Is Gaelic Literature “White”? Decolonizing the Classroom Should Be About More Than Skin Color

Does a Lithuanian student feel a surge of pride when “Beowulf” is read by his teacher? Does the daughter of Sami immigrants feel a special affinity for the Wife of Bath? Does a Lebanese boy feel a special sense of privilege when the novels of Mark Twain are discussed in class?

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the idea of decolonizing the classroom. In short, given that formal education has a profound effect on how we see ourselves, understand our place in the world, and shape our values and ambitions, institutions of education must change to reflect the global village, a more diverse student body, and a greater sense of justice and fairness. Given that our formal institutions of learning are by definition the product of imperial entities and agendas, it is inevitable that they contain biases and exclusions from those colonial eras and projects that need to be actively deconstructed if education is to be “liberating” in the sense that they are intended to be, and not perpetuate the inequities of earlier eras.

So far, so good. What I think is highly problematic, as a scholar of Scottish Gaelic Studies, is that many contemporary advocates of the idea of this decolonization of the academy present it merely in terms of racial essentialism: that the problem is that the curriculum is dominated exclusively by “dead white men” and that greater representation of non-white people, cultures and intellectual content will decolonize it.

Let me step back for a second to explain how I understand and engage with some of these basic concepts. I understand coloniality to be the imposition of one socio-political entity’s authority over another in one or more domains: military, cultural, political, intellectual, economic, territorial, etc. This abuse of power is usually exerted in multiple domains and almost always justified with the rationale that the colonizing entity is superior in some absolute sense, often articulated in cultural, moral and intellectual terms.

Wherever there is a great accumulation and exercise of power, there is abuse of that power. Empires centered in such places as China, Rome, Mexico, and Peru all engaged in forms of colonialism and the effect has never been benevolent to the vast majority of those who had the misfortune of having it imposed on them. And it was happening long before the idea of racialism emerged as we now know it. The common factor is the idea that people and/or societies can be put into a hierarchy, with some being better – and hence more worthy of power, wealth, authority, resources, etc. – than others. Biology provided the rationale for putting people in a hierarchy of races in the modern era.

One of the major problems with “whiteness,” as it is used in North American discourse, is that the ethnolinguistic basis of “white” identity remains occluded by it, as though it was merely about skin tone. We must be careful to distinguish between lived realities and historical complexities. As the power brokers of North America allowed increasing levels of immigration from a wider range of countries in the nineteenth century, the range of ethnic groups living in colonial settlements in North America grew, and so did frictions and confrontations about assimilation. To whose language and cultural norms was it necessary to conform in order to access the maximal power, wealth and privilege in the (so-called) “New World”? That of the archetypal white, Anglo-Saxon protestant. In other words, whiteness in North America is built from the template of the English Empire who laid the colonial foundations, and later immigrants were expected to conform to it to become fully “white” and “American” or “Canadian” (I will ignore the issue of Franco-Canadian identity for the moment).

You might ask, “Don’t you mean ‘British’?” That too is another colonial facade and one that also gets to the colonial foundations of our educational institutions. Britain has always been a multilingual, multicultural island, but at the time that Englishmen were leading the colonization of North America, they had only just emerged victorious in a similar conflict over supremacy in the British Isles. In fact, many of the leaders of the colonization of America were involved in colonization schemes in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Having gained military and political domination, they had the ability to impose their authority over institutions covering the dominions of their former rivals, who were (supposedly) uncivilized if their existence was to be acknowledged at all. What was “British” was really just what was English, writ large. Only recently have some anthologies of “British literature” started to look outside of the anglophone canon and shown an interest in being inclusive of the literature of the contemporary Welsh and Gaelic peoples who had a huge influence on their English neighbours, but too often this inclusion is too superficial and not integrated enough.

The way in which Spanish, French, and British empires asserted authority, created institutions, and exercised power differed greatly according to their previous historical experiences but these issues of continuity and innovation are not adequately analyzed and discussed. It is too often assumed that the system of domination and exploitation that prevailed in British North America was a reflection of skin colour that emerged organically in “New World” encounters, but this mistake is a projection of modern racial essentialism.

There is a great deal of continuity in the English habits of mind and structures of power from the conquest of the (so-called) “Celtic fringe” to the First Nations of the Americas (and elsewhere). Theodore Allen traced the structural antecedents of racialized structural oppression to Anglo-Norman rule in his two volume study The Invention of the White Race; forced assimilation via linguicide and religious indoctrination have been formal policies by the anglophone élite for centuries in Wales, Scotland and Ireland; land and assets owned communally were forcibly forfeited to the Crown for redistribution according to political loyalty and modernist notions of individual property; and so on.

Moreover, during the height of the empire anglophone leaders ensured that the Celtic fringes would be divested of the right to assert their own cultural authority. The creation of nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was a very uneven process, with some ethnic groups entirely subsumed by a single dominant group who monopolized power for themselves, to the detriment of the former, at least in cultural and ethnic terms. This was certainly the case with Celtic peoples. An article discussing of the decolonization of the curriculum in the Guardian states rightly:

Perhaps the fiercest debate about European thought emerges in the battle over the Enlightenment, that sprawling intellectual, cultural and social movement that spread through Europe during the late 17th and 18th centuries, and was the harbinger of intellectual modernity. There is no period of history that has been more analysed, celebrated and disparaged. … The Enlightenment, in her view, provides a myth, a creation story, that the west tells itself about what makes it more civilised and the rest of the world more barbaric.

Yet “the West” is far too simple a characterization, given that Gaelic Scotland and Ireland were among those places singled out as barbaric, unfit for self-rule, mired in ignorance and superstition, and needing to be reformed in the image of the Anglo-Saxon to “progress” into (supposed) modernity by Enlightenment thinkers.

“Why does any of this matter now? Scots / Irish / Celts are all white.” you might be asking. The domination of racialized identities and forms of the privilege in the nineteenth century (itself an indication that alliances with and accommodations to native peoples were no longer crucial for the exercise of colonial power) certainly does mark a turning point that determined for generations who would be empowered to access power in imperial settings. But there are several reasons why this should still matter to those committed to working towards social justice (whether in the form of decolonizing the classroom, courtroom or political backroom).

