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‘Father of Ulster- Scots Studies’, Robert J....

17 June 2019

The Ulster History Circle will commemorate Robert J. Gregg (I9I2-I998) Scholar, Linguist, Founder of Ulster-Scots Studies, by the unveiling of a Blue Plaque on Thursday 20th June 20I9 at II.00 am at Larne Museum & Arts Centre.

The plaque will be unveiled by William Gregg, the son of Robert J. Gregg.  William, who lives in Toronto, is travelling to Larne especially for the occasion.  This will be Larne’s first Ulster History Circle blue plaque.

Born on 2nd July 19I2 in a house on the Glenarm Road, Robert John Gregg was the eldest son of Thomas Gregg and Margaret McDowell. The McDowell family came from the Glynn/Gleno area of Larne. In I905, Robert’s grandfather, George Gregg and his family arrived in Larne from the Clough area of Co. Antrim. George Gregg & Sons commenced a very successful road contracting business, and many of the roads in and around Larne were built by the Gregg Company. 

Young Robert J. Gregg attended Larne Grammar School, graduated from Queens University with a B.A. Honours in languages, and attributed his interest in the Ulster-Scots dialects from a very early age, to his mother and his McDowell aunts. The McDowell’s farm was in the area of Glynn/Gleno where there was a thriving Ulster-Scots language, and in later life, Robert said that he owed them a ‘debt of gratitude’ for encouraging him as he became fascinated by the number of dialects he heard at school, and in the villages in east Antrim.

 Robert started collecting linguistic material and by 1930 he was compiling a notebook and had commenced intensive research on the Ulster-Scots language which was to last for seven decades.  His passion for language led to a very successful career as Senior Modern Language Master at Regent House School, Newtownards and Senior Master at the Belfast Mercantile College, from 1939-1954.  Apart from French, German and Spanish, this talented linguist spoke Russian and Latin, whilst his work on the Ulster-Scots language continued.  In 1953, his M.A. dissertation at Queens University, on the phonology of the East Antrim Ulster-Scots he knew so well, formed the basis of his later work of his important doctoral thesis, ‘The Boundaries of the Scotch-Irish Dialects in Ulster’.  However, in I954 Robert decided to emigrate to Vancouver, Canada with his wife Millicent and family.

 He taught in Vancouver for the next 25 years, becoming assistant Professor of French at the University of British Columbia; then in 1969 as Professor in the Department of Linguistics, and finally as Head of that Department from 1972-1980, when after a distinguished career, he retired.   His years in Canada saw The Professor set up a language laboratory in the University of British Columbia, write at least six articles on the English spoken in Vancouver and environs, and edit the prestigious ‘Gage Dictionary of Canadian English’.  

 He kept and abiding interest in the dialects of his homeland and a very close contact with colleagues back in Ulster. His daughter, Margaret Gilley in Vancouver, tells us that in 1960 her father travelled back to Ulster on a year’s sabbatical from UBC. He attended and spoke at the conference inaugurating the Ulster Dialect Archive at the Ulster Folk Museum. The year’s absence enabled the culmination of three decades of his informal observations and documentation, and the mapping of where Ulster-Scots was spoken in parts of Antrim, Down, Londonderry and Donegal produced.  The map became a classic and continues to be cited and reproduced by scholars as a point of reference on the geography of the Ulster-Scots speech areas.

 For a time Professor Robert J. Gregg was co-editor of the Ulster Dialect Dictionary project, and when  the Department of Education commissioned the 400 page, ‘Concise Ulster Dictionary ‘, he was enlisted as a consultant. Much of his own material he donated to the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, and he was more than generous in making all his research available to others.

 Vice-Chairman of the Ulster History Circle, Paul Clements comments, ‘Professor Gregg was a tireless founder and life-long student of Ulster-Scots studies. He was a renowned scholar, a writer, and a teacher of languages who emigrated to Canada in 1954 but always retained a great love of Ulster and its speech, and played an important role in preserving the Ulster dialect.  Robert Gregg was a trailblazer in language, and many of the words and phrases that we enjoy today are the result of his research and pioneering work in the 1950’s and 1960’s.

 The Ulster History Circle is grateful to the Ulster-Scots Agency for their financial support towards this plaque, and to the Mid and  East Antrim Borough Council for permitting the Circle to place the plaque on the Larne Museum, formerly the Carnegie Library, and a place that would have been well known to Robert Gregg as a young boy’.

Professor Robert J. Gregg, one of Larne’s most gifted sons;  the man known as the ‘Father of Ulster- Scots Studies’ never forgot his Ulster roots, and his pioneering work in establishing the study of Ulster-Scots as an academic discipline is incalculable.