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.

More Ractive wrappers for jQueryUI

Over the last week or so, I’ve managed to write a pretty complex single-pag webapp with Ractive, using jQueryUI widgets for some of the GUI elements. I like the Ractive framework a great deal and find that it will meet my development needs very nicely, and can be made to work with jQueryUI effectively.

In order to help out others who wish to explore this alternative, I’m providing some Ractive wrappers I’ve developed for using jQueryUI widgets within my web app — and I wish to thank the generous assistance of Marty Nelson in helping me figure out some non-trivial details.

Here’s how I’ve implemented jQueryUI icon buttons:

Ractive.decorators.iconButton = function (node, icon) {
		text: false,
		icons: { primary: icon }
	return {
		teardown: function () {

It’s very easy to use this in a Ractive template. For example,

<button decorator="iconButton:ui-icon-wrench" on-click="doEdit">Edit</button>

I also use the Iris color picker in my webapp (which will eventually be inserted into a WordPress plugin), so I’ve created a very simple Ractive component for it. Here’s the HTML template and the JavaScript (sorry about WordPress’s destructive formatting):

<script id="iris-r-template" type='text/ractive'>
 <input class="jq-iris-template" type="text" size="11" value="{{color}}"/>

var RJIrisColor = Ractive.extend({
 template: '#iris-r-template',
 data: function() {
 return {
 color: '' // the selected color
 }, // data
 onrender: function() {
 var self = this;
 var thisComponent = this.find('.jq-iris-template');

 width: 200,
 hide: false,
 palettes: true,
 change: function(event, ui) {
 self.set('color', ui.color.toString());
 }, // onrender()

 // Intercept teardown to create jQueryUI component
 onteardown: function () {
 var thisComponent = this.find('.jq-iris-template');
 } // onteardown()

As I’ve grumbled before, the equivalent Angular markup and code is painful to write and look at. This uses the RJDialogComponent that I provided in my previous blog entry. The template and code to create and use the Iris color picker dialog looks (minimally) like this:

<script id="dialog-choose-color" type='text/ractive'>
 <dialog title="Choose Color" width="250" height="330">
 <iris color="{{color}}"></iris>

	colorPicker = new Ractive({
		el: '#insert-dialog',
		template: '#dialog-choose-color',
		data: {
			color: theColor
		components: {
			dialog: RJDialogComponent,
			iris: RJIrisColor
	}); // new Ractive()
	colorPicker.on('dialog.ok', function(evt) {
		var finalColor = colorPicker.get('color');
// Do something with finalColor
	colorPicker.on('dialog.cancel', colorPicker.teardown);

That’s about as simple, readable and efficient as you’re going to get in a JavaScript framework, IMO.

Ractive Wrappers for jQueryUI

I’m planning an ambitious new Digital Humanities platform in my role at the UNC Digital Innovation Lab, and part of the planning stage is deciding what programming libraries, modules and frameworks are worth adopting in 2015. This forthcoming platform, a successor for DH Press, will serve data from a web server to a web browser client, and this blog post relates to the JavaScript framework I’ve currently decided looks like the best choice for this system: Ractive. About a year ago I wrote about my frustrations with Angular and my preference for Knockout. My dislike for Angular remains unabated: it is a bloated, hegemonic, and non-transparent system that requires painfully convoluted code and results in unreadable software. Although I still think that Knockout is a good option, Ractive seems even better to me. Let me explain some of my criteria for the choice of framework:

  1. It must integrate into an Open Source project that will be made freely available to the DH community (educational institutions, libraries, museums, etc.)
  2. It must either provide its own GUI widget solutions or work well with jQueryUI
  3. It must create clean and sustainable code
  4. It must not be too bloated
  5. It should allow text to be separated from code so that language translation is not overly cumbersome
  6. It has to be integrated into a WordPress plugin and thus cannot assume the support of a complex infrastructure, such as node.js

