Canada, Folklife, Modern, Scotland

The Role of a Scholar in Gaelic and other Marginalized Cultures

This is a difficult, sensitive, complex, and multilayered topic. It’s hard to write about and it’s not surprising that so few people have tried (“I am a ‘white linguist’” by Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas being one of the few examples). I am only human, as are the members of the communities I’ve worked with, so we will make mistakes and hopefully be compassionate with one another and allow ourselves to reflect on and learn from the process. I end up rewriting and improving my all of my blog posts to try to add and improve nuances, this post perhaps more than most (with significant encouragement and suggestions from my friend Tad Hargrave).

I love Scottish Gaelic culture for many reasons: a sonorous and eloquent language, a long and sophisticated literary tradition, a beautiful music and song tradition, a dynamic dance tradition, a rich mythopoeic cosmology, a deeply-rooted sense of belonging, and so on. Engagement in Scottish Gaeldom has given me the privilege of experiencing the world with different way of being and knowing. And it’s also given me a deeper appreciation for how fragile cultures can be, and how easily they can they become entangled in and appropriated by empires and colonial enterprises.

One of the most ambitious, multi-pronged enterprises launched in the late twentieth century is that of decolonization. Modernity is the product of the élite of European empires of the last several centuries, and modernity has permeated the globe with many manifestations of coloniality. Virtually everyone is implicated in this web of domination, control, and exploitation, some as victims / exploited, some as victors / exploiters, and most of us as a mixture of both. But even the humanity of the “victor” is compromised in a system that thrives on creating and enforcing hierarchies of power and privilege.

I cannot speak for all scholars, but many I know choose to work with and for minoritized communities for altruistic reasons, in the hopes of restoring some justice and beauty to the world. We can make mistakes, and academia seldom provides us adequate training for the imbalances between dominant and subjugated communities, or the emotional stresses and tolls inherent in such work. The latent faultlines in a community are likely to come to the fore when the prevailing assumptions around a culture are questioned, or one becomes involved in the community’s issues of representation, power, or privilege (or those of particular groups within the community). These can be very difficult to navigate and negotiate, but the process of collaboration between scholar and community can and should be mutually enriching and enlightening.

So, this blog post speaks primarily from my own point of view and personal experiences in Scottish Gaeldom in Scotland and Nova Scotia. …

There is not necessarily a compelling reason for members of dominant, majority cultures, content with their dispensations and opportunities, to seek out the history of their societies and question of the assumptions that make up the stuff of their everyday lives. They can afford to live in the present, buoyed by myths of inherent and eternal greatness, floating along the effervescent and evanescent stream of fads and fetishes.

Members of subjugated societies, who are trapped in the debris of wrecked communities, whose lines of historical continuity and cultural aspirations were cut short by invasion, intrusion, imposition and conquest, who will not or cannot silently acquiesce to the demands made by those who dominate them, experience life with a different kind of consciousness.

It is natural for people in such situations to have the need to address these issues, to have burning questions about their past, present, and future, for which they may not find answers easily: Why did this happen to us? Was it due to some intrinsic weakness or flaw of our own? How did it happen? Did someone within our group betray us? Can we do anything to regain our own identity and internal compass? How can we regain control of our destiny and self-determination? Do we even know what that is any more? Are our losses a series of random events, or is there some larger pattern to help to explain them? Are our losses similar to those of other people, whose recovery might provide us with inspiration and leadership to help us recover ourselves?

When a society is invaded and dominated by another, it can easily lose its sense of self, especially if the dominating group imposes a different language, culture, worldview and cosmology upon the conquered, stigmatizing their former ways of knowing and being in the world. The conquered become dislocated from their rootedness in the world, ontologically speaking, often still in their old physical location but like zombies or ghosts mimicking the ways of the victors, alienated from their ancestral inheritance, the deeper meaning of their customs, their old divine order. They cannot completely step into the shoes of their conquerors and leave their old selves behind, nor can they easily recapture the wholeness of their past.

The dominant culture, of course, constructs its own stories to explain its supremacy over others: it is more advanced, more civilized, more virtuous, more worthy of leadership. These ethnocentric fictions are regurgitated in schools, imaginative literature, mass media, public monuments, and so on, so that it seems hard to question, dislodge and replace them in defense of the marginalized and minoritized.

Although all humans are members of societies that constantly create, negotiate, and reinterpret culture, understanding culture in all of its historical depth, constituent elements, and conceptual complexity turns out to be more difficult than most people expect. It is, I think, for better or worse, an innate human tendency to see social groups in terms of essences or essentialisms: especially given the reinforcements of stereotypes in popular culture, it might be easily assumed that all French people are excellent chefs, all Germans are natural-born engineers, all Japanese are expert origami-makers, and so on. These expectations can be easily reinforced by positive affirmation bias and the desire to preserve a sense of internal group cohesion (“Of course, we’re all similar, especially because we’re different from them!”).

Likewise, it seems an innate human tendency for people to see the world in the “eternal present,” to assume that the present was fundamentally familiar with what we now know, and that it is safe to assume that we can project the concepts, categories, experiences, habits, and objects we know now unproblematically into the past.

These common human traits and propensities, however, amongst many others, muddle and sabotage our ability to think clearly and accurately about the past. People’s identities change over time: some people who were born as members of one group join another, or entire groups disappear, emerge, or reinvent themselves. Objects – clothing, weapons, musical instruments, … – created by one group get claimed by another, change function, becoming charged with new meaning, their origins lost in complex and unrecorded exchanges. Ideas and concepts are even more ghostly and elusive to track, but have just as profound and transformational impact upon those who hear and understand them.

Culture exists in variation in social groups at different scales: individuals, families, neighborhoods, states, organizations, institutions, professions, ethnolinguistic communities, nations, etc. Culture can be differentiated by context and domain: the culture of the home may be different from the culture of the religious institution, the culture of the élite different from the culture of the peasantry. Culture changes subtly and sometimes mutely, but always inexorably, over time. Seeing it as a singular, homogenous monolith is self-deceiving.

This is a rather long-winded introduction to the question of what contributions a scholar or intellectual can make to a minoritized culture, but my 25 year engagement in Scottish Gaeldom suggests that such observations are crucial for discussion of any depth, and this conviction has been confirmed by my discussions with people similarly engaged in revitalization projects with other minoritized groups.

When a culture is severely compromised, it tends to lose control over its own institutions, especially those that help it to understand itself. Those aspiring to higher social classes have little choice but to assimilate to the conventions of the dominant group, and to adopt language, ideas, values and assumptions accordingly. This compromises the ability of the invaded culture to recover the past or envision a path for the future in alignment with its pre-conquest self. There often emerge huge gaps between the assimilated élite and the lower-class natives, who no longer feel confidence or trust in their former kinsmen, but rather might feel resentment, shame, and/or humiliation, along, sometimes, with pride for their “accomplishment.”

Language and cultural revitalization is one of the most difficult undertakings a community can attempt, given that the decline of language and culture is itself a symptom of the undermining of the community’s basic abilities to chart its own course and transmit its own blueprint across generations.

I remember well sitting in a brainstorming workshop in Nova Scotia (c.2012) meant to generate suggestions for how Gaelic revitalization might be advanced in the community. The elder with whom I was sitting and to whom I spoke was kind, hopeful, and committed to his language, but he was also at a loss. For him, Gaelic was something “organic” that was simply spoken by family and community members as a matter of course, and personal choice. It required no planning, analysis or forethought, unlike the tortuous thought experiments which we were discussing at the meeting. He had no training the social sciences or sociolinguistics, or familiarity with institutional issues. The old world in which he was born and raised no longer exists, and he had a difficult time imagining how language regeneration could happen within the context of governmental policies, educational exercises, or community initiatives. It seemed to me to be a chasm he did not know how to cross, and he was by no means alone.

Gaelic will only survive and thrive to the extent that the community will come to terms with the conditions that exist now, in the present world. This does not require, by any means, that Gaels have to jettison the content, ethos, or principles of their culture wholesale – I have argued strongly against that – but it does mean enlisting people who have a foot in both settings and can manage that adaptation thoughtfully and sensitively. Crafting solutions in modern settings requires thinking in terms of structures, systems, institutions, and ideologies: these are very unnatural ways for human beings to approach challenges unless they have been given particular kinds of formal training and tools.

It was my distinct impression that there is a common distrust of institutions and scholars in Gaelic Nova Scotia because they have failed and betrayed the language and culture so many times. And yet the reach and impact of institutions is now unavoidable. For any community to survive within modern political entities, it must present a case to be represented in and supported by institutions of some sort, or maintaining a thriving community is virtually impossible otherwise. People with particular skills – usually those acquired within formal education – can act as intermediaries and aid in these processes in the interests of the community. And in time members of the community will learn from and integrate knowledge about these new contexts or settings, and assess their successes and failures on their own terms.

