The Highland Clearances in the Long View of History

Gaeldom was one of the great civilizations of Europe and encompassed Ireland and much of Scotland during the early medieval period. Although confined to the Western Isles and Highlands within Scotland by the later medieval period, this was a culture that enjoyed many significant accomplishments, having its own native professional classes (doctors, lawyers, literati, musicians, etc) and the ability to foster its own distinctive, indigenous culture on its own terms.

By the late medieval period, Gaeldom was targeted by an expansionist anglocentric empire which, like all other empires, created myths about its own self-importance and legitimacy to rule over other people and claim their land and resources: it uniquely held the keys of progress and enlightenment; it would bring wealth, prosperity and liberation; it was endowed by God with superior traits and rights for a mission to reform the apostate, the heathen and ignorant; etc.

As Gaelic culture was systematically destroyed, an imperial military machine sucked its energy and a masquerade of tartan pagentry was erected in its place. The British Empire intentionally privileged the English language and culture as the fundamental core of its identity and social ideals; those who conformed to its demands were rewarded, those who didn’t were marginalized. Gaels who acquiesced to these forces could cling to symbols and sentiment – tartan, Highland Games, etc – at ritual times and places, but they were bereft of any serious cultural or political import. The main pillars of its elite culture were destroyed, but fragments of the Gaelic past were inherited and cherished by a few: those resilient enough to resist assimilation, and those who inhabited the geographical and social margins.

A Map of Clearances (Evictions) in the Highlands (from Haywood, “Atlas of the Celtic World”)

The Highland Clearances are the physical and geographical manifestation of the culmination of centuries of conflict and confrontation with the anglophone world, the scattering of the remnants of a defeated rival. Conquest was furthered through the indoctrination carried out by institutions of church and state which, to a large degree, sought anglo-conformity. Whether they remained within Britain or moved out to colonies (or former colonies) of the British Empire, they were circumscribed by the same anglocentric institutions. The more they acquiesced to imperial dogmas, the more that they propagated the same injustices to others.

In this blog entry (the fourth and final in a series about the Clearances), I’ve thrown together a number of rough notes about how the Clearances and subsequent history of Gaels within the British Empire connect to a number of important themes in global history: race, empire, colonization, social justice, etc. I’ve written on aspects of these issues previously, but they deserve a full treatment in a large volume by an historian with thorough knowledge of the Gaelic sources … unfortunately, that full treatment will not happen on my blog and scholars with an adequate training in these areas of expertise are virtually non-existent … but some elements of this blog post may emerge in a more polished narrative for the Struileag project.

[UPDATE: See now the excellent 2016 volume Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination by Silke Stroh].

Man’s Inhumanity to Man

Unsurprisingly, people prefer a very simple view of history, one in which the past mirrors the present and the lines between good and evil are simply drawn: on one side are the baddies, the sole agents of aggression, warfare, exploitation and imperial expansion, namely, the “white Europeans”; on the other side are the innocent natives, the sole victims of imperial aggression, the only losers to European expansion, uniquely driven from their homelands and native cultures and languages.

By the early 20th century, this is, to a large degree, the picture we do in fact see, the result of centuries of concerted effort by several European empires to conquer and control territories and peoples. This simplified depiction of peoples and the asymmetries of power and justice cannot be projected back in time in such a straightforward way, however. There were many empires jostling for control over foreign territories in the early modern period, not all of them in western Europe, and wherever they attempted to expand, they required the collaboration (or at least acquiescence) of local native groups:

Local peoples proved to be the essential determinants of imperial success or failure. Far from being mere victims, these peoples found ways to profit from imperial maneuverings: they could find employment and profit as allies, or they might direct the interests and energies of imperial powers against their traditional enemies. Indeed, imperial “expansion” was very often illusory, and Europeans’ ability to project power actually depended entirely upon local cooperation. In turn, that cooperative process shaped and reshaped the warfare and diplomatic practices designed to define and establish sovereignty and control, whether local or European. (Lee 2011: 1)

This was the case until the early 19th century even in North America, when the sheer mass of European colonists and colonial activity tipped the balance of power. Before then, native peoples as often as not played a central role in the unfolding and exercise of power around them.

Although European empires never shaped the colonies in exactly the ways that they intended, their intrusion mattered a great deal. But mattering and dominating are not the same. Europeans dominated some places. In others, they had to operate on middle grounds. […] People on the ground had great cultural and political influence on the European experience in the Americas. Colonialism was seldom if ever imposed but built through interaction. In their homelands, some African and Native American peoples set the terms of trade and diplomacy with Europeans. Even slaves and truly subject Indians played a role in shaping the institutions of slavery and colonialism. When we recognize that colonizers often exaggerated their mastery over their “colonies,” it becomes clear that core regions were not safe and separate either. Native peoples had a steady and powerful influence over most parts of the Americas until at least the nineteenth century. (DuVal 2006: 246, 247)

Similar processes are easily seen in imperial expansion elsewhere, such as in India and China, where local élites were drawn in by the rewards of acting as intermediaries for European colonization and formed hybrid cultures which were locally rooted but assimilated many aspects of the culture of the dominant European power (see, for example, this project on “Chinese-Englishmen”).

This is not to deny the brutality and injustice that accompanied and resulted from European colonization and expansion in the Americas, or any other territories: it is merely to question common assumptions about who was in control, who was exploiting whom, and who was gaining what from whom, at different times and circumstances.

Numerous people have commented on the irony that Gaels dispossessed and dislocated from Scotland often ended up doing the same to other native peoples elsewhere (particularly in the Americas, Australia and New Zealand). This may seem ironic, until one considers the history of all other ethnic groups in colonial settings and imperial institutions.

