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Ulster Scots in the Northern Ireland Census

Although we'll have to wait a little longer for statistics from the 2011 Census on Scots in Scotland, there have already been relevant releases with regard to the language in Northern Ireland. As well as the Census itself, figures have been garnered from another exercise with more depth and less breadth called the Continuous Household Survey (CTS).

There have, of course, been links spanning the Sheuch since time immemorial, but Scots came to Ireland in a big way with the Hamilton-Montgomery Plantation of 1606, a precursor to the Great Plantation four years later. While it's possible to debate both the national and linguistic relationships of Orkney and Shetland to the Scottish mainland, for most people Ulster remains the only place where Scots is spoken in any substantial fashion outside Scotland, being a community language in parts of four counties: Antrim; Down; Derry/Londonderry; and Donegal — the first three of which are now in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, most people speak Mid-Ulster English, whose closest affinity is, in my view, not with Hiberno-English but with Scottish Standard English, although in strongly Catholic areas along the border people may speak transitional dialects. That said, it's important not to forget that there are also many Catholic speakers of Scots (slightly more than a quarter according to current statistics, but the true figure could well be higher; detailed Census figures will be released early in 2013).

Ulster Scots is mainly derived from and is still very close to West Central Scots, making it a relatively mainstream variety. Apart from the accent, which, mainly because of its lengthening of certain vowels, is quite distinctive, Scots may notice that speakers of the Ulster dialect say "thaim" instead of "thae" (a practice nowadays also making inroads in Scotland itself), very often use verbal syncretism (i.e. "gane" instead of "gaed"), and frequently prefer "he'd no" to "he wadnae". As a result of staggered settlement at a time of innovation, the treatment of vowel 7 in the scheme developed by A. J. Aitken varies geographically across Scots-speaking parts of Ulster, so that a word such as "abuin" can rhyme with "sin", "sain" or "seen".

The 2011 CTS puts knowledge of "Ulster-Scots" in Northern Ireland in the broadest sense at 15% — a figure that may well exclude several thousand Scots-speakers born in Scotland, most of whom will be speakers of closely related Central Scots varieties. The Census figure for "some ability in Ulster-Scots" for Northern Ireland, on the other hand, is just under 8.1%. The disparity between the two may be because the CTS covers only those aged above 16, while the Census covers everyone aged over three. The older people are, the more likely they are to have a knowledge of Scots, which is, in both Scotland and Ulster, a recessive speech variety not yet being adequately promoted through the education system and with only limited intergenerational transmission. Again, detailed statistics will be released early in 2013.

Unlike Irish, which has experienced something of a bottom-up revival in recent decades, with Scots it's people in the least-deprived areas who are more likely to have a knowledge of the language. This will mainly be because they will have larger vocabularies generally, including some less common words shared with older or regional English.

The CTS figure for those who actually claim to be able to speak Scots as opposed to understand it is 4%, and it may well be a more reliable one than the headline 15%. It's also far closer to the figure of 2% produced in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILTS). Indeed, when those who know only single words of Scots (very common in Mid-Ulster English) are removed, the figure is 3%. The Census figure for speaking ability was 2%, accounting for 34,439 people, a result almost exactly the same as that produced by NILTS.

As discussed above, the Census figure for "some ability in Ulster-Scots" for Northern Ireland was just under 8.1%. Nine of its 26 local government districts reported above-average percentages on this question and are therefore of interest as Scots-speaking areas:

  • Ballymoney 29.43 
  • Ballymena 22.15 
  • Moyle 21.71 
  • Larne 19.20 
  • Coleraine 15.93 
  • Ards 13.27 
  • Antrim 09.57 
  • Carrickfergus 09.39 
  • Newtownabbey 09.13 

Going by the above, the heart of Scots-speaking Northern Ireland is clearly north County Antrim and the north-east corner of County Derry/Londonderry around Coleraine.

 Moyle, covering the former Glens of Antrim Gaeltacht and with a Catholic majority, has the third-highest total, suggesting that Robert Gregg's decision to mark it simply as "Gaeltacht" in his groundbreaking 1963 map of Scots-speaking areas may have to be re-examined. Indeed, for any combination of skills involving speaking ability, Moyle is in second place, after Ballymoney and before Ballymena. This all goes to confirm that, regardless of how it may be promoted at an official level in Northern Ireland, Scots on the ground is a genuinely cross-community phenomenon.

 On a related point, although Gregg's decision to map the eastern border of the Laggan Scots-speaking area as following the border between Donegal and Northern Ireland has been queried recently, the low percentages reported in the Derry and Strabane local authority areas (4.49% and 6.89% respectively) suggest that he may have been more accurate in that case.

 As expected, the lowest figures for competence were reported in Fermanagh and Newry and Mourne (4.0% and 3.7% respectively), which include strongly Catholic areas where Scots-influenced Mid-Ulster English yields to the transitional variety of South Ulster English.

 A further inescapable conclusion is that the Scots-speaking community of County Down is now moribund, with the Ards Borough Council area reporting a figure of only 13.27% (though the detailed Census figures may well show higher totals in electoral wards in the central Ards peninsula such as Ballywalter, Portavogie and Kircubbin). Remember: this figure covers all levels of ability, including knowledge of individual Scots words. The Down area was always smaller than its counterpart in Antrim and seems to have suffered as a result of demographic change and improved mobility, both social and spatial.

 Although this is the first time that the Northern Ireland Census has included a question on Scots, the general trajectory is very likely to be downwards. Irish, on the other hand, is growing, albeit not that fast, mainly because it's transmitted through the school system, either as a separate subject or, increasingly, as a medium of instruction; the latest figure for the equivalent 

"some knowledge of" question is 184,898 or 11%. One thing that Irish and Scots have in common is that ability is greatest in rural areas. In the case of Scots, that's because it's a rural speech variety; in the case of Irish, it's because rural areas are more likely to have large majorities of Catholics, who are many times more likely to learn the language than the "other side of the house". Indeed, Protestant schools are highly unlikely even to offer Irish as a subject. This is a sad reflection of Northern Ireland's divided society, since virtually all Protestants will have Gaelic-speaking ancestors from both Scotland and Ireland in their family trees.

 Ulster Scots, although clearly spoken by both Protestants and Catholics, is generally promoted as part of a cultural package aimed only at the former group. This too is a cause for sadness, and it's to be hoped that Northern Ireland folk, and more particularly their politicians and policy-makers, will one day be able to overcome the stereotypes to enjoy the full linguistic heritage of their three-leedit home.

 Official documents discussing the language questions in the Census are available at

Article supplied by Language Blogger Scots Anorak