I think that there is a common insecurity around intellectuals and academics, whether it be a fear of inadequacy or difficulty in finding a common language with scholars, who often, by default, rely on erudite jargon and concepts. And many intellectuals can be introverted, clumsy, or overly cerebral by disposition. However, in ideal circumstances, scholars (and other professionals) can create symbiotic relationships with elders and community members to find creative solutions that have been shown to work in general but adapt them to the local community. This relationship-building requires mutual trust, respect, and patience — as well as time, which implies sustained funding … a rare commodity in the Gaelic world.

I found a widespread implied misunderstanding of the purpose of Celtic Studies in higher education in Nova Scotia. People seemed to assume that the purpose of attending courses and studying the field is to learning how to be a Gael. One well-known figure, who I like and admire very much, jokes that her instructor should not have chided her for missing class because she was attending a céilidh, where she was learning more about being a Gael than she could have in the classroom. This is, in my opinion, misguided. These are different ways of knowing and being that are distinct but complementary.

“French Studies” is not designed to teach students how to become French, or “Canadian Studies” to become Canadian. Rather, such courses and fields endeavor to provide a wide and deep background to the ways in which people in these ethnolinguistic groups have experienced the world and expressed themselves, to give students the critical thinking tools to understand the remains of the past, to question the interpretations of these things provided to us in the present (not always from our friends and allies), and to (re)construct new means of expression for ourselves in the future which are concordant with that past and its integrity. In addition, this deeper understanding allows one to see common patterns across different cultures and communities and historical time in a way that allows us to gauge what efforts are likely to succeed, which are not worth pursuing, what are common pitfalls and what are likely outcomes. It also enables building bridges across marginalized cultures for common goals.

There are many claims and assumptions about “authenticity” and cultural “purity” in Gaelic Nova Scotia. It is not unusual for a minoritized community to make such claims, as it can enhance its sense of integrity or social prestige. According to some, for example, fiddle music and step-dance in Nova Scotia are fossilized relics of the 18th-century Highlands. I am critical about such claims and continue to review the evidence and attempt to debunk misinformation, but it is not because I am hostile to the Gaelic community, tradition(s) or performers, or intend to be disrespectful to them. Rather, I think that relying upon claims of purity or authenticity is historically unsound and anthropologically untenable, and a weak plank upon which to rest self-esteem.

Understanding the development of art forms in the past and the ways in which people have negotiated between tradition and innovation is important because it provides us with precedents and exemplars of how to work in the present.  It is possible to celebrate the Nova Scotian forms of music and dance as signs of the ingenuity, resilience and creativity of Gaels responding to their contemporary environment in North America. The idea that the assimilation of external influences or new materials is a sign of corruption or dependency is outdated and smacks of the colonialist thinking that is ultimately of disservice to any culture.

All cultures consist of many strands, some conservative, some radical, potentially activated or disabled according to the social context and dominant forces. For the last two and a half centuries, Gaeldom has been dominated by conservative forces and personnel, as a matter of limited options as a conquered society. People might assume that Gaeldom is inherently conservative because it has been used to prop up the imperial military, colonial settlements, puritanical religion, and so on. Gaeldom has been so thoroughly impacted by and intertwined with British imperialism for the last several centuries that it is impossible to understand the history – or culture – without taking this imperial/colonial context into account.

But Gaeldom need not be relegated to or limited by this coloniality: there are radical strands in Gaelic heritage as well that have been waiting to be reclaimed and reactivated. This re-radicalization has been particularly lively in the last decade in Scotland due to a re-enfranchised political context, and as scholars we can question the dominant narrative of conservativeness by highlighting the radical Gaelic voice that does exist, and the potential for self-liberation and social equality latent within the tradition.

A creative scholar with a substantial knowledge of the history of the varied cultural expressions of a society can find older elements which have been lost, submerged, suppressed, or distorted, and help to give them new life that restores a sense of purpose and coherence to a group. Knowledge need not be just a passive asset, it can be energizing, visionary, revelatory, and healing. The work of decolonization requires both the head and the heart, pulling together in concert.

Scholars are not just one-dimensional, disembodied brains lacking qualifications to be one of the “real folk” – we are also musicians, dancers, creative writers, singers, and producers and transmitters of culture. A fully revitalized language needs to be used and usable by everyone in a society: the farmers and the philosophers, the bakers and the bankers, the children and the teachers … we all have a potential contribution to make that reflects our own skills and perspectives and helps to enhance the resilience, diversity, and resources of a culture.

Of course, scholars can make mistakes, have limitations and shortcomings, and change their minds – just like members of the community itself. Fortunately, many people have been very generous with and forgiving of me, and I have attempted to return the kindness and faith that many people placed in me over the years. They have shared their sense of injustice, their devotion to their heritage, their frequent despair, their fragile hopes, usually in hushed tones. I’ve tried to lift up and amplify those otherwise unheard voices in my work, because I am a scholar with a Muse and a mission, amongst many others who want to work toward a better world.

Folklife, Late Medieval, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

Cattle Raiding and Gaelic Rites of Passage

Cattle were at the very heart of life in the old Scottish Highlands, be it calendar customs, rites of passage, past-times, food, clothing and place of residence. The central role of cattle is explored in great detail in a very impressive recent book that I’ve just acquired, Ri Luinneig mun Chro: Crodh ann am Beatha agus Dualchas nan Gàidheal, of which I’ll be writing a review for ACGA’s quarterly newsletter this year.

Looking over the book reminded me of a piece of Gaelic folklore relating to a place special to my heart – MacPharlain country, at the north end of Loch Lomondside – that I did not find in time to include in a volume of literature and tradition that I compiled years ago, entitled Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid / From the Clyde to Callander (still available from The Grimsay Press).

Not only was the modern anglophone notion of private property not relevant in those days, but cattle raiding was an expected aspect of group conflict and aggression. A would-be clan leader had to prove his skills by leading a successful cattle raid, and Lowlanders – seen as non-native interlopers on territory that rightly belonging to the Gaels – were popular targets.

One nineteenth-century Scottish antiquarian who went by the pen-name of “Nether Lochaber” printed a regular newspaper column containing Gaelic lore, much of which – unfortunately – he only gave in English translation, limiting the original Gaelic texts to a minimum. One of his columns contains the translation of a Gaelic lullaby (which does not look familiar to me), which expresses the wish that the little boy grow up to be a successful warrior who will provide for his foster-father and -mother. It includes a toast referring to the lowing of cattle, which the writer explains thusly:

The lowing of kine geumnaich bhò, occuring in this lullaby, was an old toast of the cattle-lifting times, that the late Dr. Macfarlane of Arrochar told us he himself had often heard when a young man at baptismal feasts and bridals on Loch Lomond-side. The secret of it is this. The geumnaich or lowing, implied that the cattle were strangers to the glen, whilst those that belonged to the glen itself, and were the bona fide property of the clan, if such there were, were quiet, and staid, and well-behaved, as decent cattle should be. … “The lowing of kine,” therefore, was a toast that meant neither more nor less than success to the cattle-lifting trade!

Canada, Folklife, Modern

Interview with Dr A. R. MacKinnon about Gaelic in Bruce County

The Charles William Dunn Collection of Scottish Gaelic Fieldwork Recordings from Gaelic Canada contains an extensive and invaluable set of audio recordings from the mid-twentieth century. Although most of the fieldwork was conducted by Prof Dunn himself, one set of materials – recorded in Bruce County, Ontario, between 1958 and 1964 – was done by Dr. A. R. (“Archie”) MacKinnon, formerly at Simon Fraser University.

A few years ago, when I was working on the Gaelic-Canadian literature anthology Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest, I was delighted to find Archie (left), alive and well, in British Columbia. The work he did is an unique window into the Gaelic communities of the Bruce. Although he made comments on this material and his experiences in the region in an article he wrote (“Gaelic in the Bruce,” Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook 13 [1967]), and in the booklet Gaelic in a Bruce County Tiree Settlement: Some Recollections of Archie MacKinnon, these sources are not well known outside the local area.

As I would not like Dr. MacKinnon’s contributions to the history of Gaelic fieldwork in North America to be overlooked or forgotten, I contacted him again at the beginning of 2018 and found him once again, a delightful person with full memories. I asked him for an email interview and these are his responses to my questions.

1. Can you please tell us about your background: Where and when were you born?  What was your personal sense of identity when you were growing up?  How did your family and community seem to perceive and represent its heritage and identity? 

I was born at home on the farm in 1927. The farm was on Concession 11, Kincardine Township, where the Gaelic of the Isle of Tiree could still be heard. The community was established in the 1850s and had migrants predominantly from England, Ireland, Scotland, the Scandinavian countries and Germany.

Persons who had Gaelic as a first language purchased land in relationship to their specific culture. I was introduced to Gaelic for the simple reason that my grandmother lived with us and found difficulty in speaking English. What we had was ‘grandma talk’ as we entered into Gaelic. The density of Gaelic speakers in the area meant that Gaelic was the language of work, commerce, and the feeling of identity.

The demands of the various cultures moved towards a common language, which was English. Gaelic was essentially reserved for special social occasions as the community moved increasingly to a Canadian language.

