Gaelic Language and Identity in Glengarry, Ontario, 1901

I’m preparing for a talk at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures (in June in Vancouver) on the literary and cultural activities of Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser” in English). He’s an interesting and complicated man (the first archivist of the Province of Ontario, among other things) who left an important but largely unexamined Gaelic legacy.

I’ve already edited and translated several things he wrote in my recent anthology of Canadian-Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, but he wrote and edited much more, such as the address to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society in 1901 printed in the brochure I examine in this blog post. The brochure is titled Cànain agus Cliù ar Sinnsearan and was printed in 1901.

I have translated the text of this address into English from the original Gaelic below and precede each paragraph with a number in square brackets for reference. You can find a digitized scan of the original Gaelic text at this webpage (unfortunately I’ve been told that it is not accessible in every country).


One word in the title of this brochure requires some discussion: cliù. Etymologically it refers to what is heard, but in common usage it signifies the reputation that a person acquires through their behavior and actions. It has positive associations, by default, as other terms would be used for infamy, and in particular it often refers to the exemplary precedents set by role models. It is a concept at the centre of the Gaelic literary world, given that the role of the poet was to uphold traditional ideals and those who lived up to them through the composition and performance of texts. I have chosen to translate cliù as “renown,” but it should be clear that it carries a deep communal and historical resonance in Gaelic.

Friseal makes a number of very important points about identity, culture and oral tradition in this address, ones that are entirely consistent with Gaelic perspectives across generations that I have examined in previous articles (such as “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad”) and books (Warriors of the Word for Scotland and Seanchaidh na Coille for Canada), but that contrast with common contemporary beliefs and assumptions.

Gaelic identity, in specific, is Friseal’s concern: he does not conjure any generalized notion of Scottishness; he does not invoke tartans or tartanism or other forms of symbolic ethnicity. While he does refer to the Highlands and the heather (paragraph 3), these provide geographical associations rather than any essentialized tokens or sublimations for ethnic expression. Like many other Gaels before and after him, Friseal states explicitly that language, not ancestry, is at the core of Gaelic identity and he provides evidence of this (also in paragraph 3) in the form of the assimilated population of early Gaelic settlements in Canada as well as an aristocrat who rejected his own Gaelic ancestry.

While it may not be clear in the translation, in the original Gaelic the terms for Gael and Highlander (as ethnonyms), Gaelic and Highland (as adjectives), Gaeldom and the Highlands (as locales and communities) are all the same: it is only the recent alienation of language from culture that has created the distinction.

It’s also interesting to note the difference between this Gaelic cultural stance and the orientation of modern clan associations. Many descendants of the Highland diaspora today who join clan associations experience “Scottishness” through a narrow lens of genealogy or surname affiliation, that is, solely through people sharing the same surname (or supposed septs of the same clan federation). Friseal delivered this talk to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society, yet he downplays any such narrow focus on the MacDonalds, even to the point of naming and setting aside the great founder figures and warrior-figures of the clan (paragraph 6). He instead states that their common identity as Gaels is the most important issue (paragraph 1) and extols the achievements of the common Gael in the domestication of the landscape (paragraph 6).

Given that language is key to Gaelic identity and culture, Friseal spends the majority of his address exhorting his fellow Gaels to sustain it and to value it. He explicitly names some of the factors working against the transmission of Gaelic (in paragraph 5), such as the stigmatization of the language during cultural conflict with anglophones and the perceived competition between the material value of English and an allegiance to Gaelic based on non-material factors. He peppers his text with lyrics from popular Gaelic songs and makes explicit mention of how oral tradition keeps memory of specific places and historical experiences alive in communal memory (paragraphs 3, 6, 8, 12 and 14).

There is a very notable aspect of visual symbolism in the booklet, and that is the use of “Celtic knotwork” at the beginning and end of the book. This appeared at the same time as a few other Gaelic publications (such as Carmina Gadelica) were drawing on this medieval artistic heritage. It seems to be indicative of the growing “pan-Celtic consciousness” of the era and its appearance is noteworthy in a brochure printed in Gaelic in Canada.

It should be explicitly noted that there are a number of concepts around identity and culture Friseal does not invoke: he never mentions the notion of whiteness, Britishness, or even Scottishness. He never says that he is proud of his clan, nor does he disparage the French or any other ethnic group, or overplay military stereotypes or militancy. He merely underscores the importance of the Gaelic language and culture, its role in expressing and maintaining Gaelic identity, and its perilous condition at the time. These, I will argue, are features of most of his writings in Gaelic and contrast with the discourse of racialism and anglocentric triumphalism that we generally expect in anglophone discourse of the time.


[Blurb below the portrait of Friseal]

“Reminiscing about the good humour of the old days. Respectfully, I am Alexander Fraser.”

