Take Back Control – of our Ulster-Scots histories

A friend of mine was sacked from the civil service for saying that Ulster-Scots was a made up language. Unfortunately he said it in the newspaper. But lots of us have said it in private, right? LOLed at the dafties whilst railing against the DUP. Or for unionists, awkwardly pushed it forward as a political issue.

I’ve been thinking recently about how radical the Scottish legacy in Northern Ireland is. And how uncomfortably this sits beside our understandings of Ulster-Scots today.

There’s so much anti-establishment Protestant history to digest. The Protestant Irish, the non-sectarian Presbyterians, the weaver poets, Labour Protestants, socialist loyalists, the evangelical reconciliation movement. Histories very far removed from British and unionist elites. We’re talking communists on the Shankill Road – like my husband’s grandad. Manual workers at the big house – like my own forebears.

But we seem to have developed amnesia about all of this. Conflict has polarised our interpretations of the past. It’s painted Protestants into a corner, which many are struggling to step out of.


All of this started a few weeks ago when I visited a a little exhibition about the Plantation in Bangor museum, with its many Ulster-Scots Agency booklets.

The usual bristling happened first. Montgomery and Hamilton “acquired” the land, did they? Those are the rent books, are they? The feckers. And so on.

I texted my friend, whose sister had helped put the exhibition together, and told her that it was very good, but that Planters were feckers. She texted back to say that there was a bit of Scots in us all, and not to self-hate. I’d had a few beers at that point and was half way through a Billy Connolly documentary, so I was open to the suggestion.

The Plantation of Ulster was a brutal colonial act. A subsidised land grab by a British elite. All of us in Northern Ireland still live with its scars.

But, a test:

a) who did the grabbing?

b) who was swept along by the tide of colonial history?

c) who rebelled against the unfairness of it all?

The answer to all of these questions is Protestants.

And obviously Catholics for the being swept along and rebelling bits.

Today though, Protestants often get tarred by a) whilst c) has been forgotten.


The first thing that made me challenge my instinctual ‘feckers’ narrative was, strangely, an Ulster-Scots language test. In one little booklet it asked if I knew these ‘hunner words’? Usually any mention of Ulster-Scots makes me do an elaborate eye roll any tween would be proud of. Frank Mitchell’s recent challenge to Roy, a caller to his radio show, to speak Ulster-Scots for sixty seconds, whereupon Roy simply switched into a Ballymena accent and culchied it up, is a Northern Irish comedy classic. No question.

But the hunner words were lovely. All eejits and oxters and things that are footery. Blethering and guldering. Being scunnered because you’re a mingin slabber who boked when you were steamin. Words that make me feel rooted to this piece of our island.  Ordinary people words. Words that reflect our black humour and grit.

These words aren’t ours or theirs (whoever ‘we’ and ‘they’ are). They’re pretty universal in the north. Like veda bread. Or frostbit boy (aka Ruarí McSorley, who isn’t far off speaking Ulster-Scots himself).

I don’t think I ever appreciated the richness of Ulster-Scots before. Not that it is a language, or even a distinct cultural tradition. But it’s a gorgeous part of our heritage in an increasingly MacDonaldised world. It’s been hauled into a bitter political argument, to score points against Irishness. Which is weird because it overlaps with Irishness. A fact which even the Ulster-Scots Agency underlines. It’s almost too ironic to bear.


Another rock and roll hobby of mine is trying to find United Irishmen’s graves. The United Irishmen were mainly Presbyterians of Scottish descent who made common cause with Catholics against the Anglican elite. They rebelled against Britain in 1798. And mostly got executed for it. I haven’t had a huge amount of luck finding their gravestones. Partly because 1798 was a long time ago and they’ve eroded or been destroyed. Partly because a small child is usually dragging me away for an urgent wee. And, crucially, because only a handful of dissenters, mostly Presbyterian ministers and the occasional doctor, were important enough to be commemorated in any style. History is written by the victors. Or the vicars in our case.

