Monday, 6 July 2009

Ulster Scots and Languages

The Scots that migrated to Ulster in the 1600s have a more complex and more Celtic history than many realise. There is a tendency even among many historians to begin their history at the Ulster Plantation in 1610 as if they sprang out of nowhere. Many of the Scots settlers came from Aryshire and Gallowayshire in southwest Scotland and both districts have a history as rich and interesting as any in the Ireland and the British Isles. Part of this history are the languages that have been spoken in the western Scottish Lowlands. The Lowlands were Cymraeg speaking (Welsh) in ancient times and gradually began to shift to Gaelic speaking in Medieval times. The Lowlands even produced one the great Gaelic poets in Walter Kennedy, a member of the Lowlands Kennedy clan and poet from the Galloway Gaeltacht.

In 1455 Walter Kennedy was born in the Carrick distrct of Ayrshire, which was still Gaelic speaking in the 16th Century. Kennedy was the son of Gilbert, first Lord of Kennedy of Dunure and the grandson of Sir James Kennedy and Mary, Countess of Angus, who was the daughter of Robert III, King of Scotland. He graduated from Glasgow University in 1476 and went on to take his MA there in 1478. After his MA he was an examiner at the University of Glasgow and in 1497 he was a representative for the abbey of Crosraguel in Aryshire. He was well to do and owned lands in both Carrick and Galloway.

Like many educated Scots in those days, Kennedy knew Gaelic, Lallans, and Latin, equally well. Only a few of his works survive, which are all written in middles Scots, or Lallans. His wit can be seen in the famous Flyting poem he did with William Dunbar, a rival Scottish poet. A flyting poem is a war of words, a contest, where to poets try to outclass each other with their skills. 'Flyt' is a middle Lallans word for 'quarrel' or 'contention'.

The flyting poem is Schir Johine the Ros, ane thing thair is compild, also known as The Flyting of Dumbar and Kennedie, and it is a surviving example of the Scottish flyting genre in poetry. Dunbar makes big play of Kennedy's Carrick roots and strongly associates him with Erschry, and the Gaelic bardic tradition. In English and Lallans, all Gaels, be they Lowland, Highland, or Irish, were termed 'Erschry' which even to this day you will hear the term 'Erse' applied to the Gaelic language.

The insults thrown by Dunbar are matched in kind by Kennedy making this Flyting a fine read. The insults are graphic and personal as was the norm in a flyting poem. Dunbar characterises Kennedy as speaking a barbarous Irish dialect, as being physically hideous and withered, poor and hungry, and of having intercourse with mares. Kennedy, by contrast, suggests that Dunbar was descended from Beelzebub, is a dwarf, and has no control of his bowel movements to the point of almost sinking a ship he had been on. Both cast doubt on the other's poetic skill. Kennedy states that he ascends Mount Parnassus to drink of the inspirational waters of the Castalian Spring, but poor Dunbar goes "in Marche or Februere" to a farm pond and drinks the frogspawn.

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