Bardic Visions in North Dakota

The song-poem by this Scottish Gaelic poet, Domhnall Aonghas Stiùbhart, who spent the latter part of his life in North Dakota, harkened back to the idyllic days of his youth in the Highlands. Like many of his contemporaries, his life’s path consisted of many stages of migration: he was born on the Isle of Skye in 1838, but his family moved to Prince Edward Island (Canada) in 1841. He went to work on the railroad as an adult and eventually settled in North Dakota, where he died in 1914.

Domhnall sent his poem to at least two different newspapers in 1909 (the Oban Times in Scotland and the Casket in Nova Scotia). It echoes the fitful course of his life, recounting in reverse the long journeys he had undertaken across land masses and oceans earlier in life. His text is, to a degree, a reflection of the ancient role of the poet in Gaelic tradition as seer: his mind’s eye traverses the trail home that his heart so much wants to follow. Like many other Gaelic poems expressing a strong attachment to ancestral territory and sense of place, the almost ritualistic enumeration of place names has a strong emotional power. (See Warriors of the Word, 89, 296-304.) These literary devices also feature prominently in another of his surviving song-poems (“Chì mi uam, uam, uam”).

Although Domhnall mentions the Scottish Lowlands (line 54) and names a few places on the Highland-Lowland boundary with names well established in Gaelic tradition (lines 53-6), the majority of the place names he mentions, and the places in which he imagines spending time, are in the Highlands. Gaels’ sense of belonging did not generally extend beyond the Highlands in any strong sense (see line 60 in particular).

In his correspondence to the newspapers, he names his current place of residence as “Steuartdail,” which was known in English as “Stewartdale.” It was close to modern Bismark. I assume, but am not certain, that he coined the place name himself to signify his own homestead area. Did he knew any of the Gaels in Manitoba who threatened to move to the Dakotas, dissatisfied with the extreme difficulties they faced in railroad settlement schemes (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 170-5)?

It is perhaps ironic that, like so many of his contemporaries, he laments his exile from his kin and his family’s explusion from their ancestral home (lines 7 and 12), but at the same time defers to the supremacy of the British Empire, only seeking validation for his people as loyal warriors of that authority (lines 61-64). The vision of most Gaelic poets had become highly constrained by imperial conditioning (see discussion in Seanchaidh na Coille, 68-78, 187-9). At least his depiction of the native peoples of the area, the Sioux (line 18), is not overtly negative.

It is noteworthy that this song was modeled on an older Jacobite song. Jacobite songs provided a solid bedrock of song models for many Gaelic poets in North American immigrant communities and he even mentions Prince Charles by name (line 28), suggesting that the choice of this song model was a conscious one. Despite the catastrophic defeat of Jacobite forces at Culloden and the symbolism of that battle in Gaelic tradition as the last independent act of defiance against a hostile, anglocentric state, songs of the Jacobite movement were firmly entrenched in the musical-poetic canon and provided the melodies and choruses (and notes of determination and defiance) used by many “New World” poets.

An informant of the School of Scottish Studies, Johanna MacDonald (1880-1973) of Smiorasairidh, Gleann Ùige, Mùideart / Moidart, sang a portion of this song to Calum Maclean in 1954. (Thanks to my friend Dr. Tiber Falzett for finding this recording and sending me the reference.) You can hear the recording online at this link.

This poem has never received any previous scholarly attention and a few of my interpretations of geographic references are tentative. I would welcome any alternative suggestions about these interpretations.

Original Gaelic Text

Tìr an Fhraoich

Air Fonn — “Ho, ho, rachainn is mi gun rachadh // o-chòin fhéin, le Tearlach”

1 Ho! ho! is mi gun rachadh
O-chòin fhéin, ’se b’ àill leam
Rachainn fhéin gu tìr mo shinnsir
Null a-rithist do thìr nan Gàidheal.

5 Rachainn fhéin a-null do dh’Albainn
’S ann oirr’ dh’ainmichear do ghnàth mi
Is ged is fhada on chaidh ar tearbadh
O! gu dearbh, is tìr mo ghràidh i.

Tha mo dhachaigh ’s an Iar-Thuath seo
10 Le fearainn, taighean, buar is barr innt’;
Is ged a tha, bidh [mi] tric fo ghruaman
Is mise fuadaicht’ o mo chairdean.

Mi ’n tìr fharsaing àrd an fheòir seo
Far am bheil gach seòrsa tàmhach
15 Iad as gach cinneach ’s an Roinn Eòrpa
Is dhe gach seòrsa, dòigh is cànain.

Mi muigh aig abhainn mhóir Missouri
An tìr nan Sioux bha ùdlaidh, gàbhaidh,
Nuair a thàinig mi d’ an dùthaich
20 Is a shuidhich mi air tùs ’s an Dàil seo.

Thionndaidhinn-s’ an-sin air uilinn
Mach gu Muile nam beann àrda;
Dhèanainn tadhal anns an Òban
Is dhèanainn comhradh riu’ ’s a’ Ghàidhlig.

25 Shiubhlainn thairis troimh na Morairne
Is Àrd na Murchan nan stùc àrda
Is bheirinn sùil gu ceann Loch Mhùideart
’S ann a stiùir am Prionnsa Tearlach.

O cheann Loch Seile gu Caolas Shléite
30 Gu Baile ’n Stream is troimh Chaol Acain
An sin gu tìr MhicGilleChaluim
Is ’na sheann chlachan, dhèanainn dàil ann.

Sin bheirinn sùil gu Rubha Thùineis
Is bheirinn sùil gu Rubha Ghearrloch;
35 Ach stiùrainn fhéin staigh gu Port Rìgh
Is an tìr mo shinnsir rithist a tà mi.

Eilean Sgitheanach a’ chèo seo
Nam beanntan móra ’s nan lochan àlainn;
Ris an cainteadh Tìr MhicDhomhnaill
40 Is Tìr MhicLeòid, is cha b’ i bu tàire.

