Turas, Ulster Scots, Davy Craig and the Peter Dicks

I broke new ground last Friday evening by speaking at the Turas Irish language group in East Belfast on Ulster Scots.

The invitation was a very welcome one; my view is that our shared cultures should threaten no one and should be respected and appreciated because of the rich diversity which they bring.

So the invite to address the Turas group was a great opportunity to share with an Irish language group and people from an urban background the story of Ulster Scots in rural Ballycarry.

I was thinking about how to explain my Ulster Scots heritage through this talk and I strayed back in time to people who would have been referred to in our community as ‘the aul hanns’ – they were old when I was young, landmarks in the human landscape of our community. One of them, Davy Craig of Lady Brae, was the last man to use a horse to plough the fields of the district, long after tractors had replaced the horse elsewhere. Davy would have used words or phrases like wheen, polis, syne aye, couldnae, wuddnie, dinnae, ane, twarthie, houl yer tongue, and similar.


The late Davy Craig: photo by the author

Davy was a great resource for the history of the area. And there were others just like him in our village and in our farms around. Back then, they would not have really understood the designation of Ulster-Scots although that is what they were. The language they used, the way they expressed themselves, had roots in where they had come from as people, as families and as a community.

Davy Craig taught me a lesson some years after he had passed away. One year our car had broken down and the Twelfth of July Orange parade was in Antrim town. Davy and his wife Joan offered to give us a lift to the Twelfth; I won’t forget it for two reasons, one being the somewhat scary driving along the bumpy country roads on the way home, the other a wee cultural lesson from the Orange parade. Watching lambeg drums approaching us, Davy exclaimed with some excitement “Boys o, there’s the Peter Dicks comin’ now”.

Many years later in Gary Hastings book about lambeg drums and drumming, I learned that the term Peter Dick was the Hibernian term for the drums, which would also have been present at AOH parades in the past. How did Davy Craig come to know the lambegs by their Hibernian name? The answer will never now be known. But it reminds me of crossing cultures, of spaces where history and heritage and culture may overlap.

I am fortunate to come from a complicated place. Ballycarry was settled in 1609 by Scots from Stirlingshire led by William Edmonstone, Laird of Duntreagh. The entire village was Scots along with a total of 2,800 acres of land provided in a land grant from John Dalway, an English settler married into the O’Neills. In modern times this cultural basis is reflected in a 92% single identity background.  As part of this scenario, the village is festooned with red white and blue in the summer, but there is a more complicated history in reality.

Here are some of the bullet points of those complications;

  • The Scots settlers, such as at Ballycarry, were initially welcomed by the Establishment in Ireland but by the 1630s tensions between the two resulted in Presbyterian ministers being forbidden to preach – and the development of a simmering dissenting resentment.
  • In the 1790s Ballycarry was a place of radical thought and in 1798 the village was described as a hotbed of rebellion. One local youth 16 year-old Willie Nelson, was hanged for his part in the Rising – at his widowed mother’s door – and is known as ‘the Ballycarry Martyr’.
  • During the Home Rule debate one of the Presbyterian churches in the village was referred to as being full of ‘Home Rulers’. The minister, Rev. Thomas Bartley, was from Monaghan and did not sign the Ulster Covenant of 1912, nor did his wife, who was local. His brother-in-law did sign, showing a split of opinion within the family.
  • In 1905 there was an Independent Orange Lodge in the village and adjacent Magheramorne, at a time when the Independent Order was seen to support Home Rule through its famous ‘Magheramorne Manifesto’. Independent Orangeism was very much in keeping with the tradition of the United Irishmen in Ballycarry.
  • One of the prominent figures from the area in the 20th century was a wartime general, Sir James Steele and in the Second World War 25% of the population served in the war effort either through the military, RAF, merchant marine of nursing corps.
  • There would appear to be an inherent contradiction between being a hotbed of a separatist rebellion in 1798 and being so loyal in the 20th century, but in reality a lot of it relates to the Ulster Scots journey as a community and the landscape around which they traveled. It is complicated.

