Mark’s hometown of Ballyhalbert in Co. Down proved to play a significant influence on his life, “everyday whenever we got out of bed you opened the curtains and on a clear day, you could see Scotland”.
It was at the young age of 19 that Mark first realised the important links that tied Ulster and Scotland together, “I went to the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum one day with my then girlfriend who is now my wife and found this wee book. I don’t know what caught my attention about it but I started to read it and it was talking about Ulster Scots and it was using words that everybody in Ulster, uses. It was telling me for the first time in my life that these weren’t English words, they had come from Scotland.”
A vacancy for Chairman of the Ulster Scots Agency came up and Mark took on the role. “I was asked if I would think about getting involved. I said yes and it took up about 4 years of spare time and life in just in trying to push the thing forward.”
Following the Belfast Agreement, the organisation came under a lot of scrutiny by the media and wider community, “controversy sells newspapers or controversy makes people tune in or listen or watch and they got the boot into the Ulster Scots and to an extent they still do”.
For Mark his enjoyment from working with the agency came from working alongside different communities and building new relationships with people. “I firmly believe that Ulster Scots still hasn’t been taken to the heart of local communities. It’s maybe a wee bit different outside of Belfast where in the rural places it’s much more a part of people’s identity. It was lovely to spend time among local communities, just starting to get to know them and to understand their needs.”
Mark talks about Ulster Scots history in the 1600s and the perils faced by Scottish Presbyterians.
“About 250,000 Ulster Presbyterians went to America. The exodus was so big that there were debates in the House of Commons, worrying about what was going to happen because there was going to be no people left, the economy was going to collapse, agriculture, industry, was going to collapse just because these people had fled.”
The mass migration had a huge impact on American culture with Ulster Presbyterians influencing the developments of Princeton University, the American Presbyterian Church and settlers relocating to previously unobtainable native land.
Many families along the coastline from Portaferry to Newtownards are descended from Scottish Presbyterians, “It’s not just a country thing, it’s a rural thing. Belfast itself was built by Scottish folk. And then you just had constant waves of migrations coming through the centuries.”
For Mark, poor education on local history accounts for the lack of historical awareness of Ulster Scots, “At school we were learning about Henry VIII and about the Arab-Israeli conflict and about Hitler. You learnt nothing about what was actually going on under your own feet. I think that’s why there’s such a demand for Ulster Scots. We are constantly having to reprint literature because there is such an appetite for it. People have been starved of their own story.”
Education has a huge role to play in the future of the Ulster-Scot’s Agency and societies understanding of the culture. “I understand that there’s even a United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which enshrines within it that every child has a right to learn about their own culture and heritage. We don’t do that here and we really need to. Ulster Scots has a new story to bring, but it’s a story that’s very, very old. It’s the piece of the puzzle that’s been missing for the last number of generations.”
Mark believes there is potential for Ulster Scots to influence cultural tourism in Northern Ireland. “As far as I know there is a heritage centre in Cobh (near Cork), that get’s something like 150,000 visitors a year. Why is there not an Ulster Scots centre in Northern Ireland that has the potential to attract 150,000 visitors a year?”
With the Ulster Scots Agency reforming its structure, Mark’s ambitions for the Agency’s future may well be achieved, “In theory, it should make it easier for community groups who want to run Ulster Scots projects, to get support. I’d like to look back in a couple of year’s time and see that some of the changes we’ve managed to make, really do allow the community to flourish.”