A Better Scottish Diaspora is Possible

Scottish Highland Games may be fun and entertaining, but if we are to judge them by the standards of historical accuracy and cultural authenticity, they are little more than a sham circus.

People wearing tartan kilts celebrate their Lowland Scottish ancestors who would have looked down on Highanders for their clothing and language. Dancers – mostly children – do “Highland dancing” under the assumption that the dance form derives from Highland tradition, unaware that almost all of it was invented by 19th and 20th century urbanites projecting stereotypes about Highlanders. Clan societies give overly simplistic solutions (we are a sept of “Clan X,” we wear this tartan) that distort the histories of the very cultures they are supposed to be promoting.

Those who have had the opportunity and good fortune to explore Scotland’s real Highland heritage – that which is rooted in its native Gaelic language and culture – realize that there is a lot to celebrate that is fun, appealing and informative, but that very little of it is being represented or supported through the mainstream of Scottish heritage in North America.

Most Scottish heritage groups are simply social clubs with tartan window dressing and a splash of whisky tasting, which is not necessarily a problem in itself. Some of it, however, supports racist ideologies and can easily reinforce notions of white supremacy (when in fact Scots are not a race and have their own regional identities based on language and culture, not genetics). Little wonder that so many Scots find the charade embarrassing and that it gets so little traction from its potential audience.

Although I explored these issues in a lengthy article in 2005, I’m revisiting them again with the aim of establishing a new organization in North America to help network and support those of us who really enjoy, care about and want to be engaged in Gaelic tradition in a manner that is authentic and has integrity.

I’ve therefore solicited opinions and ideas from several North American contacts who have been involved in Scottish Gaelic. Judging from my own experience and past research, these are representative opinions.

  • Richard Aszling: from Chicago, with a degree in Music and certificates in special education, bilingual education, and English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • Liam Alastair Crouse: from Rhode Island, now working in South Uist as Ceòlas Gaelic Development Officer
  • Tiber Falzett: From Prince Edward Island and Pennsylvania, with a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from University of Edinburgh
  • Anne Landin: from North Carolina, Editor of The Argyll Colony Plus magazine
  • Sharon Pace MacLeod: born in Ontario, a musician, singer and scholar of Celtic spiritual traditions
  • Toby Rider: IT professional/musician born in Tiawan, raised in California, fluent in English and Mandarin, and working on Gaelic
  • Caroline Root: Gaelic teacher in Colorado

One person asked to remain anonymous because they worry that their opinions may offend others who have invested themselves in the mythology and iconography of tartanism and feel threatened when it is questioned. That in itself indicates how divided the Scottish diaspora in North America has become, and how lacking in leadership and representation those who wish to engage in Gaelic culture are in the mainstream.

We can do better. We can re-envision the way that we celebrate and develop Scottish Highland heritage in North America so that it is more authentic, more fulfilling, more life-enriching, and more supportive of Gaelic communities in Scotland as well as ethnic communities in North America. Here are the opinions of others that reflect these aspirations.

(1) How important do you think the Gaelic language and culture are in the representation of Scottish heritage in North America? Why?


Considering that what most Americans celebrate about Scottish culture comes from Gaelic culture in the beginning, I think it is a travesty that Gaelic as the primary lens through which the culture was passed down to us has been marginalized as much here as it has been both in England and in Scotland. It is in the nature of Americans to attempt to get away with cultural appropriation. Given our melting pot status across two centuries, it is difficult for Americans to see how this would be a bad thing. Often times, when you bring up the fact that cultural appropriation on this scale is a crime against the very thing that they are trying to celebrate, you often get hostility and outright rage in response. It simply what we do, as Americans. I think that at this point it is somewhat easier to get through to some people who attend what I call the Highland Games circuit because of the high profile efforts of many Gaelic organisations both in the United States, in Scotland, and in Canada, but when it comes to individual celebratory Scottish groups under the umbrella of the Highland Games circuit, you often find the same amount of hostility and indignation as you did 20 years ago to the idea of including the use of Gaelic in regular activities within the groups. It is of utmost importance to bring Gaelic language back into the collective mindset involved in the celebration of Scottish culture in the United States. Given the amount of people in the United States who celebrate what they considered to be Scottish culture, bringing the connection between Gaelic and what people perceive to be Scottish culture to light will increase the survival of the language as a whole, even in spite of continued persecution within the construct that is the current United Kingdom.

Richard Aszling

In my opinion, Gaelic language and culture are essential in the representation of Scottish heritage in North America. There are millions of Americans and Canadians that are descended from Scottish Gaels, and for the vast majority of them, the closest thing that they have to access to their cultural heritage is symbology. At best, these symbols (the kilt, tartan, Highland Games, bagpipes, clan badges, etc.) are empty, stripped of their meaning without a rich cultural context passed down from generation to generation through the language that was first used ­ and thus best used ­ to describe them; at worst, they have been perverted (e.g. militarized) by successive imperial Anglo­Saxon states. In order for those of us who descend from the Highland Scots to be able to access the culture that, absent colonial domination, could have ­ dare I say should have? ­ been passed down to us, we have to move beyond these symbols and begin to understand their origins along with a host of other cultural practices in a way that is only truly possible through the Gaelic language. It is the language that first delineated that culture and it is indispensable to its understanding.