Dh’fhàgainn fhéin tìr àrd Dacòta
Troimh Mhinnesota is gu Chicàgo
Thairis air na Lochan Móra
Is thar Chòmhnaird Chanada as airde.

45 An sin troimh Chanada Ìochdrach
Is sìos Abhainn Naomh Labhrainn;
Thriallainn-s’ troimh na Roinnean Ìosal
Is air Prionnsa Ìomhair, chuirinn fàilte.

An sin rachainn thairis air a’ chuan
50 Tha stuadhach buaireasach do ghnàth,
Marcachd air a tonnan uaibhreach
Gus aig Abhainn Chluaidh ’n tàmhainn.

Chithinn Glaschu, chithinn Grianaig
Is an Tìr Ìosal, iomadh àite:
55 Rachainn fhéin do’n Eilean Bhóideach
Air Rothasaidh chuirinn fàilte.

Ás a sin a-mach gu Arainn
Ach cha b’ fhada chuirinn dàil ann;
Stiùirinn-sa mach gu Cinn Tìre
60 Is Eilean Ìle ’n Tìr na Gàidhlig.

Tìr nan gaisgeach, treuna seòlta
Gu buaidh-chomhrag anns na blàraibh;
Is bu tric a chuidich ris a’ ghlòr
Tha nis a’ comhdach seann Bhritannia.

65 Ged a tha mi an Dacòta
B’ e bhith ’n seann Scotia b’ àill leam
Bhith rithist measg an fhraoich is nan neòinean
Far an robh mi ’n òig mo làithean.


Line 30: This is printed in the original as “Baile ’n Stream” which I take as a typo for Baile an t-Sròim, although I could be mistaken.

My English Translation

The Land of Heather

(1-4) Ho! ho! I would go, o-chòin, it is what I would like to do, I myself would go to the land of my ancestors, back over to the land of the Gaels.

(5-8) I myself would go over to Scotland, I will talk about her constantly; and although we were parted long ago, o! indeed, she is the land of my love.

(9-12) My home is here in the North-West, with its land, homes, livestock and crops; even so, I am often gloomy, having been driven away from my kin.

(13-16) I am in this expansive, high land of grass where all types [of people] live; they belong to every ethnic group in Europe, from every origin, way of life and language.

(17-20) I am out on the great Missouri river, in the land of the Sioux who were surly and dangerous when I first came to the country and settled in this dale.

(21-24) I would lean back then [and imagine going] out to Mull of the great mountains; I would visit Oban and I would speak to them in Gaelic.

(25-28) I would travel over through Morven and Ardnamurchan of the high peaks; and I would gaze out to the head of Loch Moidart where Prince Charles was directed.

(29-32) From the head of Loch Shiel to the Sound of Sleat, to Strom Ferry [?] and through Kyleakin; thence to the land of MacGilleChaluim [MacLeods of Raasay], and I would visit the old village there.

(33-36) And then I would gave out to Rubha Thùineis and over to the Point of Gairloch; but I would direct myself inland to Portree, and I am back in the land of my ancestors.

(37-40) This misty Isle of Skye of the great mountains and the beautiful lochs which is called “The Land of MacDonald and of MacLeod”: she is not the worst [i.e., she’s pretty good].

(41-44) I myself would leave the high land of Dakota through Minnesota and go towards Chicago, across the Great Lakes and over the plain of Upper Canada.

(45-48) Thence through Lower Canada and down the St. Lawrence River; I would travel through the Lower North Shore [?] and I would welcome Prince Edward [Island].

(49-52) Thence I would go across the ocean, which is always full of swelling walls [of water] and in ferment, mounted on her high-spirited waves until I would come to rest at the River Clyde.

(53-56) I would see Glasgow, I would see Greenock, and many places in the Lowlands; I would myself go to the Isle of Bute and I would welcome Rothesay.

(57-60) From there out to the island of Arran, although I would not tarry there long; I would direct myself out towards Kintyre and the Island of Islay in the land of Gaelic.

(61-64) The land of the warriors who are brave and well-trained for achieving victory on the battlefields and who often augmented the glory that now ornaments ancient Britannia.

(65-68) Although I am in Dakota, I would greatly like to be an auld Scotland, to be again among the heather and the daisies where I once lived in the days of my youth.


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

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

Sail to Quebec, Lochaber Warriors!

The following song-poem was one of many excellent Gaelic texts that I could not manage to fit into the anthology Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, due to lack of space and time. I’m presenting it here as it’s a fine example of Gaelic poetry that has received no previous public or scholarly attention, and it allows us to see the historical value of such texts.

The song-poem was composed by Alasdair MacGilleMhaoil (Alasdair mac Eóghainn mhic Ghill-Easbuig mhic Domhnaill Duinn). Alasdair was born in 1764 in Reisibol, Suaineart but was raised in Lochaber from a young age. In 1802 he left for Gleann Garaidh (Glengarry), Ontario, with many others of the region. He passed away in 1853. (For more biographical details, see Seanchaidh na Coille or the article in IRSS.)

If you wish to read the Gaelic and English versions of this without being influenced by my interpretative notes, scroll down.

Alasdair composed this song-poem to his brother-in-law Donnchadh/Duncan (of whom he was exceedingly – some might say excessively – fond) not long after he (Alasdair) settled in Ontario. Alasdair is urging him to emigrate and join him in America, and to do so, he describes a hypothetical voyage in a grandiose vessel, detailing the route that he should take.

Although the geographical points of reference are realistic, the piece as a whole is a work of the imagination drawing strongly from older Gaelic literature describing the sea-based military might of the native Gaelic élite (see older song-poems of this nature in Black, and Ó Baoill and Bateman). Alasdair praises and elevates the social stature of his subject of address, Donnchadh, by drawing from what John MacInnes has deemed the “Gaelic panegyric code,” the traditional rhetoric of eulogy developed by the professional Gaelic literati over a span of centuries.