First, coloniality, the abuse of power and the scapegoating of Others have roots that are deeply embedded in our society and communal experience. We can move forward together best by acknowledging the widespread historical presence and hidden psychic power of these colonial constructs, values and beliefs. We can humanize and afford each other respect when we recognize our wounds, our potential for healing and our capacity to stop harming others by unconsciously playing out narratives of fear and domination. Is it not better to consider “offenders” as flawed, wounded human beings capable of redemption than evil-doers incapable of bettering themselves and their relationships with others?

Second, many of the underlying assumptions of the discourse of decolonialization consciously or unconsciously perpetuate racial essentialism. We cannot disempower the ideology of race and the habit of categorizing people into racial (or any other) hierarchies by capitulating to it if it is not historically justified. Not only are power and privilege intersectional, but many people classified as “non-white” have European ancestors who were conquered, disenfranchised and co-opted in past generations in much the same way as racism plays out today. In whose interest is it to encourage all people with pale skin to identify as White Anglo-Saxons, in exclusion to the wide diversity of languages and cultures from which their ancestors actually hailed? “White” is simply a cypher constructed from the Anglo-Saxon colonial template, blind to the wide variety of Eurasian societies, just as “Black” is an artificial category that ignores the wide variety of African (and other) ethnic groups. Why give these colonial constructs more power than they deserve?

Third, I believe that one effective bridge to developing a greater awareness about the injustices of the legacies of colonialism among people who have been subsumed under a “White” identity is to allow them to understand at a deep level what the experiences of their own ancestors were, the difficulty of the choices they made, and the costs and consequences of those choices. Remember that subaltern people like Scottish Gaels had no independent socio-economic basis for accessing power, territory or wealth. It was their subjugation by an expanding Anglo-British empire that triggered their displacement and exile in the first place. They could only access power and privilege by recourse to anglocentric institutions. Some people resisted, some allied with other marginalized peoples, but most were resigned to accepting the inferiority of the language, culture and identity that they were born with and the necessity of accepting those of the empire. And if they were willing to accept their inferiority, to abandon their cultural inheritance in the name of “progress” and “improvement” and adopt the identity of the colonizing power, why would they fail to see the necessity of helping to carry that same process out on the next frontier of the Empire?

Fourth and finally, the contests for authority and power in Celtic communities are far from over. In all communities, including the last Gaelic-speaking community in North America, there are ongoing struggles to keep the languages and cultures alive and to counteract the centuries of stigmatization. Last week there were protests at the National Museum of Scotland because Gaelic is still being excluded from public exhibitions covering history in which it belongs. There are ongoing efforts to get an official Irish Language Act in place in Northern Ireland, which has been the site of continuous colonial struggle for over four centuries! Can the champions of decolonizing the curriculum really deny that these are parallel struggles?

Let me bring this back around to my main area of scholarly activity, Scottish Gaelic Studies. Despite the large and invisible presence of millions of people living in America today – of all skin colors – whose ancestors left the Highlands of Scotland, often unhappily and under extreme duress if they had any real choice all, you cannot study this literary legacy in any classroom of our institutions of higher learning. Despite the fact that their skin was “white.” Despite the fact that they were nominally “British.”

In the deeper layers of this literary tradition, there is a powerful indigenous cosmology and tradition. Rather than appropriate the cultural legacy of other peoples (such as First Nations), people of Gaelic ancestry can explore, celebrate and reclaim their own. This should be expected to be a long, difficult and fraught journey, but it is available to those who are committed to it.

Scottish Gaelic literature of the modern era is replete with all of the themes of coloniality that I have outlined in this brief sketch. There is resistance to colonialism, critique of the impositions of imperial authority, resignation to and shame about inferiorization, and efforts to identify with ruling élite and create distance from other marginalized peoples. It was in North America itself, during the French and Indian Wars (“The Seven Years’ War” in British historiography), that Highlanders redeemed themselves from Jacobite misadventures and won acceptance into the imperial order via loyal military service. It was into North America that the dispossessed Gaels flooded for most of the first century of the post-Culloden Highlands. And it was in North America that most Gaels had their first experience of racialized identities and learned to become “white.” And we have the best tools and precedents for decolonizing the Gaelic canon in the North America academy, if only we were allowed the resources to do so.

These complexities are hidden – and the opportunities for redemption are denied – if decolonizing the classroom focuses exclusively on the skin colours of people involved. I would love to see Gaelic literature given the place in the curriculum it deserves, alongside that of all of the other peoples of the world, and the chance to interpret the vices and virtues of those who engaged with it. Gaelic literature embodies and explores a specific way of being in the world, one that puts a premium on language rather than skin colour. The number of English departments enshrining the place of Shakespeare and Austen in our institutions is disproportionately large in comparison to the diversity of languages, literatures, and cosmologies that our ancestors once knew, and we are much the poorer and less tolerant for it.

A Scottish Gaelic Bard in Vancouver, Domhnall MacIlleathain

Later this week (June 21-25), the second World Congress of Scottish Literatures will be hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia. While the literature of the Scottish Lowlands has not received adequate academic attention, Scottish Gaelic has been marginalized to a much greater extent, so it is important to draw attention to the rich store of materials that originate in the same places where Scottish literature is supposed to be nurtured and cherished. This blog post will, therefore, provide a translation of a song-poem that evokes the life of the Scottish Gaelic community there.

As I’ve mentioned in two previous blog posts (here and here), there were loads of Scottish Gaels in the Pacific North-west, not least in Vancouver itself. There are correspondingly large numbers of Scottish Gaelic texts composed in and about the life of Gaels in the region. No one has yet done a systematic compilation and analysis of such materials (I have just two important sources from Vancouver in my recent anthology Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest), which I believe would add greatly to our understanding of Vancouver’s extended Gàidhealtachd.

