Ulster Scots

Ulster Scots, also known as Ullans, Hiberno-Scots, or Scots-Irish, refers to the variety of Scots (sometimes referred to as Lowland Scots in contradistinction to the Gaelic language of the Highlands) spoken in parts of the province of Ulster, which spans the six counties of Northern Ireland and three of the Republic of Ireland.

Native speakers traditionally called it simply Scots, Braid (or broad) Scots or Scotch (see Scotch) - as did James Orr in The Irish Cottier's Death and Burial: "To quat braid Scotch, a task that foils their art; For while they join his converse, vain though shy, They monie a lang learn'd word misca' an' misapply".

Ullans is a portmanteau neologism merging Ulster and Lallans - the Scots for Lowlands - coined by the physician, amateur historian and politician Dr Ian Adamson. The magazine of the Ulster-Scots Language Society is also named Ullans, ostensibly from "Ulster-Scots language in literature and native speech" but ultimately from the other contraction. The German linguist Manfred Görlach differentiates between the term "Ulster Scots" (the historical spoken variety) and "Ullans" (the revived literary variety).

Hiberno-Scots, unlike "Ulster Scots", refers only to a linguistic tradition; it also mirrors "Hiberno-English". The novelist William Carleton refers in his author's preface to the first edition of his Traits and Stories of the Irish Peasantry (vol. 1, 1st series, Dublin, 1830) to "Scoto-Hibernic jargon". The linguist James Milroy used the term "Hiberno-Scots" as early as the 1980s.


Scots, mainly Gaelic-speaking, had been settling in Ulster since the 15th century, but large numbers of Scots-speaking Lowlanders, some 200,000, arrived during the 17th century following the 1610 Plantation, with the peak reached during the 1690s. In the core areas of Scots settlement, Scots outnumbered English settlers by five or six to one.

Literature from shortly before the end of the unselfconscious tradition at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries is almost identical with contemporary writing from Scotland. W G Lyttle, writing in Paddy McQuillan's Trip Tae Glesco, uses the typically Scots forms kent and begood, now replaced in Ulster by the more mainstream Anglic forms knew, knowed or knawed and begun. Many of the modest contemporary differences between Scots as spoken in Scotland and Ulster may be due to dialect levelling and influence from Mid Ulster English brought about through relatively recent demographic change rather than direct contact with Irish, retention of older features or separate development.

Scots in Ulster has been influenced by contact with Hiberno-English, Mid Ulster English and Irish; the relationship has been two-way, with for example craic being a late 20th century gaelicisation. Mid Ulster English, the dialect of most people in Ulster, including those in the two main cities of Belfast and Derry, represents a cross-over area between Ulster Scots and Hiberno-English; it is currently encroaching on the Ulster Scots area, especially in the Belfast commuter belt, and may eventually consume it. Ulster Scots should not be confused with Scottish Gaelic or Irish, which are Celtic languages.

Linguistic status

Among academic linguists, Ulster Scots is treated as a variety of the Scots language or, along with all Scots varieties, as a dialect of English. Dr. Caroline Macafee, the editor of The Concise Ulster Dictionary, has said that "Ulster Scots is [...] clearly a dialect of Central Scots (Mid Scots).", while Aodán Mac Póilin has said that "The case for Ulster-Scots being a distinct language, made at a time when the status of Scots itself was insecure, is so bizarre that it is unlikely to have been a linguistic argument." 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 dispose over the Mindestabstand, or 'minimum divergence' necessary to achieve language status through standardisation and codification. Of the four peripheral varieties of Scots - the others being Insular, Northern and Southern Scots - Ulster Scots is the only one whose traditional written form is commonly indistinguishable from the main Central Scots variety.

Some confuse English spoken with a very broad Ulster Scottish accent with Scots proper. This is because English-speakers familiar with the Scottish or Northern Irish accents of English find Scottish or Ulster English easy to understand and often assume this speech variety to be "broad" Scots.

