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Features of Ulster-Scots
Dialects of English in Ulster

Maps of Ulster

Of all the varieties of English taken to Ireland since the seventeenth century, Scots is that which has retained a very distinct profile. With time it developed into Ulster-Scots, a distinctive variety in Ulster, which can, however, be unambiguously linked to related present-day varieties in Western and Lowland Scotland. Undoubtedly Ulster-Scots – especially in its rural forms – is quite separate from other varieties of English in the north of Ireland, let alone the south. Its divergent nature has meant that much debate has taken place concerning its status as a language or ‘simply’ a dialect. This issue is not of great linguistic relevance but does have broader external significance. Ulster-Scots achieved recognition by the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages which was founded in 1982 (Montgomery 1997: 211), but dissolved in 2010. There are practical consequences to be derived from official recognition, such as financial aid for groups concerned with the maintenance of such languages. During the existence of the European Bureau for Lesser-Used Languages this official status was shared by some 30 languages in the European Union, including Lowlands Scots, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Welsh and Cornish with which it forms the group of six lesser-used languages of the British Isles which have achieved official recognition by the European Union, often in excess of that accorded to them by the countries which contain them. A subsequent agency, the European Language Equality Network, a non-governmental organisation, has a similar function to the former bureau but without direct funding by the European Union.

Ulster-Scots does not play a significant practical role in Northern Ireland society but the increase in status, gained through European Union recognition, has been welcomed by those who are promoting its cause and engaged on a programmatic course to better the lot of this variety in the socio-political arena in Northern Ireland. To this end the Ulster-Scots Language Society was founded in 1992 and it issues a journal Ullans, The Magazine for Ulster-Scots (the name was formed as a parallel to the term Lallans for Lowland Scots and refers to written language). It offers a public forum for discussing matters, linguistic and otherwise (e.g. creative writing), of relevance to Ulster-Scots. There is also a grammar available which offers a concise description of its chief traits (Robinson 1997). A desideratum not yet fulfilled is a regulated orthography which would facilitate the understanding and analysis of Ulster-Scots writing.

The regions where Ulster-Scots is spoken are nowadays no longer contiguous because of a reduction of its geographical extent. These areas are regions of historical settlement. Three are located on the northern periphery from the north-west through the north-east to the south-east of Ulster, hence the term ‘Coastal Crescent’ or ‘Northern Crescent’.

Scots settlement areas in Ulster

1) A broad band including most of Co Antrim (except the south approaching Belfast and the north-east corner) and the north-east corner of Co Derry.

2) North Co Down, most of the Ards peninsula and a section of the mainland on the west bank of Strangford Lough.

3) An area flanked on the east by the River Foyle and extending into the north central part of Co Donegal (the Laggan area).

Area (1) and most of (2) were established by private plantation schemes which preceded the official efforts under James I (1603-1625). The north-east of Co Derry was part of this early seventeenth century plantation and linked up with the already existing Antrim Scots area. A British settlement of both the city and county of Derry was attempted by various London-based companies with varying success.

In Donegal, Scots from Ayrshire – families like the Cunninghams and the Stewarts – were settled from 1610 onwards (Montgomery and Gregg 1997: 572). This is the historical source of the Laggan settlement to the south-west of Derry city and reflected in town names like Manorcunningham and Newtowncunningham in Co Donegal.

Of the three areas listed in above, that of Antrim is often considered to be the heartland, perhaps because it is closest to Scotland. The Donegal area is, and has been, a contact area with both Irish and other forms of Irish English, the Down area is smaller and is bordered on the south by varieties of Ulster English which merge fairly quickly into the transitional area with the south.

The areas just mentioned were confirmed for dialect studies on English in Ulster by Robert Gregg who, in a number of articles and a monograph, published the results of his field work (Gregg 1959, 1964, 1972, 1985). The studies by Gregg, and a number of essays on his work and related to it, were collected and published in 2006 (see Smyth, Montgomery and Robinson, eds, 2006) and an online version of this resource to be found at There is also an online ‘Annotated Bibliography of Ulster-Scots Language and Literature’ (containing around 350 annotated items) available at < A HREF="">

Research by other scholars has largely confirmed the findings of Gregg. For instance, in Robinson’s 1994 study of British settlement in the seventeenth century the density of Scottish surnames based on muster calls from the first half of that century is greatest in north Down, Antrim and north-east Donegal. Robinson has also asserted that ‘the population distribution of English and Scottish settlers had established into a coherent pattern circa 1622’ (Robinson 1994 [1984]: 97). Gregg was rather pessimistic about the continuing existence of Ulster-Scots but the research of Margaret Skea (1982) concluded that Ulster-Scots had not declined to anything like the extent which Gregg had predicted in earlier investigations.

