Thursday, 6 November 2008

O' A sooth ye are ane o' them; for yere tongue tells on ye!

Matthew 26 v 7,
from The New Testament in Braid Scots,
Rev William Wye Smith, 1901


EVEN BACK IN BIBLE TIMES, on the eve of Christ's crucifixion, language carried a special significance. In the text quoted above, Peter was betrayed as a Galilean by his speech. This website is a simple, ongoing project, to make available a growing collection of old Scots and Ulster-Scots hymns, gospel songs, Sunday School choruses and poems. All of these are old, mostly from the early 1900s, and were sung by generations of Scots and Ulster-Scots folk in evangelistic services and church gatherings. There are about 70 in total, including:

• Original Lyrics
• Original Sheet Music
• Audio Clips of "The Bible in Scots" (1963)

I'm no language expert, and this isn't just an archival project. I learned some of these songs as a child, passed down by my parents and grandparents. I still live where I grew up - in the rural Ards Peninsula of County Down, just 18 miles across the open sea from Scotland, and my family are still actively involved in mission hall outreaches in the villages around here. My guess is that the primary motivation for the people who wrote these was evangelistic - to present the Gospel. That is the one thing that comes shining through. And during the six years I spent as founder, lead vocalist and mandolin player of the Low Country Boys I have seen at first hand how effective a vernacular Gospel can be.

The linguistic motivation behind these songs was probably instinctive rather than academic - a desire to present the Gospel to oor ain folk on baith sides o the Sheugh in oor ain tongue. So as you read through you'll find spelling inconsistencies throughout - even within the same song words will be spelled in a number of different ways. The language is also light - again, with evangelism as the main aim, using dense Scots would have limited their potential impact.

The vast majority of these are Scottish, from hymnals published in Scotland, but which have been sent to me by people in Ulster as well. Having photocopies of the same hymn books sent to me from the Doric north east of Scotland, from Glasgow and also from Portadown in County Armagh speaks volumes in itself. Whilst the cultural and linguistic traditions are shared across the North Channel, there are also regional differences too. There are Scots language words and spellings here that most Ulster-Scots folk don't use - "ane" for "yin" is an obvious example. You'll fin a brave wheen mair as you read through these.

There is much debate these days about linguistic status - what is the Ulster-Scots language? Is it a language? What is its relationship to Scots? And is Scots a language? All of these pseudo-debates are a distraction. Come to the fields and harbours of east Ulster and appen yer lugs. We have a linguistic heritage that connects us to our kinsfolk in Scotland, and which should be treasured and enjoyed.

I hope that by making these old hymns and songs available to a new generation, they might find new life - 100 years after they were first written and published.

"Jesus Christ, yestreen and the day the same, and for evermair!"
Hebrews 13 v 8, from The New Testament in Braid Scots,
Rev William Wye Smith, 1901

Mark Thompson
Northern Ireland, November 2008


Meanwhile, here's one of the audio clips from "The Bible in Scots", translated and read by Rev James L Dow, of Isaiah 40 v 1-11:

And here are some photographs of the old hymn books some of these are taken from: