Gaelic Baby Talk – 2

My daughter Róisín will be 3 in November, and I have spoken Gàidhlig exclusively to her all of her life. Still, we live in a very anglophone community, I work full-time and I’m the only person she hears speaking Gàidhlig (apart from the occasional reinforcement offered by my wife).

It’s a real challenge to try to maintain the language in the home, especially when resources are scarce and Gàidhlig is a minoritized language. She’s already intuitively catching on to these asymmetries of prestige and dominance. How can I keep her engaged despite these difficulties?

Children have two characteristics that I have realized could be exploited for certain aspects of language learning/teaching at this age:

  1. Vanity – they like attention and things that highlight themselves;
  2. They enjoy being oppositional to parents.

Although she enjoys videos in general, and I’ve managed to procure a few Gàidhlig videos for us to watch together, she really enjoys seeing herself on video. She likes to watch and re-watch the videos I’ve made of her, and since she speaks Gàidhlig in them, it actually seems to reinforce her interest. She even imitates herself in them.

In the course of her emerging opposition, we developed a little “opposites” word game that I believe helps reinforce her vocabulary. She is supposed to respond to the opposite of whatever word I say to her in Gàidhlig.

So, for whatever it’s worth, here’s a little video of us interacting: (a) the opposites word game, (b) me asking her where various body parts are, and (c) singing a song together (“Tha mi sgìth”).

Super Colonised Irish Syndrome

Michael Newton:

This experience of cultural invasion and domination was a pan-Gaelic phenomenon, albeit more distinct and better explored in an Irish than a Scottish context.

Originally posted on An Sionnach Fionn:


In today’s Irish Times newspaper Seaghán Mac an tSionnaigh reviews the latest in a wave of books from a new generation of writers and historians challenging the inferior position of Ireland’s indigenous language, and the conventional narratives which have shaped our understanding of the suppression – and extermination – of those who speak it:

“In The Broken Harp, Identity and Language in Modern Ireland, biologist and author Tomás Mac Síomóin presents the decline of the Irish language as one of the most insidious outcomes of the multi-faceted colonisation of the Irish people from the 16th century through to the present day.

Rather than appealing to the Romantic rhetoric of the failed Gaelic revival period, or to the naive optimism of modern-day “official Gaeldom”, Mac Síomóin presents a convincing case relying on consistent reference to the fates of other postcolonial nations, to modern postcolonial theory from intellectuals such as Albert Memmi, Frantz Fanon, and N’gugi wa…

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For the love of Glendaruell

This post is dedicated to my friend Àdhamh Ó Broin and his heroic efforts to revive the Gaelic dialect of south-western Argyll. His FaceBook group for Dal Riada Gàidhlig can be found here.

One of his goals is to collect all of the Gaelic material possible that was generated by the people of this beautiful region (not far at all from Glasgow). It so happens that I have a copy of a very rare booklet printed in 1905 (given to me by Dr Margaret Bennett) with some interesting little gems from the area, entitled The Kyles of Bute and Glendaruel in History, Poetry and Folk-lore. The following section (p.10), entitled “Kilmodan,” contains some very interesting material:

The parish, as the name implies, has been called after Saint Modan, a disciple or follower of Saint Columba. The name appears in ecclesiastical records as early as 1250, and the parish is said to have been known of old, first as “Glenduisk,” and afterwards as “Glendaruell,” which is popularly said to be one of the “three glens of Scotland,” the other two being Glenlyon, in Perthshire, and Glendale, in Skye.

Glendaruel is celebrated in song and story. Of it the bard, John Sinclair, who was a schoolmaster at Stronafian, says:

Gleann Dà Ruadhail mo chrìdh,
Rìgh gach gleann tha ’s an tìr,
Far an d’ àraicheadh mi bho m’ òige
Gleann nan coilltean is nan raon
Gleann nan glacag is nan craobh
Gleann nan aighean, nan laogh is nam bò
Gleann nam bradan is nan grìs,
Gleann nan cam-luba mìn
Gleann as pailte ’s an cinn gach pòr.

Here is another verse from another poet, Mr. Duncan Currie of Pollockshaws, which deserves a place in this connection:

Gleann Dà Ruadhail nan cruachan buidhe
Uaine, mulanach, maol;
Chan urrainn do bhard gu bràth a mholadh;
Tha àilleachd soilleir ann fhéin
A h-uile taobh bha mi, is àite a bhithinn
Air ànradh iomadach taobh
Chan aithne dhomh àite ’n dràst’ air thalamh
Bheir bàrr air clachan mo ghaoil.

As the Gàidhlig is very simple and straightfoward, I won’t bother translating it at this point. But this seemingly short and simple excerpt offers material for some very interesting and important observations.

The first is the very strong sense of place in the poetry: regardless of modern values and perceptions, Gaels have a very strong attachment to their native glen and take pride in knowing its features and its history intimately, sometimes to the point of heated rivalry with other locales. Certainly one of the things that people must reclaim if we are to counter environmental catastrophe is to take root in and care of our own local place.

Secondly, this bit of vernacular lore bears a strong resemblance to the literary genre cultivated by the professional literati in Ireland, known as dindsenchas (the lore of places). Like that more formal genre, the seanchaidhean (learned tradition-bearers) have preserved a sequence of names for a place, which often correspond to cultural epochs. In this case, the glen was first called Gleann Dubh-Uisg’ (a name that appears in a number of local poems) and later Gleann Dà Ruadhail. The local lore ties the area to the wider Gaelic world, and the notion of being a part of a national unity: it was one of the three primary glens of Gaelic Scotland.

Third, the poets mentioned also serve to demonstrate connections between the locale and the wider Gaelic world — kinship networks, especially during the era of emigration, formed a pre-digital “world-wide web” that spanned huge distances. The Duncan Currie mentioned probably belonged to the lineage of MacMhuirich poets who served as professional literati and scholars for the pre-eminant leaders of the Gaelic world for centuries, having been established by an Irish Gael who emigrated to the Loch Lomond area c. 1200. The other poet mentioned, John Sinclair, eventually migrated to Prince Edward Island in Canada, and there composed a song in praise of Gleann Dà Ruadhail that was sent to and performed for an emigrant society in Glasgow.

Some non-Gaelic-speaking academic pundits make much of the notion that the Highlands are merely a region in Scotland, or highlight the fragmented nature of clan life in the Highlands to downplay any notion of Gaelic unity. A huge amount of Gaelic material shows us exactly this, however: despite whatever differences of religion or political leadership may have prevailed at certain times in certain places, Gaelic cultural and literary resources embodied and transmitted a conceptual unity for Gaeldom (a term and idea  explained in detail by Dr Iain MacAonghuis), one that resounds throughout Gaelic literature and oral culture.

The metaphor of the hologram is an apt one. Every strath and glen in the Highlands was a microcosm of the greater whole, containing reflections and refractions of Gaelic culture and tradition. Each of these little puzzle pieces help to recover the bigger picture. On the other hand, it can be very puzzling to understand the small scale picture without a familiarity of the whole, its long lineage and the breadth of its cultural productions.

I commend Àdhamh for his enterprise and wish him great success in recovering the pieces of this lovely corner of the Gàidhealtachd. Gura math a théid leibh!

(NOTE: I have updated the orthography of the Gaelic texts but have not yet had a chance to check the spelling of Gleann Dà Ruadhail in Watson’s Celtic Placenames of Scotland.)

Scottish-American Pride: Only Skin Deep?

One of the “celebrities” in the virtual Scottish-American Hall of Fame is Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant who made millions (mostly by exploiting other immigrants). He did establish important philanthropic charities that continue to do good work to this day. Carnegie Mellon University carries his name as well as that of Andrew Mellon, the son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant and another common darling of the Scottish-American crowd.

