Roamer: Parody on Ulster Scots by author and champion of the language

Wilson Burgess
Wilson Burgess

It’s two or three years since I received my first reader’s letter written in the Ulster Scots language.

I’d always failed miserably in foreign languages at school, where every-day English was generally more than enough to cope with, so an initial glance at Ulster Scots expert Wilson Burgess’s letter several years ago filled Roamer with apprehension!

But amidst Wilson’s curiously-spelt words, liberally adorned with apostrophes, I encountered some familiar phrases and expressions that were colourful, vibrant, and perhaps most important - I’d heard them being spoken in the past and seeing them written down on the page brought back memories.

Mr Burgess, who has been criticised for his assessment that Ulster Scots is a ‘dying language’, recently sent Roamer a rather unusual but characteristically amusing “satirical piece” about the language.

“I just want to share some anecdotage,” he explained, “which I feel confirms a long established awareness among Ulster Scots folk of their unique identity.”

The rest of today’s page, apart from a few minor additions in brackets, is entitled ‘The Ulster Scots, A Parody by Wilson Burgess.’

The Ulster Scots are an ethnic group descended from colonists from Galloway, Ayrshire, and the Scottish Borders.

Many of today’s Ulster Scots are descended from lawless clans from the border between England and Scotland. These clans were known as the Border Reivers, to whom looting and plundering was a way of life.

Anyone who lives in Ulster today will be familiar with surnames such as Graham, Armstrong, Elliott, Bell and Crozier. These are Border Reiver family names.

Between the 13th and 17th centuries these warring families would carry out raids on each other which would involve robbery, arson, rustling and murder.

In 1603 James VI of Scotland became James I of England and immediately started to bring a bit of propriety to the proceedings.

He gave the Reivers a choice - hanging, or exile in the untamed land of Ulster as part of his Plantation plan to bring the Irish residents under control. As we know, the rest is history!

Over they came bringing with them a tongue known as Ullans, a dialect that has school teachers cringing in their class rooms to this present day, but who no doubt are aware that this ‘language’, better known as Ulster Scots, like the Reivers, has had its day.

In wake of my declaration that the Ulster Scots language is dead, and the furore that this caused in some quarters, I have been watching the discussion develop for some time now, and I just want to share some anecdotage which I feel confirms a long established awareness among Ulster Scots folk of their unique identity.

This comes in the form of a poem written in the Ullans tongue by a tenant farmer from Aughtercloney, County Antrim, called Harkness McLeister. It is dated 1668, which proves that the Ulster Scots identity is not some modern ill-conceived attempt to refute accusations from some quarters that the British Government displays a pro-Nationalist bias.

The poem is called Lachted an’ Looted:

“Ah’d steal the een frae oot yir heid

Ah’d rob yir grave whin ere yir deid,

Ah’d ta’k the milk frae a blin’ man’s tay,

Ah’d sell mae granny fir twenty pay,

Mae faith is simple laik mae brain,

Mae histrees written in the’ Tain,’

But tho its Irish I Ah’m Not

Ah’m a braw an’ theevin Ulster Scot!”

(The Tain is a legendary tale from early Irish Literature considered to be an epic and is commonly known as ‘The cattle raid at Cooley.’)

Another ditty that caught my imagination was a traditional skipping song in memory of that doughty band of men - the Reivers.

I understand this has been passed down through the generations and was very popular in many County Antrim schools. As it explores similar themes to Harkness McLeister’s poem I thought it might be a lost work, but sadly it doesn’t seem to display the familiar Ulster Scots motifs.

“Planters weevirs horsey theevers,

Devils dozen base deceivers,

Lave or bae hung yir coorse is run,

Noo Ulster’s full o’ criminal Reivers.”

Below is the original poem by Mc Leister which was written in (oft times impenetrable) High Ullans.

Although this poem can stand alone, it is in fact one verse from McLeister’s magnum opus, ‘At the whippin’ of the Crutches.’

This is an epic poem in the tradition of The Odyssey and Aenid, which chronicles the adventures of a dashing young Reiver following his expulsion from the Lowlands of Scotland and his subsequent flight to Ulster to avoid swaying at the end of a rope.

If there is enough interest I may transcribe the whole poem along with an Irish translation. In the interim you will have to be content with this small stanza:

“Diels twelve loocht aye wir Rievers,

Noo thir plantirs farmirs weevirs,

‘Yon horsey’s aften gang aglay,’

Awa frae here afore yae sway!

Gaelic Ulster’s awa ooer yonner,

Pluchter, muchter, thonner wanner,

O’Nialls hartlan’s cruched wae stealth….”

The closing line is not legible, and quite undecipherable!

No doubt this is an exciting find in Ulster Scots literary lore, so much so that it led our own Poet Laureate to place all previous Ulster Scots poetry and verse on a par with ‘Ba Ba Blacksheep’, which considering the Rievers’ love of sheep-stealing would seem fair enough!