Gaelic Tradition, Gender and Alcohol

Tradition is a two-edged sword. It can be a source of comfort and stability, connecting individuals to a larger supportive community and sense of continuity during times of anxiety and upheaval. It can also used as a rationale for entrenching the privileges of one group against the interests of another and perpetuating intolerance and inequities. Tradition is not an external, impersonal force causing certain things to happen: it is a matter of human agency. Individuals – especially those with power and influence – draw on tradition selectively and creatively in order to justify some agenda, and it is up to the community to decide whether that usage is justifiable or not.

In recent years, scientists have shown that many members of the animal world intentionally ingest substances which alter their states of consciousness. Perhaps the burden of consciousness is so high that we all need some way to escape periodically. I won’t speculate any futher on the reasons, but it is interesting that until synthetic drugs were manufactured in the mid-20th century, all of the substances that have been “abused” – alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, psilocybin, etc – come from cultures which had natural social constraints which limited their impact: i.e., they were limited to ritual use, to limited supplies of availability, to the impact they would have on self-sufficiency, etc. Many of those limiting factors have disappeared, and perhaps people’s ability to self-regulate has not kept up with those changes.

Alcohol specifically has a long history in Gaelic history for several purposes and contexts, and I’ve explored some of these issues in two previous books (A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World and Warriors of the Word), as well as in a forthcoming book (The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic). Here’s a short summary, First, offering it is an act of generosity, hospitality and social cohesion. Second, it was a means of commemorating and even communicating with the ancestral dead – the modern “toast” is a vestige of that. Third, it was a means of invoking an altered state of consciousness, a “high” which intensified the pleasant social conviviality of the occasions on which it was shared amongst hosts and guests. Finally, it provided a quick shot of warmth in a cold climate.

Is it natural and inevitable, then, that Scotland should be a land of rampant alcoholics and that the sons and daughters of Scotland should have similar profiles where alcohol is concerned? Does Gaelic tradition endorse and justify a high incidence of alcohol usage in any community of Highlanders or their descendants? I think not.

Substance abuse is a complex issue, and it would be unwise to attribute it to any single cause or factor. There are multiple entry points and many self-reinforcing factors, but in this blog I’d like to briefly show that the idea that we should question the assumption that Gaelic tradition endorses an (over-)indulgence of alcohol by looking at some literature from Nova Scotia, and then I’ll look at some recent research from Nova Scotia about the consequences and costs of this “tradition.”

The Evidence of Gaelic Song-Poetry

One of the most plentiful and important sources of information we have about Gaelic communities and individuals is song-poetry. These compositions reflect the daily lives and concerns of Gaelic communities, but they also reflect the personalities and aspirations of their specific composers. Song poetry was a constant presence in the lives of Gaels until very recently and cannot but have had a pervasive influence on their values, perceptions and world-view, just as television has had a pervasive influence on the lives of North American adults (and the internet is having on their children).

Whenever a dispute arose that needed communal consensus, a poet would chime in on the debate and put into poetic form one side of an argument. The song-poem could be performed and another poet might respond with his or her own case in verse. One of the favourite formats of these poems of persuation is the “dialogue” poem, which is meant to express both sides of a contention, but of course the poet usually crafted each side carefully so that one was the clear winner.

Numerous song-poems mark debates over items or practices recently introduced to Gaelic communities: tea, Sunday ferries, organs in church, even bagpipes (in the 17th century)! Should the item or practice be accepted into community life? Why or why not? Could it be modified to meet with communal values and aesthetics, or was it just too offensive to native sensibilities? The Temperance Movement had a huge impact on many different communities and had social, religious and moral dimensions, so it is no surprise that it was the subject of numerous Gaelic song-poems.

Before proceeding, however, it should be noted that Gaelic song-poetry complaining of the excesses of drink pre-date the modern Termperance movement by generations. (I’ve published some of it already and more will appear in The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic.) This again confirms that social norms and expectations were not only codified in verse but debated there as well.

According to Dunbar (2008: 81), the first temperance society in Gaelic Nova Scotia was established in Pictou County in 1828, and before long, the religious leaders (in both Catholic and Protestant communities) were pressuring their congregations to sign oaths of abstinence from alcohol. Some notable members of the community did not hold to their oaths long, and this also drew the attention of Gaelic songmakers.

