everyone else uses the fuel that runs the modern world. Still everyone should have a hobby.

    Unsurprisingly the Irish lobby, in tune with their ‘Irish nationalist’ mindset can’t resist a bit of cultural superiority wall-pi**ing: our baothchaint is better than your ramlin spake sort of thing.

  • JR


    In answer to your question, quite appart from the pure enjoyment of it all I just went into a popular irish Job search website, there were 268 jobs advertised with Irish language as a Key word mainly in education, civil service (south) and the media. The same search n the same website with chinese showed 44 jobs with the exception of five or six that looked good the rest were mostly translators and chinese resturaunt staff. Btw Ulster scots did not match any jobs.

  • Rory Carr

    Whether or no Ulster-Scots be defined as a language or a dialect of a language (or a dialect of a dialect) might have great import for linguists and examination boards and, i suppose a little for the vanity of its proponents, which is understandable. But such finessing is of little matter to me. What does matter to me howver is that a unique form of spoken language from a part of my country, influences of which informed the dialect of the older adults of my youth, not disappear from human cogniscence. We would be the poorer if that were to happen.

    I have my opinion on why such a sudden outburst of a hitherto unnoticed interest in the preservation of “the hamely tongue” ( thank you, Professor Billy McWillaims) but whatever of that, it should not at all impinge on the desirability of maintaining and fostering Ulster-Scots (language or dialect) as much as is humanly possible.

    There will be huge problems of course, many of them insurmountable, not least the absolute indifference to the issue other than as an opportunity for a spot of peevish “themmuns” sabre-ratting on behalf of many of its most outspoken advocates. Then there is the absence of any literature to speak of and the absence of any songs or ballads (a lack of which may be explained by the aversion to non-religious music among its speakers but which nevertheless does not advance greatly a claim to the status as a language).

    The inability to identify any unique, coherent, definable art, music, poetry, prose, myth, sport, artefacts, dress style, hair style or other pastime generally associated with the makeup of culture is also troubling, There is “marching” of course (always and ever, “marching”), but even there those who insist on that activitiy’s claim to culture so often do so only in defence of its “right” to offend, hardly the best of references.

    While I can understand the suspicion raised by the promotion of GCSEs in Ulster-Scots, such suspicion motivated not only by its origins in DCAL but also by the fear of ridicule – the fear of ridicule is extremely raw among those supporters of much of wat is touted as Unionisr/Protestant culture – but much could be learned from attempting at least to draw up a syllabus that would pass academic muster, not least in identifying the shortfalls should a syllabus prove not to be achievable. We learn more, after all, by identifying and contemplating our sins than we do our virtues.

    While the reluctance of Irish language scholars to lend their experience in assisting the preservation of Ulster-Scots is, if also understandable given the less than open machinations of McCausland and Laird, it is to be regretted. But at least they have not countered some of the more outrageous comments of Ulster unionism by insisting that Ulster-Scots was an invention of Lord Carson or Basil Brooke, or Neslon McCausland come to that.

  • lamhdearg2

    @ JR 11.35,
    I am aware of how Eire uses Gaelic to discriminate in civil service and teaching, thank you for enlighening others,
    your point is rather parochial, I am sure that if you widen you job search the opposite would be true.

  • JR

    I am confused, you are saying if I advertise a job requiring Gaeilge it is discrimination but with chineese as a requirment it is not?

  • IJP

    Mainland Ulsterman

    No one seriously suggests Ulster Scots is separate even from Scots. (The key word there is “seriously”!)


    This is true. But again, a northern German may find Dutch easier than Austrian-German.

    Frustratingly, comprehension just isn’t a sensible way to define a “language” – entirely counter-intuitive though that seems.

  • IJP


    Well said.

    But it is a simple fact that no such syllabus could be developed at this early stage.

    (Ulster) Scots lacks an agreed written form (never mind anything approaching a standard); nothing like enough work has been done on its grammar; a dictionary is a long way off; and then there is the real danger of directly associating “language” with “heritage and culture”.

