Scottish Gaelic Literature

The Zen of Gaelic Nature Poetry

Although I’ve known about transcendental meditation since I was a teenager, it was only when I had a personal crisis at the age of 40 that I had cause to do a deep dive into the latest manifestations of these spiritual techniques. I took a Mindfulness course offered by an Integrated Medicine program at the University of North Carolina to deal with the stress and anxiety I was experiencing, negative feedback loops that drew me into a black hole. Rather than the usual approach of conventional psychotherapy – delving into the past to explore the root causes of one’s emotional traumas – my guide into mindfulness had us focus on seemingly trivial and mundane experiences: What does a raisin really taste like if you chew it slowly and perceptively? What is the quality of experience when we breath slowly and deliberately? What is it like to really live in the present moment, in all of its sensory profusion and grandeur, rather than allowing our minds to draw us constantly to some other place, some other time, some other purpose?

Although there are many definitions of “mindfulness,” that offered by the Greater Good Magazine is sufficient:

Mindfulness means maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens.

Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

I’m currently on holiday in Nova Scotia and holidays are meant to be relaxing by taking us out of our usual routine and allowing us to experience the sublime, or the exotic, or at least the non-habitual. And yet, I’m sure like many other people, my mind is constantly pulled (as it feels) by the things I should be doing to be “productive” (not least my secondary, non-paid career as a Gaelic scholar). And feeling this tugging while in the company of beloved Gaelic friends in Nova Scotia somehow reminded me of the debate over the meaning and quality of Gaelic poetry written about nature in past centuries.

Caveat: As I am on holiday and do not have access to my library and all of the dog-eared references I’ve accumulated in the past, I will not be able to cite references for the following discussion. I will be limited to my rather imprecise ability to recall … Please forgive any misattributions based on my imperfect memory.

If you’ve studied Gaelic poetry, you know that – at least from the viewpoint of a modern Anglophone – it can seem to get rather tedious. There is almost limitless attention to detail, catalogues of place names, flora, fauna, and phenomena, and onomatopoeic and anthropomorphized portrayal of the busy activities of ecosystems and their inhabitants. Probably the most celebrated poet whose output included many extended texts of this nature is Donnchadh Bàn Mac an t-Saoir (1724 – 1812).

This modality of poetry clashes with modern European literary ideals and caused many previous generations of literary scholars to dismiss the capacities and accomplishments of the Gaelic “eco-literary” tradition. One modern Gaelic scholar (I believe it was Derick Thomson in the ’70s) expressed his disappointment that Donnchadh Bàn’s poetry did not use nature as a vehicle for philosophizing about life or social issues, despite his tremendous command of the language and literary devices; in other words, Donnchadh Bàn was celebrating nature at great length simply for its own sake, not as an eloquent circumlocution to be applied to some other set of themes and topics.

You can probably see where I’m going with this …

Another Celtic scholar (John Carey, I think?) has compared the sophisticated detail and fractal-like reflections of the intricate depictions in Gaelic poetry to the illuminated manuscripts of the medieval period and suggested that the latter may have formed a sort of spiritual devotion.chi_rho_bowl

So, rather than seeing the artistic skills and intellectual resources of the Gaelic literati as being “wasted” because they “failed” to leverage them for the literary equivalent of social engineering, we should instead see them as delightful celebrations of mindfulness, of taking joy in the wonder of being in the fecundity of nature and sharing that experiences and wonder with the rest of us.

Now that this blog is done, I need to be practicing mindfulness better myself.

PS. The great Gaelic scholar Meg Bateman also has an article about remnants of the female chthonic divine in Donnchadh Bàn’s nature poetry, but I must leave you to find this on your own: ‘The environmentalism of Donnchadh Bàn: pragmatic or mythic?’ Christopher MacLachlan (ed.), Crossing the Highland Line: Cross-Currents in Eighteenth-Century Scottish Writing. Glasgow: 123–36.

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Modern, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

18th-Century Praise of Gaelic by Iain MacGriogair of Glenlyon

As I’ve said in a previous blog post, it is exciting to see a resurgence of interest in Gaelic in Perthshire, a region of Highland Scotland that was once home to thriving Gaelic communities and prolific Gaelic scholars and poets. I have a large collection of Gaelic literature from Perthshire that I would like to publish in complete form (after editing, translating, and interpreting it properly), but until I can find sufficient support to do so (beyond what I’ve already published in several previous books), I’ll only be able to leak out occasional previews.

One of the most important poets of Gaelic Perthshire was Iain MacGriogair (called “John MacGregor” in English), known commonly by his nickname “Am Bard Smeatach.” He seems to have been born in Glenlyon and was identified later as belonging more specifically to Tom na Croich. Have a look at the location of Glenlyon on this map of Scotland: according to Gaelic tradition, this was the centre of Scotland, and Gaelic extended well east and south of this location even into the early twentieth century.