The number of speakers of Ulster-Scots is difficult to estimate, especially because there is no clear demarcation between Ulster-Scots and English-based varieties in the north. In the late 1960s Brendan Adams suggested that the population of the three Ulster-Scots areas amounted to about 170,000. That figure is now larger due to a general increase in population (particularly in the towns contained in these areas like Ballymena and Coleraine), but the number of Ulster-Scots speakers is difficult to determine, not least because the difference between it and more general forms of English in Ulster is not always easy to perceive and this difference has been overlain by the contrast between urban and rural speech in contemporary Ulster. The optimistic figure of 100,000 which is offered, not uncritically, by Montgomery and Gregg (1997: 213) may serve as a general orientation but nothing more precise is available at the present. The use of Ulster-Scots is not something registered by censuses in Northern Ireland so that there is no way of gaining any official figures on the matter. Indeed there has been a general negative attitude to the dialect throughout its history, e.g. in the Ordnance Survey Memoirs, compiled in the 1830s by army officers and civil servants (Montgomery and Gregg 1997: 581f.; Lunney, Linde 1994), the suggestion is that it is the dialect of a section of the population and is regarded as rustic and coarse. In addition, the major linguistic dichotomy in Ireland is that of Irish versus English so that many have been unaware of the division of English in Ulster into an English and a Scots derived component.

The lexicography of Ulster-Scots has been served by a large number of academic articles dealing with specific lexical items or word fields, as found in the work of John Braidwood and Brendan Adams (Braidwood 1965, 1969, 1972; Adams 1966b, 1978, 1981a). A dictionary in popular style is available in James Fenton’s The Hamely Tongue. A personal record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim (fourth edition, 2014 [1995]). A more academic dictionary – with a broader brief – is the Concise Ulster Dictionary (1996) edited by Caroline Macafee. This book contains with a 25-page historical introduction to the dialects of Ulster providing background knowledge about Ulster English. Most of the items concern farming and rural life in general. Another area where there is much regional vocabulary is for parts of the body, clothing and terms for individuals. Where etymologies are known they are given, in particular the link with Scottish forms of English is highlighted.


Dialects found in the north of Ireland including Ulster-Scots


Adams, George Brendan 1958. ‘The emergence of Ulster as a distinct dialect area’, Ulster Folklife 4: 61-73.

Adams, George Brendan 1966a. ‘Linguistic aspects of a baronial survey in North Armagh’, Ulster Dialect Archive Bulletin 5: 39-48.

Adams, George Brendan 1966b. ‘Glossary of household terms’, Ulster Folklife 12: 31-4.

Adams, George Brendan 1978b. ‘Some Ulster words describing persons and animals’, Ulster Folklife 24: 69-82.

Adams, George Brendan 1980. ‘Common features in Ulster Irish and Ulster English’, in Thelwall (ed.), pp. 85-104.

Adams, George Brendan 1981a. ‘Dialect work in Ulster: An historical account of research in the area’, in Barry (ed.), pp. 5-17.

Adams, George Brendan 1981b. ‘The voiceless velar fricative in Northern Hiberno-English’, in Barry (ed.), pp. 106-17.

Adams, George Brendan (ed.) 1964. Ulster dialects: An Introductory Symposium. Holywood, Co. Down: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Barry, Michael (ed.) 1981. Aspects of English Dialects in Ireland, Vol 1. Papers Arising from the Tape-Recorded Survey of Hiberno-English Speech. Belfast: Institute for Irish Studies.

Braidwood, John 1964. ‘Ulster and Elizabethan English’, in Adams (ed.), pp. 5-109.

Braidwood, John 1965. ‘Local bird names in Ulster - a glossary’, Ulster Folklife 11: 98-135.

Braidwood, John 1969. The Ulster Dialect Lexicon. Belfast: Queens University of Belfast.

Braidwood, John 1972. ‘Terms for ‘left-handed’ in the Ulster dialects’, Ulster Folklife 18: 98-110.

Corrigan, Karen P. 1993. ‘Gaelic and early English influences on South Armagh English’, Ulster Folklife 39, 15-28.

Corrigan, Karen P. 2000a. ‘What bees to be maun be: Aspects of deontic and epistemic modality in a northern dialect of Irish English’, English World-Wide 21.1: 25-62.

Corrigan, Karen P. 2000b. ‘What are ‘small clauses’ doing in South Armagh English, Irish and Planter English?’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 75-96.

Cronin, Michael and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin (eds) 2003. The Languages of Ireland. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Erskine, John and Gordon Lucy 1999. (eds) Varieties of Scottishness. Exploring the Ulster Scottish Connection. Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University of Belfast.

Fenton, James 2000 [1995]. The hamely tongue. A personal record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim. Newtownards: Ulster-Scots Academic Press.

