Friday, 30 October 2009

Fair fa ye

After the reopening of the Ulster Museum and Belfast City Hall I noticed that both have a multiligual welcome for visitors and it includes the Ulster-Scots term 'fair fa ye', which can be used as a greeting or a welcome.

For people who are not familiar with Scots or Ulster-Scots, it might be helpful to provide some examples of earlier usage of the term.  Probably the best known is that of Robert Burns in his address To a Haggis.  As the speaker welcomes the haggis he addresses it with the words 'Fair fa' your honest sonsie face.'

That poem was written in 1785 but some fifty years before that an Ulster-Scots poet, William Starrett of Strabane, said 'Fair fa' ye then' when he wrote to his friend Allan Ramsey, the famous Scottish poet. 

James Orr of Ballycarry, the best of the 'weaver poets' and himself a United Irishman, had the women of the village welcome home the returning rebels in 1798 with the words, 'Guid God! Is't you?  Fair fa' ye.' 

The term was also used by another Ulster-Scots poet, but this time from county Down, Robert Huddleston of Moneyreagh.  In 1844 he wrote a satirical poem about the Presbyterian theological controversies of the time and in it he had one of the characters  say 'Fair fa' ye auld Cloots!'  (Greetings Satan!)

The use of 'fair fa ye' by three of the Ulster-Scots poets confirms it as an authentic Ulster-Scots term and shows that it was used in the three core Ulster-Scots speaking areas of Down, Antrim and the Laggan.

More recently the term was used by Ards Borough Council on welcome signs and it also appears on a trilingual welcome sign which was erected some years ago outside in the village of Dunloy, along with the Irish 'failte' and the English 'welcome'.  James Fenton, author of The Hamely Tongue, referred to this in his poem Dunloy, which appears in his volume Thonner an Thon, and he read the poem at the unveiling of the stones.

Fair fa ye is an old Ulster-Scots greeting or welcome and it is good to see it in use today.


  1. The three welcome signs are not outside Dunloy Nelson but in the centre of the village. They're located on the Main Street directly outside our Sinn Féin office. As far as I am aware the local Development Association erected them a number of years back as well as other similar stones across the parish with the names of all the local townlands.

  2. No one is disputing the authenticity of the phrase. It is its use as an equivalent to English "welcome" that people find strange. Try looking up fa v. in the online Dictionary of the Scots Language, and you will see that it is a blessing, with no mention of its being used as an equivalent to "welcome"; the Scots term is in fact simply "walcome".

    Particularly unfortunate is the use of "fair fa ye" with "tae". One does not say "I wish you well to the Ards", after all.

  3. Scots Anorak acknowledges that 'fair fa ye' is an authentic phrase and not a neologism. Furthermore the historical citations I provided demonstrate unequivocally that it is attested in Ulster-Scots as a greeting or welcome.
    Of course a particular word or phrase can be used as a blessing and/or a greeting in any language. These usages are not mutually exclusive. It is the context which determines the actual meaning in any application.
    The fact that the historic Ulster-Scots usage, as a greeting or welcome, does not appear in the online Dictionary of the Scots Language does not in any way invalidate that usage. It merely shows that the Dictionary of the Scots Language is not totally comprehensive - indeed it is generally recognised that its Ulster-Scots content needs to be enhanced.
    The phrase 'fair fa ye' may not have been used as a greeting or welcome in mainland Scots, as Scots Anorak seems to argue, but it has been used in this way in Ulster-Scots.

  4. "Of course a particular word or phrase can be used as a blessing and/or a greeting in any language."

    Indeed. In English, these might include "Terrible weather we're having", "You're in early today" or "Fair play to you. You turned up.". The mere fact of a marginal, context-dependent overlap, however (which, unlike you, I suggest would apply in Scotland too) does not render them basically equivalent to the word "welcome".

    I note that you have not addressed the use of "fair fa ye" with "tae".

    Perhaps I might also take this opportunity to praise your willingness to allow dissenting responses to your posts.

  5. I like seeing 'Fair Fae ye' around, as I do 'Failte'. Gives a sense of some cultural context and history which we don't notice with the vernacular. More of both, please.

  6. Absolutely agree Columban.
    Nelson, does this mean that DUP councillors will have no problem with Irish language signage going forward also?
    Great to see a DUP politician with such views


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