MacGriogair’s first volume of poetry was published in 1801 although he says that most of the material was composed in the mid-1780s. He spent a great deal of time in Edinburgh. I have catalogued a total of 56 song-poems by him from multiple sources. I’m not sure when he was born, but he apparently died shortly after his second volume of poetry was published in 1818.

The following poem (given first in Gaelic, then in English translation) is in praise of the Gaelic language. It emphasizes Gaelic as the language of the founders of Scotland and of her greatest heroes who defended her when her liberty was threatened by hostile enemies. It implies that the heroic leaders who should now come to her assistance are the Gaelic Societies in London, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. These organizations, and people in their orbit, were actually quite active in the 1780s sponsoring Gaelic events, gathering manuscripts, initiating projects (like compiling Gaelic dictionaries and translating religious texts), and so on. Of course, there are still stalwarts and societies in these places, and still bitter conflicts about Gaelic in Scotland – yet she still lives!

Moladh na Gàidhlig

Beir an t-soraidh seo uam
Do bhaile nam buadh
Fo sgéith Uisge Chluaidh,
Far am faca mi sluagh
Air nach luidheadh a ghruaim;
B’e ’n aoibhneas, ’s bu dual,
Pìob na caismeachd ’s mór fuaim,
’Gan cruinneachadh suas comhladh.
’Gan cruinneachadh, &c.

’S e Glaschu nam bùithean,
A ghabhas an cùinneadh,
Ann ’s am faighear an cùnnradh,
’S gach cleachdadh is ùire,
Thig a-nall às gach lùchairt,
’Ga aiseag le mùirne,
A lìonas gach sùil fheòla.
A lìonas, &c.

Tha iad fìrinneach ceart,
Ann nan inntinn ’s ’nan cleachd’;
Chan eil cùl-chainnt ’nam measg
No droch dhùrachd do neach;
’S mur mùth iad am beachd
Bha iad umhal do reachd Dheòrsa.
Bha iad umhal, &c.

Thoir beannachd uam féin,
Do’n Cheanaideach threun,
Fear ealanta geur;
Thig a’ Ghàidhlig o ’bheul
Mar bha i ’s an Fhéinn;
Ann an ranntachd cha ghéill
E do’n bhard bha ’sa’ Ghréig,
Ris an canadh iad féin ‘Homer’.
Ris an canadh, &c.

Tha ’Ghàidhlig co luachmhor,
’S nach cuir sinn i suarach:
Có nach seasmhadh ri guallainn?
’S i tha ’n comhradh nan uaislean,
’Ga labhairt gun truailleadh,
Feadh gach àit’ anns an gluais iad,
Gu caithreamach, cruaidh, ceòlmhor.
Gu caithreamach &c.

Ged chaidh a sàrach’ ’na triall,
Cha do chaill i a miadh;
Tha i fallain o chian,
Gun ghalar, gun ghiamh,
Buan, faramach, dian,
Gun alladh, gun fhiamh,
Anns gach talamh a dh’iarr eòlas.
Anns gach talamh, &c.

Cha do ghéill i do’n Eubhra,
Do’n Fhraingis no Ghréigis,
Do Laidin no Bheurla,
Nao do chainnt fo no speuran:
Nan tarladh i ’n éiginn,
’S math a ghearradh nam beum i,
’S math a ghearradh, &c.

’S i bh’aig Àdhamh ’s a’ ghàradh;
’S i bh’aig Eubha ’ga thàladh,
Gus ’n do mheall i gu bàs è,
Nuair dh’ith e meas àlainn,
Chaidh a thoirmeasg dha fhàgail
’S e dh’fhag sinn ’nar tràillean;
Ach fhuair sinn ar slànach’, is dòchas.
Ach fhuair, &c.

Nuair a chaidh an saoghal a bhàthadh,
Chaidh a’ Ghàidhlig a thearnadh:
’S i bh’aig Noah ’s an Àirce,
’S aig gach curaidh dh’fhàs uaidh;
Fhuair i ’n t-urram gu cràbhadh,
’S cha mheas’ i gu dànachd:
’S tha i milis a ghabhail òrain.
’S tha i, &c.

’S i bh’aig Treunmor, an toiseach,
A thog cìs o Rìgh Lochlainn;
Aig Fionn is aig Toscar
Aig Cù Chulainn ’s aig Osgar,
’S aig Caoilte nan cos luath,
A’ siubhal aonach, is shlochd, is mhór-bheann.
Siubhal aonach, &c.

’S i bh’aig Conan, ’s aig Diarmad,
Aig Dubhchomar ’s aig Diaran:
Bha i uil’ aig na Fiannaibh,
’N àm togail gu fiadhaich,
No chasgadh an ìotadh
D’ fhuil an naimhdean, ’s an dian thòrachd.
D’ fhuil, &c.