Liam Alastair Crouse

While I don’t believe that a minute understanding of the Gaelic language and culture is obligatory for all those partaking in and benefiting from Scottish Heritage within the North American, I do believe that the language and culture are an inextricable part of the story of Scottish immigrants in North America. The bilingual nature, and indeed the oft incompatible identities of Scottish immigrants – Lowland and Highland, is a reality which has been blurred in the subsumption of the cultures into the monolingual North American heteroculture. More so, knowledge of the Gaelic language and culture does not solely help to shed light on this skewing of the historic narrative, but may also help to also reverse language trends in the home country, i.e. to help to support revitalisation efforts in Scotland. As an example, and as food for thought, many descendants of Gaels came from areas which no longer speak Gaelic in Scotland, or are very weak. Sending those ‘troops’ into the breach, with their lack of sociolinguistic norms of the Gaels and their lack of cultural trauma, may help provide buffer and turn the tide.

Tiber Falzett

[I feel] strongly that such a sea-change resulting in their collective and unified support, commitment and ownership of such a mandate/idea would be a tremendous windfall.
The Clan Donald Educational and Charitable Trust was very kind in supporting my first two-years of postgraduate work at the University of Edinburgh, as I know they were with many other burgeoning Scottish Gaelic scholars over the years. For this I am most grateful.

From recent personal experiences doing grass-roots public scholarship related to Scottish Gaelic on Prince Edward Island, it is most interestingly an Irish heritage organization, expressing commitment to hosting seminars pertinent to Island Scottish Gaelic tradition as well as in offering community-based Scottish Gaelic and Modern Irish language courses, and a homestead focused on sustainable organic agricultural and native small-scale forestry/woodlot management that have taken the greatest interest and are now lending strong support to the renewal of our Island’s local forms of documented Scottish Gaelic ethnolinguistic expression and tradition. I would say that support from such varied contexts to Scottish Gaelic is most encouraging and indeed heartening. Headway is also being made by underlining the common threads, demonstrating the importance of, and advocating for of all our Island communities’ Intagible Cultural Heritage new and old from various ethnolinguistic contexts as transmitted and maintained over multiple generations on these shores. This is of course small-scale and also in its infancy so I look forward to seeing if the seeds that are being sown on the Island will offer up a harvest.

Anne Landin

There are probably a lot more people of Lowland Scot ancestry in the United States than Highland; while some Gaelic speakers from various parts of the country and Canada migrated west to such places as Manitoba and California in the early 20th century, it is only in a few areas such as North Carolina and New York, and in the deep south and southwest where Highland Scots settled in the 18th and 19th century, that people might have a strong interest based on heritage alone.

The Gaelic language is of interest to many people who have no ancestral links to it and this is probably based on the realization that it is related to “Celtic” music or has other meaning for those people.

Sharon Pace MacLeod

Very important. The U.S. is of course a melting pot of cultures, each of which has made an enormous contribution to this huge and diverse continent. From the myriad Indigenous cultures of North America (many of which are also involved in a struggle for recognition, and efforts to recover from colonialism and preserve their identity, cultures and languages) to immigrants from around the globe – including many parts of Europe.
Most Americans have a only a vague notion of our cultural history – from ‘Indians’ (who are viewed as either existing only in the past, or as relics of an irrelevant past), to settlers from England, and later, waves of immigrants primarily from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, and (out west) from China and Japan. While the Irish contribution to American culture is well documented and discussed, those from Scotland receive much less attention or credit for their remarkable contributions to this culture.

More focus is now being given to the contributions of Native Americans, African-Americans, and Mexican Americans – as it should be. Being inclusive of all of the gifts from all of America’s most influential population groups is crucial to maintaining our diversity and our inclusiveness, and to understanding who we are.

Toby Rider

Gaelic language should be fundamental to the representation of Scottish culture in North America. Particularly in regions that received immigrants that came from The Highlands & Western Isles, ie: native Gaelic speakers. For example Nova Scotia & North Carolina. Imagine visiting Chinatown or Moneterey Park in California and not hearing anyone speaking Chinese.. Language indeed is the key to the front door of a culture.

Caroline Root

I’d say most people don’t know that Gaelic exists. Some only know of it in a historical context and some only know about it because of Outlander and then there are the few people who learn about it and really know something about the language. I don’t think there are too many negative feelings about Gaelic it is more that people either don’t know or just don’t think about it.

