Orange Sky at Night....

....means Black Saturday in the morning. I'm pretty sure that's how the saying goes.

This isn't the most wonderful photo I've ever taken. It's not even the best one taken with the phone camera. What it does do is remind me that I keep meaning to take a few more pictures of the general world around me. I have spotted a few really lovely views on the way home from work, but I consistently fail to commit them to pixels.

Well, no more. From now on I'm resolving to try to capture a bit more of Ulster in the vain hope that the odd person might see the images and realise that this isn't such a bad old spot.

Even Australians.

Follow the Money

We live in difficult times. Money is short. If you are lucky enough to have any cash in the Bank, it isn't earning any interest and that portfolio of unique fixer-upper properties you bought on the advice of Sarah Beeny is starting to look like a real mistake.

The Coalition (that seems to be its official title now) has decreed that belts will be tightened, waste will be eliminated and efficiencies will be ruthlessly pursued.

In many ways, it is hard to argue with any of that. Indeed, questions should probably be asked as to why we were happy enough previously to quite so wasteful and profligate. There's another example there -  "wasteful and profligate" - when either "wasteful" or "profligate" alone would have sufficed. Such laxity of grammar will not be tolerated under the new regime.

Where then for an Ulster-Scot?

Clearly, there is a rich (no pun intended) vein of humour to be exploited - something to do with Ballymena and so on - but I'm passing that opportunity by and trying to look a little more carefully at the serious issue. I'll trust you to make up your own jokes, at which you may giggle on your own time.

My concern is that Ulster-Scots as a movement is very much in its infancy. It remains many years, or even decades behind the Irish cultural movement and has historically received little attention or, crucially, funding. A lot has changed in recent times. The advent of the Ulster Scots Agency provided a mechanism for funding and many groups certainly derive benefit from its existence.

However, the Minister (rightly, in my view) declared the organisation "unfit for purpose" and instituted a programme to try to remedy its many defects. As that laudable work was in progress, the general election was called and the imperative to rein in government spending followed. Only a fool would imagine that the new-look Agency will not find itself with a tighter budget in the future and one can imagine that alternative sources of state funding will be similarly limited.

So, what can we do? Do we just rail against the inevitable, giving off that Irish is still way ahead financially and imagining that money will be found to redress that inequality? Hmm. That's certainly tempting but it seems to rather fly in the face of reality.

Do we seek to commercially exploit Ulster-Scots to make it self-funding and self-sustaining? We're not there yet. I'm convinced that there are commercial aspects of "Ulster" and of Ulster-Scots which remain to be exploited - all you have to do is look at the "Oirish" tat in the gift shop at the International Airport and you can see that we are mssing a trick - but the movement isn't at that level of development jhust now.

What then?

The place to start to answer that question has to be with an examination of what we need money for and what we have been doing with money we have received thus far.

As an avowed contrarian, I'll start with the latter of those suggestions.

What are we doing with our money?

Not that easy a question to answer, actually. Funding in Ulster-Scots has been the very definition of a scatter-gun approach. We had a brief period when every Church Hall seemed to have an Ulster-Scots night every third Saturday in the month. They followed a formula. A Pipe Band, some kids doing Highland Dance, a few pensioners performing Country Dance, some bloke singing, a little Burns poetry and a cup of tea and a sandwich. Not that I'm knocking that, you understand. Many a night I spent in just such halls. I tapped my foot along and applauded at the appropriate points. A grand time was had by all. The organisers got a few quid which they passed on to the artists and everyone went home happy.

Then they did it all again in three weeks time.

And so it continued.

Small amounts of money were being spent on Ulster-Scots. Meanwhile, there were some unfortunate and well-documented incidents regarding money being spent on taxi fares and the like, which we'll draw a veil over.

As time passed, so things started to change. Positively, the Agency produced fantastic resources in terms of booklets on Hamilton & Montgomery and the Covenanters, amongst others. Promotion started to go slightly awry with events such as the David Healy Fitba Day and the Santa Hats to Ravenhill (totally inexplicable - don't ask) but in the meantime, groups were receiving funding for workers and there was even the suggestion of a Tourist Board type shop at Agency premises. The mild resurgence in tourism had sparked more interest in genealogy which meant that the culture was gaining more acceptance amongst many Americans who were realising that their roots were Ulster-Scots and not Irish.

But all the time, the BBC was still mocking us. The Museums remained green-hued and the middle-classes remained reluctant to engage with their own heritage.

On other fronts, things were brighter.

I have always been of the view that the Pipe Bands are the obvious shop window for Ulster-Scots in Northern Ireland. We have more of them than Scotland at competition level and a healthy smattering of World Champions in any given year. I have my own views (another post there, methinks) on the health of the local Branch of the RSPBA, but the Bands were continuing to develop and money was being channeled through the Arts Council and Lottery to allow bands to buy new instruments and help with tuition.