In 2005, Comann Eachdraidh Tholstaidh bho Thuath (the North Tolsta Gaelic Society, on the Isle of Lewis) produced a wonderful volume of literature composed by the poets of town from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth entitled Clachan Crìche. It includes several poets who ended up living in Canada. One of these was a man named Domhnall MacIlleathain, commonly known as Domhnall Dhiogan (1889-1962). He and his wife Anna NicLeòid (Anna Dhànaidh) moved to Vancouver before the First World War, but maintained their connection to Lewis through a broad Gaelic social network. They actively maintained such links especially by seeking out the sailors who came to port in Vancouver and providing them accommodation. Their house was clearly a céilidh house, where song and story, victuals and hospitality, were shared. Such sociality is the subject of song, but also the means by which news and oral tradition were transmitted and kept alive.

Amongst the songs composed by Domhnall Dhiogan is one depicting his invitation of Gaelic soldiers back to his home, with many sly bits of humour. It begins with a description of the downscale boat on which they were sailing, the “Induna,” but follows them as they come into this large and unfamiliar city: intimidating to some of the Lewis boys. It is a warm, kindly and vibrant depiction of the intersections of Gaels in the city with their seagoing relations and the exchange of culture between them.

As my time is short, I will not attempt to provide the Gaelic text, only my own translation into English.

  1. On the afternoon of the Sabbath, a boat came to the city, entering the harbour; she was ugly to look at, low around the back, with her high sails in tatters, and the covering of her shoulders was like the top of the soil – lacking paint.
  2. Smoke came out of her high mouth, she moved slowly, nothing was moving in her except a man or two in the prow; the little boss was giving a command: “O Duadan, hurry up! Take this rope, MacRuagan, and tie the boat immediately, before you are stolen!”
  3. Courage, hope and knowledge arose in their conversation: “I am Murchadh son of Seonaidh, this is Domhnall, my brother; this is Murchadh son of Ruagan, and Aonghas son of Murchadh son of Calum, his neighbour; this is Tormod son of Uilleam, his uncle is married to Màrlaid; if you remember.”
  4. “I am pleased to see you! I will be sorry to leave you. Come over to my home; my wife is Anna Dhànaidh.” Murchadh said in response, “You are married into my family! She is the daughter of the brother of my grandfather, the oldest daughter of Dànaidh of Cnoc!”
  5. “Come over, and you can have anything that is in our dwelling; your bellies will be over-stuffed with marag and potato; she will be happy to see you, and she will get news from the place [Lewis] where she was young, and where she left her relations, so far from here.”
  6. A carriage came to get us, and it was quickly filled; with an order to move, going down to the ferry; MacRuagain was praying, “Give my soul mercy; it was safer for me to be travelling the oceans than to be here!”
  7. We arrived at the place, on the edge of the forest; we shook hands, with a smile on every face: “How are you, my dear? Who is the mother of the boys? Come inside to our home, you are welcome,” said the woman of the house.
  8. “This is Bac; this is Duadan; and Aonghas son of Murchadh son of Calum; this is Cutsaidh son of Ruagan; this is Coididh, your relation; he was your neighbour, out on the side of the mountain; and you will get news of the place, nothing will be hidden from you by black-haired Duadan.”
  9. “Come over, friends! Our table is loaded; you can have skate [fish] and potatoes, your grandfathers’ favourite food; it is fresh, as it is best that way, and the smell won’t overwhelm you; you are far away from your children, whom you blessed as you left; down [your gullets] with the skate!”
  10. “Pass the potatoes, they are better unpeeled; take away the spoons, our hands will suffice for them; although it is the custom of this place, we much prefer our fingers as we learned when we were young, eating little fish at home.”
  11. [Prayer] “O, my brothers, we will be closing our eyes: we give thanks to you, o God, that this boat is in Vancouver; but if you were to do us justice, you will break the Induna, so that she will not leave this place as soon as she expected with the lovely lads.”

An Athollman’s Bagpipe Song in Defense of Gaelic

Gaels all over the Highlands, even as far east as Strathardle, managed to cling resiliently onto their language and culture until the tumultuous changes of the nineteenth century. English pushed aggressively against Gaelic during the nineteenth century, but not without some resistance.

One of those Perthshire Highlanders who defended his native language and urged others to stand fast in this era was Archibald Farquharson (1800-1878), a native of Moulin (close to Pitlochry). He became a minister, settled in Tiree, and remained a steadfast champion of his native tongue until his death.

One of his publications, printed in 1868, is a 40-page booklet entitled An Address to Highlanders Respecting their Native Gaelic. Towards the end of the booklet, he includes a three page song-poem inciting the Gaels to stay true to their language. He includes an interesting note to this poem which begins by explaining a traditional taunt of rivalry that the Athollmen used against  the men of Strathardle (a couplet with internal rhyme). He then uses this jibe as a starting point for a new song-poem which remains strikingly authentic in its form and content. It is a wonderful example of how tradition can be creatively reshaped in the defense of Gaelic.

Farquharson reshapes the traditional taunt to mock the Strathardle folk for forsaking Gaelic in favour of English, thus becoming unslaved to the language of their former enemies. This demonstrates what is so clear in many other sources, that the Gaelic language was absolutely central and key to Highland identity.

It is also interesting that this song is described as being played on the bagpipes, another example of the common belief that the bagpipes were able to imitate the human voice (and hence that any musician aspiring to play the music of the Highlands needed to understand the Gaelic language).

This provocation quickly turns the Strathardle men back toward their natural Highland allies and goads them to be faithful to their native language. The animosity quickly melts: they are reunited in brotherly love, and share in the bounty of their culture with music, conviviality and nourishment. Lowlanders are depicted in contrast as lying literally in darkness, shivering with the cold. This is one of many examples of temperature being used metaphorically in Gaelic (not unlike in English) as corresponding to emotional state: warmth (affection and kindliness) in opposition to coldness (lack of welcome and friendship).

I give below the original text with my translations into English in square brackets.


The Atholites used to provoke the Ardleites with a tune which they played on the bagpipes when leaving them—Bodaich dhubh Srath Àrdail, gun d’fhàg sinn ’nan cadal iad—The black churls of Strathardle, we have left them asleep.