[1] O, great leader, and gentle women and men: I consider it one of the greatest privileges that my compatriots in Canada to have ever been bestowed upon me to have received an invitation to be with you here today, at this great spectacular gathering for the Clan Donald Society. I do not have suitable words to express to you the pleasure that it gives me to be with my compatriots here at the first annual meeting of this organization, and to be gazing at the kind visages of the Gaels of Glengarry, people who are famous as true Gaels throughout this country and throughout the Highlands of Scotland. Under the patronage of Clan Donald, this large crowd meets today, and if there is one of the Highland clans that has garnered renown beyond the others in Canada, is the the MacDonalds. But, as the poet said, – “We are all brothers, give me your hand,” – we are here as Gaels, and especially as the Gaels of Glengarry, to be exhorting and encouraging each other, to sustain the customs, traditions and renown of our ancestors – especially their renown.

[2] We have acquired as a people an invaluable heritage from our forefathers – religion, virtue, loyalty, natural beauty, kindness, morality, generosity, and many other assets, and the golden vessel in which those virtues are cached is the pure, melodious tongue of our forefathers. It would be a sad and ugly day for the Gaels if Gaelic were to die :— a dark, sad day on which the most precious gift which we have ever received from our mothers and fathers would be forever lost.

[3] My compatriots — I am before you today with two primary messages — on the one hand, keep alive our mother tongue; on the other hand, keep alive the renown of our ancestors. When Gaelic does, the glorious crown of the Gael will fall from his head; the emblem of our people will be blotted out from the history of the world; the pine tree will shoot out its branches, and the heather will open its pink-blossomed leaves on the Scottish mountains, as always – they will not change, for they follow the eternal habits of nature; but, alas! The pine tree will no longer be the emblem of the Clan Alpine on that sorrowful day, or the heather the emblem of the Clan Donald, for in the absence of that ancient language that “Adam spoke in Paradise itself,” where would the Gaels be? They would not be able to be found throughout the peoples of the world. Don’t see find evidence of this in our own country? On every side of the great St. Lawrence River, in Quebec City, there are MacDonalds and Frasers, branches of the MacGillivrays, MacIntoshes, MacKenzies, MacLeans, Munros and Rosses, and other people with Highland names; generations of Gaels who came to Canada about 150 years ago. The names are there, but are they Gaels who bear them? Alas, they are not, but people who became French in their language, in their traditions, in their religion and in their hearts. It’s not long since Sir John Ross, a person who was, according to the opinion of many a seanchaidh, the heir of the Earldom of Ross, said that he would rather be a member of the French Parliament in Canada, than to be a great lord among the Gaels of Scotland. Likewise, the thoughts of many men have been corrupted by worldly desires, and there is no escape from this conclusion, that the end of our generation will be likewise, when Gaelic bows its grey, aged, honorable head, and gives its last breath. It will not leave a people who will be called “Gaels” in its wake, since the generations who will follow us will be swallowed up in the fatal, forgetful ocean of the world.

[4] But, must that happen? Is the condition of Gaelic so bad and hopeless as this? It is difficult to answer those questions. If the Gaels would arise, as they should, there would be no doubt about the matter. It is still in their own hands to deliver a solid victory. Are we, the Gaels as a whole, doing would we can do and should do in this matter? It must be admitted, with sadness, with great sadness, that we are not. In many families, very little is done to acquire a knowledge of Gaelic. Isn’t this a shameful thing? Is it any wonder that some of us are pained about this back-sliding? I entreat you to lend an open ear to these words, and to be repentant, before it is too late. I am unfurling the victorious banner of Gaelic open before you today; I am casting its sails open on the wind; I am obliging you, o men and women of Glengarry, – children of the warriors, generation of the renowned people from whom you spring – that you will not rest and that you will not fail, until you carry this banner to enduring, eternal and foundational victory!

[5] Will it be said that it was left to the Gaels of our day to sell our birthright for money? for worldly contentment? for the tainted gold of mercantilism? or that the language was betrayed because of the mockery of the Englishman? Is it a small thing for us to be as irresponsible as this? O Gaels! Take careful attention that we do not make ourselves a laughing stock and cause of shame to the generations who come after us. Let us be loyal to our language today, let us teach it to our children, and let us pass it down as we received it, pure and uncorrupted, from our forefathers.

[6] A word or two now about the renown of our ancestors. I don’t intend to speak about Conn of the Hundred Battles, or Colla, or Somerled, or the poets, or the brave warriors who belonged to Clan Donald, at this time. That history is inscribed in the poetry of our land, and will be known for as long as people speak and write Gaelic. But at the heart of this Gaelic county, where I am standing today, I would like to speak about our fathers and mothers who settled in Canada. They were Highland soldiers who won Canada for the British Crown in 1759. Highland claymores protected the country in 1812, and again in 1837, 1866 and in 1884. Our compatriots have not diminished in heroism; they are soldiers, as is their birthright. But as the poet said:

[7] “Alexander the Great was no warrior
Nor Caesar who forced Rome to surrender …
But he is a warrior who earns victory
Over the fear of life and the horror of death,
Who meets with a courageous heart
Everything which is destined.”