2. Did you hear Gaelic growing up? Who spoke Gaelic and in what contexts? What was the common attitude regarding the language?

Gaelic was the language of my family for the period of time that Grandma MacDonald lived with us. When Grandma left the farm to live in Kincardine with her daughter, Eva, the move towards English increased rapidly.

Gaelic was essentially the social language of the community.

3. Tell us about what motivated you to record Gaelic speakers, and their songs, in Bruce County.  Did anyone give you any advice about how to go about doing recording and fieldwork?  How did you know who to ask to speak and sing for you?  How long did you spend doing it?  Did this make people feel shy, embarrassed, proud, nostalgic … ? What are some of your fondest memories of that experience?  Was there anything that particularly surprised, shocked or pleased you about doing this work?

I was very aware that the life of Gaelic in the area was shortening rapidly. I had been doing some work recording various stories on tape and sharing these with the Bruce County Historical Society.

My focus on Gaelic was a direct result of association with Charles Dunn at the University of Toronto during his field work in Bruce County, and our contacts in Edinburgh and Harvard. I learned much from Charles on the process of recording oral culture.

Most of my informants were initially embarrassed and very shy about their Gaelic. By playing the recordings of others, however, the floodgates soon opened. The recording sessions were normally quite spontaneous with frequent requests to ‘play back’.

There was great joy in the activities including repeated songs sung several times over. The process was primarily for my own delight. It was only with the urging of several members of the Bruce County Historical Society that I moved the story into print form and the audio onto tape.

4. What would you ideally like to see happen in Bruce County regarding its Gaelic heritage? What would the best means be of commemorating and celebrating the history and culture?  How might the recordings you made support such efforts?

The Bruce County Historical Society and the Bruce County Museum have been active in building a Sound Archive. The initial items at the museum prompted other cultural groups to participate so that the Archives now have folk culture for England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany. There are even some small collections growing out of the Swedish settlements.

There are special occasions at the museum which highlight collections, and the recordings which I made, and those of Margaret MacKay, have been featured in some of these special exhibitions.

Folklife, Late Medieval, Scotland

Dances with Fairies and Witches

“Fairylore” in Gaelic tradition, like that of many other peoples, is a complex web of ideas that no singular theory can contain. Wish fulfillment, the rhetoric of social and psychological norms, and layers of older cosmology can all be found in these materials, making it a rich and sometimes perilous trove of material to analyze. Amongst other things, Gaelic fairylore often preserves the memory of social customs and norms after they have passed out of common currency.

As Henderson and Cowan have noted, fairylore often functions as a way to represent the transition of culture and tradition (pp. 24-30). Recent research about Icelandic tradition (Guðmundsdóttir 2005) suggests that oral narratives about the Hidden Folk preserve memories of dancing after its suppression by church authorities: the desire to dance was driven (metaphorically) “underground” and was sublimated through tales about elves; these tales preserve some of the features of Icelandic dance.

Could such an approach be fruitfully applied to Scottish (especially Highland) materials to tell us something about the historical forms and development of dance? The thought has occurred to me before, and John Gibson also mentions the notion in his latest book on dance (pp. 14-15). Unfortunately, however, his effort is limited to a single oblique reference from a remark in a Gaelic text from 1877 (fairly late) about the dancing of the fairies which Gibson does not parse correctly or compare to the copious earlier materials that exist about fairy dances.

I would translate the quote (using the Gaelic excerpts provided in Gibson’s book, but differently from him) as stating that fairies could be found:

at their fires in the dance, on the top of hillocks and knowes … the dance was just for the most part travelling steps with elegant movement in circles around the fire …

I think that Gibson is correct in seeing fairylore as a fading memory of passing customs – in this case dance – but he would like to believe that this refers to step-dance. This is his projection rather than good analysis. What is clear from this passage, and many other descriptions of fairy dances, is that they dance in a circle (in this case, around a single fire on a round hillock), not in figure-8s or multiples of figure-8s, such as produced by the dancing of reels.  The very idea of fairy-rings being traces of their dances (mentioned many times, for example, in Henderson and Cowan) attests to their dances being ring-caroles, a pre-Renaissance form of communal song performance (which I discussed in a previous blog post).

Another very interesting topic explored in the book by Henderson and Cowan (see especially Chapter Four) is that materials relating to early modern witches and witchcraft in Scotland often preserve aspects of contemporary fairylore – in other words, popular folk culture in Scotland (especially but not limited to the Highlands) was deeply entwined with fairylore but this was being re-interpreted by church authorities and political agendas as demonic.

While this is a complex topic that we need not dive into detail here, the fascination and social turmoil around witches left a record from which we can glean a certain amount about social practices and attitudes, including dance. And here again, all of the evidence indicates that the primary form of dance being practiced was the song-carol danced in a ring. This is clear from the textual descriptions of witch dances (including one of the first uses of the word “reel” in the 1591 North Berwick witch trial, as I’ve discussed in this article).

It’s also shown in illustrations such as the woodcut above, from the book The history of witches and wizards: giving a true account of all their tryals in England, Scotland, Swedeland, France, and New England; with their confession and condemnation (London, 1720).


I am not claiming that oral narratives about the sìthichean [fairies] were completely, statically “frozen” and thus always depict them as dancing in a ring, as opposed to threesome or foursome reels. I am only suggesting that they represent a time lag, preserving fading memories. Old memories can eventually fade entirely and be replaced by new memories. I’ve argued that the eighteenth century is a major era of transition for dance practice in the Highlands, with the new social dance forms (reel, strathspey, and step dance) displacing the older choral-ring dances and ritual-dramatic dances. This did not happen overnight but in stages and over generations. By the second half of the nineteenth century, Gaelic oral narratives did describe the fairies as dancing threesome and foursome reels because by that time, in the memories of the living audiences and storytellers, that had become “old tradition.”


Ronald Black (ed). The Gaelic Otherworld (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2005).

John Gibson. Gaelic Cape Breton Step-Dancing (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017).

Aðalheiður Guðmundsdóttir. 2005. „‘Nú er glatt í hverjum hól’: On How Icelandic Legends Reflect the Prohibition of Dance“. The 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium on Folk legends, June 15th–18th 2005, Reykjavík.

Lizanne Henderson and Edward Cowan.  Scottish Fairy Belief (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001).


Folklife, Modern, Scotland

Interview with Elizabeth MacDiarmid on Loch Tayside in 1996

[An article I originally wrote in 1996]

Perthshire is the heartland of Scotland, the centre of the country.  Although I have met many Perthshire people who spoke Gaelic at home before going to school, the usual story is that once they went to school they had to learn English and were strongly discouraged from speaking Gaelic. Sadly, after untold generations of Gaelic speakers, it seems as though the last fluent Perthshire Gaelic speaker died only this year.  Memories of Gaelic remain amongst the natives of Perthshire, and of course are the basis of local place-names and history, and continue to have an influence on local traditions.

In September 1996, I went to visit Elizabeth MacDiarmid on her croft on Loch Tayside.  Her parents were among the last Gaelic tradition bearers of the district.  Elizabeth is one of the stalwarts of Gaelic in Perthshire, where the 1996 Mod convenes this year, and among other roles she acts as the secretary of the Lochtayside branch of An Comunn Gaidhealach.

EM:  I was born here on Loch Tayside in 1932.  My mother was born in Glenlyon, and my father was born here on Loch Tayside, both of them in 1904.  My mother was Margaret Stewart, and my father Peter MacDiarmid.

MN:  When you were young, how many people were there staying on the Loch side?
EM:  A lot of people, a great many people in every single farm and house.  It’s just beyond belief how few there are left, that we are the only family left of the old families, all the rest are incomers.

MN:  When did the depopulation start?
EM:  The war made us more prosperous, sadly.  Prices improved with the war.  That was really what put all the farmers on their feet, which is the sad thing.  It was certainly after the war that the depopulation took place.  The whole attitude seemed to have changed.  I think people were no longer so happy just to work away on the land.  Quite a number of the farms changed hands in the early fifties, and the newcomers coming in brought a lot of changes, attitudes were different.  They were no longer prepared to work away in the old system the way we had with the horses, the tractor came in.  The early fifties, the hydro-electric works came here, we got electricity, we got telephones, I suppose the conditions improved.  The way of life just altered altogether, and I think with that people were no longer so happy just to work away in the way they used to do.  All kinds of things started up after the war, young farmers started in Aberfeldy, people went more to Aberfeldy for their entertainment rather than locally, you would have a ceilidh locally or little dances locally in the old times, that all changed.

Life before the war was very hard, there was just no money.  My father had just taken over the farm and it was a struggle all the way and every penny was really very precious.  But at the same time, we always had plenty of food on the farm, your own cow and eggs, and there was always lots of rabbits to eat, so you were never hungry.  But there were masses of people passing on the road who were starving.  They would come to the door begging for food, and my mother always gave them something.

MN:  When did the people you know about leave Perthshire for Canada?
EM:  A lot of them left in the late 1800s.  Our ones went to Winnepeg, but these other ones went out from Comrie about 1840 to Beckwith.

