Ulster Scots Music

An interview with Willie Drennan

Willie Drennan, writer, performer and member of the Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra and Nae Goat’s Toe was talking to CultureNorthernIreland about Ulster Scots.

What kind of music is it? What would be the ‘typical’ instruments in Ulster Scots music?

'There are different aspects of that, because as part of that you have the strong marching band tradition, pipe bands, accordion bands and flute bands, and the Lambeg and Fyffing tradition.

'You also have the folk music that would have been played in the local halls and peoples homes, and that is basically fiddle music, tin whistles, and flutes, and drums and various things like that. And that aspect is not any different from Irish music. It’s just the folk music of Ulster that has strongly been influenced by Scotland. It’s not Scottish music.

'People often make this mistake that Ulster Scots music is Scottish music played in Ulster, but it’s not necessarily that. Some of the music we play has its roots in Scotland, but has been played here in Ulster for many generations.

'A lot of it has been created here in Ulster, and sometimes had other influences from other parts in Ireland, from England or from America, as the music went out from here in the seventeen hundreds and came back and has strongly influenced how people play music here.

'So, to summarize, I suppose, Ulster Scots folk music is the music that has been played by people who see themselves as being Ulster Scots. Some of the tunes that we play have been played all over the British Isles or played in North America for many generations as well, but we play it because it’s the music that has been played here traditionally.'

Do you collect songs from the oral tradition?

'[From] everywhere you can think of! Some of it is from the oral tradition, some of it is from old books, songbooks, a lot of it is […] from knowing that people have sung this particular song, [and then you get] the words from somewhere like from a library.'

What would be one of the ‘popular titles’ of Ulster Scots music?

'Well, it almost depends what category you are talking about. It’s the same as with Irish music, if you’re talking about an Irish song that’s been sung in the Irish language, or more commonly, a song that’s sung in English but as part of Irish culture, […] that’s a couple of different categories there.

'So, that’s a difficult question, because there’s just literally hundreds and hundreds of songs, [but] you [can’t] use one and say ‘oh that must be [it], that represents Ulster Scots,’ [since] Ulster Scots is such a wide range.

'If you talk about a traditional, in a traditional sense now, songs that would have been sung for many generations, songs like ‘My Aunt Jane’ comes to mind, which has been sung certainly in the eastern part of Ulster and around Belfast for many generations, and that’s a song that has come from Ulster. 

'Rabbie Burns’ songs have been sung here since Burns’ lifetime in the late seventeen hundreds. That was something that was very strong when I was growing up, people would be singing these songs, his most common songs, best known songs, love songs like ‘My Love is like a Red Red Rose’, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ and the ‘Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonnie Doon’, those you heard all over the place.

‘Auld Lang Syne’ which was written by Burns has been sung at all kinds of gatherings here in Ulster. People associate that with New Year’s Eve all over the world, but here it has been sung at birthdays, any sort of anniversary, or any type of gathering here, when people got together to have a good time. The song is really about celebrating old friends and good times spent with old friends, so that has been a very important part of the tradition here.

'That is probably the best known, but of course there are other songs of Scottish origin that have been very popular, such as ‘Annie Laurie’ comes to mind. When I was at school, songs I learnt of Scottish origin were ‘Western Home’, and my mother talks about learning ‘The Camel’s Coming’ when she was at school. So there has been a very strong tradition of Scottish songs sung as part of the tradition here in Ulster.

'All kinds of ballads have been sung by Ulster Scots people that come from here, but are not necessary sung using Ulster Scots words. Some of the more distinct ones that you would classify as Ulster Scots would be ‘The Muttonburn Stream’, a song that was written probably in the late eighteen hundreds.

'Most people in my generation, or beyond or before that, would have been familiar with songs like ‘the Muttonburn Stream.’ When people ask me about things like it, I’d say the best thing to do is to check out our CDs, because we pay particular attention to that, we pay attention to the traditional music of Ulster. It’s rare that we play a tune or sing a song that is commercial, a commercial Scottish song or a commercial Irish song, because we don’t see that as part of the tradition.'