Görlach, Manfred 2000. ‘Ulster Scots: A language?’, in Kirk and Ó Baoill (eds), pp. 13-31.

Görlach, Manfred 2002. A Textual History of Scots. Heidelberg: Winter.

Gregg, Robert J. 1959. ‘Notes on the phonology of the Antrim dialect. II. Historical phonology’, Orbis 8: 400-24.

Gregg, Robert J. 1964. ‘Scotch-Irish urban speech in Ulster’, in Adams (ed.), pp. 163-92.

Gregg, Robert J. 1972. ‘The Scotch-Irish dialect boundaries in Ulster’, in Wakelin (ed.), pp. 109-39.

Gregg, Robert J. 1985. The Scotch-Irish Dialect Boundary in the Province of Ulster. Ottawa: Canadian Federation for the Humanities.

Hickey, Raymond 2011. ‘Ulster Scots in present-day Ireland’, in: Raymond Hickey (ed.) Researching the Languages of Ireland. Uppsala: Uppsala University, pp. 291-323.

Jones, Charles (ed.) 1997. The Edinburgh History of the Scots Language. Edinburgh: University Press.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 1999. ‘Irish English and the Ulster Scots controversy’, Mallory (ed.), pp. 70-85.

Kelly,William and John R. Young (eds) 2004. Ulster and Scotland, 1600-2000. History, language and identity. Dublin: Four Courts Press.

Kingsmore, Rona 1995. Ulster Scots Speech. A Sociolinguistic Study. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Kirk, John M. 1998. ‘Ulster Scots. Realities and myths’, Ulster Folklife 44, 69-93.

Kirk, John M. and Georgina Millar 1998. ‘Verbal aspect in the Scots and English of Ulster’, Scottish language 17: 82-107.

Kirk, John and Dónall Ó Baoill (eds) 2001. Language links: the languages of Scotland and Ireland. Belfast: Queen´s University.

Lunney, Linde 1994. ‘Ulster attitudes to Scottishness: the eighteenth century and after’, in Wood (ed.), pp. 56-70.

Macafee, Caroline (ed.) 1996. A Concise Ulster Dictionary. Oxford: University Press.

Mallory, James P. (ed.) 1999. Language in Ulster. Special issue of Ulster Folklife (45).

Montgomery, Michael 1997. ‘The rediscovery of the Ulster Scots language’, in Schneider (ed.), pp. 211-26.

Montgomery, Michael 1999. ‘The position of Ulster Scots’, in Mallory (ed.), pp. 89-105.

Montgomery, Michael 2006. From Ulster to America: The Scotch-Irish Heritage of American English. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation.

Montgomery, Michael and Robert Gregg 1997. ‘The Scots language in Ulster’, in Jones (ed.), pp. 569-622.

Montgomery, Michael and Anne Smyth (eds) 2003. A Blad o Ulstèr-Scotch frae Ullans: Ulster-Scots Culture, Language and Writing. Belfast: Ullans Press.

Robinson, Philip 1989a. ‘The Ulster plantation’, Ulster Local Studies 11.2: 20-30.

Robinson, Philip 1989b. ‘The Scots language in seventeenth-century Ulster’, Ulster Folklife 35, 86-99.

Robinson, Philip 1994 [1984]. The Plantation of Ulster. British Settlement in an Irish Landscape, 1600 - 1670. Belfast: Ulster Historical Foundation.

Robinson, Philip 1997. Ulster Scots. A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language. Belfast: Ullans Press.

Robinson, Philip 2003. ‘The historical presence of Ulster-Scots in Ireland’ in Cronin and Ó Cuilleanáin (eds), pp. 112-26.

Schneider, Edgar (ed.) 1997. Englishes Around the World. 2 Vols. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Skea, Margaret. 1982. Change and Variation in the Lexicon of a Non-Standard Dialect. A Sociolinguistic Study of Dialect Semantics in North Down. PhD thesis. Jordanstown: Ulster Polytechnic.

Smyth, Anne, Michael Montgomery and Philip Robinson (eds) 2006. The Academic Study of Ulster-Scots: Essays for and by Robert J Gregg. Cultra, Co. Down, Northern Ireland: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.

Thelwall, Robin (ed.) 1980. Linguistic Studies in Honour of Paul Christophersen. Occasional Papers in Linguistics and Language Learning, Vol. 7. Coleraine: New University of Ulster.

Todd, Loreto 1990. Words Apart. A Dictionary of Northern Irish English. Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe.

Tristram, Hildegard L.C. (ed.) 2000. The Celtic Englishes II. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.

Wood, Ian S. (ed.) 1994. Scotland and Ulster. Edinburgh: The Mercat Press.