Dance was breaking into the schools and money was being found for tuition there as well. More children were engaging and there seemed to be a reluctant acceptance that Ulster-Scots deserved some recognition in the curriculum. Stranmillis had a project underway which was admittedly plagued with problems, but at least they were doing something.

So, what was the money going on? Bits and pieces of promotion; useful resources in terms of promotion and education; event sponsorship (variable quality and questionable worth); funding of groups for projects; support of dance and music; a tiny bit of spending on the language.

Actually, when you look at it, that all seems laudable enough, if sometimes misguided and ill-advised in its implementation.

And so it is/was. However, things will change. As the belts tighten, so we must prioritise. That's where the other limb of the examination comes in.

What do we need money for?

Some things that Ulster-Scots do can be very expensive. We obviously have a marching band culture and the figures when you look at running a pipe band (I declare an interest here) are terrifying. It is the general estimate that a member of a band will cost an average of £1000 to "put on the road". That would cover a modest uniform and either a set of pipes or drum. Uniforms need replaced and instruments become outdated or simply wear out. That money has to come from somewhere. Consequently, a lot of bands have become reliant on Arts Council or similar funding. The picture for Accordion bands is likely similar and is slightly less daunting for the typical (not competition) flute band - simply because the cost of a 5 key flute is much lower than of a set of pipes.

The Language has been neglected for decades and serious work needs to be done on archives and a dictionary project. The troubled Academy may deal with some of those issues but suffice to say, it will be expensive and is time-sensitive as the spoken language is inclined to dwindle. Expertise is required and that costs money to procure. The job is simply too big and too urgent to be left with unfunded enthusiasts.

Resourcing generally is another big issue. By that I mean the provision of "stuff". It can be hard to find Ulster-Scots "stuff". Whether it is for help with tracing your family tree or researching your local history, you can be hard pressed to find the necessary bits and pieces. We don't have enough guide books and pamphlets and we need to have the people to write them. Those people need to eat and feed their families - thus they need paid. More money in the expenditure column there.

That is only scratching the surface - we need dance and music teachers, for example, but I think the point that I am moving towards is to say that we need to examine carefully what we regard to be "core" to our activities. The Fitba Day? Nope. The Santa Hats? Nope again.

More controversially - should we prioritise workers (mostly administrators) for our local groups? Probably nope also.

I have heard it said by more than one individual that the day a group receives core funding and appoints a worker is the day that group begins to wither. The work which was done by a team of volunteers is suddenly dumped on the worker and the volunteers then lose interest as they are not properly engaged any more. The worker becomes inclined to concentrate on the reporting requirements to satisfy the funder amd the impetus for the group's endeavour is lost.

I have always suspected that one of the reasons that we have focussed to such an extent on seeking core funding of groups in the past is that we have confused the notion of Ulster-Scots groups with the more generic "community groups". Certainly, the unionist/pro-British/Protestant/primarily Ulster-Scots side of the house lacks the community structure we can observe elsewhere. There is therefore an understandable urge to redress that imbalance and to fund will-nilly until the community sector appears to have a greater sense of equality.

A problem with that approach is that, in many of those areas where there is lack of a community sector, it seems to be due to apathy on the part of the community itself. There is no community group because the community doesn't want one. Thus, funding a group is wasted money and the new organisation quickly atrophies.

It seems that in many of the areas where Ulster-Scots is likely to receive the warmest welcome, there is no appetite for groups - be they community or cultural. The people are independent and not inclined to want to gather together to navel gaze about who and what they are. Rather, they desire a recognition of their identity, respect for that identity (no more "hoots mon" on the BBC would be a good start) and appreciate the notion that, should they want to explore their history from time to time, there would be a way to do it and a place to go to do it. That comes back to the notion of the need for more "stuff" - the nuts and bolts that make the culture accessible and available.

Looking at it a slightly different way, if you had a thousand pounds to spend on Ulster-Scots - and a thousand pounds only - where would you spend it?

Would it go on classes for music or dance? Would it go on keyrings, bearing the legend "Ulster-Scot and Proud"? Would you buy a couple of new drums for your local band? Would you place an advert for family history research in the Edinburgh Tattoo Programme? Would you fund a support worker (very briefly) to help local groups with administration?

At the minute, I'm not sure that I know the answer to the questions I pose. I do know that the questions can't be avoided. The recession is seeing to that.

I lean towards the notion that resources which will outlive us all should be the priority at this point. That means work being done on collecting together an Ulster-Scots language resource (part of the Academy project). It means promotion of the family history and local history aspects of Ulster-Scots - books on Genealogy and re-writing some of our local history tomes. It means creating, training and supporting a new generation of musicians and dancers, fluent in the musical tradition of Ulster-Scots.

