Angus J. Macdonald: Radical Gaelic Voice

Every generation or so, someone comes along who claims to come from a family or underground organization that has kept alive the wisdom of the druids, or the traditions of the ancient bards, or some such arcane knowledge. Upon further scrutiny, such claims (and the evidence of such knowledge) turn out to be bogus, but what merits consideration is the motivation of such characters and what may attract people to them, and why. “Savior figures” often appeal to people under great cultural duress and social crisis – Jesus of Nazareth offering leadership to Jews under Roman occupation being a classic example.

In the 1960s, Professor Donald Fergusson (a native of Cape Breton working at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia) was working on collecting and publishing Scottish Gaelic songs, and trying to contexualize the literary inheritance of the Gaelic community of Nova Scotia. While conducting fieldwork in Uist, he learned of a tradition-bearer who had relocated some years earlier to Australia. This man, Aonghus Iain MacDhomhnaill (in English, Angus John Macdonald), went on to collaborate with him and become the Gaelic editor of three substantial volumes, Beyond the Hebrides (1977), From the Furthest Hebrides (1978), and The Hebridean Connection (1984).

The first two volumes contained many well-established literary texts taken from many different sources, but Aonghus contributed many unusual pieces which he claimed that had as the last of an order of seanchaidhs that was formed in 1620 to preserve Gaelic tradition from the cataclysm appearing on the horizon. The tales go back as far as the era of Gaelic-Norse warfare and the tales and songs condemn in no uncertain terms the subjugation of the Gaels and the quislings who were complicit in these affairs. Aonghus died in 1975, before the first volume was published, but Donald continued until all of his texts were in print.

The scholars who examined the volumes (correctly) assessed most of Aonghus’s texts as forgeries (see, for example, Blankenhorn 1979, 1980) and a long shadow was cast over the Professor’s entire project, which is sad given the amount of genuine material that is in them. Fergusson’s volumes have since largely passed into obscurity and disrepute, although John MacInnes has reassured me that Aonghus was actually quite good at geneaology and a song that he claimed was a remnant of Galloway Gaelic has been given some serious consideration.

But there is another way in which I think that Aonghus’s literary remains deserve very serious consideration: as post-colonial imaginative literature. Aonghus dared to express his regard for the importance of the Gaelic language and culture, and its demise at the hands of an anglocentric hegemony, in the strongest possible terms and in the form with which he was most comfortable, in the form of statements of tradition and asservations of its value (see Newton 2007-10).

Consider the place and time in which he wrote. Born in 1900, he saw the last generation of Gaels born before the disastrous 1872 Education Act (Scotland) pass away. The extinction of this group and what they represented clearly bore down heavilty upon him. During his last visit to his homeland, in 1958, a military rocket range was being constructed, one which brought foreign influences directly into the homes of islanders which was feared to erode the local culture and community. In Australia, his new home, Aonghus taught Gaelic classes to interested students. The American civil rights movement was having a positive impact on the human rights of Austrialian Aborigines in the 1960s. Likewise, the Anti-Apartheid Movement in South African was gaining prominence in the 1960s. The distance afforded by his residence in Australia may have given him a perspective and freedom of expression (for radical critique) he may not have had at home in North Uist. Amongst his circle of friends in Australia was the poet Les Murray, who wrote a moving elegy on his death that reflects the anti-colonial mindset that Aonghus clearly articulated to his students. Donald was well aware that Gaelic tradition in Nova Scotia teetered on extinction, even though the fiddle tradition was starting to enjoy an upsurge of interest.

Aonghus was a prolific writer unrepentent in his protests on behalf of Gaelic, and even if the texts he used as historical endorsements of his views were of his own composition. While they may thus be the voice of a Gael in the 1970s rather than the 1620s or before, they are certainly worth re-evaluating in this period of Gaelic resurgence in Scotland and a renewed interest in the radical, post-colonial voice in Gaelic. They would make an ideal study for a Ph.D. thesis.

Select Bibliography 

Virginia Blankenhorn. REVIEW: D. A. Fergusson et al. (Eds.), From the Farthest Hebrides / Bho na h-Innse Gall as Iomallaiche.  The Scottish Review: Arts and Environment, vol 16 (November 1979), 53-55 and ‘A Gaelic Stir’ vol. 18 (May 1980), 33-37.

Michael Newton. “Prophecy and Cultural Conflict in Scottish Gaelic Tradition.” Scottish Studies 35 (2007-10): 144-73.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Having published my comments on the first two of these volumes, and having read Donald Ferguson’s justifiably irritated reply which came after the first installment, I continue to feel sorry for Ferguson who was, no doubt at all, animated by the best of motives. Unfortunately for him, A. J. MacDonald was one in a considerable line of Gaels who felt, quite rightly, that Gaelic culture and literature were being lost — perhaps a better word for what happened would be cultural genocide — and that the only thing to do to right the wrong was to “prove” that Gaelic culture had every bit as much antiquity (and thus value) as that of “the ancients” i.e. Greek and Rome, which every upper-class schoolboy spent years learning to revere as the acme of cultural achievement and the hallmark of upper-class refinement. That this enterprise required the wholesale fabrication of material, and thus the disparagement (having been unmasked) of the very culture that it sought to glorify, did not appear to bother these men. How ironic is it, then, that a colleague of mine has recently demonstrated that a couple of Gaelic tales — one collected from oral tradition in Cape Breton — bear a thematic relationship with Homer’s Odyssey. Truth is much more interesting than fiction!

  2. Liam Ó Caiside says:

    A very interesting post that reminds me of others who tried to creatively re-imagine a cultural identity by “filling in the gaps” with forgeries – most notably Iolo Morganwg, who did for Wales (and Glamorgan) on a grand scale what A.J. MacDonald apparently attempted for Gaelic Scotland.

  3. You could argue that JRR Tolkien attempted something similar with his “Mythology for England” which encapsulated his first writings in what was to become the literary world of Middle-earth. Except of course he never denied their fictional nature albeit creating literary and historical conceits to explain their real world origin. Macdonald was not so very far away from Tolkien in his impulses. Both wished to preserve or recreate what was “lost”.

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