I’ve also looked at React, Vue, and several other interesting options — the number of options is actually overwhelming. As a recent commentator noted, web developers can easily suffer from innovation fatigue. However, it is often the case that new frameworks, especially those not built by large teams, have insufficient documentation and examples to help would-be adopters with all of the information necessary to use the framework in the real world scenarios we actually need to implement. I’ve tried to anticipate some of the complex usages that I’ve need in my own application and tried to use Ractive in such a scenario, using it to wrap jQueryUI widgets. Fortunately, I got help from generous contributors on GitHub to get me over some hurdles and I want to share those tricks and tips here for the sake of others, and perhaps draw further helpful comments for improvements. So, here’s a scenario: I have some editing screen and when the user presses some button, a modal dialog box opens that allows some more detailed data to be configured. This modal dialog box is a jQueryUI widget that itself contains other jQueryUI widgets wrapped in Ractive code. We need to start out with a div in the main HTML body where the Ractive elements will be inserted:

 <p>Ractive wrapper for jQueryUI demo</p>
 <div id="ractive-output">

We need a script section elsewhere in the HTML file that contains the Ractive code that gets decoded and inserted into this section. It can be as simple as:

<script id="ractive-base" type='text/ractive'>
	<div id="insert-point"></div>
	<button on-click="open-dialog">Open Dialog</button>

Now we need to create an application-level Ractive object that will set things in motion. It is very, very simple (this is just a demo skeleton).

		var rApp = new Ractive({
			el: '#ractive-output',
			template: '#ractive-base',
			components: {
			data: {

Now that this is done, we can “listen” for the button press and create a Ractive object to handle a modal dialog and all of the objects on it. We’ll insert a button on the dialog box that does something (hence the function doSomething). The listener code needs to create a dialog that is specific to our needs, and looks like the code below.

NOTE: Since posting my initial solution, I discovered that the code for the Cancel button did not work. I’ve probably provided a solution that is somewhat less than optimal, IMO. The external caller needs to listen for the cancel button and teardown the dialog, just like the save listener. I haven’t found a means enabling the Dialog component to do this work itself.

		rApp.on('open-dialog', function() {
			var dialogTest = new Ractive({
				el: '#insert-point',
				template: '#sample-dialog',
				components: {
					dialog: RJDialogComponent,
				data: {
					dialogData: myData
				doSomething: function() {
// do something with the dialog data here
			}); // new Ractive()

			dialogTest.on('', function(evt) {
// save the data from the dialog
			dialogTest.on('dialog.cancel', dialogTest.teardown);
		}); // open-dialog

Note that I create a “listener” on the save event, which will be fired by the dialog code when the Save button is pressed. This enables the code that uses the modal dialog to save the data without having to pollute the dialog box itself with that logic. I need to provide the Ractive template/jQuery wrapper for the dialog itself. Here’s the script template (very simple!) and the JavaScript code wrapper that creates the jQueryUI widget after Ractive has inserted the DOM elements.

<!-- Ractive Template for Dialog Component -->
<script id="dialog-r-template" type='text/ractive'>
 <div class="jq-dialog-template" title="{{title}}">
 <h3 id="dialog-subtitle">{{subtitle}}</h3>
 </div> <!-- dialog -->

var RJDialogComponent = Ractive.extend({
	template: '#dialog-r-template',
	data: {
			// set defaults
		title: '',
		subtitle: '',
		width: 350,
		height: 300

		// Intercept render to insert and active jQueryUI plugin
	onrender: function() {
		var self = this;
		var thisComponent = this.find('*');
		self.modal = jQuery(thisComponent).dialog({
			width: self.get('width'),
			height: self.get('height'),
			modal : true,
			autoOpen: true,
			buttons: [
				text: 'Cancel',
				click: function() {'cancel');
				text: 'Save',
				click: function() {'save');
	}, // onrender

		// Intercept teardown to destroy jQueryUI component
	onteardown: function () {
	} // onteardown

This simple little piece of code enables us to define a new HTML directive for creating a dialog box and provide optional properties (with default values) for its title, subtitle, width and height. Look at how readable and clear the resulting HTML is!