Growing up in this interesting mix, the only possible response could be to find out more. In doing so, I discovered the richness of my culture, the complications of that culture and how it related to the wider culture around it.

In so doing I was drawn to James Orr. Born in 1770, he lived in interesting times. He was educated solely at home by his parents and was a young radical, absorbing the political ideals of the era. In 1798 he was 28 and he flung himself into the United Irish Rebellion. Afterwards, one of the defeated United Army of Ulster, he had to flee to America for a time but came home under amnesty, although the local landlord refused to allow him to join the yeomanry, still viewing him with suspicion.

The landlord was probably right: Orr remained a radical. But it was as a poet that he will long be remembered best. John Hewitt, the great Ulster poet and advocate of the Ulster Weaver Poets, felt that some of Orr’s poems, particularly The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial, were better poetry than Burns, whom Orr like the rest of the Weaver Poets had greatly admired.

Orr wrote in English and in Ulster Scots. His most famous work, which was in standard English, was The Irishman, which went to the tune, appropriately enough of “Vive la”. At one time it was printed in Irish anthologies and in American school readers.

“The savage loves his native shore
Though rude the soil and chill the air;
Well then may Erin’s sons adore
Their isle, which Nature formed so fair!
What flood reflects a shore so sweet
As Shannon great, or past’ral Bann?
Or who a friend or foe can meet
So gen’rous as an Irishman?


Two lines from the song

(Erin, loved land! From age to age

Be thou more great, more fam’d and free!)

Appear on the memorial erected by the Masonic Order and locals to his memory in 1831.


Community, Council and Masonic representatives laying a wreath at Orr’s monument

In Orr’s work in Ulster Scots there are many words and phrases which were common currency at the time. Here are just a few examples;

Welcome my frien’s – ye’re just in time,

The kettle’s on, an’ soon will chyme’;

An gif, tho’ us’d to strains sublime,

Ye’ll listen me

I’ll clear my throat, an’ rudely rhyme

In praise o’ Tea


The weel-pair’t peasants, kempin’, set ye;

The weak wee boys, sho’el, weed, an pat’ ye;

The auld guid men thy apples get ay

Seedlin’s to raise;

An’ on sow’n-seeves the lasses grate ye,

To starch their claes


Sin’ sunrise drudgin’ I’ the moss,

I’ve dearly bought a shillin’, O;

An ho to me a weighty loss,

To spen it I’m fu’ willin’ O:

Sae I’se refit an want my rest,

Tho’ I’m baith wat an’ weary, O;

For now the fair is at the best

In sportsome Ballycarry O


Orr wrote fascinating poems, some of which provide us with social history. He was humanitarian and wrote against the practice of bull baiting which was still going on in Carrickfergus in his lifetime. His poem To a Sparrow was one which I found local primary school children became very engaged with a few years back and it is a powerful poem addressed to a little bird whose nest has been upended by thoughtless boys.

He wrote of individuals, some known only to locals – the true calling of the Bard – some known further afield such as Rev. Henry Cooke of Donegore, who was a prominent Presbyterian leader.

One very simple but deeply expressive poem is his The Tree, written about a large oak at Bellahill near his home.

Lofty son of other years,

Now thy vernal robe appears;

At thy foot the streamlet springs,

On thy head the sad breeze rings.


Thine is strength, and beauty, too,

Firm thy trunk, and fair thy hue;

Wide the shade thy circuit throws,

Round thy base thy branches close


Leafy wonder! In thy breast

A defeated corps might rest,

Safe, tho’  searched for. Where’s the tree

That in foliage equals thee?


E’en amid the wintry blast,

In thy ruins thou art vast;

Stately still, tho’  void of dress,

Like a noble in distress.


I must perish – tree of trees!

Thou a future age shall please:

I’m declining in my May –

Thou art old, yet grand and gay.


But tho’  mighty, wherefore throw

These proud looks on me below?