If we are to condemn entire groups of people based on the actions of its members, I do not know of a single group of people who are innocent as a collective, including “people of color.” When offered an opportunity to “better themselves,” individuals generally choose to do so, regardless of the sacrifice or suffering it might cause to others. It is the exception for people to be motivated enough by ideological concerns or empathy (usually through belief in a higher power who will hold them accountable) not only to refuse the option, but to analyze the long-term consequences and critique injustices that others might experience.

Just because a person experiences oppression or prejudice on account of his/her ethnic, religious, racial, gender or sexual identity does not make him/her an ally for other oppressed people. Until the late 19th century, there was hardly a major battle between Europeans and First Nations that did not include Native American scouts or soldiers fighting against their traditional rivals (for a variety of reasons, as explained above). Some Native Americans owned African slaves, as did some people of African descent. Some freed slaves formed regiments (“Buffalo Soldiers”) that fought against Native Americans in the Indian Wars. Many Native Americans are very proud of their service in the United States military forces, forces whose actions in foreign lands some see as equally questionable as those imposed upon the native peoples in North America in earlier generations. Eastern Europeans and Jews who had experienced oppression at home fought hard to earn the dividends of whiteness after they migrated to North America and became part of another oppressive system. Racialized minorities in North America are often socially conservative and have not been effective allies in the campaign for LGBTQ rights. And so it goes…

I have argued elsewhere (Newton 2011) that some Highlanders saw their own experience of transformation from (supposed) savage to civilized as a model which others should follow, including First Nations (or “American Indians”). This conceit was not exclusive to people of European descent in North America, however. The Cherokee had assimilated many features of the European settler societies they encountered, and when they began to migrate west (in a process very similar to the Highland Clearances), this had serious and negative repercussions on the native nations in their new territory (such as the Quapaws and Osages), heightening rivalries and conflicts for territory and power. They even appealed to American officials to bolster their claim to new territories:

Cherokee chiefs adopted the rhetorical dichotomy of “savagery” and “civilization” and portrayed the Cherokee people as a civilized people in an uncivilized place, thereby laying claim to the Arkansas Valley as their native ground. They claimed that their farming techniques and social organization were similar to those of whites and thus justified a higher position for themselves in American society relative to other Indians. (DuVal 2006: 217)

This is what people do: they make use of whatever means is available to empower themselves. Given such realities of human nature, Gaels look pretty typical. But there were exceptions and counter-currents. I have often chosen to find and celebrate those stories in past publications to advance knowledge of those who did actually express and act on their empathy for the oppressed, critique the brutal killing machine that masqueraded as the pinnacle of human superiority, and resist its hegemonic hold. These are stories well worth remembering and understanding, even if they are only part of a bigger picture, particularly because they help to explain why the Gaelic language and culture still exist, despite centuries of neglect and persecution.

Given the blood on the hands of every ethnic group and the inability to predict how participation in processes of domination play out in the future (including undermining one’s own social group), I think it is much more productive to examine domination and exploitation as ideologies, institutions and processes that can be adopted and applied by any group, rather than being the unique creation and hallmark of any particular group or “race.”

Race is a social construct: the “white race” and “red race,” etc., are all inventions of the 18th century which only have as much reality as people invest in them. But clearly, there were those who could profit by investing in the conceit of the superiority of the “white race” and did so (and still do). But the alignment of physical features (such as skin color) with power and privilege are accidents of history, not manifestations of actual superiority or inherent ruthlessness.

Race, Privilege and Victimhood

The élite culture of Western European empires has celebrated its supremacy on the world stage as the triumph of rationality, reason, civilization, superior values and way of living. It defines “modernity” as the world and order it has created in the last few centuries, and alternative ways of thinking and living as being less than adequate. Yet that self-representation hides much of the savagry and brutality that accompanied the making of the “modern world” by these superpowers. The most eloquent synthesis of this school of thought that I’ve happened upon so far is the volume The Darker Side of Western Modernity by Walter Mignolo, who explains the hidden, dark underbelly of the alchemy of “Western Modernity”:

“Modernity” is a complex narrative whose point of origination was Europe; a narrative that builds Western civilization by celebrating its achievements while hiding at the same time its darker side, “coloniality.” Coloniality, in other words, is constitutive of modernity – there is no modernity without coloniality. […] Hidden behind the rhetoric of modernity, economic practices dispensed with human lives, and knowledge justified racism and the inferiority of human lives that were naturally considered dispensable. […] the emergence of a structure of control and management of authority, economy, subjectivity, gender and sexual norms and relations that were driven by Western (Atlantic) Europeans (Iberian Peninsula, Holland, France and England) both in their internal conflicts and in their exploitation of labor and expropriation of land. […] Western civilization emerged not just as another civilization in the planetary concert, but as the civilization destined to lead and save the world from the Devil, from barbarism and primitivism, from underdevelopment, from despotism, and to turn unhappiness to happiness for all and forever. (Mignolo 2011: 2-3, 6, 7, 28)

His thesis of the relationship between modernity and coloniality is beyond doubt, but the generalization (usually echoed in his text) of a uniform and hegemonic “West” or “Europe” is flawed from a Celtic perspective. Colonizing cultures are themselves typically colonized through ideologies of élite control, and his characterization of the development of modernity as defined by the modern imperial powers and imposed on colonial subjects (pages 17-19 of his volume) are exactly those that characterize the subjugation of Celtic societies from the 12th century onwards.

