African and Gaelic Identities in the Diasporas

Before we reach the end of this month of celebrating African-American heritage in the US, I want to share an important historical anecdote that illustrates perfectly how complex identity and culture really are in lived experience. Scottish Gaelic surnames (“Mac-”anything, Campbell, Cameron, etc) are nearly as prevalent where I am currently residing in North Carolina as they are where I was residing previously (eastern Nova Scotia), except that the skin color here is far more varied. While this is to a large degree the legacy of slavery, it is not the entirety of the story. The false consciousness of race – of sorting people into artificial categories based on skin colors and aspirational assimilations – has created historical amnesia about the wide variety of cultures and identities that existed in immigrant communities in the past and the many exchanges and intersections between them.

The Cape Fear of the Carolinas was the largest settlement of Gaelic speakers outside of Scotland into the early 1800s and because of the dominance of the Gaelic language, everyone in the community spoke it, regardless of their skin color or social role. What’s clear from Gaelic tradition itself is that language was key to Gaelic identity, not skin color, and that participation in the song and story tradition validated a person’s membership in the community.

Highlanders were attached to very specific places in their homeland and they tended to remain in these local groupings as immigrants in America when they could. There were a lot of people from the island of Islay in Carolina and some of them served as crew on a barge on the Cape Fear River that took goods from Fayetteville to Wilmington. This was in the days before steamers. A man named James MacLachlan was the skipper of the Islay barge.

There was another barge that had the same duty but it was operated by an African-American crew. One of the men on the crew was named “Tom” and Tom didn’t feel that he belonged there. He spoke Gaelic better than English, and he knew all about the Highlands, and all of the people and places that the Gaels spoke about. Those were the people Tom preferred to spend his time with.

Tom would pretend to be sick when the “black boat” was supposed to depart, but whenever MacLachan’s barge was at the warehouse in Fayetteville, Tom would appear for work. The warehouse manager would ask him if he felt well enough to work with the Islaymen, and he said he’d try to do his best. He would join the Gaelic crew, and as soon as the barge turned the first curve in the river, he would begin to sing a particular Gaelic strathspey from Islay and dance to it.

“Sann ann am Baile ’n Àbaidh / A rugadh mi ’s a thogadh mi

’Sann ann am Baile ’n Àbaidh / Bha mi riamh.”

“It is in Ballinaby that I was born and raised

It is in Ballinaby that I always lived.”

This is an interesting variation of a popular Gaelic dance song that usually points to the island of Islay in general as homeland, but Tom choose to identify with an even more specific place, one that gave him a sense of belonging to Gaelic heritage. And that freedom to choose and to develop an identity based on language and culture is extremely important for us to remember and acknowledge as we celebrate Gaelic heritage and its import and impact in America.

Most people whose ancestors have been in North America for a few generations have highly diverse ethnic origins, and people should still enjoy the freedom to celebrate and participate in all of the traditions of their ancestors – and even of those which they feel drawn to, despite a lack of known ancestry. (See this video for a great example of Gaelic mouth music performed by Rhiannon Giddens of North Carolina, into which she draws African-American styles.)

Alexander Fraser’s Efforts to Establish Celtic Studies in Ontario

I’ve written two previous blog posts about aspects of the legacy of Alexander Fraser (Kiltarlity / Toronto, 1860-1936), a Scottish Gaelic scholar about whom I’ll be speaking at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures in Vancouver this June. Fraser is an interesting and complex subject, not least because of his identity as a Gael and his involvement in Gaelic affairs (something largely neglected by previous biographical studies). In this particular blog post I’ll be bringing together the material that I have regarding his educational efforts to organize and establish the field of Celtic Studies in Ontario universities.

A little background may be useful. As a set of subordinated ethnic groups subsumed within an anglocentric empire, the languages and cultures of Celtic peoples have been marginalized within the institutions of higher learning in the British Isles since their foundations. A degree of the resurgence of self-confidence is evident in the 1880s in Scotland, and in 1882 the first Chair of Celtic Studies was established in Edinburgh. Such accomplishments emboldened Gaels to strive for further recognition in formal institutions, not least in universities. Such efforts seem to have yielded much less success in the North American diaspora than in native lands.

The current Celtic Studies Program at the University of Toronto was established in 1981 after Robert O’Driscoll had been working on it for thirteen years. As we’ll see here, Fraser began his efforts at creating a centre in Ontario no later than 1903. And as a relevant comparison, Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair began teaching a Celtic Studies course at both Dalhousie University (Halifax) and St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish) in 1907.

According to a biographical sketch which appeared in the Celtic Monthly 1.20 (1912), Fraser had a long involvement in educational circles in Ontario:

“His interest in educational and historical affairs has been long and active. For twelve years he was a Trustee of the Collegiate Institute of Toronto, the educational link between the public schools and the University. He was in turn Chairman of all of the standing committees, and of the Board, rendering enduring service in the organization of studies … For three years he taught Gaelic to the students of Knox College.”

My plan for this blog entry – which is intended to help me organize materials and share a few thoughts – is to simply present the primary sources I have, with bits of commentary around them.

Setting a Course

The Toronto Mail newspaper reported on November 25, 1903 that Fraser addressed the Canadian Catholic Union to argue for support of Celtic Studies. In regards to the Irish language in particular, he said

“there had been very little indeed done in Canada, although the Celtic element was particularly strong in the country. Toronto University ought to have at least a Celtic lectureship, and if the Celts of Canada or of Ontario – the Irish, Scotch, Welsh — were to unite in demand for such it would have to be granted. Money ought to be subscribed apart from this by the wealthy Celts of Canada to establish an institute for research in the Celtic field and for stimulating a love for the history of their united race. …”

Of course, such “stimulation” was necessary, as educational authorities held Celtic languages and cultures in contempt and as beneath the notice of “true civilization,” which was supposedly the exclusive claim of English society.

The January 1904 issue of the Scottish Canadian (printed in Toronto) reprinted a report from the Evening Telegram, covering Fraser’s campaign:

“The proposal made the other day to have a Celtic lectureship in connection with the University, is not one that should be put aside without some consideration. In this quarter of Ontario, containing as it does a large proportion of people of Celtic origin, there is bound to be no small constituency of students interested in Celtic history and literature. As it is, there is no opportunity afforded these by the University of acquiring any knowledge of those subjects. … Another argument, however, in favor of a Celtic lectureship being established is the fact that it is impossible to understand fully English history and literature without intimately the extent to which the Celts have influenced English life and thought. And how can that be gained without an exhaustive study of Celtic works in the original?”

Lectures at MacMaster University

I have not yet determined the extent of Fraser’s engagement with Ontario universities and the courses that he was able to offer, but amongst his papers in the Archives of Ontario is a notice of his “Introductory Course of Lectures in Keltic History and Literature” offered at McMaster University, “held under the auspices of the McMaster University Literary Society at 8 o’clock in Castle Memorial Hall.”

The three lectures were as follows:

First Lecture (January 17th, 1913) – The Kelt: Identity, Geographical Distribution, History.
Second Lecture (January 31st, 1913) – Keltic Literature: Brythonic.
Third Lecture (February 14th,, 1913) – Keltic Literature: Gadelic [sic].

