Learn Ulster-Scots

Lesson 12 A closer look at Dialect (2)

In this lesson, you will learn:

  • what good is it learning about dialect?
  • country matters
  • farming vocabulary
  • farming practices of old

A lot of dialect is old-fashioned. It came out of a way of life that was very different from ours, when most people lived and worked in the country and never went too far away from the place where they were born and brought up. So many of the words and phrases describe things we no longer have or do today. Simply because of this, we can learn a great deal about the kind of jobs people had - like thatching, making linen, basket weaving, farming and so on - and about how they passed their limited spare time. Dialect can also tell us how they furnished and equipped their homes and brought up their children. We can even learn about the type of food they ate, how they cooked it, and about the illnesses they suffered from, which they often tried to cure in strange ways. Dialect brings us back to our 'roots'.

It brings us back to our language roots too. Looking at where our dialect words came from is something that interests many people. We also find as we listen to spoken dialect that the language is very expressive. Many of our words are 'onomatopoeic'. That is just a fancy way of saying that the sound of the word gives you an idea of what it means. Think of the words you get in the Beano: splat!, biff!, and so on. These are 'onomatopoeic'. Dialect is full of words like that because it's basically spoken, not written, language.

'To plough and sow, to reap and mow...': nowadays, farmers do all that with tractors and combine harvesters. How was it done before we had that kind of machinery?

The moul (the soil)
The land you were going to plant your crop on might have been let to you in conacre (that is, for a season, ready ploughed and prepared for a crop). A name for a plot of ground held in conacre was a feddin. Another way in which land was held was in rundale. This was a joint holding in which each field was divided into small sections which were swapped around annually so that there was a fair distribution of each kind of land. Morrowingdale and changedale were words for the same kind of system. Later on, rundale was the word used for jointly owned rough grazing. A take, or in Ulster-Scots a tack, was a small farm taken on lease, or more specifically a communal holding or leasing of land. Likewise, a cot-tack was the tenancy of a farm cottage.

The hans
Imagine you are a farmer in the middle of the eighteenth century. Do you think you could manage all the work of the farm on your own? If not, how would you go about getting help?

If you could afford it, you could hire some help. Today we have the Lammas Fair, and other events such as the Ballyclare May Fair. The forerunner of these was the hiring fairs. Most of these were held twice yearly, the usual dates being 12 May and 12 November, although the date varied in particular towns. At Limavady, for example, it was called the gallop fair, where the activities included horse-racing. This reminds us that hiring of servants was only part of what went on: most fairs included such divarsions (amusements) as side shows, stalls and dances, and all too often a lot of drinking and its inevitable consequence, brawling. Farm labourers and inside servants (meaning those who were occupied in domestic duties) were taken on for no longer than six months at a time. At the other end of the contract came flitting day, a fixed day when farmworkers' contracts ended and they had to flit (move house) out of their tied cottages, assuming that was their accommodation.

At nearly all the hiring fairs, servants looking for work, usually carrying their belongings wrapped up in a bundle (Ulster-Scots bunnle), would gather in the centre of the town or village, to be looked over by their prospective maisters (masters). Usually an agreement to hire was verbal, but normally a token payment of arles, erles, airles or an arles-penny (earnest money) was made to seal the bargain. Another word used was handsel or hansel, which was of wider meaning but could also mean to give earnest-money (to a newly-hired female servant). For the work on your farm, let us assume that you got your hired man (farmworker).

Unless you had made arrangements with him on the basis of costanent or cosnent (whereby your worker took the job for wages without board), you were going to have to find accommodation for him. Usually on the bigger farms the farmworker would sleep in a barn or loft, or often in an attic room. The Scots bothy arrangement, whereby the labourer was provided by the employer with a rough lodging, such as a shed, was unusual in Northern Ireland. The smaller the farm, however, the more likely it was that the worker would board with the master's family. Ideally, of course, particularly if the farm labourer had a family of his own, he would be given the tenancy of a cottar-hoose (a farm labourer's cottage). Conditions in these cottages were often unsatisfactory by today's standards, but at least their occupants had some degree of independence.