This rhetoric is apparent in the conventional praise of generosity, especially in the form of alcohol dispensed to friends and guests (lines 10-11, 52), as well as the description of the command of a sailing ship (esp lines 23-24, 45-50), which implies the ability to lead a group of stout men, and hence ability to rule.

At the same time, the poet expresses his sadness over parting with ancestors whose graves were traditionally understood to provide stable grounding and legitimacy for future generations (lines 41-44).

I do think that this song-poem has great literary merit and historical value. The editor and publisher of the booklet that printed it in 1882 must have thought so too. After all, it provides a mental and cultural thread of continuity from medieval Highland life into North American immigrant communities.

But I think that we can go much further than that. Remember that this voyage never actually happened – the text was an act of the imagination, and a very heroic one at that. Why was this significant to this audience? Highlanders saw themselves at this point as a defeated people, at the mercy of their old enemies who were now driving them out of their homes. The Battle of Culloden was seen as a major turning point in Gaelic history, after which anglophones were perceived as unwholesome victors forcing unwelcome changes that ultimately lead to emigration (see discussion in Seanchaidh). Indeed, Marian McLean’s study verifies the weight of prejudice and externally-imposed difficulties under which Gaels in Lochaber laboured in this era.

A number of Gaelic texts, especially song-poems (given their lofty rhetoric and traditional role describing cultural paragons), from this period reflect the need of Gaels to soothe their wounded pride and recoup a semblence of their self-esteem by drawing from the canon of heroic literature. Rather than bowing to defeat and conquest, such texts allowed Gaels to reimagine their present in terms of the better pasts they kept alive in cultural memory and steel themselves for the challenges that lay ahead in the emigrant experience (see further discussion in Seanchaidh na Coille, 130, 142-45, 247). This was, in other words, a culturally-specific form of community re-empowerment, born of the Gaelic literary imagination.

This illustrates the value of this kind of material and why it should not be acceptable for the reclamation and study of it to continue to be neglected. Gaelic texts give us direct insight into the inner life of Highland immigrants and their shared legacy as the inheritors of a sophisticated civilisation. They put us in touch with the hopes, fears, anxieties, coping mechanisms and social strategies of Gaelic communities. They provide us with revelations not available in DNA tests, geneaological charts, ship logs, or census figures. They tell us what Gaels felt was important to them in a medium and style reflecting their own tradition and identity. It is our own heroic mission to understand them on their own terms and celebrate them as the priceless cultural relics that they are.

Gaelic Original

Òran a rinn am bàrd do bhràthair céile dha fhéin, a dh’fhàg e ’na dhéidh ann an Albainn is nach deachaidh riamh do America. Bha e fuireach air a’ Chamdail ri taobh abhainn Lòchaidh, an Loch Abar. B’ ainm Donnchadh MacGilleMhaoil, no mar a theireadh na h-eòlaich ris gu cumanta, Donnchadh Bàn mac Aonghais mhic Dhonnchaidh mhic Iain.

1 Is toigh leinn am fear bàn
A tha tàmh aig Lòch;
Thig a-nall gun dàil
Is gheobh thu fàilte ’s pòg.

5 Donnchadh bàn na Rìnic,
Fear gun ghruaim gun mhì-ghean,
Nan tigeadh tu ’n tìr seo
Chuirinn dhìom gach bròn.

Cridhe farsaing fialaidh
10 Ceannaicheadar an fhìona
Bu tu làmh ga dhìoladh
Is cha b’ e breug no bòst.

Is duilich leam mar tha thu
Fada bho do chàirdean;
15 Cuir do bhàrc air sàile
Is lean gu dàn’ an tòir.

Faigh bho’n òg Mac Ailpein
Iubhrach dhìonach dharaich
Bhios gun ghaoid gun ghaiseadh,
20 Sgiobair gast’ air bòrd.

Iubhrach shocrach dhealbhach
Sgoilteas an cuan meanmnach;
Làmh air stiùir neo-chearbaich
Chumas fairg’ fo sròin.

25 Biodh i air a dlùthadh
Le sàilean na giùbhsaich;
Fiodhrach-tarsaing dùbailt
Is lannan ùr bho’n òrd.

’N àm dhut a bhith seòladh
30 Mach bho Ionar Lòchaidh
Roinn an Corran comhnard
Muir gun chòntraigh mhóir.

Roinn an Linne Sheilich
Druim na Linne Liosaich;
35 Dubhairt, cum ri d’ dheas-làimh
Is an làimh eile ’n t-Òb.

Cum do chùrsa dìreach
Seach an t-Eilean Ìleach
Mach bho bhonn Chinn Tìre
40 Is cùl do chinn ri Comhghall.

Cùl do chinn gu dìlinn
Ri dùthaich do shinnre
Ged a tha na mìltean
Diubh ’s a’ chill fo’n fhòid.

45 Iar a’ ghaoth neo-lapach
Biodh i’ n-ear gu d’ fhacal
Làmh air stiùir a mharcaich
Is biodh a h-astar corr.

Cum do ghabhail is cuimhnich:
50 Na toir géill – gabh suim deth –
Gus an ruig thu Quebec
Far am bi suinn ag òl.

Fuirich là no dhà ann
’Cur do sgìos air farradh
55 Is tog do shiùil an àird
Mo Mhontreal, a sheòid!

Nuair gheobh mi do litir
Leumaidh mi le briosgadh;
Bidh mi làn do mhisnich
60 Is thig mi ’chlisgeadh beò.


I have updated the orthography of the text but not made substantial changes other than those noted here.

Line 5: The original source gives the place name as “Reinic.” I don’t know which place name is intended, but I have altered it to suit the intended rhyme.