I do not know Fraser’s influences for the organization of this material, but it is interesting that it appears very similar to notes written by Rev. Alexander Maclean Sinclair about the topic as early as 1879. It may well be that they are both drawing from common framework dominant in contemporary scholarship.

Honorary Doctorate From St. Francis Xavier University

An issue of the Scottish Canadian (I do not have the date) reported gleefully about the meeting of the Gaelic Society of Canada in Toronto on 17 May, 1913 that one particular initiative had succeeded:

“That the Gaelic Society of Canada, whose main object is to encourage the study of the Gaelic language and literature, and scholarly research in the Keltic field, has learned with satisfaction and appreciation, of the worthy bestowal of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, on Alexander Fraser, LL.D., F.S.A. Scot. (Edin.), by the University of St. Francis Xavier, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in recognition of his scholarly attainments, especially in Keltic Literature and History, and his long and valuable services … ”

St. Francis Xavier University was a symbolically important and relevant institution to bestow this recognition upon Fraser, given that it was established by Gaelic speakers in a large and dense settlement of Gaelic communities, and because the most celebrated Gaelic scholar on the continent – Alexander Maclean Sinclair – had been resident there attempting to lay the same sort of foundation. Fraser’s honorary degree could have the effect of validating the efforts of both men.

Fraser’s address to the audience at St. FX was printed in the local newspaper The Casket on May 22, 1913, a portion of which I give below. Several things are notable about what he says:

  1. He begins by sketching an outline of the early history of Christianity and the introduction of associated scholarship into the Gaelic world, drawing an implicit parallel between the “civilizing” of pagan Europe and colonial North America (a topic I’ve discussed in Seanchaidh na Coille).
  2. Like many other Gaels of his time (e.g., Maclean Sinclair), Fraser’s identification with Gaelic culture allowed him to transcend denominational differences and work easily with both Catholic and Protestant communities.
  3. His course of study of the Celts extends the narrative into the North American diaspora.
  4. He seems to downplay any strong antagonisms or innate incompatibilities between “Kelt” and Saxon, thus reflecting a deference to the dominant anglophone hegemony of his time in Canada and the wider empire.
  5. He accordingly does not argue for the intrinsic value of Gaelic as a living language worthy of equal recognition with English, but rather as an intellectual resource for studying the past.
  6. He nonetheless argues for the place of Celtic Studies in Canadian higher education, pointing to the vacuum left by its absence.
  7. He concludes with a brief Gaelic slogan, calling “the troops” to defend their birthright.

Here is the extract from his address that I’ve transcribed:

I desire to assure your Lordship and the Faculty that I esteem very highly the association I have been permitted to form with this University, having regard, in an especial manner, to what it represents as an institution of learning …

Antigonish reflects the genius of the Scottish race from which her organization sprang and her activities have been largely maintained. As the historic mists rise off ancient Scotland, we find St. Ninian completing Candida Casa, the monastery he dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, at Whithorn, in A.D. 402. A prince’s son, he dedicated his learning to God and preached the Gospel from Galloway to the Grampians, founding churches and civilizing the people. …

[more medieval history] … light and learning were held aloft by by the church, until, the time being ripe, the zeal of a few scholars who lectured on Philosophy, Logic and Canon Law at St. Andrews, was [sic] rewarded by Bishop Warlaw by obtaining from the Pope in 1411 the Charter of Scotland’s oldest university, that of St Andrews, which, next to Iona, is Scotland’s sacred shrine. The new born institution was nourished by church benefactions, contributions from the church tiends, and some crown grants. …

Thus we see that upholding the national tradition of our Fatherland, the three oldest universities were founded and supported by the Church as part of her work, and that secular – arts – as well as theological studies were provided for. …

It is obvious that such things as I have been referring to place every patriotic Scot, familiar with the early history of his country, under a deep obligation, and I have this in view when I say that I highly appreciate the honor just conferred on me by a University like yours which in Canada is a link with our great historic past, and seeks, as it does, to exemplify and uphold the Scottish ideal of true education.

You have been kind enough to refer to my interest in Keltic History and Literature. I reciprocate the sentiment, and congratulate this University on what, in this represent, it has done and is doing. The Rev. Mr. Maclean Sinclair, your lecturer in Keltic, is known as a Master of varied accomplishments in the Gaelic field. The chain that binds students in Gaelic together gains in strength what it may lack in length, and many lovers of our literature and lore are deeply grateful to him for ever ready help in their researches. It is not too much, moreover, to say, that when the tale of Gaelic in these Maritime Provinces in Canada is told in the future days, the feature of the narrative will be the extensive collection of Gaelic poetry he has, with infinite pains and devotion, gathered together, preserved, and given in permanent form to the public.

Whatever you are doing here we are beginning to try to do in Ontario. True, the Gaelic Society has, since its organization some twenty-fine years or so ago, some excellent work to its credit. Under its auspices classes in elementary Gaelic grammar have been conducted; Gaelic song and music and Gaelic preaching have been encouraged in a practical manner. Statistics of the Highland Settlements of Ontario, with pioneer reminiscences have been collected and collated which will prove valuable to future investigations of local history.

As an encouragement for the study of Gaelic literature, a Gaelic Fellowship was established a few years ago, under the provisions of the Society’s charter and a few gentlemen have been recipients of this honor. For some time a Gaelic class for advanced students was held at Knox College, drawing from Toronto University and affiliated colleges. Blackboard methods, alternating with critical lectures were followed, and the work was both interesting and fruitful. Out of this arose the desire to found a University lectureship in Keltic History and Literature on a permanent financial basis. A Committee was formed, the University authorities were sympathetic, and I had the grateful privilege this winter of inaugurating the course, as Honorary Lecturer. We have every reason to believe the project will succeed. …

I do not advocate the teaching of the Gaelic language in our universities except in so far as that may lead to competent instruction in Keltic philosophy; but I take this ground, that the content of Keltic History and Literature ought to be made known to students in Canadian universities,— not exactly on the same basis as philosophy, science and moderns (in these days of rampant pragmatism), but on the same basis as the higher classics, English Literature and History.

The content of the Keltic field is not unknown to most of you, nor to me would this be an opportune time to venture to describe it. It may be interesting to the uninitiated, however, to give an outline of the ground I tried to cover this winter at Toronto. My scheme was one of twelve lectures, each one introductory to its subject, and each prepared for non-Gaelic speaking students.

I. The family connection connection with the Teutons: (a) prehistoric Kelt and Teuton in Central Europe, and the history of the Keltic wars in Greece, Asia Minor, Illyria, and Italy; (b) Keltic and Germanic tongues,– the original common stock, especially home words,— father, mother, brother, etc.

II. Keltic and Latin, (especially Goidelic); Historical neighbors,– evidently in agricultural age,– bos, taurus, equus, ovis (Oisg).

III. Gaulish and British; Historical connections; Relics of Gaulish language.

IV. Early Christian Britain; a golden age; afterglow of legend and romance.

V. Early Irish legends and ballads; the Tuatha de Dannan, Cuchullin Cycle, Ossianic.

VI.— Early Keltic Art: Sculpture, scroll patterns, illuminated books, Literary exertions, tales, etc., Christian poetry, Latin hymns.