The neebors
If you didn't have the means to hire a worker, there were other things you could do. Nowadays, the business of farming is often quite a solitary affair, with the farmer sitting in the cab of the tractor for hours at a time. The situation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was quite different. In those days, particularly at the busiest times such as harvest, there was a degree of co-operation and mutual assistance between farmers.

a band of workers, occupied, for example, in reaping, shearing or peat-cutting.
a group doing communal farm work such as threshing or potato planting
a team of people gathered for co-operative labour; compete, especially in co-operative labour such as spinning, scutching or harvesting
a group of workers gathered to do communal work, and particularly to help the blacksmith with his farmwork
mutual help relations between farmers
a 'gathering', a team of people assembled to do farmwork cooperatively; particularly applied to a voluntary assembly of neighbours to do farm work without pay for a family in need
an association of farmers to do communal work or a group of people gathered to do communal work; the act of combining resources, particularly where two farmers combined their horses to form a plough team or pooled their resources to own cheese-making equipment
an exchange arrangement between two farmers, each owning one horse of a ploughing team
lend or borrow men or horses to or from a neighbour, with the understanding that the arrangement will be reciprocated when the need arises
an exchange agreement for mutual assistance, co-operative farmwork, or the borrowing or lending of men or horses
communal work; a number of farmers gathered to do the ploughing of a neighbour in difficulties
working mean
exchanging co-operative labour
in meanings
in partnership (said of farmers with reference e.g. to ploughing)
neebor, nybour
neighbour; co-operate in farmwork by lending men and horses
the act of co-operating in farmwork; an exchange agreement between two farmers for co-operative farmwork
an occasion when assistance was given to a farmer in ploughing a newly-obtained farm

This list is not exhaustive, but it does give some indication of how common it was to find neighbours combining to help each other. It was not all down to generosity of spirit, however. Apart from the wisdom of using resources to the full, the main reasons for the popularity of co-operative labour were pressure of time, and the uncertainties of the weather.

The pleugh (the plough)
Having sorted out some help, you're ready to plough. Your horses would have been draught horses (horses that 'draw' loads behind them rather than being used for riding). The Irish draught horse was commonly called clane bones, because it had small hairless feet that didn't pick up mud so easily. You would have yocked (yoked) your horses to the part of the plough right at the front (the muzzle). Attached to the muzzle was a chain or hook and swivel where in earlier times there had been a rope of twisted withies, and the name cut wuddie stuck, even when the withies gave way to the metal hook and swivel graithin (equipment).

The chains on which the horses pulled were attached to the muzzle by way of the cut wuddie. An arrangement of chains and yokes connected the plough to the horses. The cooter (Ulster-Scots for 'coulter') was a sharp blade that made a vertical cut in the soil. Cooter neb is an Ulster-Scots name for the seabird, the puffin – and as neb means beak (or nose), the name is appropriate. The vertical cut in the soil was then sliced horizontally by the ploo-shar ('plough share', also called the burster or sock). Finally, the furrow break or moul'-boord (mould board) turned over the fur-slice (the strip of earth being turned over) in a (hopefully neat) ridge (rig in Ulster-Scots). The farmer would have held the stilts (the plough handles). Unless you had the services of a gaudsman (who drove the plough horses using a goad), you would have to shout your instructions to the horses. For example, aff was a command used in some areas to order the horse to return to a straight course.

You might also have needed a hinter to help you. This was a farmworker who followed the plough with a spade and turned over the strips between ridges. A piece of ground had to be left at each end of the field to allow the horses to turn.

When the farmer had ploughed the rest of the field, using this area for a 'turning circle', he then ploughed this part at right angles to the rest of his work. There are other terms for bits of ground left unploughed: bauk (an unploughed ridge), fur-white (unploughed ground two furrows wide), hint (the strip between ridges of opposite-turned furrows), mid-rig (the open furrow between two ridges of a ploughed field), and middle heid rig (the strip of land left unploughed between two patches of ploughed field). The reasons for leaving these portions of land unploughed could have been: to provide a pathway across the field, to mark out the division between the land of different owners, as the result of a mistake on the part of the ploughman, or simply because they were left until last. Burns’s song ‘The Lea Rig’ tells of meeting his sweetheart (coortin) when his day’s work is done on the lea rig (the unploughed land left at the end of the field for the horses to turn.