’S ’nan déidh uile bha Oisean
Le deuraibh ’s le osnaidh,
Ag innse a dhochainn,
Gus ’n do dhall air a rosgaibh;
’S e leòn is a lot e,
’S chuir daonnan fuidh sprochd e,
Bhith ’gan dìobhail, ’s e bochd, brònach.
Bhith ’gan dìobhail, &c.

B’i a’ Ghàidhlig chruaidh bhlasta
Bh’aig Coinneach an gaisgeach,
A’ cumail a cheartais,
’S a bualadh nam feachd-fhear
A’ ruagadh ’s a’ sgapadh
Nam Piocach ’bha sgaiteach;
Cha robh h-aon diubh ri fhaicinn,
A ghluaiseadh air faiche.
Dhìol e ’athair, Rìgh Alpin,
’S chan ì ’n luaidh’ a bha aca,
Ach na sleaghanna glasa ’nam feòil.
Ach na sleaghanna, &c.

’S i ’Ghàidhlig gun seachnadh
Bh’aig Uilleam ’s aig Raibeart,
Fhuair an t-urram ’s na feachdaibh
Dhìon Alba, ’s a sheasamh,
’S Rìgh Shasann ga’r creachadh;
Ma leughas sibh ’n eachdraidh,
Gu’n éist sibh ri teachd’reachd mo bheòil
Gu’n éist sibh &c.

Có thairgeadh dhi mì-mhodh,
’S nach cumadh am miadh i?
’S gur i ’Ghàidhlig bha sgrìobhte,
Air na clachanna crìche
Anns gach ionad do’n rìoghachd;
Ged bha i fuidh mhì-ghean,
Tha i nise a’ dìreadh,
’S gum mair i gu dìlinn,
Mar bha i ’s na linnibh o thùs.
Mar bha i, &c.

Guidheam buaidh le luchd furain,
Na mór-uaislean tha ’n Lunainn;
’Ga comhnadh bha ullamh
Nuair bha i fo dhubhar,
Ann an gàbhadh ri cumha:
Ach ’s an tràth seo tha buidheann
Air gach cànan ’s a’ Chruitheachd;
Deas-labhrach gu bruidhinn,
Teas-ghràdhach ’n àm suidhe mu’n chlàr.
Teas-ghràdhach, &c.

Có bheireadh beum dhith
Ann am Baile Dhùn Éideann
Gun dìoladh da réir siud?
’S i cuimeir na h-éididh,
Ann am breacan an fhéilidh,
’S osain ghearr am bròig eutrom,
A dhireadh nan sléibhtean,
’S nan garbh-bheann, nuair dh’éireadh an ceò.
’S nan garbh-bheann, &c.

’S e Glaschu a b’ urrainn,
Gun truailleadh a cumail;
’N sin tha àireamh à Muile,
’S às na bràidheanna lurach,
A fhuair ’s gach àite an t-urram:
Cha bhi ’Ghàidhlig an cunnart,
’S cha bhàsaich i tuille,
’S na h-armuinn ud uile,
Ga h-àrach, ’s ’ga sìor-chumail beò.
Ga h-àrach, &c.

In Praise of Gaelic

Take my greeting to the city of wonders, under the wing of the Clyde, where I have seen the crowd who would show no gloom; it would be their customary pleasure to hear the bagpipes, of the incitement and overwhelming sound, grathering them all together.

It is Glasgow of the many shops, which takes the coinage, in which the bargains are found and every innovation which comes over from courts, transported with excitement, and fills every eye.

They are honest and right, in their minds and in their behaviour; there is no backbiting amongst them, or any ill-wish; and unless they have changed their minds, they have been loyal to George’s law.

Bear my greetings to brave (Duncan) Kennedy, a sharp and talented man; Gaelic comes out of his mouth just as it did from the Fianna; in matters of poetry, he will not yield to the poet of Greece they called ‘Homer’.

Gaelic is so valuable that we will not belittle it; who would not defend it? She is in the conversation of the nobility, spoken unsullied, in every place that they travel, triumphantly, solidly and melodiously.

Although she has been persecuted in her travels, she has not lost her honour; she was healthy in ancient times, without sickness or blemish; long-lasting, sonorous, intense, free of defamation or cowardice in every land where knowledge is sought.

She has not yielded to Hebrew, French, Greek, Latin, English, or any language in existence; if she were to encounter difficulty, she is good at dealing blows.

Gaelic was the language of Adam in the Garden, and of Eve, who enticed him, until her deception caused his morality when he ate the gorgeous fruit; he was commanded to leave (the Garden) and that is what left us as slaves, although we got salvation and hope.

When the world was flooded, Gaelic was saved: Noah in the Ark spoke it, as did every warrior descended from him; she is renowned for devotion, and no less for poetry: she is sweet for the singing of songs.