VII. The Keltic war of Britain and Ireland, 450 to 1000 A.D. The welding of races.

VIII. The Scottish Gael in the Middle Ages. Poetry and legends, imitations of the Ossianic: Keltic element in Scottish nationality; Wars of Scottish Independence.

IX. Kelt and Saxon in Ireland; the plantations; Kelticizing the Saxon; Literary activity.

X. The Scottish Gaels in the 18th century; The Jacobites; Macdonald and the Bards; Macpherson’s Ossian.

XI. The Modern Keltic Movement; the Eisteddfod; The Irish Gaelic League; the Scottish Gaelic Societies.

XII. The Keltic Element To-day:– in shaping the British Empire; in English Literature; in Canada and the United States. …

Why should Canadian universities lag behind in this field? If there [sic] objects and functions be to awaken a true love for learning, Keltic in its widest sense cannot justly be ignored. The Kelt belongs to a race whose history spreads over Europe and the British Isles, a race whose ancient remains offer to the anthropologist and archaeologist alike most valuable material for the elucidation of the obscure history of men … Without a knowledge of the Kelt the history of Europe is incomplete, that of Great Britain and Ireland, hopelessly confused. And, having such a heritage should not we, the offspring of the Gael in Canada, insist that due place and credit be accorded to it in our halls of learning?

Canada owes much to the Kelt – the Kelt of France, of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It were a small return, educationally, were the history of a people that has entered into the warp and woof of our population – into the very making of Canada to such an extent as has the Kelt should be revealed to the students in our universities. You, young gentlemen, can do much in such a sacred cause. The field was never better tilled, nor the harvest more promising than at present.

Will you, and all of us, accept the legacy, and assume, for the still virile remnant of our race, the obligation that, it would seem, destiny itself has called upon us to discharge? For the name and fame of our fayjers will you as was wont of old raise the Gaelic bratach, le cath-ghairm nan laochraidh, – clanna nan Gàidheal ann an guaillibh a chéile!

The Future of the Campaign

The last I know of this effort are the minutes of the meeting held at No.294 Avenue Road Toronto on the 23rd August, 1913 (also in Fraser’s papers in the Archive of Ontario). Present at the meeting were Neil Robertson, chairman. Hugh MacDonald, secretary; Hugh Ray, Donald Fraser, John M. Robertson and Alexander Fraser.

It was resolved to start collecting funds immediately to endow the lectureship; to convey formal thanks to McMaster University for hosting the inaugural lectures; and that lectureship be named after Fraser.

Did they raise any funds? What became of them? Those are open questions to me at present … Regardless, I consider the apparent failure of this initiative to be a real tragedy, not just because of the loss of an early opportunity to develop the field in North America in a major centre of learning, but also because of the default direction of all of the human capital represented by the sizable Celtic diaspora in Ontario.

In other words, the very large number of people in Ontario, and indeed Canada, who came from families who spoke Breton, Gaelic, Irish, Manx and Welsh, saw little opportunity for honoring or enshrining their own languages, histories and cultures in the formal institutions of their nation, but had instead to invest their life energies into upholding and enriching the language and culture and values of an anglocentric empire. The modern myth of a homogenous “English Canada” bloc is built by ignoring such history and this pattern of deference to anglocentric norms has certainly not been to the benefit of the native peoples of this continent.


Michael Linkletter (2006). “Bu Dual Dha Sin (That was His Birthright): Gaelic Scholar Alexander Maclean Sinclair (1840-1924).” Unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University.

Michael Linkletter (2009). “The Early Establishment of Celtic Studies in North American Universities.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium (29): 138-53.

Michael Newton (2003). “ ‘Becoming Cold-hearted like the Gentiles Around Them’: Scottish Gaelic in the United States 1872-1912.” eKeltoi 2: 63-131.

Michael Newton (2013). Ed. Celts in the Americas.

Michael Newton (2015). Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada.

Michael Newton (2016). “Gaelic Organizations in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Ontario.” International Review of Scottish Studies 41: 37-71.

A Paean to the Bagpipe in Nova Scotia, 1816

The “Great Highland” bagpipe is now an iconic symbol of Scottishness in Scotland and abroad, but inadequate attention has been paid to how Highlanders themselves perceived, described and discussed their musical traditions and instruments amongst themselves. The following poem is, as far as I know, the earliest surviving commentary in Gaelic – thus composed by Gaels about their own tradition, for “internal” discussion, as it were – about the bagpipe and its role in Gaelic tradition that survives from the North American diaspora.

I transcribed the text several years ago from the newspaper The Casket and Barry Shears recently asked me to provide a usable edition and translation for a new book project on which he is currently working. It is an interesting poem that provides us with important insight not just about the bagpipes but about self-perceptions at this very transitional point in time, as the Gaelic community was re-establishing itself in a new geographical and socio-political context.

Notes and Analysis

The text is essentially a panegyric – the dominant rhetorical mode of Gaelic poetry – to the bagpipe in which the instrument is addressed directly and, to a degree, personified. This is not an uncommon literary convention, but there are not many other Gaelic poems that work quite in the same way (Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s “Moladh Mòraig” is another). The poet’s social role as panegyrist and a warning to the subject of praise to maintain standards is particularly explicit in lines 79-81. The sound of the bagpipe is compared to a frightening shriek (lines 17, 38 and 54), although it is also (as in many other Gaelic sources) compared to the sound of a bird (line 15) and a Gaelic choral song (line 31).

The poet alludes to the human bagpiper but he remains un-nnamed, a secondary figure in comparison to the instrument itself. I am unsure of the identity of this bagpiper, although Barry may know who is intended. Regardless, the agility of his fingers and hands is noted by the poet (lines 10 and 74).

Also central to the piece is the militaristic role of the instrument and the musical tradition. It is absolutely crucial to take into account the Gaelic community’s desperate and servile need for external validation via military employment (as I have discussed at length in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 68-120, 507-14). Highlanders were experiencing severe social trauma and physical dislocation at this time and attempting to push against the dominant anglocentric narrative of the inferiority and deficiency of Gaelic culture and society. Militarism provided a means for Highlanders to assert their value to an empire expanding through the use of force and violence, imagery which is striking in this text (lines 19-48).

As has been noted by previous scholars, conflict against the French (see lines 31-45) was instrumental in cementing a sense of Britishness in this period, and warfare between the two empires extended into battles in North America. The poet shares a marked note of self-congratulary reassurance that the people of England grew to appreciate Highlanders’ martial skills (lines 55-57). There is only a muted reference to the Jacobite Cause (lines 58-60).

It should be noted that the original text contained a number of errors and irregular spellings, so some emendations have been necessary. I am relatively certain about the text as it now stands in this edition.

Edition and Translation

Rann do’n phìob mhóir Ghàidhealaich a rinneadh ’s a’ bhliadhna 1816 le neach àraid air dha a bhràthair (a thàinig ’s an àm sin da’n dùthaich seo mach á Albainn) a chluinntinn a’ cluich ro thaitneach air a’ phìob, thuirt e na focail seo a leanas.