In the Free Church of Kirkmichael, Strathardle, there has been no Gaelic preached for several years, and it is going and almost gone in the Established Church. I wish with all my heart that a company of the Atholites would cross over with a piper at their head, and play the following on the street of Kirkmichael :—

Bodaich dhubh’ Srath Àrdail,
Cha Ghàidheil iad ach Sasannaich!
Thréig iad mar na tràillean
Cainnte bhlàth an athraichean.

[The black churls of Strathardle,
They are no Gaels, but Englishmen!
Like slaves, they have abandoned
The warm language of their forefathers.]

And that they on their part would play the following:—

Tosdaibb, bithibh sàmhach!
Chan àill leinn sibh bhith magadh oirnn;
Bheir ar cridh do’n Ghàidhlig,
’S a-chaoidh gu bràth, cha dealaich ri’;

’S nuair thig [i] rìs do ar tìr,
Le ceòl pìob is cridhealas,
Aran grinn, ’s comhdach’ ìm’
Agus cìr-mheala leis,

Gheibh sibh uainn gu càirdeal
A shàsachadh ur stamagan;
Is seinnibh do’n Ghàidhlig
Na h-Àrdlaich ’s na h-Athalaich.

Nuair bhios Goill mar na doill
Is an oidhch a’ laidhe orr’, 
Gu ro thruagh, crith gu luath,
Is le fuachd ’gam meileachadh,

Bidh sinne air ar blàth’chadh,
’S a’ Ghàidhlig ’gar teasachadh,
Is caoimhneas, gean is càirdeas

Sìor fhàs ann ar n-anamaibh.

[Hush, be quiet!
We don’t like for you to be mocking us;
Take our hearts to Gaelic
And never ever leave it;

And when it returns to our land,
With bagpipe music, and merriment,
Elegant bread with a coat of butter,
And a honey-comb with it,

You will get enough from us, kindly,
To satisfy your stomachs;
And sing to Gaelic,
The people of Strathardle and Atholl,

When the Lowlanders are like blind-people
As the night-time falls on them,
Very pathetically, shivering madly,
And fainting with the cold,

We will be warmed up,
With Gaelic providing our heat,
And kindness, goodwill and fellowship
Constantly growing in our souls.]

Although my native country, I am quite ashamed of them.

Gaelic Literacy in Nova Scotia and Gaelic Literary Networks

One of the most persistent misrepresentations regarding the Gaelic language is that it was a purely oral one, with no written form or literary tradition until the modern period. This misguided notion is not just erroneous, it’s a distortion and insult, given that Gaels (like their Brittonic peers) were reading and writing their own native language generations before the Anglo-Saxons and were certainly instrumental in the creation of literacy in English itself.

In any case, although I’ve provided some discussion about literacy and the practice of Scottish Gaelic literary tradition in Canada in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of the Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, there is certainly plenty more information waiting to be gathered to help us gain a more accurate picture of the prevalence of literacy amongst Gaels (breaking it down further according to religion, gender, age, etc), the attitudes surrounding it, methods by which Gaels gained literacy, and so on.

Here is the first two further pieces of evidence, a letter in the Gaelic column of The Casket newspaper dated March 18, 1920. The author discusses people he knows offhand  to have been literate in just one community of mainland Nova Scotia. The letter was signed with the name of the community “Muileann nan Frisealach” (Frasers’ Mills – plural in English, but singular in Gaelic, perhaps capturing an earlier era of the community).

Tha móran dhaoine mu chuairt air feadh seo a leughas a’ Ghàidhlig, agus tha mi cinnteach na[m] feuchadh iad gu[n] sgriobhadh iad i cuideachd. ’S ann diubh seo, Aonghas Alasdair an Ridge (Domhnallach) a leughas agus a nì òrain Ghàidhlig, agus ’s glé mhath a sheinneas e iad; Iain B. mac Aonghais ’ic Eóbhain ’ic Ruairidh ’ic Iain ’ic Dhùghaill (Mac a’ Phearsain) agus a mhàthair a tha glé fhiosrach mu ar sinnsearachd; Bean Dhomhnaill ’ic Iain ’ic Ùistein (Domhnallach) a tha faighinn pàipear naidheachd ás an t-Seann Dùthaich; Aonghas MacAonghais Bhoid a leughas Gàidhlig cho luath ’s a leughas e Beurla ged a tha e ’na mhaighstir-sgoile! — agus e làn òran; Alasdair mac Gilleasbuig ’is Aonghais Mhóir (MacGillÌosa) a tha ’na sgrìobhadair cho math ’s a tha an-seo; Domhnall mac Dhomhnaill ’ic Eóbhain (MacGilleBhràth) a tha ’na dhuine fiosrach agus ’s glé mhath a sheinneas e “An Gleann ’s an robh mi òg”; Aonghas Ailein (Mac a’ Phearsain) a tha math air naidheachdan agus cuid dhiubh ait; Iain mac Iain ’ic Ìosaig á Springfield; agus Iain mac Dhùghaill ’ic a’ Phearsain ás an àite cheudna :— dà sheann mhaighstir sgoil (sgrìobhaidh MacÌosaig a’ Ghàidhlig ach chan eil mi cinnteach mu Mac a’ Phearsain; gheibh mi a-mach fhathast); Iain Dhomhnaill Ailein ’ic Ghilleasbuig a leughas i; mar a i móran eile a chuireas mi sìos fhathast. Tha iad seo far na h-Aibhne Deas agus bho Springfield.

