Scottish Gaels of the Pacific Northwest

Although most Scottish Highlanders migrated in extended families or entire communities in the 18th and early 19th centuries, changes in social structures and socio-economic patterns changed how and where they migrated in the later 19th and 20th centuries. More individuals moved from Gaelic communities in Scotland and North America to centers of economic activity and opportunity, particularly large cities, as Gaelic families and older settlements fragmented.

Very large numbers of Scottish Gaels were attracted to the Pacific Northwest and could be found in Seattle and Vancouver, in particular. When I interviewed Neil MacLeod in Vancouver in 2006, he told me about the Gaelic community that thrived in the area when his family moved there from Alaska:

When we arrived here in 1924 there were approximately 20,000 people that could speak Gaelic in the British Columbia area. There were 26 [Scottish] societies here. If you wanted a job in the Fire Department and you could speak Gaelic, you had a job; if you wanted a job in the Police Department and you could speak Gaelic, you had a job, and if you played the pipes, you’d get in quicker.

Seattle boasted a Gaelic community just as vibrant at the time (and it has been revived in recent years through the auspices of Slighe nan Gàidheal). The Seattle Scottish Gaelic Society held regular céilidhs and organized the annual Highland Games for the region.

Gaels all over North America subscribed to Gaelic periodicals published in Nova Scotia to help them keep track of friends, community members and cultural activities scattered all over the continent. Despite the enormous distances, these print materials kept folks in touch with each other and informed them about the issues (and literature) that mattered to them as Gaels.

A memory of these communities is preserved in the following letter sent to the monthly periodical Teachdaire nan Gàidheal (The Gaelic Messenger) in 1926 by a Gael resident in Seattle who had been born and raised in Cape Breton. A number of important points (seen clearly in other sources as well) are illustrated in this letter. First, Gaels conceived of their identity primarily as Gaelic; the notion of a “Scottish” identity was of a more remote and abstract nature. Their own native language carried, expressed and perpetuated their culture and identity; Gaelic literature was the fullest and most sophisticated form of this linguistic and cultural package. This allegiance to the Gaelic community and culture was, after all, the reason why people in Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, New York, Toronto, Winnipeg, San Francisco, and other cities contributed and subscribed to Gaelic periodicals: so that they could continue to be members of the wider “virtual” Gaelic community that spanned the continent via print, whether they happened to have been born originally in Scotland or North America.

The original letter in Gaelic comes first; I have followed it with my own English translation with important points about identity marked in boldface.

Thàinig Teachdaire nan Gàidheal air a chuairt mhìosail an latha roimhe, agus faodaidh tu bhith cinnteach gun d’ rinn Gàidheil Seattle mór ghàirdeachas ri thighinn. Gum bu fada beò thu agus comasach air tadhal oirnn daonnan le d’ naidheachdan tairis tlàth. Chan eil uair a leughas mi an Teachdaire nach tàlaidh a chomhradh grinn an cainnt uasal mo chinnidh m’ aire, a dh’aindeoin drip, gu beachd smuain air làithean m’ òige ’s an t-sòlais, nuair nach robh nì eile air m’ aire ach mire, mànran agus cridhealas, ’nam dhachaigh an Ceap Breatainn mo ghaoil.

Bha Mòd Albannach Gàidheil Seattle air a chuir air adhart le mór ghreadhnas air an 4mh latha de’n Lùnastal fo chùl-taic Fine Chloinn Choinnich is N[aoimh] Anndra. Bha mu chòig mìle pearsa làthair agus shoirbhich an latha leo anabarrach math. Thàinig àireamh na bu mhotha na b’ àbhaist de cho-fharpaisean pìobaireachd is dannsa á Vancouver agus rinn sin cùisean na bu taitniche dhuinn uile …

Chaith an sluagh a bha cruinn latha cridheil toilichte. Cha chluinnte guth ach Gàidhlig ré an latha is nuair a thàinig cridhealas an latha gu crìch, thriall gach aon gu dhachaigh fhéin làn riaraichte gun do chuir iad seachad latha comhla ri Gàidheil Seattle a leanas buan ’nan cuimhne.

The Gaelic Messenger came on its monthly tour the other day, and you can be sure that the Gaels of Seattle greatly celebrated its arrival. May you last long and always be capable of visiting us with your pleasant, well-spoken news. There is never a time that I read the Messenger that its elegant conversation in the noble language of my people does not draw to my mind the days of my youth and happiness, despite busy distractions, when there was nothing but sport and play and joy on my mind in my home in my beloved Cape Breton.

The Scottish Games of the Gaels of Seattle were held with great festivity on the 4th of July under the auspices of the MacKenzie [Clan society?] and St. Andrews [Society?]. There were about five thousand people present and the event went extraordinarily well. A much greater number than usual of the bagpipe and dance competitors came from Vancouver and that made the events all the more enjoyable for us all …

The assembled crowd spent a very happy, joyous day. Nothing but Gaelic was heard spoken all day long and when the delights of the day came to an end, every one returned to his own home fully satisfied that he had spent a day in the company of the Gaels of Seattle that will always last in their memories.

Further Reading

For further materials about Gaelic communities in the Pacific Northwest, see Michael Newton, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada.

For further discussion of Scottish Gaelic identity in North America, see the following:

“Gaelic Identities in Nova Scotia: Some Literary, Historical and Sociological Perspectives.”

“Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity in North America.”

“Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas” in Celts in the Americas.

2 thoughts on “Scottish Gaels of the Pacific Northwest

  1. Interesting. How did these people, living presumably in an English (or French) speaking environment, and being educated in the dominant language, manage to learn to read and write Gàidhlig? Even in Scotland today many of the older ‘traditional’ speakers have limited Gaelic literacy.

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