1 A chorr-fheadanach,
  Nan dos mór-fhuaim:
Thig ceòl leadarra
5 Gun obadh,
  Ás do sgòrnan.

’S e dian ruith-leumach,
Fìor mhireagach,
Gun bhith sgòdach,
10 Le meur mhìn-bhuilleach,
Nan cliath bhinn-fhuaimneach,
Gun dìth eòlais,

Lìonte, sgoinneil thu,
’S fhiach do cheileireadh,
15   ’S gach big chomhnard;
Bu mhiann loinneil leinn,
Do sgiamh eireachdail,
  ’Thighinn ’nar comhdhail.

’S neo-ghann spiorad bhuat,
20 An àm tionalaidh
  Do dh’fhir òga;
Cha teann giorag riuth’,
Ach sannt mire-chath
  An strìth comhraig.

25 Gach pong chuireadach,
Toirt fonn iomairt dhoibh
  Le sunnd mòrail,
Gach sonn bunailteach,
Bu throm buillean bhuath’
30  An camp fòirneirt.

Nuair chluinnte luinneag bhuat,
Ged b’ aingidh Bonapart,
  Rinn fann-bhuilleach e;
’S a mheall a phròis air,
35 Tighinn teann bu duilich leis
  Air rang do chomhlain.

Rinn’ call fuileach air,
Le’n ceannsgal ’s t’ iollagaich,
  A ghléidh buaidh-làraich,
40 Air Frangaich ghuineadach,
Nach mall air gunnaireachd,
  A threut gu bàs i.

Fhuair cliù mar thoilleadh iad,
Bho Dhiùc Wellington,
45  Le’n sgoinn ’s an àraich:
Fuil dhlùth ’g imeachd leò,
’S lùbadh mhuineachan,
  Air ruinn na stàilinn.

Crùnludh faramach,
50 Toirt dùsgadh caithreamach
  Do shuinn shàr-bheum;
Le sùrd casgairt orr’,
Smùid ’s spealtaireachd,
  Chluinnte an rànail.

55 Bu lìonor batail leò,
’S miadhail Sasann orra
  Gu gnìomh gàbhaidh;
Nam b’ fhiach acainean
Gach triath air gaisgichean,
60  Cha strìochdadh Teàrlach.

Tha t’ fhuaim neo-airtnealach,
Bheir cruadal sgairtealach,
  Do dhùthchas Ghàidheal;
Deagh bhuaidh a thachairt riuth’
65 Bheir nuallan taitneach ort:
  ’S ann diubh mo bhràthair.

Gach coigreach ’chlisgidh tu,
Gun chorr fiosraich ort,
  Na eòlas nàduir,
70 An comhraig sgrios-bhuilleach,
Bheir leòn dha, misneach ann
  Do cheòl, toirt tàth ast’.

Tha uaislean measail
Air do chuairtean clis-mheurach
75  A cluichear làn-mhath
Le fuaim dheas-làmhach,
Bheir buaidh theas-ghràdhach,
  A chluinntear àghmhor.

Thuirt mi ’n urrad ud,
80 Toirt cliù ’s urram dhuit:
  ’S cùm gun tàir e;
’S a’ phuing, chan urra’ mi,
Chionn sin, sguiridh mi,
  ’S gum bu slàn leat.


A poem to the Great Highland bagpipe that was composed in the year 1816 by a particular person after he heard his brother (who had immigrated at that time to this country from Scotland) playing very melodiously on the bagpipe: he uttered these following words.

1-6: O pointy chantered-one, (who is) long beaked, and has drones that make great sound: melodious music comes abundantly out of your throat.

7-12: It is vigorous, quick-leaping, truly animated, without any deficiency; with a precisely striking finger of a melodious run of notes, with no lack of skill.

13-18: You are perfected and efficacious, every smooth chirp is worthy of celebration; we sincerely wish for your elegant shriek to meet up with us.

19-24: You do not lack spirit when it is time to gather up the young men; dread will not visit them, but rather a lust for fighting in the strife of combat.

25-30: Every enticing (musical) note provides an impetus to them with majestic energy; every steadfast warrior pounds out heavy blows in the war camp.

31-36: Even though Bonapart is bellicose, he would become faint-hearted when he would hear a song from you; his arrogance failed him, he was sorry to come close to a column of the battalion.

37-42: Their power and your shriek, that won the battle, caused him a bloody loss, and a loss to the fierce French; swift in their use of guns, continuing until they died (?).

43-48: They received the honour they were due from the Duke of Wellington from their efficacy in the battle-field: shedding copious amounts of (enemy) blood and breaking necks on the points of steel-blades.

49-54: A booming “crowning movement” [section of pìobaireachd] giving a triumphant awakening to hard-pummeling heroes; with the excitement of combat in them, gunpowder-smoke and melee, the roar (of the pipe) could be heard.

55-60: They fought many battles and England esteemed them for dangerous deeds; if the concerns of all chieftains for warriors had been heeded, [Prince] Charles would not have lost.

61-66: Your high-spirited sound gives fierce resilience to Gaelic heritage; it is good luck to encounter those who give a pleasant report of you: my brother is one of those (who do).

67-72: Every stranger, who knows nothing of you beyond the obvious, who you would startle in death-dealing combat that will wound him, there is inspiration in your music that weakens (the enemy’s) cohesion.

73-78: Nobles are fond of your quick-fingered cycles that are expertly played with fine-handed sound, that has a passionate effect, that is heard gloriously.

79-84: What I have just said gives you praise and honour: do not bring it reproach; I cannot add to that, and so I will stop; farewell to you.


Thanks to Hugh Cheape for suggesting an emendation on the Gaelic text and feedback about it.

Blinders to the Left, Klans on the Right: Scottish and Celtic Studies in Trump’s America

People have an instinctive need to make sense of the experience of their forbearers and community, and to understand what that might reveal about themselves and their destiny in a larger historical and social framework. Is there an emergent pattern that explains the trials, triumphs and tendencies of our predecessors that might also provide guidance for our present and future dilemmas? Can it inspire us to realize the potentials that we contain and the means of achieving them? Our need for explanatory narratives is natural and universal, but different kinds of aspirations, ideals and explanatory mechanisms prevail at differing times and in various circumstances. It is perhaps unsurprising that in an era of the ubiquity of the internet and a reassertion of biological determinism, many people are constructing social meaning by reading it into genetic codes, genealogy, and Google search engine results.

Delivering this text at the University of Edinburgh on December 8, 2016. Picture courtesy of Alastair McIntosh.
Delivering this text at the University of Edinburgh on December 8, 2016. Picture courtesy of Alastair McIntosh.

The triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election sent shock waves amongst progressives of all stripes within the country and abroad. Trump resorted to forms of prejudice and scapegoating that have emboldened a resurgence of bigotry, racism, and misogyny. Some of the most vocal supporters of Trump have been white supremacists eager to see the end of Obama’s appointment and the return of a white figurehead in charge of national politics. Although masquerading under the moniker “alt-right” in public media, many of them are motivated by racial animus, even to the point of identifying with Nazi ideology and symbolism. They describes themselves as having a “psychic connection” with Trump, who entered the political arena by claiming that Obama was born in Kenya and wasn’t an American citizen.

