A Brief Guide to Ulster-Scots*

G. Brendan Adams

Origin and History

Scots is the northerly form of Northumbrian English which became differentiated from the dialects of northern England and even more from those of other parts of England following the stabilization of the Scottish border in the 13th century. Its original core area lay between the River Tweed and the Firth of Forth, whence it spread in two directions: (1) westwards to Strathclyde, where it replaced Cumbro-Welsh, then to Galloway, where it replaced Gaelic and Norse and finally to Ulster, where it replaced Irish and blended with other types of English; and (2) northwards to Fife and Angus, where it replaced Cumbro-Welsh and Pictish, then to Buchan, where it replaced Gaelic, and finally to Caithness, Orkney and Shetland where it replaced Norse. Slowly since the 18th century and then more rapidly since the end of the 19th century it has faced competition on its home ground from standard English spoken with a Scots accent. It reached Ulster in the 17th century and has survived as the rural speech of three areas while influencing the development of Ulster English over a much wider area. These three areas were delineated by Professor R. J. Gregg in 1960 as follows:

1. Most of Antrim and the adjacent north-east quarter of Londonderry, with a short north-eastern boundary running in a circle from Ballycastle to Carnlough against a small area where English replaced Irish roughly between 1830 and 1930, and a long south-western boundary running from just north of Whitehead through Straid, Parkgate, Carnerney, Portglenone, Ringsend to Myroe on Lough Foyle;

2. The north-eastern quarter of Down bounded by a line running from Groomsport past Conlig, Ballymiscaw, Gilnahirk, Drumbo, Annahilt, Derryboy, and across Strangford to Ardkeen and Cloughy;

3. The north-eastern quarter of Donegal bounded by a line running from Muff to Inch and across Lough Swilly through Milford, Kilmacrennan, Churchhill and Ballindrait to the Foyle, bounding on Irish or the English which has replaced it during the last sixty years on the north and west, and on other forms of English to the east and south.

Throughout this area, but especially in the towns, it is in competition with various forms of Ulster English, on the development of which, however, it has exercised some influence. The total rural population of these three areas is about 170,000, not all of whom would be speakers of Ulster-Scots, though some of the latter would be resident in towns within the area. Almost all speakers of Ulster-Scots are now bidialectal, using the regional form of standard English, or a close approximation to it, as an alternative to their native dialect under certain circumstances. Some are more conscious of the difference between dialect and standard usage than others and are better able to switch from one to the other according to their audience.

Literary Use of Ulster-Scots

In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a limited degree of literary cultivation of Ulster-Scots, particularly by local poets, parallel to that of Scots in Scotland and mainly in north-east Down, east Antrim and mid-Antrim. Local poets who flourished, mainly between 1770 and 1870, were Samuel Thompson of Carngranny, Francis Boyle of Gransha, Andrew McKenzie of Dunover, Hugh Porter of Moneyslan, Peter Burns of Kilwarlin, William Bleakley of Ballinaskeagh, Joseph Carson of Kilpike, Robert Huddleston of Moneyreagh, Hugh Tynan of Donaghadee, Henry Flecher of Moneyrea, James Orr of Ballycarry, Thomas Beggs of Ballyclare, David Herbison of Dunclug, James Campbell of Ballynure, John McKinley of Dunseverick, Thomas Given of Cullybackey, and Sarah Leech - the only woman among them and the only vernacular writer from east Donegal. Prose is more scantily represented by The McIlwham Letters, written from Rathfriland to James McKnight, editor of the Belfast News-Letter, and Robin's Readings by W. G. Lyttle of north Down. In the present century this local vernacular literary tradition has become much thinner, but is represented by John Clifford of Larne.