If Scottish-American heritage and history is to be something other than a tartan charade, it needs to be taken seriously in the halls of academia and be developed formally, and subjected to the same scrutiny as that of other peoples. Look, for example, at the Chair of Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois or the Chair in Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University.

One might expect, or at least hope, that a place such as Carnegie Mellon that likes to play up its Scottish roots with the iconography of the thistle and a bagpipe band might recognize the untapped potential of the field of Scottish Studies, or at least be sympathetic to its relevance in looking at North American history. Back in 2004, when I was looking desperately for some kind of academic patronage, I wrote the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and found a strangely negative and dismissive attitude that I have seen repeated in many other places. Here’s the proof, in this letter.


Allow me to rephrase his comments: “Yes, we’re happy to play up the tartanism for fun and team spirit, but we can’t really take this stuff seriously.”

As I’ve said in a large number of articles and books now (such as this one), unless this immigrant legacy can be more fully explored, recovered, examined and celebrated by those equipped to do so seriously, it will only be a tartan charade easily co-opted by right-wing conservatives and faux clan chieftains parading around in silly costumes.

This will mean doing more than leading alumni and assorted students on summer holidays to Scotland, or offering a “Scottish cinema” class in Film Studies. Scottish Studies (or Scottish Gaelic Studies more specifically, in the case of my research) is a multidisciplinary domain that requires more than the narrow focus of specialized silos of modern American academia to investigate and interpret the cultural expressions and productions of the past and present. It is the lack of commitment to this heritage in a serious way that has left the field fallow and Scottish-Americans uninformed about their own ancestral origins. Why can’t Scottish-Americans, who, as a group, do not lack resources or influence, do any better?

Producing meaningful research requires a huge investment in time and training to begin with, and significant on-going time to search through materials and produce analyses that are informed by relevant and rigorous methods. None of this can happen without the backing of a community who wants to see it happen and will support those ongoing efforts. Scottish Studies in North America has been largely left to armchair enthusiasts, which is perhaps one reason why few scholars from other disciplinary perspectives take it seriously.

Strayed Way Far Off: Is Country-Western Music Celtic?

In a word, “no.” And yet, this has become the persistent claim of many white Americans who would like to connect their ancestry to a popular, contemporary musical genre which emerged in an area which would seem to have a dominant “Scotch-Irish” ethnic heritage. This is also the thesis of a recent book called Wayfaring Strangers.

I’ve just written a review essay of the book (available in an online journal on this web page) to address some of the problems with the book’s methodology and theoretical framework, which you can read here. There are so many factual errors and misconceptions in the text, however, that I’ve decided to address a few more in this blog entry.

The focuses primarily on the “Scots-Irish” (actually called “Scotch-Irish” in contemporary sources of the mid-19th century to the early 20th century) and their descendants in Appalachia, but also (somewhat paradoxically) on the idea of Celticity. This, as I discuss in the review, is a highly problematic mixture especially when the people whose culture can be more properly considered “Celtic” – that is, the Gaelic-speakers of Scotland and Ireland – are not dealt with accurately or thoroughly. It would be a bit like claiming to discuss the “Indian” culture of the American frontier by examining European colonists who had absorbed some aspects (and members) of local native nations, while largely ignoring the actual indigenous populations and their cultures.

The Scotch-Irish are sometimes called “Ulster Presbyterians,” and a host of other names. The Scotch-Irish are a complex group to characterize and track historically for a number of reasons. They were and are not a homogenous population, and in many ways (and at many times) defy easy definition because their disparate origins and influences. Still, the circumstances of their settlement in Ulster and the political and cultural forces acting on them are important to keep in mind. Tom Devine has described the Ulster Plantation thusly:

Before the Ulster Plantation, therefore, the Scottish Crown had already developed both theory and practice in internal colonialism buttressed by explicit assumptions about the ‘barbaric’ inferiority of the Gaels and their subordination to ‘civilised’ authority. The year 1603 was catalytic in the strategy which eventually led to the transformation of the history of the north of Ireland. Both the English and Scottish monarchies before the Regal Union had been independently attacking the Gaels of Ireland and Scotland. Now, under James I, a single assault from an enhanced base of power became possible. The aim was to drive an Anglo-Saxon Protestant wedge between the two areas of Gaelic-Catholic civilization. It came to be recognized as an Anglo-Scottish partnership, the first joint ‘British’ enterprise of the new ‘Kingdom of Great Britain’.  (Scotland’s Empire, 20)

Even if these plans did not go entirely according to plan, the deliberate nature of this plantation to empower anglophone Protestant culture and disenfranchise Gaelic civilization needs to be recognized. The plantation marks a watershed in the history and cultural makeup of Ireland, and yet the authors of Wayfaring Strangers too often treat it as though it were just another of many exchanges between Ireland and Scotland, of which there had certainly been a long lineage.

They remark, for example, “For thousands of years, people had been crossing the North Channel of the Irish Sea, back and forth from both directions” (p. 59). They further state, “The idea was not new; the Glens of Antrim, with their close proximity to Scotland and long history of clan intermarriage, were the setting in 1380 for Clan Donald establishing a strong foothold of Scots” (p. 69).

The important difference was that the Ulster Plantation was not an exchange between kin-groups as members of a common Gaelic civilization, and so these facile comparisons misrepresent the nature and scale of this protestant, anglophone colonization and the chasm it created from the past. And it certainly did not create a climate conducive to the development of non-anglophone forms of culture.

It often happens that colonists absorb more of the culture of the native people they are supposed to be suppressing than the colonial government expects or likes, and this was the case, in some circumstances and at some times, with the Scotch-Irish colonists in the North of Ireland. Taking careful account of the chronology and the social mechanisms for such cross-cultural exchanges is crucial, however, for any arguments of this nature but the authors are too careless with the evidence.

I have already discussed in the review essay the recurrent error in the book of assuming that social dance music (especially as played on the fiddle as jigs and reels) was already a fully mature and culturally-distinct genre (along with social dancing itself) before migration began in the early eighteenth century. They claim further that céilidhs were shared equally by Protestants and Catholics as a common cultural institution of shared meaning and practice that enabled these musical and cultural forms to thrive between communities (pp. 75-78, 146).

This is far too simplistic of a depiction of social life and cultural exchange. The term céili(dh), as well as other aspects of Gaelic folk culture, including the Gaelic/Irish language itself, did come to be adopted within certain segments of the Protestant community in Ulster, but this was only after the departure of the migrants who went to Appalachia. It was likely this demographic shift itself that facilitated these cultural transfers, as the departure of Ulster Presbyterians improved the relative demographic position of the native Irish. No variant of the word céili(dh) existed in Lowland Scots before the mid-nineteenth century, and it only appears to have been borrowed into Ulster Scots at about the same time, and thus, well past the time frame that the book is intended to interpret.

Those who are not intimately familiar with the varieties of the Gaelic language and its song-poetry can easily overlook the significance of the literary tradition in the Gaelic cultures of Scotland and Ireland, and the diversity of the forms and genres and their relation to social registers and domains. The authors have failed to account for these complexities but treat all music as being much of a muchness, the outpuring of a homogenous and egalitarian group. Take for example this passage:

The product was a fusion similar to the long intermingling of Scottish and native Irish music in Ulster. … As ever, music was the great common denominator for people, regardless of their origins, denominations, and vocations and heedless of the politics and religious dynamics of the day. It was an approach to cultural exchange that would eventually reside and root just as well in the southern Appalachians. (148)

It may well be the case that by the time of the main Ulster migrations in the early eighteenth century, most people in the British Isles were gaining an appreciation for social dancing and were enjoying the innovative musical experiments emanating from fiddles, but Gaels invested much greater social prestige in duain than in fiddle tunes, and anglophones were clueless about and mystified by these Gaelic song forms as well as genres lower on the social register, such as luinneagan and òrain-luaidh.