[8] Even though the history of our soldiers is renowned, it is very appropriate that we should honor the people who left their homes in the Highlands and who came into the thick, dark forests in Canada, and who opened up this country for the world. We can hardly understand the extent of the toil they undertook, to be clearing the land and laying a foundation for the country that will endure the ages. Circumstances were hard for the majority of them; they have no luxury in their homes, there was no elegance around them. But the hearts in their bodies were courageous, their arms were strong, optimism guided their steps and there was no fear that the heroes would give up. Their labours are clear here today. Observe the fertile, productive fields that encompass us – land as beautiful as any on which the merciful sun of Providence shines warm rays; those are the fields, those are the homes, that your forefathers left to us to possess. Often do you sing the songs of the Old Country; about

[9] “The isle of Mull, the prosperous isle
The sunny isle, which the salt water surrounds.”

[10] And songs about “The green isle of Islay,” “Islay of the grass,” “where the goodly nobles would be.” You have never seen grassy Lochaber, or the Scottish Highlands. That is where I was born, and until the day I die, my love for the land of my birth and ancestors will never diminish.

[11] “I love the Highlands, I love every glen,
Every waterfall and corrie in the land of the mountains.”

[12] Although that is true indeed, I am telling you here, today, that I have never in Scotland or England seen grasslands more beautiful, rich, productive or elegant than the grasslands that your forefathers won from the marshes and the forests, that they left to you. Therefore, keep up their memory in name and in renown. Build a memorial in your hearts for their sake; and let their feats be written down in the history of the country. Follow in their footsteps closely, proclaim that you descended from them and that you are proud of their renown.

[13] These two things. The renown and language of our people. Do not let the day come in which they are rejected.

[14] “I love Gaelic, her poetry and her music,
It has often uplifted us when we were harmed;
It is what we learned in the days of our youth
And what we will never leave until we lie down in the sod.”

Lady Baublehead’s Funeral: A Parable of Scottish Highland Historiography

Lady Baublehead was someone I only saw from a distance, sometimes in brief flashes through the windows of the mansion of the sprawling estate I espied on my long walks through the countryside beyond our village. By this time she was already entering old age, reportedly falling into a state of dementia which only increased after the demise of her husband, Lord Baublehead, rumour had it, accelerated by family squabbles over the future of their collective legacy.

When the funeral was held in our parish church, I was too curious not to enter anonymously and surreptitiously into the ritual proceedings, and try to learn more about her, and the goings-on of the reserved yet illustrious family.

The first to speak at the funeral was Dr. Wiesner, cousin to Lord Baublehead, who was present at the time of her death. His manner, as expected of a man of his rank and learning, was cool and collected as he addressed the assembly. “I shall be as objective as possible, presenting only the facts as they stand. Lady Baublehead was born Sarah Stewart, on February 22, 1922 in Staffin, the Isle of Skye, weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces. She received very high marks throughout her education, earning distinctions in English and Mathematics in particular. She met Lord Baublehead when they were both students at Edinburgh and were wed on June 3, 1956. Only one child issued from their union, Margaret. Lady Baublehead experienced increasing levels of dysphasia after the death of her beloved husband in 1999. She passed away last Wednesday from related complications. That completes my account.”

The doctor disappeared with a dramatic swish of the black curtain behind the coffin.

Lord Baublehead’s sister, Lady Wrymouth, emerged from the front bench, walking with a steady, stately gait to the pulpit. “We are greatly saddened by the death of our beloved sister,” she stated with decorum. “She was a great asset to our community, indeed to our entire nation. She gave of herself generously whenever anyone asked of her help. She was there with me when I was working tirelessly on my charity for the orphaned children of veterans, just as she exerted herself selflessly with me when I was labouring in the garden. We are so proud of the improvement she was able to effect in her own life through being adopted into our family, having refined herself from a simple and rude state of affairs to that of polish and civilisation.  She thus offers a model of progress for all those who wish a better life for themselves and others. If she were here herself, we have no doubt that she would reassure you not to suffer on her account, but only to reflect on your own path, have hope and be grateful.”

She returned to the front bench, apparently only now allowing herself to express grief, without her face being exposed to the rest of the congregation. After a long and awkward pause, a woman arose from the opposite bench. The sorrow was much clearer to read on her countenance, even under her dark veil. She carried a compact black book in her hand and opened it as she reached the pulpit.

“This is my mother’s diary. It allows her to speak for herself, over the years, in a way that others cannot. She found it very difficult to leave the community of her birth and the language of her youth. She was courageous and adventurous, able to accommodate herself to the expectations made upon her – learning English, donning apparel previously unknown to her, moving in circles of people previously strange to her – but she was seldom allowed to assert her own opinions or spend her time as she would have preferred.” At this, there was some uncomfortable stirring and coughing from some of the family.

But she continued. “The name she bestowed on me at birth is Maighread, her own mother’s name, although she was willing concede that an English version of my name be used by those who could not pronounce it. She taught me her native language and we spoke it in the privacy of our home and on family visits to Skye, but it was not considered polite to use around others. My father did not entirely disapprove of our language and did not insist that we abstain from our linguistic habits, and he even shielded us from the censure of the rest of his family. Mother was exposed to the disapproval of others after his passing.”