There is no established orthographic system for the spelling of Ulster-Scots in literary use, and indeed one object of this paper is to make some tentative suggestions for a system of Ulster-Scots spelling. Two aspects need to be considered:

(a) The Scottish Background

Scots and English developed their standard literary forms from the 14th century onwards. There were minor phonetic differences — which increased with the passage of time in some cases — in the pronunciation of individual single letters, but in principle they each represented the same phonemes and differed only where English and Scots used different phonemes in a given phonological situation, e.g. English stone versus Scots stane. The main difference was in the use of digraphs and trigraphs for sounds not distinguished by the traditional alphabet. Scots used the trigraphs sch, tch, quh for the English digraphs sh, ch, wh, and ch in place of gh, which later became silent or came to be pronounced like f in English but retained its original velar fricative sound in Scots. Among the vowels Scots used ui or in certain cases eu where English used oo; ɑe was used for English oe, particularly when final; Scots distinguished between ei or ou, which were long vowels like modern English ee and oo, and the diphthongs ey or ow, whereas in English ey and ow had the same sounds as ei and ou, being merely positional variants as in the case of ai/ay and au/aw and oi/oy; Scots did not use ea and oa to distinguish what were originally more open long vowels than ee and oo.

During the 17th century when the use of Scots as a separate literary language was declining, English spelling conventions increasingly invaded the spelling of Scots written records. When Alan Ramsay began the Scots literary revival early in the 18th century by republishing the works of older Scots poets, he adopted most of these features as modernizations of their older spelling, and in the course of the 18th century these innovations became general among writers of Scots. The English sh, ch, wh were adopted instead of older Scots sch, tch, quh, though ch generally survived to indicate what had become a different pronunciation from English gh. Among the vowel digraphs English spellings were generally adopted where Scots and English pronunciation were alike, though Scots spellings were generally retained where pronunciations differed, but there was variation from one writer to another.

In the present century writers have broadly followed the precedents established in the 18th and 19th centuries, but there have been two sources of dissent from this practice. Firstly, some writers have reverted to the distinctive practices of older Scots, even when they do not necessarily indicate distinctive Scots pronunciations. Secondly, writers of the more divergent Scots dialects, especially north-eastern and north-insular Scots, have frequently diverged from more traditional spellings to indicate distinctive local pronunciations in much the same manner that English dialect writers do in writing in the local dialects of northern England.

(b) The Ulster Situation

The regional form of standard English which is in competition with Scots in Scotland and which has almost replaced it in certain sections of Scottish society is pronounced with a Scottish accent whose phonetic features are derived from Scots. In working out an orthography for any form of Scots, even those dialects that differ more than most from the general norm, many distinctive features do not need to be specially represented since all Scots, whether Scots dialect speakers or speakers of Scottish English, would pronounce them alike.

The situation of Ulster-Scots is different. Within its own immediate local area, indeed, there are people who speak the regional form of standard English with an Ulster-Scots accent, so that their standard and dialect pronunciations have exactly the same phonetic basis. In general, however, the regional form of standard English is spoken with the generalized type of northern Hiberno-English accent whose phonetics derive from western forms of early modern English adjusted to the original speech habits of those who acquired it over the last couple of centuries or more, whether their original language was Irish or Scots as spoken beyond the present limits of the Ulster-Scots dialect area. It follows that the phonetic basis of the majority of speakers of the regional form of standard English is rather different from that of Ulster-Scots and that certain spelling differences between Scots and English in Ulster are desirable which are not necessary between the two in Scotland.

The point may be illustrated by considering the two words rɑt and rot. In English, including standard English and many local dialects in Ulster, they are both pronounced with short vowels, an open front-spread vowel [rat] in rɑt and an open back vowel with very little or no lip-rounding [rɑt] in rot. In Ulster-Scots, Scottish Scots and standard English in Scotland they are pronounced respectively as fairly long vowels, open back unrounded [rɑ:t] in the case of rɑt and half-open back rounded [rɔ:t] in the case of rot. In Scottish Scots these words simply retain their traditional spelling since there is no difference between Scots and standard English in Scotland in their pronunciation, and it is accepted that the Scottish and Anglo-English pronunciation of standard English differ somewhat phonetically. In Ulster the Ulster-Scots pronunciation of each word differs from the regional form of standard English and from other forms of dialect English spoken in the region, so it seems logical to change the spelling even though this imposes a seemingly unnecessary spelling difference between Ulster-Scots and Scottish Scots. Otherwise the proper pronunciation of Ulster-Scots would not be clear to the majority of people in Ulster. There are two ways in which this can be done:

1. Retain the traditional spelling but place a circumflex accent over the vowel-letter, rɑ̂t, rôt, to warn the general reader that the dialect pronunciation is different, which may have some advantage in retaining the general appearance of words but gives no clue as to what the difference in pronunciation is since such accents do not form part of English orthographic tradition.

