In Search of the Ulster Scot: Has an Identity Been Manufactured?

image Is there any such thing as an Ulster Scot? The emergence of ‘Ulster Scots’ as a language, and as an ethnic group, has been controversial to say the least. Critics have alleged that Ulster Scots is a made-up language, manufactured so that Northern Ireland’s Protestants would have a language and an identity that could compete (i.e. be funded in a parallel manner) with Catholics’ Irish language and identity.

That’s a crude representation of Ulster Scots, admittedly. But the results of a Northern Ireland Omnibus survey, released last week, demonstrate that Ulster Scots seems to have gained some currency in Northern Ireland’s public consciousness.

The Belfast Telegraph reported that 1,212 people were surveyed, with 18 per cent of those saying they identified as Ulster Scot. 29 per cent of people over 65 identified as Ulster Scot, while just 5 per cent of those between 16-24 identified as Ulster Scot.

Among Protestants, 31 per cent said they were Ulster Scot.

31 per cent seems to me an impressive figure, given the derision that Ulster Scots has endured.

Also, it is generally thought that the population that might identify with Ulster Scots would be concentrated among the descendants of Scottish Presbyterians, naturally eliminating the descendants of English settlers, who are more likely to have an Anglican or other Protestant heritage.

So to me, this survey indicates that the idea of ‘Ulster Scots’ has caught the imagination of more of Northern Ireland’s Protestants than might have been supposed.

Admittedly, people responding to a survey about Ulster Scots might be more likely to identify with it as a language and as an identity, because the very act of participating in the survey would get them thinking about it.

The Belfast Telegraph also reports that the Ulster Scots Agency spent £3.4 million pounds last year, so the promotion of this identity has come at a price.

But these survey results prompt me to ask if it is possible to evaluate if, on the whole, the promotion of Ulster Scots has been good for community relations in Northern Ireland?

I have seen some of the positive effects.

For instance, in July Mark Anderson, who freelances for the Ulster Scots Agency, provided my students with a Lambeg drum demonstration as part of our Summer School on Understanding Loyalism. The impressive, handmade drum that he used was named ‘The Ulster Scot.’

Anderson is a part of the movement that wants to promote benign, creative aspects of Ulster Scots culture, for instance, highlighting the craftsmanship that goes into making a Lambeg drum and participating in joint musical demonstrations with Irish traditional musicians.

On the other hand, there’s a suspicion that the work that Anderson and others like him do is just a drop in the bucket, not really having an impact beyond a select few.

That said, I was surprised that 55% of Protestants and 31% of Catholics agreed that the Ulster Scots language was a valuable part of Northern Ireland culture.

Again, those figures seem to me surprisingly high. If we can believe that those surveyed were not just being polite, could this indicate that the manufacture of an Ulster Scots identity has had some positive public impact?

The full report on the survey can be downloaded here.

[I was away last week, so I’d like to thank Chris Morris for alerting me to this story]

Photo: Students on the Irish School of Ecumenics, Trinity College Dublin at Belfast’s Summer School on Understanding Loyalism, with Mark Anderson and his Lambeg drum, the Ulster Scot.

4 thoughts on “In Search of the Ulster Scot: Has an Identity Been Manufactured?”

  1. Just because it has caught the imagination doesn’t mean it hasn’t been manufactured, at least in its current form… And whilst it may be an important part of NI culture it is nowhere near as widespread as its advocates would argue, and is certainly not co-terminous with NI Presbyterianism, which I have heard many suggest. My own family roots are presbyterian, but we are not primarily Scots in origin… The division of our communities into monolithic Gaelic or Ulster-Scots communities is simplistic socio-historical camouflage for political and sectarian tribalism that ignores the complexity (indeed multi-cultural) nature of Northern Irish/Ulster history.

  2. It’s a shame that the undercurrent of your blog post is one of “invention” and “manufacture”. The three historic cultural identities of Ulster – Irish, Scottish and English, have for the past number of generations been overwhelmed by the two competing political identities of British and Irish. There is nothing invented about authentic Ulster-Scots heritage – there has been an Ulster-Scots community for over 400 years. The present-day rise in awareness is an example of cultural restoration, not invention, giving voice to a long-marginalised dimension of our cultural life.

    Mark Thompson
    Former Chair of the Ulster-Scots Agency (2005 – 2009)

  3. There is nothing manufactured or invented about Ulster-Scots identity. A basic knowledge of Ulster history from the early 17th century (and even before) would confirm that. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries there was always an affinity with the Ulster-Scots identity in Ulster and also knowledge of the language, even if academics were largely ignorant of this.

    I suspect one of the reasons a significant proportion of people state the language is important is the number of Ulster-Scots words still everyday use in Ulster speech. This is true for both communities.

  4. If they are all Ulster presybyterian Scots why is it the catholic nationalists are always blaming the English for everything?

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