(2) Do you think that Gaelic has been well, or equitably, represented by the mainstream Scottish heritage groups on this continent? Why or why not? How could this be improved?


I am not entirely sure what does or doesn’t constitute a “Scottish heritage group”. If by that you mean any group claiming to be a supporter of one aspect of Scottish culture or another, then I think the answer is two part. The ones that are specifically Gaelic-related–Slighe nan Gàidheal in Seattle, Washington and ACGA with members all over the U. S. and Canada–do as well as their individual members and administrative structures allow for. Slighe nan Gàidheal is essentially a Gaelic community centered around Seattle, Washington and does really well providing opportunities for both language learning and for participating in Gaelic-centric activities. ACGA encompasses a far larger area (most of the North American continent), but is hampered in its outreach by its own corporate structure which concentrates all the decision-making at the top of the organization (between 12 and 15 people depending on the year) and places the responsibility for implementing decisions concerning outreach and activities on the backs of approximately 8 or 9 of its close to 200 dues-paying members. That being said, both organizations break their proverbial (and sometimes literal) necks doing the best job they can with what they have and though the progress may seem small on an overall scale, measurable headway has been made in getting the word out about Gaelic being the source of much of the “traditions” carried on by people in the Highland Games circuit. Is it adequate to turn the tide against losing the language? No, but every little bit helps. As far as other Scottish heritage groups–things like the Scottish-American Military Society and the hundreds of different clan societies and their various sub-branches–go and how they contribute, it really depends on which group you encounter. It can even vary widely within geographic regions within a sub-chapter of the clan society. There are some clan societies which embrace their Gaelic associations, both past and present, and actively encourage anyone who has any language aptitude to learn Gaelic and use it; others–and I have experienced this personally within my own chapter of my clan society–will actually turn their backs on you, the entire group of them, and pretend as if you weren’t standing right beside them when you mention the word Gaelic. And yet, within the geographic area where I live, there are now 4 people who are actively interested in learning and using Gaelic within the scope of their individual participation within the clan society, while the rest of clan members in the other grouped states, still choose to ostracize anyone who mentions it. It really is a mixed bag.

How to improve it? Well, in my case what seems to have worked so far is joining a Scottish heritage group and gently exposing them to the language to see which people are receptive and which aren’t. Then I have focused on those who are and encouraged them to learn, either by providing all the resources and information I have on how to do it (and in some cases actually using technology to help them to start, which in many cases is the hardest hurdle to cross) or introducing them to people who can help them do it. The more of us there are in a group, the less ability the nay-sayers have to ostracize, marginalize, or ignore the language and people attempting to use it. Sometimes I have run into a solid wall of rejection–to the point of being banned electronically from membership in online forums for particular groups–and moved on; the whole “you can lead a horse to water” saying. Essentially, I think the best approach is to have positive, energetic people with boots on the ground going out into various heritage societies, armed with a clear understanding of what cultural appropriation means and how to avoid it, the ability to politely persuade people to learn outside their own comfortable boxes of ignorance, a thick skin and aversion to the word “no”, and the ability to present Gaelic as the source of much of the Highland Games circuit’s traditions in as non-threatening and convincing way as possible.

Richard Aszling

I do not think that Gaelic has been well represented in mainstream heritage societies. Though I am not myself a member of any clan society ­ several of which I could lay claim to ­ or umbrella Scottish heritage society, I have researched them and found the presence of Gaelic to be marginal at best ­ a motto here a greeting there. I can only imagine that this is due to the fact that, outside of Nova Scotia in general and Cape Breton in particular, the language has been lost, in most cases for several hundred years. In the meantime the idea of Scottish culture as being represented by Burn’s Nights (no disrespect to the poet!), Feasts of the Haggis, tartan kilts, and pipe bands has come to stand in for what has been lost, and it has all been communicated by the Gael’s adopted language ­ English. As advocates for the Gaelic language, I think that we can improve on this situation by joining these heritage societies and making our love for the language and culture known; offering ourselves to be educators to the best of our ability; publicizing and attending the National Mòd whenever at all possible; teaching the language to our children (something that I am endeavoring to do); making connections with Irish heritage societies, fostering partnerships and highlighting cultural ties, especially if they offer Irish language classes as the Irish American Heritage Center here in Chicago does; and learning from those groups who have been successful at building a Gaelic community (e.g. Slighe nan Gàidheal in Seattle).

Liam Alasdair Crouse

Gaelic has been subsumed and forgotten by the mainstream. I wonder if Donald Trump ever mentioned Scottish Gaelic in a public forum before? He has mentioned Scotland, co-dhiùbh. Just an example. Another might be the un-Gaelicising of the Clans.

Gaelic has not been equitably represented because it is a minority culture, one which has not fared well under the Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Majority culture, mainstream Scottish Heritage groups included whether they know it or not, happily consume the more digestible portions of Gaelic culture, while leaving the leftover marrow and sinew to rot.