2. Change the spelling to rɑɑt and rɑut, which express the differences in pronunciation in terms that are intelligible to the general reader. In this work we follow this second practice, with the reservation that we confine this orthographic device to words of one or two syllables and do not extend it to the long polysyllabic words of Latin and Greek origin which do not form part of the every-day dialect vocabulary but where of course such pronunciation-spellings would be equally valid.

The operation of this rule adds to the number of distinctive Ulster-Scots word-forms as compared with standard English and also — on paper at least if not in pronunciation — as compared with traditional Scots, but there is another source of difference from traditional Scots, namely new phonetic developments of certain Scots sounds in Ulster. For example, Scots ui — corresponding to English oo — has become unrounded either to the sound of ɑe when remaining long or to a short i sound when shortened, as it usually is in Scots, thus shɑe 'shoe', but shin 'shoes', from shuin. To retain the latter traditional Scots spelling would hardly convey the pronunciation (despite words like build, guilt), so shɑe, shin must be established as the Ulster-Scots forms irrespective of what is written in Scotland. There are of course some local Scots dialects in Scotland where exactly the same sound-change has taken place. The short unrounded ui then usually falls together with original short i, which in Scotland is a lower and more retracted sound than in England. In Ulster-Scots, however, this is not the case because original short i has become so much lowered and retracted that it is pronounced like Ulster English short ɑ, thus original Scots shuin and shin become shin and shɑnn respectively in Ulster-Scots. In the latter case it is generally desirable to double the consonant after ɑ to emphasize that this vowel is short, partly to distinguish Ulster-Scots words from standard English words of like sound but different meaning, e.g. fɑtt 'fit' versus standard English 'fat', which would be fɑɑt in Ulster-Scots, and partly because traditional short ɑ, while short in some words, has become lengthened in others in Ulster English pronunciation, whereas this new Ulster-Scots short ɑ, arising from historical short i by lowering and backing, is always short. Thus in Ulster-Scots we write: bɑtt 'bit', bɑdd 'bid', bɑɑt 'bat', bɑɑd 'bad', with single ɑ standing for a short front, or fairly front, vowel and ɑɑ standing for a longish back vowel. The Scots phrase ɑ guid bit has become ɑ gid bɑtt in Ulster-Scots. In this matter Ulster-Scots resembles some of the more marginal Scots dialects in Scotland itself which have undergone special local developments in pronunciation differentiating them from traditional standard literary Scots.

To summarise the spelling of vowel sounds, there are four possible relationships between Ulster-Scots and English:

1. Both may have the same vowel sound, as pronounced in the regional standard English of Ulster, or at least a sound of the same quality though there may be slight variation in length depending on the nature of the following consonant or on the presence or absence of a following syllable. In such cases the standard English spelling of the vowel is retained except where a traditional Scots spelling would not be ambiguous for the general reader.

2. They may have different vowel sounds, with Ulster-Scots retaining an old traditional difference between Scots and English. In such cases traditional Scots spelling should be used, providing it is not ambiguous for the general reader; if it is, then the form should be respelt in standard English spelling conventions, e.g. toun may be allowed to stand for 'town' (instead of writing toon, though the latter is valid if desired), but hoose must be written for 'house'. Otherwise the sound would not be clear, though it could be argued that hous might pass, since it is visually different from house.

3. They may have different vowel sounds, with Ulster-Scots retaining the traditional Scots vowel-sound which, however, differs from the vowel-sound of English origin used in other types of Ulster speech, e.g. rɑɑt for 'rat', rɑut for 'rot'. Such words are respelt according to English spelling conventions to indicate their Ulster-Scots pronunciation even though no such respelling is considered necessary for Scots in Scotland.

4. They may have different vowel sounds, with Ulster-Scots differing also from Scottish Scots because of new local sound-changes. Such words are respelt according to the spelling conventions of standard English as pronounced in Ulster, e.g. bɑtt 'bit', bɑdd 'bid'.