<!-- Legend Configuration Dialog -->
<script id="sample-dialog" type="text/ractive">
 <dialog title="Test Title" subtitle="Test Subtitle" width="400" height="350">

   Get some input: <input type="text" id="some-input" size="12"/>
   Get more input: <input type="text" id="more-input" size="4"/>
   <button on-click="doSomething()">Do Something</button>

   <myJQueryUIComponent ...></myJQueryUIComponent>

I hope that this helps those who are considering Ractive as a framework. So far, it looks like a very strong option to me, although I would like to see more examples of it in complex scenarios (rather than just small, stand-alone components), such as that I’ve shown here.

Healing Intercultural Wounds: A Gaelic Perspective

I wrote the following talk and delivered it today at the Unity Center of Peace in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Both of the stories used in this sermon can be found (among other materials) in my volume Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (2009).

Opening Quote

“Healing in our cultural present will come as a consequence of healing in our cultural past. Out of a healed past, a healed present will grow. Out of a re-realized past a re-realized present will emerge. It is as necessary that we realize a past out of which to grow as it is to realize a present and future into which to grow. Our past we always have with us. Our past we must always re-realize. And to do this we need people who can live in our cultural Dreamtime, people who go walkabout, creatively, within the old myths, people who go walkabout into the unknown.” – John Moriarty, Dreamtime


This is the third in a series of talks at Unity Center of Peace about making peace, in this case between cultures. Let me warn you, however, that my talk is not intended to simply fill you with a peaceful, easy feeling. It is likely to generate as much discomfort as it is peace. It has been frequently observed that discomfort and even anguish are sometimes the catalysts necessary for us to bestir ourselves and make changes for the better. These are very discomforting times for anyone concerned about peace, equality and fairness between peoples and communities, which gives us a strong motivation to engage more deeply in these issues.

Our mission statement at Unity Center of Peace includes two relevant statements: “We connect in our hearts with others; We celebrate our journey toward wholeness.” Many personal experiences and historical circumstances can leave us broken and disconnected from others, but I wish today to speak about the brokenness that we are often born into, through no fault of our own or even of our ancestors.

It all begins with stories. We human beings think with stories – narrative seems to be fundamental to the way we see the world and interpret our own lives. Stories are made up of many things: plot lines, character types, symbols, motives, conflicts, resolutions, etc. We as individuals are caught up in larger stories that to various degrees derive from and are entangled in the stories surrounding our ancestors and ancestral communities.

Honoring our ancestors and appreciating the gifts we have or might have had from them is not an easy thing. Nearly every ethnic group in America – native and immigrant – has experienced a variety of injustices. Some times this is exactly what drove them to America. Some times they experienced terrible hardships after they arrived. Some peoples were enslaved by others, or dispossessed or subjected to genocide by those who claimed they cherished freedom. Most ethnic groups were pressured to assimilate to anglocentric norms and in the process lost their languages and cultures, with a conscious or unconscious rejection of the traditions of their ancestors. This has created and perpetrated undeniable gaps in our knowledge of what our ancestors thought, believed and practiced, and even who they were. Do we even want to honor ancestors if they were co-opted into the exploitation and subjugation of others?

Time and again, history has demonstrated that no sooner is one group of people liberated from the oppression of another and able to regain its power than it begins to use that power in cruelty against yet another group. Injustice and conflict seem to be inevitable results of power, regardless of ethnic identity, skin color, gender or sexual orientation.

Unless we return to the source of our wounds, we often seem doomed to inflict them on others. It is often the case that people who abuse others were themselves abused when young, often within the family setting itself. It is likewise with societies. Societies that seek power and use that power to dominate and exploit others are, by their very nature, societies that have internalized ideas about control and domination, have repressed aspects of their selves and diminished the fulness of their own humanity.

