The Scotch (Ullans) Language Tradition in Ulster

In 1970, I purchased the Ballatis of Luve, an important anthology produced by Professor John McQueen at the Edinburgh University Press. This brought together some of the best lyrics of courtly love written by Scottish poets and musicians during the course of the fifteen and early sixteenth centuries. There were some Scottish versions of versions of lyrics by Englishmen- Chaucer, Lydgate and Wyatt, but at the core of the anthology was the love poetry of Alexander Scott, (c.1515 to c.1583). In an historical and critical introduction, Professor McQueen examined the development and eventual decline of the Scottish love lyric from the beginning of the 15th Century until the end of the personal reign of Mary Queen of Scots.

As well as giving new biographical information on several of the poets represented, he discussed the relationship of the Scottish lyric to English verse and to the art music of the 16th century, particularly that associated with the Augustinian canons and with the Chapel Royal at Stirling, the social and political relevance of the lyric and the general effect of the Reformation on Scottish culture. Indeed, he shows us quite clearly that the troubled reign of Mary Queen of Scots occurred in the midst of a Reformation movement which, though it may have been both historically inevitable and desirable, went too far and had far reaching consequences, both social and artistic, which actually went a long way to destroying Scottish culture and civilisation.

Sir Richard Maitland (1496–1586) was a statesman and poet of some distinction. He was proud of the accomplishment of Scottish letters but he certainly shared an additional impulse with his younger contemporaries and fellow-collectors, George Ballantyne (1545–c.1608) and the musician Thomas Wode, Vicar of St Andrews (ob.1592), to preserve something of an already suppressed culture which they felt to be in danger of complete extinction. The Reformation had a more distinct effect on music than poetry and they had a sense of the loss of a deeper, richer past. This was particularly strong in Wode. The technicalities of musical theory also figure prominently and functionally in the works of Robert Henryson (c. 1420 to c.1490), William Dunbar (c. 1460 to 1513) and Gavin Douglas (1475 to 1522).

In the course of the 16th century it becomes more possible to provide biographical details of individual authors and the importance of professional musicians as writers of words as well as music becomes more and more obvious. The great Belfast writer and scholar C S Lewis’s magisterial work Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century Volume IV in the Oxford History of English Literature (1954) is particulary important, illustrating as it does language and literature at the close of the Middle Ages in Scotland. Characteristically Lewis writes Scotch not Scottish, claiming the freedom of “my ain vulgaire”, which has historical precedence. He speaks of New Learning but also of New Ignorance and that it is not easy to see aright the real qualities of Scots language in general. It has become a patois, redolent (for those reared in Scotland) of the nursery and the Kailyard, and (for the rest of us) recalling Burns and the dialectal parts of the Waverley novels. Yet we must not forget that it was once a courtly and literary language, “not made for village curls, but for high dames and mighty earls”.

C S Lewis makes an appreciative reference to Sir John Fethy (c.1480-1570),who was a poet as well as a composer. “It must not be supposed,” he says, ” that Dunbar dominates the minor poets completely. In the beautiful lyric by Fethy the poignancy of the refrain ” Cauld, caul culis the lufe that kendillis our het” depends on a quality of rhythm which is quite unlike Dunbar’s”. This difference of rhythm is certainly related to the fact Fethty was a musician and composer of distinction, a song-writer. Thomas Wode notes that this man was ”the first organeist that ever brought in Scotland the curious new fingering and playing on organs and yit it is mair nor three score yeiris since he cum hame”.

Lewis also applauds such magnificent works as the XIII Bukes of the Eneados , a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Gavin Douglas, which he finished in 1513. Douglas often rendered the sublimity of Virgil in lines that no translator, and not many original poets, have surpassed: The langsum luife drinkand inwart full cauld, (I. 749.); Wet in the mindless flude of Hell, Lethe, (v.854.); Mychtfulin heven and dim dungeon of helle. (vi. 247.) And the pail furrow of Tysiphonee Walkis wod wroth amydwart the melee. (x 761.) But “He has done even more than this. One of the things that test a translator’s quality is that mass of small additions which metre inevitably demands. In Douglas what is added is so often so Virgilian that when we turn back to the Latin we are surprised not to find it there”.