Tae skale (to sow)
Other things had to be done to the land before you started to sow. You would have to manner it, unless it was held in conacre (see 'The moul' above). Manner is the older form of 'manure', surviving in Scotland and Ulster. It was a verb that could also be used to mean 'till the land' and 'prepare the land for crops'. On this subject, it is interesting to note that the word plan was used to refer to a plot of the seashore allocated to a specific farm, on which seaweed was grown for manure. Today, when there is a lot of concern about returning to ecologically-friendly farming methods, this natural way of feeding the soil is of additional interest.

But supposing the soil had been prepared and your land was in good tid (in good condition for planting), what crops would you grow? First, there were the grain crops. A Northern Ireland farmer usually meant something different from the usual understanding of the word 'corn' – he would have been referring to oats. Now and again, barley was grown, but that generally went to make poteen (moonshine). Then, of course, there was the staple crop, the potato. Often these were grown in a 'lazy bed' or rig (a 'potato ridge', another word for 'lazy bed'). The traditional tool for making lazy beds was a loy (a long narrow-bladed spade with a wing on one side only), but other kinds of spade were used.

The name 'lazy bed' gives you a hint about how they were made. People talked about copin (making) lazy beds, and they called the sods forming the sides of the lazy beds cope sods. This is the same word you still hear today when someone says, 'Ah near cowped' (meaning 'I nearly fainted'), and in our context it simply implies turning over. A sod of earth about 2 feet (two-thirds of a metre) wide on each side of the intended ridge was lifted by the spade and turned over so that the grassy sides were together. Often manure had been spread on the ridge part first, so you ended up with something like a sandwich, earth - grass - manure - grass - earth.

The trowel-like implement used for planting the potatoes was called a kib, kibbin airn or kibbin stick, while the term kibbin itself was given to a pointed wooden staff or pole about four feet long with a foot rest about six inches from the pointed end that was used to make the holes into which the seed potatoes (or splits) were dropped. The hole was closed with a fork or mall, then more earth was dug out of the trench between the ridges and thrown on top. The advantage of this method was that it got round the necessity for a proper drainage system, and the grassy surface now in the middle of the 'sandwich' helped stop the loss of nutrients from the soil.

Other crops grown were kale (cabbage) and neeps (what we call turnips today and the English call 'swede'), and some varieties of the onion family. Last, but not least, flax would have been grown to supply the linen makers, and of course there would have been hay grown for the animals.

Crops grown from seed were broadcast. A few ways of carrying the seed were used: the Ulster-Scots word wecht (with variant spellings) denoted a hoop with a skin stretched over it, used for winnowing or carrying corn. The sowing fiddle was often used in County Down. But the usual Irish method was to put the seed into a linen sheet, kept especially for the purpose, and tied around the sower, who traditionally used a one-handed cast. Once the seed was sown, you would need to cover it up with earth. In Ulster-Scots, you would blin' it – in other words, you would cover up the seed holes by dragging a large bush over the bed. From that, you have the term blinnin bush, the name given to the bush used for this purpose.

Sowing took skill, and there were all sorts of superstitions involved. 'A missed bit' was a bad omen, foretelling death. Of course, the sower should have already got off on the right foot by beginning his labours with the solemn words 'In the name of God …', and he should have given the horses a handful of corn from the seed-bag and thrown a handful of earth over each horse's rump. Friday was considered the best day to begin, with Good Friday the best of all. As with most farming operations, great store was put in beginning early. The seed should all be safely 'buried' by the beginning of May, and in County Armagh the first cuckoo's call was taken as a sign. To be found sowing after this was a mark of deep disgrace: the laggard was labelled 'a cuckoo farmer'.