It can be improved through education, I believe. I do not think that many are hostile to the language and culture as some once were. Many can be brought back into the fold if properly taught about their cultural inheritance.

Anne Landin

I’m not sure what a “mainstream” Scottish heritage group is. I have found that clan societies in general and “Scottish heritage” societies such as the one here in New Bern exist primarily as a social club where activities are sponsored entirely for the purpose of giving the members a chance to dress up in their kilts and tartans. In talking to members of these groups, I have found most have no knowledge or have misinformation about topics related to Scottish history. Note that these are generally older people.

I have tried to promote interest in Gaelic and in actual Scottish history, particularly highland history, to them with no effect. They sometimes won’t even take publications to read which are offered for free. I would guess people in groups such as these might be prevailed upon for a donation but otherwise do not seem to want to learn or change their minds about things they have believed for a long time. They do have money to spend, and they usually have traveled to Scotland.

The only other organization I am familiar with is our North Carolina Scottish Heritage Society, whose main function is to publish The Argyll Colony Plus. This journal features research by academics and others who are sending us new material and it promotes, if not Gaelic itself, at least real scholarship in Scottish and highland history. I try to see that some Gaelic related material is included in most issues and occasionally these receive comment from readers, but I can’t be sure what effect they have. We do have several members who have learned a little Gaelic and others who email me from time to time asking for a translation or definition. We have had only very occasional support from other Gaelic speakers, mostly in Scotland.

In the absence of any real history being taught in the schools today, especially in grammar school, resources to do special programs in the schools to interest children would be a very good use of funding. That would involve recruiting people and training them as well as marketing to sell the idea to the schools.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

Outside of Highland Games, and Scottish clan events, Scottish culture is fairly invisible in the tapestry of American culture. Much more focus and funding has been provided for Irish-American culture – I suspect partly because of sheer numbers in the north-east, and their rise to political power in the early 20th century.

I think Scottish Games and Clan Societies are extremely enthusiastic and sincere in their appreciation of their heritage, but this is often a ‘surface’ understanding of that culture. One can find Adult Education classes in Irish Gaelic in various parts of the country, but Scottish Gaelic is only rarely offered. Appreciating the difficulty of the language – and the challenges incurred by adult learners – it’s important to have compassion for the lack of numbers in terms of Gaelic learners.

I think that there could be great benefit from including ‘Introduction to Scottish Gaelic’ language, song and culture events at Highland Games around the country. These could help people ‘break the ice’ and also connect with teachers, learning materials, online resources, and learning groups. Brochures could be provided helping people connect with reliable books and websites in order to learn more authentic information about Gaelic culture and language. The internet will be of great assistance in helping people access this information and also join on-line groups for continued learning and support. Toiling alone in obscurity ensures that people may give up the task.

Toby Rider

The represenation of Gaelic by Scottish heritage groups in North America has been laughable at best, completely depressing at worst. The biggest offenders as far as omitting The Gaelic are these various clan associations. The one exception to this of course in the An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach, the Gaelic association. They do a good job.

I think this can be improved through two methods: 1. Better education, 2. Somehow divorcing the idea of Scottish heritage groups as being synonmous with “white pride” or “white power” groups. In some areas, especially in American South, Scottish heritage organziations cater to the same people as The Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ku Klux Klan, etc.

Caroline Root

No, I don’t think they have been well or equitably represented. Where they are represented the fact that they were Gaelic speakers and part of a different culture is often ignored. I’m not sure why but it could be that if it were acknowledged that they were ‘other’ it would make them harder to relate to or just make things more complicated. People often want simple history, where there is a good guy and a bad guy and all the lines are clear and a history that they can look at without having to look beyond the confines of their own culture.
I don’t know how to change that, you’d have to change all the people and that would take a lot of time, but I have seen some small changes already so who knows.

(3) What do you think would be the advantage(s) of better and more informed inclusion of Gaelic in North American celebrations and representations of Scottish heritage?


I covered this a little in one of my previous answers, but essentially, the more Gaelic is recognized as the true source of much of the Highland Games circuit’s traditions, the more likely people who aren’t completely averse to the learning of ANY language will attempt to learn it and give Gaels in whatever form they take the opportunity to pass on both Gaelic language and culture to future generations.

Richard Aszling

The advantage of better and more informed inclusion of Gaelic in the North American Scottish cultural representations is simply this: another potential place for Gaelic language and culture to thrive outside of Scotland. This is, perhaps, overly idealistic, but it is a dream of mine. In my mind, the Gaels came to North America. We are here and we more than likely not going back to Scotland. In many ways we are American, for better or worse, but can we not also be Gaels? I grew up in the city of Chicago among people of all different cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and I saw a place for each one of them in the City of Chicago, this most American city. Can I not be a Chicagoan and also a Gael?