“It was her wish that our home become a museum to the history of her people on her passing, and that is my wish as well. Although many of her brothers and sisters, and their children, have little interest in maintaining the memory of their humble origins, she preferred to celebrate and commemorate all that which built the foundation of her life, and that of many others who did not enjoy the privileges that she married into – even if the strain added greatly to her unhappiness.”

There was an impassioned discussion between neighbours after the funeral was over, with some saying that the doctor was the only person qualified to speak authoritatively about Lady Baublehead, and that the daughter was far too close to the issue to be objective. Others professed preference for the words of Lady Wrymouth, noting her fine, noble sentiments and her advocacy of all that is worthy of emulation. It was a curious proceeding. Some said that the daughter was hoping to find a publisher who could put her mother’s diary into print, to help to settle the conflict over the family inheritance, but seeds of doubt about the lucidity of Lady Baublehead, especially in her later years, have been well sown now – Highlanders are, after all, known to be prone to odd flights of fancy that cannot be taken seriously, and even Lady Margaret must have a touch of that madness –, and the Wiesners have great influence amongst people of letters.

Vuejs generic modal dialog components for Electron apps

I’m experimenting with Electron as a platform for web-apps that run native and with Vuejs as a dynamic data-binding view component framework. I like both of these software “eco-systems” a lot but I haven’t been satisfied with the solutions for components providing modal dialogs that I’ve found online. (For example, this one or this one.)

Electron supports a dialog element, which is a much better solution than a DIV with high z-index value. Not only that, many of the solutions I’ve seen require a list of Booleans that control whether or not each modal dialog is visible or not; this clutters up the main Vue application object.

My own solution leverages the ability to have a dynamically-bound component: this is either a special “null” dialog or one of the actual working modal dialog windows. Each of the real dialog windows uses a generic dialog component as a child, to handle some of the common functions, and can pass in a class to modify the size of the dialog box. The params object is used for communication of dialog-specific data between the code that uses the dialog and the logic within the dialog itself. Each dialog template can pass a CSS class to modify its size as needed.

I hope this proves useful to others developing on Electron.

(PS: Apologies: WordPress won’t format all of the HTML text content in this blog post properly, so once I have this on GitHub or jsfiddle or something, I’ll post a link. But you should get the idea.)

CSS file

dialog {
    border: 1px grey solid;
    padding: 20px;
    box-shadow: 10px 10px 5px -7px rgba(0,0,0,0.75);

dialog div.dialogmedium {
    width: 350px;

dialog div.dialogwide {
    width: 500px;

HTML file

<!-- Vue app here -->
<template id="vue-modal-generic">
    <dialog id="modal-wrapper">

<template id="vue-modal-null">
    <modal :params="params"></modal>

<template id="vue-modal-test">
    <modal :params="params" mclass="dialogmedium">

[These are buttons that won’t format on this blog, but they send event messages] OK Cancel


JavaScript file

var VModalGeneric = Vue.extend({
    props: {
        params: Object,
            mclass: {
                type: String,
                default: ''
    template: '#vue-modal-generic',
        // Lifecycle Methods
    ready: function()
        if (this.params.createDialog) {
    beforeDestroy: function()
        if (this.params.createDialog) {

var VModalNull = Vue.extend({
    props: {
       params: Object
    template: '#vue-modal-null',
    components: {
        modal: VModalGeneric
    created: function() {
         this.params.createDialog = false;

var VModalTest = Vue.extend({
    props: {
        params: Object
    template: '#vue-modal-test',
    components: {
        modal: VModalGeneric
    created: function() {
        this.params.createDialog = true;
        // Event messages sent by DOM elements
    methods: {
        clickok: function()
                // Add logic here
        clickcancel: function()
     } // methods()

var vApp = new Vue({
    el: '#vue-app',
    data: {
        modalParams: { }, // parameters passed to modals
        modalShowing: 'modalNull' // modal currently showing
    components: {
        modalNull: VModalNull,
        modalTest: VModalTest
        // Methods called by DOM elements
    methods: {
            // PURPOSE: Activate a modal, or use 'modalNull'
        setModal: function(modalID)
            this.modalShowing = modalID;
           // Messages sent by child components
    events: {
        'close-modal': function()
            this.modalShowing = 'modalNull';
        'cancel': function () {
            this.editComponent = 'editNull';
            this.itemEditing = null;
            this.indexSelected = -1;
    } // events

// To use, set needed parameters in vApp.modalParams and call vApp.setModal('modalTest');

Gaelic at age 3

It’s been almost exactly a year since I wrote a blog post discussing my efforts to use Gaelic with my daughter in the home. She’ll be four in November and we’re still going, and I think that our challenges – and my attempted strategies – are relevant for those using any minority/minoritized language at home, especially when there is a lack of a social community to reinforce the language in the local environment.

Positive Affirmation. I feel more convinced than ever that early learning is a social process that forms, and is nurtured by, emotional bonds. Children at this age want to connect to other people, especially adults, and seek approval and positive affirmation. It’s very hard to avoid the ingrained, automatic habit of praising her for her looks, but we attempt as much as possible to complement her for being smart and capable of doing things. She understands the importance of intelligence and capability and clearly looks for reinforcement on those areas.