In fact, Mignolo’s framework provides a useful lens through which to read a highly popular book (which I utterly abhor), How the Scots Invented the Modern World, by Arthur Herman. This populist view of the Scottish “Enlightment” is a celebration of the triumph of Western modernity in exactly the terms outlined by Mignolo:

[Scottish mentality] is a self-consciously modern view, so deeply rooted in the assumptions and institutions that govern our lives today that we often miss its significance, not to mention its origin. From this point of view, a large part of the world turns out to be “Scottish” without realizing it. […] The story of how this small, underpopulated and culturally backward nation rose to become the driving wheel of modern progress is not only largely unknown, it may even be inspiring. […] The great insight of the Scottish Enlightenment was to insist that human beings need to free themselves from myths and see the world as it really is. (Herman 2001: vii, viii, 361)

Herman goes on to weave a narrative in which “modernity” (as defined by English-speaking Anglo-Americans) is invented when Scotland turns its back on its (supposedly) savage past and kindles the flame of Enlightenment and civilization. Who are the barbarous bogeymen lurking in the dark corners of the story, who must be held at bay and converted to refinement and sophistication in order for human development to progress? The wild and ferocious Highlanders, of course. Not only are there copious errors in his text relating to Gaeldom, but he takes at face value all sorts of prejudices and biases from Lowland and English sources from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. If he were to write the same kind of text about the history of Native – European encounters in the same time period, he would be denounced as the feeble and flimsy scholar that he is, at least concerning Scotland. But since myth and fantasy prevail where Highlanders are concerned, practically anything can pass as “fact.”

The old Gaelic world was certainly destroyed, however, and subsequent generations experienced nothing less than a world turned upside down (a “cosmological revolution” to quote John MacInnes), not of their own making. In the wake of a self-reliant and self-determining Gaelic community, Britishness and whiteness gave Gaels new identities with which to identify and a new means of social and economic empowerment in the process – in fact, the only means available to them, given the hegemonic hold of the British State. And being complicit with its aims empowered them, as it did when they became “white” in North America. It is little wonder that so many acquiesced to these norms, and kept only symbols and sentiments from their Highland heritage, colorful tokens and ornamental rituals that were bereft of any political threat or cultural depth.

The Massacre of Glencoe, by James Hamilton (1883-1886) © Glasgow Museums

On the other hand, as in other colonial contexts, we can also see nativist responses to imperial invasion and colonization: resistance, assertions of ethnic solidarity, endorsements of cultural hybridity, critiques of the civilizing mission, writing back to colonial discourse, and reclaiming inferiorized elements of identity (Stroh 2012). There is a continuous line of protest of colonial abuse in Gaelic sources from the 17th century to the present, and empathy with other native peoples is present in Gaelic sources from the mid-18th century onwards. Gaels could see a reflection of their own experience of conquest and oppression in the experience of other native peoples – but this is not to say that all Gaels chose the path of empathy. There were certainly Gaels who turned a deaf ear or blind eye to the suffering of others – to deny their humanity – because they hoped to profit, and often did. But there were also Gaels who extended their sympathy and aid to the downtrodden, and their own experience of injustice informed those actions.

Imagine if some scientist in the early 19th century invented a pill that was easily obtained and allowed the person who consumed it to become fully white in a matter of months. Would anyone have chosen to remain dark-skinned, given that that meant being pinned to the bottom of social and economic ladder? Probably not. Given the oppressive and brutal conditions forced on people because of their skin color, they did their best to “pass” for white when they could and many choose sexual partners who would endow their children with lighter skin. While the rhetoric of race claimed the top rank for Anglo-Saxons, the migration of large numbers of other Europeans with similar physical characteristics made such exclusivity hard to maintain in the Americas, given that they aspired to the upper echelons as well and could manipulate racial ideologies to do so (Jacobson 1998; Newton 2013).

The construction of “whiteness” generalized (particularly in the late 19th century) the racial superiority once claimed as the exclusive privilege of the English to others who would assimilate to their social, cultural and linguistic norms. In other words, while having the proper physical features helped to qualify an individual or group as an honorary Anglo-Saxon, the “racial dividends” of whiteness could not be fully accessed without conforming to other aspects of Anglo-American culture, particularly the English language itself. In most of the United States (including where I was born and raised), “Anglo” is used as a synonym for “white,” which is a strong indication of the identity (or acquired identity) of the original advocates of the ideology of racialized privilege. So, while it must be acknowledged that race and racial identity was (and largely remains) the primary pillar of privilege in North American society, it is not the only requirement for “succeeding” within the requirements set by the dominant group. How secure would a Gael be politically, legally, economically and socially if s/he spoke only Gaelic and lived only by Gaelic cultural norms? Not very. Racialized minorities can enjoy a set of privileges by speaking English that others may not.

Some people of Highland descent were absolutely falling over themselves to emphasize the racial affinity (or even equivalence) between Celts (or at least Scottish Gaels) and Anglo-Saxons, and to emphasize their mutual difference from the subject races. The fact that they needed to emphasize this distance is telling in itself, for Gaels were by no means considered unquestionably to be in the same racial category as “Anglo-Saxons” until well into the 20th century. This was as true in other parts of the British Empire as it was in the United States.

The current attempts by Gaelic speakers in Scotland and Nova Scotia to assert their language in the face of anglo-conformity and xenophobia demonstrates that there are unresolved (or at least poorly theorized) issues of race, racism, privilege and prejudice left to be examined and processed by those engaged in language revitalization and popular discourse in general. On the one hand, it is clear that there is widespread fear of and even abhorrence of the speaking of languages other than English, and that those who dare to do so publicly risk being vilified and scapegoated.

At the time that I write this, George Galloway, the loose-cannon Member of British Parliament who describes himself (on his Twitter feed) as “pro-equality,” best known for his defense of former dictator Saddam Hussein, has been tweeting insults (14 January 2014) about the use and validity of Gaelic in Scotland: “What is this Alba? More people speak Urdu in Scotland than Gaelic! What obscurantism is this? Listen Scotland this is what you’re in for: Brigadoon!” Attacks on Gaelic come from very strange quarters, not least those on the far left who are incapable of seeing how they propagate the same colonial prejudices they profess to oppose.