This history of the victors is reflected in the Ulster-Scots Agency’s booklets. It’s Viscount this and Laird that. It’s enough to make the blood of any good socialist, never mind Gael, boil.

But when I come to trace my own (mostly Protestant) family tree, I don’t find any Lords. Just lackeys and peasants and lumpen proles. Catching fish, sewing britches and digging up spuds for their betters. A yachtsman for a Lord, on the posh side of the family. People who came, or were brought over, from Scotland with the promise of a better life. To work for the 1%. Grappling with it in these terms, I start to redefine who I am annoyed with and why I am annoyed.


Modern unionism is still heavy with this tension. There’s an affinity with the common people, mixed with a paradoxical loyalty to a remote English elite. Which explains how Sammy Wilson and Boris Johnston can sit on the same Westminster benches, but understand little of each other’s lives. It’s an uneasy relationship. And to steal a line from a wise friend (who I won’t tar by association), the ‘iconoclastic edge still simmers in the unionist unconscious. It feeds into the sheer “no” of even the DUP’.

Outside of unionism, anti-establishment strains of Protestantism have expanded and contracted over time, in relation to sectarian conflict. Despite our current polarisation, I see them everywhere. Like the Irish identifying born-again Christians, of which I used to be one. Like Rev. Steve Stockman who runs Paddy’s day céilis in his Presbyterian church and writes articles on reconciliation for An Phoblacht. Like the loyalist councillor who is helping sort out parking for our local Catholic school. Like the Irish language speakers of the East Belfast Mission.

Conal Parr sets some of these alternative Protestant histories out beautifully in his new book, Inventing the Myth, which examines Protestant playwrights and thinkers over the last century. Protestants who disrupted traditional unionist narratives. Regularly emphasising social class over tribe. And who often paid the price for it. Because conflict pulled people into sectarian binaries, and suffocated alternative voices.


And the greatest irony of all? Present day Scotland. It’s the only place on these two islands that now pulls towards left of centre politics. From healthcare to welfare to tuition fees to renewables, where Scotland has devolved authority, it makes more forward thinking decisions than the rest of us.

It’s also the part of the UK that could provide northern nationalism with the best template for the future, with their imaginative, inclusive imagining of independence. Upon which any future Irish unity movement would do well to draw. Putting civic, not ethnic, ideals at the core. And, whatever happens with independence, Dublin and Edinburgh will be surely close allies in any future configuration of post-Brexit relationships.


Piecing all of this together – the gritty, funny humility of the Ulster-Scots vernacular, the lesser-recorded Protestant histories of dissent and radicalism, the progressive pulse of contemporary Scotland… it feels like, as usual, we’ve been missing a trick. We’ve allowed our political troubles to commandeer our Protestant heritage – a lot of which we have selectively misremembered. It’s not simply the conservative unionist monolith it feels like today.

All culture is invented. A Gaeilgeoir baby and and an Ulster-Scots baby, if abandoned at birth in a chicken coop, would not be able to distinguish Liam Clancy from Willie Drennan, or a hurley from a hockey stick. They would peck like chickens in equal measure. Which is to say that Ulster-Scots culture is socially transmitted, not genetic. It’s stories we tell about the past to make sense of the present. We’ve let the present binary frame our understanding of the past. And shape our desires for the future.

So I have a suggestion. Let’s tell a different story. Let’s take back control of the Ulster-Scots layers of our identities. By thinking, writing and talking about them more. By separating out Protestantism from unionism. By appreciating the variety of Protestant culture in Ireland. Its paradoxical anti-elitism. How evangelical religion has informed reconciliation as well as conflict. To appreciate our radical secularist parts. The Irishness that overlaps with Britishness. The positive ways that Scottishness has shaped our northernness, for Catholics as well as Protestants. 

And while we wait for segments of unionism to adjust to new realities, maybe the rest of us Protestants and ex-Protestants can elbow our way into the debate. To shout loudly. We exist. We are ready and waiting to help shape the new Ireland. Whatever that might be.


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