One of the beauties of Ulster Scots as a language is that it isn't too hard to learn. Lord Laird, former head of the Ulster Scots Agency or Boord o Ulster Scotch, once promised he could make me fairly proficient in a couple of hours if I stuck at it.
He was joking, but even the Hamely Tongue's strongest supporters will admit it's not exactly double-Dutch to the outsider. Most of us could, for instance, make a stab at translating the Christmas Card the Boord sent out this year:-
A guid New year tae yin and a',
The sign outside the home of Mark Thompson, the present chairman o Tha Boord isn't that obscure either "Nae Parkin if ye dinnae live nearhaun". Try saying with a Ballymoney accent and you'll get the message – no parking if you don't live locally.
An Money may ye see!
An during a' the years tae come,
O happy may ye be!
Or take the Ulster Scots joke going the rounds. A group of cows are standing in a field. How can you tell which one is planning a holiday? Tha yin wi a wee calf.
Wee calf/week off, geddit? This is clearly an accessible tongue. Anyone can enjoy the equivalent of the Irish speakers' coupla focal. After a whole afternoon pouring over Philip Robinson's Ulster Scots Grammar you can amaze your friends with phrases like "aa tha norlin billies stick thegither" (all the northern friends stick together) and start deciphering place names.
Isn't that just the sort of thing that tourists, especially the millions of Americans who consider themselves Scotch Irish, might like to do? They represent the great untapped tourist market which Tourism Ireland and Edwin Poots and Eamon O Cuiv, respectively the Culture ministers in Belfast and Dublin are currently eyeing up.
The people steering the Ulster Scots and Scotch Irish resurgence take any ribbing in their stride. Thompson, like Laird before them, is the managing director of a successful advertising agency and knows the value of publicity. He also loves the culture and plays in a band, the Low Country Boys, which illustrates the Ulster roots of American country and bluegrass music.
In the 2000 census 1.4% of the population of the US, or over 4 million people, described themselves as Scotch Irish by ethnic background. That is more than twice the population of Northern Ireland. James Webb, a Virginia Senator, estimates that the potential market is far higher, as many as 27 million people some of whom describe themselves as simply Irish, Scottish or American in the census.
Over the past few years people like Webb, who wrote a history of the Scotch Irish called Born Fighting and is due to visit Northern Ireland to promote links in the New year have been popularising the notion of distinct ethnic group with roots worth tracing a history worth telling.
Most of these people descend from a quarter of a million Scotch Irish who emigrated from Northern Ireland and Donegal between 1717 and 1776, nearly a century before the mass emigration of that followed the potato famine of the mid 19th century.
They were mainly lowland Scots Presbyterian who came to Northern Ireland to build a new life as a result of economic pressure in Scotland in the early seventeenth century. Many of them lacked the agricultural skills to make a go of their new homes. They also suffered under the penal laws, as did Catholics, because they were not members of the established Church of Ireland and faced rebellions and guerrilla warfare from the native Irish on whose formers lands they were often planted. The result was a feeling of betrayal and considerable anti English feeling amongst those who immigrated to North America. The Scotch Irish swelled the ranks of the revolutionary or patriot cause in the American war of independance, while those who emigrated directly from Scotland tended to back the crown.
About fifty member of the "The Cumberland Association", mainly Ulster Scots, signed the Liberty Points Resolves in 1775, an early American statement of separation from Britain. In the same area Highland Scots strongly opposed them. Flora McDonald, the beloved of Bonnie Prince Charlie, lived to see her husband Allan, a redcoat officer, killed by Ulster Scots soldiers at the battle of Moose Jaw Creek. At least three Ulster Scots were amongst the signatories of the American Declaration of Independence.
Other Ulster Scots, like Davy Crockett the king of the wild frontier, became famous Indian fighters. The most famous Scotch Irish president was Andrew Jackson, whose parents came from near Carrickfergus. He arguably invented the concentration camp and later sent the Cherokee nation down the Trail of Tears after displacing them from their land. As Billy Kennedy, author of a several Ulster Scots history books, put it "nowadays the UN would be called in."
It's a rich and varied history. The beauty of it is that the Scotch Irish settled mainly in areas of the North America where Ireland's tourist product has yet to maximise its impact and needs a lift – the Carolinas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia. Considerable pockets are also to be found in Maine and Pennsylvania. These are all prime markets for tourism, which give Ireland – both North and south- an opportunity to build bridges to the booming economy of the southern states.
Scotch Irish Americans had an average household income of $47,000 in 2000, well above the norm. In fact it's quite similar to the take home pay of Irish Americans whose search for their roots has been such a mainstay of the Irish tourist industry.
During the troubles the Ulster Scots market could not be fully tapped. Many Americas were reluctant to come to Northern Ireland for fear of violence or having their holidays disrupted by the battles which often raged around Orange demonstrations in the summer. For those of Ulster Scots descent their proud history of struggle against the crown in their new homeland meant that it was not as easy for them to identify with unionism as it was Irish Americans to buy into the nationalist narrative.
With the coming of peace these people can be encouraged home. There is plenty for them to see in Northern Ireland. Nearly one third of US presidents have their roots there and ancestral homes are being discovered all the time. The Ulster American Folk Park, which chronicles both Ulster Scots and Catholic Irish emigration a century later, is a major attraction. The Public Records Office of Northern Ireland and the Irish National Archives are both gearing up to put genealogical material on the internet.
People like Kennedy, the author and historian of the Ulster Scots migration, have been doing the rounds of historical societies and local groups in the southern states for years and their efforts are finally paying off. The Scotch Irish Society of the USA, based in Pennsylvania and the Museum of Frontier Culture in Virginia are making the notion of Scotch Irishness increasing mainstream and universities are now including it in their curriculums.
A sense of community has been built up which can enrich the lives of millions of Americans as well as building a connection between Northern Ireland and the strongest economy of the world.
The precedent of Irish Americans has shown that links, once opened, don't end with tourism. They can lead to major investment, celebrities moving across to Atlantic to make their homes and even political leverage in the US.
One of the main target groups is Americans who think of themselves solely as Scottish, forgetting that their forbearers may have spend a century or more in Northern Ireland before emigrating to the US.
O Cuiv and Poots, co-operating under the aegis of a cross border language body set up under the Good Friday Agreement, have commissioned a study on how the links between Ireland, Scotland and America can be built up.
Clan societies in the US and Canada are major targets for the tourist effort. This year the St Andrews Society in Maine has started flying the Ulster flag alongside the saltire and the Clan Hamilton, which annually visits Scotland, has included Northern Ireland for the first time. The Hamilton and Montgomery settlement of 1603 was
The Scottish Executive has designated 2009 The Year of Homecoming and will attempting to use it to encourage those of Scottish descent to visit their ancestral homeland. It promises to be a tartan bonanza.
Northern Ireland wants a slice of that action too.