There are many people throughout this area who read Gaelic, and I am sure that if they were to try, that they could write it as well. Amongst these are Angus the Ridge MacDonald, who reads it and composes Gaelic songs, and he sings them well; John B. MacPherson, and his mother who is very knowledgable about our ancestry; the wife of Donald MacDonald, who subscribes to a newspaper in the Old Country; Angus Boyd, who reads Gaelic as quickly as he reads English even though he is a school-master! – and he is full of songs; Alexander Gillies who is as good of a writer as can be found here; Donald MacGillivray who is a learned man and is very good at singing “The Glen in Which I was Born”; Angus MacPherson who is good at reciting stories, some of them humourous; John MacIsaac from Springfield; and John MacPherson from the same place :– two school-masters (MacIsaac writes Gaelic but I’m not sure about MacPherson; I’ll find out yet); John MacGilles who reads it; as do many others who I will record eventually. These are those from South River and Springfield. (N.B.: I have not provided the entire patrilineal lineage of people given in the Gaelic text)

There are some interesting aspects to the eleven people named in this list: two of them are women; one of the women reads a newspaper printed in Scotland and sent across the ocean; one of the men is noted as singing a song which was composed in Scotland well after the original emigrants left, suggesting that it may have been learnt through print media; the list includes three school masters, a profession not generally noted for the support of Gaelic and usually credited with teaching English to the detriment of Gaelic.

The contributor was probably emphasizing the prevalence of Gaelic literacy at this time, and the engagement of people in formal education with it, because there was a popular petition circulating in Nova Scotia in 1920 for the formal recognition and support of Gaelic in the school curriculum. It is further worth noting that the area is predominantly Catholic (which people generally assume to have a weaker tradition of literacy than Protestant communities.)

On to a second source of evidence. A few months ago, a man in Massachusetts contacted me out the blue, asking if I would be interested in the Gaelic texts left by his father. I believe that his name was Gilleasbuig Tormod MacGillFhaolain (Archibald N. MacLellan), although this may have been his grandfather’s name – I’m a little unsure. In any case, he was a native Gaelic speaker originally from Cape Breton. This generous gift consisted of about a dozen books, over a dozen periodicals, and hand-written notes in Gaelic. These materials demonstrate a passionate attachment to his Gaelic heritage and ongoing engagement with it over a considerable period.

The periodicals included a copy of An Gàidheal (1876), several copies of Mac-Talla (1890s), a copy of Guth na Bliadhna (1920s?), The Canadian-American Gael (1944) and 8 copies of Gairm (1950s and ’60s). Almost all of the content of these volumes is in Gaelic only.

Most of the books were printed in Scotland and include Aig Taigh na Beinne (1911), Is Leam Fhìn An Gleann (1935), Òrain Ghaidhlig le Seonaidh Caimbeul (1936), and Rosg Gàidhlig (1929). A couple of the books were printed in Nova Scotia, however: Iùl a’ Chrìostaidh (Antigonish, 1901) and Gaelic Lessons for Beginners (Sydney, 1939).

These texts may have been accumulated from numerous people who owned them previously over a long period of time. What’s interesting, however, is that a few of them bear a mark showing that they were purchased at The MacDonald Music Store in Antigonish, demonstrating that there was some demand for Gaelic materials in the area and that at least one local retailer was attempting to accommodate it.

The hand-written pages include the expected notes on genealogy, but also a transcription of verses of a popular Gaelic song (“Se mo leannan am fear ùr”) as well as an original Gaelic song (with the chorus “Hi o, mise tha fo mhì-ghean / ’s mi leam fhéin an-seo ’s an àthaidh / Hi o, mise tha fo mhì-ghean”). The typewritten copy has the date 1960 on the bottom and is attributed to Gilleasbuig, but whether this is the date of composition or of transcription is not clear. In either case, these texts attest to the tenacity of Gaelic literary tradition amongst members of the Highland immigrant community and to the materials that may still be lingering in attics, waiting to be discovered.

Gaelic Song on Culloden’s Carnage

There are quite a few Gaelic song-poems that provide us with eyewitness testimony about the 1745 Jacobite Rising and its tragic conclusion on Culloden Moor. These texts are extremely important in relating the Highland point of view on these events, especially because texts written by anglophones predominate and they generally convey rather negative, biased and misleading views about Scottish Gaels and what the latter actually felt and thought about the historical events that had such a dramatic effect on their lives.

Many of Gaelic texts were edited and translated in the volume Highland Songs of the ’45 by accomplished scholar John Lorne Campbell back in 1933. An excellent overview of the material and how to interpret it was written by William Gillies in his article “Gaelic Songs of the Forty-Five” in Scottish Studies 30 (1991). Somehow the following powerful poem seems to have eluded the attention of previous scholars of this Jacobite material. It was printed (along with other miscellaneous Gaelic song-poems) by Domhnull Mac-An-Roich in his volume Orain Ghaidhealach  (Edinburgh, 1848), pp. 172-4.

I give three versions of the text below, in the following order: my English translation; my edition of the Gaelic text; and the original text as printed verbatim in the book. I’m providing the original as well as my edition of the Gaelic sources given that there are some irregularities in spelling and I’m open to feedback on my attempts to regularize the text and interpret it. (The very last line of the text in particular seems defective – it should end on ò – and I have attempted an emendation.)

I am not familiar with the identity of the poet (Eóghann Dubh MacLachainn, “Black-haired Ewan MacLachlan”) and would be glad to hear from anyone who knows anything about him.

His poem provides an emotionally compelling view of the battlefield and its casualties, not least Lachlann MacLachlainn, the seventeenth chief of the clan, a staunch Jacobite who fought and died at Culloden. This personal view of the death of the chieftain can be expected, given that the poet undoubtedly knew him personally. But it also touches on the terrible human losses to all involved in the Rising: the death of the handsome Gaelic warriors and the vulnerability of families in the brutal treatment of the Highlands by the Hanoverian troops after the great warriors of the clans lay in defeat.

The idea that the Jacobites lost through some kind of witchcraft (found in stanza 2) can also be found in other poems about Culloden, giving the impression that this was a rhetorical strategy shared by a number of the Jacobite literati (see discussion in Gillies, p. 42).

My English Translation

A Song by Black-haired Ewan MacLachlan after the Battle of Culloden

1. Dearly did we pay for [Prince] Charles, coming to gather us from across the ocean, against England while he was strong; this is what happened: thousands of our clansmen have fallen and those who remain alive have lost their rights.

2. Tragic is the news we’ve received from the calamitous battlefield of misery: we lost so many of our nobility; troops have surrounded us in the hour of our misfortune, who, through witchcraft, have conquered us for the rest of our lives.