For some self-declared white nationalists, race and identity are the paramount factors for individual and communal destiny. Richard B. Spencer, a leading ideologue of the “alt-right movement, told National Public Radio after the election:

What I would ultimately want is this ideal of a safe space effectively for Europeans. This is a big empire that would accept all Europeans. It would be a place for Germans. It would be a place for Slavs. It would be a place for Celts. It would be a place for white Americans and so on. [1]

It is troubling that the rhetoric of white supremacy and Nazism is being reiterated verbatim on the public stage. In a convention in Washington D.C. on November 19, Spenser said that America belonged to white people, the supposed “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.” [2]

Obama’s presidency had the paradoxical effect of reasserting racist strains of American culture that many of us assumed were obsolete or would soon be. In July, a Republican congressman from Iowa, Steve King, remarked that “white people” had done more for civilization than any other “subgroup.” When given a chance to clarify his comments, he further claimed:

What I really said was ‘Western civilization’ and when you describe Western civilization, that can mean much of Western civilization happens to be Caucasians. But we should not apologize for our culture or our civilization. … The contributions that were made by Western civilization itself, and by Americans, by Americans of all races, stand far above the rest of the world. The Western civilization and the American civilization are a superior culture.

Whatever other motivations and elements have gone into the toxic cauldron that makes up white nationalism and the “alt-right,” it is strongly reactionary. Proponents rail against the strictures of political correctness, reveling in Trump’s machismo, spontaneous outbursts of self-righteous anger, and professed disdain for élitism and plurality. Like their role model, their own self-interests trump any pretense of a moral compass conditioned by consideration for the greater good.

It would be a glib exercise to find further fault with this “basket of deplorables.” Instead, I’d like to point out that in at least some respects the alt-right is a backlash against the far Left, that both are trapped in a gridlock battle over absolutist authority, and both can engage in self-deceiving forms of presentism. The concept of “safe spaces,” for example, was advocated by the Left and has been appropriated, with a vengeance, by spokespeople of the Right such as Spenser.

Much if not most of this oppositional dialectic is centred on the ideology and rhetoric of race. Concurrent with the social struggle for Civil Rights, humanities scholars in the American academy turned increasingly on the country’s history of oppression and privilege, and found the lived experience of racialized citizens of the Republic far short of its ideals of equality and freedom. From an initial emphasis on race-based slavery and the dispossession and genocide of native peoples, the critical lens of domination and marginalization has widened to encompass gender and sexual orientation. Humanities scholars in the U.S. almost by definition are expected to champion the rights and legitimacy of groups other than the straight, white patriarchy.

There is, of course, good reason for promoting peoples and cultural expressions other than those of dominant empires. Slavery is horrific and its legacy – in financial, structural and psychic terms – still persist in American society. Settler colonialism has taken a devastating toll on the lives and sovereignty of native peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. Likewise, there can be no denying that patriarchal and heteronormative practices and norms marginalize the lives and well-being of women and people whose identities do not align with institutional conventions. There is no doubt that scholars of the academy have played a crucial role in exposing historical injustices, advocating the extension of the ideal of liberty and celebrating exemplars of lives lived in such struggles. Those are, I think, praiseworthy achievements born of altruism.

But what is the purpose of higher education? What and who should it represent for whom, and how it can best function in a complex, pluralist world without creating new contradictions of its own? I find myself in the awkward position of critiquing the humanities in American academia but not wishing for it to be rendered vulnerable to the usual attacks in the process. I consider the role of the humanities in the academy as more important than the so-called STEM disciplines and I oppose the notion that higher education be subject to corporate objectives such as job training, innovation for industry, and the commodification of knowledge for the marketplace.

Far too often, however, I see an over-reaction and over-simplification of the history and multi-layered dynamics of oppression and exploitation: the guilt of educated white liberals can be easily turned into self-loathing and a repudiation of forms of identity and cultural expression that are associated in any way with “whiteness,” without rigorous attempts to understand or contextualize them. Interpreting social phenomena exclusively through the lenses of race, gender and sexual orientation can create blinders that impede forward vision and retrospective insight.

I could recount numerous anecdotes from my own experience, but lest you think that I’m exaggerating, an editorial from the UNC newspaper on November 21, 2016 offers one of many examples. Now, admittedly, this is commentary from undergraduate students, and it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for giving them such a problematic view of history, but this general sentiment seems widespread:

Let’s take history classes for example. Almost all of the important figures students learn about are men who come from Western Europe with maybe the exception of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians — who are still considered parts of the “western canon.” … White students learn about all the good, and a limited amount of the bad, that their ancestors did. Why is this not afforded to other groups?

It is all too common for both faculty and students to forget that whiteness is a social construct that took many generations to appear as stable and consistent as it does today; that “the western canon” and “Western Civilization” are recent and artificial constructs representing the élite of a select set of empires at particular times, not the cultural and intellectual background of all people of a geographical zone or skin tone; that anglophones in the early American colonies exercised the power to define “whiteness” in their own image, according to their own specific ethnic and linguistic norms, and that these differ from the heritage of many other Europeans; that study of history is not a catalogue of good and bad deeds. It is as if the far Left expects that European imperialism only started with explorers who crossed the ocean and encountered people who looked different from themselves.

The ahistorical, monolithic stereotypes of the far Left are based on contemporary racial categories that implicitly apportion blame and shame, on the one hand, and heroic struggle, on the other, according to skin color, polarizing people into extreme positions rather than facilitating their empathy with people of other racial categories or their flexibility to embrace hybrid and multiple identities. This issue is highlighted in a recent article:

Young white men, reacting to social and educational constructs that paint them as the embodiment of historical evil, are fertile ground for white supremacists. They are very aware of the dichotomy between non-white culture, which must be valued at all times (even in the midst of terror attacks), and white culture, which must be criticized and devalued. … many resent the pedagogical transformations that their history and culture are undergoing. White historical figures once held in too high esteem have swung the other way into utter disrepute. Also, the histories of no other peoples are being held to these lofty standards. … White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. [3]

My goal here is to explain, not excuse, these trends and while I don’t wish to underplay the dangers posed by white supremacists, I think that the “alt-right” should be read as a reactionary rejection of these extremes of the Left which pivot around racial categorization. Unfortunately, activity on both sides has tended to retrench racial blocs, not blur their boundaries or delegitimate their premises.

Some on the “alt-right” have opportunistically latched on to symbols associated with Celtic and/or Scottish heritage, especially since many Americans now categorized as “white” actually do have this in their ancestry. I must reiterate that whiteness in America is not inclusively pan-European in practice but has a specifically Anglo-Saxon-Protestant mythic core and set of norms. But I must also note that standard racialized classification overlooks the many people who have a mixture of non-European ancestry and Celtic heritage who have as much a right to claim and celebrate their Celticity as anyone else.