Time, believe me, will not still

Spare the boast of BELLA-HILL


There is the allusion in this poem to 1798 with mention of a defeated corps finding shelter, but his finest poems were probably those which detailed the events of that fateful summer: A Prayer, Donegore Hill,  The Wanderer and The Passengers among them.

John Hewitt regarded The Irish Cottier’s Death and Burial as Orr’s finest work and said it bettered Burns, about whom Orr wrote an Elegy. In the Cottier’s Death and Burial it is very telling that Orr relates how, when the minister came to visit, the cottier’s family all tried to quit their Scottish tongue because it was seen as uneducated. This is precisely what happened to Ulster Scots language in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and in response to a question from the audience in East Belfast I was able to make the point that disjointed form of language which remains to Ulster Scots today is but a pale reflection of the language of the 1630s and beyond.

The Irish language, although it has had its ups and downs, has fared better over the years and retained a lot more of its sentence structures whereas Ulster Scots has been left with words and phrases.

It is a great irony that a language seen (wrongly) as a rude and uneducated preserve survived because of the very people who were seen as backward. The educated who looked down on the use of Ulster Scots managed to almost totally destroy it. It’s a great example of how middle class values, wrongly used, can bring a little bit of poison into society.

As for James Orr, he died not quite penniless but not a well off man despite his published poems and his great reputation as a bard. Ulster’s Robert Burns was to lie in an unmarked grave for over 20 years before the Masonic Order and others redressed the balance.

A few years ago our local community group ensured the memorial, erected in 1831, would be restored for new generations.



This, then, was James Orr. Some words which can be used to describe him also fit in well with those who nurtured him: Radical. Conservative. Observant. Poetic. Complicated. And typical Ulster Scots.

We are a complicated people with complicated history. The challenge of the future is to ensure that the overlap of history and culture can be understood and appreciated. And carried forward as unique assets to be treasured and respected.


Marker sign in Ballycarry detailing some of Orr’s poetic works, including a tribute to Burns and Dumfries



A legendary reporter you probably won’t have heard of…


THE NEWS is not like it was when Sam Howie was writing it.

Sam was a reminder of an era which had passed in the newspaper world, a time when a local correspondent would fill the pages of the Larne Times with information on treasure hunts, Young Farmer’s events, church socials and the like.

One report which I have in an old file states; “The Beeches Riding Club has announced a big change to the format of this year’s winter league, which gets underway on Saturday, October 21…”

Truth be told the dramatic change was somewhat wordy and probably not of great interest to the wider readership of the Larne Times sports pages. It merely involved a switch around of dates. But it was a story for some.

And therein lay the strength of Sam Howie. He was a man who understood that the ordinary was newsworthy.

He did not write major exclusives or front page leads, but he was an outstanding news hound.

He could also have started up a conversation on most topics within a second or two of meeting you, looking over the rim of his glasses with an appealing grin which forced you to be pleasant whatever your mood.

In point of fact, Sam – who was from Raloo outside Larne – never actually worked as a full-time journalist.

He was from a small farm and he must have got enough from his varied reports each week to get by. He was providing reports for other papers as well, and among them were amateur football reports.

Sam would make his way down to the Larne Times office on Saturday evenings to phone round his contacts in the many teams and get details of the matches that had taken place that day. It was a weary way to spend a Saturday night, and as often as not he did not manage to get the people he needed and had to try again.

I had heard about Sam being correspondent for the Larne Times and first met him sometime in the early 1980s at a funeral in Ballycarry. As a young school student at Greenland Secretary School, I was interested in writing for the paper and Sam gave advice and also tried to encourage me to write up football reports.

I think that, even then, he was trying to get away from the weekend bind of getting all the scores and match reports assembled and hoping to offload it to someone else. He suggested casually – but without success – that I might consider it as a good inroad into the paper. I was not interested in sport but did end up writing village reports from the early 1980s for the Larne Times and in the years from that point onward came into contact with Sam many times.

He liked a bit of gossip and always had a bit of humour to impart. Even then, in the modern newspaper office, Sam seemed to be a bit out of place, like a Dickensian figure let loose in the 1990s. But he represented an enduring tradition of interest in the local community about what was going on around. Gossip was always a staple. Whenever Sam was talking to his full-time colleagues, the full story as he knew it or saw it would be imparted. But that was not what could necessarily be printed as this canny old journalist knew.