Liam Alastair Crouse

A flowering of Scottish studies in North America, as well as a new resurgence of those interested in Gaelic language returning to the Old Country to renew ‘the fight’. In its own right, I believe that Scottish studies has much to tell us both of ourselves as Americans & Canadians as it does about the story of the Gael. However, I must admit that I see that the ultimate destination for any Scottish studies or inclusion of Gaelic in celebrations and representations of Scottish heritage must be to renew the language and the culture in a serious, un-tokenistic way. I am willing to concede, however, that only in Scotland could this happen.

Anne Landin

How do you propose to include Gaelic? As a volunteer, I have run Gaelic tents at various highland games for many years, and while we have a lot of people drop in and ask a few questions, and we hand out free phrase books, comics and coloring books for children, very few people ever pursue learning the language from this experience as far as I know.

During the last year or so since Outlander was made into a TV show, there has been a lot more interest in Gaelic, especially from older women, but I have doubts that they would make the effort to try to actually learn the language. However, these people might be interested in supporting and promoting others learning the language with their donations.

ACGA has not supported these Gaelic tents in many years as far as I know. At one time we tried to establish some procedures and standardized materials to use which could be loaned out to anyone willing to set up a tent at highland games or other events, but ACGA’s regional representative program was not well organized, and trying to go through a (usually inactive) intermediary was frustrating; it is easier just to do it yourself.

The failure of this effort to be able to provide follow up and classes for those who showed interest at the games or other events has been discouraging. I have handed out lists of useful websites but if there were classes available which could be advertised as such and were easily accessible, and someone or group would follow up with those who have shown an interest, this would encourage more people to learn Gaelic and/or learn about Gaelic history. I am not optimistic that many would stick with it for very long unless there was LOTS of follow up and encouragement.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

To include those of Scottish ancestry in the national discussion and appreciation of culture and heritage in North America, as well as to educate those of other ancestral backgrounds about the unique contributions of that culture. With the popularity of Outlander, and earlier, the Highlander series, as well as Braveheart and Rob Roy (despite their historical inaccuracies), it’s clear that many people are interested in and resonate with this culture and would like to learn more about it.Without any type of serious or sustained Scottish Gaelic learning programs in educations of higher learning, the entire burden falls on Scottish Heritage groups (who may not have the expertise or ability to sustain it).

In addition, those who are interested will undoubtedly go on the internet looking for information. Where the historical, cultural and linguistic information is not presented in an accessible or engaging way (as may often be the case in academic sources), people will gravitate to popular materials ranging from ‘gently misguided history’ to the aggregious portrayals of Gaelic / Celtic culture and beliefs rampant in New Age and Neo-Pagan books and websites, which are highly visible and visually enticing on many websites.

i think it would be of great interest to move beyond the ‘whisky, tartan and shortbread’ version of Gaelic culture (fun though that can be for many people) in cultural celebrations, classes, exhibits and courses. This will take an awareness of what is being promoted, why that is resonant for the general populace, and without scolding them, entice people into stepping farther into the authentic culture with books, CD’s, learning programs, arts programs, online resources and the like. This is founded of course in academic research and cultural knowledge, but is also a human-based creative effort which I think can be highly successful if approached correctly.

Toby Rider

We can preserve our culture, genuinely. Not a cartoon version. Other immigrant groups here in North America have done such a good job of preserving and transmitting their culture, that it is not uncommon for the offspring of immigrants to return to the old country, to work or visit for extended periods. They have the ability to converse fluently in their mother tongue and completely understand the subtilties of the parent culture. That’s not happening with the offspring of Gaels in North America.

Another thing which would be most beneficial are activities which bring the young offspring of diaspora together, so that friendships can be built which span across the great distances. I would say that The Gaelic College on Cape Breton Island is a good positive example (on a very small scale). Another excellent example of the type of actitvity I am thinking of is the “Overseas Compatriot Youth Formosa Study Tour to Taiwan”, informally known as the Love Boat. It is a four-week summer program for about 400–600 college-aged male and female students who are ethnically Taiwanese.

Caroline Root

Very basically I could say I teach Scottish Gaelic and not get blank stares and people saying ‘what’s that?’. It would also give people a richer more in depth perspective on history.

(4) Why do you think this has not already happened? What is preventing this state of affairs? Have things improved over the last decade or so? Why or why not?