By any reasonable reading of history, literary, cultural and intellectual contributions, and demographic representation, Celtic Studies has been a truly neglected field in North America. I have argued that this is exactly because of the colonial biases of educational (and other) institutions that follow from the British imperial experience.[4]

There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pride in one’s ancestors or heritage, and there is no means of preventing the exploitation of symbols which are effectively in the public domain. What we can do, however, is challenge the interpretation of history and emblems, and offer counter-narratives that can serve to impede the radicalization of white supremacists. What I find distressing about the situation in the U.S. is the simultaneous currency of certain elements of Celticity in popular culture – especially modern forms of music, dance and iconography – and the dearth of trained scholars who can engage meaningfully in the interpretation of Celtic culture and history, especially as they relate to the diasporic experience. The assimilation of the many Celtic-speaking communities that once thrived on the continent, and the disenfranchisement of those in Europe, makes it all the harder to ground expectations and conjectures in reality. White supremacists are thus able to project their fantasies into this void with little opposition from the academy. Some right-wing Celtophiles even express explicit resentment that their heritage is neglected while that of people of color is given reflexive deference and respect, as though this is an intentional tactic in a liberal conspiracy.[5]

Texts and online content coming from Scottish sources are automatically perceived as carrying authenticity and weight, and people in Scotland engaging with public representation of Scottish heritage – whether as scholarship or heritage tourism – ought to feel a moral obligation to represent their work so as not to reinforce problematic assumptions about race and racial categories. In my own estimation, Scottish scholars have demonstrated widespread failure to understand the nature of identity politics in North America and how it intersects with their own topics.

I have been arguing for a long time now that Celtic languages and cultures are worthy of studying in their own right but also that they provide important insights into the ideologies and practices of the “Long History” of anglocentric British imperialism. The Anglo-British élite had already been asserting their own innate superiority over Celtic rivals for centuries before launching overseas ventures, and it is no surprise that the practice of ethnic Othering was transferred directly onto Native Americans in this refocus of activity.

Such continuities in the exercise of power highlights what makes British imperial history in North America different from that of the Spanish, French, Dutch and so on. They also indicate the glaring contradictions of modern Americans, such as congressman Steve King, quoted above, who claim that “Caucasians” made the most important contributions to so-called “Western Civilization”: not only were Celts initially excluded from the category of whiteness, but their political and cultural subjugation were justified exactly on the grounds that they were racially inferior and incapable of creating a viable civilization of their own.

Of course, it is exactly the malleability of racial categories that distinguishes the historical trajectory of Celtic peoples from those who are physically distinct. No two experiences of conquest and oppression are the same: they are bound to differ by numerous factors and circumstances, so it should never be safe to assume that terms and theoretical constructs like “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and “coloniality” represent exactly the same thing across different times, places and peoples. A better account of how Celtic communities were subjugated and co-opted into systems of domination and exploitation can provide a vital case study to supplement the predominant narrative of racialism, especially because the underlying social and political processes continue to play out in the exercise of power and privilege in contemporary America and beyond.

There is ample evidence from Celtic and Scottish Studies itself that can be used to contradict and refute many of the common assumptions and assertions made by white supremacists. I would summarize methods for its use as follows:

  • Take account of colonialism and coloniality in Celtic/Scottish history
  • Take account of whiteness in emigrant “success”
  • Discuss the consequences of co-option into empire
  • Focus on language and culture, not genes, blood or symbolic identity
  • Focus on communities, not essentialized individuals
  • Highlight non-“white” members of Celtic/Scottish communities
  • Examine the ideologies and practices of domination, not skin color
  • Highlight resistance to and critique of domination and exploitation
  • “Reality checks”: contact with traditional communities and cultural expressions

This is no small task. If Scottish scholars and writers are concerned about the revival of racism and serious about voicing disapproval of such movements, the standard narrative about Scotland, Scottish history and the diasporic experience in specific all need to be recrafted. Scottish entanglement in empire will need to be examined critically, and the lingering legacies of coloniality in Scottish life will need to be treated seriously. Celticity and Scottishness need to be distinguished and disassociated from whiteness so that racists cannot hide behind them.

At the same time, the struggle over the ownership and use of Scottish or Celtic heritage should not be a cause to trigger the self-loathing cringe, or to regurgitate the false idea that Celticity is a romantic and artificial fabrication for the gullible, or to claim that Celtic, Gaelic or Scottish cultures are throwbacks to primitive and irrational states of being that have been rendered redundant and are dangerously tainted by nationalism. These too are symptoms of a colonial hangover.

It has been asserted far too often in the past, implicitly or explicitly, that only anglophone cultures are modern and offer the sole mechanisms for progress, inclusivity and multiculturalism. These were always ethnocentric conceits and the widespread support of Trump and BREXIT by xenophobic anglophiles ought to lay them to rest. Scotland, Celtic-speaking communities, and all societies in general, have the potential within them to embolden tribalism, hatred, fear-mongering and exploitation on the one hand, or compassion, inclusivity, equality, and justice, on the other. It is a question of what vision the leaders of those communities choose, how they cultivate or neglect the many contrasting strands of their history, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. There is an urgent need across Europe and the Americas to provide people – especially young white males – with role models and heroic narratives that do not endorse or celebrate violent force or the domination and exploitation of other people, social groups, or living beings.

It has been inspiring to see a radical and progressive voice emerging in Scotland in recent years, one that has the courage to decry, in Gaelic, Scots, and English, the legacy of empire, one that embraces the pluralities of Scotland’s multiethnic past and carries them confidently into the future. This is a voice that needs to be heard in Trump’s America.


Thanks to Kent Jewell, Peter Gilmore, Tad Hargrave, Alastair McIntosh and Daniel Gwydion Williams for feedback and comments on earlier drafts.


[1] “’We’re Not Going Away’: Alt-Right Leader On Voice In Trump Administration.” National Public Radio November 17, 2016.

[2] Joseph Goldstein.“Alt-Right Gathering Exults in Trump Election With Nazi-Era Salute.” New York Times November 20, 2016.

[3] David Marcus. “How Anti-White Rhetoric Is Fueling White Nationalism.” The Federalist 23 May 2016.

[4] Most fully in the introduction to Celts in the Americas, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

[5] See my comments in the review of How Celtic Culture Invented Southern Literature. eKeltoi 1 (2006): 10-16.

Gaelic Language and Identity in Glengarry, Ontario, 1901

I’m preparing for a talk at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures (in June in Vancouver) on the literary and cultural activities of Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser” in English). He’s an interesting and complicated man (the first archivist of the Province of Ontario, among other things) who left an important but largely unexamined Gaelic legacy.

I’ve already edited and translated several things he wrote in my recent anthology of Canadian-Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, but he wrote and edited much more, such as the address to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society in 1901 printed in the brochure I examine in this blog post. The brochure is titled Cànain agus Cliù ar Sinnsearan and was printed in 1901.

I have translated the text of this address into English from the original Gaelic below and precede each paragraph with a number in square brackets for reference. You can find a digitized scan of the original Gaelic text at this webpage (unfortunately I’ve been told that it is not accessible in every country).


One word in the title of this brochure requires some discussion: cliù. Etymologically it refers to what is heard, but in common usage it signifies the reputation that a person acquires through their behavior and actions. It has positive associations, by default, as other terms would be used for infamy, and in particular it often refers to the exemplary precedents set by role models. It is a concept at the centre of the Gaelic literary world, given that the role of the poet was to uphold traditional ideals and those who lived up to them through the composition and performance of texts. I have chosen to translate cliù as “renown,” but it should be clear that it carries a deep communal and historical resonance in Gaelic.

Friseal makes a number of very important points about identity, culture and oral tradition in this address, ones that are entirely consistent with Gaelic perspectives across generations that I have examined in previous articles (such as “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad”) and books (Warriors of the Word for Scotland and Seanchaidh na Coille for Canada), but that contrast with common contemporary beliefs and assumptions.