Unfortunately, it may well be that most of those things lie at the "unsexy" end of Ulster-Scots. The nuts and bolts stuff that creates a resource but isn't nearly as much fun as a nice day out with David Healy. But it needs to be done. If we don't prioritise this stuff now, I fear that it may be too late - and all we'll be left with is a Santa Hat, an autograph from Northern Ireland's top-scorer and a vague memory of who we used to be...

Leaden Skies

I was once again plagued by incredibly bad cell reception yesterday and a further foray into Live Blogging from a contest was thus thwarted. Consequently, the post from yesterday morning has only appeared today - once we had returned home!

For anyone interested, FMMPB took the honours in Grade One, pursued by Ballycoan and Cullybackey, in that order. The rest of the Grades threw up few surprises, although it was interesting to see Seven Towers performing strongly in Grade Two - one to watch in that Grade next year, with Ravara safely out of the way in the Premier Division.

The town was packed to the gills and by noon today, we could still count some 35 or so Camper vans in the Lansdowne Crescent carpark. Proof that at least some of them were bandsmen came in the form of a football shirted youngster diligently practising with his Mace Pole - clearly keen to ensure that he doesn't become ring-rusty over the off-season!

The only contest of note which remains is the Cowal Games in Dunoon - beloved by many bandsmen - by me - not so much. It has always struck me as an excuse to go on the tear for a full weekend when most of the important competition business is out of the way. Alcohol fueled tomfoolery results. Not my kind of thing.

In any event, I took a dander round Portrush with my father this morning and took a few shots of the town and the coast - although the skies were less kind than yesterday, some of the shots still pleased me, so I have uploaded the gallery. Sobering to note that my favourite shot of the weekend was probably the lead picture from the post yesterday - which was again taken on the iPhone! Today's efforts are with the trusty SLR - and I don't see the equal of the phone picture!

There Can be Few More Beautiful Places...

The pipe bands round off the local season with the North West Championships in Portrush today.

I came up here last night and have staked my claim in the completely packed car park good and early. It's as well I did, as the camper van brigade has almost totally commandeered the town! If you are thinking of heading this way, you would need to get a move on!

The weather is beautiful at the moment and the scenery sings out its beauty from even the most casually taken snapshots. What are you waiting for? Come on up!

The Video Cometh

The promised video uploading is beginning and this is a small sample of what there is to come - including a mildly disconcerting wink at the camera from Jim Kilpatrick!

I am currently wrestling with the YouTube uploader and will hopefully get a few other clips up pretty quickly. There is a crisp ten pound note awaiting someone who can create a piece of software which will automatically Title and Tag an uploaded video - that exercise may be the definition of tedium...

A Project Completed

I have finally been able to post the gallery of the Worlds 2010 photos in its entirety. As you may recall, I had hoped to add to it as the day went on, but that proved impossible, bearig in mind the well-documented network problems.

If you are interested, you can find it here.

The photo above was taken (as were the rest) using my phone camera, on the Sunday night after the Worlds - and I'm using it for no other reason than that I quite like it. I'm starting to acquire a sense of liberation. Can you tell?


You would be forgiven for wondering why our suitcases are sitting at our side in the Glasgow Airport Starbucks when they should, by rights, being vandalised and violated by baggage handlers. That's easyjet for you.

When we left Belfast on Friday night we had stopped at the sales desk to enquire about the return flights. Our curiosity had been piqued by the fact that the online checkin was describing those flights as "disrupted" but was assuring us that, should the flight be cancelled, we would be sent a separate email. In between hair twirling and pouting, the staff reassured us that it was probably just a mistake and that the flight was still on their system with all the same particulars.

The journey to the airport had already been fraught. The first of the Glasgow Flyer buses we saw sailed past us, without slowing down, while we were about twenty yards from the stop. The next again didn't slow. Mrs Ulsterscot waggled her arms frantically and considered exposing a little of a well-turned ankle - but all for naught. The driver kept his foot to the floor and as he belted past us, took both hands from the wheel and waved them above his head. Rather than being an act of bravado or triumphalism, scanning the bus revealed that this was the International Bus Drivers' Guild signal for "sorry, this bus is full". Mrs Ulsterscot adjusted her garments and we settled to wait at the stop. All the time, we were conscious of the ticking of the clock. Less than an hour now until checkin would be closed. The comedians at the bus company next decided to send past another liveried Glasgow Flyer - but one emblazoned with "Largs" as its destination. The driver glanced at us disdainfully as he handbraked and donutted down the street. It was hard to know whether we had missed that bus, or whether we had simply (and quite properly) failed to get on a bus going to Largs.

Salvation! A correctly badged Flyer! And one that stopped as well!