Music is certainly not a universal language and this is an important counter-point to the book’s implication that the music of Appalachia, including the later development of country-western music, is somehow “Celtic.” This is a fallacy based on a lack of detailed knowledge of the music and literary forms of Gaelic peoples, and a misrepresentation of the Anglo-British tradition. While the book does discuss the Child Ballad and other shoots from the Anglo-British tree, its unhelpful pre-occupation with the territorial designations of “Ireland,” “Scotland,” and “England” facilitates misrepresenting particular expressions as “Celtic” (or otherwise). If the music and literary legacy of the Scotch-Irish is to be given any ethnic label – which may be an inherently illusory exercise – it should be “Anglophone” or “Anglo-British.” Anglophones have a long and rich tradition of folk music and folk culture for which they are seldom recognized, and they are seldom given the credit they deserve for bringing this with them to North America before its rural roots were destroyed in Britain. (See, for example, the Village Music Project.)

Their problematic handling of history and tradition extends into a section discussing the Cape Fear of the Carolinas and Cape Breton island in eastern Canada (pp.126-27). These are areas where large numbers of Scottish Gaels immigrated in large numbers under various kinds of duress: to Carolinas from the 1730s to about 1840, and to Cape Breton island from the early 1800s to about 1840. The information about these settlements and their contrasting fortunes is inaccurate and contradictory. Although the Cape Fear was certainly the largest concentration of Scottish Gaels in North America at the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was quickly surpassed by those in eastern Nova Scotia by the mid-nineteenth century (although there is a lack of accurate demographic information from this period; the sources for the text are not stated).

Unlike the Cape Fear, particular forms of Gaelic culture and music have survived in Cape Breton to the present, but the authors overstate the case by making such claims as “they were able to preserve an antiquated fiddle style.” They certainly brought fiddle music as it was being played in the early nineteenth century with them, but that era hardly deserves to be labelled “antiquated.” Fiddler-players have continuously developed their art since then, especially from influences within North America itself. Differences in English translations between Scotland and Canada for the same Gaelic terms and practices seem to have confused them when they state, “Gaelic waulking songs, sung by tweed weavers in the Hebrides, were preserved in Cape Breton as milling songs.” These songs, furthermore, were sung by women all over Gaelic Scotland, not just by weavers and not just in the Hebrides.

Their conclusions about the causes of the demise of the Gaelic culture in the Cape Fear immigrant community – and the nature of Gaelic culture itself – are misguided: “First, their culture was undermined by the fervor of religious revivals. Then, in an unpublicized twentieth-century clearance, they were dispersed to make way for the establishment of the enormous U.S. Army camp at Fort Bragg in 1918.”

What makes a community’s culture “Gaelic” is the use of the Gaelic language, which carries embedded in its words and idioms a way of seeing the world and access to a rich and complex oral tradition. There are places in Scotland, such as Lewis and Harris (in the Outer Hebrides), which were deeply affected by religious revivals of the same time period and which lost a great deal of their secular music and dance, but no one can deny that they are Gaelic in nature. In fact, in a previous blog entry I demonstrate the important role that religion played in maintaining a domain for the Gaelic language of the Cape Fear. The loss of the language was essentially complete by the time that Fort Bragg was established, and even though the base is large, it was only one portion of the much larger area where Gaels settled. So these comments really don’t provide any meaningful insight into the experience and demise of the Cape Fear Gàidhealtachd.

There are many other problems which a corrected revision would need to address. For example:

* It is implied that the Ulster emigrants to Appalachia would have been familiar with the legend of St. Brendan (p. 110), which I find highly doubtful.

* The clàrsach is mistakenly translated as “small harp” (pp. 83, 295), whereas size had nothing to do with it. What was distinctive about it was its wire strings, its curvature, and its association with the Gaels.

* The book makes reference to the “Gypsy Travellers” of England, Scotland and Ireland (p. 195), whereas there were distinct groups of travelling people in different regions of the British Isles that cannot be categorized under the rubric “gypsy.”

* The Gaelic song “Bidh Clann Ulaidh” is described as “ancient” but it cannot be older than the 17th century.

And so on…

With such a preponderance of errors, it is hard to give a glowing endorsement of the volume. There is clearly a very real and rich history here and a significant market of people interested to find out about it. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the North American academy has simply not fostered scholarship that bridges the ocean and enables the two musical legacies to be comprehended and analyzed accurately, particularly when languages other than English enter the picture. We are much the poorer for this lack of development of research into our own history, musical and otherwise, and of our understanding of the many strands that have gone into the American tapestry – including those that are now mostly silent.


Thanks to my friend Peter Gilmore for extended discussion on the context of Scotch-Irish migration and musical developments.


Tom Devine. Scotland’s Empire: 1600-1815. London: Penguin Books, 2003.

Peter Gilmore. “Irish Tunes and Scotch-Irish Myths in Early Western Pennsylvania. Paper presented at Celebrating Northern Appalachia in Word and Song.” 2011.

Michael Newton. “The Gaelic Diaspora in North America.” In The Modern Scottish Diaspora: Contemporary Debates and Perspectives, edited by Murray Stewart Leith and Duncan Sim, 136-52. Edinburgh University Press, 2014.

Fiona Ritchie and Doug Orr. Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. 361 pages. ISBN 978-1-4696-1822-7.

From Highlanders to Tar-Heels: Part 2

The Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Community of the Cape Fear

(The following blog entry is a summary of a talk about the Scottish Gaelic immigrant community of the Cape Fear of the Carolinas during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, delivered as a public lecture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on April 6, 2015. For part one of this talk series, please see this blog entry.)

A Picture Speaks Louder…

Modern cliches and stereotypes have obscured the culture and historical legacy of the Scottish Gaelic immigrants of North Carolina, but this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, even a century ago the descendants of the original immigrants were busily remoulding their own image in order to present themselves as mainstream, Anglo-Saxons worthy of the racial dividends of whiteness.  And it is these processes, as much as other factors, that have served to make the story of Scottish Gaels in the Carolinas (and in fact, all of North America) virtually invisible in the present.

This is well illustrated by a picture of female students of the newly formed Flora McDonald College in approximately 1915. These young women were described as the “May Day Scotch Dancers” in this image (originally from this webpage):


Let’s parse this image, assuming that it is intended to give us some specific messages. The young women are arrayed in tartan skirts, their arms in the pose of Highland dancers. Clearly they are meant to embody their Highland heritage. In the center of the image is a maypole, thus asserting the continuity of ancient traditions. Off to the right is an automobile, an innovative piece of technology asserting modernity. The message is thus that Scottish heritage lives strongly in the present.

There are serious problems with accepting this symbolism at face value, however. Highland dancing does not have an ancient lineage: it is primarily a nineteenth-century genre that was imported from Scotland to North America (i.e., this was not a tradition brought by immigrants and practiced continuously to the day when this picture was taken). Furthermore, women only began to be allowed to perform and compete in public Highland dance competitions around the turn of the century. The costume worn by the women also represents a recent import of symbolic ethnicity from Scotland (the sash in particular was a late addition).

Most troubling, however, is the maypole. There is absolutely no evidence any use of the maypole in the calendar customs  of Scottish Gaeldom (or of any of the insular Celts, for that matter). The maypole was, instead, a Germanic ritual symbol: or at least, this is what the late nineteenth-century folklore revivalists believed. The reason why the descendants of Scottish Gaels were adopted the elements of Germanic symbolic ethnicity in the early twentieth century will become clearer.