It should be noted that there are some words which are not respelt even though their Ulster-Scots pronunciation may differ slightly from their pronunciation in the standard English of Ulster, either because the phonetic difference is very slight or because there is no satisfactory way of representing it in ordinary spelling. This may be illustrated by words containing the blocked, i.e. traditionally short vowels, such as rɑt, ret, writ, rot, rut. Three of these are respelt as rɑɑt 'rat', wrɑtt 'writ', rɑut 'rot', but the other two remain unchanged. In the case of 'ret ', the vowel is of the same quality in Ulster-Scots and most forms (except certain broad urban varieties) of English in Ulster, being however always long in Ulster-Scots, but either variable in length according to the nature of the following consonant or always short in some areas in other types of Ulster English. Since there is no simple way of expressing differences in length that do not also involve differences in quality, the spelling of words containing historical short e when it is common to English and Ulster-Scots is not affected. In the case of rut the vowel is always short everywhere in Ulster, but its quality varies. In Ulster-Scots it has the same half-open back-central unrounded sound as in Scottish Scots. In other forms of English in Ulster it is rounded and is either half-open (as in east Ulster) or has the tongue raised to the half-close position (as in central and west Ulster), but these distinctions of quality cannot be represented in ordinary spelling so they are ignored and the spelling of such words remains unchanged.

It should be noted that certain little words which are always unstressed in pronunciation retain their traditional spelling unchanged, and likewise the unstressed syllables of longer words. Some monosyllables vary in pronunciation according as they are stressed or unstressed. In such cases the Ulster-Scots stressed pronunciation may differ enough for respelling of the stressed form to be desirable, though the traditional form may be retained when the word is unstressed.

One last point must be mentioned with regard to the spelling of vowel sounds. Scots, whether in Scotland or in Ulster, makes a distinction in the pronunciation of diphthongal 'long' i which is not made in English. Finally and before voiced fricative consonants and r, and also before the suffix d, it is a wide diphthong, phonetically [ɑi] or [ɑe], whereas in other positions it is a narrow diphthong, phonetically [əi] or [ɛi]. This distinction is normally ignored in traditional Scots spelling, though the narrow diphthong can also occur finally and before all consonants where it has a different origin, e.g. corresponding to the English vowel usually written ɑi or ɑy. There is thus a distinction between tide [tɛid] and tied [tɑid], the latter having the wide diphthong because the d is a suffix, which should be represented in spelling, especially in the Ulster context where in other forms of Ulster English only the narrow diphthong occurs. It seems best to retain standard English spelling with i, y, ie, ye for the narrow sound [ɛi] and to devise a new means of writing the wide sound [ɑi], for which ɑɑi, ɑɑy, ɑɑie, ɑɑye appear feasible, thus we write tɑɑied for the Ulster-Scots form of 'tied', but tide does not need to be changed.

Much less need be said about the spelling of the consonants. Ulster-Scots has 32 different consonantal phonemes as against the 24 of standard Anglo-English, but some of the other English dialects of Ulster have as many as 36 and even the regional form of standard English in Ulster has 28. The extra sounds are the following: (1) the voiceless bilabial resonant and the voiceless velar fricative, represented respectively by the digraphs wh and gh in standard English orthography, but both lost in Anglo-English pronunciation though both preserved in Scots; in the regional standard variety of Ulster English wh is preserved, though in some local dialects, e.g. Belfast working-class speech, it has been lost by falling together with f in pronunciation; (2) palatalized l and n (like Spanish ll and ň or Italian gli and gn or Irish ill and inn), which replace English l and n plus 'yod' (the semivowel y or i before another vowel); (3) the emphatic dentals, i.e. t, d, l, n pronounced interdentally (tip of tongue between teeth) or ambidentally (tip of tongue behind lower teeth and blade of tongue against upper teeth) instead of with the light alveolar tap of the tongue-tip against the upper teeth-ridge. In Ulster-Scots the emphatics occur only before r, either immediately or with an intervening unstressed vowel, but the plain alveolar dentals may also occur in this position distinguishing words of different meaning, so they should be distinguished in spelling as separate phonemes. Emphatic t and d do not, however, replace fricative th in Ulster-Scots as happens in southern Hiberno-English, as in Ulster English generally historical th retains its voiceless and voiced fricative sounds. In the regional standard form of Ulster English emphatic t, d, l, n are normally lost, and replaced by the normal alveolar sounds, though most speakers can reproduce them in using dialect words or imitating dialect speech.


* Unpublished typescript on deposit at Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, c.1967.