This whole episode was the subject of several song-poems by some of the major poets of the day. Of the songs of two of the poets (Am Bard MacGillean and Domhnall “Gobha” MacGilleFhaolain), Dunbar (2008: 81-2) writes that they “viewed such prohibitions on drinking as slightly un-Gaelic […],” representing instead alcohol as a “core aspect of Gaelic culture; by contrast, promotors of temperance are portrayed as outsiders, and by inference, promotors of an alien culture.”

While this may be the idea that these poets are expressing in their poetry, we should not confuse the rhetorical strategies of these particular male authors – how they are justifying their own agendas – with social realities. Several other poets and poems show a different angle on the matter. A poem by Ailean “The Ridge” MacDhomhnaill from the same era (Rankin 2004: 142-5) is in the form of a debate – or scolding match – between wife and husband, with the wife rebuking him for the excessive costs of his drinking. His wife was a Highlander as well, so this was not an “outsider imposing an alien culture.”

In fact, there are many other Gaelic poems which verify the idea that, just like today, women bore the brunt of men’s excessive drinking and were critical of its negative effects. Another of the major poets of the era, Iain MacGilleBhràth (Iain am Pìobaire), composed a song entitled Gearan Bean an Amadain air a Fear “The compaint of a fool’s wife about her husband” (printed in Mac-Talla 25 Aug 1894). The song represents the poet coming home from a night on the spree, caught by his angry wife on entry. She enumerates the tolls of drink and although the husband is given one stanza to try to contain her reprimand in the middle of the composition, she is allowed to continue on and get the last word. She doesn’t insist that he desist altogether but to choose his companions wisely and exercise moderation.

Another anti-alcoholism song appeared in Mac-Talla (25 January 1901), this time by a woman (Barbara Friseal), entitled Òran Connsachaidh eadar Fear agus Bean mu’n Òl “A song of argument between a husband and wife about drinking.” As the title suggests, it is also in the structure of a dialogue and, as it was written by a woman, it is little surprise that she gets the first and last word. Although the husband insists that he is always drinking toasts in her honour, she reprimands him for his excesses and demands he reform himself.

In these songs, and others like them, women – just as Gàidhealach “Gaelic” as their drunken husbands – assert their worth and attempt to intervene in the excessive behaviours of their partners. Although women did not enjoy the same social status of men in Gaelic society, or have the same opportunities to occupy official roles of authority, enough of their capacity in “informal” institutions, such as the home, is reflected in Gaelic poetry to give voice to their perspectives on complex social issues such as this and should encourage us to think beyond the rhetoric of “a few great men.”

Gàidhealach no Gòrach?

Tradition may suggest norms and offer standards (always as a spectrum of multiple choices), but it is up to us to decide which of many options suit our interests best. Tradition exists to serve us as a community, individually and collectively, not to force us into a straight-jacket. Many Gaels have recognized this in the past. For example, Seumas MacNéill, editor of the Gaelic periodical An Solus-Iùil (printed in Sydney, Cape Breton), wrote in the issue of November 1925, “Tha caochladh chleachdaidhean aig treubhan an t-saoghail, cuid a tha feumail agus cuid nach eil” (“The peoples of the world have a variety of customs, some of which are useful and some of which are not.”) Such Gaelic writers were very capable of and willing to criticize behavior and mould tradition when they thought it necessary.

In earlier times, the process of setting social norms and values, and responding to external innovations, was negotiated from within Gaelic communities, particularly with social mechanisms such as the céilidh, with poets and elders serving as spokespeople and advocates. Nowadays, communal adhesion is broken, the authority of moderating elders is meaningless, and the external narratives of the mainstream anglophone world have greater weight and prestige than those inherited from the past.

One of the shortcomings of modern healthcare – both of physical and mental health – is that patients are examined and treated as individuals, rather than as members of a community whose wellbeing is affected by larger social dynamics. We are not just individuals but members of collectives, and when those collectives are dominated by narratives of inferiority, loss and inadequacy, individuals suffer as well, or seek ways to escape. This, more than anything else, I think, explains the high incidence of alcoholism that sometimes exists in Gaelic communities.