A Socio-Linguistic Profile of Cape Fear Gaeldom

The biography of a Baptist minister from the Highlands who arrived in 1807 attests to the strength of the Gaelic language at the beginning of the nineteenth century:

…preaching and singing in the Gaelic language was indispensable for many years in the churches throughout the Scotch region. Many of the old Highlanders could scarcely speak a word in the English language, and could not at all follow a regular discourse in it.

In another account from 1829, the town of Fayetteville was said to be such a strong bastion of Gaelic speech that even public servants needed to be able to speak the language (and presumably read and write it):

The number of these Highlanders and their descendants, who still retain almost exclusively their native language, is so considerable, that a clerk who understands Gaelic, forms a necessary part of the Post-office establishment.

There were clear signs of the decline of Gaelic by 1846, however, and the growing dominance of English:

The influence of this language has been great upon the Scotch settlements in Carolina. There have been some disadvantages attending it, and the language is fast passing away. But for a long time it was a bond of union, and a preservation of those feelings and principles peculiar to the Scotch … change has been so gradual in putting off the Gaelic, and adopting the English, that the people of Cumberland have suffered as little, from a change of their language, as any people that have ever undergone that unwelcome process.

This quote suggests that the transition was gradual from generation to generation. By this time, of course, Gaels had been settling in the Cape Fear for over a century. Still, the author remarks on the power of language to embody and facilitate social cohesion and to transmit cultural values.

An immigrant language (or a language threatened by the growing dominance of another) needs to have a domain in which it has a special value or function, and in many communities religion provided such a haven and purpose. Although growing numbers of the younger generations born in America came to speak English, the older generation remained more comfortable in Gaelic for a considerable time. Ministers attempted to cater to both audiences by providing two services each Sunday, one in Gaelic and the other in English.

Religion, likewise, provided the main if not only impulse for producing written literature among the Gaels of the Cape Fear (although, as I showed in the previous blog, there was obviously a prolific strain of oral literature being actively produced). A writer for a local newspaper noted some of the literary products of the Gaelic community, some of them apparently printed in North Carolina itself:

But they had also in their possession small books, written by Godly pious men, as follows: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; translated into Gaelic, sermons several small books, containing spiritual songs. One of those small books, written and published by Padruig Grannd, in Scotland, and reprinted in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, by William Hunter in 1826, now lies before the writer. It is a book of only 77 pages, and has eighteen spiritual songs … The Bible, the Psalms of David, sacred hymns and spiritual songs, sermons, Pilgrim’s Progress, all of them in their Gaelic language. The emigrants, or many of them, had all these in their possession. (The Robesonian October 8, 1925)

Religious services can be powerful emotional experiences both because of the spiritual content and because of the associations with family and community. When Rev. John C Sinclair extended his services in 1860 to a nearby community that had not had a Gaelics-speaking minister for a decade, people were visibly moved:

The Gaelic language is spoken in its purity by many in these counties, and in both my churches I preach it every Sabbath. On last Sabbath I assisted at the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper in a congregation 40 miles distance from my home; and preached and served a table at which upward of 150 had taken their seats, who have not heard a sermon in the language of their childhood for the last ten years. Many a tear was shed during the service, many a warm shake of hand, such as a Highlander can give, was given and many a blessing was bestowed upon your correspondent at parting with the warm-hearted people. The Rev. Colin MacIver, a native of Stornoway, Lewis, was the last preacher who could preach in Gaelic till I came to the state two years ago. He died in this town in 1850, much respected and regretted by his countrymen in North Carolina. (Weekly Raleigh Register October 24, 1860)

Still, the evidence is that already by the time of the American Civil War, Gaelic was increasingly marginalized and English the dominant language among the younger generation. A Scottish visitor to the Cape Fear in 1868, the Rev. David Macrae, noted:

Gaelic has almost entirely died out in the settlement. For some time it was the common language. The early settlers taught it even to their negro slaves; but English seems now universal. I met with very few who could either read or speak the Gaelic: thought many had been more or less familiar with it in childhood. One lady gave me a very old Gaelic psalm-book which she had often heard her mother read aloud in the old sing-song fashion by the fireside. … I was told that in some parts of the settlement which I had not the opportunity of visiting, Gaelic is still understood, and cherished by a few enthusiastic Highlanders with a romantic attachment.

In 1872, Rev. John C. Sinclair, in very a dispirited tone, notes that by that time Gaelic no longer enjoyed the support of religious institutions and that the loss of the language brought in its wake a loss of cultural traits and practices:

The old race is gone and their descendants have given up, in a great degree, the customs and manners of the old Gaels. The ancient Celtic language is nearly dead, except with the few families who arrived within the last thirty years. … There is no Gaelic preached in the Carolinas now, and not likely to be in the future.

Still, languages sometimes linger among communities, families and individuals after they appear to be dead elsewhere. A report in a North Carolina newspaper in 1901 appears to describe the surprising survival of Gaelic in at least one locale:

There is a section of Harnett county, distant about twenty miles north of Fayetteville, where the Gaelic language is as commonly spoken as English. The negroes in that section speak Gaelic as well as the white people. It is to be regretted that a language as comprehensive as the Gaelic should die out. A sermon preached in this language can be understood by the most ignorant and unlettered person who is familiar with the Gaelic speech.  … In my younger days, family worship was conducted in Gaelic. Gaelic Bibles and confessions of faith were used and on Sundays two sermons were preached, the first generally in English and the second in Gaelic. In my younger days, heard was at Galatia church in Cumberland county in 1860, when the Scottish assembled from far and near, “from over the hills and far away,” to hear a sermon in their native tongue. There are more places than the one mentioned in Harnett where the Gaelic is spoken. Within three years past I have seen young children at play in western Cumberland addressing each other in the language of their ancestors.  (The Semi-Weekly Messenger [of Wilmington], August 13, 1901)

Another newspaper printed a similar portrayal of the persistence of Gaelic a week later:

If a Scotch Highlander were to visit a certain section of Harnett county he would be tempted to believe that he was still in his own country. The Gaelic language is spoken by the people of the section in question almost as much as the English. It is said that when the Cape Fear section was first settled by the Scotch the English language was seldom heard. Parents in this particular section taught it to their children, consequently it is still in use. Even the negroes speak it. (Statesville Record & Landmark August 20, 1901)

Older people reminiscing about their younger days frequently mention the ubiquity of the Gaelic language and Highland traits. Take, for example, these comments from Lumberton in 1903: “The Colonel always spoke of the remarkable hospitality of the people in those days, and that the Gaelic was almost universally the spoken language. All salutations to an arriving guest were in Gaelic …” (The Robesonian [of Lumberton] July 31, 1903)

In all of these accounts, the language is noted as a social bond and badge of cultural identity, and its import in transcending racial boundaries is commonly remarked upon. Regardless, by the second decade of the twentieth century, many local comments seem to declare the language essentially dead. For example, a local of Maxton describes a visit in 1911 from an old friend and their reflections of days of old:

Mr. Chisholm and family spent a day with us recently. I asked him if he recollected his grandmother, who was a native of Scotland (and one of the “blessed Macs”). He told me he did not, then I gave him my impressions of her, as my early recollection recalled her … She spoke her native Gaelic tongue and could use the English only brokenly, which made it interesting to me. I am sorry that the Gaelic language has become extinct in these parts, but I know of no one at all now … (The Robesonian [Lumberton] February 16, 1911)

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the last fluent speaker of Gaelic was probably a Mr. Prevatt of Lumberton who died in 1931: “The elder Mr. Prevatt spoke the Gaelic language and read in Gaelic, and his old Gaelic Bible is still in the possession of his grandson here.” (The Robesonian June 29, 1931)

What is immediately notable about this is that “Prevatt” is not a Highland name: it was clearly the case that the language was strong enough in the community to integrate non-Gaels and facilitate their learning the language and culture (most likely through maternal bonds). It should be noted, however, that as late as the 1980s, fragments of Gaelic were recorded from Malcolm and Lauchlin Shaw of Harnett County, even though they had imperfect knowledge of what they meant. (See discussion in MacDonald, “Cultural Retention.”)