I stated to her recently that people who speak two languages are twice as smart as people who only speak one. She then proceeded to claim that she speaks three languages (having picked up on the existence of Spanish from our environment), and has boasted of her linguistic skills to family members. In fact, she’s attempted to teach some Gaelic to our parents who have visited lately. And this, I think, confirms the point that emotional and social bonds are an inherent part of the learning process for children that informs their self-worth.

Highlight Linguistic Diversity: Anglophones tend to be highly monolingual and monocultural, so normalizing multilingualism is important to keep children engaged. Point out when other people are speaking other languages, teach phrases in other languages, and ask to share and exchange bits of language and linguistic cultural (like songs) with other children and parents.

Reading Materials: We have always read a lot with our daughter and she is greatly interested in letters and reading now. Although there are a number of good Gaelic books out there, not least those produced by Acair Ltd, we can only afford to make occasional purchases and they are dwarfed by the number and variety of those in English. We can’t ignore or dismiss that reality.

I try to read at least one book in Gaelic to her at night-time, but even I get a bit weary of the redundancy that comes from our limited selection. Whenever I do read a book in English to her, I always make asides and comment upon the contents of the text and the illustrations in Gaelic. This, I think, helps to keep Gaelic in our dialog and to bridge the bilingual divide. Given that her English will be inevitably stronger than her Gaelic (due to the lack of a language community), these asides facilitate her comprehension of Gaelic by relating it to what we do and read in English.

Keep It Fun: Again, given that learning is ultimately a social process, forming and nurturing emotional bonds, it’s important to keep it as fun as possible. Sing songs, make up rhymes and stories, include their names in things, make videos of them using the language …

On the Gaelic musical term “org(h)an”

The word org(h)an and associated derivates appear in Gaelic texts in the 17th and 18th centuries. The glossary of the poetry anthology Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig prepared by William J. Watson in 1918 translates this word as “organ” (i.e., the musical instrument), although the Latin/Greek term organum is also listed without comment. Subsequent editors and translators of Scottish Gaelic literature (so far as I am aware) followed the assumption that the term always refers to a musical instrument. There are several possibilities of exactly which instrument was meant at differing times by various authors, such as the virginal, but identifying specific instruments is not the aim of this short article.

I became aware some time ago, however, that the Gaelic term is by no means so semantically restricted. Like the Latin/Greek term, it cannot only refer to a musical instrument but to the ability of an instrument to effect polyphony. The term organum appears in Latin texts in Insular Celtic contexts with both meanings, as Burstyn notes:

The medieval usage of the term organum, as, indeed, of other musical terms, was looser and less specific than is generally assumed. In the 12th century, organum was frequently used as a covering term for polyphony (both vocal and instrumental, as is clear from Gerald’s use of the term to describe Irish harp playing.) (Burstyn 1983: 137).

The term was borrowed into Middle Gaelic with the same semantic ambiguities, as is clear in the entries for orghan in the Dictionary of the Irish Language ( Note, for example, the usage in the 12th/13th-century Acallam na Senórach: “ceol ┐ orghan ┐ sianorgan ban Erenn.” This clearly refers to a type or quality of music, rather than an instrument.

The same sense of “polyphony” or “rich aural texture of multiple notes” can be found in a number of Scottish Gaelic texts (mostly of the 17th and 18th centuries). It is my hypothesis that an understanding of the term as an aural description (rather than just an instrument) fell out of use as English displaced Gaelic in formal environments that would have previously supported native professional learned classes. The bias against the use of musical instruments in Presbyterian congregations may have further accelerated the obsolescence of this semantic range of the term.

The following is a list of occurrences of the term (mostly from Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig) which I have close to hand from Scottish Gaelic sources. I will mark each one with either “instrument,” “aural” or “double entendre” (as composers deliberately play with lexical ambiguity):

  1. “Òran Mór MhicLeòid” by An Clarsair Dall: “Iad gu h-organach ceòlmhor cluth” – aural
  2. “An Crònan” by Màiri Nighean Alasdair: “’S binne na gleus organ” – instrument?
  3. “Cumha MhicLeòid” by Màiri Nighean Alasdair: “nan ceòl orghan” – aural
  4. “Moladh Chinn-tìre” (prob. William MacMurchy): “Organ as glòrmhoire ’s a’ chruinne” – aural, double entendre?; “Nuallan a tonna mar orgain” – instrument?
  5. “Do Dhomhnall Gorm Òg” by Iain Lom: “Is orghain Lìteach” – instrument?
  6. “Biodh an Uidheam Seo Triall” by Iain Lom: “Le an cluinnte orghan teud” – aural
  7. “Màiri Nighean Deòrsa” by Alasdair Òg Mac Fir Àrd na Bighe: “Is leat gach buaidh orgain” – double entendre?
  8. “Gaoir nam Ban Muileach” by Mairghread nighean Lachlainn: “Organ ’s clàrsach bu bhinne” – instrument
  9. “Gaisgeach na Sgéithe Deirge” (heroic oral narrative): “no le organ nam manach” – aural

I will leave it to a more ambitious scholar to analyze all of the usages now accessible via the incredible resources at DASG. Begin your research by simply clicking this link:


Shai Burstyn. “Gerald of Wales and the Sumer Canon.” The Journal of Musicology 2.2 (1983): 135-150 .