3. There is many a courageous hero – blooming, young, high-spirited, light-stepping, excellent when needed if it were a fair fight, who would race with each other – who will never come home, being called to meeting.

4. One of them was Colonel MacLachlan, a great-hearted one who knew no cowardice; he was handsome, sitting on a horse when giving commands to the gorgeous warriors; they found a way to kill you, woe is me!

5. Your hand would share out the money in the market-town; you were esteemed by many who are grieved by the way that you departed, never to return home to your children who have no one to whom they can be entrusted for their rest of their lives.

6. The news of the beautiful corpses who would not retreat wounds my heart, as they (linger under) the cries of the ravens and as our kin do not come to give a proper burial, while our enemies’ guard occupy our area.

7. The state of the Lochaber-men, lying in the ditches, pains me; no bagpipe or battle-banner can awaken them as the clangor of the (government) pillagers pass by so that the government’s side can destroy you: terrible is the loss that you cannot see our condition.

My Gaelic Edition

Òran Le Eóghann Dubh MacLachainn an déidh Blàr Chuilodair

1. ’S daor a cheannaich sinn Teàrlach
Thighinn gar togail thar sàile;
’N aghaidh Shasgann is e làidir;
’S ionnan sud is mar tharladh:
Thuit na mìltean d’ar càirdean,
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich an làthair an còir,
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich an làthair an còir.

2. ’S bochd an naidheachd a fhuair sinn
O bhlàr dosgach na truaighe,
’Mheud ’s a chaill sinn d’ar n-uaislean;
Thàinig trupa mu’n cuairt oirnn
Ann am mì-fhortan uaire:
Fhuair le buidseachd an uachdar oirnn beò,
Fhuair le buidseachd an uachdar oirnn beò.

3. Liuthad lasgarra treubhach,
Ùr, òg, aigeanntach, eutrom,
Bu ro math ’n àm feuma
Nam b’e comhrag na Féinne,
Bhitheadh eadar-ruith le chéile,
Nach tig dachaigh ga éigheach aig mòd.
Nach tig dachaigh ga éigheach aig mòd.

4. B’ann dhiubh ’n Còirneal MacLachainn,
Cridhe mór ’s nach robh ’ghealtachd;
Bu loghmhor air each e
’N àm an t-ordugh ’thoirt seachad
Do na seòid a bha reachdmhor,
Fhuair iad seòl air cuir as duit, mo leòn!
Fhuair iad seòl air cuir as duit, mo leòn!

5. Làmh sgapdh an airgid
Ann am bailtidh a’ mhargaidh,
’S lìonmhor neach aig ’n robh ainm ort
Leis nach b’ ait mar a dh’fhalbh thu
Gun tighinn dachaigh gu d’ leanabaidh
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beò,
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beò.

6. Sgeul tha cràiteach le ’m chridhe
Air cuirp àlainn gun ruitheadh,
’S iad fo ghàraich nam fitheach;
’S gun ar càirdean a’ tighinn:
Gar càradh fo dhlighe,
’S geard ar naimhdean ’na shuidhe ’gar còir.
’S geard ar naimhdean ’na shuidhe ’gar còir.

7. ’S olc leam càradh nan Abrach,
’S iad ’nan sìneadh ’s na claisean;
Cha dùisg pìob iad, no bratach,
’S foirm na creach’ a’ dol seachad,
Taobh a’ Chrùin a chur ás duibh:
’S mór an diùbhail nach faic sibh ar còir,
’S mór an diùbhail nach faic sibh ar còir.

Verbatim Transcript

Òran Le Eobhan Dubh Mac Lachuin an Deigh Blar Chuilodair

’S daor a cheannuich sinn Tearlach
Thighinn gar togail thar Saile;
’N aghaidh Shasgunn is e ladair;
’S ionnan sud is mar tharladh;
Thuit na miltean d’ar cairdean,
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich a lathair an coir.
’S chaill na dh’fhuirich a lathair an coir.

’S bochd an naigheachd a fhuair sinn
O bhlar dosgach na truaighe,
Mheud sa chaill sinn d’ar ’n uaislean;
Thainig trupa mu’n cuairt oirn:
Ann am mio-fhortan uaire,
Fhuair le buidseachd, an uachdar oirn beo.
Fhuair le buidseachd, an uachdar oirn beo.

Liuthad lasgura treubhach
Ur, og, aigeantach, eutrom
Bu ro math ’n am feuma;
Nam be comhrag na Feine:
Bhith’dh eadar ruidh le cheile,
Nach tig dachaidh ga eigheach aig mod.
Nach tig dachaidh ga eigheach aig mod.

Ban dhiu ’n Coirneal Mac Lachuin,
Cridhe mor ’snach robh ghealtachd,
Bu logh-mhor air each e;
Nam an t-ordugh thoirt seachad.
Do na seoid a bha reachd mhor,
Fhuair iad seol air cuir as duit, mo leon!
Fhuair iad seol air cuir as duit, mo leon!

Lamh scapdh an airgiod,
Ann am bailtidh a mhargaidh,
’S lion-mhor neach aig ’n robh ainm ort;
Leis nach bait mar a dh’fhalbh thu.
Gun tighinn dachaidh gu d’ leanabaidh,
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beo,
’S gun ann neach ris an earbar iad beo.

Sgeul tha craiteach le ’m chridhe,
Air cuirp alluinn gun ruitheadh,
’S iad fo gharaich nam fiach;
’S gun air cairdean a tighinn:
Gar caradh fo dhlighe,
’S geard air naimhdean na shuidhe ga’r coir.
’S geard air naimhdean na shuidhe ga’r coir.

’S olc leam caradh nan Abrach,
’S iad nan sineadh ’sna claisean,
Cha duisg Piob iad, na Bratach;
’S foirm na creacha dol seachad;
Taobh a chruin a chuir as duibh,
’S mor an diubhail nach faic sibh air cair.