I’ve been living in Nova Scotia for the past five years. It is called “Canada’s Ocean Playground” on car license plates in the province, which I read as a sad statement that it only exists to serve the fancies and wish-fulfillments of Canadians elsewhere. It is the most rural of all Canadian provinces and the only with net depopulation. It also contains the last vestiges of Gaelic communities in North America. A report was issued in November 2011 entitled In Our Words: What Alcohol Use Looks Like In Our Towns, and it makes for sobering reading. Here are a few evocative extracts which describe particular locales and some general patterns (which cannot, of course, be attributed entirely to Gaels):

Per capita alcohol consumption in Nova Scotia rose 9.5% over the last 10 years. […] Nova Scotian men and women consistently drink more heavily than their Canadian counterparts. […] From domestic and sexual violence to common assault, property damage, vandalism, noise and disturbances, key informants across all three towns told us alcohol fuels crime. Police in Bridgewater and Antigonish attributed as much as three-quarters of crimes to alcohol. […] Our informants described a range of personal costs individuals experience because of alcohol, including lost potential, increased impulsivity, unintended pregnancies, risky sex, and inappropriate spending of household income on alcohol. We also heard concerns over the impact of alcohol on depression, anger and overall mental health.

This is not indicative of wellbeing and self-interest but symptomatic of deeper issues that have yet to be openly acknowledged and resolved. Gaelic tradition does not condone self-inflicted violence or abuse of others; it endorses good health, self-control, and self-esteem. It’s hard to imagine how self-reliant communities in an unforgiving environment would have survived otherwise.


I’m adding a postscript after a response from my friend and colleague Robert Dunbar, whose research I hope I have not misrepresented (he has edited the secular poetry of Iain MacGilleain, and written the most detailed overview of Gaelic poetry by Scottish Highland immigrants to North America to date). As he reminds me, even the poetry of Iain MacGilleain which rejects temperance recognizes the stupidity of the excess of drinking. The key is moderation, and this is fairly explicit in the poetry by women as well.

My thoughts on this topic were also inspired by long discussion with my friend Alastair McIntosh, the great writer and eco-spiritual poet-shaman of Govan, Scotland, who shared with me a very disturbing report about the epidemic of substance abuse in Scotland and the social costs to the nation. What could be at the root of such pronounced cultural ills – paralleled by the lowest youth self-esteem in western Europe, according to the World Health Organization – but a national narrative of defeat and inferiority?

You can also see the 2007 report on alcohol abuse in Nova Scotia in general.


Robert Dunbar. “Poets of the Emigrant Generation.” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 64 (2008): 22-125.

John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes, ed. Michael Newton. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.

Michael Newton. A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000.

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

The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, forthcoming.

Effie Rankin. Ás a’ Bhràighe: Beyond the Braes. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2004.


10 Comments Add yours

  1. Well, good evening Michael. I settled down to read this after supper this evening – the first moment I’ve had for quite some time, so much so that I realised that I was in deficit of a wee dram. I think it was Hemmingway who said “write drunk; edit sober” and while I would not consider being even slightly tiddled helpful for writing, it is most certainly an anathema for editing, and having been editing for months and months now I think that I was due a little medication. So, this is just a long way round of saying that you post inspired me to a little dram – Jamesons as it happens, to bridge the continuum of the Gael, and I just wanted to say how very much I have enjoyed reading this. Not only is it eloquently written, but also highly apposite. As you know, I live these days in Govan, and what struck me most was this passage in your writing:

    “We are not just individuals but members of collectives, and when those collectives are dominated by narratives of inferiority, loss and inadequacy, individuals suffer as well, or seek ways to escape. This, more than anything else, I think, explains the high incidence of alcoholism that sometimes exists in Gaelic communities.”

    I have just finished reading James Hogg’s 1803 account of his travels to through the Highlands as far as Lewis looking at sheep farms. It is a shocking document – the way he came up from Ettrick and was telling all these Highland lairds, minor chieftains of their people, that they could get 3, 4, 5 times the rentals if they brought in Lowland shepherds and improved strains of sheep than from their tenants with their few cows and chickens. Truely, I was close left to feeling I’d prefer the company of the Calvinists to Hogg, unjustified sinner that he was. Anyway, what struck me positively about him was his appreciation of how the hospitality increased in direct proportion to his latitude heading north, and what was interesting was how this invariably involved being given stoups of whisky. It was a mark of kindness, of acceptance, and it made me think of some of the fine passages in Andrew Greig’s book, “The Loch of the Green Corrie” (about going off to MacCaig’s loch to catch a trout) where he speaks about the “sacramental” function of whisky in modern Scottish society. It reminded me of a time on … I’d better not say which wee Scottish island …. but I’d had a long association with it, and one day, on one of those rare occasions in my live, I actually got really drunk, and what stuck in my mind was that one of the chief gatekeepers in the community, a buy I’d known for years and years, said to me as I left that evening “We can trust you now you’ve got drunk with us.”