The hairst (the harvest)
Reaping was a job that had to be done quickly, to make the best of good weather, and all available help was called upon.  The weans were usually given a holiday from school (hairst play) so that they could help in the fields.  At the height of its popularity, this method of reaping could bring out as many as seventy workers into the harvest field.

Usually the reapers cut the strip of field allocated to each band of workers (called a boon) with a reaping hook or sickle (in Ulster-Scots a hyuck).  The word sett could be used in two ways:  it meant either the number of ridges of corn that a band of reapers could cut at one time, or the strip of the field allocated to each reaper.  An unusual way of reaping corn, using only one hand to slap at it with a sickle, was common in County Donegal, and the term used was scutchin.

Reaping was very hard work, and there was fierce competition between the workers.  It was considered a mark of disgrace not to keep up with the others.  In Ulster, the leader of the boon was stibble-hyuck, so called because his rig was the first of the sett, next to the stubble.  The corn-han took the rig or land next to the standing corn, and between the two the other reapers on their rigs would try hard to keep a straight line.  Between each sett a rest was taken at the lea-rig and the chance was taken of a bit of crack an coortin.

Later on, in the second half of the nineteenth century, the scythe, which had been used on hay for some time, began to be introduced for corn, in spite of some opposition in the beginning.  The trouble with the scythe was that if there was no wind, additional help was needed.  Someone had to powl the corn (hold it back with a pole for it to be cut).  Also, the reapers knew that small fields where there could be large boulders or the stumps of bog-fir gave no space to swing a scythe, and a single blow on the swift-moving point could ruin the blade.

If a lot of folklore surrounded sowing, as much, if not more, was connected with reaping.  The last handful of corn, or the last load, harvested, in particular, was very important.  There is a long list of dialect vocabulary connected with this, all meaning the last handful of corn cut in the harvest field, or the last sheaf of the harvest.

When they got to the last bit of corn to be cut, the stalks were roughly plaited together and the reapers competed to cut the stalks by throwing their hooks.  Thus to win the churn was to cut the last sheaf or complete the harvest.  The plait was placed over the kitchen door or over the fireplace for good luck.  The churn or churn dance was the harvest home, a social gathering and dance when the harvest was in, or the supper given as part of the festivities.  A bursted (or in Ulster-Scots brustit) churn described the situation when the sun set before all the grain was cut on the last day of reaping on a farm.

'Shearing' songs (shear as a verb meaning to reap with a hook) were sung to match the rhythm of the sickle.  There was a belief that luck followed the reaper who carried a child on his back, never mind the fact that he could well have done without the extra weight!  When the scythe was introduced, so also was a strange belief that an insect kept imprisoned in the handle would bring good luck.  Even the sheaf itself had its lore, related possibly to a vague similarity to human shape.  A curse could be worked by sticking pins into the joints of the straw, and the sheaf might be properly waked and buried so that, as it withered, the person who had been cursed would get worse.  In Ireland it was the custom for the first sheaves cut to be scutched or lashed, that is the grain was beaten out without using the flail.  The winnowed grain was parched over the fire, ground in a quern and boiled in time to make a breakfast for the reapers.  This special breakfast probably carried on, in slightly changed form, some ancient ritual.

It was necessary to season hay and corn in the fields before the crops could be carried home.  This process was called wunnin (meaning drying by exposure to the wind).  That made the whole process very long, and brought its own problems when it came to keeping the crop safe from damage by mice or the weather – you wouldn't want your corn bladded (or in Ulster-Scots blaidit) (ruined in the stook).

With corn, as with hay, harvesting proceeded by building up stooks and ricks of increasing size according to the nature of the crop and the weather conditions.  Each handful of corn cut with the sickle was called a luchter, and a few of these (usually about three) were put together to make a sheaf.  About twelve of these went to make a stook.