Fionn and the Post-colonial Fian

Surely the most popular narratives in the Scottish Highlands in the early modern period were the heroic tales and ballads relating to the warrior Fionn mac Cumhail and his band of superheroes, the Fian (variously called An Fhian, An Fhéinn, na Fiantaichean, etc., in Gaelic). There was a huge selection of material, and on any particular occasion, a performer might recite or sing only a small portion of the adventures that related to the “Ossianic cycle” (or “Fenian cycle,” as it is sometimes called).

It is always the case that once a body of narrative becomes intimately known by an audience, it serves as a vehicle for multiple rhetorical purposes. In other words, it can serve not just as an imaginative story about far-away people and places, but as a means of social commentary about the here and now. Think of “Romeo and Juliet,” for example, and how it has been retold and repackaged to comment on youth gangs in California (as in the 1996 film with Leonardo DiCaprio) or 1960s New York (West Side Story). The many, many retellings of the Arthurian legends provide another example of how the well-kent characters and plot structure have enabled skilled storytellers to comment on power and corruption.

The same was true for Gaelic storytellers in Scotland and Ireland. Although folklorists have emphasized the Gaelic penchant for telling texts exactly as they were heard, we have probably not allowed for, looked for, and paid adequate tribute to the creativity of Gaelic storytellers and singers in adapting texts for their audiences and circumstances.

Although there are many variants and episodes in the Ossianic texts that are worth studying in detail, I think that this particular text is strongly indicative of the sense of injustice and oppression that Highlanders experienced in the aftermath of Culloden. And in fact, I’ve argued elsewhere (in Warriors of the Word and in this extensive article on prophecy), elaborating an argument from Iain MacAonghuis, that some of the popularity of Fionn mac Cumhail in the Highlands was due to his role as a savior figure who would restore Gaels to their proper place in the Scottish kingdom.

This particular text, Iain òg Ìle (John Francis Campbell), tells us, is a synthesis from the recital of three different storytellers tapped between the 1860s and 1870s (see Celtic Review vol. 1 (1905), pp. 363-4 for background information; the text itself is in Celtic Review vol. 2 (1906), pp. 255-8).

It’s hard to read this text without thinking of how much the conditions described in the narrative relate to exactly the conditions of the people reciting it as well as those listening: people who had usually been evicted from their original home areas, dumped on the beaches to fend for themselves, often making a wretched living on the seashore, who sometimes resorted to poaching deer and fish for survival (and were afraid of being caught by the landlord’s officers for so doing), who had once been proud defenders of their own land and tradition (and were reminded of their decline in stature by their own Gaelic traditions), who awaited someone to champion their cause.

== Translated Text below ==

At that time – as MacIsaac said in Uist – people were few in Scotland. There were great empty glens with a man in them here and there, not as it is today when men abound in Scotland. There were many deer in these days, and men hunted them.

Fionn knew by his (psychic) knowledge that his father’s men were there and in dire straits. So he set off to seek them. They were on the land of the king of Scandinavia, as it appears; and the king would not feed them any meat. They had oaken skewers in their bellies to keep them out from sticking to their backs, they were so gaunt, and thin, and starved. They had to hunt for the king, but he did not give them enough to eat. They lived in a cave, or, according to others, in a sheiling.

Fionn, with his sword under his arm and the hound Bran at his heels, walked to the dwelling and looked in.

“I will come in and stay,” said he, “unless I am forced out.”

There was no living thing there but the fire. Swords were there leaning against the wall, rusty old swords and spears, and there were beds and benches. As no one was there to hinder him, Fionn leaned his sword, Mac an Luinn, against the wall, and stretched himself on the floor beside the fire, and Bran lay down beside him and went to sleep.

They had not been long thus when Fionn heard a murmur of voices, and trampling and rattling of feet and arms coming towards the dwelling, but he lay long still and pretended to be sleeping. He looked secretly and saw great, wild, tall, stalwart, terrible, strong men coming, unlike the others in the land of giants, who were under enchantments and spells, and who were phantoms. Seven of them came home, and they had a hind with them, which they killed. They flayed the hind and tossed it into the great kettle that was on the fire, and when it was cooked it provided them with only a morsel apiece.

When they had the kettle ready for the fire they noticed the lad and the hound and the sword, and they began to talk.

“Is not that hound the most similar to Bran that ever was in the world?” said one.

“Did ever man see a sword that is more similar to Mac an Luinn?” said another.

“But look at this lad,” said a third, “who is sleeping there: are not these the two eyes and the cheeks and the very face of Cumhal?”

Then they awoke him and asked him to share what they had, even though it was only a morsel for each.

“It is little enough for yourselves,” said Fionn.

“My lad,” said one, “eat your share, we are ever thus since the terrible day.”

“But who are you?” said Fionn. “I never saw men like you for stature and for grand frightful looks.”

One of them sighed, and then another. And then one said, “We have seen the day when we were not ashamed to tell who we are, but you are a stranger, I swear.”

“Yes,” said Fionn, “I never trod on this ground before.” And that was true.

“Did you ever hear of the Fian?” said one.

“Yes,” said Fionn, “I have heard about the Fian from my foster-mother, that they were the grandest men that ever were seen in the world.”

“So we were on a day,” said the warrior. “But that day is gone.”

And then he told how the kings of Scandinavia and Ireland had slain Cumhal by treachery, how they had shared Scotland between them and turned the Fian into slaves and [text missing] for them, all as it has been told already at the beginning.

“But will the Fian ever be better off than you are now?” said the lad.

“Little jewel,” said the warrior, “under the leadership of Fionn son of Cumhal we will be twelve times better than we ever were, for it was said in the prophecies that he will come and recover the land.”

“We shall never see him,” said one.

“Ay! Ay!” said another, and so they sighed and lamented.

They did not know who he was, but he knew them.

And so they talked all night of the ancient glories of the Fian and their sorrows and hardships and their woes, and then they fell asleep about the fire, the old warriors of Cumhal and Fionn son of Cumhal, whom they did not know. In the morning they had nothing but a gulp of venison broth; they had no proper meal, nothing.

He had a venomed claw which had a sheath upon it that he lost in the realm of the giants in fighting the monster, as I have told you already, and there, as they could not make another like the one he had lost, they made a golden sheath for it. There was a golden boot upon the venomed spur of Bran.