MN:  Do you ever have people coming back from Canada?
EM:  Masses of them.  I just say that they were very brave to go and they were wise to go, ’cause they’ve all prospered.  They’re just amazed at the beauty of this district and they realise how terrible it must have been for these people leaving, that they’d never see it again.  A lot of them who went didn’t really regret it, because they wrote back, telling others about how much better life was out there. Recently I had a lady from Osgoode township who was 89 while she was here, and she told me that when they went out, they hated it because there was all this wood and it was so dark.

MN:  How did people enjoy themselves?
EM:  I suppose before the war was the time we had these wee céilidhs in the house.  Somebody would come and play the fiddle and another chap would come and sing.  And my mother had an awful lot of Gaelic records.

We always had a kind of wee celebration for Halloween.  And of course they always made a big thing of the end of the harvest.  When you got the corn harvested, you know, the last of the oats.  It was a big thing to get the ‘Maiden’, this was the last sheaf, and the last little bit was brought in and decorated with either a ribbon or a little dress, like a doll.  And it was hung up.  And it was always kept there until the horses went out to plow in the spring and that was given to the horses the first day they went out to plough.

MN:  People used to have incredible capacities for memory…
EM:  My mother’s grandparents were in Ardeònaig, and they had the ferry croft.  And that was part of their duty, to run the ferry between Ardeònaig and Blàr Mór, across here at Carwhin.  There was a trumpet on the Lawers side at Blàr Mór, and if anybody wanted the ferry they blew the dùdach and they came across.  When the great communions would be on, they used to ferry people to and fro.  Now, this Bean Eoghain lived in Carwhin, she had a great memory, and she would be in the boat crossing over to the communion in Ardeòinaig, and on the way back, she would give them the whole sermon again, more or less word for word, and they would say, ‘Nach eil cuimhne aig Bean Eoghain?’  And that happened regularly, it was a known fact that Bean Eoghain could give them the whole sermon again.

MN:  What was your parent’s experience in school with Gaelic?
EM:  Well, my father was not a fluent speaker, for this reason.  When his older brother went to school in Lawers, he was punished for speaking Gaelic in the playground, and therefore the parents stopped speaking it at home, and so my father was never totally fluent.  He, I suppose, had quite a lot of Gaelic, particularly because he worked with people who spoke Gaelic, and then when he went to Glenlyon, which is where he met my mother, they spoke nothing but Gaelic in the home.  And so I can remember when I was a small child, to begin with, it was Gaelic that was spoken in the home, because there was a man who worked with us who had nothing else but Gaelic, and my granny (that’s my mother’s mother) spoke Gaelic, and my mother of course, and my uncle (my mother’s brother) and so father just had to speak Gaelic the best way he could, but he was also conscious that his grammar was never correct, you see?  I suppose that’s why I don’t speak it yet, there was always this sort of talk about grammar not being correct and so I was always terrified to risk speaking it in case it was wrong, which it probably was always.

MN:  What was the attitude about Gaelic when you were in school?
EM:  Well, it certainly didn’t have a high profile.  I wouldn’t have said that there was any definite opposition to it, but it wasn’t regarded as being of any significance, whether you had it or hadn’t.

MN:  When were the last patches of Gaelic on the loch-side?
EM:  As long as my mother was alive, and her brother-in-law, the one who had been punished for speaking Gaelic in school — he died in the [nineteen-]seventies — they never spoke anything else but Gaelic in the house, even in the late seventies.  And his wife was Perthshire born and reared, and she died in ’81 and she had plenty of Gaelic.  And that’s not so long ago, and there were others.  And when my mother met any of these people, she always spoke Gaelic.

MN:  What sort of benefits you do see from a consciousness of Perthshire Gaelic?
EM:  There’s been such a wonderful rich heritage of Gaelic and culture in Perthshire and it’s very sad that that’s all denied to these people who haven’t got some knowledge of Gaelic.  But there are people who have learned Gaelic in Breadalbane Academy, for example, Sheila Kidd, who has now gone on to Glasgow University to lecture in Gaelic.  That’s something positive that’s come out of it.

And I do feel that the future lies in the Gaelic medium units, and I can see that from my experience as secretary of the Perthshire Provincial Mod.  From those children who are taught in Breadalbane Academy there are the few, like Sheila Kidd, who go on and study it and make good, but they are very much in the minority.

Lots of these children, they take it for a little while and lose it, though I suppose a little will have rubbed off on them and maybe later on the interest will come back.  But I notice in Perth where there is a Gaelic medium unit and the children are being taught through the medium of Gaelic, they are miles ahead of the others, these children are totally fluent, these tiny little children are able to converse very very fluently, and I’m sure there must be a great future for them.

That’s what is needed, far more Gaelic medium units.

Canada, Folklife, Modern, North America, United States

Interview with Prof Charles Dunn of Harvard in 2002

Professor Charles W. Dunn (1915-2006) taught Celtic Studies at Harvard University for many years and is probably most celebrated for his fieldwork amongst Scottish Gaels in North America. See biography here.

Interview with Professor Charles W. Dunn
In his home in Cambridge, MA
By Michael Newton, 4 April 2002 (beginning at circa 9:30 PM)

MN: Would you mind recounting how you got involved in the whole Gaelic world?

CD: Well, before I embark on that rather large subject, I might say that I taped a great many informants, sometimes with great difficulty, and I always forgot to say who was there and when we were there, so all the tapes I have are totally dateable only by all kinds of subtle deductions. [Laughs]

Yes, the larger question, how did I become involved. It was all a gradual process, I think I was brought up in a highly humanistic tradition on all sides of the family, all my parents and grandparents and so on were all interested in literature and rather well educated and so I was brought up with a tremendous encouragement from all sides of the family to think a lot and read a lot and observe a lot and I was drawn to science at first because it was very dramatic when you could make things explode with chemicals but gradually I got drawn towards more literary humanistic side of life.

And ah, by the time I got to college I moved into literature and took a degree in English and German honors with Latin and Greek options, as extras on the side. And, I abandoned at that point study of science and of mathematics too, which always fascinated me, so then when it came time to go to graduate school, I applied to Harvard because I was interested in, primarily in the literary and cultural history of Scotland, and the minute I arrived at Harvard, Prof Fred Norris Robinson got hold of me and I became one of his students and took his Chaucer course, but then he encouraged me to take Middle Irish as a background for Celtic Studies, and I was reminded then of the background of the Gaelic people, Gaelic speaking people I had known, and in particular, Donald MacLean Sinclair, who had been the minister’s assistant at Greenside Parish Church in Edinburgh, when my father was minister there, and Donald MacLean Sinclair, descendent to the Bard MacLean, turned out to be the ideal person to lead me into Gaelic studies.

And ah, I was encouraged to apply for support in that area, in a practical way  by the head tutor in the English department at Harvard, who encouraged me to apply for a Dexter traveling fellowship to take me to the cathedral towns of England, and I said that I’d been to them, and he said Well, where would you really like to go, beside that, and I said, well, I’d like to go to Nova Scotia, and pursue study of the Gaelic speaking people in Nova Scotia.

So off I went for the summer, with $500 from the Dexter traveling fellowship. On that I got married, I bought a car, a Plymouth, blue Plymouth, and drove off with my bride, and arrived in Cape Breton. And we were most kindly greeted, thanks to Donald MacLean Sinclair, who had prepared the way. We went to the Gaelic College, as it was called, in St Anne’s, and we spent a most glorious summer, the two of us, studying Gaelic together, and from there on there was no returning from that particular Celtic angle of my whole life.

MN: So that first summer – was that 1941?

CD: Yes.

MN: And were you doing any recording at that time?

CD: Yes, we took along a fine old ancient tape recorder that had been used by a distinguished Harvard folklore ballad collector whose name I can’t at the moment remember, and he had left this tape recorder for anyone who wanted to use it. And so, I took it off with me and used to plug it into the battery in my car when I was totally isolated from normal electric support.

MN: Did you have the impression that there were lots of songs to collect at that time in Cape Breton?

CD: Oh yes, I mean, that, people were just, just mention anything whatsoever and the materials sprang forth, but they would always refer deferentially to, “Ah now, it’s a pity you never knew Angus,” well he was dead, “Ah well, it’s a pity you’ve never been into the upper so-and-so” because all of the Scottish placenames, it’s always the place itself and its always one that’s the upper, and upper is always remote and there’s always some real seer who lives in that recess, “Ah well, you must get to meet him, he knows so much more than the rest of us.” That was the kind of sort of outburst of information.

It also was very noticeable that the women in the families would always be on the background rather almost subserviently to their husbands but I still remember in, I think it was Christmas Island, there was a wonderful informant, a male, and not very fluent in what he remembered, and he would get part of a story out, and then his wife would come in and say, “Ah yes, and now you must remember that…” and then I would get the whole story, whether it was in English or Gaelic or a mixture of both, prompting.  And the women were really the people who remembered as an audience, and the males were, tended to be, even at that date, when tradition was much stronger than today, perhaps, the males were becoming rather fallible as memory carriers.  But the women as trained audience would interject, and say “Ah, but the story goes on to say…” [Laughs]

MN: At that time when you were first there, did you see a noticeable difference in the capability between generations, in terms of Gaidhlig, were the younger people as self-confident or capable as the older people?