Line 34: The source was damaged, making the place name somewhat illegible. It looks like “Linne [?]easaich,” which I have interpreted as “Linne Liosaich.”

Line 50: Original has “na toir ceill.”

My English Translation

A song that the poet for his own brother in law, who he left behind him in Scotland and who never came to [North] America. He lived at Camdail beside the river Lochy, in Lochaber. His name was Duncan MacMillan, or as his friends commonly called him Fair Duncan son of Angus son of Duncan son of John.

(1-4) We like the fair man who lives at Lochy; who will come immediately and get a welcome and a kiss.

(5-8) Fair Duncan of Reinic, a good-natured man: if you would come to this country, I would cast away all unhappiness.

(9-12) An expansive, generous heart; a buyer of wine; yours is the hand to dispense it, and it is no lie or boast.

(13-16) Your condition saddens me, so far from your relations; put your vessel on the sea-brine and follow keenly the pursuit.

(17-20) Get a water-tight oaken galley from young MacAlpine that will be without defect or mishandling, with an excellent captain on board.

(21-24) A handsome, steady galley that will carve the mettlesome sea; a hand on the reliable steering-wheel that will keep the sea below her prow.

(25-28) Let it [the galley] be constructed from the beams of the pine-forest; doubled cross-beams, with fresh roves [pounded?] under the hammer.

(29-32) When it is time for you to sail out from Inverlochy, [take?] the Point of Corran on the level, [when] the sea is not at highest neap tide.

(33-36) [You’ll pass] the point of Loch Linnhe, the ridge of the water of Lismore; keep Duart on your right hand, and Oban on your other hand.

(37-40) Keep your course straight past the island of Islay; out from the base of Kintyre, facing away from Cowal.

(41-44) Turn your back forever to the land of your ancestors, even though there are thousands of them in the graveyard below the sod.

(45-48) The west wind strong, let it come from the east at your word; a hand on the master steering wheel, and let her achieve great speed.

(49-52) Keep your direction and remember: do not yield – take no [further] heed – until you reach Quebec, where the heroes drink.

(53-56) Stay a day or two there, putting your exhaustion behind you, and then raise your mast for Montreal, o hero!

(57-60) When I will receive your letter, I will jump up briskly; I will be completely excited and suddenly revived.


Black, Ronald. An Lasair: Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2001.

McLean, Marianne. The People of Glengarry: Highlanders in Transition, 1745-1820. Toronto and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1991.

Newton, Michael. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the ForestL Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Sydney, C.B.: Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

Newton, Michael. “Of Goats and Men: A Literary Relic of Gaelic Ontario.” International Review of Scottish Studies 39 (2014): 1-25.

Ó Baoill, Colm and Meg Bateman. Gàir nan Clàrsach / The Harp’s Cry: An Anthology of 17th-Century Gaelic Poetry. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 1994.

Afro-Gaelic History: Intersections and Fellowships

February is Black History Month and is an excellent season for Scottish Americans – not least those with Highland ancestry – to reflect on how intertwined the histories and heritages of people of Scottish and African ancestry are. However much the legacy of racism and the language of color codes might insist we are separate and distinct, people of African ancestry have been part of the Gaelic community for a very long time.

Scots’ identification with Africa goes back to at least the 11th century, when the first surviving versions of the Scots’ origin myth claim that their name came from the ancestress figure Scota, the daughter of the Pharoah of Egypt. Versions of this foundation legend survived in Gaelic oral tradition into the 19th century and would have been familiar to many early emigrants who encountered Africans in the Americas.

Gaelic tradition asserts the idea time and again that all of those who speak the language and carry the culture are entitled to call themselves Gaels and be fully qualified members of the community. This has been the case for the many people of non-European ancestry who, in various ways, were enfolded within Gaelic-speaking homes and neighbourhoods. While much of this happened for people of African ancestry within the oppressive context of slave-holding, this not was always the case: some of this happened merely on the strength of the Gaelic language within the social setting in which people lived, or via adoption, or freely-chosen relationships.

Some of the most interesting cases come from Gaelic-speaking Canadian environments. I recently discovered the following article in the Winnipeg Tribune (20 February 1936) which discusses the Afro-Gaels of Cape Breton (one of whom I interviewed in 2009) in the racially-tinged language of the era, particularly by way the portrayal of such folk in a popular novel:

Stewart McCawley, of Glace Bay, Cape Breton, deals with the negroes of that part of Nova Scotia, who speak and also sing in Gaelic, gives records of them who could not speak any other language.

Mr. McCawley tells in the Halifax Herald that these blacks came from the United States, at the time of the Revolutionary War, with loyalists who came north, so as to remain under the flag and institutions of Britain, and took up residence in Cape Breton.

The Glace Bay writer tells of these blacks and their Gaelic, apropos of various references, on Mr. Kipling’s death, to the black Gaelic-speaking cook on the fishing vessel, “We’re Here,” both dealt with in his still popular “Captain Courageous.”

Mr. McCawley also gives reasons for a belief that Kipling’s black cook was one of two brothers named Maxwell, of whom George is still living at Wycocomagh, Cape Breton. Further, says Mr. McCawley, “He and his family talk Gaelic and sing Gaelic songs – and sing them well. He had a brother who moved to Truro and died there.

“George and his brother went to sea and it is possible that one of them was the cook on ‘We’re Here,’ the Kipling fishing banker.”

In Cape Breton, there are church records of the births and christening of negro babies, dating back to the beginning of the nineteenth century, the progeny of blacks who came from the United States in the latter part of the previous century.

A court record shows that Donald Pringle, a “Cape Breton Celt,” barring his color and other racial characterizations gave his evidence through an interpreter. This colored witness did not speak a word of English. Pringle, despite his Scottish names, was of the coal black type.

