"...stories birling ..."
Dusty Bluebells comprises an allusion to child abuse, a hint of rape, a tale of adultery and a tragic story of incest, yet it reads like a Cinderella story when compared with Wigtown Ploughman by John McNeillie, my latest literary discovery, as recommended by Scottish poet Stuart Paterson.
So satiated was I at the three-quarters point that I could have easily put down Wigtown Ploughman and walked away happy in the knowledge that I’d read another great, but I stayed the course and finished it, following the protagonist through every bare knuckle battering, brutal rape and plundering of opportunity to reform.
And I was enthralled from the beginning to the bitter and inconclusive end.
By comparing my own work to Wigtown Ploughman, I lay no claim to any notion that Dusty Bluebells is as worthy, but there are parallels and I’d like to explore three in this blog: Place, Language and People.
Wigtown Ploughman and Dusty Bluebells are both studies of place; Dusty Bluebells tightly hugs the shore of County Antrim and Wigtown Ploughman cuts deep into the Galloway countryside.
The action of Wigtown Ploughman takes place in The Machars, near Kirkcowan and Wigtown, one bay east of Stranraer, the ferry destination with which most Ulster people are familiar. The area is known as “Little Ireland” and it is no surprise given the time immemorial migrations back and forth across the twenty-mile water.
Dusty Bluebells is set primarily in the community surrounding the Brown’s Irish Linen Factory in Larne, an area settled in the late 1800s by workers from the countryside around Ballymena, hence its old moniker, “Little Ballymena.” The Scots dialect found there was until recently as broad as any in Scotland.
“Little Ireland” and “Little Scotland” might be appropriate monikers for the regions of the respective novels.
Both novels play with realism, and whilst Dusty Bluebells holds a mirror up to Larne and allows the reader to walk the streets and consume the character of the people, Wigtown Ploughman takes the reader to the land and has him eat and drink and sweat in it. McNeillie’s technique is powerful and I immediately experienced that sinking feeling of falling short as I reached the second page.
Like McNeillie, I wrote my novel in Standard English with Scots dialect.
The Scots of Wigtown Ploughman is similar to that of Dusty Bluebells, which is remarkable given the fact that both novels are set in the twentieth century, two to three hundred years after the largest Scots migrations to Ireland occurred, so a milder form of Scots in Ulster might be expected given the passage of time. This isn’t the case. In fact, the Scots in the Larne area only began to ebb in the 1980s and I was both implicated in and witness to its decline; once tertiary education and international travel opportunities became wide open to the working class, Ulster Scots began to fall away.
Many of the phrases in Dusty Bluebells reflect Ireland’s obsession with religion, and it is here that the threshold between Ulster and Scots can perhaps be heard.
My characters riddle their speech with “God’s Truth” and “Glod bliss us and keep us” and “God save us” and so on — all Standard English exclamations that make up a quare bit of Ulster conversation. These are largely missing from Wigtown Ploughman, although I don’t know enough about Wigtown Scots to say if McNeillie’s dialogue is a reflection of real speech.
Other turns of phrase from Dusty Bluebells that may be more Ulster than Scots in style are ‘forbye,’ ‘thon’ and a myriad of hearty compounds such as heart-glad, heart-sad, heart-sure — possibly older forms of English that add the Ulster to Ulster Scots.
On John McNeillie’s side, there are more Germanic “cht” sounds. My only real placing of “cht” revolves around a little rhyme I was taught as a child, “If ye can say, ‘It's a braw bricht moonlicht nicht,’ then yer a'richt, ye ken” and wee Hughie, one of the weans of Dusty Bluebells sings the Harry Lauder song when sitting up for Hallowe’en nicht. The cht sound gradually fell out of use in Ulster throughout the twentieth century.
And this is the dilemma of Ulster Scots — it is an evolving language and it is blending so fast into English that it is difficult to know how far to go back when translating. The point, I suppose, is that the novelist doesn’t translate, but rather echoes speech patterns and cht wasn’t something my elderly aunts and uncles would have frequently said.
McNeillie also uses much more Scots spelling than me, e.g. ‘whaur’ for ‘where’ and ‘A’ for ‘I,’ but my own orthographic choices, which are open to criticism, involve the English spelling being used where pronunciation doesn’t dramatically diverge from English, which on this occasion means that my Scots might be deemed two parts dialect to one part language.