On the other hand, there are those who dispute that anti-Gaelic prejudice and hate speech should be called a form of racism, or that Gaels could possibly suffer the same sort or degree of racism experienced by racialized minorities (see, for example, the blog entry and discussion at thefailedgael). It is true that Gaeldom itself has a long history of defining Gaelic identity in terms of language and culture rather than “blood” (Newton 2009: 52-9), and that as people who can pass as “white” and be assumed to be de facto members of British society, Gaels need not suffer the same exclusion as people of color. If they are willing to step out of their Gaelicness and assume an anglophone identity, Gaels have the ability to claim and exercise privilege. Regardless, Gaels have only acquired unquestionable whiteness fairly recently and the continued denigration of Gaelic speakers clearly draws from the same poisoned well as racism (McEwan-Fujita 2011).

Most societies can point to collective tragedies or traumas suffered at the hands of others in the past, and knowledge of these events can be used to justify perpetrating offenses to others, or to distract from drawing too close attention to such offenses. But each historical experience has to be evaluated on its own terms, in its own time. The exploitation of history for political purposes does not undo the damage experienced by those who were effected by the event or lessen the trauma and loss that they encountered. The Trail of Tears was horrific to those who suffered it despite the damage later done by the Cherokee to the Osages; race-based slavery in the United States was no less horrendous and inhumane for the participation of “Buffalo Soldiers” in the harrowing of Native American nations;  Mohawk soldiers fighting on behalf of the British Empire against the Mi’kmaw in the 18th century did not nullify the right of their descendants to decry their oppression in the 20th century; the Jewish Holocaust was no less real or monstrous for all of the injustice carried out by the state of Israel on the Palestinians; and the Clearances were heinous and criminal, despite whatever its victims may have done or enacted later, in other places. Indeed, it is a sad observation that the abused often carry the wounds of that abuse into their later life and re-enact them on themselves and others, and this is true of all communities.

One of the tragedies of the 1745 Jacobite Rising is that it expended the oppositional energy that might have been redirected to a larger revolutionary movement, such as in the United States and France in the late 18th century. One of the tragedies of the Highland Clearances is that it reinforced the power and privilege of the anglophone élite and denuded large swathes of the Highlands of its native Gaelic population, thus reinforcing their political and cultural impotence. Regardless of the privileges that may have accrued to individual Highlanders for their participation in imperial endeavours – and these could be significant – the Gaelic language was never given official status or an institutional means of development, Highland territories were never repopulated, and the Gaelic population was never enabled to have its culture and language treated as equal in its own land. In other words, Highland participation in empire only reinforced anglocentric hegemony and undermined native culture.

One of the most powerful essays on these issues is Iain Crichton Smith’s “Real People in a Real Place”. There are many passages that bear examination, but I will limit my excepts to this:

The problem of language is, one supposes, the most important one that faces the person who analyses his own experience in the islands, for it is in many ways central to an island experience. As I have already said, for the islander to lose his language utterly would be to lose, to a great extent, the meaning of his life, and to become a member of a sordid colony on the edge of an imperialist world. […] There is no question that a language holds a community together in its various manifestations, and that to have to learn a new language in order to be educated at all is a dangerous and potentially fatal attack on that community and those who form part of it. For the imperialist language is imperiously and contemptously degrading the native one. Because English is associated with so many of the important concerns of the real world, including education, and because English is the language spoken by “important” people such as doctors, many of them incomers, there rises a deep and subtle feeling that English must be superior to Gaelic, thus consigning the Gaelic speaker to the status of a peasant as the Anglo-Saxon was under the Franco-Normans.

The Gaelic speaker feels himself to be inferior and his language inferior. He begins to think, for instance, that English literature is more important than Gaelic, that as a cutting instrument for getting on in the “world” […] We are owed – such men are owed – not indifference but at least understanding and care. It is not right that a whole culture should have been treated in this way, that like the Red Indians and the aborigines so many of our people should have had to leave their homes to inherit the worst aspects of a so-called superior civilisation. (Smith 1986: 37, 49)

Assimilation, Language and Education

When I lived in Nova Scotia, I heard a Mi’kmaw elder say that it was unfair that his people had to leave their language and culture behind in order to “get ahead.” The same could be said for the Gaels and many other minoritized peoples. You can rationalize a lot of misdeeds by resorting to materialistic arguments but these are only persuasive if bank accounts mean everything and culture and language mean nothing. Given the long-term trajectory of human civilization and environmental well-being, I think that there is good reason to question that assumption.

One of the great insights of modern psychology is that the relationship with the self informs our relationships with others: the qualities or traits that we value, love, fear and loathe about ourselves are things that we seek, project or reject in others. This principle can be applied not only to individuals but to groups.

I have an acquaintance whose parents moved from Gaelic-speaking Nova Scotia to Boston (as many did) and left their Gaelic behind them when they moved. He himself wished to reclaim a knowledge of the language and culture, and earned a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from Harvard University – no mean feat. Hoping to celebrate his accomplishment with the remaining family member of his parents’ generation, he visited his aunt and told her of his recovery of something valuable that had been denied to himself and others. Her response? “Why did you want to go and bring that up again?” Gaelic was a stigma, something to abandon for shame and ignominy, something to hide in the past. Who would react in this manner who was not thoroughly colonized about his/her own culture? This, I think, helps explain the unspoken fear that many people in Nova Scotia and Scotland itself have about the language: the fear that renewing association with Gaelicness will undermine the “hard won racial dividend” that they have claimed in the social hierarchy by leaving their ancestral language and embracing the imperial one.