Capt. Mackinnon, a teacher of Gaelic in the mining districts, well versed in all that concerns the adoption of that tongue, dealt with the subject of Gaelic speaking Cape Breton blacks as if it were a matter of course.

Those that arrived over a hundred years ago, could not very well escape speaking it. It was all prevalent. He gave those immigrants from the south handed down character of friendly, hard-working and likeable people, qualities which still characterize their descendants, now in the island.

There was nothing incongruous in Kipling’s black cook from Cape Breton speaking the Highland tongue, as some of the novelist’s critics pretended: Kipling had an appreciative sense of “story” values, would be quick to seize on the unique combination, racially and linguistically, and make the most of it, as he did.

Not only do a number of anecdotes such as these validate such people of African ancestry as Gaels, some acknowledge their mastery of Gaelic culture (particularly song and music) as superb bearers of ancestral tradition with which they connect to intimately. When discussing this topic in 2010 with John Shaw, one of the foremost authorities on the Gaelic tradition of Cape Breton, he related another anecdote which illustrates the unifying effect of song in the Gaelic community.

According to the anecdote, one of these Gaelic speakers of African ancestry came to work in one of the mines near Sydney. This man had grown up in a rural part of Cape Breton and was thus unfamiliar with the practice of racial segregation dominant in urban areas and amongst anglophones. When break time came, he went and sat amongst other Gaelic speakers, not noticing that the miners had separated themselves by race. This caused surprise, consternation and unease amongst some of the men, especially those who did not know him. To break the tension, the Afro-Gael began to sing a popular Gaelic song that had a chorus. The other Gaels around him joined him on the chorus and let down their guard.

I do not intend these brief notes to create an oversimplified and glib gloss over a long history of racism, injustice and violence done to people of African ancestry or any other: no one should get a free pass based on the past. It would also be wrong, however, to deny the fellowships and friendships between people whose descendants may now assume that they are inherently distinct, incompatible and disconnected. As these anecdotes illustrate, language and culture are the basic building blocks of community, even if it requires honour, integrity and constant vigilance to prevent prejudice and ill-will from damaging the bonds that unite us and undermining our realization of our common humanity and individual brilliances.


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

Michael Newton. “Afro-Gaelic Music in America,” History Scotland March/April 2005, pp. 43-47.

Michael Newton, “’Did you hear about the Gaelic-speaking African?’: Scottish Gaelic Folklore about Identity in North America.” Comparative American Studies, Volume 8, Number 2, June 2010, pp. 88-106.

Grudge Against Canada for Not Prizing Gaelic

“Harbors Grudge Against Canada For Not Prizing Gaelic Culture It Stole” is actually the full title of this newspaper article from The Winnipeg Evening Tribune (1936 December 1). It was no doubt meant to shock the reader that the author, like generations of Gaelic refugees before him, was not grateful for the generosity of the country that gave him a home and many material comforts and freedoms. Who could possibly feel resentment in such conditions?

As I have explored in depth in many Gaelic texts from Canada in the book Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, most people of Gaelic heritage – whether born in Scotland or Canada – were cowed by the overwhelming force of the British Empire and resigned to accommodate themselves within its strictures. Yet, if you look carefully enough, you can also recover expressions of discontent and even critique of its abuse of that power. This seems to be one of these interesting cases of a Gael daring to express his dissatisfaction with the treatment of his people and their culture. It also seems to reflect a Canadian inferiority complex in general. The article in full reads:

In an address to members of the Kiwanis club at luncheon in the Royal Alexandra hotel today, Rev. W. Gordon Maclean, of First Presbyterian church, declared that he had always harbored a grudge against Canada.

“It has always rankled with me,” he remarked, “that Canada should have sucked the life blood of rural Scotland, and more particularly the Highlands, taking away the Gaelic culture and not ensuring its survival in Canada.”

All that is romantic in Canadian history, he asserted, is associated with Scotland or France. Canadians should take their eyes off New York and London and contemplate their own history to inspire a notable Canadian culture.

Some might argue that little has changed since then.

Post-script [2016 January 17]: The claim that Canada “took away Gaelic culture” might seem far-fetched until you consider that during the 19th and early 20th centuries there was a considerable number of British élite who owned estates in the Scottish Highlands who also had business interests in Canada and that they profited personally and directly by exploiting their connections between the two locations, which generally involved moving Highlanders out of their native lands and into colonial settlements.

The Cathcart-Gordons, who owned lands in the Highlands and were also on the board of land companies connected to the Canadian Pacific Railway, were one of the most obvious examples of these exploitative connections (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 128, 170-75). Gaels were taken away from their homes with varying degrees of coercion – often with false promises of prosperity and security – to extremely poorly resourced places and difficult conditions but that were to the benefit of those who ran settlement schemes and colonial enterprises. There was, on top of this, the exploitation of Gaels as soldiers in British regiments in Canada and other parts of the empire.

Another Winnipeg Gael made very similar complaints about the treatment of his people in 1938 (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 250-56). What was particularly gutsy about Maclean’s protestations above was that they were delivered within days and in the very same room as a visit by Baron Tweedsmuir, the Governor General of Canada.

Scottish Gaels of the Pacific Northwest

Although most Scottish Highlanders migrated in extended families or entire communities in the 18th and early 19th centuries, changes in social structures and socio-economic patterns changed how and where they migrated in the later 19th and 20th centuries. More individuals moved from Gaelic communities in Scotland and North America to centers of economic activity and opportunity, particularly large cities, as Gaelic families and older settlements fragmented.

Very large numbers of Scottish Gaels were attracted to the Pacific Northwest and could be found in Seattle and Vancouver, in particular. When I interviewed Neil MacLeod in Vancouver in 2006, he told me about the Gaelic community that thrived in the area when his family moved there from Alaska:

When we arrived here in 1924 there were approximately 20,000 people that could speak Gaelic in the British Columbia area. There were 26 [Scottish] societies here. If you wanted a job in the Fire Department and you could speak Gaelic, you had a job; if you wanted a job in the Police Department and you could speak Gaelic, you had a job, and if you played the pipes, you’d get in quicker.

