Ulster Scots & Presbyterianism: Does Denomination Matter?

In response to my recent post, In Search of the Ulster Scot, some people have commented that the Ulster Scots identity and language is not just for Presbyterians. Others have said that the Ulster Scots identity fails to capture the complexity that is present within Protestantism/Unionism in Northern Ireland.

Fair enough. But is there a relationship between Ulster Scots and Presbyterianism, as is often assumed?

Chris Morris, a crack statistician who has just finished his Master’s in Reconciliation Studies at my School, wanted to explore this question further. (Morris’ recently submitted master’s dissertation is an exploration of past and present social, economic and cultural differences between Anglican and Dissenting traditions in Northern Ireland.)

Morris contacted the Central Survey Unit which had conducted the original Northern Ireland Omnibus Survey on Ulster Scots, on which my previous blog post was based. The data had originally been analysed on a Catholic/Protestant basis.

But with information provided by the Central Survey Unit, Morris has now broken down the results regionally (inside or outside the Northeast Education and Library Board), and denominationally: Catholic, Presbyterian, Church of Ireland, Other Protestant and Others.

The Northeast includes Antrim, Ballymena, Ballymoney, Carrickfergus, Coleraine, Larne, Magherafelt, Moyle and Newtownabbey.

This exercise has demonstrated some interesting differences, especially between Anglicans and Presbyterians.

In the Northeast, where 50% of Protestants are Presbyterian, a large fraction of Protestants from all denominations consider themselves Ulster Scots:

  • Presbyterians – 44 % Ulster Scot
  • Anglicans – 42 % Ulster Scot
  • Other Protestants – 37 % Ulster Scot

Outside the Northeast, where 33% of Protestants are Presbyterian, the percentages who consider themselves Ulster Scot are much lower:

  • Presbyterians – 34 % Ulster Scot
  • Other Protestants – 26 % Ulster Scot
  • Anglicans – 18 % Ulster Scot

So, geographical and denominational elements do come into play for people who identify as Ulster Scots.

Ulster Scots are more likely to live in the Northeast, regardless of denomination, and they are more likely to be Presbyterians, no matter where they live.

Morris also analysed the answers for the question that asked people if they wished to learn more about Ulster Scots. The table below shows the percentages of people who wished to learn more:

Northeast Non Ulster Scot Northeast Ulster Scot Non Northeast, Non Ulster Scot Non Northeast, Ulster Scot
Presbyterian 21 % Presbyterian 29 % Presbyterian 14 % Presbyterian 38 %
Anglican 20 % Anglican 67 % Anglican 19 % Anglican 62%
Other Protestant 4 % Other Protestant 44 % Other Protestant 15 % Other Protestant 35 %

What is striking here is that interest in learning about Ulster Scots is strongest among Anglicans who identify as Ulster Scots – both inside and outside the Northeast. After that, interest is strongest among Presbyterians who consider themselves Ulster Scots, but live outside the Northeast.

In an email to me in which he shared these results, Morris wrote:

I can’t help a feeling that the Anglicans don’t feel they really know what it is to be an Ulster Scot because they aren’t Presbyterians, and the Presbyterians outside the Northeast feel they don’t really know because they live outside the heartland.

He also wonders: what do the non Ulster Scots call themselves? That question leads to another, perhaps more difficult question:

What effect will the official promotion of Ulster Scots as an identity and language by bodies such as the Ulster Scots Agency have on Protestants who do not identify with Ulster Scots?

(Image of the headquarters of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Belfast. Sourced on flickr photosharing, from Calotype46)

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