Gaelic identity, in specific, is Friseal’s concern: he does not conjure any generalized notion of Scottishness; he does not invoke tartans or tartanism or other forms of symbolic ethnicity. While he does refer to the Highlands and the heather (paragraph 3), these provide geographical associations rather than any essentialized tokens or sublimations for ethnic expression. Like many other Gaels before and after him, Friseal states explicitly that language, not ancestry, is at the core of Gaelic identity and he provides evidence of this (also in paragraph 3) in the form of the assimilated population of early Gaelic settlements in Canada as well as an aristocrat who rejected his own Gaelic ancestry.

While it may not be clear in the translation, in the original Gaelic the terms for Gael and Highlander (as ethnonyms), Gaelic and Highland (as adjectives), Gaeldom and the Highlands (as locales and communities) are all the same: it is only the recent alienation of language from culture that has created the distinction.

It’s also interesting to note the difference between this Gaelic cultural stance and the orientation of modern clan associations. Many descendants of the Highland diaspora today who join clan associations experience “Scottishness” through a narrow lens of genealogy or surname affiliation, that is, solely through people sharing the same surname (or supposed septs of the same clan federation). Friseal delivered this talk to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society, yet he downplays any such exclusive focus on the MacDonalds, even to the point of naming and setting aside the great founder figures and warrior-figures of the clan (paragraph 6). He instead states that their common identity as Gaels is the most important issue (paragraph 1) and extols the achievements of the common Gael in the domestication of the landscape (paragraph 6).

Given that language is key to Gaelic identity and culture, Friseal spends the majority of his address exhorting his fellow Gaels to sustain it and to value it. He explicitly names some of the factors working against the transmission of Gaelic (in paragraph 5), such as the stigmatization of the language during cultural conflict with anglophones and the perceived competition between the material rewards available through English and an allegiance to Gaelic based on non-material factors. He peppers his text with lyrics from popular Gaelic songs and makes explicit mention of how oral tradition keeps memory of specific places and historical experiences alive in communal memory (paragraphs 3, 6, 8, 12 and 14).

There is a very notable aspect of visual symbolism in the booklet, and that is the use of “Celtic knotwork” at the beginning and end of the book. This appeared at the same time as a few other Gaelic publications (such as Carmina Gadelica) were drawing on this medieval artistic heritage. It seems to be indicative of the growing “pan-Celtic consciousness” of the era and its appearance is noteworthy in a brochure printed in Gaelic in Canada.

It should be explicitly noted that there are a number of concepts around identity and culture Friseal does not invoke: he never mentions the notion of whiteness, Britishness, or even Scottishness. He never says that he is proud of his clan, nor does he disparage the French or any other ethnic group, or overplay military stereotypes or militancy. He merely underscores the importance of the Gaelic language and culture, its role in expressing and maintaining Gaelic identity, and its perilous condition at the time. These, I will argue, are features of most of his writings in Gaelic and contrast with the discourse of racialism and anglocentric triumphalism that we generally expect in anglophone discourse of the time.


[Blurb below the portrait of Friseal]

“Reminiscing about the good humour of the old days. Respectfully, I am Alexander Fraser.”

[1] O, great leader, and gentle women and men: I consider it one of the greatest privileges that my compatriots in Canada have ever been bestowed upon me to have received an invitation to be with you here today, at this great spectacular gathering for the Clan Donald Society. I do not have suitable words to express to you the pleasure that it gives me to be with my compatriots here at the first annual meeting of this organization, and to be gazing at the kind visages of the Gaels of Glengarry, people who are famous as true Gaels throughout this country and throughout the Highlands of Scotland. Under the patronage of Clan Donald, this large crowd meets today, and if there is one of the Highland clans that has garnered renown beyond the others in Canada, it is the MacDonalds. But, as the poet said, – “We are all brothers, give me your hand,” – we are here as Gaels, and especially as the Gaels of Glengarry, to be exhorting and encouraging each other, to sustain the customs, traditions and renown of our ancestors – especially their renown.

[2] We have acquired as a people an invaluable heritage from our forefathers – religion, virtue, loyalty, natural beauty, kindness, morality, generosity, and many other assets, and the golden vessel in which those virtues are stored is the pure, melodious tongue of our forefathers. It would be a sad and ugly day for the Gaels if Gaelic were to die :— a dark, sad day on which the most precious gift which we have ever received from our mothers and fathers would be forever lost.

[3] My compatriots — I am before you today with two primary messages — on the one hand, keep alive our mother tongue; on the other hand, keep alive the renown of our ancestors. When Gaelic will die, the glorious crown of the Gael will fall from his head; the emblem of our people will be blotted out from the history of the world; the pine tree will shoot out its branches, and the heather will open its pink-blossomed leaves on the Scottish mountains, as always – they will not change, for they follow the eternal habits of nature; but, alas! The pine tree will no longer be the emblem of the Clan Alpine on that sorrowful day, or the heather the emblem of the Clan Donald, for in the absence of that ancient language that “Adam spoke in Paradise itself,” where would the Gaels be? They would not be able to be found throughout the peoples of the world. Don’t we find evidence of this in our own country? On every side of the great St. Lawrence River, in Quebec City, there are MacDonalds and Frasers, branches of the MacGillivrays, MacIntoshes, MacKenzies, MacLeans, Munros and Rosses, and other people with Highland names; generations of Gaels who came to Canada about 150 years ago. The names are there, but are they Gaels who bear them? Alas, they are not, but people who became French in their language, in their traditions, in their religion and in their hearts. It’s not long since Sir John Ross, a person who was, according to the opinion of many a seanchaidh, the heir of the Earldom of Ross, said that he would rather be a member of the French Parliament in Canada, than to be a great lord among the Gaels of Scotland. Likewise, the thoughts of many men have been corrupted by worldly desires, and there is no escape from this conclusion, that the end of our generation will be likewise, when Gaelic bows its grey, aged, honorable head, and gives its last breath. It will not leave a people who will be called “Gaels” in its wake, since the generations who will follow us will be swallowed up in the fatal, forgetful ocean of the world.

[4] But, must that happen? Is the condition of Gaelic so bad and hopeless as this? It is difficult to answer those questions. If the Gaels would arise, as they should, there would be no doubt about the matter. It is still in their own hands to deliver a solid victory. Are we, the Gaels as a whole, doing would we can do and should do in this matter? It must be admitted, with sadness, with great sadness, that we are not. In many families, very little is done to acquire a knowledge of Gaelic. Isn’t this a shameful thing? Is it any wonder that some of us are pained about this back-sliding? I entreat you to lend an open ear to these words, and to be repentant, before it is too late. I am unfurling the victorious banner of Gaelic open before you today; I am casting its sails open on the wind; I am obliging you, o men and women of Glengarry, – children of the warriors, generation of the renowned people from whom you spring – that you will not rest and that you will not fail, until you carry this banner to enduring, eternal and foundational victory!

[5] Will it be said that it was left to the Gaels of our day to sell our birthright for money? for worldly contentment? for the tainted gold of mercantilism? or that the language was betrayed because of the mockery of the Englishman? Is it a trivial matter for us to be as irresponsible as this? O Gaels! Take careful attention that we do not make ourselves a laughing stock and cause of shame to the generations who come after us. Let us be loyal to our language today, let us teach it to our children, and let us pass it down as we received it, pure and uncorrupted, from our forefathers.