    I’ve often thought about that occasion. I understand it, yet it disturbed me. I’d played a part in the history of their community and everything should have pointed towards their trusting me – yet it didn’t happen until one night I got so sloshed I puked into the ditch on the way home. Greig’s use of the term “sacramental” filled in a piece in the jig saw puzzle. To me, Michael, what is so important about your work is that, especially in your Handbook, you bring out the totemic aspect of Highland and Hebridean life; the indigenous spirituality that has been so masked since the efforts to repress it after the ’45 (I address this in my recent, Island Spirituality, of which I’ve already promised you a copy. I get the sense that alcohol is playing a dysfunctional spiritual role. It lubricates liminal space, but perversely liminal in a culture where the true liminal was severly damaged, where the doctrine of “total depravity” became normalised.

    It is so hard to speak and write about. Even what I’ve just written will be read as a sideswipe at the Calvinists and yet the truth is that in many Calvinist clergy the true spirituality – the work of love and making community – carries on. They too have had to clad their calling in terms acceptable to the age that modernity has created.

    And Christianity. The body and the blood. The bread and wine. The matter of this universe and its animating spirit. How do we shift from false liminal to the true?

    I raise the last of my glass. To the Fifth Commandment and all it says (but we forget) about the land. To the ancestors!

    1. Thank you so much for this, Alastair! I’ll raise my glass, cautiously, anon!

  2. bev brett says:

    Interesting that recovery- the method used by millions- is participation in a collective community- which uses a communal consensual model of decision making. And reliance on that community of people with the same problem for recovery.

  3. bev brett says:

    Here’s a really good analysis about irish- alcoholism by a recovered alcoholic psychiatrist.

    1. Thanks, Bev, that is quite a good article. Denial and silence are not healthy signs of dealing with communal issues, and of course there is much shared between Irish and Scottish Gaels in terms of history and cultural dynamics.

  4. Iain MacKinnon says:

    As ever, Michael, a provocative and important contribution. Here are some thoughts they provoke in me, just some first reactions.

    Firstly, in terms of the past, I’ve been wondering if the 17th century marked the emergence, or perhaps entrenchment, of the glorification of drink among the Gàidheal. There’s many a reference to drinking in that century’s poetry – perhaps the most famous is MacMhurich telling about being drunk 20 times in a day in the hall of Macleod. That, at least, is the translation I’ve read. But I’m not sure what he means by it. It doesn’t sound like a modern version of drunkenness to me.

    And so I am wondering if, like the 20th century breakdown of the ceilidh and the imposition of an external set of values on Gàidhealach communities that you mention in this piece, the 17th century praise of [excessive] drinking was also the internalisation of a relatively new value – part of the rise of conspicuous consumption among the chiefs, particularly after the 1609 Iona settlement. The new form of ‘aoigheachd’ that the (privileged) poets were praising in their chiefs was, in effect, a consequence and then a cause of the breakdown of Gàidheal society.

    In contrast, I notice that the 16th century Scottish historians – Boece chief among them – draw a strong contrast between decadent Lowland society (with their love of spices!) and the hardy wild Scots who live by the ancient parsimony. Of course these historians were making use of the Gàidheal for their own political purposes, but the contrast it striking. I used to think I was smart by saying that claret – not whisky – was the favoured drink of the 17th century chiefs. Now, I’m left wondering if their fondness for claret wasn’t the result of the internal colonisation of that period.

    In terms of the present, there is a remarkable dichotomy in Hebridean society – particularly in the Outer Hebrides. On the one hand the NHS say the levels of alcoholism in the Western Isles are as high as the most deprived inner city areas of Glasgow. On the other hand we are told that we have the strongest sense of community spirit in the UK (DTZ Pieda report), among the best well-being indicators in the nation (Office for National Statistics) and some of the best examples of community development (Carnegie Trust).