Treunmhor spoke it, who first took tribute from the King of Lochlann; Fionn, Toscar, Cù Chulainn, Osgar and Caoilte of the swift feet spoke it, travelling moor, dell and great mountain.

Conan, Diarmad, Dubhchomar, Diaran and all of the Fianna spoke it, when it was time for them to go hunting, or to quench their thirst with the blood of their enemies in the hot pursuit.

And coming after all the others there was Ossian, with tears and sighs, relating his sorrow until his eyes were blinded; it pained and wounded him, and kept him constantly dejected, to be lacking them, when he was poorly and sad.

It was vigorous eloquent Gaelic that the hero Kenneth (MacAlpine) spoke, keeping his justice, and striking the warriors, routing and scattering the fierce Picts; there was one left of them left, who could move on the battle-field; he avenged his father, King Alpìn; they had no bullets, but pale spears (thrust) in their flesh.

It was Gaelic that William (Wallace) and Robert (the Bruce) spoke, and they did not shun it; they won honour in the armies that defended Scotland when the King of England was plundering us; if you read history, you will listen to my oral testimony.

Who would abuse her or not uphold her reputation? It is Gaelic (ogham) that was inscribed on the boundary stones of every site in the kingdom; although she was depressed, she is now prevailing so that she will last forever, as she was in ancient times.

I wish the welcoming company victory, the great nobles in London; assisting her expediently when she was disheartened, in danger of being subject of an elegy; but at this time there is an organisation for every tongue in Creation, well-spoken and warmly-disposed at the time to sit down together.

Who in the city of Edinburgh would strike her without being punished in return? She is comely in her apparel, in the belted plaid, with short hose in lightweight shoes for the climbing of hills and rough mountains, when the mist would rise.

It is Glasgow that could keep her unsullied, and then there is a number from Mull and from the bonny braes which have been praised everywhere; Gaelic will not be in danger, and she will never die, while all of those warriors care for her and constantly keep her alive.

Modern, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

Gaelic Literature in Perthshire: Elegy to Donald MacLaren, Callander and St Fillans

It is very encouraging to see Gaelic again receiving support and visibility in Perthshire, given that there was a large and thriving Gaelic community there for centuries, only dwindling in the twentieth century. As people in Perthshire work to restore this beautiful language and culture to its proper place on the land and in their hearts, I hope they will look to the many remains left behind by those who nurtured it for so long.

I see, for example, that there will be a Gaelic day in Crieff (originally ‘Craoibh’ in Gaelic) on May 19th, an Evening of Scottish Culture on 28 May will happen in Strathearn, with an active effort to find Gaelic performers, the National Mòd will be hosted in Perth in 2021, and so on.

I fell in love with Perthshire when I lived in Scotland in the 1990s, and during the time I finished my PhD in Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh, I amassed a huge collection of Gaelic materials from Highland Perthshire. I have so much of it that I planned out a 5-volume series covering the distinct regions of Perthshire. I finished the first book – Bho Chluaidh gu Calasraid (From the Clyde to Callander) – with only a little support, and have been hoping over the last twenty years to find the funds needed to complete the work on the other four books. Keep in mind that this was the homeland of some major Highland clans: MacGregors, Campbells, Robertsons, MacLarens, Buchanans, Menzies’s, MacNabs, and MacDiarmids, just to name a few. The difficulty in finding patronage for such basic scholarship is indicative of the marginalized status of Gaelic heritage, despite the successes the descendants of these people may have found in the anglophone world in later generations.

In any case, I offer the following elegy as a taster of the sorts of beautiful Gaelic literature that awaits. This elegy was composed in 1880 by Domhnall MacLabhrainn (‘Donald MacLaren’) of Ardveich, Lochearnside (near St Fillans) to a man of the same name who had been living in Callander. The Callander man had worked as a guide, and some of the praise to him in this song-poem refers to his skills in this occupation, making implicit comparisons to the role of a chieftain and other social leaders in Highland society. Until fairly recently, Callander was considered to be the gateway to the Highlands and was the destination of many tourists from the Lowlands and further beyond. And, like Lochearnside in the nineteenth century, Callander was strongly Gaelic-speaking.

I do not currently know anything further about the subject of the poem, but the author was a noted authority on Gaelic tradition who was said to have a number of family manuscripts which contained Gaelic materials. I do not know what became of those documents, but MacLabhrainn’s command of both the language and the literary tradition is notable in this text. Also noteworthy is the degree of affection demonstrated between men, which later Victorian-era sensibilities rendered inappropriate.

Original Gaelic

Dhomhnaill chaoimh, chaidh thoirt uainn
Bhith ’gad chumhadh – mo thruaigh! –
Thug mo dheuraibh mar stuadh mu m’ léirsinn

’S trom am buille is as cruaidhe
Ghnàthaich freasdal gu m’ bhual’
‘S chan eil leigh ann – mo thruaighe! – nì feum dhomh.