The stories that inform our lives and our world-views inevitably come from the culture around us. Given the power that they hold, it is crucial that we choose our stories carefully. Today our cultural environment is dominated by corporate interests, so it is no wonder that our myths, stories, characters and plot lines are permeated to a staggering degree by the myths of colonialism and capitalism. They seldom serve the purposes of nurturing our higher selves or of honoring the inherent dignity of every person, community and culture.

Healing the wounds within communities and between communities requires examining the stories that we’ve absorbed, told and embodied across generations and into the present. It means recognizing the wounds that result from dysfunctional stories, forgiving those who allowed themselves to be colonized by bad stories, and seeking for ourselves new manifestations of old stories, or entirely new ones, which serve greater purposes. And we constantly need to examine critically the stories that are being broadcast at us by those with vested interests.

These principles can be illustrated by looking at some stories from Irish and Scottish Gaelic tradition that I believe offer some insights from those particular historical experiences.

One of the major proponents of Christianity in the British Isles was a Gaelic saint named Colm Cille, better known by the Latin form of his name, Columba. Born in County Donegal in Ireland in 521, he established a monastery on an island known in English as “Iona” from which he and his followers created an international movement and influenced the religious and political development of northern Britain for generations thereafter. The power and prestige wielded by the religious institution in his name was thus enormous, and like any institution, abuses of that power were inevitable. Consider then the following translation of a folktale told about the founding of that monastery for centuries by the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland, and even by immigrant Gaels in North America.

Columba and his men set out to build a church in Iona. Each time they built it to a certain height, however, what was built in the day tumbled down in the night. Columba received a divine message that no building would ever be erected successfully until a human being was buried alive in the foundation.

Columba had a companion named Odhran who offered himself up to be the sacrifice. After Odhran was buried for three days, Columba ordered that the ground be dug so that they could see Odhran. Odhran arose and said to the astonished spectators:

‘Heaven is not what they say, nor is Hell as reported; the good are not eternally happy, nor are the bad eternally miserable.’

At this unwelcome pronouncement, Columba quickly called out to his companions:

‘Earth, earth, put earth over Odhran’s eyes before he rouses any more confusion, which would reveal secrets to the company and bring scandal to his brethren!’

Odhran was covered up with soil and was not disturbed again. The building was finished and dedicated to him.

The first-level reading of this story is that Gaels remained skeptical of the power and authority of the church, despite the monopoly that it held for centuries. I think that Iona in this story can represent the foundations of Christianity for Gaels in general. Then, as now, scandals happen in the church that the powerful try to suppress, but word inevitably leaks out. The skepticism about power and authority in this folktale is reassuring and perhaps even surprising, given Christianity’s supremacy over many centuries.

There is an even more interesting message to the tale, however. I believe that it comments on the layered nature of culture and the paradoxical nature of religion. It wasn’t possible for Columba to build his church without a foundation; that foundation was held up, at least to some degree initially, by the traditions and beliefs that existed before the coming of Christianity. The foundation sacrifice is an ancient practice, and Odhran’s testimony contradicts the Christian message. Although within the tale Columba tries to keep these facts covered up, quite literally, the actual existence of the tale and its longevity is itself a testimony to the retention of ancient memories that push against the power monolopy of the church. It tells us that the universe is more complicated and interesting than the simple Christian message claims – but it doesn’t attempt to solve the riddle for us.

Christianity was a minor challenge faced by Gaels in the last two millennia in comparison to the invasion of the Vikings and the conquests of anglophones. How did they keep up their motivation and hopes through many dark times? One way that all people do this is by telling stories of heroism.

