Defining and Invigorating Scottish Gaelic Identity in the Modern World

I recently learned of three events oriented around the Scottish diaspora community happening in North America this summer which I would like to attend but do not expect to: the Scottish North American Leadership Conference 2017 (Guelph, August); and the 2017 COSCA Clan Leaders Caucus (this week at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina); and the Summit of Gaelic Identity (this week at Colaisde na Gàidhlig in Cape Breton).

The latter is specifically focused on the identity and culture of Scottish Gaels – in Canada, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man –, while the former more generally about fostering leadership in the notion of a Scottish diaspora community and identity in a more general way.

The way in which people discuss and assert ethnic identity can be highly problematic, not least because ideas about race – what scholars call “racial essentialism” – have become so dominant in popular discourse and consciousness. The basic notion is that someone is a Gael, or a Pole, or a Spaniard, because of some “essence” passed on to them via their genes from their ancestors. Unfortunately, popular involvement in DNA testing only tends to reinforce these flawed notions of identity and racialist claims of heritage and authenticity.

There are a number of reasons why this is misleading and flawed in general, and in a Scottish and Gaelic context in specific.

First, individual are never single, monolithic sites of identity. Now more than ever, we are hybrids. We belong to multiple kinds of ethnic groups and exercise the freedom to emphasize some more than others, depending on what they offer us and what we wish to highlight.

Second, the elements that make up the building blocks of ethnic identity are things that are by definition created, transmitted, interpreted and performed via culture, not genes. In the Gaelic world, language has been the cornerstone of Gaelic identity from practically the beginning of the literary tradition (as attested in this 7th-century origin myth of the Gaels). This notion of a linguistic core of Gaelic ethnicity continued to be asserted throughout the medieval period (as I’ve discussed in my book Warriors of the Word), and by immigrant Highlanders in North America (as articulated by Alasdair Friseal in this booklet from Glengarry and Domhnall MacMhuirich in New York in this address to a local Gaelic organization).

Third, ethnic groups and identities are always in constant flux, drawing in and losing members and changing the facets of their identity over time. How could there be a single genetic definition for Scottish identity when it has absorbed Celtic (Brythonic and Goidelic), Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, French, Flemish, etc., populations over many centuries? Even in the case of the Gaelic community, kin-groups with Scandinavian ancestors (like the MacDonalds and MacLeods) and Anglo-Norman ancestors (like the Frasers and Grants) came to be incorporated into Gaelic society and think of themselves primarily as Gaels.

It never ceases to surprise me how many people – both in Scotland and abroad – resist the fact that Scotland consists of more than one ethnic group and identity. Many people are highly invested in the myth of a singular, homogenous nation, especially those who presume to speak for it. Gaels were the original Scots who founded the nation, but continue to be marginalized in the study of and representation of Scottish culture, except for when some symbols (like tartan, kilts or bagpipes) are needed to distinguish the Lowlands from England. But the building of nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries usually gave the power to define and enshrine an ethnic myth for the nation to one group, at the expense of the others. The disempowerment of the Gaelic community within the formal state and institutions over the last several centuries has meant that some tokens of Gaelic culture were appropriated because they were of use to anglophones, while the rest were subject to neglect and persecution.

Contentions and debates about what a Gael is supposed to be – what are the criteria relevant to claiming to be a Gael – have been divisive and acrimonious for well over a century (I discuss some of my observations in Nova Scotia in this blog post). This is a common phenomenon for marginalized communities whose ability to sustain and nourish their language and culture has been compromised, but the fallout of such bitter disputes can be very damaging and counter-productive. I have been saddened many times by hearing about people who want to be a part of the Gaelic communities in Scotland or Nova Scotia but were given the message (implicitly or explicitly) that they were not “Gaelic enough” on some arbitrary basis. People often forget that Gaelic culture encompassed a much wider geographical span, set of social classes and cultural practices than are visible today, and people cut off from this culture because of the injustices of the past have every right to re-engage with it now, as long as they do so in a mutually respectful manner.

My recommendation is to abandon the notion of ethnic identity as being grounded in individuals and instead be geared towards communities. Rather than asking, “Is s/he a real Gael?” we should be asking, “What is his/her role in the Gaelic community? How can s/he contribute to a Gaelic community and be uplifted by it?”

That, in my opinion, is the only productive way forward. Gaelic communities have been losing members for centuries because of the invasive nature of anglocentric power. Gaels often felt in the past that they had to make an exclusive choice (they could only be a Gael or an anglophone); they felt that their socio-economic opportunities would be highly compromised by aligning themselves with the Gaelic community.

That no longer has to be the case. If I choose to, I can choose to engage with the Gaelic community, with the Navajo-speaking community, with the LGBT community, and with the Muslim community. These do not have to be exclusive and in fact, such cross-community linkages are increasingly important in a fraught world of ethnocentric scapegoating.

Looking historically, it is clear that there have always been many ways of being a Gael. Gaels have always been members of multiple communities. I’ve explored in other places how even people of African and Native American ancestry were members of Gaelic communities (as in this article and this blog post). Not only that, some of the greatest modern champions of Scottish Gaelic culture have been those who have come from outside its “traditional” bounds and helped to question its presumed limitations and expand its capacities.

I hope that those meeting to discuss the idea of Gaelic identity and culture will focus on strengthening the Gaelic communities that remain and not implicitly impose some kind of genetic or geographical litmus test on Gaelicness that reinforces the perception of an exclusive and inflexible community closed to introspection and transformation.

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3 thoughts on “Defining and Invigorating Scottish Gaelic Identity in the Modern World

  1. Rather than disputing the validity of this argument, I would suggest that we just drop the whole idea of “identity”. It is a static concept acting as defining boundary in a society that, through globalisation among other forces, is more volatile and less clearly defined than ever before. The definition of “Gael” simply as “speaker of Gaelic” is, as you have pointed out, historically rooted, but it also makes sense in an era of social flux.

    1. Hence my shifting the focus on the community defined in linguistic terms, with certain cultural elements and characteristics. You see similar dynamics in all marginalized communities.

  2. It’s a natural enough reaction for any embattled community to “put up the barricades”, figuratively at least. This will keep ‘the other’ out but can’t keep your ain folk in. Thus deprived of input from the wider world, be that in terms of people, ideas or whatever, such a community will inevitably become smaller, weaker, less creative and less appealing as time passes. Obsessed with hanging on to a fading past rather than creating a dynamic future.

    Only by striking just the right balance with the wider world can Gaeldom, or any similar cultural group, hope to survive and thrive.

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