One of the most significant themes of the Highland diaspora – one that has been left almost completely unexplored and unwritten – is how Gaels who were convinced of the superiority of the English language and culture, who gained privilege and power in its power structures, who rejected their ancestral language and culture, felt that they needed to deny people of other language groups the same right “for their own good.” This was a common theme I heard among people of Gaelic ancestry in Nova Scotia from families that had stopped transmitting the language in the previous two or three generations. Their conformity to the expectations of anglophone Canadian (or British) culture meant that they expected others (Acadians, First Nations, etc.) should do so as well, and when they rose to positions of power and authority – whether as school-teacher or priest or civil servant or member of parliament – they often felt that others should make the same capitulation and sacrifice.

This attitude is explicit in the interview the Daily Telegraph (25 October 1901) conducted with Lieutenant-General Sir Hector MacDonald, when asked how he thought the British Empire would be able to defuse the threat of the Boers in South Africa:

There is the case of the Highlands of Scotland as a parallel. The almost impossible was done there. I look for the future to education. It is through the young idea that we must succeed in South Africa. English must be the language there. It may seem hard to kill, so to speak, a nation by making another language compulsory, but it is a sure way and the best way. Nothing but English should be taught, and then the children would think in English and act as English children. (Thanks to my friend Iain MacFhionghain of Skye for sending me this quote.)

This strategy for cultural invasion is also reflected in the (supposedly) “more enlightened” approach to dealing with First Nations which rationalized the building of residential schools and the indoctrination of native children in them, as expressed neatly in a paper by Captain Richard H. Pratt in 1892:

It is a great mistake to think that the Indian is born an inevitable savage. He is born a blank, like all the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.

The same use of education as a tool of cultural colonization can be seen almost three centuries earlier in the law passed by the Scottish Privy Council in 1616 to erect schools in order to eradicate Gaelic and replace it with English, since it was “one of the chief and principle causes of the continuance of the barbarity and incivility amongst the inhabitants of the Isles and Highlands.”  Again, these themes strike resonant chords with anyone who understands the critique of modernity as inherently colonial, as Mignolo discusses. And yet, how many scholars of Scottish history have dared to denounce this official declaration as forcefully and eloquently as Pádraic Pearse condemned the Irish equivalent in his essay “The Murder Machine”?

The English have established the simulacrum of an education system. but its object is the precise contrary of the object of an education system. Education should foster; this education is meant to repress. Education should inspire; this education is meant to tame. Education should harden; this education is meant to enervate. The English are too wise a people to attempt to educate the Irish, in any worthy sense.

Today is a public holiday in the United States commemorating Martin Luther King whose efforts at the end of his life were directed against the “thingification” of human beings in oppressive and exploitative systems. It took me somewhat by surprise to see how King’s terminology and discourse was presaged by that of the Irish patriot a half a century earlier:

The system has aimed at the substitution for men and women of mere Things. It has not been an entire success. There are still a great many thousand men and women in Ireland. But a great many thousand of what, by way, of courtesy, we call men and women, are simply Things. Men and women, however depraved, have kindly human allegiances. But these Things have no allegiance. Like other Things, they are for sale.

Such critiques of English imperialism surely deserve greater recognition but the erasure of the Gaelic histories of both Ireland and Scotland has, in general, been quite effective in the English-speaking world, even in the modern United States. There are millions of North Americans with Gaelic ancestry – a significant number of whom do not qualify as “white” – and some of them have enjoyed great material success and social privilege as anglophones. Very few of them know anything about the history, language or culture of their Highland ancestors: they cannot recognize let alone understand the fundamental touchstones of Gaelic life.

It is easy to condemn North Americans for their misguided ideas about the Scottish Highlands and Highlanders, but it is far easier to find romance novels and Highland Games – products of the anglophone imagination – than it is to get access to facts and well-grounded research. North Americans schools never fail to teach students about the glorious history of English law, literature and art but fail to mention that the Gaels have just as long and illustrious an intellectual legacy in these fields, and in fact influenced the Germanic invaders develop them. This is one of the central paradoxes of the Scottish involvement in the British Empire: while celebrated for their role in creating key institutions, not least those of education, Scots did not include their languages and cultures (Gaelic or Lowland) in them, but rather advanced those of England. Thus, their role in the modern world was to erase their past from it, and the resulting void in academic space gets filled up with fantasy and imaginative projections.

Despite the effect of the Civil Rights movement to refocus academic efforts and ideals in North America to redress a long history of colonial injustices perpetrated on subjugated natives, scholars have almost entirely neglected the history of Celtic societies as the first “laboratory for empire.” The radical reaction to racism has resulted in a common double standard in which people are still sorted by racial category but one group gets automatic empathy and support, while the other are by default labelled “Western imperialists” and “settler colonists.”

As the foregoing summary illustrates, history is not so simple. White people should not be given a free pass to benefit from or be complicit in the exploitation or oppression of others simply because their Gaelic ancestors experienced it – but neither should people of any ethnic origin. The fact that exiled Gaels had many complex intersections with native and enslaved peoples – alliances of all sorts, including intermarriage – makes their histories intertwined at many junctions. The double standard means that too many scholars still commonly treat the Highland Clearances as though they are the inevitable outcome of impersonal economic forces outside of political control (see my previous blog post on this topic), while the same actions perpetrated on First Nations are denounced as unjustifiable wrongs and gratuitous abuses of unchecked power. While scholars champion the development of native issues and the legitimacy of their indigenous knowledge, Gaelic culture is still commonly portrayed as a backwater of superstition and impoverishment that the natives were best to leave behind (if it is discussed at all in academic texts).

With our age’s preoccupations with race and material wealth, it is perhaps not surprising that there has been so little effort to account for issues of language and culture in understanding and explicating the Gaelic experience, but this is the “dark matter” too often missing in scholarly equations which gives gravity and cohesive explanatory power to the entire narrative.