The most popular cast of heroes in Gaelic tradition by the later Middle Ages were the Fian, a band of warriors led by Fionn mac Cumhaill, a Gaelic equivalent of King Arthur and his knights. They personified Gaelic virtues such as bravery, loyalty, fair play, hospitality, and so on. They are portrayed in tales as the defenders of Gaelic territory and ideals against the invading Norse and other would be conquerers. The Fian were role models for rebels against authority, people who prefered the freedom of the wilderness to the confines of the village.

Gaels have needed such inspiration. Their language and culture has been under seige for nearly a thousand years, and for nearly of all of that time, stories about the Fian have been retold and reshaped to help them imagine regaining their land, their cultural integrity and their pride. It is telling that many social movements and political parties in Ireland and Scotland have been named after them. A popular legend about the Fian gained new prominence as the “Gaelic revival” gained steam in late 19th-century Scotland:

The Fian were laid spell-bound in a cave which no man knew of. At the mouth of the cave hung a horn, which if ever any man should come and blow three times, the spell would be broken, and the Fian would arise, alive and well.

A hunter, one day wandering in the mist, came on this cave, saw the horn, and knew what it meant. He looked in and saw the Fian lying asleep all round the cave. He lifted the horn and blew one blast. He looked in again, and saw that the Fian had wakened, but lay still with their eyes staring, like that of dead men. He took the horn again, blew another blast, and instantly the Fian all moved, each resting on his elbow.

Terrified at their aspect, the hunter turned and fled homewards. He told what he had seen, and, accompanied by friends, went to search for the cave. They could not find it; it has never again been found; and so they still sit, each resting on his elbow, waiting for the final blast to rouse them into life.

It seems to me that this tale can be read as a parable about drawing strength from our ancestral resources when we need them most. The cave is a very old symbol in myths for the unconscious. Ancestral assets lay dormant in the unconscious, waiting to be awakened; the virtues represented by the Fian can be aroused by us so that we can embody them if we are persistent enough and bold enough.

It may be hard for us to fully comprehend the pressures that people feel when they come to be dominated by another group that makes them feel that their gods, their stories, their language and their identity are inferior, and that their only viable option is to adopt the standards of their conquerors. I think that we owe them as much compassion as condemnation, even when they were co-opted into the oppression of others.

By integrating the ideologies of oppression and exploitation in their worldview, people destroy their integrity as fully sentient beings at the same time that they dishonor those they dominate. If we do not recognize these defects, we are implicitly lending aid and comfort to the abusers in their conceit that the power they wield gives them the de facto right to molest others because of some inherit superiority and right to domination, rather than critiquing their abuse of power as a result of their wounds.

Although I have been speaking about Gaelic tradition, powerful and resonant symbols such as these exist in all ancestral traditions. I think that we should have the freedom to explore those that feel most compelling to us, although we must always do so mindfully, aware of the dangers of cultural appropriation.

I cannot reconnect you to the ancient wisdom of your ancestors by providing you with a bullet list of 3, 7, 9 or 12 points. Those types of claims are too often pressed into service by modern capitalism which, built on the conceits of imperialism, wrecks cultures and then sells selected portions of them with popular appeal for profit.

Cultural asset stripping is a corruption of the inherent value of every society’s identity and forms of expression. It has further undermined cultures by claiming the authority to evaluate who and what has value, how much, and for whom. Because of its power to dominate and exploit, the easiest path to privilege and comfort for many has been to try to climb its self-defined ladder of success and to leave behind whatever and whomever was relegated to the bottom rung. And that has necessarily meant going along with this denial of the inherent self-worth of marginalized identities, skin colors, languages and cultures.

We are left with something of a paradox: We humans are all one, we all come from the same source, and yet we belong to different groups that express our common humanity through thousands of distinct languages and cultures, each of them worthy of respect and admiration. It is up to each of us to decide how to embody the best of those distinct visions while still honoring the others, despite histories of conflict. We must consult our higher selves, and the higher selves of our ancestors, to find this path of mutual respect and dignity between our individuality and our common humanity. The stakes have never been higher.