Legal status

For the status of Scots in general see Scots language status.
Ulster Scots is defined in an Agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland establishing implementation bodies done at Dublin on the 8th day of March 1999 in the following terms:
"Ullans" is to be understood as the variety of the Scots language traditionally found in parts of Northern Ireland and Donegal.
The North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Northern Ireland Order 1999, which gave effect to the implementation bodies incorporated the text of the agreement in its Schedule 1.

The declaration made by the United Kingdom Government regarding the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages reads as follows :

The United Kingdom declares, in accordance with Article 2, paragraph 1 of the Charter that it recognises that Scots and Ulster Scots meet the Charter's definition of a regional or minority language for the purposes of Part II of the Charter.

The definition from the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Northern Ireland Order 1999 above was used in the 1 July 2005 Second Periodical Report by the United Kingdom to the Secretary General of the Council of Europe outlining how the UK meets its obligations under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

The Good Friday Agreement (which does not refer to Ulster Scots as a "language") also recognises Ulster Scots as "part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland", and the Implementation Agreement established the cross-border Ulster-Scots Agency (Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch). The legislative remit laid down for the agency by the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) Northern Ireland Order 1999 is: "the promotion of greater awareness and the use of Ullans and of Ulster-Scots cultural issues, both within Northern Ireland and throughout the island". The agency has adopted a mission statement: to promote the study, conservation, development and use of Ulster Scots as a living language; to encourage and develop the full range of its attendant culture; and to promote an understanding of the history of the Ulster-Scots people.

The Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 amended the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to insert a section (28D) entitled Strategies relating to Irish language and Ulster Scots language etc which inter alia laid on the Executive Committee a duty to "adopt a strategy setting out how it proposes to enhance and develop the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture." This reflects the wording used in the St Andrews Agreement to refer to the enhancement and development of "the Ulster Scots language, heritage and culture

An example contribution in Ulster Scots made by Jim Shannon in the Transitional Assembly follows. :

Tha bare facts er, that because o’ tha houl bak oan white fishin, an in tryin tae bring bak tha cod stocks, an tha cloasur an no bein alood tae fish in tha Irish Sea. Tha fishermen haeny much chance o’ feedin ther femilies wi’-oot help. Its no that ther lazy, er dinae want tae adapt. But its becaus tha EU er issuin seeminly impoasible tae meet directives. Directives whuch meen that fer 10 weeks tha boats er banned fae fishin, this is 10 weeks that tha femilies o’oor trawlers hae tae pit up wi’oot a wage. Hoo caun this be richt.

Whun thes restrictions wur pit oan tha Scots: ther DARD gien theim tie-up packages tae enable theim tae survive. Sumthin whuch DARD did iver heer fer a wheen o’ yeers, an then they stapt daein it, fer they saed it wus rang an agin tha law, an it wusnae coast effective.

Without the eccentric spelling (recently coined pseudophonetic spellings often used by enthusiasts), but using the same dialect words and forms, this passage reads:

The bare facts are that because o the hauld-back on white fishin, an in tryin tae bring back the cod stocks, an the closure, an no bein alloued tae fish in the Irish Sea, the fishermen haena much chance o feedin their faimlies withoot help. It's no that they're lazy, or dinna want tae adapt. But it's because the EU are issuin seeminly impossible-tae-meet directives. Directives which mean that for ten weeks the boats are banned frae fishin –– this is ten weeks that the faimlies o oor trawlers hae tae pit up withoot a wage. Hou can this be richt?

Whan these restrictions were pit on the Scots, their DARD gien them tie-up packages tae enable them tae survive -- something which DARD did ower here for a wheen o years, an then they stopped daein it; for they said it wis wrang an agin the law, an it wisna cost effective.

On occasion such respelling strategies can favour orthographic differentiation over semantic differentiation, something evidenced in the use of "coast effective" in a text about fishing. The only word used in the above without a currently used Standard English cognate is "wheen", something perhaps obscured by the spellings employed; all forms of Scots have suffered lexical erosion, particularly in the 20th century, and the extent exhibited above may suggest heteronomy with Standard English in this specific instance.