While scholars constantly question western modernity’s claim of inherent superiority on behalf of other native peoples, these delusions are taken as assumptions in most texts about the eclipse of Gaelic civilization. In How The Scots Invented the Modern World Arthur Herman makes his conservative bias clear when he claims that modernity has enabled people to “free themselves from myths and see the world as it really is.” In fact, many of the great intellectual achievements of the 20th century by scientists, social scientists and humanists are deconstructions of the claims of absolute authority and objectivity embedded in the myths of modernity: the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, postcolonialism, feminism, deep ecology, anthropology, Constructivism (as a branch of epistemology), structuralism and Post-structuralism (as branches of literary criticism) … all of these areas of study, and others, confirm the concept that  subjectivity is inherent to human thought, human perception and human societies, and that there is no way to “free ourselves” and “see the world as it truly is” in any absolute way (as Mignolo explores at length in his volume).

Thus, while the myths of modernity would have us believe that only science is “true knowledge,” and the beliefs and rituals of savages are merely irrationality and delusion, anthropology has helped to elucidate and validate the inherent value, integrity and sophistication of all human cultures, regardless of how “primitive” they supposedly were or are. These sciences did not develop quickly enough to provide aid and comfort for Celtic communities, however: significant portions of the population assimilated as quickly as they could to escape the stigmatization and marginalization of their culture.

This is not the whole story, of course: there were and are Gaels who, for no tangible material gain to themselves, resisted assimilation, critiqued colonialism, sided with other subjugated peoples, and cherished their mother tongue for as long as they could. Even now, there are people in both Scotland and the Highland diaspora who are attempting to reclaim and revitalize the Gaelic language and culture, and see this reconnection to their ancestors (biological or adopted) as a means of understanding and defending indigeneity.

If you find these rambling ruminations less than satisfying because of the contradictions, inconsistencies and paradoxes in and between them, that is, at least in part, intentional. The only smooth and self-assured historical narrative is one that has removed the messy realities of human nature. The experience of Gaelic emigrants – whether voluntary or involuntary – embody convoluted and rich stories of all varieties that cannot be easily generalized.

What is clear, however, is the language and culture which made them what they were is highly endangered both in its last remaining North American immigrant community and in its own homeland. That is not an accident of history. To what degree Gaeldom will be able to recover from these last centuries of subjugation and dispossession cannot be predicted, but surely those in the Highland diaspora – and even those who embrace Gaelic culture despite a lack of ancestral connection – can make contributions to this revitalization, and so much the better, especially if it helps them become aware of, and engage with, the complexities and injustices of the legacies of empire and colonization.

Select Bibliography

Kathleen DuVal. The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Matthew Jacobson. Whiteness of a Different Color. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Wayne Lee. “Projecting Power in the Early Modern World,” in Empires and Indigenes: Intercultural Alliance, Imperial Expansion, and Warfare in the Early Modern World, ed. Wayne Lee, 1-18. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

Emily McEwan-Fujita. “Language revitalization discourses as metaculture: Gaelic in Scotland from the 18th to 20th centuries.” Language & Communication

Walter Mignolo. The Darker Side of Western Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

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

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

— “Celtic Cousins or White Settlers? Scottish Highlanders and First Nations.” In Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 5 / Fiftth Scottish Gaelic Research Conference, edited by Kenneth Nilsen, 221-37. Sydney: University of Cape Breton Press, 2011.

— “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, ed. Michael Newton. Sydney, Cape Breton: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Iain Crichton Smith. “Real People in a Real Place” in Towards the Human, ed. Derick Thomson. Edinburgh: MacDonald Publishers, 1986.

Silke Stroh. Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2011.


14 Comments Add yours

  1. Geoffrey May says:

    Excellent .Thank you for writing it . Kanasatake Mohawk , University of Victoria proff Taaiaiake Alfred points out that there is lots of money for First Nations people, who he calls ” Fort Indians” ( Patrick Brazeau comes to mind ) , but if you want to be a “traditional Indian” , you will have to fight everyday of your life . Another point Alfred makes is that in has only been since WWII that white intrusion has restricted First Nation’s ability to live as the chose, off the land , in many parts of Canada . There is a tendency among even sympathetic “settlers” to assume that colonization is long in the past ,as opposed to the daily experience of First Nations peoples .

  2. Aaron MacPherson says:

    Thank you so much for this de/re-construction of Gaelic peoples within a more global context. Though I must admit to a bit of unease about the lauding of “civilization” as a marker of distinction. I personally support small-scale communities working in concert with each other rather than trying to snuff each other out in a battle for supremacy.

    1. Aaron MacPherson says:

      Just a personal anecdote. I was studying social sciences at a large Canadian university in 2007-2010. I vividly recall being in a tutorial of other social science majors and being asked to introduce myself to the group in the
      “name one interesting thing about yourself” vein of responses. I told the group that I was studying Scottish Gaelic in my spare time. This admission prompted one of my fellow students to chuckle. You’ve highlighted beautifully here why it was possible for him to do so.

  3. Excellent article with a lot of provocative thinking. Good to see traditional narratives of colonialism being challenged. As always, whether in Ireland or Scotland, the individual stories were far more complex than simply one of native versus settler. In the case of my own family, the Ó Sionnaigh, in the late 1600s and early 1700s one branch of my people made their peace with the British and profited from it by becoming members of the Ascendancy and the “Irish” component of the Anglo-Irish overclass. In the 1800s under the name of “Fox” they formed the backbone of British rule in counties Offaly and Westmeath, serving as justices of the peace, sheriffs, etc. On the other hand those branches of the Ó Sionnaigh who rejected British rule in all its forms (the English language, Protestant religion, etc.) were reduced to serfdom, eventually scattering to the four winds.