    In short, there is no skill or competence that an Ulster-Scots GCSE could give you that you couldn’t equally well demonstrate currently in English and History.

    We need to crawl first.

  • RG Cuan

    Ulster Scots should be valued for what it is: A dialect of Scots spoken by some people in Ulster which has an interesting vocabulary and has had a certain influence on the English spoken in the northern part of Ireland.

    There is no active Ulster Scots language community, no written standard, no classes, no schools, no media, no organisations or businesses using Scots as their working language etc. And apart from a couple of agenda-led politicians nobody is asking for any of the above or believes that an Ulster Scots infrastructure of this kind is needed.

    It’s clear therefore that all comparisons with Irish Gaelic are absurd and the current attempts by the Assembly to tie Irish and Ulster Scots together in a ‘Language Stategy’ maybe detrimental to the Gaelic language community, which has the infrastucture mentioned above and needs it to develop.

    JR: Ní dóigh liom gur ‘enthusiast’ thú ar chor ar bith. Is focal diúltach é sin dar liomsa agus is mó tú ná é. Is gníomhaí agus ball de phobal na Gaeilge thú.

  • Ciarán Dunbar

    Thanks for replies.

    Thanks in particular to IJP and Rory – Interesting.

    Is it possible that we are seeing more generosity amongst nationalists than unionists for Ulster-Scots speech?


    You may be interested to read this editorial.


  • Ciarán Dunbar

    RG Cuan,

    “There is no active Ulster Scots language community”

    Are you sure?

    I have heard actual Scots speech in Ulster myself, though extremely rarely.

  • lamhdearg2

    So if in ulster there was a requirement to be able to speak ulster scots before you could get a job in the civil service or become a teacher, would that be discrimination?.

  • JR

    Short answer No, Anyway weekend course in Ballymena and you would be flying, now how about a straight answer to my question? If I advertise a job requiring Gaeilge it is discrimination but with chineese as a requirment it is not?

    Also you are currently arguing it both ways, either the language is useless to study or overly advantageous. Which is it?

  • lamhdearg2

    “short answer no”, I dont believe you.

  • lamhdearg2

    when the job does not need it then yes, asking for it in my view is a form of discrimination.
    you dont need to be able to speak gaelic to teach people who speak English. (unless you are a gaelic teacher)
    you dont need to be able to speak gaelic to work at most civil sevice jobs.

  • JR

    Believe what you like but maybe Ulster Scots is a poor example given it’s accessibility to everyone who speaks English from Northern Ireland.

    How about answering origional my question?

    On the side issue of Irish in the civil service in the south you brought in to avoid answering a tough question. Irish is part of the curriculum in every school in the south so how could you appoint a teacher who had no knowledge of it? Secondly to pass leaving cert Irish and English is not setting the bar too high intellectually speaking for civil servants really especially as Irish is the second official language in the country, part of the ethos of the state is that citizens have the right to interact with their state through Irish and they have studied Irish and English throughout their Schooling. Can I also add that of those 268 jobs almost all were actual Irish language jobs, ie Irish language media, Irish language teaching assistants, Udaras na Gaeltachta jobs etc. as opposed to jobs were a basic knowledge is required.

  • lamhdearg2

    “Believe what you like” thank you I shall,

    “How about answering origional my question?”

    see 6:39.

  • Mainland Ulsterman

    Point taken, I was clarifying that its status as a language or otherwise is tied up with the status of Scots. There seemed to be some confusion over that in earlier posts. But yes I know most informed people realise that!

  • A simple look at the Scottish governments Scots Language website or the @100wordsABDN 100 Doric words Twitter account squashes all notion that it is invented – Scots and Ulster-Scots are pretty much the same although there is a little bit of English crashing with Irish thrown into the mix too.

  • IJP


    Absolutely, you raised a fair point.

    RG raises a fair point too. Although people do speak at the more Scots end of the Scots-English spectrum, they may still regard themselves as English speakers. It is debatable whether Svots speakers form a separate, identifiable, self-defined “community”.