Who are the (Scottish) Gaels? Or is it Highlanders?

 Who are the Scottish Gaels? Are they the same as Scottish Highlanders? How are they related to Scots as a whole?

Questions of identity may seem simple at first but become increasingly complex as we both zoom into details and zoom out across space and time. Such issues often become more fraught when we consider the case of minoritized ethnic groups who are under-represented, or not represented at all, in the governments that claim authority over them.

To offer a Gaelic point of view of Highland identity, I will offer my translation of a chapter in a school textbook printed in 1921 for Gaelic-medium education (such as it was at the time), whose cover is shown above. It’s interesting to note – in terms of discourses and representations of identity – that the cover features La Tène artwork, and that the creators of the volume saw visual markers of the ancient Celts as having contemporary relevance to Scottish Highlanders.

This volume is the first in a series of student reading materials, prepared by Domhnall Mac a’ Phì (on behalf of An Comunn Gàidhealach) and printed in Glasgow by Blackie and Son. The author of this particular essay, Eachann MacDhùghaill (“Hector MacDougall”, 1889-1934) was a noted tradition-bearer, author, scholar, and broadcaster.

We are beset by the ambiguities of language from the outset, given that the Gaelic term Gàidheal connotes someone who is a Gael. a Gaelic speaker, and a native of the Highlands. There was no distinction between those concepts (as there is in English) up to the early twentieth century. While some might assume that these concepts of Gaelic identity are the product of 19th-century romantic nationalism, they can actually be found back in early medieval Gaelic sources (as I discuss in the book Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders), and they continued into the era of immigration into North America (as I discuss in this essay).

The original text of this short essay is shown in the images at the bottom.

Translation

The people to whom we belong are called “Gaels.” We are a small people in number, but we are a famous people in history.

We call ourselves “Scots,” and we call ourselves “Britons,” but none of those names put the warmth into our hearts that the name “Gael” does.

The history of the Gaels goes far back into ancient times, and it demonstrates that they were always famous and distinguished in many ways. They were always loyal in any cause that was entrusted to them.

Despite the hardship in which they found themselves, there was one thought that held their attention and gave them strength. We could call that thought “distinction,” and this is it: “Remember the people from whom you come.”

It brought ill-repute upon a Gael if he did any despicable thing at all that would bring shame upon the people from whom he came.

We must likewise keep this thought in mind and be firm and loyal like those from whom we came. It is not good to have a despicable act attributed to us.

The Gaels of Scotland sometimes forget that there are other Gaels as well as themselves. The Manx-people and Irish are Gaels, and Gaelic is their native language.

There is a large number of Gaels in Canada, in New Zealand, in Australia, and in other corners of the world. Many of them have earned celebrity and honour in those places, and they have shown regard for the place of their birth.

Now, how is a Gael distinguished from other kinds of people? There is a thing or two we could name, but there is one special thing. Without that thing, that person is not a true Gael. That thing, then, is to speak the Gaelic language, and to have Highland/Gaelic blood running in their veins.

The Gael’s native language is Gaelic. Therefore, Gaelic is what marks the true Gael.

“Remember the people you came from.”

NaGaidheil-2

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