Mar chraoibh tha mi gun rùsg
No mar loingeas gun stiùir
On là chàirich iad thu ’s na <déilean>.

’S i do chomhairle ghlic
Nì mi ionndrainn a-nis
Bha i luachmhor dhomh tric is feumail.

’S geur is as gort chaidh mo lot
’S cràiteach cianail mo chor
’S mi mar aonaran bochd ’ad dhéidh-sa.

Bròn is mulad ’gam chràdh
’S mo chridhe ciùrrte gach tràth
’S mór mo dhoilgheas gach là on dh’eug thu.

Sheas thu riamh dhomh an gràdh
Dìleas daingeann mar bhràthair
’S tiamhaidh mise on dh’fhag thu ’d dhéidh mi.

B’ òg thug mi dhuit luaidh
A dheagh chompanaich shuairce
B’ e mo roghainn do’n t-sluagh gu léir thu.

Tha Baile Chalasraide ’n-tràth-’s
Dubhach tùirseach mu d’ bhàs
’S beag an t-ioghnadh dhoibh bhith cràiteach deurach.

’S iad chaill an ceann riaghailte
’S am fear-iùil bu mhaith ciall
An sàr cheann-uidhe bha riamh mar stéidh dhoibh.

Do na bochdan ’nan airce
Bu tu ’n dìon ’s an cùl-taice
Bheireadh biadh dhoibh is pailteas eudaich.

’N àm dhuit suidhe gu lòn
Bu tric aoighean mu d’ bhòrd
Riamh bu phailte-làmhach còir thu sìne’ riu.

‘S tric mo smuaintean air Dùghall
’S trom ’s as dubhach do ghnùis
Fhuair thu saighead a chiùrr gu geur thu.

Rinn siud sgàinteach ’ad chliamh
Thainig smàl air do ghrian
’S chaidh do dhòchas a spìon o chéile.

’S tu chaill an ceann iùil
A sheasadh dìleas ri d’ chùl
’S nach faiceadh le shùilean beud ort.

’S lionmhor uasal is bochd
Tha nar dùthaich fuidh sprochd
’S iomad cridhe tha goirt agus reubta.

Bha iad tearc measg sluaighe
Aon thigeadh ris suas
Ann an tuigse, ann an uaisle ’s sam beusan.

Bha buadhan ’inntinn toirt barr
Ann am breithneachadh ard
Cosnadh cliù dha as gràdh nan ceudan.

Bu neo-lochdach a ghluasad
Stòlda faicilleach stuama
Bha mór mheas aig an t-sluagh gu léir ort.

Ged chuir iad thu ’n-trath-s’
Chladh nan leacainn fuidhe ’n làr
Chaoidh cha dealaich mo ghràdh ’s mo spéis riut.

’S gearr an ùine gus am bi
Mise dlùth dhuit ’am shìne’
Agus caidlidh sinn shìos le chéile ann.

’S nì ar dùslach ’n siud tàmh
Gus an tig oirnne Là-bhràth
’S an téid trompaid gu h-ard shéideadh.

’S cluinnear linne ’s an uaigh
’n t-ard sgàl ud bhios cruaidh
Is grad-éiridh sinn suas le chéile.

’S cha dèan tinneas no bàs
Sinne sgaradh gu bràth
’S chaoidh, cha mhothaich sinn cràdh no éislean.

My Translation to English

O dear Donald, who was taken from us,
It is because of mourning you – my woe! –
That tears like waves take away my sight.

The blow is hard and severe
That fate has dealt to me
There is no doctor – my woe! – who can help me.

I am like a tree without bark,
Like a ship without a rudder,
Since the day they put you inside the coffin planks.

It is your words of wisdom
That I miss now;
They were frequently valuable and useful to me.

I was wounded sharply and sorely,
I am hurting and longing,
I am like a sad loner without you.

Sorrow and melancholy afflict me
And my heart is constantly tortured
I have difficulty every day since you died.

You always defended me in love,
Loyal and steadfast like a brother
I am melancholy since you left me behind.

I loved when I was young,
O fine, gentle companion,
You were my favourite of all people.

The town of Callander is presently
Grieved and afflicted by your death
It is no surprise for them to be pained and in tears.

They have lost a careful leader
And a sagacious guide
The excellent leader who gave a foundation to them.

To the poor in their affliction
You were their shelter and their support
Who would give them food and ample clothing.

When it was time to seat down for a meal
You would often have guests at your table
You always treated them generously and kindly.

I often think of Dougald
Your countenance is heavy and depressed,
You received an arrow that pierced you sharply.

That created a lesion in your side
Your sun has been eclipsed
And your hope has been torn apart.

You lost the leader
Who would stand loyally at your back
Who would never see you hurt.