Seattle boasted a Gaelic community just as vibrant at the time (and it has been revived in recent years through the auspices of Slighe nan Gàidheal). The Seattle Scottish Gaelic Society held regular céilidhs and organized the annual Highland Games for the region.

Gaels all over North America subscribed to Gaelic periodicals published in Nova Scotia to help them keep track of friends, community members and cultural activities scattered all over the continent. Despite the enormous distances, these print materials kept folks in touch with each other and informed them about the issues (and literature) that mattered to them as Gaels.

A memory of these communities is preserved in the following letter sent to the monthly periodical Teachdaire nan Gàidheal (The Gaelic Messenger) in 1926 by a Gael resident in Seattle who had been born and raised in Cape Breton. A number of important points (seen clearly in other sources as well) are illustrated in this letter. First, Gaels conceived of their identity primarily as Gaelic; the notion of a “Scottish” identity was of a more remote and abstract nature. Their own native language carried, expressed and perpetuated their culture and identity; Gaelic literature was the fullest and most sophisticated form of this linguistic and cultural package. This allegiance to the Gaelic community and culture was, after all, the reason why people in Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, New York, Toronto, Winnipeg, San Francisco, and other cities contributed and subscribed to Gaelic periodicals: so that they could continue to be members of the wider “virtual” Gaelic community that spanned the continent via print, whether they happened to have been born originally in Scotland or North America.

The original letter in Gaelic comes first; I have followed it with my own English translation with important points about identity marked in boldface.

Thàinig Teachdaire nan Gàidheal air a chuairt mhìosail an latha roimhe, agus faodaidh tu bhith cinnteach gun d’ rinn Gàidheil Seattle mór ghàirdeachas ri thighinn. Gum bu fada beò thu agus comasach air tadhal oirnn daonnan le d’ naidheachdan tairis tlàth. Chan eil uair a leughas mi an Teachdaire nach tàlaidh a chomhradh grinn an cainnt uasal mo chinnidh m’ aire, a dh’aindeoin drip, gu beachd smuain air làithean m’ òige ’s an t-sòlais, nuair nach robh nì eile air m’ aire ach mire, mànran agus cridhealas, ’nam dhachaigh an Ceap Breatainn mo ghaoil.

Bha Mòd Albannach Gàidheil Seattle air a chuir air adhart le mór ghreadhnas air an 4mh latha de’n Lùnastal fo chùl-taic Fine Chloinn Choinnich is N[aoimh] Anndra. Bha mu chòig mìle pearsa làthair agus shoirbhich an latha leo anabarrach math. Thàinig àireamh na bu mhotha na b’ àbhaist de cho-fharpaisean pìobaireachd is dannsa á Vancouver agus rinn sin cùisean na bu taitniche dhuinn uile …

Chaith an sluagh a bha cruinn latha cridheil toilichte. Cha chluinnte guth ach Gàidhlig ré an latha is nuair a thàinig cridhealas an latha gu crìch, thriall gach aon gu dhachaigh fhéin làn riaraichte gun do chuir iad seachad latha comhla ri Gàidheil Seattle a leanas buan ’nan cuimhne.

The Gaelic Messenger came on its monthly tour the other day, and you can be sure that the Gaels of Seattle greatly celebrated its arrival. May you last long and always be capable of visiting us with your pleasant, well-spoken news. There is never a time that I read the Messenger that its elegant conversation in the noble language of my people does not draw to my mind the days of my youth and happiness, despite busy distractions, when there was nothing but sport and play and joy on my mind in my home in my beloved Cape Breton.

The Scottish Games of the Gaels of Seattle were held with great festivity on the 4th of July under the auspices of the MacKenzie [Clan society?] and St. Andrews [Society?]. There were about five thousand people present and the event went extraordinarily well. A much greater number than usual of the bagpipe and dance competitors came from Vancouver and that made the events all the more enjoyable for us all …

The assembled crowd spent a very happy, joyous day. Nothing but Gaelic was heard spoken all day long and when the delights of the day came to an end, every one returned to his own home fully satisfied that he had spent a day in the company of the Gaels of Seattle that will always last in their memories.

Further Reading

For further materials about Gaelic communities in the Pacific Northwest, see Michael Newton, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada.

For further discussion of Scottish Gaelic identity in North America, see the following:

“Gaelic Identities in Nova Scotia: Some Literary, Historical and Sociological Perspectives.”

“Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity in North America.”

“Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas” in Celts in the Americas.

Understanding the legend of the Grey Hound of Meoble

Traditional stories passed by word of mouth can be wonderful vehicles for transmitting culture and discussing history. They are a far more sophisticated genre than many people realize.

There is a legend that still circulates in oral tradition amongst the Gaels of Nova Scotia that originates in the western Highlands and purports to explain the manadh bàis (“death omen”) of a branch of the MacDonalds (the Sìol Dhùghaill of Mórar). Before the death of one of this family, Cù Glas Mheòbail (“the Grey Hound of Meoble”) makes an appearance to someone. This legend gained greater recognition amongst anglophones due to being worked into the short story “As Birds Bring Forth the Sun” by the Canadian author Alistair MacLeod.

Such compelling narratives naturally cause us to ask questions: What does the legend mean? What themes does it discuss and how might have contemporary Gaels understood it? Where does it come from? Exploring this seemingly simple legend allows us to see how complex such oral narratives can be, how they are transformed and adapted by successive storytellers, how they carry culturally-specific allusions and how they offer particular functions and meanings to the audiences that keep them alive.

