The topic of “Gaelic heroes” has come up several times in discussions with people over the last several years when talking about the history of Scottish Highlanders in North America and how we might better promote that history. When I was living in Nova Scotia, for example, people discussed school curricula and how there are children’s books about Canadian heroes, Afro-Canadian heroes, Native Canadian heroes, etc. It was suggested that a book of Gaelic Canadian heroes be created.
If we are to figure out who would qualify to appear in such a book, we would want to ask: “What makes some person or action or event heroic? To whom are they heroic and why? Who are/were the Scottish Gaelic heroes and on what basis?”
Heroes are certainly important. We all need role models and examples of success (and failure) on our confusing paths through the complex issues of life. Children, arguably, need to know about characters who embody traits, values and habits that can inform their own aspirations and understandings about what it means to be a valued member of their community and to participate in it in a way that benefits the greater group (and good).
Examining the way that members of a group create and interpret narratives to explain their history is crucial to thinking about heroism. All history is retrospective and subjective. That is, it is a story told about some selected data from the past (leaving out other data) because it is imbued with significance for some group (telling/ hearing/ writing/ reading it) in the present. A person might proclaim particular actions as heroic in an historical sense because s/he understands those actions as being part of some larger social narrative (such as the triumph of the tribe over rivals) or moral imperative (virtue triumphs over evil). But what is understood to be morally courageous, beneficial, right and wrong, depends on the relationships between the people in the story and those telling it.
These issues are central to understanding not only why it is so hard for us to locate Scottish Gaelic heroes in North American history but also why there has been so little serious effort to do so.
These contradictions boiled over in March when a heated debate over “Scottish-American heroism” erupted on FaceBook. Someone posted a message stating their pride in the “great Scottish heroes of the Alamo winning our Texas freedom for us.” I pointed out the obvious issues of white privilege, that by “us” she meant “white people” who were at that time bringing the practice of slave-holding onto Mexican territory where it had already been prohibited for decades. This was, of course, a very unpopular opinion to air against the “Scottish heroes” of the Alamo and “freedom-loving” (white) Texans.
With some interesting and notable exceptions, most “Scottish-Americans” and “Scottish Canadians” who celebrate their Scottish heritage tend to be white and only interested in those aspects of the historical narrative (real or imaginary) that protect and legitimize their white privilege. Many are not aware of and may even feel threatened by counter-narratives that call into question white Anglo-Saxon Protestant triumphalism, such as reminding them that the success of European immigrants had more to do with the doors that opened from the color of their skin than their “hard-work ethic” and frugality, that Highland immigrants had to relegate to the past the very things that made them Gaels – their language and culture – in order to access the power and privilege monopolized by the anglocentric establishment.
For example, Scottish Canadians might point out with pride that John A. Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, was born in Scotland of Gaelic parentage, or that Alexander Mackenzie, the second prime minister, was born in a Gaelic-speaking parish in Highland Perthshire. While these men may have had Gaelic origins, however, and wielded power, how did they get that power and how did they wield it? Who benefited from the power they had?
It’s sad to note how little people of Gaelic origin did for their own language and culture – in fact, the more ambitious they were, the less they seemed willing to do anything tangible to support the language and culture of their origins. It would have been an heroic act for someone like Macdonald or Mackenzie to do something to defend vulnerable communities, like that of the Gaels, rather than just act in complicity with anglocentric imperialism, but they did not lift a finger. How could such men possibly count as Gaelic heroes?
The Scottish Gaels commonly celebrated as heroes by North American anglophone culture are those who gained recognition through participation in imperial endeavours and in securing the privileges of anglophone white settlers. They were often convinced of the inevitable dominance of the anglophone world and seldom did anything to highlight or protect their ancestral inheritance; they were instead complicit in the eradication of their own native culture and that of other people. These circumstances present an internal contradiction: Why should we celebrate the identity of people whose ultimate aspiration was to undermine the basis of their own culture? Those who wish to celebrate Scottish Highland heroes should recognize those whose acts of courage were to resist anglocentric hegemony and to defend and develop their language and culture, despite stigmatization and marginalization.
There are actually many candidates who qualify by these measures, but they are people who are not well known exactly because the anglophone community does not at all understand the language, culture, and norms of the Gaelic community. Exactly because Gaelic and its associated communities in North America has been marginalized and unrepresented in anglophone sources, very few people know the names and stories of such people as Eòin MacFhionghain (of Whycocomagh, Cape Breton, editor of Mac-Talla), Aonghas MacAoidh (of Rhode Island, late 19th-century Gaelic poet and intellectual), Rev. Seumas MacGriogair (of Port Mór, Perthshire and Pictou, Gaelic poet and abolitionist activist), Big Fionan “the Buffalo” MacDhomhnaill (fur trader who fought as a member of the Salish in the early 19th century), and others.
All communities would have had heroes whose actions secured their survival and prosperity but whose names may have quickly passed out of memory with the loss of Gaelic, the language in which the heroic songs and tales of the early generations were told.
Choosing heroes is always fraught with risks and contradictions. It’s easy to have an oppositional culture when you don’t have access to power and to have “untainted” heroes when your whole community was barred from leveraging institutional oppression because of the color of their skin, language or religion. On the other hand, most heroes can be tainted by somebody’s yardstick, especially those that are applied retrospectively: misogyny, homophobia, etc. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to understand the measure of human action and achievement by some standards – we just need to be aware that there is no universal yardstick and that the Gaels had, and still have, their own.
It’s a terrible loss to history that so few members of the Scottish-American and Scottish Canadian community are interested in supporting the investigation of the Gaelic sources that would allow us to rediscover those heroes and have their tales told as the original Highland immigrant communities knew them.