    The divisive nature of colonialism needs to be seen in all its corrosive aspects.

  4. Reblogged this on An Sionnach Fionn and commented:
    The Virtual Gael has an excellent article examining the complex nature of colonialism, specifically as it effected the Scots though it has a far wider application. To recognise the divisive and corrosive nature of colonialism is to understand why its poisonous legacy is so long-lasting in any nation or amongst any people. It is also the first step in retaking what was lost, both for an individual and a culture.

  5. Tha mi air a bhi a’ leughadh an leabhar agaibh ‘Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World.’ ‘S toil leam glan e. Tha e còrdadh rium leughadh mu dhèidhinn na Gàidheil mar an “civilization” aca fhèin, ‘s chan e dìreach mar chultar iomallach a’ crìonadh. A thaobh an alt seo, chòrd e rium cuideachd, acg tha mi ag aontachadh leibh gum biodh e math an seòrsa eachdraidh seo fhaicinn ann an leabhar fhada le tuilleadh eisimplearan is buin. Tha mi faireachdainn gu bheil rannsachadh post-colonial agus cinnidheil(?) glè mhath (is gu math feumail) son deileagadh le eachdraidh ‘s le litreachas nan Gàidheal, ach mar a thuirt mi roimhe, cha toil leam nuair ‘ios daoine a’ cleachdadh an cànan sin son puingean poiliteach no retoraigeach a dhèanamh, o chionn ‘s gu bheil cur sìos air na tha cultaran eile a’ fulang ris san linn seo.

    1. Tapadh leat, a laochain!

      Tha mi air tuilleadh a sgriobhadh mu na cuspairean seo ann an da leabhar eile: “We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States” (2001) agus “Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders” (2009). Ach chi thu moran a bharrachd anns na h-aistidhean a sgriobh mi, cuid mhath dhiubh a tha ri’m faicinn air

  6. Excellent observations, much appreciated, and of course this applies to the Welsh experience–both in Wales and the diaspora. Welsh-speakers’ attitudes to their own language in their native country paved the way for their rapid assimilation into “Anglo-Saxon” America. The Welsh also adopted colonialist attitudes to Native Americans, and I sense that even their progressive sympathy towards African Americans–driven by religious abolitionism–began to ebb as they embraced a fully Anglo-American identity. One figure who comes to mind is William Arthur Jones, born in Wales and raised in a Welsh-speaking home in Wisconsin–his mother refused to speak English. Jones served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs 1897-1905, and dedicated his tenure to rooting out corruption in the Indian agencies. Of course, it is hardly surprising that as a “Christian reformer” he also advocated policies to “Americanize” the Native Americans, cutting reservation rations to encourage their “independence” and even going so far as to order that their hair be cut short and they cease using traditional personal names. He is quoted as saying:

    “At one extreme there is a cold brutality which recognizes the dead Indian as the only good Indian, and at the other a sickly sentimentalism that crowns the Indian with a halo and looks up to him as a persecuted saint,” Jones told reporters. “Between the two,” Jones continued, “will be found the true friend of the Indian, who, looking upon him as he really is and recognizing his inevitable absorption by a stronger race, are endeavoring to fit him under new conditions for the struggle of life. With these I desire to be numbered.”

  7. Michael Bacon says:

    A fine post that I just got around to reading. I have a few questions or qualms or expansions, and those will take up the bulk of this comment, but I want to not sound overly critical and be sure that I express my appreciation for this as fully as I can.

    I don’t mean to continue overmuch in the discussion we had of Burns and Gaeldom on Facebook, but to pivot off of that momentarily, I do have to honestly ask out of my own ignorance to what extent there existed, pre-17th century, a notion of Gaelic “nationalism,” for lack of a better term. By that I mean, did the Gaelic identity in and of itself hold any particular cultural cachet among Gaelic speakers vis a vis the English and Scots speaking worlds, or did that identity slowly emerge in opposition to the educational, religious, and land tenure infiltrations of Gaelic society? Based on my understanding, I would assume that identities ran far more along liege-lord lines, with the various clans, villages, burgs, and townships associated under the Lord of the Isles having only limited identity with, say, those of Easter Ross, and that the notion of Gaeldom as an ethnic identity didn’t emerge except in opposition to its removal (in keeping with other similar emergent movements, such as pan-Indian movements in North America). However, I’m only guessing here, and am very curious what your research has turned up on the matter.

    This comes to mind particularly because, as you already note, the anglicization was initially largely driven by a nobility created out of the families of clan chiefs which was then by law forced to attend English-based schools in the south. In addition to the ethnolinguistic effect this clearly had, it also had the political economy effect of alienating the new nobility, which had historically been more akin to first-among-equals in the clan system, and placing them in a position of the traditional feudal lords, in all senses of the term. Because it’s much more of my gig, I have to insist, since we’re talking about the Clearances, that there’s more going on here than anti-Gaelic animus. I think it’s largely undisputed that the Highland Clearances reached a level of extent, severity, and at times brutality that had been previously unheard of in the UK, but we do see at least the same themes of land appropriation by the nobility in northern England and in the lowlands before the Jacobite rebellions. (One of the realizations I’ve come to in my reading in the last couple of years is how crude was my prior understanding of the Clearances as a direct result of the “’45”.) To my geography-centric eye, Gaelic culture is a complicating and accelerating factor in the story (largely, for me, learned from Andy Wightman) of inexorable appropriation of control of land in Scotland, not the primary driver of it. But again, I’m focused on control of land in my readings, so I would think that…

    On a third point, you mention that the imposition of English via the education system in Scotland never received the denunciation Pearse gave it in Ireland. Again, my reading is far more limited than yours, but how would you respond to the conjecture that the education system in Scotland was at its heart more endemic than that in Ireland, owing to the predominance of the Presbyterian system and the emphasis on universal literacy? The standard answer is of course the far greater centrality of scripture in Presbyterian/Westminster Covenant Christiandom than in either Anglican/Canturbury Christiandom or in Roman Catholicism. I won’t deny for a minute that there were imperial anglicizing forces actively encouraging this (there is no scalpel sharp enough to carve this cleanly into theological, imperial, cultural, political, and economic sections), but at the very least, when Jenny Geddes threw her stool in St. Giles, it wasn’t only about language.

