Eagle's Wings

'A unique and definitive history' of Ulster-Scots, Scotch-Irish and Presbyterians in Northern Ireland

David Hume's novel is entitled Eagle's Wings – The Journey of the Ulster Scots and Scotch-Irish. Wordy, but encouraging. Mentioning both ‘Ulster Scots’ and ‘Scotch-Irish’ suggests an uncommon diversity of approach in this ‘unique and definitive history’. Perhaps we can reach beyond the myth-making that has so often plagued modern attempts to forge an Ulster Scots identity.

For those who thought that the Ulster-Scots experience started with the Plantation, think again. More than a quarter of this book deals with earlier links between Ulster and Scotland. The importance of that narrow North Channel as a route of communication and of movements of peoples is obvious.

As well as history, Hume dips into origin myths. The Scots themselves, in the Declaration of Arbroath of 1320, claimed a lineage stretching back to the lost tribes of Israel. Here, amongst the shadowy peoples who once inhabited Ulster, we find the Cruithin, who then migrated to Scotland.

Hence we are led to believe they were merely returning home when they settled here in the seventeenth century! If, as suggested, St Patrick was Scottish rather than Welsh, anything is possible.

One is struck how, in this kind of re-creative history, the obscurities of distant struggles and migrations assume a would-be present day relevance. Yet the early 19th century Ordnance Survey Memoirs, which are cited here, often emphasise how little sense of history Presbyterians had then. They were surely simply making their way on a new frontier as they also did in America.

We are certainly provided with much detail on Scottish developments, indeed this is almost a parallel history. Some of it may or may not be relevant to the Ulster Scot experience here.

However, Hume does a good job of explaining the importantance of some elements. Persecution and starvation in Scotland, for example, not only propelled many to Ulster but contributed to an enduring distrust of government.

That said, Hume does place too much emphasis on the significance of Border Reivers and Covenanters in a wider Presbyterian family. At the same time, in dealing with the Plantation itself, he under-emphasises the Ulster-Scots role.

Or at least reduces them to simply acting alongside more prominent English leaders such as Sir Arthur Chichester. We do not get much insight into how the major Presbyterian migrations to Ards and County Antrim, which took place outside the Plantation framework, may have differed.

Hume rightly emphasises the radical tendencies of Presbyterianism, whether reflected in the agrarian agitation of the Hearts of Steel in the 1760s or the United Irishmen in the 1790s.

Religious and economic disabilities also propelled massive Presbyterian emigration to America, where in turn, many supported the American Revolution. Even in the 19th century he reminds us of continued Presbyterian support for Liberalism.

There was, of course another, trajectory. Presbyterians were amongst the founders of the Orange Order in County Armagh in 1796, though mass Presbyterian recruitment did not come about till much later. Some of them were also loyalists during the American Revolution. By 1912 the majority of them were wedded to the Unionist cause.

As modern Ulster-Scots revivalism is closely identified with Unionism, it is difficult to see what scope is left for radical dissent within that tradition. Hume makes an equation between Presbyterianism and the Ulster-Scots.

That causes one obvious difficulty for those who wish to make Ulster-Scots a central feature of Unionism or indeed Orangeism, and that is that the majority of Protestants in Ulster are of English descent. Not to mention Catholics who speak Ulster-Scots, or, as many do, have close ties with Scotland.

In a final chapter Hume reflects on the condition of Ulster-Scots today. It is not a confident picture. He freely concedes that the language itself (if it is a language), often amounts to no more than the survival of words and phrases from a rural rather than urban environment. Enthusiasts for the Irish language can blame English cultural dominance, but that is more difficult for Unionists!

Yes, there is an ever-extending range of Ulster Scots activity, often in Orange Halls, but evidence of mass enthusiasm seems lacking. There is disappointment that the east-west provisions of the Good Friday Agreement have not borne more fruit – perhaps the Scots themselves lack enthusiasm for us.

Equally traumatic is the discovery that the vast majority of the enormous Ulster-Scots diaspora in the United States has long since lost any sense of that identity.

The fate of On Eagle’s Wing, the musical (2007), was the most spectacular failure on that front. Like the original emigrant ship of 1636, it failed to make the transatlantic journey.

I should have noticed that this book is described as a ‘celebration’, always the death knell for serious history. It in turn fails to make the Ulster-Scots journey convincingly.