Many is the noble and peasant
In our land who are depressed
Many is the heart that is sore and torn apart.

There are few amongst the population,
None who could compare to him,
In understanding, nobility, and in virtues.

His mental faculties were superior
Regarding the judgment of important matters,
Earning him renown and the love of hundreds of people.

His carriage was flawless,
Composed, watchful, modest:
There was no one who did not have the greatest esteem for you.

Although they have now sent you
To the graveyard, under the soil,
My love and affection for you will stay with me forever.

The time will not be long
Until I will be laid out close to you
And we will sleep together down there.

Our dust will repose
Until the day of judgment comes
And the trumpet will be sounded loudly.

We will hear it in the grave
That loud squawk that will resound
And we will arise together.

And no illness or death
Will ever separate us again,
And we will never again experience pain or affliction.

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!

Modern, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

Lament to Scottish Highlands from New Zealand

Dr. Sheila Kidd has a wonderful new article providing a general overview of the Gaelic poets and poetry of Australia and New Zealand, entitled “Kangaroos and Cockatoos: Gaelic Literature in the Nineteenth-Century Antipodes” in Scottish Literary Review 9.2 (2017).  It offers very useful material for comparison with the sources created by Scottish Gaels in North America on which I’ve been working.

One of the poets who was born in the Scottish Highlands but ended up in New Zealand was Donnchadh Mac a’ Phearsain (“Duncan Macpherson” in English). Born at Rahoy in Morvern in the early 1830s, he relocated to Glasgow by 1871 but in about 1880 moved again to New Zealand to join his three uncles. (This biographical information and the song-poem text is taken from Iain Thornber, “The Gaelic Bards of Morvern” in The Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness LIII, 1983.)

Donnchadh composed a number of poignant and powerful song-poems, especially laments, some of which he submitted to newspapers. The following is a lament for the Highlands, one of the most compelling of its kind which deserves to be better known. It was printed in The Oban Times in 1914. It must have been composed some time between his emigration c.1880 and its appearance in print.

The place of religion in the poem is interesting. On the one hand, the poet reflects the piety that had really been absorbed by Gaels after the intense proselytizing of the region from the late 18th century. On the other hand, he questions the commitment of the religious institutions in safeguarding Highlanders against the ill-will of landlords (stanza 6), given that many ministers lacked the political independence and personal will to do so. It’s also notable that Donnchadh directly addresses the land itself, carrying on an ancient animism that predates Christianity.

Texts like this help us understand the emotional experience of Scottish Gaels in seeing the physical desolation of their land and the destruction of their culture, language, and identity; why they emigrated; the traumas they experienced, and how those traumas caused rifts in their own psyches and impacted their relationships with other people and ethnic groups.

The Highland Clearances aren’t just about a relocation of families, they are about the hardening of attitudes regarding the ownership of land, the authority of empire over “inferior peoples,” and the commodification of natural resources.

First the original Gaelic text, then my translation.

  1. [Fonn] Albainn aosda, guma slàn dhuit,
    Albainn ghaoil, gur fada uam thu;
    Tìr nan laoch ’s nan gruagach àlainn;
    Albainn aosda, guma slàn dhuit.
  2. Fhir a shiubhlas thar na fairge,
    Thoir soraidh uamsa do’n Mhorbhairne
    D’fhios nan daoine còire dh’earbainn
    Ged a b’ fheudar falbh ’s am fàgail.
  3. Dèan a[m] fàgail an Rathuaidhe
    ’S fad thar sàile, chì mi uam thu;
    Bha mo làithean eutrom uallach
    An glinn uaine Earra Ghàidheal.
  4. Trian dhe m’ bheatha, trian dhe m’ shlàinte
    Gheibhinn fallainneachd no dhà ann;
    B’ fhearr leam deoch de uisge an fhuarain
    Na leann ruadh a tha ri phàigheadh.
  5. Dh’fhalbh an òigridh ’s an robh cruadal
    Sgaoilte farsaing, chaidh am fuadach;
    Cuid an Glaschu air Cluaidh dhiubh
    ’S cuid dhiubh deas is tuath thar sàile.
  6. ’S fuar an làrach ’s an robh diadhachd
    Far an tug mo mhàthair cìoch dhomh;
    Càit’ am bheil an creideamh Crìosdail
    A leig fiadh-bheathaichean ’n ar n-àite.
  7. Chaill sinn ar cànain ’s ar dùthaich
    Tha sinn air fògradh mar Iùdhaich;
    Am fearann fo fhéidh aig Dubhghoill
    ’S nàimhdean ar dùthcha cho tàireil.
  8. Tha mi an dùil nach dùrachd dhìomhain
    Gum faigh na Gàidheil an iarrtas
    Bhith comhnaidh ’s na glinn gu sìorraidh
    Ag adhradh do Dhia ’s a’ Ghàidhlig.
  9. Ged a dh’fhàg mi iomadh bliadhna thu
    Tha mo chridhe blàth ’gad iargain:
    Caladh deisireach na fialachd
    Uaine, grianach, bial Loch Àlainn.

