I was born in Bangor, County Down, and reared in the nearby little village of Conlig (a). In the Ulster Gaelic or Ulidian, this means “the stone of the hound” and the whole area was Gort-na-lig, “the field of stones”, so since childhood I have learned to live between a rock and a hard place. This is where I, as an Ulster Scot, am happiest to be, having been “ born and bred in a briar patch”. Bangor, the Light of the World (b), was once the site of one of the largest Christian schools in Ireland and became the focus of a religious life of great depth and power in the early medieval period of Europe. Here, were compiled the Ulster Cycle of Tales and the story of Cú-Chulainn (c), the Hound of Ulster, from whom Conlig is named.
My two Grannies were sisters, of the Sloan family, and spoke the Ulster Scotch Leid of the Ards. Granny Martha married her cousin, an English soldier of Highland Scottish descent called Samuel Adamson. She moved to England and died there in 1945, a year after I was born. My Granny’s cousin William lived in a little cottage in the bottom of the Tower Road in Conlig which leads directly to Helens’ Tower. He died at the Somme on 1st July, 1916 and has no known grave.
Helen's Tower, Clandeboye
Ulster Tower, Thiepval
And that is why we built a Somme Museum at Whitespots, Conlig, and why we refurbished the Ulster Tower at Thiepval in France, which is a replica of Helens’ Tower (d). (Whitespots, by the way, is Ulster Scotch or Ullans for Lead Mines).
The Sloan family were originally from Lisbane, near Comber,Co Down. My great–grandfather, Alexander Sloan, was a direct descendant of that Alexander Sloan of Killyleagh who was the father of Sir Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, and the reason I entered Medicine.
To aid the war effort my other Granny Isabella and her sister Hannah went to Alfred Nobel’s dynamite factory in Ardeer, in Ayrshire, Scotland, to make shells for the Western Front, a highly dangerous job for which they were quite suited. There she met a young Scottish soldier called Robert Kerr and eventually settled in Knockshinnoch, New Cumnock, near the Sweet Afton River, so beloved of Robert Burns. There I spent a lot of my childhood. Later I visited my Granny following Granta’s retirement, first to Bangor, and then back again to Afton Bridgend in New Cumnock. Granta and Granny taught me all I knew about Burns.
My two Grannies’ Great Uncle was Edward Lennox Sloan, the Bard of Conlig, who wrote The Weavers’ Triumph in his native Ullans. He immigrated to Salt Lake City, Utah, USA in 1863 and died there in 1874 at the early age of forty four. But the most widely acclaimed of the Ulster Folk Poets was James Orr of Ballycarry.
Gravestone of Archibald Wilson
Like my own ancestor Archibald Wilson of Conlig, he was a United Irishman and New Light (Ed: see Links below) Presbyterian, whose social concern for the poor was a hallmark of his work and who until his death continued to speak braid Ulster Scotch. Archibald was to be hanged at the Far Rocks outside our village aged twenty six for his part in the rebellion. He had been court marshalled in Newtownards and held in a cell in the Old Town Hall which you can still see. He was then buried in Bangor Abbey graveyard and I visited him every week on my way home to Conlig from Bangor Grammar School (e) … In school they thought I was from Ballymena (f).
Orr, however, was to survive the rebellion. My old friend, the late John Hewitt, in his Rhyming Weavers described some of Orr’s poems as being far beyond the capacity of any of our other rural rhymers. Two of his poems, The Penitent and The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial can be described as undoubtedly the major successes in the scale of our whole vernacular literature, and it was only when he wrote in Ulster Scots he displayed his considerable literary skill with the greatest effect. In many respects he wrote better Scots than Burns, whose formal education was orientated entirely towards England and whose knowledge of Scottish literature was in his childhood confined almost entirely to early transmitted folk songs and folk tales.
The Ulster countryside, with its traditions and lore, was the inspiration of such Weaver Poets of the 1790’s and early 1800’s who have given us such a unique heritage. Educated in both Latin and Greek, they achieved a higher level of culture than any section of the peasantry in Western Europe. They were not merely writing an imitation of Robert Burns but belonged to a tradition that went back to Alan Ramsey and beyond in Scotland.