It seems that the earliest recorded text of the legend was published in a small and very rare book entitled Tales of the Highlands published in 1907 by James MacDonald, who grew up near Mallaig. Unfortunately, his English adaptation of the tale does not at all reflect Gaelic storytelling style even if is a useful reference point for the tale.

When Meoble and other places were fecundated [fertilized] by man and cattle and sheep instead of the antlered tribe [deer] that presently inhabit these noble hills and glades, there lived a shepherd at Ruigh Fheàrna who had a hound that, on looking into his master’s face, or on giving ear to his voice, would read the latter’s slightest wish.

Young MacDonald, after growing weary of smearing, clipping, gathering and whistling [work associated with sheep], betook himself to soldiering. So, after saying goodbye to Ealasaid his dog, he donned the scarlet coat and the tartan trews [of the army] while the plaidie [of shepherding] was hung on the barn rafters.

After a seven-year ordeal in the fighting of Inkerman [1854], Balaclava [1854], and sundry other [military] engagements, young MacDonald retraced his steps [home]. The dog was nowhere to be found.

Shortly after the disappearance of its master, the faithful canine grew disconsolate, refusing all sustenance and eventually disappearing altogether. The soldier, however, obtained an inkling that a dog answering to the description of the lost Ealasaid had taken up its abode on a certain island in the middle of a hill-lake called Dubh-Lochan, two or three miles beyond Meoble. On reaching the banks of the lake, he swam for the island.

No sooner did he effect a landing than he was attacked by old Ealasaid’s progeny. These by now had waxed [grown] into huge and ferocious beasts, and ere the mother could interfere the ill-fated man was gruesomely masticated [chewed up].

On discovering the identity of her master before he was quite dead, she gave vent to an agonizing howl.

Years passed, but the Meoble people were mostly every night at the same hour startled by the dolorous bark and shrill howl of the Cù Glas alternatively reverberating from different corries in the mountains.

One night, however, as the family and their visitors at Ruigh Fheàrna beguiled the wintry night with those tales and legends peculiar to sons of the glens, including the fate of the shepherd-soldier MacDonald, what should appear in the middle of the floor but the Cù Glas itself. After slowly eyeing each member present, the dog wagged its tail, and after most sonorous howling, turned and disappeared.

Calum Maclean was a folklorist who collected materials from all around Scotland from 1946 to 1960. In his book about the Highlands and the people and traditions there, he provided a short summary of the legend, based on several variants which he collected in Morar himself.

The Grey Dog of Meoble makes its appearance when any one of the MacDonalds of Morar, the seed [descendants] of Dugald, is about to die. There are several people still living who maintain that they have really seen the mysterious dog. It appears only before the death of members of that particular branch of the MacDonalds.

Over two hundred years ago, a MacDonald of Meoble had a greyhound. He had to leave home to take part in some [military] campaign and at the time of his leaving, the hound was in pup [i.e., pregnant].

When he left, the bitch swam out to an island on Loch Morar and there gave birth to a litter. Months went by and MacDonald returned home again, but his greyhound was missing. He happened to go to the very island where the bitch had her litter. The pups had now grown up into huge dogs, and not recognising their master, attacked and killed him before the mother appeared on the scene. Ever since that time, the Grey Dog has appeared as an omen of death.

The narrative in Nova Scotia, as collected by John Shaw (and others), has been somewhat simplified, as we might expect from the growing distance in time and space between Scotland and Canada in the generations subsequent to emigration. Not only does the incident get shifted in time to the Battle of Culloden (which loomed larger on the historical horizon than these other battles), but folklore motifs from other legends entered the retelling of the tale and began to reshape it.

So, how do we approach a story like this and understand what it may have meant to Gaels who told it and heard it? It should be understood, first, that like any text, there is no single and definitive meaning to a story. It can have multiple meanings for every individual let alone audience. We can appreciate new layers and aspects of these narratives as we learn more about the historical settings and cultural allusions in these tales. Even the semantic fields of the specific words used to convey the tale can impart meanings and resonances that add to its message(s).

The hound is a particularly significant animal in the lore of Celtic peoples, including the Gaels. There were many personal names and collective names (tribes, families…) that included terms indicating canine species, the most famous being that of the Ulster warrior Cú Chulainn.

The dog appears to be the first species that humans ever domesticated. People sought to harness the aggressive power of canines to threaten and attack potential enemies or hunt mutual prey, so some element of “wildness” had to be retained in order for dogs to remain effective partners. The somewhat ambiguous status of dogs – both within the human community but not entirely of it, domesticated enough to be honorary members of it but potentially dangerous if their wildness reasserted itself – is frequently remarked upon in folklore and mythology. These aspects of canines provided powerful imagery and symbolism for warriors who exhibited these same kinds of traits, as they needed to be ferocious and aggressive to enemies, but they were dangerous to their home community itself if violence was not controlled and directed properly.

Two primary themes of these aspects of the history of the domestication of the hound – the boundaries of the in-group (us) and the out-group (them), and the unstable boundary between wildness and domestication – appear in much Gaelic folklore and tradition. I believe that these two themes are key to understanding the legend of the Grey Hound of Meoble.

It is also relevant to note that cú glas (“grey hound”) was a technical term in early Gaelic law denoting someone who came into the kin-group (particularly through marriage) from outside of it but was not fully protected and enfranchised because of his external origin (Kelly, A Guide to Irish Law, 6). The resonance of this term is clearly relevant in unlocking the meaning of the story, which seems to have taken shape in the 19th century during the time that the Highland élite were abandoning their former kinsmen (of lower rank) by assimilating to the norms of Anglo-British society. Service in the military was a common career path for those wishing to find and climb such socio-economic ladders.

Structurally and symbolically, then, the legend represents a young man who was born as an insider to his kin-group. When he left his home and kin-group, he became an outsider and exile. Perhaps to protect themselves from hostile external forces, the local inside-group took shelter on an island (see the usage and symbolism of the crannog, for example). When the young veteran returned, he was no longer recognizable to the next generation of other insiders, and thus it was inevitable that he be attacked as an external threat. His death was also a tragic loss, doubly so.