 

  1. [Chorus] O ancient Scotland, farewell to you! O beloved Scotland, I am far from you; the land of the heroes and the beautiful lassies; O ancient Scotland, farewell to you!
  2. O you who travels across the ocean, take a greeting from me to Morvern, to the goodly people in whom I would entrust, even though I had to leave.
  3. Leave them in Rahoy; I see you across the ocean, far from me; my life was light and carefree in the green glens of Argyll.
  4. A third of my life, a third of my health, I got good sustenance there; I would much prefer a drink of water from the pure spring over any brown ale that could be bought.
  5. The youth who were hardy have gone, having been evicted far and wide; some are in Glasgow on the Clyde, others are across the ocean, north and south.
  6. The ruins where there was once worship are now cold, where my mother gave me her breast[-milk]; where is the Christian faith that has allowed wild animals to take our place?
  7. We lost our language and our country; we are exiled like Jews; the utter non-Gaels have settled the land with deer and the enemies of our country are contemptuous.
  8. I hope that it is not an idle wish that the Gaels will get their request, to reside forever in the glens, praising God in the Gaelic language.
  9. Although I left you behind many years ago, my warm [i.e., beating] heart is grieving for you: the southernly harbour of hospitality, the green, sunny mouth of Lochaline.
Late Medieval, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature

The Ballad of Diarmaid and the Wild Boar in Glenshee: Some Speculations

One of the most poignant and memorable episodes in the Fenian/Ossianic cycle of Gaelic literature is the death of Diarmaid from the venom of the wild (and enchanted) boar which his uncle, Fionn, entreated him to hunt, knowing that this would cause his death. This episode was cast in verse form, probably in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, in Glenshee (Gleann Sìdh), in eastern Perthshire by a poet named in The Book of the Dean of Lismore as Ailéin mac Ruaidhrí.

This is the earliest textual copy of the text of the ballad, but the extremely eccentric nature of this manuscript and the orthography used (Middle Scots rather than Classical Gaelic) has been challenging the best Gaelic scholars for generations. Fortunately, Donald Meek has produced a definitive edition, translation and literary analysis of the poem (1990) upon which all further scholarship can be built.

Amongst his many critical insights into the text, Meek has shown that the BDLM text differs from the prose narrative as it was recorded in Ireland and that in fact no variant of this text survives in Irish sources. This ballad was a very popular one in the Scottish Highlands, so much so that it was “relocalised” in a number of different locations. None of them, however, correspond so closely and neatly as the text does with Glenshee, Perthshire. These data strongly support the notion that the ballad was composed with this eastern location in mind.

To my limited  knowledge, anyway, little more has been said about the ballad, why it was composed and what it might say about Gaelic affairs at this place and time. The poem itself and the cultural context is so rich that it invites some speculation that I hope others with more knowledge can refine or augment, given this stimulation.

First, of all, the poem itself indicates that it was meant to be performed in situ for a live audience. The poet begins:

Gleann Síodh, an gleann so rém thaoibh …
An gleann so fá Bheinn Ghulbainn ghuirm …
Éisdibh beag, madh áil libh laoidh | a chuideachta chaomh so, bhuam …

Glenshee, this glen beside me …
This glen below green Ben Gulabin …
Listen a little while, dear company, if you would wish to hear a ballad from me …

Where would this performance have happened? Almost certainly at the Spital of Glenshee (or actually, Seann Spideal “Shanspital”). This was clearly a high-status lodging, where King Robert II signed a charter during his reign (1371-90) about a century before the poem was composed. It must have been a suitable performance space for a small company of nobles.

I believe that there is a strong Campbell connection to the poem, which I will explain below, but for now, let it suffice to observe that Campbell seanchaidhs and genealogists in the 17th century recorded that they not only knew the poem, but they knew of its setting in Glenshee and the landscape features associated with the story, as in this excerpt from The Manuscript History of Craignish:

This seems to have been the ground that brought Fian and Dhiarmuid with their men to Scotland & after a memorable hunting of the wild boar at Glenshie in Perthshyre Diarmuid happen’d to kill a boar of Monstrous Size … which is the rise that Argyle the chief of this name & many of his Cadets carrie as their Crest the Boars head erasit. If it can be a voucher of this Storie I shall add that near the Spittal or hospital at Glenshie there are two places to be seen call’d [Leabaidh an Tuirc “The Boar’s Bed”] and [Uaigh Dhiarmaid “Diarmaid’s Grave”].