With the appearance of the Geneva Bible in 1560 (and the Authorized Version of the Bible or King James Bible in 1611) and the Union of the Crowns in 1603 (when James VI of Scots also became James I of England) the prestige and status of Scots declined. John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, was extremely hostile to Scots. Knox viewed Scots as ‘the language of Popery’ because the most formal writing (or the highest register, as a sociolinguist might observe) in Scots was religious and Roman Catholic in content. It was increasingly displaced as the language of government, commerce and writing in both Ulster and Scotland by English because it lacked status and prestige.The Reformation, therefore, essential though it was, could indeed be said to have destroyed Scottish civilisation.

The educational system also frowned on Ulster Scots. As Dr Ivan Herbison of Queen’s University, Belfast, has noted: ‘The new education policy of the 1830s was an additional pressure on Ulster Scots.  State control of education through the National School system enabled the Anglo-Irish establishment to frame a curriculum which privileged English language, literature and cultural values, and marginalised Ulster’s Scottish cultural heritage’. Marginalization and even denigration of Ulster Scots was the inevitable result. Scots and Ulster Scots continued as the language of the home and the countryside but encountered serious prejudice.  This may be evidenced by observations in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs describing Ulster Scots as ‘disagreeable’ and ‘coarse’.

Ulster Lallans, or as I call it, Ullans, is a purer form of Scots than that now spoken in Scotland. It is a sister language of modern English, and not a dialect. It was used by Rhyming Weaver poets until about 1870.  My ancestor Edward Lennox Sloan of Conlig was one of these. These Rhyming Weavers were self taught in Greek and Latin to a level unknown among any section of the peasantry in Western Europe.They were not merely writing in imitation of Robert Burns but in a tradition which went back to Allan Ramsay in Scotland and beyond. Ramsay was a member of the Easy Club along with the Jacobite leader Dr Archibald Pitcairn and had strong Jacobite sympathies following the 1715 rising.  During the occupation of Edinburgh in 1745 he was a highly respected figure but probably disapproved of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s policy of invading England.  He supported the aims of the French moderate Cardinal Fleury who died shortly before the 1745 Rising was embarked on.

Ramsay lived to influence the Whig “Pacifiers” following defeat at Culloden Moor.  “The Gentle Shepherd” deals with the Restoration of the Stuarts following the Cromwellian interregnum. It contains Jenny an early advocate of Women’s Liberation.   He stands midway between the Scots renaissance poets Henryson, Gavin Douglas and Dunbar and the later Romantic group, of which Burns personifies the French Revolution, Scott is the product of imperial compromise and MacDiarmid adheres to the Russian Revolution.  At first Ramsay appears the least conspicuous but he is the still small voice between the two storms, right at the beginning of the Scottish Enlightenment..

The first known Ulster Scots poet William Starrat of Strabane was closely associated with Ramsay. Indeed nine editions of Ramsay’s “The Gentle Shepherd” were printed in Ulster between 1743 and 1792 (five in Belfast, three in Newry and one in Strabane). When the first edition of Burns’ poems, the Kilmarnock edition, was published in July 1786 , extracts appeared in the Belfast News Letter– the first paper in Ireland to do so. The Edinburgh edition appeared in 1787 and James Magee of Bridge Street, Belfast reprinted and republished it the same year, the first to do so outside Scotland. Indeed extracts from the Ayrshire Ploughman appeared in the News Letter before they were published in book form.

Edward Lennox Sloan (1830–1874) was a Latter-Day Saint editor and publisher. He was the arranger of the text of the hymn “For the Strength of the Hills” into the version currently contained in the hymnal of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS Church). But he was also “Uncle Ned”, the Bard of Conlig, to my grannie Isabella Sloan Kerr, who bought me my first book on Robert Burns. Born in the village of Conlig, he was the  son of  John Sloan (1789-1853) and Mary Lennox (1794-Unknown) of Conlig, County Down, Ireland. His father’s first wife died, possibly in childbirth of her third child. Only one of his half siblings is known to have reached adulthood and died in England. Little is known of his older full brother, Samuel Lennox Sloan, Isabella’s antecedent. For such people as he, Scots in Ulster deserves  Equality, Respect and Integrity from us all.

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