Ulster-Scots Culture

Until the 19th and early 20th centuries, a visitor to North Down and Ards would have come across many communities of Ulster-Scots with their own way of speaking and following their own distinct customs. Even in the early 1960s there were an estimated 100,000 native speakers of Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland and Co Donegal. Though the use of the language declined during the 20th century, it is still possible to find Ulster-Scots speakers in rural areas of North Down and the Ards and, today, interest in the Ulster-Scots language and culture is growing again.

Weaver Poets

The greatest literary contribution of the Ulster-Scots was probably that of the ‘Rhyming Weavers’ of Down and Antrim. These working-class poets of the 18th and 19th centuries, writing in Ulster-Scots, drew their inspiration from the lives of the country people around them. One of the most famous of these was James Orr, ‘the Bard of Ballycarry’, who fought with the United Irishmen. Other local Ulster-Scots poets included Francis Boyle, Andrew McKenzie, Robert Huddleston and Hugh McWilliams.

Betsy Gray

One of the most enduring figures to emerge from the 1798 Rebellion, Betsy Gray was the subject of a novel by journalist and editor WG Lyttle in 1888. He describes Betsy’s appearance at the Battle of Ballynahinch wearing a green silk dress and brandishing a sword. Soon after she, her brother and fiancé are horrifically murdered as they flee from the defeat which signalled the end of the United Irishmen uprising in Ulster. A real person, Betsy is thought to have been the daughter of County Down farmer, Hans Gray. A ruined cottage, said to have once belonged to her, stands near Six Roads Ends. Betsy Gray or Hearts of Down has been reprinted by the Ulster-Scots Language Society (

Robert Burns

The famous Scottish poet Robert Burns was also hugely popular with the Ulster-Scots community, who were said to have had two books in their homes, the Bible and Burns. The novels of Walter Scott were also popular, with their inclusion of Scots dialogue.

December Bride

The writer Sam Hanna Bell (1909-1990), who spent part of his childhood in Raffrey, near Killyleagh, set three of his four novels there. His first and best-known novel, December Bride, was published in 1951 and adapted as a stage play in 1955. It was filmed in 1990 around Killyleagh.

Ulster-Scots books

The Hamely Tongue: A Personal Record of Ulster-Scots in County Antrim by James Fenton fulfils many of the functions of an Ulster-Scots dictionary. The Scottish National Dictionary, which was published in ten volumes between 1951 and 1976, provides a complete coverage of the Scots language, including Ulster-Scots. Ulster Scots Writing: An Anthology by Frank Ferguson charts the diversity of Scottish influences on Ulster writing from the 17th century to the present day. Phillip Robinson has written many books with an Ulster-Scots influence, such as his first novel Wake the Tribe o Dan, and several important non-fiction books, including Ulster-Scots: A Grammar of the Traditional Written and Spoken Language. For more information on these books and others visit and

Ulster-Scots words used today

Some Ulster-Scots words are still in use today:

  • Cannae… can’t
  • To cowp…to fall over
  • Dander …Walk
  • Foundered … to be cold
  • Gye …very
  • Nicht …night
  • Thon… that
  • Thrawn …awkward and contrary
  • Wee …Small

For more on the Ulster-Scots language visit

Ulster-Scots in America

Perhaps the most dramatic cultural influence of the Ulster-Scots outside Ireland has been in America, where they became known as the Scotch-Irish. Finding the English settlers had taken the most desirable territory along America’s eastern coast, the hardy Ulster-Scots immigrants headed south and west, pushing back the frontiers of the new country.

Ulster Scots and country music

American country, bluegrass and folk music can be traced directly back to the 18th century Ulster-Scots or Scotch-Irish frontier settlers who brought their ballads and music to remote communities in the Appalachian, Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountain regions. One of America’s most famous songwriters, Stephen Collins Foster, was a second generation Ulster-Scot. His most celebrated songs include Beautiful Dreamer, Jeannie With the Light Brown Hair, My Old Kentucky Home and Campton Races. The dance tradition of the Appalachian region also has strong Ulster-Scots roots.

Ulster-Scots music and dancing

During the last decade, Ulster-Scots culture has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance and is celebrated in regular performances of drama, poetry, dance and music. As well as instruments like the flute and pipes, one of the most distinctive Ulster-Scots instruments is the Lambeg Drum, probably the loudest folk instrument in the world. It is one of only two instruments indigenous to Ireland and may have evolved from the large drums used by King William III’s Dutch troops.

To find out about Ulster-Scots cultural events please visit


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Image Gallery

The Market House is in Conway Square, in the centre of Newtownards.
About five miles from Newtownards on the road to Portaferry.
The cottage is situated on an inlet on Mid Island in Strangford Lough, near Greyabbey.
At the junction of High Street and Shore Road and Church Road.
The ruined abbey is on the outskirts of Greyabbey village, at the entrance to Rosemount Estate.
Seven miles north-east of Downpatrick, one mile from Strangford on the A25.
At the harbour off Groomsport Main Street after the Bangor Road, you will also find the Cockle Row Cottages.
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