Why was the poem composed? What social function (other than just entertainment) might the text and performance have had? The social context must almost certainly be related to the eclipse of the power of the Clan Donald Lordship of the Isles and the expansion of the Campbells into that power vacuum and eastward. This hypothesis seems consistent with the manuscript source of the ballad, the text of the ballad itself, the geographical setting of the ballad.

Let me rehearse some of the supporting evidence. The Gaelic contents of the BDLM stretches back to the thirteenth century and includes a broad sweep of materials, including from Clan Donald poets. The overall tone of the collection, however, indicates the passing of a Gaelic Golden Age.

“Veneration of the dead and remembrance of past glories resonates in B’s lists of Scottish kings and battles; in its inclusion of a group of poems collectively mourning the downfall of the MacDonalds and their lordship; in the predominantly elegiac tone of its heroic ballads, with their preoccupation with warrior-death, the ars moriendi, and commemoration of the passing of an heroic age…” (MacGregor 68)

The similarity of Diarmaid’s patronymic Ó Duibhne to the Gaelic form of the Campbell’s archaic kin-name Duibhnich enabled, at least in popular tradition, the idea that the Diarmaid of Ossianic tradition was the eponymous ancestor of the Campbells. Although we don’t have surviving documentary evidence of this until the 17th century (Gillies, 279; McLeod, 123-4), it is possible that some germ of this claim was already circulating in 15th-century Gaelic folk tradition.

That the poet makes Diarmaid a suitable prototype for a good Gaelic chieftain is clear in some of the traits listed in the poem: besides being an able warrior and hunter, he “never refused a poet band” (stanza 14), he “did not consent to treachery” (stanza 19), he is handsome (stanzas 20, 23), “sweetness and kindness were found in his speech” (stanza 24), and he was a great wooer of women (stanza 25).

Diarmaid’s unlikely nemesis is his uncle Fionn, the leader of the Fian bands, who was jealous that his wife Gráinne had fallen in love with the younger man. It is possible that the ballad can be read in parable-fashion about power shifts in Gaelic Scotland. The term Fionnghall had been first used as an ethnic term for Norse invaders but later came to be used of the Gaels in the area dominated by the Clan Donald – in other words, the descendants of the Gaelicized Norse who inhabited, in particular, the Hebrides (McLeod, 128-29). There is a strong onomastic and literary association, then, between the term “Fionn” and the Clan Donald, who rhetorically positioned themselves as the defenders of the old Gaelic order, just as Fionn and the Fian were portrayed in the Gaelic literary tradition.

The ballad, then, seems to suggest a kind of political parable about the rivalry between Fionn and Diarmaid, which is paralleled by the rivalry between Clan Donald and Clan Campbell for Ceannas nan Gàidheal “the Headship of the Gaels”. The persona of Gráinne represents the attachment and affection of the Gaelic community itself. Fionn, through jealousy and resentment, causes the downfall of his loyal and innocent nephew, and ultimately his own downfall.

I expect that the notion of Diarmaid’s burial in Glenshee is itself important. Burial places were not just sites of community attachment and ritual but markers of ancestral ownership. Placing a claim – an ancient one, indeed – for a Campbell lineage in Glenshee could have set a very ambitious target and rationale for Campbell territorial expansion. That is, if the ballad text wasn’t a way for a Campbell patron to claim and “over-write” a burial site that belonged to another unrelated personage which may have been close enough in name or tradition.

Add to this the name of the poet to whom the text is ascribed in BDLM: Ailéin mac Ruaidhrí. Naming patterns in Gaelic society are pretty repetitive and consistent, and this is not a Campbell name but a Clan Donald one. It would not be surprising if, in the waning of Clan Donald power, poets who had previously had patronage in the Lordship of the Isles sought employment from Campbells. Perhaps this would entail some acknowledgment of the declined status of their former MacDonald associates and the greater legitimacy of their new Campbell bosses.

Here ends my speculation … I hope that others can critique and extend, if possible, these lines of inquiry.

Bibliography

Campbell, Herbert. 1926. “The Manuscript History of Craignish.” In Miscellany of the Scottish History Society.

Gillies, William. 1978. “Some Aspects of Campbell History.” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 50.

MacGregor, Martin. 2006. “The View from Fortingall: the worlds of the Book of the Dean of Lismore.” Scottish Gaelic Studies 22: 35-85.

McLeod, Wilson. 2004. Divided Gaels: Gaelic Cultural Identities in Scotland and Ireland c.1200–c.1650.

Meek. Donald. 1990. “The Death of Diarmaid in Scottish and Irish Tradition.” Celtica 21.

— 2004. “The Scottish tradition of Fian ballads in the middle ages.” In Unity in Diversity, ed. Cathal Ó Háinle and Donald Meek.

ed. — (forthcoming). Fian Ballads in the Book of the Dean of Lismore.

Miller, T. D. 1929. Tales of a Highland Parish (Glenshee).

 

Modern, North America, Scottish Gaelic Literature

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.