Ulster-Scot Article June 2011

Fae tha han o a low country lad

To those who are unfamiliar with, the low country (the lower Ards). It starts at Newtown’s flood gates and runs for 22miles to the Bar Mooth at Portaferry. Settled by Hugh Montgomery in 1606 the Ardes is the first ‘hame o tha hamely tongue,’ and ‘mae ain forbye.’ This small stripe of land has over the years spawned an inordinate amount of writers and poets. An achievement which, is in no small part, due to the lively, colourful language spoken by its inhabitants.

As a wean I grew up with freens an feml­y who spoke broad (braid), whut wae noo caa Ulster-Scots. And like many of the young people from my generation I learned to talk in two different languages. At home we conversed in the hamely tongue and with everyone else we spoke standard English, or at least our version of it.

Even as a child I remember taking great delight in the subtle shades and nuances of various words and phrases most of which seemed to have no direct comparison in English. Indeed it was these phrases, what we called aul sayins, which 30 years later, inspired me to write about the language of my childhood.
Now, these days if someone has something to write about they start a blog. Which, for those who have never read one, is a kind of online journal that enables the author to be ignored by a world wide audience and not just their friends and family. ‘Fae tha han o a low country lad’ is my attempt to preserve and promote oor aul sayins, our colloquialisms, proverbs, yarns and maybe even a wheen o rhymes. In short all of those elements, which encompass the richness and colour of the hamely tongue.

In the few short months since I began these postings I have rediscovered the wit and humour of my childhood tongue, as well as gaining an education in the origins of many of the phrases we used. Coming from the rich and fertile, farm lands of the Ards peninsula it is hardly surprising that that many of these aul sayins had their orgins in farming practices. Even though I grew up surrounded by farms, they were of the modern variety, full of tractors and heavy machinery. So to me ‘shinin like a new harra pin’ simply meant giving your face a good scrubbing until you’d removed at least  twarthy layers of skin. I knew nothing of the "Scotch" harrow, with its iron spikes, (which are anything but shiny) which protrude from a wooden frame. A device which was used to till and smooth the soil in preparation of for planting. Similarly I had often remarked that, ‘thon wun wud clean corn’ without the faintest notion regarding the existence of threshing barns, where the wind was actually used to separate the kernels from the chaff with the aid of a winnowing basket and a strong pair of arms. Nor did I understand that, ‘wakin tha tap o tha drill’ which I took, quite rightly, to mean that someone wasn’t behaving as they should, came from the days when farmers worked the land with horse drawn ploughs and that a good furrow horse walks neatly in the furrow so as not to damage the work done.

But then as a wean the origins of many of the old sayings in my house had often baffled me. How could anyone fail to stand in any other way but, ‘wae thur twa airms tha yin length.’ Or how did ‘gettin tha name o early risin,’ enable you to ‘lie aa day?’ What happened to ‘tha aul dug,’ who was always ‘fur tha hard road.’ And what exactly does your mother mean when she tells you, ‘whut iver ye say say nithin’.

For the answers to these questions I would encourage you to take a look at ‘Fae tha han o a low country lad,’ (www.lowcountrylad.blogspot.com) where you will find my own attempts, mostly written in the hamely tongue, to make sense of it all. I would also like to hear from anyone who has any aul Ulster-Scots sayins’ which they would like to share with the world, or at least the twarthy creeters who read my blog. You can contact me at anaulhan@gmail.com