Blue plaque tribute to Larne’s Ulster Scots studies founder

A blue plaque was unveiled at Larne Museum and Arts Centre today (Thursday) to commemorate the contribution of a former resident to the Ulster Scots language.

Thursday, 20th June 2019, 5:19 pm
Pictured at the unveiling of a blue plaque in honour of Professor Robert John Gregg at the Larne Museum and Arts Centre are (L to R) Liam Logan, committee member, Chris Spur, chairman and Paul Clements, vice chairman, all the Ulster History Circle, the Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Cllr Maureen Morrow , William Gregg, son of Professor Gregg and his wife Irene. INLT 22-005-PSB

Robert J Gregg (1912-1998) was the founder of Ulster Scots studies who was born in a house at Glenarm Road.

He was the eldest son of Thomas Gregg and Margaret McDowell. The McDowell family came from the Glynn/Gleno area. The McDowell’s farm was in an area of a thriving Ulster-Scots language.

The plaque - the first in Larne by the Ulster History Circle - was unveiled by his son William Gregg who said that his father spoke a total of nine languages, including Gaelic, Russian and Middle English and taught himself Spanish in just six weeks.

The blue plaque in honour of Professor Robert John Gregg. INLT 22-006-PSB

William said: “We are very pleased that after almost 59 years this has happened. My father was so far ahead in recognising Ulster Scots when other people were not interested, almost 60 years ago.

“He did such a wonderful job of recording Ulster Scots dialect. To have him recognised at this event is wonderful.”

Robert was fascinated by the number of dialects he heard in East Antrim. By 1930, he was compiling a notebook and had commenced intensive research on the Ulster-Scots language which was to last seven decades.

He was a senior modern language teacher at Regent House School, Newtownards, and later, the Belfast Mercantile College. He completed an MA degree at Queen’s University Belfast on the phonology of the East Antrim Ulster-Scots.

He taught in Vancouver for the next 25 years where he was assistant professor of French at the University of British Columbia and professor and later head of the Department of Linguistics. He went on to edit a dictionary of Canadian English.

Mr Gregg is fondly remembered at the University of British Columbia as an “ageless linguist”.

Visitors at the plaque unveiling heard that when he met the Bellaghy poet Seamus Heaney in 1971, as a “word fancier”, he had an early “understanding of what Heaney was doing for Ulster poetry”.

On a sabbatical in 1960, Robert inaugurated the Ulster Dialect Archive at the Ulster Folk Museum and enabled the mapping of where Ulster-Scots was spoken in parts of counties Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Donegal.

He was enlisted as a consultant for the Ulster Dialect Dictionary project when the Department of Education commissioned 400 pages.

William went on to describe his father as a “foremost expert” in Ulster Scots.

“He was very good at research and persistent.”

He also noted that his father had designed and supervised a “language lab” in Canada and had a passion for Canadian English.

Robert also designed a phonetic keyboard which was produced by typewriter giant Olivetti and featured two keyboards.

He joked that if a second blue plaque was to be erected, it should be dediated to his mother who typed extensive manuscripts for the Concise Ulster Dictionary.

Ann Scott, chair, of the Ulster Scots Language Society, said that Robert Gregg had been president of the society when it was formed.

She said that the importance of his work gave the dictionary “sound academic foundation”.

“Ulster-Scots is his lifelong passion. His views command respect. They are based on sound academic research.”

He was also said to have fiercly dismissed claims as “nonsense” that Ulster Scots was merely a “regional variant of English”.

She paid tribute to his dedication to the production of the Concise Ulster Dictionary despite Robert’s health problems.

“He remained an Ulsterman to the core regardless of his residence in Canada.”