Tae maw (to mow)

If it was hay you were dealing with, the cut grass would be shaken out by hand and spread thinly over the field.  When it was partly dry, it was gathered into wunras (hay ready to be gathered into cocks) and then lapped, that is folded against the leg over the forearm into small lapcoles (the cole element apparently being a form of ‘coil’).  Another name for the first small roll into which the hay was gathered was a coil.  At the lapcole stage you were left with something that looked like a swiss roll with a hole in the middle.  That hole let the wind through, and the smooth rounded top allowed the rain to run off.  When dry, the piles were shaken open and built into small lumps (medium-sized haycocks), which were later enlarged into hancocks.  If the hay was in particularly good condition, and mostly in the drier parts of the country, it might have been made into larger ricks, or tramp-cocks (large haycocks tramped with the feet to make them more compact), which were firmly trodden down and tied with ropes.  In studying the subject now, things are complicated by the fact that what you called all the various heaps changed depending on the part of the country you lived in, but the general principle was that in hay-making, you gradually increased the size of the piles as the hay was dried by sun and wind.  Dampness would cause the hay to overheat, in much the same way as a compost heap in your garden might do.  If you were told that someone's hay had clegged up you would know that it had heated up and started to rot.

The hay was carried at last to the haggard (stackyard), in the early days on the backs of men and ponies.  The glakes were a construction of rods and ropes for carrying large quantities of hay.  A variety of names exists for the basic carts on which the hay was moved when draught horses were more generally available.  The Ulster-Scots form of 'hay' was hye (said in much the same way as in the greeting, 'Hi!', but with a slightly 'narrower' sound), and this pronunciation would also apply to the compounds hayjinker etc.).

Relevant Dialect Terms

  • cockshifter
  • dray
  • hayfloat
  • hayjinker
  • hayshifter
  • hurley (hurl being the Scots equivalent of the verb 'transport')
  • rickshifter
  • rucklifter
  • ruckshifter
  • trottle-car

Some of these carts lacked wheels, and were very basic wooden platforms with shafts (or trams in dialect) enabling them to be harnessed to the horses.
You could increase the carrying area by using a horizontal frame laid over the cart. These had a number of names, depending on the area of the country:

  • crate
  • crib
  • cripples
  • harvest board
  • hayboards
  • haycribbin
  • hayframe
  • hayguards

When the load reached the haggard (also called the garden, haggarden, hagyard, haygarden, stack-garden, etc.) the hay was built into small circular stacks (pikes).  As a protection against wind and rain they were thatched at once with rushes and roped.  Not only did the ropes hold the thatch more securely, but it was easy to tighten them as the stack settled. 

Several patterns of roping were found, and the shape of the stack also showed many regional variations.  The size and shape depended not only on local customs but to some extent on the weather and the condition of the hay.  Smaller rounded stacks were most usual, for they were wind resistant.

Even the ropes themselves were a 'do it yourself' job.  There were various names for implements used to twist straw etc. into rope, all of which worked on much the same principle:  cockabandy, garhook (probably from the Ulster-Scots gar, which means to make or compel someone to do something), sprule (interestingly, probably from a Scots word for a piece of fishing equipment), thra-crook and thrawhook (both from the same basic root as the good old Ulster-Scots word thran), twist-rope, wiley, and winder.

Relevant Dialect Terms

Other measures could be employed against wind, rain and vermin.  The following are the dialect terms associated with protection of the hay

a decorative top on a haycock (from a Scots word for a woman's fancy top-knot of hair!)
a covering of rushes on a haystack
a bunch of hay spread out at the top of a drying heap of seed hay
head sheaf
a hood sheaf (a sheaf placed on the top of a stook to protect it from the rain)
huddin sheaf, hudder
a hood sheaf (hence the phrase put the hudder on the stook – finish a story)
hovel cap
a broad piece of stone or iron placed on top of each pillar of the base of a stack to prevent vermin from climbing up to the corn.
hovelstand, hovelstead
the base of a haystack. In Scots, the steid is the basis or foundation of something
a species of tall reed used for thatching cornstacks (County Cavan term)
coarse grass shaken over a heap of hay as a protective covering
the foundation of a stack of hay or corn
branches arranged flat on damp ground as a base for a haystack
stan, stannin
the base of a haystack
stead, haystead, steadin
the base of a haystack.
a small twist of hay (made by hand) at the bottom of a haystack, to which the stack-ropes are fastened
a bundle of three sheaves set on top of a haycock.