Sam saw a lot of water under the bridge. He had been writing so long for the Larne Times that he could not remember when he started, the late 1950s or early 1960s. He became what was known as a Corr. His writing career had started much earlier, however, in the 1940s, when he began to provide reports from the Gleno Valley Young Farmer’s Club as its secretary.

Other reports from churches and Women’s Institutes followed. The sports reports were at a time when Larne Football Club was top club in the Irish League B Division and that involved lots of away game coverage. As was often the case in the local newspaper world, attending events resulted in being elected onto committees. So Sam ended up on the committee of Larne FC.

Sam’s reporting career spanned the career of three editors of the local paper, T. L. Price, Emil Thompson and Hugh Vance. He also witnessed many journalists pass through the newspaper who would go on to greater prominence, among them Gordon Burns who later moved to television. Diane Harron, Sam recalled in 1991, caused a stir when she made her first appearance at a Larne football match with a mini-skirt; it led to a complaint from Larne left-back Alex Doherty that she was putting the players off their game.

When Sam reluctantly provided a reflection piece in a supplement marking the centenary of the Larne Times in 1991, he reflected on the coverage which he had provided over the years, including from horse and pony events.

“One of the most important things I have learned about reporting equestrian events is to get the pony’s name correct for if you don’t you could be in trouble with the young riders,” he wrote.

It showed a dedication to get things right because what is often seen as insignificant is what really matters to people. Sometimes the world of journalism seems to have forgotten or not have time to worry about such things.

One thing is for sure: it would be a rare newspaper today which would devote the space for the often quaintly worded articles on WIs, church meetings, Young Farmer’s events, pony shows and the like which were the staple of Sam Howie’s output.

Times have changed in newspapers, with ever increasing focus on advertising and, it seems to me, second place going to the news (especially the less sensational news). Sam Howie saw some amazing transitions in the newspaper world in his lifetime.

One change which was a big impact was the introduction of computers. Sam avoided the early introduction of Amstrad computers at the office but when compact Apple computers came along he was in line to have a computer from which to operate at home. This meant no more typewritten (or handwritten) material being handed in. Such material was not welcome since there were at that time no scanners and Sam’s reports would have had to be retyped.

All did not go smoothly with Sam. He sought information from locals and those with whom he came into contact for his reports.  He did not understand how to work the computer: one early story of this is told of how the reason the screen was blank was due to the computer not being switched on in the first place.

There were such problems with the new computer that it had to be brought into the office. The exasperation of the editor was palpable when the keyboard was found to have crumbs of toast from Sam’s breakfast inside.

It was truly country! And Sam was a country correspondent. He’ll be missed but always remembered by those who worked with him and hopefully by those whose events he wrote up.


Off the beaten track down at ‘the port of the rushing waters’

dscn8254Portmuck, Islandmagee

PORTMUCK is tucked away at the north east corner of Islandmagee, a quiet little backwater which is somewhat off the beaten track.

But over recent months it would appear that this little corner of the island is attracting more and more visitors.

Part of the reason is undoubtedly the increased number of tourists touching base because of awareness of the Gobbins Path.

Despite the path being closed, the tourists and visitors keep coming to Islandmagee, and Brown’s Bay and ‘the port’ – Portmuck – are benefiting.

It’s a far cry from my childhood memories of summers spent at Portmuck, where my late uncle and aunt farmed.

In those days the young cousins would all go down to the ‘port’, the odd time to go out in a boat but other times just to play around on the beach or the rocks.

There were few visitors back then, and it really was a little backwater where you could spend hours enjoying the sea breeze and exploring the rocks.