It has become increasingly common for people to seek out symbols, myths and traditions that fill a spiritual void for them, as increasing numbers of us are cut off from those communal anchors and reservoirs of wisdom. Sometimes we seek to reclaim traditions from our own diverse set of ancestors, and sometimes we may feel strongly attracted to those from other cultures. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as we are committed to honesty and respectful curiosity, and recognize the plurality within any community and tradition.

If you decide to explore traditions from cultures other than that into which you were born, the following guidelines may ease your path:
(1) Can you find a community for whom these are living practices and beliefs?
(2) Can you connect and engage with that community in a meaningful way?
(3) What is that community’s sense of ownership over that tradition?
(4) Does your engagement with that tradition in some way threaten or impact that community?
(5) Be clear to yourself and others what your identity is and how it relates to that community and its ethnic identity.
(6) Credit your teachers and acknowledge the lineage of tradition as you received it in its own specific form.

Closing Quote

“Ultimately, modern oppression, as opposed to traditional oppression, is not an encounter between the self and the enemy, the rulers and the ruled, or the gods and the demons. It is a battle between the dehumanized self and the objectified enemy, the technologized bureaucrat and his reified victim, pseudo-rulers and their fearsome other selves projected onto their ‘subjects’. … the victors are ultimately shown to be camouflaged victims, at an advanced stage of psychosocial decay. … All theories of salvation, secular and non-secular, which fail to understand this degradation of the colonizer are theories which indirectly admit the superiority of the oppressors and collaborate with them.” – Ashis Nandy, The Intimate Enemy

Kenyon Love Song (19th-century Ontario)

I’m slogging my way through a very large project at present, the first modern anthology of Canadian-Gaelic literature that I’m calling Seanchaidh na Coille // The Memory-Keeper of the Forest, which will be published by Cape Breton University Press next year.

I’m trying to cover as much territory as I can in Canada, as Gaelic-speaking immigrant communities could be found in all of the provinces in the 19th century, and the real challenge is deciding what of the copious amount of material to keep and what to use, to keep the collection balanced.

Although I had edited the Gaelic text of the following song, I’ve decided not to include it in the volume, as it all seems to happen in Scotland, even though it was composed by Donnchadh Niall Domhnallach of Kenyon, Glengarry, Ontario, apparently late in the 19th century. I’m not sure because I was given the text amongst photocopies of miscellaneous clippings from newspapers by the late Kenneth McKenna of Glengarry, a true stalwart of the Gaelic cause. This unfortunately means that I haven’t yet discovered where it was originally printed or when.

I will give my edited version of the text here. It’s pretty straightforward forward for any Gaelic speaker to understand. It does merit a few notes. The accompanying text says that it was composed by “one of our bright young Glengarrians,” so he was definitely from Ontario (listed as the resident of 6 3rd Kenyon). And his Gaelic was very good — this is as mainstream and strong as any love song from Scotland at the time.

The introductory text describes the song as “moladh a leannain, agus a dhùthcha féin.” What’s interesting about the text is that it is located in Scotland, and evinces a strong affinity for the Highlands and strong contempt for the Lowlands and her people. I read from this and the evidence of the song itself that Donnchadh had spent some time in Edinburgh (maybe for his studies?), visited the home of his ancestors in Lochaber, and fell in love with a young woman there. He still strongly identified as being a Scottish Gael, despite probably being the 2nd or 3rd generation born in Canada.

  E ho ró mo rùn a’ chailin,
  E ho ró mo rùn a’ chailin,
  Mo rùn cailin shuairc a’ mhànrain
  Tha gach là a’ tighinn fo m’ aire.

Gur e mise tha briste, brùite —
Ge b’ e ri ’n leiginn mo rùnachd –
Mu’n ainnir as binne sùgradh
Is mi ri giùlain a cean-falaich.

Tha mo chridhe mar na cuaintean,
Mar dhuilleach nan crann le luasgan,
No mar fhiadh an àird nam fuar-bheann
Is mo chadal luaineach le faire.