The documentary sources sometimes offer occasional glimpses of the social pressures that worked against Gaelic and the linguistic transitions from Gaelic to English. In an historical account about late nineteenth-century Fayetteville, for example, it was noted:

The language was sometimes understood by individuals who never spoke it. One Sand Hills lady would occasionally have a caller spend a day in conversation during which the visitor would never speak an English word – and the hostess never speak a word in Gaelic!

This seems to describe one person who was an active Gaelic speaker with a passive knowledge of English who could converse with an active English speaker with a passive knowledge of Gaelic. As time went on, however, knowledge of Gaelic became more rare, but those who valued their ancestral heritage mourned the loss of it. When Lachlan Campbell of Barbecue Creek appeared to be nearing the end of his life (apparently in the later nineteenth century), his friend Gilbert Shaw of Flat Branch came to keep him company.

Gaelic accents, coupled with the use of certain spirits offered in hospitality to fortify him against the effects of a long, cold drive, inspired Mr. Shaw to begin singing old hymns in Gaelic for the edification and entertainment of his invalid friend. Meanwhile, Dr. McCormick arrived … “Mr. Shaw, you come now and spend the night with me. …” [said the doctor.]  “No, I’ll have to stay here and visit Cousin Lachlan,” he said, his voice breaking, “It will not be long before there’ll be nobody left to sing the old songs in Gaelic.”

Keeping the songs going was tantamount to asserting the survival not only of these people but of their culture and their identity. Formal institutions pressed the de facto privilege of English and interfacing with governments and representatives of the law almost invariably required a knowledge of English. In 1813, for example, Alexander MacMillian wrote to University of North Carolina Board of Trustees concerned that his fellow Scots could lose their property because they had not taken oath of naturalization (see Gibson, Scotland County, 42).

Educational institutions automatically reinforced the primacy of English and even before they left Scotland most Gaelic speakers had taught to defer to the superior status of anglophones in formal domains. A group of Cape Fear Gaels went out to Wayne County, Mississippi, in the early nineteenth century, and apparently the school that they established was run by Gaelic speakings and initially catered for the language:

The first school was established about 1812. The Gaelic language was spoken exclusive among the settlers, and was also taught in their school. This language remained the vernacular until the early [18]20’s, when other settlers arrived, some of whose children knew English alone. For the sake of the English speaking children the teacher then forbade the further use of Gaelic in the school room. Having been discarded in the school, the Gaelic language soon fell into disuse except to a limited extent among the older people. …

Similar pressures were said to have a negative impact on the last strongholds of Gaelic in North Carolina, as an account from Poe’s Bottom relates: “According to my grandmother, the family spoke Gaelic in public and at home until the State of North Carolina decided in 1906 that only English would be taught in public schools. She was a Highlander from Cumberland County.”

Racialism and Identity

The legacy of slavery meant that power and privilege in North America were largely defined in racial terms. To access this privilege Gaels not only needed to assimilate linguistically, they needed to place themselves within the bounds of whiteness and emphasize their racial credentials. Notions of the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo-Saxons dominated the nineteenth-century United States (as they other regions of British influence) and anti-Celtic sentiment was commonplace. Take, for example, the 1898 manifesto of People’s Party of North Carolina: “Neither this State nor any other State will ever be governed and controlled by any but the Anglo-Saxon race as long as that race shall dwell in it.”

The late nineteenth-century saw more political unrest in Ireland as continued resistence to British rule took new forms. Anti-Irish prejudice spread easily to anglophone settlements in North America and some people went so far as assert that people of Celtic (or Irish) racial descent were as unable to govern themselves (politically, socially, or emotionally) as people of African origin, as did William Thomas in his 1901 The American Negro:

What are the negro’s qualifications for such leadership as a movement of this sort implies? It is an observed fact that negro and Celtic leadership is susceptible to the weakness of ungovernable desire; that both acknowledge but slight amenability to wholesome restraint; and that, in the case of each, inconsiderate zeal has wrought irreparable injury to the race which it represents. (See further discussion in Newton, “Celticity in the Old South.”)

Like so many other aspects of life, the ability to govern was defined in racial terms. In order to bolster their qualifications for empowerment in public life, Carolinians of Scottish descent highlighted their supposed racial affinity to Anglo-Saxons. Race is, after all, not a biological reality but a social construct that can be manipulated to further the agendas of specific groups. It is no surprise, then, that in 1928 Angus McLean (a descendent of the Cape Fear Gaels), then Governor of North Carolina, unveiled a monument to the Scottish Gaelic colonists of the Cape Fear, describing them as “a branch of the great Anglo-Saxon family.”

This, then, helps explain why folkloric elements from Germanic cultures are evident in the photograph at the beginning of this essay which are supposed to depict Highland identity.

At the same time, of course, a popular set of symbols had been developed and packaged in Scotland to represent the ancient past, symbols rooted in the antiquities of the Highlands but co-opted to serve the purposes of providing a colourful and distinctive set of markers to all regions of Scotland: Highlandism. It is perhaps ironic that these symbols gained greater purpose and emotive expression as cultural practices and content – such as language – faded due to the assimilative pressures of anglophone society in both Britain and North America.


These influences were certainly present in the Carolinas, and in Cape Fear itself. One such example is the town now known as “Ivanhoe.” Originally named “Corbett’s Ferry,” the popularity of Walter Scott was such that the town was renamed in 1890 from the title of his novel Ivanhoe.

The growing divergence between the romantic nostalgia bathed in Highlandism and the reality of the anglophone assimilation of the Cape Fear community is well illustrated by the failed attempt to settle Highlanders in 1884. At the time, the North Carolina Department of Agrilcuture was trying to reinvigorate the flagging agrarian economy in the state, having relied over much on slave labour. Some lingering connections to Scotland remained in the Cape Fear, not least through religious institutions, and an immigrant scheme was concocted to bring in poor Highland crofters to fill these vacancies in these parts of the Carolinas. This not only served the purposes of Highland landlords who were keen about ridding themselves of “excess” population, some organizers of the scheme (particularly Miss Margaret MacLeod from Dundee) saw an opportunity to profit themselves in the process.

One of many advertisements (and copies of advertisements) promoting the scheme can be seen here, printed in a September 1883 issue of the Scottish American Journal (published in New York). McEachern has a very essentialist view of Scottishness, expecting that “racial traits” will make Highland immigrants not only prosperous but compatible with the pre-existing population of the settlement.


Such expectations were not met, however. In the only scholarly investigation of this episode, William Caudill writes:

Within a few months, the majority of the emigrant Scots had left the old Highland settlement of the Upper Cape Fear region in dissatisfaction. … Much of the ‘authentic’ Highland identity which the Scottish-American leaders in North Carolina may have believed themselves to possess, and may have hoped to re- invigorate in their communities through a new influx of Highland emigrants, had been eroded by the passage of time and inevitable cultural assimilation.  … The failure of this effort also demonstrated that the Scottish-Americans of North Carolina’s old Highland Settlement had indeed become assimilated as Americans.