CD: Well, in the 1940s — that’s hard to answer.  There was a great deference, “Ah, my grandfather would know, or my grandmother would know that.” Yes, I mean, the grasp of the vast oral lore was certainly disappearing quite rapidly.  I noticed that more when I would go back later.

MN: What did you see developing over time with your visits?

CD: Well, to counteract the decline of memory of materials, I did notice a kind of reaction in which the younger people became interested in and fascinated by their parent’s and granparent’s lore and they became, any time I went back to an area, they seemed to be even more interested in collecting every f4agment that could be collected.

MN: Do you think that it’s possible that your presence there as somebody of prestige who was interested in their tradition, do you think that that might have helped to stir some people to doing something, or being aware of the value of their tradition?

CD: I suppose so, yes. I, as a comparatively modest, just out of graduate school kind of person, I didn’t realize I had any prestige at all but, I do remember that Red Dan Smith said to me once, a wonderful informant of mine, at St Anne’s, Cape Breton, I was sitting, listening to him, very reverently, as he was reminiscing about his life and travels, and he stopped from what he was saying, and said “Now, isn’t it a strange thing, that I should be sitting here, as a lobster fisherman, telling a Professor what he ought to know.” [Laugh] I hadn’t realized, and never did quite come to realize, that there was that kind of distinction, and of course, it was acute, because the people in Cape Breton always referred to the Boston States, in the sense that, the Boston States were the center of learning, and so on.

And so, no matter how foolish I might be, I carried the aura of the Boston States with me wherever I went.

MN: And speaking of that connection, did you, did you make many contacts with the Gaelic community from the Maritimes when you were in Boston? You mentioned before that both the people here and the people there had some sort of close ties…

CD: Oh very, oh yes.  And there was the church connections, and so on – there was the Gaelic speaking church that I wrote a little note about years ago, and everyone gathered there, and they were all Cape Bretoners. It was Scotland transported to Cape Breton and then intermingled with various different, Lewis and Harris, and so on, they were all intermingled in the church, but they all had a common tie with Cape Breton.

MN: You mentioned before that there was certain sorts of material that were hard to collect from people, especially things that were sensitive to members of the community, and that ministers were reticent about giving over some sorts of information – things that might have been considered scandalous or obscene, or just impolite, not kind.  I think you mentioned a sature on somebody once…

CD: Oh yes, I was always well aware historically, that the body of the oral body of material must inevitably contain a vast amount of satire, and finally in the North Shore of Cape Breton, I asked a very fine informant, “Ah, did anyone ever make a satire of…” “Oh well,” he said, “oh yes, oh yes indeed. There was that terrible satire but I couldn’t tell you that.”

Actually, the only time that I ever managed to collect a satire was when I was in Glengarry County, and I was calling on a delightful Catholic priest, and he said, “Oh, satires were very fierce.” He said, “Oh, I’ve just, I don’t think you really should think about them.” And he laid, he produced out of the air, almost, a little transcript of a satire that he had somehow recorded, and he laid it on the desk in front of me, and left the room, and said it was something that could never be published, so I wrote it down rapidly while he was absent. [Laughs]  And he returned, and I put my notebook away, and we didn’t say anything to one another, but satires were very clearly part of a very, the most potent part of the whole poetic tradition, the whole bardic tradition in Celtic literature.  They in effect destroyed a person, politically in fact, within a community, so that he virtually ceased to exist.

MN: On a related note, there’s the whole issue of nicknames, and names that would be put on somebody behind their back and used by everybody except in front of him.

CD: Oh yes. I always wondered if they knew their own nickname. [Laughs] Surely they did. You’re thinking of the story of the Squirrel?  That came out of St Esprit and I was staying with a wonderful family, Strachan was part pf the family name, Strachan being a non-Highland name, but the Strachan part, Strachan himself who had brought the name to St Esprit had come from Aberdeenshire where my Strachans, with whom I’m related, came from, and he had come to St Esprit and ended up, as, so they say, as a music teacher.  I don’t know quite how he made a living at that, but anyway, he was reputed as a music teacher.

But St Esprit had its own special types of stories, and this one person who was referred to in conversation , and they said of him, “Well, he was always sort of rushing out, rushing in, where other people couldn’t get there.” And I said, “Well, what do you mean?” And they said, “Well, we’re referring to the Squirrel” and I forget his clan name. “The Squirrel?” I said. “Yes,” they said, “one time when snow was so heavy no one could get to church, but this fellow turned up in church, and the next week he said, ‘I didn’t see any of yous at church – why?’ ‘Oh well, the snow was terrible!’ ‘Yes, yes,’ said one of them, ‘it’s very easy for you when you’re a squirrel and run along the top of the fence above the snow to get to church.’” And his name became permanently thereafter, “Squirrel” MacDonald or MacLeod or whatever it may have been, I can’t remember the details now, but that name was placed upon him forever more, and his family, of course.

MN: At what point did you, did the idea of Highland Settler come to you?

CD: Well, after Pat and I went to Cape Breton for one summer, then I went off and taught far, far away in Columbia, Missouri, then I met with the Rockefeller Foundation, who were making a study of Nova Scotia on a sort of cultural basis. And the person in charge of the investigation had been a roommate of Jerry Whiting, B. J. Whiting, a very witty Medievalist at Harvard, a Maine Democrat, and absolutely wonderful instructor, and this fellow from Rockefeller Foundation said, “Now you’ve been for a summer and written a report on your Dexter Fellowship, how would you like to go back and make a fuller study of the area?” Well I said, “Oh, well, fascinating, yes.” So Pat and I went back, this time without any car, or without any recording equipment, and we spent one year primarily in Cape Breton, and I kept a careful diary of al the people I met and where we stayed and totally detached description of what we were seeing and hearing, and Pat and I both studied Gaelic, more and more thoroughly, and became more and more closely connected with all of the people we stayed with.

We were able to stay with not only with, in, Protestant communities, but also in Catholic communities, and we were warmly welcomed  in Antigonish by the faculty at St Francis Xavier University, and Father Nicholson, P. J. Nicholson in particular, lead me into very close perception of the Catholic areas, and in this case, it was particularly interesting because my grandfather being a minister in Pictou county, a Scottish Presbyterian, and in his own wandering career, and the, in his day the clash between the Protestants and Catholics was very severe, and one of the priests at St Francis Xavier, forgetting that my Presbyterian background, told me what a dreadful place Pictou was because on one occasion, the priest had been settled there, and he wondered where he would get a suitable housekeeper, and the people rigged it so that he ended by getting the local whore as his housekeeper!

I was happily, totally accepted between Protestant and Catholic and also inundated with strong messages from the Lowland Scottish tradition through the experts in history, the historians at Dalhousie who tended to emphasize in their approach to the history of Nova Scotia, they tended to emphasize the immense importance of teachers such as MacColluch [sp?] who, from their point of view, Pictou academy established academic excellence in the province.

On the hand, the Highlanders themselves whom I was living with and visiting, were very well aware of the fact that they, in their Highland tradition, had gone into the ministry, through education, or they had gone in as Protestants, or they had gone into the priesthood as Catholics, from a totally Highland point of view.

MN: Did it seem as though the Highlanders felt that they had something to prove?

CD: Oh yes, some of them admitted that they labored under a sense of slight shame, sensitivity, about speaking a “foreign language,” as it were, and some of the extreme Protestant ministers really were opposed to the continuation of the study of Scottish Gaelic – they were openly opposed to it.

MN: What sort of relations did you see as a whole between the two religious communities in the Highland settlements? Did it seem as though the people themselves got a long fine, but they felt torn between their confessions, or did the ministers seem to be the source of their contention, or did the people themselves seem not to trust the other communities, or did there seem to be no problem at all between them?

CD: Well, the ultimate test, of course, was inter-marriage and there are wonderful instances of that – love always found a way, of course. But I think the rivalry merely happened to be occasionally religious, but there was a sort of in-bred rivalry between districts, and there’s this famous story of a New York sociologist who came to study the kind of fights that broke out between districts. And he came – I can’t remember just where now – fortunately for him I can’t remember his name just now – I think the people got a sense that he was looking at them with a cold and distant sociological eye, and so they, he went, he’d been told that the dances were the thing to go to, and it used to be said that the Highlanders loved dancing so much that all you had to go, in a district, when the population was fairly dense, just go out and shout, “Let’s dance!” and people would immediately congregate.

So in these, such occasions, occasionally somebody, some group, would come in from the neighboring village and would start joining in the dance but would end up in fighting, the men fighting one another from the two different areas. But anyway, some how or other, the word got around that this outsider was coming to look for a dance fight, and so, they carefully contrived it so that it broke out right around him, so he left town and never returned to Cape Breton, and never published a paper on the subject whatsoever. Does that answer your question?  Only rather indirectly, I know.