William Watson. Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Gaelic Poetry 1550-1900. Inverness: An Comunn Gaidhealach, 1976 [1918].

Ethno-linguistic Equity in (Digital) Humanities: The Impossible Dream?

I’m going to start off with the admittedly idealistic premise that the role of the humanities in academia is to enable us to understand our communities, our regions, and our nations in all of their breadth, depth and complexity. This lofty goal has often been thwarted by the exclusions inherent in societies and the ability of those who can exercise the power and privileges granted by their institutions to represent themselves and their interests disproportionally and to exclude others from having access to those same resources and privileges and thus diminishing their ability to represent themselves, if at all. If we are to understand our history and our present in all of its diversity and complexity, we have to look behind the veils thrown up by such distortions and seek out the evidence of those who were not the de facto beneficiaries of the institutions that dominated their place and time.

I’ve been long concerned that in the rush to create a new humanities infrastructure based on digital tools and representations, we may simply replicate and re-entrench the pre-existing disparities that have long existed due to the biases and exclusions mentioned above. Digital Humanities projects typically rely on low-hanging fruit – materials and data that can be easily “harvested” and integrated into digital projects – but their easy accessibility is often the result or reflection of institutions or social norms that have facilitated certain types of cultural expression – or cultural agents with particular characteristics or identities – and disempowered or occluded others.

My concerns are confirmed in the first part of a new study about the funding of digital humanities projects and how the allocation (or denial) of grants has the potential to reassert cultural hegemonies:

We are at a critical juncture for supporting diversity in the digital humanities and risk embedding historical, self-reinforcing patterns of marginalization which are obfuscated by a focus on new technological and methodological modes of engagement. This represents a form of technological determinism and is something that many humanists express a desire to avoid as we move into a new era of humanities research which considers digital technology to be an embedded feature of the human social world. … Cultural hegemony is not always expressed directly or openly. It can become systematized and formalized to the point that it is almost unnoticeable at the surface level. In the case of the United States, it is hardly contestable at all. Groups at the margins of the hegemony need not directly give consent, but instead can simply be so completely and systematically disenfranchised that it is nigh unto impossible for them to resist it at all. This feature makes it difficult to identify instances of cultural hegemony at all, let alone make recommendations as to how it can be subverted. (Martin and Runyon)

I wholeheartedly agree with the framework built by the authors for discussing issues of hegemony and disenfranchisement up to this point of their analysis. It is problematic, however, that they define and identify exclusion, marginalization and privilege thereafter solely through the lenses of gender and racial identity. This reflects a form of presentism that seems pervasive in North American academia which allows contemporary categories of race and gender to overshadow the ethno-linguistic diversity of materials that represent and embody the totality of our historical experiences and cultural production. Such is the argument made, for example, by Marc Shell in the introduction to his edited volume American Babel:

Inside and outside the often changing borders of the American colonies between 1750 and 1850, if ever there were a polyglot place on the globe – other than Babel’s spire – this was it. … The American academy’s passing over most non-anglophone American languages and literatures is, of course, partly explicable by the fact that it is easier to talk about other peoples’ cultures in English than to learn their languages. But the main explanation is that literary America, despite its horror of race slavery and its ideal of racial blindness, has always liked to emphasize racial difference instead of language difference. This preference arises from the traditional American pretense than culture is not largely linguistic or, rather, that culture ought to be English. … Even as the American university claims to foster a tolerant heterogeneity of cultures, then, it perseveres in the traditional American homogenization of the world as English. … Few American literary critics work on the vast multilingual literature of the United States. Most simply raise up English-language works written by members of America’s various ethnic and racial groups – often in the name of multicultural diversity – even as they dismiss American literary works written in languages other than English.

Anglo-American leadership in technological innovation has meant that the English language has been the default beneficiary of the digital revolution’s boons and resources. Unless proactive steps are taken, minoritized languages – indigenous and immigrant – will continue to be excluded from the privileges that English enjoys and the cultural expressions of those corresponding communities will continue to be marginalized, if they are represented at all.

There are, of course, important intersections between race and ethnolinguistic identity, but these are by no means aligned historically in simplistic or hegemonic ways, or even in the present (as revealed in problematic ethnonyms like “Latina/o”). It is easy to forget that racialized identities (“white,” “black,” etc.) are social constructs that gained currency over time because of their ability to dislodge previous ethnolinguistic allegiances and forge new solidarities and milieus. That these forces and currencies had everything to do with privilege is undeniable, but so is the fact that whiteness was defined and controlled by the dominant anglophone hegemony which had little tolerance for non-conformity. How did immigrant groups conceive of their own identity in immigrant contexts, engage with the idea of whiteness (and other forms of identity), negotiate about the nature of their evolving cultures in North American settings, reconcile themselves with the decline of their languages and come to terms with the marginalization and discrimination of others who could not access racialized privilege? These are some of the questions that we can best answer by examining their literary productions in their own languages and within the frameworks of their own cultural heritages, but which are occluded from view if we only look through racialized lenses. And these comments do not even begin to address the issues pertaining to the many distinct communities indigenous to this continent who have and continue to use their own languages to express their own cultures and concerns.