The memory of Scottish origins lingered well after generations of descendants born in the Carolinas lost touch with the language and culture of their ancestors, of course, and some have attempted to maintain connections between Scottish immigrant communities all over North America. In 1914 the annual assembly of the Scottish Society of America convened in Fayetteville, and its president, Dr James A. Macdonald (editor of the Toronto Globe) delivered an address which drew on the rhetoric of racialism to outline the supposed characteristics of Scottishness. He deliberately blurred the lines between the the anglophone and Gaelophone divisions in Scottish life and culture, and attempted to elevate them all by riding the coat-tails of Anglo-Saxon imperialism:

… the ties that bind the United States and Canada are not merely the threads of common blood that run through our population. There are also the stronger ties of a common civilization, a common history and a common international interest.

In all that is most distinctive and most dominating in our life these two countries are one civilization. … these two English-speaking nations, in the great institutions of their life have been moulded and inspired by what may be called the Anglo-Saxon impulse. It is often more Celtic than Saxon, and in these Southern States represented by this Scottish Society, the Anglo-Celtic type has been preserved purer and freer from taint, either in blood or life, than can be found outside of Canada elsewhere in all the American Hemisphere.

Why did the Scottish Society of America choose to meet in Fayetteville that year? The society was lending its support to fund-raising efforts aiming to endow and create Flora MacDonald College, as the conclusion of his talk shows below. The college was in fact opened in 1915; some of the early students are probably featured in the photograph shown at the beginning of this blog.


Shortly thereafter, a Gaelic activist in Scotland (Ms. Juliet MacDonald of Culabhaile, Lochaber), wrote to the North Carolina branch of the Scottish Society of America, imploring them to go beyond Highland tokenism in the college’s makeup:

May I suggest that, to be worthy of its name, the language of the heroine – the Gaelic – should have a part in the curriculum? There can be no feeling of nationality without language and this is the day of the revival of the tongues of smaller nations. Why not begin with our beautiful Celtic music in Gaelic songs and I have no doubt teachers are plentiful with you.

Ms. MacDonald was precocious in her call for linguistic revitalization, especially in the context of marginalized communities, but she was overly optimistic about available Gaelic skills amongst teachers.

Probably the only academic in a North Carolina university who ever showed any interest in Scottish Gaelic was Professor Urban Holmes, Jr., who was Kenan Professor of Romance Philology at the University of North Carolina from 1925 to 1966. He taught himself the language well enough to write a short Gaelic essay in 1953 about the history of Scottish Gaelic in North Carolina. He remarked enthusiastically:

Gaelic songs are so compelling they cannot be forgotten… ‘Highland Call’ written by Paul Green was put on at the theatre in Fayetteville during the winter. …a number of the females at Flora McDonald college in Red Springs who take an interest in Highland matters danced at the festival. … But alas! the Gaelic language made no appearance. We hope that it won’t be long before there is evidence in Fayetteville of the reading and writing of the language that is as ancient as Ossian. (The original essay is reprinted in Kelly and Kelly, Carolina Scots; this is my translation)

Thus, Holmes himself comments on the beauty of the language and its music, but was disappointed with the insufficient will of the descendents of the Cape Fear immigrants to make a concerted effort to go beyond the tokenism of Highlandism and tartanism. Despite the support offered for the study and development of dozens of other languages and ethnic identities at the region’s universities, this, unfortunately, remains the state of Scottish Gaelic to the present in the Carolinas.


Scottish Gaels were a precocious exemplar of a marginalized European minority who were able to acquire the racially-bounded privileges of whiteness in North America by conforming to the standards and norms of anglophones. Forms of symbolic ethnicity (tartanism and Highlandism) offered compensations and sublimations for the loss of their ancestral Gaelic language and its associated traditions.

These issues have been inadequately researched and articulated due to the lack of Gaelic Studies as a scholarly endeavour in North American academia. While popular forms of Scottish identity are celebrated in the Carolinas and elsewhere (particularly Highland Games), they too indulge heavily in symbolic ethnicity and have little to do with the culture of the original Highland immigrants but are extensions of Highlandism imported in the nineteenth century.

NOTE: In my talk, I also spoke about people of African ancestry who spoke Gaelic and engaged in Gaelic music, and the importance of such figures in Gaelic folklore. I will cover that topic in a future blog post.


Caudill, William. “Gone to Seek a Fortune in North Carolina: The Failed Scottish Highland Emigration of 1884.” Dissertation for Master of Arts in Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009.

Dunn, Charles. Highland Settler: A Portrait of the Scottish Gael in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Island: Breton Books, reprint 1991 [1968].

Foote, William. Sketches of North Carolina. 1846.

Gibson, Joyce. Scotland County Emerging, 1750-1900. N.p., 1995.

Kelly, Douglas and Caroline Kelly. Carolina Scots. Dillon, S.C: 1998.

MacDonald, James. “Cultural Retention and Adaptation Among the Highland Scots of Carolina.” Dissertation for PhD in Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1992.

Meyer, Duane. The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961 [1957].

Mills, Kaththea. “Stories from Poe’s Bottom.” Argyll Colony Plus 16.1 (2002): 46-48.

Newton, Michael. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Richmond: Saorsa Media, 2001.

— “In Their Own Words: Gaelic Literature in North Carolina.” Scotia 25 (2001), 1-28.

— “Celticity in the Old South.” CrossRoads: A Journal of Southern Culture (2006): 137-49.

— “Gaelic Literature and the Diaspora.” In Susan Manning, et. al (ed.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 2, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2007), 353-9.

Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

– “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011.

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

Oates, John. The Story of Fayetteville and the Upper Cape Fear. 3rd ed. Fayetteville Women’s Club, 1981.

Wilkins, Jesse M. “Early Times in Wayne County.” The Mississippi Historical Society 6 (1902).

From Highlanders to Tar-Heels: Part 1

The Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Community of the Cape Fear

(The following blog entry is a summary of a talk about the Scottish Gaelic immigrant community of the Cape Fear of the Carolinas during the eighteenth century, delivered as a public lecture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on Sept 15, 2014.)

Some of the circumstances and general facts surrounding the large-scale migration of Scottish Highlanders to the Cape Fear region of the Carolinas in the eighteenth century are well researched and widely understood, despite the very poor and complete record of migrants: the North Carolina Colonial council granted tax breaks to foreign Protestants for the first ten years of settlement to encourage the “desired type of immigrant” and a group of about 350 Gaels from Argyllshire formed the first colony in 1739. There was very little further migration until the 1760s. Between 1768 and 1774 economic and political pressures in the Scottish Highlands were then so severe that somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Gaels went to North America, a great many of them to the Cape Fear settlement. Although the American Revolution essentially stopped migration to the Cape Fear, it resumed in smaller sporadic bursts until about 1840.


The map above provides the approximate boundaries of the area of Gaelic settlement of the Cape Fear.

The lack of development of Scottish Gaelic Studies in North America, and the general lack of attention to the emigrant experience in Scottish departments of Scottish Gaelic Studies, has meant that this community and cultural legacy has received inadequate attention by researchers with appropriate skills. Indeed, scholars in other fields in the American academy have made aggregious errors in glossing over the characteristics of Scottish Gaels, their language and historical experience. Take, for example, the short entry about one of the main centres of Gaelic settlement produced by the North Carolina Language and Life Project of North Carolina State University:


Gaels are here referred to as “Anglo settlers,” an historic and ethnic mis-classification that would have insulted them deeply, which is based on the modern conflation of language and ethnicity. The account also does not represent the linguistic realities of the community accurately at all.

Information about who these people were, what their language and culture were, how they perceived and represented themselves, and what they said about their own experiences, then, is sorely missing even in the hallowed halls of American academia. Of course, the dominance of stereotypes about Highlanders, emanating from Highland Games and Hollywood, does little to enhance popular understandings of this important element in the history of European settlement of North America.