MN: Well, this brings up the other point, which is, how self-conscious were people in Cape Breton about being a subject of study, and did you get responses from people about your book, that they felt they had been fairly treated, that they had been unfairly treated, that they were glad to see someone paying attention to them?

CD: Well, my experience with writing a book is that, after it’s published, there is a deathly silence.  Nobody ever says anything about it, and then all of a sudden, somebody says reluctantly, “Oh, that was an interesting book.” So, I wasn’t, I never had any mass of fan mail from people who said “That was terrific.”

What I was gradually impressed by was that I had come in as an outsider without any foregone conclusions about people and I simply described things as they were, the way the people were, and I implied perhaps a certain affection for all of them, and on the whole, people seemed to be rather glad that I was able to speak as an outsider about the terrible differences that separated Catholic from Protestant, and also, of course, the Protestants within the Protestants who always managed to subdivide in subtle ways or non-subtle ways, the terrible division between the continuing Presbyterian church and the United Church which was uniting, joining with other Protestant denominations, with the occasional absurd result that a local population of three or four hundred people at most would divide 50-50 and one would stay Presbyterian and the other would build a United Church next door.

There were places, for instance Little Narrows, where the Reverend A D MacKinnon, the great influence on keeping calm in a community, the Reverend A D persuaded the community that whatever they did, they should vote, should agree to vote one way or the other, totally unanimously, so despite the dissension when they were thinking about it, they finally voted unanimously, let us remain totally a Presbyterian church, no United Church, so Little Narrows ended up by a very quiet, peaceful, no tempest-torn kind of community with one church.  But so many other places within the Protestant areas ended with two churches, one a United Church and the other Presbyterian, thus subdividing the population, which, was all, in those cases, all Protestant in origin, into two conflicting groups.

MN: Now, you went beyond Nova Scotia and you went to other parts of Canada, such as Glengarry and Bruce County.

CD: Yes, we, one summer we went to Glengarry County, and that was absolutely fascinating. The area that we were living in was more or less engulfed with French speaking people by the time we were there – a hundred years earlier it was rather different. But the area was unfortunately in that case not divided by religion, it was divided by political economy. We were in a factory area in which the factory owners, the factory workers, all of them Scottish, Gaelic speaking immigrants that had settled in the early 1800s, were divided against one another very sharply and bitterly, so that the managerial groups were divided against the workers, and so on.

But that was a, behind that lay an extraordinary homogenous kind of settlement of settelrs from Glengarry in Scotland into Glengarry County.  It’s one of the rare examples of a, apart from Cape Breton itself, where Scottish Gaelic speakers settled en masse, and totally took over the area.

I’m trying to think of the … kinds of survivals in that area … Very strong survival of Scottish Gaelic singing and of Gaelic, Protestant Gaelic religious communion services, and the singing of, where the presenter of the psalms rhymed out by the presenter himself, ad so on. A very, very strong sense of Highland origin, Highland background, Highland history.

MN: By then the decline in Gaelic speakers must have been very noticeable in Glengarry, I would think.

CD: Yes, except that the ones that one could discover were fascinating, and of course, I inadvertently suggested that this area was entirely Protestant, it was also Catholic, strongly Catholic, and the people I met were extraordinarily well versed in their tradition.

I was told to go to so-and-so, who was 74, and he said, “Ah well, you’d better not call on me, you’d better call on Angus, Donald Fletcher, he’s 86 or 84 and he knows much more than I do.” So I called on Donald Fletcher, and I said, “Do you remember any of the old songs they used to sing?” But he was not wishing to dispose of the matter as easily as that, he said, “Well, I’m not a singer, I play the fiddle.” And he said, “I used to mend the roof on houses and I fell off the roof and broke my arm so I don’t play the fiddle now, but oh, yes, I could sing a sing, yes, I could sing a song.”

And then he remembered a song that had been composed by a settler who came from Iona, of all places, the great spiritual center of Scotland, of Scottish tradition. “And the settler,” he said, “well, he settled on a farm and he didn’t like it much, and then along came the springtime and the fireflies came out, and he’d never seen a firefly in Iona, and he composed a song and – will I sing it to you?” “Oh, yes, please Donald,” and he sang it for me, and it was about “the fireflies are setting fire to my land and burning down my house and my home, oh why did I leave Iona?” I recorded that song and others from this wonderful Donald Fletcher, wonderful, wonderful man.

And then later I called at a neighbor of his, a younger woman, in her early 80s, Mrs. Austin. And by that time, I found that it was useful to know how to collect songs, not by knowing what the person would have for a song, but by telling them what a competitor had by way of a song. So I said, “I’ve just been calling on Donald Fletcher, and he sang me a wonderful song.” “Donald Fletcher, but he plays the fiddle, he doesn’t sing!” “Oh well, but he sang this song about the firefly.” “Oh well, well, now, I’ll sing you a song myself, I’ll sing you a song.” And the song was, “Why will Queen Victoria not allow the Marquis of Lorne to marry,” oh, what’s her name, whatever the name is … sorry, that’s very important, Queen Victoria’s daughter … so then she sang me all 12 stanzas of this song, pointing out how preposterous it was that Queen Victoria was so strict about her rules, about who could marry whom.

So, that area was just full of material, and later I met one of Marius Barbeaux’s – Marius Barbeuax was a brilliant folklore collector of French Canadian material, and Glengarry is very much part of his purview, and he sent somebody to call on the people in Glengarry specifically, and no one had told him, one of the informants I met, no one had told this informant who was bilingual in French-Canadian and English, no one had told him that when people started to sing in Glengarry, they might not necessarily be singing in English or in French, they might indeed be singing in Gaelic. So he turned on his recorder for his first informant, and, as he said to me, this fellow started singing in a language I didn’t even know!

So, there, in the archives of Ottawa, there are songs recorded in Gaelic by French Canadian collectors who didn’t know that Gaelic was the language.

MN: Another place in Canada where you recorded material was Bruce County. How did you know to go there?

CD: Bruce County… I knew about it in various ways, partly because of a family nurse we had when, let’s see, when Peter was born, our second child, Pat and I, she knew Bruce County well, and then, we were spending a summer, Pat and I and our family, were spending a summer in Edinburgh, and we were living in Garscube Terrace, and next door, the people came over, and said, “I hear you’re from Canada.” “Yes,” I said, “indeed.” The person saying that was an academic in education named Archie MacKinnon. And Archie MacKinnon and his wife were spending a year academic abroad, travel, in Edinburgh, and we became close friends, and constant companions, and Archie MacKinnon started telling me about his background in Bruce County.

And so, Pat and I went to Bruce County and called on Archie MacKinnon’s father. And Archie MacKinnon’s father said he was Gaelic speaking, but quite reluctant about it, feeling he was not an expert, “Oh, I know the songs, yes. Oh, I’ve heard them sing,” and so on. So we didn’t really collect very much from him. But, one of the, by that time, I was becoming a little more adroit about extracting material from people who had things hidden away in their cultural history, and I said, “You know this song from Bruce County.” “Oh, yes,” he said, “oh, I know it, yes, yes.”

So, I was desperate to get him to sing it. – how could I do it?  I said, “I know you don’t sing, but how did it go as a song?” [Laughs] So he started singing it to me, and so I heard the words as they should be, although, later he didn’t quite realize what he’d done, but he’d betrayed himself, [Laughs] in singing a song that he could perfectly well sing, but he thought theoretically he couldn’t sing it.

Material was disappearing so rapidly in Bruce County, it was just pathetic. There could have been buckets, buckets of materials collected …

MN: But no body was there to do it?

CD: No.

MN: And did you see the same sort of thing in Glengarry County?

CD: Well, there it was not decaying so desperately and so rapidly, no.

MN: How much interest was there in academia in these topics when you were working on this?

CD: Well, in Toronto, I had no trouble in… although University of Toronto, University College specifically, had a very rigid program, I was a member of the English department and it was ruled by a wonderful old fellow, A S P Woodhouse, who was a bachelor, and looked after an aged mother, and he had a portrait of Samuel Johnson hanging in his study, and hoped that he would personally remind everyone of Samuel Johnson, and he was an expert in 18th century literature, and used to lecture on it in great detail, and so that, the first term would start at 1832 and get to 1838, until the last week, after which he would fill in the rest of Victorian literature, to the death of Queen Victoria. But he was perfectly willing to let me have a course in Scottish Gaelic, so I did.

And everyone encouraged that. The general interest in folklore studies was also tied in with that rather nicely.

MN: What about addressing a more popular audience?  People have such preconceived ideas about what a clan is supposed to be, what a Highlander are supposed to be, do you find that people have resistance to hearing your own experience in Gaelic folklore collecting, or are they just open for anything?

CD: I don’t know – could you tighten that up a bit? I mean, I’m terrified about making any kinds of remark about the clan system, and so on, because the clan system is a very foggy system which obviously changed sharply during the ages, and after the Bonnie Prince Charlie, and so on, period, it changed not merely because of Bonnie Prince Charlie, by any means, but economically and socially, and so on, so I’ve always avoided making generalizations about the clan system.