One could write a doctoral thesis in response to the first question, here. The number of factors involved in preventing Gaelic from being included in the collective consciousness of the Scottish diaspora are legion. Everything from local attitudes against polyglots in general, to political associations where none should exist between Gaelic and some sort of aggressive fringe with an ulterior motive, to American Nationalism (the “Speak English, damn it!” movement), to (wrongly) considering it a regional language rather than a “Scottish” language (“It wasn’t spoken in MY clan; we’re from X, not the Western Isles”), to just plain laziness or apathy, and many more besides. At the core the things that are preventing the correction of the situation are basic human fallacies: apathy, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, individual pride and self-importance, and extreme resistance to “change” or fear of the unknown or both. The same tools with which these basic fallacies are addressed are the same ones that should be used when trying to improve the lot of Gaelic in North America. Things have improved *somewhat* over the last decade. Part of that comes from the ever-wider use of social media to expose more people to the language, to discuss the wider issues surrounding its survival, to organize and coordinate Gaelic events, and to get the word out about those events. Social media basically bypasses the traditional hurdle of having to pay someone in the traditional media (who are likely to have an anti-Gaelic bias or a skewed notion of what they want to say about it that is different from what you are paying them to say or are just completely ignorant of the subject and apathetic to your proposal to get the word out, even if paid to do so) to publicize Gaelic events and get the word out. It’s much easier for information to “go viral” on social media and it reaches far more people much faster than traditional media does at this stage. That’s not to say that social media doesn’t have its problems–misinformation is just as easily spread as correct information and there are thousands upon thousands of people out there who know just enough to think they know something who have never encountered the concept of cultural appropriation, much less to know it should be avoided, who spread misinformation like wildfire. So, there are no real complete and all-encompassing methods that one can point to and say, “THIS! This is how we should do it!” It’s going to have to be a very carefully examined (and re-examined) group of methods, adjusted and tweaked according to geography, response, and effectiveness on a regular basis by people who *all agree on the goals and methodology and general process by which it is done*. Without that last, it’s doomed to failure anyway no matter how much effort the individuals involved put into it.

Richard Aszling

In a word, ignorance. The colonial domination of the Scots and the Highlanders in particular coupled with the relentlessly monoglot nature of the Anglosphere has blinded people to the fact that there is even a separate Gaelic culture in Scotland. The final nail in the coffin here is the idea that Gaelic is a dead language. I think that the more that Americans wake up to the way that international capitalism dominates our cultural discourse, the more they yearn for something that is more authentic and rooted in community. I am convinced that that is a large part of the boom in interest in genealogy. If we, as advocates of Gaelic language and culture, are prepared to educate those that are seeking this information, I believe that there will be a wealth of opportunities for the language to take root and grow throughout the continent. I see the beginnings of this in the fandom that’s growing up around the Outlander series. I wonder just how many people have begun to take a deeper look into the language because of those books and the television show!

Liam Alastair Crouse

Gaelic has only in a few decades come to the public fore in Scotland, and Native American languages are left to wither in western reservations – there is little wonder! I believe that the arrival of the post-modern world and its philosophy of pluralism has helped.
I believe that the established hegemony is preventing it. America, certainly, asserts assimilation and unity. It is no wonder that the country is innately afraid of true multiculturalism and the dissention which that may bring.

Anne Landin

Lack of money, lack of time, lack of manpower, lack of organization. Support for Gaelic is too fragmented. Most individuals as well as organizations are only interested in maintaining their own position, not in cooperating with other individuals or groups to establish a bigger net. This is probably due in some part to lack of funding (not enough to go around) and resulting protectionism.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

Inertia, lack of funds, lack of understanding, and lack of qualified teachers and presenters.

The common person in North America has only limited time, energy and money to devote to study. But they can learn through experience, through inspirational presentations and workshops, and through the arts.

I think the internet has been of some help in connecting learners and enthusiasts, and can be of even more use if utilized in a concerted way to provide a main resource of connection and interconnection.

Toby Rider

Two reasons: 1. Excuse making, 2. Laziness. The U.S. in particular is one of the most monolingual countries in The World. Not because there aren’t plenty of opportunities to learn, but rather more people would prefer to sit on their sofas, watch football, drink cheap beer, eat pork rinds and make excuses for why they don’t have time to do things.

Caroline Root

Here is the thing, wearing a kilt is easy and so are most of the things that people do so that they ‘feel Scottish’ at least compared to learning Gaelic. And again the thing about people liking easy history. Basically people can be very lazy. Things have improved.  Whatever you think of it Outlander has allowed people to be both lazy and learn more about Gaelic. Also the amount of information about Gaelic and resources to learn it on the internet is so much vaster than it was. You no longer have to scrabble to find printed resources and horde every scrap of paper pertaining to Gaelic like I did when I started so things are getting much better.

(5) Imagine that there was a Foundation that had funds available for projects for those who had adequate skills and imagination to carry out projects aimed at developing resources for North Americans engaged in Gaelic. What kind of projects would you initiative yourself if such funds were available? What do you think could or should be done by others? How would this improve the state of Gaelic and those people and communities who speak and celebrate it in N America?


The first project I would fund would be a group people–and I know them by name, if you want them–to get together and write a comprehensive, Gaelic language course that includes all the cultural eccentricities that only Native Speakers seem to know and only half the time are willing to impart without being annoyed first. I have been studying Gaelic off and on for over 25 years and only last night did I find out that “mas e ur/do toil/thoil e” is an annoying phrase only used by learners who don’t know any better which annoys native speakers. And it needs to be geared as much for the solitary learner as for those with group learning available. With a combination of teaching methods employed, sight, hearing, and doing–all the general ways in which people learn things.

