In conversation about the Ulster Scots tradition
Writer and performer Willie Drennan was talking to CultureNorthernIreland about his latest publication The Wee Book (published by Ullans Press in 2004), and about Ulster Scots culture.
This is his first book of poetry, but not his first publication. In the early 1990s, he produced a book explaining the conflict in Northern Ireland to a Canadian and North American audience, which was, as Drennan pointed out, ‘written in a more simplistic way than what you write if you write in Northern Ireland.’
The book Off To The Field: The Ulster Troubles (1994) was used in Canadian high schools, and was sold out within a year. Drennan explains, ‘People would often ask me what was going on. After a while I thought instead of having to explain it all the time, I write a book.’
The Wee Book is a collection of poetry, short stories and songs, basically pieces that Drennan has written and performed. A lot of them are in Ulster Scots, and most of the English ones are part of the Ulster Scots culture. Drennan also collects old songs and poems from the Ulster Scots tradition, but he says:
‘Not necessarily because I’ve chosen to do that, but because people give them to me. Quite often in different parts of the country, somebody comes up and hands me a song that’s been in their family. I have quite a big collection, but quite often I don’t have time to read them, or maybe I only get to them weeks later. But I do collect them, and maybe some day I will do something with them.'
Asked about his involvement with Ulster Scots, he explained how he grew up with it. ‘I grew up in rural County Antrim, just a few miles outside Ballymena, where everyone spoke Braid Scotch, as it was called in those days. There was a whole sense of a cultural connection with Scotland that wasn’t really addressed to me directly, but something that I was subconscious of all my life.
'Because the music that was played, the traditional music always had a strong Scottish connection. Rabbie Burns was often quoted, and his songs were often sung at cultural events. So where I grew up, this was the culture I was introduced to as a child.’
Drennan described that he only became aware of this particular culture when he went abroad:
‘Suppose it was when I was out of the country, I was out of Northern Ireland for 21 years, travelling in different countries, it was really then that I started to pay attention to my heritage, and where I was from. I was living in Canada when I started to make my living as a storyteller and musician. I would play the music that was part of my culture, and played it the way I played it, and when I quoted Rabbie Burns, people said “you sound more Scottish than Irish”. That got me thinking about the distinctiveness of my particular culture, and how that wasn’t really represented in the popularised Irish culture that had developed since the 1970s, that was portrayed all over the world. People in all the Western countries anyway were celebrating and really appreciating Irish culture, the music and the songs, but my particular distinct culture that was part of that had not been recognized.
'I was actually involved in an Ulster-Scots society in Canada before I moved back to Northern Ireland in 1997, unaware of the revival of interest in it. So it was just a natural step for me to become involved in it. People would ask me to play music at Ulster Scots cultural evenings and things like that. Certainly, after that I got involved in forming a collective of Ulster Scots musicians, mostly from Co Antrim, but also from all over Northern Ireland, and that led to the formation of the Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra, which I am heavily involved in. That’s gone from strength to strength, and altogether that collective has produced seven cds since 1998, and we’ve large audiences all over Northern Ireland as well, and quite often take it outside of Northern Ireland as well.’
Drennan explains that there are different levels of Ulster Scots, and that his performance pieces are written in such a way that even in Belfast people will understand it. There are, however, a few pieces that are in ‘Braid Scotch’, or ‘Braid Ulster Scots’, where a lot of people would have difficulty following it.
‘A lot of the words are no longer applicable because so many were relating to the work and the lifestyle of people in a rural situation. Now with people moving away from the farms, and with farmlife changing, a lot of that talk about “the moss” [peat bog] or “the work in the moss” or the work on the farm, that would have had expressions that were used in everyday life, [is] no longer applicable. Even when you talk about a moss, a lot of people no longer know what you’re talking about. People are usually talking about a bog instead of a moss.'
Drennan describes how Ulster Scots has to adapt to modern life. 'Languages have to create words, or at least adapt words and bring them into a modern day usage. There wouldn’t be enough words to communicate in today’s terms. With Ulster Scots not being a written language, this is where it gets a bit complicated, because some academics have done that, and have done that very successfully, but then they get ridiculed for trying to invent a language, but all they are really doing is trying to bring [in] words and adapt words, so that they can communicate about things that are relevant today. So you either have to do that, or it is going to disappear altogether.’
Asked about the rise in awareness of Ulster Scots and the number of people learning it, Drennan states, ‘I suppose there are few people actually learning it, but there are a few classes by people who understand it, and are taking classes so that they can understand it further, so that they can use it more in everyday life. It hasn’t got to the stage where schools are actually learning it [sic], because there is no programmes in the schools but that is changing. There is a curriculum project in Stranmillis and they hope to introduce this to primary schools in the very near future, and then to high schools further down the road. It is basically at the stage now where in another couple of generations, it will be totally lost. If it’s not introduced into schools now, it will be gone forever.
'People are working in towns where they have to communicate in English. This has been going on for fifty years. Even people in their seventies and eighties, who grew up speaking nothing else but Scotch or Ulster Scotch just had to get a job outside the farm and had to be able to communicate in the Queen’s English.’
To the question if there are there still native speakers, Drennan replies, ‘Oh aye, but they are usually quite old. My mother, who is 80, she probably speaks English more often now than anything else, but when she gets together with her neighbour, who is of similar age, she talks away in their Scotch tongue.'
Drennan explains that there are people who record native speakers, and he has also recorded some. He reaffirms that to keep Ulster Scots alive, it has to be introduced into schools.
‘This generation doesn’t speak it anymore, they understand it, because they’ve heard it, they’ve heard their grandparents speaking it, but they don’t use it, except there may be some rural situations, where people are still living on a farm, and they still hear their parents talking it, but once again, the schools’ situation, almost in any kind of school, kids are mostly taught in English, or in their local dialect, and they use a lot of Scotch words, but it’s not distinctly different from English.’