    Finally, I particularly appreciate your points on modernity, and wonder if you’ve read Bruno Letour’s critiques of modernism (particularly “We Have Never Been Modern”). They seem to be infecting all of my thinking on all sorts of matters these days.


    1. Michael, most of these questions are well covered in my book Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. I suggest that you consult that if you want to understand these issues more fully, as I cannot repeat the work here.

      In terms of identity, as I discuss an early Gaelic origin myth (the 7th-century core of Auraicept na n-Éces) names language rather than blood lineage as the the basis of Gaelic identity, and this is a recurring theme in Gaelic literature and history. That the Gaels had and used a stable origin myth and ethnonym for themselves over many centuries shows that there was a stable core of general identity that transcended “liege-lord lines” as you say. For example, during MacDonald-Campbell tension for supremacy in the Highlands (c.15-16th centuries), their poet-propagandists sought for them the honorific title “Ceannas na nGaoidheal” (the headship of the Gaels), demonstrating a clear sense of a Gaelic community for whom they strived as leaders.

      As far as the issue of “inexorable appropriation of control of land in Scotland” being distinct from ethnic conflict, they were part of the same ideology of domination and exploitation, as they are/were in other colonial settings. Was the “discovery” of race incidental and distinct from the imperial assertion of control over colonial subjects? Of course not! An important distinction of the appropriation of control of land in other parts of England and Scotland (as I have already discussed in another blog) is that the Gaels were asserted to be an inherently inferior race and hence less deserving of owning/possessing it. And, as I discuss in the book, this ideology of Gaelic ethnic inferiority has roots in the 12th century and was continuously developed.

      Finally, you mention the idea of “the predominance of the Presbyterian system and the emphasis on universal literacy.” Yes, given that literacy in the vernacular was a central tenet of Protestantism, why then were Gaels forced to learn ENGLISH literacy rather than Gaelic? This is another clear case of religious institutions being used as a wedge of cultural colonialism. For full disclosure, the Scottish Society of the Propagation for Christian Knowledge did for a time abandon their English-only policy, because children in the Highlands were making no progress (since they only heard English in schools), and allowed literacy in Gaelic as an intermediary step to fully acquiring English. However, support for Gaelic was fairly weak and abandoned when possible, given that Gaelic was a less than desirable goal for those with power. Kill the Gael, save the man.

  8. TMary says:

    Tapadh leibh airson an t-artaigil seo! (I hope that’s right; I’m very much a beginner still with Gaelic.) I found this blog (including this article) a few months back and found it terribly interesting and informative, but just lurked around as opposed to commenting. However, I’ve been compelled to say something after picking up “How the Scots Invented the Modern World” and seeing what he had to say about the Gaels.

    I suppose I remembered this blogpost subconsciously, because something kept ringing a little warning bell in my mind every time I looked at that book, but I didn’t fully remember or else I would have sent it instantly back to the library where it came from (my brother checked it out). So I did open it and I did give it a quick look and hoo boy. I went almost blind with rage. It’s been a very long time since anything made me that angry – spent two whole hours ranting about it to my very long-suffering mother. I mean, I found the entire narrative of “modernity” and “progress” as the great civilizing forces that brought peace and prosperity to the globe nauseating in the extreme, but the way he spoke about the Gaels made me particularly furious. I don’t know why – perhaps it’s simply that I’ve grown deeply interested in Scottish culture and history in general and the Gaels in particular – but every word almost felt personally offensive to me.

    And what hurt the most was the language surrounding the Clearances. How he could write one moment of an old woman nearly burned alive in her own house, so terrified once she was pulled out that she could only say, “Ò Dhia, Dhia, teine, teine!” and then two paragraphs later state that it was “progress”, that “no one could have stopped it”, that it was a “necessity”. And with everything he’d said about the Gaels before that, about how they were apparently two inches from starvation at all times, and ridiculously proud, and brutal, and backwards, and lawless…well, quite honestly, his remarks on the atrocities of the Clearances feel as if he was saying, “Yes, well, it was all very sad, but in the end the country and the Gaels themselves were really much better off for it”.

    And after being sick with rage over that for half a day, I found myself in dire need of someone who was A: talking sense, B: knew what he was talking about, and C: had some actual respect for the Gaelic culture and some actual compassion for the Gaels as human beings. Who, in short, saw the Clearances as atrocities, as unnecessary, as damaging to the Gaels and to Scotland as a whole.

    So I came back to this blog, and to the articles about the Clearances, and when I saw you say you utterly abhorred that book and downcry it as a feeble and flimsy piece of scholarship it was like balm to my soul. Thank you for giving me the antidote to that bile I so desperately needed, but far more importantly, taing mhòr for doing some actual justice to the Gaels. Math sibh fhèin!

    1. Thank you! I did write a review at the time that it appeared, though if I had the time, I would write something much more systematically damning now with my newer set of skills:

      It always astonishes me to find so many people of Scottish Highland descent who say that they are proud of their ancestry and ancestral culture who love that book. It shows how thoroughly assimilated they have become as honorary Anglo-Saxons, and how little they actually understand and respect their ancestral tradition and the injustices suffered by other colonised peoples in the course of imperial ‘progress’!

      Suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig, sìos le luchd-fòirneirt!

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