Project: Interview a farmer to find out how his work has changed since the days when the methods we have looked at were used. Of course, it would be best if you could find someone who does more growing of crops than keeping of animals. Find out, in particular, how many people are necessary to 'plough, sow, reap and mow', and what names the farmer gives to today's versions of the processes we have looked at.

BBC Northern Ireland gratefully acknowledges that this lesson was provided by the Ulster-Scots Language Society - and copyright belongs to Philip Robinson and Anne Smyth.

Other Lessons

Lesson 1

Meeting and Greeting

Meeting and Greeting
  • greet people in Ulster-Scots
  • introduce yourself
  • talk about where you come from
  • count in Ulster-Scots

Go to this lesson: Meeting and Greeting

Lesson 2

Self, Family and Friends

Self, Family and Friends
  • nouns for family members
  • nouns for parts of the body
  • describing appearance
  • describing yourself, family & friends

Go to this lesson: Self, Family and Friends

Lesson 3

Moods, Feelings and Clothes

Moods, Feelings and Clothes
  • moods, feelings & characteristics
  • words for items of clothing
  • talking about appearance
  • traditional Ulster & Scots dress
  • clothing & characteristics in Scots & Ulster-Scots poetry

Go to this lesson: Moods, Feelings and Clothes

Lesson 4

Hobbies, Interests and Work

Hobbies, Interests and Work
  • describing hobbies & interests
  • words for some jobs
  • working life & leisure time
  • traditional Ulster-Scots pastimes
  • traditional pastimes and jobs in Ulster & Scots poetry

Go to this lesson: Hobbies, Interests and Work

Lesson 5

Food and Drink

Food and Drink
  • examples of food and drink
  • ordering food in a restaurant
  • discussing eating habits
  • food and drink in Ulster & Scots poetry
  • finding Ulster-Scots recipes

Go to this lesson: Food and Drink

Lesson 6

Weather and Seasons

Weather and Seasons
  • words for types of weather
  • weather conditions
  • words for different seasons
  • seasonal activities
  • the weather in Scots & Ulster literature

Go to this lesson: Weather and Seasons

Lesson 7

Nouns and Names

Nouns and Names
  • buildings
  • parts of the face and head
  • The Coortin’ o Miss Norris

Go to this lesson: Nouns and Names

Lesson 8

Meeting and Greeting (2)

Meeting and Greeting (2)
  • Meeting and Greeting (2)
  • The Coortin’ o Miss Norris - Practice Reading and Dialogue
  • Markers of Ulster-Scots

Go to this lesson: Meeting and Greeting (2)

Lesson 9

Grammar and Pronunciation

Grammar and Pronunciation
  • the Definite Article before a Noun
  • spelling and pronunciation
  • saying, doing and being

Go to this lesson: Grammar and Pronunciation

Lesson 10

Pronouns - and Linen-Making

Pronouns - and Linen-Making
  • Pronouns
  • A Byre o a Hoose
  • Tha makkin o tha lïnen

Go to this lesson: Pronouns - and Linen-Making

Lesson 11

A closer look at Dialect (1)

A closer look at Dialect (1)
  • what is dialect
  • when to use dialect speech
  • dialects in Ulster?
  • dialect spelling
  • ‘language versus dialect’

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (1)

Lesson 13

A closer look at Dialect (3)

A closer look at Dialect (3)
  • words with a story
  • what’s in a name?
  • Ulster ‘crack’
  • scunner, sheugh and black-mouth

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (3)

Lesson 14

A closer look at Dialect (4)

A closer look at Dialect (4)
  • similes
  • forms of ‘be’ and ‘do’
  • Match the meanings
  • Wordsearch
  • The Minister’s Cat
  • Call my Bluff

Go to this lesson: A closer look at Dialect (4)