Ulster-Scots Hub Opens in Belfast

Ulster-Scots Agency promote Ulster-Scots language and culture in new state-of-the-art discover centre

Queen Victoria would have been impressed – and possibly slightly amused – by the Ulster-Scots Agency's new Ulster-Scots Hub & Discover Ulster-Scots Centre, which opened for business and pleasure in Belfast last week in a street named after her. After all, she had a soft spot for Scotland.

This well-funded, high-tech set up, situated in the Corn Exchange, a slab of 19th century Belfast, aims to inform people at home and abroad about the language of the Ulster-Scots people, made famous by the poet Robbie Burns and the 19th century Caledonian immigrants.

There is no doubt that the architects and designers employed by the Ulster-Scots Agency – known in the language as Tha Boord o Ulstèr-Scotch – have done a terrific job in renovating and tweaking the old building to make it alive and once again relevant in the 21st century.

Inside the centre, there is a lot to see and experience. One of the stand out displays is a copy of one of Burns' books on socialism – how interesting it would be to reach inside the perspex case and find out which passages the people's poet had underlined, which pages he'd turned down for future reference.

At the official launch of the hub, what you might call Unionist aristocracy, including Nigel Dodds, the DUP MP for North Belfast, and Nelson McCausland, former Minister for Culture, Arts & Leisure, rubbed shoulders with the media and Ulster-Scots aficionados like historian Ivan Harbison, who is on the Ulster-Scots ministerial advisory group.

And although the library in the centre is not yet stocked, you could tell from the range of available leaflets and IT options that this place will make a real difference to our understanding of Ulster-Scots, which has been afforded minority language status by the EU. 

Language is, of course, not an easy topic in Northern Ireland, and the very idea of Ulster-Scots – which was spoken by early Scottish settlers in Ulster and Donegal – is itself contentious to some people, who argue that Ulster-Scots is but a dialect and not a language at all. Linguistics expert, Frank Ferguson, of the University of Ulster, has this to say on the subject:

'The question over the status of Ulster-Scots is a very interesting one, but is relatively straightforward, much depending upon how you view English and its sister language, Scots. Ulster-Scots might be seen as a variant of Scots which, depending on your linguistic point of view, can be both a dialect of English and a language in its own right.

'It's also achieved minority language and lesser used language status. So it's both a language and a dialect. We get far too tied up in linguistic knots about its status. Whatever way you might describe it, it is a wonderful speech variety, with a rich and diverse history, which remains with us in these parts in many manifestations which we ought to cherish and celebrate.'

Talking to Harbison, you sense there is a lot to cherish in the Ulster-Scots tradition. He reminisces about his introduction to the joys of Ulster-Scots via an ancestor's literary output. 'The literature of Ulster-Scots is traceable from the 12th century onwards but really grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, which is where the bulk of the writing comes from.

'Both my grandmothers, and my mother, spoke Ulster-Scots. And one of my ancestors, David Herberus, was an Ulster-Scots poet. He documented and wrote about a declining tradition during the shift from agriculture to the industrial world.'

Harbison then quotes from his uncle's work, which sounds a little like Wordsworth's pastoral poem 'Michael', evoking an innocent world in which men were connected to the land. It contains phrases about the 'big bellows' of the industrial revolution and the appeal of the old ways, and moves with an appealing rhythm.

It was written in the 1850s and apparently ties in with work like 'The Wife's Lament', spoken to her spinning wheel. Symbolically, in that poem, a teapot has broken in the way that society itself is soon to fragment...

Harbison goes on to say that we shouldn't be put off Ulster-Scots by the inevitable sectarian controversy that surrounds it in Northern Ireland – and for those unaware of our divided past, the Nationalist, Catholic community here have historically viewed Ulster-Scots, and those who speak it, with suspicion.

'It's officially recognised by an EU charter and has the same charter status as Irish but that doesn't solve the argument,' proffers Harbison, who believes that the new Ulster-Scots Hub will go some way towards protecting and promoting the language in Northern Ireland.

'We are required under this charter to make efforts to protect the language and a committee from the EU visits every three to four years to see how things are going. So it is recognised in the way that Cornish is recognised.

'And the language does have a history, being spoken by Scottish settlers in the North of Ireland and Donegal. It's a variety of Scots and the fact that there is a high degree of mutual intelligibility between English and Ulster-Scots doesn't mean it isn't an independent language.'

Of course, it is, and the Ulster-Scots Agency's new hub has a range of spanking new, nicely-designed leaflets to prove the point. They include Ulster-Scots trails through Belfast and other parts of Northern Ireland, pamphlets on creative writing, the families who originally brought the language to Northern Ireland, and the rich history of the people who spoke it through the centuries.

As Catriona Holmes, marketing manager with the Ulster-Scots Agency, notes, with this new city centre hub, the agency aim to 'attract the tourist pound' as well as enlightening those of us resident in Belfast and elsewhere across Northern Ireland.

Ferguson adds that the University of Ulster archive is developing the literary side of things at the centre. 'Previously, we had put together a database of approximately 25 books of poetry from the 19th century "rhyming weaver" tradition. Currently, we're working on a 100-plus selection of texts, which will encapsulate the history of Ulster-Scots literature and history from the 17th century to the present day.'

If the work is anything like that of Ivan Herberson's ancestor, the Ulster-Scots Agency are creating something of a treasure trove. As they say in Ulster-Scots, weel done.

Visit the Ulster-Scots Agency website for more information. BBC also have an interactive online Ulster-Scots word search facility for those interested in learning more.