As far as projects I myself would be willing to contribute, putting together a sort of “operations manual” for how to get involved in various heritage groups for recruiting purposes, put up a teaching booth Highland Games to get people exposed and begin to educate them, and the ins and outs of how to deal with nay-sayers, aggressive and argumentative people, and what kinds of activities to use for promoting the language and bringing people “into the fold” so to speak. Another project (and pet peeve) I would like to address is how to create and sustain LOCAL GAELIC GROUPS under a national (or continental?) umbrella organization to guide them. This business of having a national organization where the activity is centered in one or two locations across the continent (where the primary active administration lives–ahem!) when the membership is spread out across the entirety of the continent has got to be the most inefficient system of recruitment and information promulgation around. All three of these projects would be extremely helpful in getting the word out. Having a broad-spectrum Gaelic course that teaches what every learner should know (and what native speakers know by their being taught it natively) instead of having to use 5 or 6 different books or courses, part of which are well done and parts of which are either outdated or badly constructed in the first place, to teach complete, square-one type learners is imperative. I’ve heard that _Blas na Gàidhlig_ comes close to being what I’m talking about, but I haven’t yet laid aside the $200 to buy it to find out. Having local Gaelic groups, with their own local administrations (which will have handbooks with guidelines and rules in them for how to effectively run a local chapter of a larger Gaelic-centric organization) which report to the larger umbrella organization will decentralize the responsibility (and the budgetary requirements) for getting many of these proposed activities going, particularly if the fundraising or monetary contribution efforts were also decentralized, yet kept in line through a comprehensive system of reporting and legal responsibility. It goes from a few people at the top needing to plan, fund, and run every single event an organization does to people in various places across the continent recruiting locals, putting on their own local versions of what the umbrella organization would do, funding it potentially from both the local and the umbrella coffers, and being able to delegate and let the *membership* feel like they are paying for more than just a newsletter every quarter and are actively involved in the maintenance of the language and culture.

Richard Aszling

I would organize outreach events at Highland Games and Scottish heritage and clan societies, I would organize partnerships along the lines of the Iomairt Cholm Cille with Irish heritage societies to foster ties between the cultures, I would help document the history of Gaels in North America, I would make Gaelic available as a language subject at universities throughout the continent, I would foster partnerships between Gaelic groups throughout the country and the extent native communities in Canada and Scotland (e.g. seek to extend the practice of pairing advanced learners with language mentors from said communities), I would create learning resources aimed at North American ears and sensibilities, I would create support groups for advanced learners who are parent and are seeking to raise their children with the language, I would expand Gaelic cultural events like the Mòd, I would seek to create scholarships for learners and their families ­ especially if there were children being raised by non­native speakers ­ to travel to the Gàidhealtachd, I would publicize the existence of new Gaelic cultural groups in the United States and Canada in Scotland and encourage Gaels that were emigrating to contact their local group and become involved.

Liam Alastair Crouse

I, and another American, were working to the very same end… and are to a degree. It is only time and physical estrangement that is lacking currently. We envisioned a media-rich website to tell the Gaelic story to those of the Scottish cultural diaspora in North America, i.e. those of the Clans, etc. I think that short, media-rich content is the way to go in the current markets.

The end goal is to get people to begin to engage with the culture/language. There’s enough there to keep them going once they’re hooked. It’s getting them hooked – or rather, ferrying their interest in a Victorian-style Scottish Heritage thing, to an interest in genuine language and culture.

Anne Landin

Set up an “office of Gaelic Affairs” similar to what was available in Nova Scotia, with paid staff to develop resources and disseminate information. I think this might be more useful and easier and cheaper to do, at least in the beginning, than to establish and maintain a university department with all the negotiations, politics and constant budget issues that would involve. If at some point it is determined that there would be an abundance of young people seriously interested in obtaining a degree in Gaelic studies in the US, then I would be in favor of it. Otherwise, scholarships to schools elsewhere would be cheaper and easier.

I would favor frequent exchange of information regarding resources, endeavors and accomplishments in promoting Gaelic (or other minority languages) to and from other parts of the world, and availability of paper and electronic communications between people engaged in promoting Gaelic in Scotland, Canada, the US and elsewhere.

Take the Scottish Heritage Center at Laurinburg as an example of how much one person can accomplish but also as an example of the limits of what one person can do. With decent funding, such a place could serve as a hub for outreach and learning. Apparently with very tight funding, the Center can’t even afford an archivist/librarian – someone to be there on a daily basis so the public can use its resources. It’s a “one man show”. People who have research libraries and valuable historical papers are not inclined to leave them to the Center because of uncertainty regarding its future.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

I would feel inspired and qualified to make contributions in two main areas: music, and traditional belief.

