From Rannoch to Iowa in 1875, with Gaelic Books in tow

The internet has the ability to connect people in strange and surprising (and sometimes disturbing) ways, and every once in a while I get an interesting query from someone that helps to fill out elusive details about the migration of Gaels to North America and their experiences on this continent.

One such message came into my Inbox a few weeks ago, with a woman asking advice about Gaelic books that had come down in her family in Iowa. I know of very little Gaelic immigration in Iowa, so of course my interest was piqued. Speaking to the family, and seeing their heirlooms, is a visceral reminder of how close this history is to some people still alive, even if it is receding quickly into the distance.

Here’s a short summary of the family migration. Alasdair MacDhonnchaidh (Alexander Robertson), Lochgarry, Rannoch, was gamekeeper for the Dùn Alasdair estate. His nickname seems to have been An Geamair Dubh. His wife’s youngest brother, Domhnall Foirbeis (Daniel Forbes) had settled previously in Barclay Township, Black Hawk County, Iowa and died in In March 1875. In August 1875, Alasdair moved his family to Iowa to help his wife’s eldest brother Fionnlagh (Finley Forbes) and his wife manage the farm. One of the closest towns to the farm is named “Dewar,” suggesting that other Perthshire Gaels settled in the area.

Alasdair’s son – named Alexander – was eight years old when they left Rannoch for Iowa. Last week, I spoke to his daughter, who is now 98 years old, and we spoke a little about him and the family. She said that he didn’t say much about Gaelic, except that they had to learn English at school, which was for them a foreign language, and that they therefore acquired it without interference from their local dialect (which was more of a challenge for the Scots-speakers of the Lowlands).  Setting aside the thorny issue of linguicide and pride in acquiring the language of empire for now …

What is interesting is Alasdair brought out at least four Gaelic books when he left Rannoch. (His grand-daughter told me that she thinks that he purchased them in the estate sale of the local minister.) MacDhonnchaidh seems to have been a middle-class Gael literate in his native language and wanting to have access to printed literature in it. Three of the four books, as we might expect, are religious in nature:

  • MacAlpine’s Gaelic Dictionary (1853)
  • Revised Edition of the Old Testament in Gaelic (1868)
  • Gaelic Edition of New Testament (printed in 1831 by New Perthshire Bible Society)
  • A Book of Family and Personal Prayers in Gaelic Comhnadh arson Aoradh Teaghlaich agus Ùrnuighean Dìomhair (trans. Pàdraig MacPhàrlain, printed 1829, 250 pp.)

This might be thought of as a minimalist set of essential texts to maintain religious family life through Gaelic, and it’s interesting that two of these books have strong Perthshire connections.

No doubt many other such textual treasures linger in attics and shoeboxes, waiting to divulge their secrets about the history of Scottish Gaelic immigrants in North America.

I am deeply indebted to Sally Olsen and Ida Forbes Robertson Miles for sharing their family legacy with me so generously.

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