My own humanistic research has been on the Scottish Gaelic immigrant communities which could be found all over North America in the 19th century. There is not a single faculty member in the United States now working on the literary output of this group; probably the only faculty member in the US to have ever done so was the late Charles Dunn of Harvard, who ceased to be active in this area some thirty or more years ago. As a result, the cultural and literary expressions of Scottish Gaelic communities are poorly if at all represented in academia and there can be virtually no “beachhead” for extending developments into the digital realm. There are individual woman writers of all racial designations whose English-language output has been successfully made more accessible to the public by the academy than that of the entire North American Gaelic community. It must also be emphasized that Scottish Gaelic identity was traditionally expressed and understood in ethnolinguistic rather than racial terms: there were (and still are) people of non-European ancestry who produced cultural and literary expressions in Gaelic which need to be accessed and interpreted for the fullness of this community, and the American story, to be understood. Scottish Gaelic is a highly endangered language and culture in the present exactly because of its historical marginalization at the hands of an anglophone hegemony, so merely characterizing it in racial terms (which do not reflect the internal diversity of its constituent members) is misleading.

The Palimpsest project presents an example of Gaelic’s marginalization in the digital realm (albeit in a Scottish context). This impressive digital project contains a database of literary texts that are dynamically mapped to locations Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland). This work was facilitated by the easy availability of a large number of texts (about 550) in English. Despite the fact that Gaelic has been spoken and used as a medium for literary production in Edinburgh for centuries, however, the project did not integrate any Gaelic sources and as a result, Gaelic is invisible and marginalized. Including Gaelic would not only require scanning and editing the relevant primary sources (labor-intensive and hence expensive work which has not yet been done), but also handling linguistic issues (like morphology) that are not accounted for in a anglonormative digital infrastructure. When I contacted the project director about this concern, he was apologetic and invited contributions from Gaelic scholars – but it is unrealistic to expect such efforts to be accomplished without a practical funding model.

I have no doubt that the same set of concerns could be argued for many other ethnic groups in North America, native and immigrant, each of which contains multitudes and are dealt a disservice by reducing them to a simplistic racialized identity. This in fact contributes to the delusion that racial blocs represent natural and organic dividing lines between human beings that have historical continuity, rather than breaking down such social constructs and peeling back the diversity of voices that lay behind them that challenge such simplistic projections into the past.

Will digital humanities be able to live up to its radical potential and represent the diversity of our historical communities in all of their breadth, depth and complexities? Like other academic goals, it’s a lofty one and one often thwarted by our own biases and blind-spots.


John D. Martin III and Carolyn Runyon, “Digital Humanities, Digital Hegemony.” ACM Computers & Society 46.1 (2016): 20-26.

Michael Newton. “’Did you hear about the Gaelic-speaking African?’: Scottish Gaelic Folklore about Identity in North America.” Comparative American Studies 8.2 (June 2010): 88-106.

Michael Newton. “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, ed. Michael Newton, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Michael Newton. “Highland Canon Fodder: Scottish Gaelic Literature in North American Contexts.” eKeltoi 1 (2016): 147-175.

Marc Shell. Introduction to American Babel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

A Gaelic Valentine from 1909 L.A.

If there were a Gaelic equivalent to Paul MacCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” this would be it. Even more remarkably, it was composed in Los Angeles no later than 1909 by Domhnall MacAoidh, apparently an emigrant from one of the Western Isles (though that is as specific as I can currently guess).

This is one of many texts in my files that shows not only the continuity of Gaelic literary tradition and production in North America, but also the ability of Gaelic poets to engage in the contemporary world and issues which concerned them. Although MacAoidh draws upon the literary conventions and allusions available to him in Gaelic literature, he does not shy away from invoking popular music and literature of his own time (Dame Nellie Melba in line 25, Mozart in line 26, Robert Burns in line 31 and Tennyson in line 33).

The title given by the poet is “Gaol is Ceòl,” an allusion to an old Gaelic proverb: “Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal / Ach mairidh gaol is ceòl” (Life may come to an end, but music and love will endure).

The song begins its exploration of the theme of love – its universality and endurance – by reflecting its presence among species of birds. This literary conceit needs to be examined in the light of old Gaelic cosmological ideas, such as that birds originally spoke Gaelic. Indeed, there are many Gaelic sayings attributed to birds, some of them gnomic, and they are represented as paragons of poetic eloquence. MacAoidh is here finding precedence for the human need to express love in the form of song in the bird kingdom.

After spending an exhaustive five stanzas (and chorus) on this idea, he moves towards human poets and literary expression. Although it is somewhat implied that Gaelic poets form part of this lineage (lines 22 and 29), none are actually mentioned. This may be because love was actually a very minor theme in the poetic profession and dismissed by many who held the Classical Gaelic tradition in great regard. Instead, MacAoidh focuses on literary expressions of love in other traditions in an inclusive, multilingual and multicultural manner.