MN: What I mean is, if you’re an average person, and the only thing you know about the Highlands is what you see in popular films, like The Highlander, and Braveheart,  and so on, then you might have one idea about what Highlanders are supposed to be, and if you’re suddenly presented with Gaelic folklore, it might be quite different from what you expect.

CD: Oh, absolutely, yes. I’m caught in a dilemma there, because,  I’m terrified by the inner body of people in Scotland who know all this better than I do, and then they hear me as somebody lecturing to people in North America who have a totally, from their point of view, totally romantic, hazy, vague sense of what the Scottish tradition is, and what the clan system is, and tartans, they don’t even like the notion of tartan, the more severe critics in Scotland, so I’m caught in the middle as a sort of would-be radio entertainer – does that answer the question? [Laughs] Then of course, the wild notions on this side of the Atlantic, of what it was all about, the highly romanticized view.  It was all about harsh economic reality.  Survival, but carrying on the memories and the happiest of the traditions, and the warmest, the most intimate, and so on … the religious traditions, and the family traditions, and the respect for parents, and family itself, and so on – so tightly tied in to the whole Highland way of life.

MN: What would you hope that Highland Settler be remembered for?

CD: Oh … I suppose it really was a, I was not intentionally, but I was inevitably paying a compliment to the charm and the warmth and hospitality of the people whom I traveled among, they were all incredibly kind and patient and helpful.

MN: What sort of a man was [Jonathan] MacKinnon?  He must have been very dedicated … he must have had a very strong vision of what he wanted to accomplish.

CD: Well, actually, in my diary – I’ve just finished reading that part of it – I contrast him with his brother, and Jonathan G MacKinnon was a bachelor and a very fierce, determined sort of person, and his brother was just the extreme opposite. And, very quiet and retiring. Jonathan G lived in Whycocamagh, although he came from Skye Glen, as he al[ways said], he’s a “MacKinnon from Skye!” – and he remained the sort of Highlander within Cape Breton, whereas his brother who worked in Sydney in commercial business, was the sort of Highlander who’s been urbanized and is working his daily eight hours a day at his desk. The two of them were so different from one another, quite extraordinary.

But, he was – when I knew him – he was just in his latter years – I was charmed by the fact that he fell, I think, deeply in love with one of the prize students at the Gaelic course that he taught at St Anne’s.  I mean, not in an active way, understand, but he greatly admired one young lady who was taking the course along with Pat and myself and some other students.  I thought that was fine, that even as an aged bachelor he was able to find a sort of infatuation with a feminine form.

When he started the paper – again, that’s something that I recorded from what, not what he told me, but what his much, very admiring younger brother told me – Jonathan simply wrote a prospectus for producing Mac-Talla and he required, I don’t know, three hundred subscribers, let’s say, whatever, and he didn’t get that many but he started anyway, and just went on doggedly doing it. Tremendous, extraordinary undertaking.

MN: And of course that had a major impact on the Gaels of Nova Scotia and beyond.

CD: Oh yes. They got out clippings from Mac-Talla or they kept the entire journal in their shelves, or whatever. Yes, it was greatly admired, and circulated in the way that Scottish Gaelic things circulate, in the same way, for that matter the Stornoway Gazette circulates – I still remember, I used to receive in Toronto, a copy of the Stornoway Gazette, when Pat and I were living on an assistant professor’s salary and raising two children we didn’t subscribe to it personally, but we received a copy which had been first read in Scotland, then sent to a friend of the reader in, I think, New Zealand, and then from New Zealand, the copy came to me. And that was true of Mac-Talla, it just circulated in its own quiet underground way around the world, around Gaeldom.

My Scottish Gaelic studies were, I always felt, were personal, sort of, quiet, affectionate indulgence on my part, because I was really, through my academic life, I was primarily editing medieval texts and disseminating particularly medieval English literature. So I’ve led an extremely divided, but very, very happy life, [Laughs] academically, doing just what I wanted. There were always some students, bless them, with whom I could share the joys of what I was working on myself.

MN: Did you ever feel that – given what you’ve just described as a split – that you had insights into the medieval manuscript tradition that you got from your experience with the Gaelic world?

CD: I think I saw, I was able to see Chaucer, who was, and who is, one of my great admirations – when I was a schoolboy at Rivers School, and I could come over here, we had to chose an author to write a report on and I was, you know, 2 or 3 years before you leave school, I chose Chaucer as my favorite, and Chaucer has always been my favorite, one of my favorite writers, and Chaucer was obviously, would have been, a great folklore, well he was, a great folklore collector, because he simply sat and listened to people, and enjoyed them, accepted them for what they were, in all their magnificence or grossness, or whatever , whatever it might be, loved it all, it was humanity, he loved it.

And, he would, he would love going Gaelic folklore collecting, if it had been possible to arrange! I can only do so much in one lifetime.

Folklife, Ireland, Modern, Music, North America, Scotland

Further Thoughts on the History of Dance in Scottish Gaeldom: Part 2

An Appalachian Detour

Anyone wishing to produce an account of vernacular dance in North America would do well to read the recent volume Hoedowns, Reels, and Frolics by Phil Jamison (2015, University of Illinois Press). Jamison integrates a huge amount of information and personal experience into this book: the various distinctive genres of dance in Appalachia; the various ethnic groups and their ethno-musical/choreographic traditions; the constituent elements of dance practiced in Appalachia and how they bear the influences of the various traditions; the social contexts for dance; the layers of historical processes and interactions that produced these dances. The result is an affirmation of the very hybrid, complex nature of tradition in Appalachia, as in all of North America, with contributions from every ethnic group.

Appalachia has been conventionally represented as an isolated backwater, preserving “Old World” customs with fidelity and conservativeness (this ought to sound familiar to any aficionado of Cape Breton tradition). The first task to which Jamison sets himself is to explode this myth by examining the history of settlement, commerce (especially via boats), and cultural exchange networks. He concludes:

It is clear that the people of Appalachia were not a homogenous Anglo-Saxon stock; they were, rather, a “mixed multitude of all classes and complexions” who, despite the relative isolation of the southern mountains, had contact with the outside world through trade and travel. The hoedowns, reels, and frolics of Appalachia likewise were not pure survivals of an ancient Anglo-Celtic heritage, locked away in isolation, but a constantly evolving folk tradition that incorporated elements of recently popular social dances with the older traditions. … these rural dances no doubt appeared unfashionable and antiquated, especially when compared with the popular dances of the day, but in fact they were only a few generations old. (pp. 18-19)

One of the important strands of influence on Appalachian dance was that of dancing masters, especially those who were French or had direct or indirect training of French fashion. Although their numbers were not particularly large, their consequential impact was large, no doubt because of the weight of associated social prestige.

In America, as in Europe, attendance at dancing school distinguished the middle and upper classes from the unrefined common folk … The dancing schools of America were not confined to the cities of the eastern seaboard, and some itinerant dancing masters headed west into the backcountry, where even in small frontier towns dancing was considered to be a necessary part of one’s education. (p. 30)

Jamison’s investigation is particularly pertinent when examining Scottish and Cape Breton dancing – especially solo dancing with percussive emphasis – because there are clearly direct relationships between these manifestations of dance. The style of solo percussive dancing done in Appalachia commonly referred to as “buck dancing,” “flatfooting,” and “clogging” may have had earlier antecedents in the British Isles, but they were refashioned by the formality and discipline of the dancing masters:

In the late eighteenth century, it became fashionable to perform hornpipe steps as setting steps while dancing country dances and cotillions. … This percussive step was taught at dancing schools and it soon became part of the vernacular step dance tradition on both sides of the Atlantic. (pp. 136, 137)

This, in my opinion, seems to have an exact parallel in the evolution of step dance as practiced today in Cape Breton. Dance practice can change rapidly, with styles going in out and of fashion, and getting “stuck” in rural areas after they become displaced by newer styles in (usually urban) centers of innovation. And these historical processes become quickly forgotten in people’s minds. Jamison’s comments about this for Appalachia:

the step dances are a composite of northern European, West African, and Native American dance traditions, and they have also been continuously borrowed from the popular dances of Europe and America. They have evolved over time as dancers have observed, imitated, and shared their steps and styles, and in some cases they have fed back into popular culture, creating a cycle. The “Pigeon Wing,” like the Cakewalk, moved back and forth between urban and rural settings as well as across racial lines more than once: from French dancing masters to white dancers at dancing schools, then to black dancers (enslaved as well as free), to white minstrel performers in blackface (who were imitating the black dancers), and finally to urban tap dancers (both black and white), rural Southern buckdancers (both black and white), and contemporary cloggers (predominantly white). (pp. 148-49)

This fluidity parallels exactly how I see social dance becoming adopted, adapted, and assimilated in the Gaelic world, where dancing masters in formal dancing schools must have introduced percussive step dance before it become absorbed into a vernacular folk culture context with less structure and premeditated choreography.