    These claims about the strength of community may all be well-grounded. However, it strikes me that while they appear complimentary, these reports drawn up by the other hand are not drawn up in the islands’ interests. This hand is working in service to the continually evolving political demands of external powers operating by the principles of what Michel Foucault dubbed ‘governmentality’.

    Just fifty years ago these demands made the islands the home of backwardness and underdevelopment; today they are to be aspired, and flocked, to.

    Our underdevelopment then, and our overdevelopment now, is equally derived from sets of indicators and standards set and imposed from far away.

    Meanwhile, the first hand is lifting the bottle in response to a complaint from inside – a disease in the soul.

    Yet the statistics on alcoholism are also from an externally derived source. There seems to be truth in both hands.

    So we are dealing with two sorts of overarching ‘truth’; the truth of strength coexists with the truth of illness; the narrative of defeat that you write about co-exists with another, and I would say older, story. [And maybe this links in to your post on cultural appropriation, in the sense that it is not so much the ‘truths’ that the external forces draw out of the Hebrides that are harmful, but more the uses to which these truths are then put – if so that would take the issue of cultural appropriation (which concerns the way in which the image of the Gaidheal is shaped and who has the right to declare and shape that image: to what end, and by what authority) to a depth of engagement that some of the post-modernist commentary that followed your article doesn’t seem to be able to reach.]

    I wonder about the relationship between these two hands. What effect do these ever-changing forceful and partial external positive and negative perceptions of the islands have on its inhabitants? For me, trying to understand this relationship and its consequences requires me to consider what I think are essential things, and, in particular, the ways in which we provide for life.

    In doing so I have found Ulrich Kockel’s distinction between what he has called ‘deep’ and ‘surface’ essentialism useful. Surface essentialism can be thought of as the froth of cultural experience, our accumulation of easy assumptions and lazy prejudices which help to maintain our sense of having an identity in a busy, baffling and ever-changing world.

    Wha’s like us?

    In my understanding of it, deep essentialism strives towards understanding and embodying fundamental human qualities which aid the cultivation of well-being and goodness. They manifest and are maintained culturally in deep and enduring qualities of character, which become articulate in terms like ‘aoigheachd’ and ‘cliu’. Inevitably, they are expressed in terms of particular human cultural experience; but they belong, in principle, to everyone. I don’t believe they can be properly expressed – poets may have the best shot at it – but they can be felt and experienced.

    For me, the ills that you describe, Michael, are when the soul of a culture – the home of its essential things, its deep ways of being and of relating to people and nature – comes under attack from the forceful froth of ways that are superficially, and, I wonder, perhaps in some way even essentially, strange to it. This attack causes a cultural disease and a resort to the bottle or the needle as a means of escape and our oblivion is a symptom of the underlying disease.

    Cum togail beachdan doirbh mar seo, a charaid. Chan fhaighear math gun dragh.

    1. Thanks for these very interesting and important insights, Iain, a charaid.

      If I recall correctly, one of the reasons for at least some of the regulations of the Statutes of Iona was to prevent the chieftains from spending as much money as they were on imported alcohol, as the king wanted their excess cash, so there must have been some conspicuous consumption beforehand — but I think that must have been limited by numerous constraints. It’s only in the 17th century that more people in the middling ranks get access to cash via the cattle trade, and I’m guessing that it’s that unleashing of market forces that leads to more conspicuous consumption, esp of luxury goods like alcohol. Anyway, that’s my intuition at the moment,

      About the MacMhuirich poems – I have a theory that the poem that you refer to (I forget the name and my books are in boxes) should be read as a pair with “Soraidh slán do’n Oidhche A-Réir”. As a pair I think that they may say something about the passing of the old order. The lover, I think, is the old chieftain, rather than a fair maiden with whom the poet is in love (if my theory is correct). The alcoholic extravagance may or may not be literal, but it’s there in the literary representation to assert that the chieftain is a good one. But I have had yet to follow up on this hypothesis properly…

      1. And Alastair just sent me this link to a page that says something about the importation of French wine:

  5. I like reading through a post that will make people think. Also, many thanks for permitting me to comment!

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