Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Ulster-Scots Imagination.

Book of the Year goes to Tracing the Ulster-Scots Imagination by Wesley Hutchinson.

Review by Willie Drennan

The key word is imagination. Yes, Ulster-Scots do have an imagination. This is Ulster-Scots warts and all and it gets edgy enough at times. You won't find such content in the Ulster-Scots Agency pamphlets or website.

Nothing quite like this has ever been written before about this distinct, often derided and misunderstood cultural identity. The fact that author, Wesley Hutchinson, is Professor emeritus in Irish Studies at the Paris university of Sorbonne Nouvelle, suggests a heavily academic piece of work. And indeed it is to a certain extent but Hutchinson writes with a unique quirky poetic flair for a master scholar which makes it an easy and pleasing read.

His family roots are also in the Ulster-Scots culture so he writes from a vast personal knowledge on the subject to add to his highly acclaimed credentials on research and academic delivery.

By “tracing the imagination” this allows for much colourful imagery and insight. Some of the extracts from Ulster-Scots authors will pleasantly surprise those readers who have no direct experience or understanding of Ulster-Scots. Hutchinson masterfully caters for such readers and no doubt will keep them on board right to page 438 and leave them wanting more.

It's not just a recommended read for Ulster-Scots but for anyone with interest in history, cultures of the world and sociology. With cross references to other cultures Hutchinson will keep the interest of such readers.

The book provides insight into the Ulster-Scots in Ireland, Scotland and North America . This includes in-depth insight to ancient history which is rare. Narrators on Ulster-Scots usually begin with 17th Century migrations from Scotland to Ulster but Hutchinson deliberately explores in great detail the works of historians of such note as Dr Ian Adamson. Hutchinson deals extensively with the concepts of Ulster's common identity and shared space as explained in the works of Adamson: such as The Cruithin, The Ulster People and Dalaradia.

It was very sad that Ian Adamson passed away just a few days before the launch of Tracing the Ulster-Scots Imagination in Belfast in January of 2019. At the Launch there were folk from just about every social sphere and background in Northern Ireland. This Ulster-Scots event was held in the Irish Secretariat Building in Belfast. Now there's an example of imagination for you. The choice of venue would have been unexpected but demonstrates the spirit of shared space as expressed in the book.

The delving into the ancient Ulster-Scots history is only one of the important aspects of this book. To understand the distinct aspects of Ulster-Scots psyche it explores literature relating to the historic Ulster work place: from farm to factory, schools and churches, community and fraternity groups, to music and dance. It later relates all this to the Scotch Irish settlements in North America: from presidents to hillbillys.

The section on “marginal spaces” is one of my favourites. Here, the lore and mystique around the moss and the mountain is profoundly examined: where imagination for centuries has gone off into other realms. It is in the heart of the moss where the inner self has been explored and from the mountain: the wider world viewed and imagined.

The impressive aspect of Hutchinson's work is his ability to fully understand the mindsets of the writers and poets that he references. He even fully understands material I have written in the past. In particular he quotes at length from my book of 2008: Big Lang Danner, where I explored the historical and cultural links between Ulster and south-west Scotland. I am not an academic but a creative writer. No academic has previously acknowledged or paid much attention to my writings in the past. They tend to not understand me. But Hutchinson is a unique scholar in that he does understand even quirky folk like myself.

The one thing that this books perhaps glosses over, and wisely so, is the impact of the Ulster-Scots imagination on the contemporary politics. In its historic references to the Covenanters, Siege of Derry, The United Irishmen, the American Revolution and the Signing of the Ulster Covenant, lies explanation of the Ulster-Scots independent spirit, or Ulster-Scotch thranness. It has been a constant throughout history that loyalty to family, community, church, school and state has always been conditional: to allow for a healthy questioning and challenging of authority whenever deemed necessary.

To me this explains why the main Ulster-Scots areas of Northern Ireland voted to reject the EU establishment in the referendum of 2016: against all the odds. In my opinion the independent spirit or thranness of the Ulster-Scot is still very much alive: for better or for worse.

As this book is not owned or endorsed by the establishment in Northern Ireland it probably falls between the cracks and doesn't get the attention it most certainly deserves. It is for the academics, folklorists, and just about anyone else who enjoys a good read that sparks their imagination.

This is one of those books that you not only get to read through once but you can keep occasionally picking it up to read sections you know will stimulate your imagination.

It is available in Northern Ireland in any decent book shop, that is still left standing, or through Amazon.


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