In this short blog entry, I hope to provide an outline of information about the Cape Fear Gaelic community to the end of the eighteenth century and address to some degree the following questions:

  • What was their original ethnic identity?
  • What did they say about what they experienced?
  • What does surviving information tell us about their cultural makeup, mentality, and perspectives?
  • How can we correct inaccurate stereotypes by using their own literary remains?


It is vitally important from the start to emphasize that Scotland is not one nation but (at least) two, using the older sense of “nation” to denote an ethnic group united by a common language, customs, and origin myth. Although there are features which distinguish particular communities within the Highlands (religious affiliation, dialect, variations of vernacular culture, leadership), Gaels perceived themselves as a cohesive ethnic group in Scotland who contrasted with the people of the Lowlands. Self-perceptions of Highland distinctiveness continued in North America for as long as the Gaelic language has survived. The question of language is central, for it is integral to other aspects of Gaelic cultural expression. (See discussion in Newton, Warriors of the Word and “Scotland’s Two Solitudes.”)

The colored area of this map indicates the approximate area of the Highlands, and of the dominance of Gaelic speech in the eighteenth century. It is clearly a significant proportion of the land mass of Scotland.


Gaels themselves framed the loss of the Jacobite cause and the subsequent domination of the Highlands in terms of the centuries-long conflict between themselves, as the original indigenous population of Scotland, and the anglophone usurpers of the Lowlands. Emigration out of the Highlands and into the Carolinas began, however, several years before Culloden from Argyllshire (area 1 on the map above). and hence the origin of the name of their settlement: “The Argyll Colony.” By 1767 the area of heavy outmigration shifted north and west (area 2) and even spread to Sutherland in the far north (area 3) by 1774, one of the few areas with a long tradition of Protestant devotion.

One of the key resources that deserves special consideration in reconstructing this history is the song-poetry composed by the people who experienced these things. Particularly because these were composed and transmitted by people living in an oral-dominant society (where only a few of the élite were literate in their own language), snapshots of these texts, in constant flux due to the nature of oral tradition, were only periodically captured, sometimes far from their original places of composition. Gaelic literary remains, therefore, are like a restless kaleidoscope produced by communities reflecting and refracting artifacts of layers of each other’s experiences as they constantly fragment and relocate across countries and continents. Gaining a complete picture of any communities experiences and literary record would entail searching the oral archives and written records of communities in the US, Canada and Scotland in order to complement and complete the evidence left in any single site. (See further discussion in Newton, “In Their Own Words” and “Unsettling Iain mac Mhurchaidh’s slumber.”)

Language and Identity

Language is not only a means of transmitting and negotiating culture, it is a powerful symbol of the identity of that culture. This was as much true of the Gaels of the Carolinas as for any other ethnic group. When Finlay MacRae, a Jacobite soldier who survived Battle of Culloden (1746), emigrated to the Cape Fear (c.1770) he was said to have “cherished such a hatred of the English, in consequence of the atrocities of the Duke of Cumberland, that he would never speak the English language, but spoke only Gaelic as long as he lived.” Thus, the portrayal of Gaels as “Anglos” by the North Carolina Language and Life Project (shown above) is entirely misinformed.

Although many of the upper ranks of Gaelic society were bi-lingual by necessity of needing to engage in political and economic matters with the anglophone ascendency in Britain, hardly any of the lower ranks of the Highlands spoke English. This was true in many regions into the late nineteenth century and beyond. Leaders of the Argyll Colony petitioned the Presbytery of Inverary in 1739 to provide them with “a clergyman that can speak the Highland language since from that country all our servants are to be, many of which cannot speak any other language.”

As the mass of Highland migrants spoke no language but Gaelic, the colony was strongly Gaelic in orientation, at least during the lives of the first generation of settlers. In the biography of a minister who arrived in 1807, it was written: “preaching and singing in the Gaelic language was indispensable for many years in the churches throughout the Scotch [Cape Fear] region. Many of the old Highlanders could scarcely speak a word in the English language, and could not at all follow a regular discourse in it.”

There was a lingering memory of how distinct these early Gaelic colonists were to the anglophones who witnessed their arrival. Even if it is somewhat exaggerated, it has echoes of an earlier Gaelic source:

“It is said that upon the arrival of so unusual an importation at Wilmington the authorities, struck with the dress and language of the newcomers, required Macniel to enter into a bond for their peaceful and good behaviour. Perhaps the war-like spirit of the Celtic race struck the Wilmingtonians with such terror as led to the demand of the bond. Our intrepid countryman managed to evade the demand and ascended the Cape Fear with this band of his countrymen. …” (Weekly Raleigh Register 1860)

Gaelic Literature about Carolina Migrations Composed in Scotland

The nature of the Scottish Gaelic literary tradition has often been misrepresented. Literatures in the Celtic languages of Britain and Ireland are the earliest native voices to emerge in Western Europe. Due to the expansion of an anglophone empire that imposed its own language and culture on those which it conquered, the Celtic languages of Cornwall, Ireland, Man, Scotland, and Wales were not able to develop in the modern era with the support and patronage of their own national institutions as other European peoples were able to do. Instead, only a small number of the professional élite – usually churchmen – were able to acquire and foster learning in these native tongues. And, as a result, most verbal arts continued to be practiced within an oral tradition, only occasionally getting committed to writing due to the interests and concerns of particular people at particular times. Despite the large amount of oral song-poetry and narrative that must have been composed by and about Scottish Gaelic communities in the Carolinas, only a few pieces have survived, mostly recorded and archived elsewhere.

The earliest surviving Gaelic source related to Carolinas is in an unpublished MS held in Nova Scotia. It is the transcription from family oral tradition of a song-poem relating to the fate of the scions of the MacDonalds of Keppoch following the Battle of Culloden. Chieftain Alexander MacDonell was killed in action, his hall at Keppoch was destroyed by government troops and his sons Iain Òg (“young John”) and Domhnall Glas (“Pale Donald”) were banished as Jacobite rebels to Carolinas. I hope to publish an edition and translation of this entire piece in the near future, but for now the handwritten notes to the song in the manuscript will have to suffice:

“A song after Culloden after the horrid Duke of Cumberland burnt Keppoch House, and the two sons of Both-Fhionntainn were sent into exile to South Carolina. The two were married and have many descendants in that land today.”

This demonstrates not only the lingering interests that distant relations in other far-away colonies continued to nurture, but their ability to somehow glean information about them well before Google and other internet search engines were available.

Following in chronological order, one of the next songs was composed by Iain mac Fhearchair MacCodruim (aka. “John MacCodrum”) of North Uist about the 1769-73 migration from the Clan Donald estates to North Carolina. A short excerpt provides a sense of the duress which the motivated the peasantry to depart their old homes:

“you must sail away and it is not your desire to do so … Because [the landlords] will not allow you to live in the lands that are familiar to you, it is better to leave willingly than to sink into slavery…”

“[the landlords] are of the opinion that you no longer belong to the soil … they have lost sight of every obligation and pledge that they had with the men who reclaimed their land from their enemies.”  (the poem is given in full in Newton, We’re Indians Sure Enough, 88-93)

Poet Domhnall MacMhathain of Sutherland composed a poem comparing Scottish Gaels to those who fled in Noah’s Ark. Although his poem is undated, it was probably commenting upon the migrations that left Sutherland in 1774. It was printed in Scotland in a book of religious hymns in 1816. MacMhathain goes on to liken Scottish Gaelic emigrants to the Jews enslaved in Egypt, adding:

“…Landlords are enslaving their people at this time; evicting and forcing them to go to a land that will do good for their children…” (the poem is given in full in MacDonell, The Emigrant Experience, 20-27)

Gaelic Religious Literature

Most of the texts composed in Scottish Gaelic that survive from the Carolina colony are religious in nature. Although a great many song-poems, anecdotes and oral narratives must have been in circulation in Gaelic in the Cape Fear community, clergymen formed the majority of the few people who had had the privilege of receiving education in their native tongue and their interests were more spiritual than secular.