Like the old professional Gaelic poets, one of his final stanzas is offered to God and the connection of love between humanity and the divine. He concludes his piece with his devotion to his homeland, the Scottish Highlands, probably one of the Western Isles (line 43 – this may refer to Lewis “Eilean Fraoich,” although he has used a different and slightly broad connotation). But notice that he has not generalized any attachment to a wider sense of Scotland that would encompass the Lowlands.

It may be surprising to learn about Gaelic poets composing Gaelic songs in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, but there was clearly an audience of fellow Gaels for this kind of work. There was, for example, a Celtic Club in the City of Angels co-founded by a Gaelic speaker (Calum MacLeòid) in 1905. Hopefully other evidence of their literary efforts – even if in the form of “silly love songs” – will eventually emerge.

The Original Gaelic Text

Gaol is Ceòl

1 Car-son a bhithinn muladach?
No cuime bhithinn brònach?
Is na h-uile eun ’s a’ choill’ a’ seinn
“Mo ghaol!  Mo ghaol!” ’nan òran?

5 Na h-uile eun air sliabh na coill’
Ri seinn an gaoil an comhnaidh;
’S e guth na cuthaig, “Mo rùn! mo rùn!
“Gug-gùg! Gug-gùg! thoirt pòg dhomh!”

Tha ’n uiseag bhinn ’s a’ mhadainn chiùin
10 Ri seinn chluich le sòlas;
Ri seinn cho binn os cionn nan neòil
“Mo ghaol! mo ghaol! Tuig m’ òran!”

Canary seinn ’na eudadan
A ghaoil-shéis bhinn an comhnaidh;
15 An cluinn thu ’m fonn a th’ aig an truis?
Tha gaol ’na ghuth ro bhòidheach.

Tha eòin cho binn ri seinn ’s an oidhch’
Le guth nas binn’ na òrgan;
Ri seinn gu gaolach fad na h-oidhch’
20 ’Nan comhradh leis an comhnaidh.

An cridh’ tha làn de ghaol do chàch
’Se luaidh nam Bàrd ’nan òran;
’Se ’n ceòl as binn’ ’s na nèamhan àrd
’Se ’n ceòl tha ’n guth nan smeòrach.

25 ’Se fonn as binn’ thug Melba dhuinn
’Se ’n ceòl as binn’ thug Mozart;
Tha ’n gaol ’ga sheinn ’na h-uile cainnt
Cho tric ’s tha ruinn an òrain. [ roinn?

Na h-uile bàrd, ’s na h-uile linn
30 Ri seinn an gaoil an comhnaidh;
Chuir Burns ri seinn, le taghadh cainnt
A ghaol do “Highland Mary.”

Cluinn Tennyson! Leugh “Locksley Hall”
Gus an tuig thu gràdh ’na òrain;
35 Ged ghuil e goirt mu Hallam Hall
Cha bhàsaich “In Memoriam.”

’Se ’ghaol thug Crìosd a-nuas o nèamh
’Se gaol th’ an Dia na tròcair’;
’Se ’n gaol bheir buaidh air bàs is uaigh
40 ’Se gaol bheir suas do ghlòir sinn.

Mo bheannachd null gu Tìr nam Beann
Nan gleann, nan creag is nam mór-shruth!
’S gach aon a tha ’s na h-Eilein Fraoich:
Mo ghaol daibh seo le m’ òran!

My English Translation

Love and Music

Chorus: (1-4) Why would we be sorrowful? And about what would we be sad? When every bird in the forest is singing “My love! My love!” in their songs?

(5-8) Every bird on the forest slope is always singing their love; the voice of the cuckoo says, “Coo coo! Coo coo! Give me a kiss!”

(9-12) The melodious lark in the quiet morning is playfully singing with joy; singing sweetly above the clouds, “My love! My love! Heed my song!”

(13-16) A canary sings its tune in its cage constantly; can you hear the melody of their thrush? There is love in its voice which is very beautiful.

(17-20) Musical birds sing in the night with voices as sweet as an organ; singing of love all night long, their conversation is constantly about it.

(21-24) Their hearts are full of love for others, the topic of the poets is in their songs; it is the sweetest music in the heavens; it is the music in the voice of the thrush.

(25-28) It is the sweetest tune that Melba gave to us; it is the sweetest music of Mozart; love is sung in every language, whenever we listen to their songs.

(29-32) Every poet in every age has always sung of their love; Burns added to that singing, with eloquence of his love to “Highland Mary.”

(33-36) Listen to Tennyson! Read “Locksley Hall” so that you may understand love in his songs; although he sorely lamented Hallam Hall, “In Memoriam” will never die.

(37-40) It is love that Christ brought down from heaven, the God of Mercy is love; it is love that will triumph over death and the grave; it is love that will deliver us up to glory.

(41-44) [Take] my blessings over to the Land of the Mountains, the glens, the craigs and the great rivers! And to everyone in the heathery islands: [give] my love to them with my song!