The Gaelic College, situated in Cape Breton, experienced another big debate in December 2013 when a member of the board – Alexander Morrison, then the chairman of the board of governors of the College and retired military officer – took it upon himself to seek the Queen’s endorsement of the College (see the article, for example, here or here).
The Gaelic College was founded in 1938, many would say under a flawed vision: the founder, A. W. R. MacKenzie didn’t speak Gaelic himself, his emphasis was on a tartanistic tourist centre, and his commitment to reviving the language itself was weak (Dembling 2006). The College has thus been a site of contention over the meaning and content of “Highland” culture, the role of language, and the significance of the traditions of the local Gaelic community.
This move for the Royal designation has been denounced by numerous people, including those who have made explicit connections between English political and military aggression and the decline of the Gaelic language and culture in events such as the Battle of Culloden and the Highland Clearances. Then, in reaction, others (as in this letter to the editor of the Ottawa Citizen) deny that there was any direct ethnic conflict involved in the decline of the Gaels or blame to be placed on the monarchy for these events.
It’s true that the Jacobite Risings were not strictly power struggles between Scots and the English, although Gaelic poet-propagandists did their best to mobilize Highland forces with such rhetoric. However, it’s also not true that the Clearances were all carried out by quisling chieftains who turned against their own people: plenty of estates had gotten into the hands of non-Gaelic, even English, landlords by the early 19th century (most notoriously the Duke of Sutherland), or were run by law firms and accountants in the Lowlands (see Warriors of the Word, Chapters 1 and 2 for a detailed argument).
Squabbling over such details, however, detracts from seeing the big picture. It is undeniable that power in the United Kingdom was increasingly monopolized by men who were bent on imposing their language and culture on those they subjugated as an aspect of their conquest and domination: those who were different were Otherized, stigmatized and marginalized (Stroh 2011). These strategies of conquest and assimilation were subsequently applied to other subject people, such as the First Nations of North America.
Given the resources expended on these efforts over many centuries, it is a wonder that Gaelic still exists at all, and certainly the will to resist at a grassroots level – despite the intentions and vested interests of the powerful few – has played a part in this survival. The process of colonization is meant to weaken the colonized’s self-esteem and self-reliance, to create a cycle of dependency that ensures that s/he tries to adopt the colonizer’s identity and constantly seek approval.
The Gaelic language and culture have never been given the means and encouragement to develop on its own terms until the last few years: the institutions that could and should have protected and promoted the interests of the Gaelic community have always been subverted and commandeered by those who claim greater authority and superior title over others and been de facto centres of assimilation. Declining the “Royal” title in the Gaelic College’s designation is not an effort to insult or slight the monarchy. It is to celebrate those who have kept this legacy alive despite their “betters” and to foster leadership in the community itself among those who need to become empowered to carry it forward with integrity and self-determination.
Jonathan Dembling. “The Gaelic Revival in Nova Scotia.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18-19 (2006): 11-33.
Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.
Silke Stroh. Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011.