The earliest surviving printed sermons in Gaelic from anywhere were published not in Scotland but in North Carolina! The sermons were delivered orally to the Raft Swamp congregation in the autumn of 1790 and printed in Fayetteville in 1791. The resulting booklet was meant to be used in both the United States and Scotland, being dedicated to congregations in Scotland, in Raft Swamp (Robeson), and Long Street (Cumberland). It contains three long prayers and two sermons, having been intended for use in private religious practice as well as public religious services. The author, Dùghlas Crawford, was a native of the isle of Arran in Scotland and was clearly a capable Gaelic writer. The printers in Fayetteville were equally capable of dealing with the language. This work is an early manifestation of Gaelic evangelical movement and illustrates the transition from the dominance of orality in Gaelic culture to more widespread acquisition of literacy in the vernacular tongue (see discussion in Meek, “The pulplit”).

Highlanders tend to be depicted as either a backward peasants stubbornly clutching on to ancient customs and beliefs, or else stark and austere Presbyterians stamping out all earthly pleasures with puritanical zeal. While neither stereotype captures reality completely, it should be noted that while many Highland emigrants to the Carolinas came from nominally Presbyterian areas, communities were rarely orthodox in a modern religious sense. They instead experienced evangelical revivals and conversions in North America that changed the nature of religious belief and practice tremendously.

In a biography of the Rev. Daniel White (a Scottish Gael who immigrated to the Cape Fear in 1807), it was stated: “The Scotch people there were sparsely settled, ignorant, rarely hearing preaching of any kind … here surrounded by a people wandering in the mazes of superstition – believing in witches and ghosts … but they were the people of his native land …” While this portrayal may exaggerate the unorthodox nature of the spiritual beliefs of parishoners in order to vaunt his achievements in converting them, it is certainly true to state that older indigenous cosmology and customs lingered long in Gaelic consciousness.

Both the geographical isolation and the linguistic distinctions of the Highlands served to separate it from the culture and developments of the Lowlands. The Synods of Argyll and Glenelg complained in 1755 to the Scottish General Assembly about “the distressed Situation of their Bounds by the want of Preachers having the Irish [i.e., Gaelic] language.”

The chance survival of a tiny charm sheet from the Cape Fear illustrates the continued belief in and use of magic by at least some Gaels. It is only a small, folded paper held by the North Carolina Archives and History in Raleigh, associated with Dùghall MacPhàrlain of Moore County. It is written in Gaelic but the non-standard orthography influenced by English literacy has made the “decryption” of the text challenging. It was recently deciphered and analyzed by Ronald Black, who notes that it is “…not merely the only Scottish Gaelic charm known to have survived from the New World. It may well be the only Scottish Gaelic charm to have survived from the eighteenth century in the form of a functioning artifact rather than as a scholarly transcript.”

The charm’s text recalls Gaelic founder saint Colm Cille (Columba), repeatedly invokes the magic number nine (three times three), and makes references to the sìthichean (fairies). It is consistent with the motifs in other surviving Gaelic charms, and certainly indicates that not all Highland emigrants were strict Presbyterians in the modern sense.

Gaelic Literature of the American Revolution

The Scottish Gaelic communities of the Cape Fear were divided by the American Revolution. In general, those who had been in the colony the longest were more likely to side with the rebels, and those who had most recently arrived were more likely to side with and fight as Loyalists (to the British Crown). It’s been estimated that the population was split about in thirds, with one segment attempting to avoid taking sides and engaging in the conflict altogether. There is a great deal of political commentary in Gaelic about the Revolution, especially in song-poetry, although much of what survives comes from sources in Scotland (see Newton, We’re Indians Sure Enough and “Jacobite Past”).

Probably the most interesting Gaelic literary survival from the Cape Fear is a lullaby to a young daughter. Although it has been attributed in some in the past to Iain mac Mhurchaidh, I have recently examined several surviving variants (from Scotland and Nova Scotia) and determined that it was composed by an immigrant mother, probably during the Revolutionary War. The text conveys anxiety about the family’s circumstances, and remarks on the alien customs in the colony and the unfamiliar flora and fauna of an unknown environment. It also notes the liminal status of Gaels on the geo-political “frontier,” and alludes to the anglophone perception of Gaels (in the company of Others) residing on the cultural boundary between barbaric and civilized. (See Newton, “Unsettling Iain mac Mhurchaidh’s slumber”).

There is also a very interesting first-person historical legend about a Highlander named Iain MacArtuir who settled in the Carolinas. He fought as a Loyalist when the Revolution occured and was imprisoned. He escaped with wife and returned to Western Isles to tell the tale (in Gaelic), which seems to have remained in oral circulation until transcribed and published in 1961. This tale seems to have evaded previous scholarly attention. I hope to deal with it at a future date.


Here, by way of summary, are a few of the conclusions that emerge from this research.

The Scottish Gaelic community had its own language, culture and ethnic identity. It saw itself as distinct from “Anglo-British” culture, even though the forces of assimilation were to close in on it during the nineteenth century in the Carolinas.  Members of the community produced Gaelic literature but the remains that survive are few and most survive elsewhere (in Canada or Scotland); these are, however, crucial bits of evidence for reconstructing cultural features and the communal experiences of the Carolina Gaels.

Even though immigrants brought aspects of traditional Gaelic culture and cosmology with them, these were eroded by the evangelical movement that swept through British North America in the early nineteenth century.

The Revolutionary War fragmented and weakened the Gaelic community of the Cape Fear, particularly because so many of its customary authority figures remained loyal to the British Crown and relocated elsewhere, leaving the remaining community with insufficient leadership. Nonetheless, the community remained connected to a trans-Atlantic network that spanned Gaelic settlements in Scotland and North America for several generations.

NOTE: I wrote an earlier essay in 2006 which provides another view of the early history of settlement. It can be found at this webpage.


Black, Ronald. “ ‘The Nine’: A Scottish Gaelic Charm in the North Carolina State Archives.”  The North Carolina Historical Review 84 (January 2007): 37-58.

Dunn, Charles. Highland Settler: A Portrait of the Scottish Gael in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Island: Breton Books, reprint 1991 [1968].

Kelly, Douglas and Caroline Kelly. Carolina Scots. Dillon, S.C: 1998.

MacDonell, Margaret (ed.). The Emigrant Experience, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982.

Meek, Donald. “The pulpit and the pen: clergy, orality and print.” in The Spoken Word: Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850, ed. Adam Fox and Daniel Woolf, 84-118. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Meyer, Duane. The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961 [1957].

Newton, Michael. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Richmond: Saorsa Media, 2001.

— ‘In Their Own Words: Gaelic Literature in North Carolina.’ Scotia 25 (2001), 1-28.

— “‘Vain, hurtful, lying, worldly tales’: Creed, belief, and practice in the life of Argyll Highlanders, in Scotland and America.” Argyll Colony Plus (2003).

— “Jacobite Past, Loyalist Present.” eKeltoi (2003).

— ‘Gaelic Literature and the Diaspora’, in Susan Manning, et. al (ed.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 2, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2007), 353-9.

Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

– “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011.

— “Unsettling Iain mac Mhurchaidh’s slumber: The Carolina Lullaby, authorship, and the influence of print media on Gaelic oral tradition.” Aiste 4 (2014), 131–54. (online here)