The works of Orr provide us with the richest information we possess about the social customs and traditions of everyday living in the Ulster countryside and many of his works are light-hearted and intended to entertain rather than to educate. My favourite is The Ode to the Potatoe (the Potatoe, spelt as it should be with an “e”, was the greatest export apart from music that the Ulster Scots brought with them to America) (g). According to Thomas Beggs, another well known folk poet, born in Glenwhirrey in 1789, Orr was the Shakespeare of the plebeian train and although, like many of this relatives, his circumstances were poor in material things, he had the rich resource of the countryside to sustain him, a countryside we must use to every means in our power to sustain and protect.
Following visits to the Friesian Academy in the Netherlands in 1978 and again in 1980 with a group of community activists. I wrote my vision for the development of Ulster Scots and Ulster Gaelic in the chapter “The Language of Ulster” as part of my book “The Identity of Ulster” in 1981. In 1992 I initiated the modern Ullans or Ulster Scots movement by publishing under my imprint Pretani Press (h) the Folk Poets of Ulster series to bring before the public some of the finest pieces of literature in the Ulster Scots language.
I further initiated the development of an Ullans or Ulster Scots Academy following a meeting in July 1992 with Professor R. J. Gregg in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. In the context of Ulster Scots as a recognised European Region minority language, the Ullans Academy would be modelled on the Friesian Academy. However, it would also promote the inter-relationships between Ullans and Ulster Gaelic (Ulidian) as well as the study of Ulster English and Northumbrian English in general. We await with interest whether this will be done properly.
The Ullans Speakers Association of Ballymoney, County Antrim, the United Ulster History Forum of the Ards Peninsula, the Culture and Heritage Society of Portavogie, County Down and the Monreagh Project, County Donegal have been encouraged to join as friends of the Ullans Academy. The perpetuation of an artificial dialect initiated by so called revivalists, unreadable to Ullans speakers, will be discouraged and the native speech of Antrim, Down and Donegal will be facilitated.
Samson's Titanic Journey
Finn's Causeway Adventure
In this respect four recent publications by The Ulster Scots Agency for children, Sampson’s Titanic Journey; Scrabo, the Strangford Seal; Napoleon the Lonely Leopard and Finn's Causeway Adventure, translated by the Ullans Speakers Association, are among the finest productions of the living Ullans Leid. Any attempt to censor or discriminate against them will be strongly resisted. We owe as much to our modern Ullans Poets, who are the true inheritors of the Rhyming Weavers.
(a) Conlig lies south of Bangor, midway between Bangor and Newtownards
(b) Bangor, Light of the World is the title of one of Dr. Adamson's books (Fairview Press, Bangor, 1979). It deals with the influence of Bangor monastery during the early Middle Ages.
(c) On Cú Chulainn, see King of Ulster, Wednesday, December 17. 2008, and Sétanta, Friday, January 12. 2007.
(e) Archibald Wilson's gravestone is one of the finest to survive from the United Irish period, and efforts have been made to preserve it. The gravestone reads;
‘Here lieth the body of Archibel Wilson of Conlig who departed this life June the 26 in anno 1798, eg 26yr. Morn not, deer frends, tho I’m no more. Tho I was martred, your eyes before I am not dead, but do sleep hear. And yet once more I will apeer. That is when time will be no more. When thel be judged who falsely sore. And them that judged will judged be. Whither just or on just, then thel see Purpere, deer frends, for that grate day. When death dis sumance you away I will await you all with due care. In heven with joy to meet you there.’
(f) because Ulster-Scots is widely spken in Ballymena, whereas it has disappeared from Bangor
(g) The traditional belief is that Sir Walter Raleigh first brought the potato to Europe. In 1589 Raleigh planted the vegetable on his estate in Youghal, Co Cork. See Sir Walter Raleigh's American colonies.
In 1992, at a spelling bee in Trenton, New Jersey, US Vice-President Dan Quayle indeed spelt the word with an 'e'.