Through Gaelic song and early forms of traditional instrumental music, people can viscerally experience the beauty of the Gaelic language and that hard-to-qualify transcendent quality of music which enables people from other backgrounds to understand in a non-verbal way the culture, traditions, beliefs and dreams of another culture. Not everyone has the capacity to study and learn another language – but they can learn to appreciate it and respect it, and support those who do study and preserve the language and culture.

I think there is also great interest in Gaelic culture – worldview and way of life – and also traditional beliefs and practices. This comes from many large interest groups in the U.S., from alternative healing and herbal medicine, to appreciation of indigenous cultures, to ecological imperatives, and the desire for authentic and sustainable ways of life. It is imperative to separate authentic Gaelic culture from the vast New-Age and NeoPagan maelstrom which can sometimes co-opt aspects of it, or more often, to simply ‘speak for it’ (usually with beliefs or practices taken from other cultures). This is not only disrespectful, but unacceptable.

A formal Scottish Gaelic department is crucial in the United States, as well as an official cultural body whose task it is not only to oversee projects and initiatives, but to reach out to people around the country – both of Scottish ancestry and other cultural backgrounds – to develop educational, cultural and artistic programs, and share both the beauty of – and the struggles inherent in – reviving, restoring, reclaiming and transmitting this unique and valuable cultural tradition.

Not only would it give ‘status’ to the language and culture, it would provide a respected and recognized way for students to learn and engage in this culture and its history and contributions. Partnered with the organization, it can bring small, scattered and disparate groups of learners, enthusiasts, and potential learners, teachers and future tradition bearers into contact with other. Having a central authoritative body staffed by those from within the culture and those who are recognized experts in the culture will bring Scottish Gaelic culture into view and up onto the stage with other cultural traditions that are already acknowledge and supported in the U.S.

Another benefit would be bringing an awareness of those already deeply involved in the culture – whether individuals or communities – into contact with each other, and into contact with those who are interested in learning or experiencing the culture and language on a deeper level. Uniting these scattered and often ‘invisible’ or ‘silent’ resources and tradition bearers would be enormous. Status / Recognition, Defining the Culture and its Relevance, Shining a Light on the Resonant Aspects of the Culture, and Fostering Connection – these are key.

Caroline Root

I’ve been wanting to put together a guide book on north american animals in Gaelic. I think we could also use more games and toys not only for the younger learners but also they would be a fun way for adult learners to practice their Gaelic.

Memory-Keeper of the Forest

A tale about a Highland drover scared by his first sight of fireflies in Glengarry …

An exhortation to Gaelic-speaking immigrants in Vancouver to protect their language …

A story about a Highland missionary stranded on an island in Loch Winnipeg with local natives …

A curse on the perpetrator of the Glencalvie Clearances, uniquely preserved in Nova Scotia …

A song praising Hebridean settlers in Clandonald, Alberta …

The defamation of Bolshevik sympathizers in Ottawa …

These are but a few of the memories preserved in the new volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, the first anthology of prose and poetry composed by Highland immigrants and their descendants in their native language – Scottish Gaelic – about their experiences and perspectives in a new world.


Seanchaidh contains over 90 distinct texts drawn from archives, antique newspapers and rare books, restoring the voices of Canadian Gaels from Cape Breton to British Columbia, from the late 18th century to the 1920s. Starting with these primary sources and working from the ground up has enabled new conclusions to be reached that differ from those of previous histories of Highland immigrants in Canada which have relied solely on English sources or a small number of translated Gaelic texts.

The foreword to the volume has been written by Diana Gabaldon. As a master storyteller, she is well aware of the power and importance of stories, not least in the North American diaspora. Like other fiction writers, her ability to recreate the past with nuance and credibility in her Outlander series leans upon the efforts of scholars to uncover and interpret historical remains. She writes:

To track such divergences, to identify the ancient commonalities and to preserve the more recent past for the benefit of present and future, is the blessed job of a scholar and a lover. Someone so in love with a language and a culture that the largest themes are easily apparent and the smallest details treasured. Luckily for us and for the history of the Gaelic tongue and diaspora into the New World, Michael Newton is just such a one.

Those who have a passion for finding out what Scottish Gaels did, hoped to achieve and aspired to bequeath to us in North America – whether they have been inspired by Outlander, their own ancestry, or just the inherent beauty of the Gaelic language and its song-poetry – can explore the vast remains of Gaelic literature in Canada and listen directly to the voice of Gaels about their own culture and history. Seanchaidh na Coille is an excellent starting point on that journey of rediscovery and a potent seed for rerooting the forest of memory.

See Cape Breton University Press webpage for book.

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. https://www.academia.edu/779702/Irish_Tunes_and_Scotch-Irish_Myths_in_Early_Western_Pennsylvania

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.