Bran always killed more than Fionn. If Fionn killed 600 men or beasts, Bran killed 700, always a hundred more than his master.

When Bran came from the dwelling, Fionn loosed the golden sheath from his foot, and he set him at the herd of heavy stags. When he had gone Fionn followed, and before they stopped he and the great hound had killed nine nines.

Then the old soldiers started talking. One said: “Is not that like Bran?”

“This one is as good as Bran any day,” said another.

“That is not Bran’s colour,” said a third.

“They had the same mother,” said Fionn. “But take up the deer and let us go home. If men come to blame you I will take the blame.”

They took nine great stags, and they feasted so that one of the oaken skewers broke in the belly of each of the old warriors that night. Next day they took nine more home, and so day by day, and nine by nine they brought home the nine nines, and feasted so well that all the oaken skewers broke in their bellies.

As each one ate his meal the splintering was heard of the oaken skewers that they had in their bellies to keep them from their backs.

Alexander Fraser as Ethnographer in Gaelic Ontario

I’ve written several previous blog posts about the accomplished Gaelic Canadian Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser”) and his engagement in Scottish Gaelic literature and scholarship. In this entry, I’ll be focusing on his activities as an ethnographer/folklorist, doing fieldwork amongst the Gaelic speaking communities of Ontario to collect texts floating in oral tradition and commit them to writing.

Fraser was in an ideal position to do such work, given that he was not only literate in Gaelic but also an editor for a number of newspapers in Toronto. This allowed him to solicit further material, share what he had collected himself, and argue for its value. His enduring contribution was given further status when he became Ontario’s first provincial archivist.

I’m not yet sure when he started to do fieldwork and transcribe texts, but the notes he wrote as secretary of the Gaelic Society of Toronto on 13 February 1888 are suggestive:

[the Society] has helped to draw attention to and to develop some of the best traits of the Highland character; and in no small measure to have awakened an interest in Gaelic matters generally throughout the Province. That this is so many evidences are at hand, of which may be mentioned the number of honorary members from distant parts and the impetus given to Gaelic literature. In this latter respect, outside the work done by the Society, the services of the Toronto Daily Mail may be acknowledged. Under the heading “Gaelic Notes” a column of Gaelic matter has been published weekly for about a year, and as a rule interesting topics have been dealt with.

Fraser expanded greatly upon such textual efforts as editor of The Scottish Canadian newspaper (Toronto), which carried a frequent Gaelic column.

Fraser was a co-founder of Comunn Gàidhlig Chanada (The Gaelic Society of Canada). Notes in his papers (F1015-MU1091 in the provincial archives of Ontario) indicate that plans to form the group (initially called “The Gaelic Federation of Canada”) date from 1896. The second article of the organization’s official Constitution states that

The objects of the Society shall be as follows: … (c) To take steps whereby a knowledge of the Gaelic language, Celtic Antiquities, History, Music and Traditions may be disseminated; and Historical, Literary and Scientific Research in the Celtic field encouraged.

Fraser delivered a talk to the Royal Society of Canada on 20 May 1903 entitled, “The Gaelic Folksongs of Canada.” He mentions some of the fieldwork he had done in the course of this paper and includes a short excerpt of material he had collected:

When the Scottish Gael found a lodgement in Canada, the songs of his race were not forgotten. … Here in Canada, therefore, Gaelic poems and songs were composed in the style of the older minstrelsy. … While known, they [the religious lays of Rev. James MacGregor of Pictou] were not widely used in Upper Canada, at least, I have not been able to trace them much beyond the manse of the Gaelic speaking clergymen of Ontario … But the settlers themselves and their descendants to the present time composed love songs which obtained popular recognition, many of which have seen the light of day on pages of books or periodicals, but many, very many, still remain to be collected and preserved as interesting specimens of the Gaelic muse in Canada. … Quite recently, while on a visit in the county of Bruce, I came across a number of Gaelic songs composed by Mr. J. B. Macdonald, a respected citizen of Tiverton …

Fraser printed an extensive Gaelic article containing a transcription of an autobiographical account of migration from Kilmartin to Ontario in the Scottish Canadian in July 1903. He indicates in the article that he had collected the text the previous month from Seumas MacCaluim in Tiverton (see full text and translation in Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 154-61).

Fraser’s papers in the Ontario Archives contains a few other Gaelic texts that he collected in fieldwork, especially his notebook in F1015-MU1089 envelope 2. Much of this was from informants in Glengarry, where Fraser resided at times, although he also has material composed in Ottawa and Toronto in other parts of his archival remains.

Fraser expounded in detail on the need to gather local history and ethnographic information in an address to the Caledonian Society of Montreal on December 5, 1902 (in the booklet The Mission of the Scot in Canada):

The pioneer settlers made history; volumes of it have been lost through the neglect of sons whose fathers deserved better at their hands. … The Scottish societies should lose no time in undertaking a statistical account of every Scottish settlement in Canada, with the experience of those who left us our land as a marvellous legacy, experiences in many cases still reclaimable, but which soon will pass into the limbo of oblivion unless the public spirit and patriotism of the Scot in Canada should come to their speedy rescue.

Amongst other books, Fraser wrote a short Gaelic volume about the life of George Ross (Sir Seòras Uilleam Ros, 1915). Fortunately, a copy sent by Fraser to the Gaelic book collector Hew Morrison was digitized by the National Library of Scotland not long ago and contains a hand-written note by Fraser himself which states:

I enlarge rather on the conditions under wh[ich] the Highland pioneers settled in Canada, in order to put the facts I had collected on record.

Indeed, the book contains copious ethnographic details about the lives of the early Highland settlers in Middlesex County, Ontario, and the material conditions of their lives.

Fraser’s efforts did inspire at least a few others to follow his lead in capturing material from human memory and oral tradition. Hugh McColl’s Sketches of the Early Highland Pioneers of the County of Middlesex (1910) and John C. McMillan’s “The First Settlers in Glengarry” in The Scottish Canadian 8 (1903) were produced under Fraser’s influence, and likely others yet to come to my attention …