Portmuck used to be a great spot to find fossils – ammonites particularly. They were literally strewn around the beach, waiting to be harvested. There is an old shoebox somewhere in the attic with an extensive collection, painstakingly searched for by a close and lengthy trawl along the shore.

dscn9314Muck Island; the place of rushing waters

On the east side of Portmuck is Muck Island, which is a bird sanctuary and which once, if the stories are to be believed, provided sanctuary for United Irishman William McClelland for a time. McClelland is believed to have hid in a cave on the far side of the island until passage could be arranged to the United States, where he lived in Albany, New York, returned under amnesty sometime before the War of 1812.

Legend is that his wife was taken to the Maidens off Larne for safety and lived there until she came back to give birth to a son at Portmuck. It would be another 150 years before a male child would be born there. This story begs the question as to what existed at the Maidens at the end of the 18th century since the lighthouses were not operational until 1828.

The far side of Portmuck was a little less welcoming, to my memory, and it still is. There’s a little something sinister about the sea to the north east of the Port. A unique geographical feature called a tombolo can be seen from the shore, currents created by the meeting of the waters over a sand bar which runs from the mainland to the island.

Quite a few times I would be out in the boat with my cousin when he checked his lobster pots – a real highlight of any holiday time at Portmuck. Once we went right over the waters at the tombolo, one side very calm and the other extremely choppy.

We also went around the east side of Muck Island, which I found rather daunting when viewed from a small fishing boat with neither of us wearing life jackets and with no radio. If anything had gone wrong around there, it would have been just too bad. It was always nice to get around to the landward side of the island.

I have many memories of Portmuck. My cousin catching a large conger eel in his lobster pot is one of them. I can recall it flapping around on the bottom of the boat, its formidable set of teeth visible, while Denis waited for his moment to grab it by the tail and flick it over the side of the boat into the water. A bite from a conger eel and you would have known about it, but thankfully all went to plan and the conger returned to the waters near the Peat Stack just beyond Portmuck.

On the scale of things, lobsters writhing about the boat did not feature more favourably, but once their claws were tied with elastic and they could not use them, the boat bottom was a safer place.

My own fishing experience started and ended at Portmuck. I was bought a small wooden rectangular reel device with a weight at one end of the line to cast to the waters.  Carefully depositing it into the water at the pier steps, I was astonished to find not long after that a crab was climbing up the line and would, within the hour, have reached me. I fled, leaving the fishing square behind me. I am not sure whether the crab managed to reach the top of the pier.

What is even more astonishing about this is that there was no bait on the line, so either the bright colour of the line attracted the crab or it was somewhat depraved and of unsound mind.

History has told me a lot about Portmuck, to the point where on a lovely day with a breeze blowing over the headland I can almost imagine the old castle on the headland, the 1306 abbey facing the bay and medieval houses and a cemetery behind. All of these things are documented, and the last remnant of the castle can still be seen in what was McClelland’s farm yard, while the remains of a walled site to the west may just be part of the old abbey.

William McClelland, who once lived at Portmuck, was a renowned smuggler, which is probably the real reason that he invested in a new pier in the latter 1820s. In response the government built coastguard cottages in his farmyard to keep an eye, and you can still see them in situ.  McClelland, the radical who led the Islandmagee United Irishmen when they rebelled against the authorities in 1798, had to flee with a price on his head. He later returned under an amnesty and lived the reminder of his life at Portmuck.

The Port and the island supposedly take their name from the Irish word ‘muc’ which relates to pig. One theory is that pigs were grazed there, another that the island is shaped like a pig lying down with its snout pointing to the south. Another is that the Irish for porpoises equates to ‘sea pigs’ and this is an area where porpoises can often be seen.

In the early 1600s, however, Muck Island was known as Nagloragh, which means ‘island of the rushing waters’. When you stand on the little headland and look across, the term rushing waters – probably Scots Gaelic connected to the medieval Magees who settled on Islandmagee from Islay in Scotland – has much more significance.

All of this makes Portmuck a fascinating place for me. It is a place of magic. A place of memory. A place of some mystery when it comes to its name. And a place apart. If you find it, don’t rush away.

dscn9305The last remnants of the old castle at Portmuck viewed from the sea. The Magee castle was later replaced by the farm of William McClelland.