Stealing the Soil and Soul of the Highland(er)s

In an address to the 1920 Celtic Congress, Malcolm MacLeod, who had done a great deal of work in editing and producing volumes of Gaelic literature, remarked on the resilience of the Highland people in surviving, as a culture and linguistic group, generations of attack and stigmatization from the anglocentric state.

“If Gaelic could have been killed by studied contempt and neglect, or by organised attack from high quarters, it should have died of starvation or of violence a quarter of a millennium ago. But it is still as hale as it looks, and as young as it feels. In spite of its many foes, and they were fierce and formidable, even unto this day, it has survived and taken on a few lease of life.

“Thanks to the crude philosophy and the mistaken policy of the educational experts of the now distant past, and their heirs of the last half-century, the great mass of our Highland people is illiterate in Gaelic, and as a matter of course in English too.

“In that far-off time the language of the Highlander fell under an evil repute, was persistently styled the enemy of decent culture, and gravely charged as the great bar to a self-respecting civilisation. The Highlander himself was by repute an untamed savage and an incorrigible robber, destined to remain a menace to the good order of society, so long as he was allowed to wag so savage a tongue. For the salvation of his ‘soul,’ if he had any, and his soil, which he ought not to have, it was seriously enacted by statute, that the offending member should be removed and destroyed, and replaced by a civilised tongue, fashioned on the English tongue.”

The struggle for survival, of course, continues to this day. Many other colonized people have recognized the importance of the twin pillars of soul and soil – surely the foundation of any society – and the ways in which they have been undermined by colonization. These two words also form the title of a profound book by my friend Alastair McIntosh on community re-empowerment and reclamation in a Scottish context.

Quote from MacLeod, Malcolm, “Modern Gaelic Prose” in Transactions of the Celtic Congress, 1920 (ed.) D. Rhys Phillips, Perth: Milne, Tannahill & Methven, 1921, 44-69.



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