McNeillie has the Scottish ‘gan’ for ‘going’ and only today I realised that I do say something similar automatically. “I’m g’n down the street.” It’s subtle and the vowel is swallowed, but I didn’t include it because I wasn’t conscious of it at the time of writing.
McNeillie spells the Standard English ‘now’ ‘noo’ in line with its pronunciation in Scotland. However, in Ulster I hear both noo and — if I can attempt to spell it — nough, sometimes in one sentence by the same Ulster-Scots speaker. Oot and ought are similarly interchangeable. My mum might have said to me as a child, “Oot the deur right nough, d’ye here? Away ought noo!”
My spelling for ‘noo’ in Dusty Bluebells is actually ‘nu,’ and this perhaps comes from learning Dutch; ‘noo’ seems longer and softer than the tight vowel I hear in Ireland, but I’ve yet to see ‘nu’ used elsewhere so I am possibly alone in my thinking and open to changing my ways.
Of course, there are also invisible pronunciations that can’t be spelled out phonetically on the page, particularly the Scottish roll of the r that is only faintly perceptible in County Antrim.
There are hundreds more examples of differences and similarities between the dialogue of the two novels, but generally, you could read Wigtown Ploughman with a Larne accent and sound like a character from Dusty Bluebells.
Here are a couple of samples of text from each novel:
Still he was silent. It gave him a sense of power to have her pleading with him. When he finished he walked up the byre. She was standing with her back to the door.
‘Come on Andy, here’s a kiss fur ye, ye’ll no say nocht?’
She drew him to her and he kissed the hot, heavy lips. It was intoxicating. He repeated it to show his hold over her and let his hand fall on her breast.
‘A’ll had ma tongue,’ he said, ‘if ye’re guid tae me.’
Then as an afterthought, ‘Ye could gie me half a croon, but dinna tell Paddy, or if ye dae mebbe A’ll change ma min’.’
“Nonsense,” said Maisie, sitting up on her elbow to look at him.
“What in the name o goodness would make ye say such a thing?”
“I watched ye comin hame frae the fectory wi yer eyes swelled up from lint an I heared ye wheezin, and I was sick, sore an sorry for ye, Maisie. My ain mother niver had tae work in a fectory. My da niver gien her much, but he gien her thon.”
“He gien her a black eye or two forbye,” said Maisie. “I’d sooner want for butter than accept the heavy hand o a man like yer da.”
McNeillie’s protagonist, Andy Walker, is a brute of a man and witnessing his development from a baby subjected to gross parental neglect to a young man is one of the most psychologically enthralling experiences I’ve ever had when reading a novel.
The boy raises himself in a home that is far from the convivial setting of number 33 in Dusty Bluebells, and whilst children digging around for raw potatoes in the dirt is not a scene from a the ancient past of either Ulster or Galloway, the storyline still surprises, and the close-ups of a mother, who is both victim and perpetrator of abuse, are shocking. The animal-like way she lives, mating with the grocer on the filthy bed in the filthy hovel in front of our protagonist, will bemuse the modern reader.
Religion is apparently absent from Wigtown Ploughman, but Andy Walker’s God is to found in the fields, across the hedgerows and in the woods, and this, in addition to seeing his work ethic, is what keeps the reader walking alongside Andy Walker, hopeful that the man can reform, or at least that his children will break the cycle.
One thing that both novels share in common is the theme of parentage, and if Andy Walker were a real person, he’d be an enigma to the DNA family history researcher unaware of the rape, violent relationships and inharmonious marriages that often render family names a lie in Wigtown Ploughman.
I enjoy exploring genealogy themes in my novels and when Dusty Bluebells was almost finished and packaged away into a nice, neat story within a reasonable timeline, I indulged my whimsical mind and fast-forwarded from the 1940s to the present day to see the results of genealogical research and DNA testing. Had I taken Wigtown Ploughman and done the same thing, I may have ended up with the same questions that my modern characters had concerning parentage.
Wigtown Ploughman could well be the back story to many characters in Dusty Bluebells, characters of Little Ireland and Little Scotland, who are cut frae the same cloot.
Angeline King is the author of Snugville Street and A Belfast Tale. Start reading Dusty Bluebells here.
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