It is relevant that the ferocious ghosts of grey hounds were also associated with the MacDougalls (Clann MhicDhùghaill) of Lorne (see Campbell, Records of Argyll, 166-69). The similarity between these groups’ names may have easily allowed these motifs from Clan Dougall legend to be transferred to the Sìol Dhùghaill branch of the Clan Donald in Mórar.

This set of legend variants, then, is a window into the mental and literary world of 19th-century Gaels. By examining such materials, we can begin to understand and appreciate the way in which Gaels represented and discussed their history and culture, using their own symbolic resources and literary techniques. There is no shortage of such Gaelic materials in both North America and Scotland – what there is is a shortage of support for scholars to explore and interpret them.


Lord Archibald Campbell. Records of Argyll. Edinburgh: Blackwood and Sons, 1885.

Fergus Kelly. A Guide to Irish Law. 1988.

Finbar McCormick. “The Dog in Prehistoric and Early Christian Ireland.” Archaeology Ireland 5.4: 7-9.

James MacDonald. Tales of the Highlands. 1907.

Calum I. Maclean. The Highlands. London: Batsfords, 1959.

Calum Maclean Project blog. “The Grey Dog of Meoble.” 14 July 2015.

John Shaw. Na Beanntaichean Gorma / The Blue Mountains. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007.

Understanding Sources about the Highland Clearances

The Highland Clearances continue to be one of the most contested episodes in Scottish history and there is a large number of potential contemporary sources authored by various people for various audiences that can be brought into this debate. I wrote up the following notes about dealing with these sources and arguments when teaching a course about Scottish diasporic history.

When we look at debates surrounding Clearances and emigration it helps to delineate the identity of each set of people involved in these events and sources, what their general aims tended to be, and how much power and influence they actually had and what kind. As you read through sources, try to recognize each of these “players” and how these goals become activated and modified according to specific historical circumstances.

  • Whose interests are being expressed in this text? Who is the audience for the text?
  • What is the agenda? What is the argument being asserted?
  • How is this agenda being justified? What is the rationale being advanced?

Non-élite Highlanders

Given that the right to vote did not become universal in Britain until 1885, non-élite Highlanders had essentially no political power whatsoever; most had no financial capital, and the government did not recognize that they had any inherent right to live on their ancestral land. Furthermore, even into the end of the nineteenth century many Highlanders spoke no language other than Gaelic, and Gaelic could not be used in courts of law. Their goals were to:

  • Survive as individuals and maintain their families
  • Prevent what economic assets they had from devaluating any further
  • Protect their language and culture (which the government did not do)
  • Maintain their pride and integrity in a humiliating and disempowering situation


By the early nineteenth century, some landlords had Highland ancestry but many did not; as a rule, they were anglicised, and culturally and linguistically alienated from the Gaelic peasantry. Landlords by definition had economic capital (their land), and some degree of political clout. They were often well connected to centres of power and influence, and had almost absolute control over their land and tenantry. Their goals were to:

  • Maintain their estates in the Highlands, and homes in other parts of the empire
  • Find ways of making a substantial profit (a challenge in the Highland landscape) and (often) pay off debt
  • Make maximal employment of tenantry with minimal costs
  • Maintain their political and social clout amongst the higher ranks of British society

Estate Trustees

Accounting firms, usually based in Edinburgh, provided numerous services to the landed élite, including formal bankruptcy administration, auditing, judicial factories, curatories, executries and the factorships of estates. Accountants were appointed as trustees for the estates of landlords after they declared bankruptcy, which was a very profitable business and source of income for accountants. When this happened, very extreme measures were often taken to make the estate “profitable,” not least of which were clearances. When an estate was in the non-judicial control of trustees in this process, they did not have to make any concessions towards tenants. (For details, see Walker, “Agents of Dispossession.”) The goals of accountant-trustees were to:

  • Pay off the creditors
  • Reorganize an estate under their management to make it profitable
  • Make their own profit in the process

Priests and Ministers

Clergymen were recruited primarily from the upper echelons of Gaelic society. They generally were concerned with keeping their congregations loyal to their own faith (keep in mind the political role of religion and the opposition between Catholicism and various branches of Protestantism); although some took an interest in cultural and political affairs, this was not their primary duty. Until the Disruption of 1843, ministers in the Established Church of Scotland (the official state church) were directly appointed by the landlord; this meant that ministers of the Church of Scotland were effectively prevented from going against the policies and interests of landlords. Thus, Catholic priests and ministers in the Free Church tended to have more freedom to side with their congregations. Their goals were to:

  • Provide spiritual services
  • Prevent their congregations from going into another church
  • Make whatever bargains necessary with landlords and government to maintain their positions
  • Aid in “improving” Highlanders according to Anglo-British social and cultural norms

Emigration Agents

The exact nature and role of emigration agents changed a great deal between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries: some were tied to military interests, as when settlement in North America was part of a military strategy; some were tied to ship-owners and shipping businesses, whose ships would otherwise be empty returning to North America (having conveyed timber and other goods to Britain); others were paid by governments and land-owners to recruit settlers to take parcels of their vast estates and develop their resources. (There is a thorough discussion of emigration agents in Harper, Adventurers and Exiles.) Their goals were to:

  • Sell as many people as possible on the idea of emigration
  • Maintain a positive reputation in order to sustain their numbers


Marjory Harper. Adventurers and Exiles: The Great Scottish Exodus. Profile Books, 2003.

Michael Kennedy. Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study. Nova Scotia Museum, 2002.

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

Stephen Walker. “Agents of Dispossession and Acculturation. Edinburgh Accountants and the Highland Clearances.” Critical Perspectives on Accounting 14 (2003): 813–853.