An Irish Detour

Anyone aiming to provide an account of dance in Scotland would do well to read Catherine Foley’s 2013 Step Dancing in Ireland. Her volume studies dancing in historic and ethnographic detail from the eighteenth century to the present, with a special emphasis on dancing masters.

Foley demonstrates that new ideas about dance – inextricably tied to social class, economic mobility and education – were being brought into Ireland that had a profound impact. Dancing was inevitably a dimension of the coloniality of Ireland and her people, and an aspect of the performance of social roles:

Dancing masters were commonly found within educated society in Ireland, and all educated persons, or those aspiring to present themselves as educated, required knowledge in both the social dances of the day and in the presentation of oneself. The role of the dancing master consisted not just of teaching fashionable social dances, but imparting knowledge of ballroom etiquette … The Continental European aesthetic was based on noble dancing for polite and ‘civilized’ society; ballroom etiquette was therefore also taught as part of dance instruction in Ireland. (pp. 51, 52)

Dancing masters can be understood as cultural mediators whose role was not just to transmit this colonial way of being in society and the world unchanged, but were engaged in creatively adapting it to the various segments and classes of Irish society over time, as a cultural process.

During the early decades of the nineteenth century, it would, therefore, appear that there were four categories of dancing masters to be found in Ireland. These categories were divided by class. One category of dancing master was the English, French or Italian dancing master (or those dancing masters who had trained with them), who taught the gentry and upper classes in the cities and larger towns of Ireland or in gentlemen’s houses in rural areas; the patrons for these dancing masters were, for the most part, Protestant. A second category included the dancing master who Lenihan refers to as ‘the fashionable terpsichorean professor’ – the slightly pretentious dancing master who Gallicized his name and aped the manners and dress of his clients. A third category was the dancing master who was respectable enough to teach the young people of both the big houses and the ordinary tenants. A fourth category of dancing master was the one that Lenihan named ‘the village hop merchant’, who was on the lowest rung of the social ladder; he prepared young people for Sunday dances and dances at fairs. (p. 65)

While dance was a form of the colonization of the body, it could also be a response to that colonization that offered the Irish a form of self-control and self-expression:

Step dancing was seen as a skill to be mastered: a skill that showed that individuals had control and mastery over their minds and bodies. This was contrary to the negative reputation that English colonizers generally spread about the Irish as ‘uncivilized’. Thus in controlling their movements through step dancing, dancers were endeavouring to illustrate that they, like their colonizers, could also be controlled and ‘civilized’, but in an Irish way. (p. 75)

During the colonial period, it was shaped by a combination of in uences from indigenous cultural practices and society, colonial culture, Catholic morality, the Great Famine, and a European dancing master aesthetic. … Step dancing embodied, expressed and negotiated the cultural values, knowledge and history of the rural Christian communities of the region. The upright torso and the visual and percussive, rhythmical and metrical, soundings of the feet gave ‘voice’ to their shared colonial culture and history. (p. 227)

Foley thus demonstrates that dance is a bodily practice whose meaning and form can be understood as a dynamic cultural process constantly being (re-)appropriated, negotiated, and contested by members of society.

Step dancing as a genre is some two hundred and fifty years old. To provide an understanding of its emergence in Ireland, I examine dance during the period of the European Renaissance to establish connections between the European dancing masters and dancing masters in Ireland. The European dancing masters’ aesthetic and codified dance practices were disseminated by dancing masters across Europe – and indeed, across the Atlantic – to different sectors of society through instruction in dance and ballroom etiquette. Ireland was no exception. Here a hierarchical system of dancing masters existed for different sectors of society. These dancing masters provided instructions in dance and ballroom etiquette as an integral part of the ‘civilizing process’ prevalent throughout most of Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. … I trace the changing trajectory of step dancing over two hundred years as it has reflected, responded to and negotiated historical processes of colonialism, famine, nationalism and globalization. (p. 2)

Foley thus brings not only a personal experience of dance, situated in place, time and culture, to her work, but an insightful, critical methodology to interpreting the evidence. It is a major shortcoming of Gibson’s book that he was unable or unwilling to acquire and apply the same kinds of critical lenses to the very same cultural dynamics as they operated in Gaelic Scotland and Cape Breton.

Dancing Schools and the Refinement of Manners

I have also emphasized the pivotal role of dancing masters in the refashioning of dance in Scottish Gaeldom. Although they may not have been as numerous in Scotland as they were in Ireland or as prominent in the documentary record, they had a crucial impact on the style, form, and conceptualization of dance in Scottish society.

“Improvement” as anglicization, in a similar colonial context as Ireland, and dance as the refinement of manners (which can also be read as the colonization of the body), were instrumental concepts in the development of dance in eighteenth-century Scotland. That the very same notions were “afoot” can be read, for example, in the biography of one of the patrons of dance in Jane Maxwell, Duchess of Gordon (1749-1812), who patronized dancing in one of the epicenters of social dance music in the later nineteenth century (as relayed in Harry Graham, A Group of Scottish Women, 1908):

Under her protection Scottish music began to rise towards a deserved eminence. She introduced and popularised dancing as an accomplishment worthy of study, and by making it fashionable at routs and assemblies, did good work in diminishing the passion for gambling, which had hitherto been the sole amusement indulged in at evening parties by members of the upper class. Reels and strathspeys took the place of rouge-et-noir and faro; round games were abandoned for country (if not for round) dances.

This is indeed clear in the 1805 dancing manual of Francis Peacock as well (as I have emphasized in previous entries on the subject). Although Gibson lists several dancing masters in his book, there are several others of whom Keith Sanger has given me evidence, namely:

  • The Campbell of Glenorchy were employing a dancing master at Finlarig for their two sons c. 1659 -1671.
  • William Paterson was employed as a dancing master in Glenorchy in 1746
  • Dugald MacEacharn was being employed as a dancing master in Kintyre in 1772
  • Peter McClean was a dancing master in Perth in 1802

While these are meagre additions to a small list, the influence was certainly profound, even at one or two steps removed, and is not uncommonly a source of comment in Gaelic song. I have enumerated several references in an earlier article (“Dannsair air ùrlair-déile thu”), but as a further example of this, a poet in Glenmorison remarks in the mid-nineteenth century (in Dàin agus Òrain le Gilleasbuig Grannd, Bard Ghlinne Morasdain (1863)) about dancing at a Highland wedding:

Chì mi thall a[n] dannsa ’s Griogair ann:
’S ann ’s a’ Sgoil Dannsa fhuair e na Chigeachan;
Mar bithinn gu tinn gun cluichinn Figure ris,
’S fhios agam fhìn nach mì bhiodh air dheireadh ann. (p. 145)

I see I see the dancing yonder, and Gregor is there:
It is in the dancing school that he acquired the “jigs”;
If I were not sick, I would dance a figure to him,
And I certainly know that I would not be deficient at it. (my translation with emendation from Liam Alastair Crouse)

Notice how the Gaelic poet resorts to English terminology when discussing dance, having no suitable words in Gaelic (we must suppose) to express “jig” and “figure.”

Arms and Upper Body of Scottish Dancers

There has been recent research about how body posture and pose projects personal power (or lack thereof) and affects a person’s mental and emotional state (such as this one). While listening to a program on the topic, it occurred to me that this bodily stance of dominance, authority and competence is what is conveyed by the posture evident in some genres of Scottish Highland folk dance in old illustrations and a few practitioners (and I am especially thinking here of my dance mentor James MacDonald Reid).

Practically every depiction of dance in rural eighteenth-century Scotland (whether Highland or Lowland) shows the arms high (not relaxed low against the body) and the feet and legs somewhat elevated (not down low). Take, for example, the classic “Highland Wedding” by Allan in 1780:

Or his “Penny Wedding” in 1795:

Arms are upraised in many Highland dances, as shown in this famous 1848 illustration by R. R. McIan of the dance Gille Chaluim:

Or this rare late nineteenth-century photograph of the Reel of Tulloch:

This body position can also be found in a number of European folk dances, such as in the Auvergne region of France, Galicia, Georgia, Greece, and elsewhere. While I have in previous writings emphasized some of the changes imposed on (so-called) Highland Dance by nineteenth- and twentieth-century “improvers” (especially in this article), I do believe that elevated arm and leg positions form a very important continuity with pre-eighteenth century styles.

The deportment of the body for stepdancers in Cape Breton, Ireland (for sean-nós dancing), and Appalachia, however is quite different: arms and hands down and relaxed, feet close to the floor, cutting neatly and carefully, with minimal movement. This difference in style poses a great challenge for those like Gibson who claim that Cape Breton step dance represents the purest lineage of Gaelic dancing surviving to the present.

Who or what is responsible for moving the arms down and keeping the feet movements minimal, close to the floor? The obvious answer is: dancing masters. The predominant reason may be simply that the dancer would be thrown off balance while using the feet to move nimbly and quickly to the music if the arms are up (thanks to Phil Jamison for discussing this issue with me). The development of percussive dance represents a shift of emphasis from the whole body to the legs and feet. This thus seems to reflect the concomitant contemporary notion of grace, discipline, and refinement.