Twenty minutes and we were at the Airport. We bustled through the door, knocking pensioners and children to the floor. Glancing at the screens, we stopped dead. This gave the pensioners time to struggle to their feet, so we had to look smart. Where was our flight? The words of the hairdressers in Belfast echoed in our ears. "Probably a mistake". No matter, time was wasting. We galloped to the checkin and presented our passports and printouts. "Two for Belfast, my good man", I thundered. "Oh. Belfast. What time's that? Oh, that flight's been cancelled", came the less than satisfactory response.


A trip to the sales counter and we were shunted on to what will doubtless be a flight crowded to Indian train proportions. "I'd definitely get in touch with them, honey", the girl behind the counter opined. Seemingly, there had only been four people booked on the flight and it had been cancelled "for ages". Cleverly, the customer service woman was doing her best to distance herself from having any relationship with easyjet itself. Her parting shot was to repeat - "Get in touch with them..."

So, I have now drunk so much tea that my bladder is likely to explode. We'll be home about four hours later than planned and I'm tapping away furiously on an iPhone in a bid to prevent myself from tapping away furiously on the skull of an easyjet employee. Mrs Ulsterscot is on her fifteenth Valium tablet, washed down with Buckfast, which she swears is the local tipple of choice.

City Breaks. Can't beat them.

The Day After Yesterday

I suppose it's the same for everyone. After a big event, there is the hangover. For my part, that refers not to the slow and painful exodus of alcohol from the system but to the sense of deflation felt when the big day has passed.

Today was wiled away strolling between shops and cafes, trying to avoid the day turning into a post mortem discussion with a wife who hadn't been at the event!

I allowed myself a short review of some of the captured video but am saving the savouring for my return to Ulster.

I see from the web that SFU will be returning to Vancouver tomorrow, so I imagine that they, like most other bands, are en route as I type. An enterprising piper from Dowco Triumph Street Pipe Band was busking in Buchanan Street earlier and seemed to be plying his trade successfully. It was interesting that he was forsaking the technical Grade 1 repertoire in favour of Scotland the Brave and Amazing Grace. The crowd pleasers.

Cruising round the town, Northern Ireland accents can still be heard but Glasgow has a truly continental feel at the moment with Spaniards, French and Germans everywhere. If the crowds on the train on Friday night are anything to go by, the Festivals and Tattoo in Edinburgh clearly have an impact on the numbers drawn to Glasgow as well.

It might be interesting for Belfast to try to borrow a little of that trade by seeing if the RSPBA would shunt the European Championships into the weekend beside the Worlds. Perhaps a few of the international competitors could then be persuaded to "double up" and if a festival could be built around it all, we could lure a few tourists in?

Anyway, dinner is the next stop and then an unusually lazy Monday morning stretches ahead before the flight home.

Results - a rider

SFU (pictured) challenged the results yesterday and the official RSPBA sheet now records them in third with Boghall fourth - on ensemble preference.

One would think that they could get it right for the Worlds. It shouldn't be for the bands to challenge.

The RSPBA should be fit to interpret their own rules and apply them properly. By the by, I would have said it went on MSR preference if pressed for a view, so would have made the same mistake. Though I think I might have consulted the rule book first!

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The crowds have made their way from the park and are infesting the clubs, pubs, bars and eateries all round Glasgow. Amongst the mini-skirted and stilettoed ladies can be spied bandsmen celebrating their victories and blaming judges for defeats. There seems to be a suggestion that SFU may in fact have beaten Boghall to third and they have tweeted that it may take a while to sort out. Certainly, Terry Lee looked none too happy when collecting his cup. So, what to make of it all?

Well, firstly it seems that Glasgow has started to cotton on to what the Worlds can be. The better promotion and organisation doubtless played a part in the size of the crowd, although I'm sure that the weather helped. It seems that we have moved away from the era where one or two big bands would dominate Grade One which is to be welcomed. However, I harbour the suspicion that we are still giving the odd Final place to bands on the basis of miles travelled rather than tunes played. You know who you are.

Ravara will be pleased with their victory in Grade 2, although whether they can "stick" in Grade 1 this time round remains to be seen. The jump from 2 to 1 is massive and Grade 1 itself has the look of a Premiership and First Division combined.

Awful luck for Ballycoan not to qualify. I was told that it was a tuning problem. It was made all the worse by the fact that they had been getting great reports from those watching their practices in the last few days. Better luck next year, boys.

Well done to Cullybackey who deservedly made the Final again. They are sniffing round the edges of becoming contenders. I'm quite sure more would occur to me if I wasn't so exhausted but I'll leave it there for now.

If you were with me throughout the day, I should apologise for the way the posts came out of order but it was a network problem which apparently plagued almost everyone in Glasgow Green.

So, put it in your diary. 13 August 2011. The next World Championships.

Game on.


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