Speaker Population

During the middle of the 20th century, the linguist R. J. Gregg established the geographical boundaries of Ulster's Scots-speaking areas based on information gathered from native speakers. The 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey found that 2% of Northern Ireland residents claimed to speak Ulster Scots, which would mean a total speech community of approximately 30,000 in the territory, which does not include County Donegal.



In Ulster Scots-speaking areas there was traditionally a considerable demand for the work of Scottish poets, often in locally printed editions. Alexander Montgomerie's The Cherrie and the Slae in 1700, shortly over a decade later an edition of poems by Sir David Lindsay, nine printings of Allan Ramsay's The Gentle shepherd between 1743 and 1793, and an edition of Robert Burns' poetry in 1787, the same year as the Edinburgh edition, followed by reprints in 1789, 1793 and 1800. Among other Scottish poets published in Ulster were James Hogg and Robert Tannahill.

This was complemented by Ulster rhyming weaver poetry, of which, some 60 to 70 volumes were published between 1750 and 1850, the peak being in the decades 1810 to 1840. These weaver poets looked to Scotland for their cultural and literary models and were not simple imitators but clearly inheritors of the same literary tradition following the same poetic and orthographic practices; it is not always immediately possible to distinguish traditional Scots writing from Scotland and Ulster. Among the rhyming weavers were James Campbell (1758-1818), James Orr (1770-1816), Thomas Beggs (1749-1847), David Herbison (1800-1880), Hugh Porter (1780-1839) and Andrew McKenzie (1780-1839). Scots was also used in the narrative by Ulster novelists such as W. G. Lyttle (1844-1896). Scots regularly appeared in Ulster newspaper columns.

The poet Seamus Heaney indicates the importance of Ulster Scots to his own writing in his poem 'A Birl for Burns':

From the start, Burns’ birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi’ them
And stick to still in County Antrim
Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
On the Derry air.

My neighbours toved and bummed and blowed,
They happed themselves until it thowed,
By slaps and stiles they thrawed and tholed
And snedded thrissles,
And when the rigs were braked and hoed
They’d wet their whistles....

Language planning

By the early part of the 20th century the literary tradition was almost extinct. The Ulster Scots revival from the 1980s onwards has moved away from the traditional Scots orthographic practices, preferring instead to develop Ulster Scots as an autonomous written variety whose "common denominator is to be as different to English, and occasionally Scots, as possible". This hotchpotch of obsolete words, neologisms, redundant 16th and 17th century spelling conventions and "erratic spelling which sometimes reflects everyday Ulster Scots speech rather than the conventions of either modern or historic Scots". The resulting pastiche "is also often incomprehensible to the native speaker. The introduction of standard educational materials in schools for the teaching of Ulster Scots is likely to formalise ongoing discussions about the future direction of language planning, and there have also been plans for an Ulster-Scots Academy. An Ulster-Scots Agency document leaked in July 2008 regarding plans for the establishment of an academy accused the implentation group appointed by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure of wrongly promoting the dialect as an autonomous variety, stating that "The implementation group [chaired by the geographer Philip Robinson] seem to be planning to be concerned with a language separate from Scots, which they are calling Ulster-Scots, though this appears to be something distinct from the language variety traditionally spoken in Ulster.


In recent years a movement has been under way to change the perception of Ulster Scots. The Ulster Scots Agency promotes Ulster Scots. The Belfast-based Irish language newspaper ran a column in a revivalist version of Ulster Scots that was at least partly tongue-in-cheek.

Speaking at a seminar on 9 September 2004, Ian Sloan of the Northern Ireland Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure (DCAL) accepted that the 1999 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey "did not significantly indicate that unionists or nationalists were relatively any more or less likely to speak Ulster Scots, although in absolute terms there were more unionists who spoke Ulster Scots than nationalists".


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