Shiubhail mi fearann nan Gàidheal
Is earrainn de Bhreatainn air fàrsan,
Is chan fhacas na bheireadh barr
Air finne bhàn nam blàth-shùl meallach.

Bu bhinne na smeòrach Chéitinn
Leam do ghlòir is tu còmhradh réidh rium,
Is mo chliabh air lasadh le h-éibhneas
Tabhairt éisteachd dha d’ bheul tairis.

Bu tu mo chruit, mo cheòl, is mo thàileasg,
Is mo leug phrìseil riamhach àghmhor;
Bu leigheas teugmhail o’n Bhàs domh
Nam faodainn a ghnàth bhith mar riut.

Gur muladach mi is mi smaointinn
Air cuspair mo chean gun chaochladh:
Òigh mhìn mhaiseach nam bas maoth-gheal
Is a slios caoin tlàth mar an canach.

Tha do dhealbh gun chearb gun fhiaradh:
Mìn-gheal, fìor-ghlan, dìreach, lìonta,
Is do nàdar cho sèamh is bu mhiannach
Gu pailt fialaidh ciallach banail.

Air fhad m’ fhuirich an Dùn Éideann,
Cumail comann ri luchd Beurla,
Bheir mi ’n t-soraidh seo gun tréigsinn
Dh’ionnsaigh m’ éibhneis anns na gleannaibh.

Ged a thàrladh dhomh bhith ’n taobh-sa,
Gur beag mo thlachd dha na Dubh-Ghoill
Is bidh mi nis a’ cur mo chùil riuth’
Is a’ dèanadh an iùil air na beannaibh.

Gur eutrom mo ghleus is m’ iompaidh,
Is neo-lòdail mo cheum o’n fhonn seo
Gu tìr àrd nan sàr-fhear sunntach
Is a’ tréigsinn Galltachd ’nam dheannaibh.

Dìridh mi gu Tulach Àrmainn
Air leth-taobh Srath mìn na Lairce,
Is teàrnaidh mi gu Innseag blàth-choill’
Is gheibh mi finne bhàn gun smalan.

The People Who Voted Themselves Out Of Existence

A Dark Parable

At the time of the Second World War, a military plane was transporting several soldiers from British regiments across the ocean when severe problems occurred. The engines began to cut in and out abruptly.

The commanding officer, an Englishman, addressed the passengers: “As I am the highest ranking and most valued person on board, I have rights to the only parachute. Good luck, men, and God save the Queen!”

With that, he jumped out of the plane and landed in safety far below.

Before long the plane crashed on a desolated island and killed all on board, apart from three men: Patrick from the north of Ireland, Llywelyn from Wales, and Nigel the Highlander.

After they pulled themselves out of the wreckage and brushed themselves off, they looked at each other, searching for a way to proceed.

Patrick began, “We are free now of Saxon tyranny. I proclaim this island an independent republic where we shall reinstate the ancient Celtic…”

But he was cut short by the shot fired at him by Nigel, brandishing his Browning pistol. He fell and died quickly.

Llywelyn looked at him and said nervously, “We need not topple the political status quo, but surely the most noble and ancient tongue of the Britons ought to …”

But he too was gunned down by the loyal Highlander.

Being a good Presbyterian, Nigel was suddenly struck by guilt and remorse at the bloody work his faithful service to the empire had forced him to carry out. He instinctively began to call on God for mercy. “A Dhé nan gràsan…” He then suddenly remembered that his commanding officer had explicitly forbade him from speaking Gaelic while on duty unless given permission, and he thought of his own inability to keep these mutinous thoughts disciplined.

He held the pistol to his own head. “British forever!” were his last words before pulling the trigger.

Some time later, the corpses were found and suitable headstones mark their graves: “Faithful servants of the British Empire.” Nearby is an exceedingly productive oil field.