[6] A word or two now about the renown of our ancestors. I don’t intend to speak about Conn of the Hundred Battles, or Colla, or Somerled, or the poets, or the brave warriors who belonged to Clan Donald, at this time. That history is inscribed in the poetry of our land, and will be known for as long as people speak and write Gaelic. But at the heart of this Gaelic county, where I am standing today, I would like to speak about our fathers and mothers who settled in Canada. They were Highland soldiers who won Canada for the British Crown in 1759. Highland claymores protected the country in 1812, and again in 1837, 1866 and in 1884. Our compatriots have not diminished in heroism; they are soldiers, as is their birthright. But as the poet said:

[7] “Alexander the Great was no warrior
Nor Caesar who forced Rome to surrender …
But he is a warrior who earns victory
Over the fear of life and the horror of death,
Who meets with a courageous heart
Everything which is destined.”

[8] Even though the history of our soldiers is renowned, it is very appropriate that we should honor the people who left their homes in the Highlands and who came into the thick, dark forests in Canada, and who opened up this country for the world. We can hardly understand the extent of the toil they undertook, to be clearing the land and laying a foundation for the country that will endure the ages. Circumstances were hard for the majority of them; they have no luxury in their homes, there was no elegance around them. But the hearts in their bodies were courageous, their arms were strong, optimism guided their steps and there was no fear that the heroes would give up. Their labours are clear here today. Observe the fertile, productive fields that encompass us – land as beautiful as any on which the merciful sun of Providence shines warm rays; those are the fields, those are the homes, that your forefathers left to us to possess. Often do you sing the songs of the Old Country; about

[9] “The isle of Mull, the prosperous isle
The sunny isle, which the salt water surrounds.”

[10] And songs about “The green isle of Islay,” “Islay of the grass,” “where the goodly nobles would be.” You have never seen grassy Lochaber, or the Scottish Highlands. That is where I was born, and until the day I die, my love for the land of my birth and ancestors will never diminish.

[11] “I love the Highlands, I love every glen,
Every waterfall and corrie in the land of the mountains.”

[12] Although that is true indeed, I am telling you here, today, that I have never in Scotland or England seen grasslands more beautiful, rich, productive or elegant than the grasslands that your forefathers won from the marshes and the forests, that they left to you. Therefore, keep up their memory in name and in renown. Build a memorial in your hearts for their sake; and let their feats be written down in the history of the country. Follow in their footsteps closely, proclaim that you descended from them and that you are proud of their renown.

[13] These two things. The renown and language of our people. Do not let the day come in which they are rejected.

[14] “I love Gaelic, her poetry and her music,
It has often uplifted us when we were harmed;
It is what we learned in the days of our youth
And what we will never leave until we lie down in the sod.”

Ethno-linguistic Equity in (Digital) Humanities: The Impossible Dream?

I’m going to start off with the admittedly idealistic premise that the role of the humanities in academia is to enable us to understand our communities, our regions, and our nations in all of their breadth, depth and complexity. This lofty goal has often been thwarted by the exclusions inherent in societies and the ability of those who can exercise the power and privileges granted by their institutions to represent themselves and their interests disproportionally and to exclude others from having access to those same resources and privileges and thus diminishing their ability to represent themselves, if at all. If we are to understand our history and our present in all of its diversity and complexity, we have to look behind the veils thrown up by such distortions and seek out the evidence of those who were not the de facto beneficiaries of the institutions that dominated their place and time.

I’ve been long concerned that in the rush to create a new humanities infrastructure based on digital tools and representations, we may simply replicate and re-entrench the pre-existing disparities that have long existed due to the biases and exclusions mentioned above. Digital Humanities projects typically rely on low-hanging fruit – materials and data that can be easily “harvested” and integrated into digital projects – but their easy accessibility is often the result or reflection of institutions or social norms that have facilitated certain types of cultural expression – or cultural agents with particular characteristics or identities – and disempowered or occluded others.

My concerns are confirmed in the first part of a new study about the funding of digital humanities projects and how the allocation (or denial) of grants has the potential to reassert cultural hegemonies:

We are at a critical juncture for supporting diversity in the digital humanities and risk embedding historical, self-reinforcing patterns of marginalization which are obfuscated by a focus on new technological and methodological modes of engagement. This represents a form of technological determinism and is something that many humanists express a desire to avoid as we move into a new era of humanities research which considers digital technology to be an embedded feature of the human social world. … Cultural hegemony is not always expressed directly or openly. It can become systematized and formalized to the point that it is almost unnoticeable at the surface level. In the case of the United States, it is hardly contestable at all. Groups at the margins of the hegemony need not directly give consent, but instead can simply be so completely and systematically disenfranchised that it is nigh unto impossible for them to resist it at all. This feature makes it difficult to identify instances of cultural hegemony at all, let alone make recommendations as to how it can be subverted. (Martin and Runyon)

I wholeheartedly agree with the framework built by the authors for discussing issues of hegemony and disenfranchisement up to this point of their analysis. It is problematic, however, that they define and identify exclusion, marginalization and privilege thereafter solely through the lenses of gender and racial identity. This reflects a form of presentism that seems pervasive in North American academia which allows contemporary categories of race and gender to overshadow the ethno-linguistic diversity of materials that represent and embody the totality of our historical experiences and cultural production. Such is the argument made, for example, by Marc Shell in the introduction to his edited volume American Babel:

Inside and outside the often changing borders of the American colonies between 1750 and 1850, if ever there were a polyglot place on the globe – other than Babel’s spire – this was it. … The American academy’s passing over most non-anglophone American languages and literatures is, of course, partly explicable by the fact that it is easier to talk about other peoples’ cultures in English than to learn their languages. But the main explanation is that literary America, despite its horror of race slavery and its ideal of racial blindness, has always liked to emphasize racial difference instead of language difference. This preference arises from the traditional American pretense than culture is not largely linguistic or, rather, that culture ought to be English. … Even as the American university claims to foster a tolerant heterogeneity of cultures, then, it perseveres in the traditional American homogenization of the world as English. … Few American literary critics work on the vast multilingual literature of the United States. Most simply raise up English-language works written by members of America’s various ethnic and racial groups – often in the name of multicultural diversity – even as they dismiss American literary works written in languages other than English.

Anglo-American leadership in technological innovation has meant that the English language has been the default beneficiary of the digital revolution’s boons and resources. Unless proactive steps are taken, minoritized languages – indigenous and immigrant – will continue to be excluded from the privileges that English enjoys and the cultural expressions of those corresponding communities will continue to be marginalized, if they are represented at all.

There are, of course, important intersections between race and ethnolinguistic identity, but these are by no means aligned historically in simplistic or hegemonic ways, or even in the present (as revealed in problematic ethnonyms like “Latina/o”). It is easy to forget that racialized identities (“white,” “black,” etc.) are social constructs that gained currency over time because of their ability to dislodge previous ethnolinguistic allegiances and forge new solidarities and milieus. That these forces and currencies had everything to do with privilege is undeniable, but so is the fact that whiteness was defined and controlled by the dominant anglophone hegemony which had little tolerance for non-conformity. How did immigrant groups conceive of their own identity in immigrant contexts, engage with the idea of whiteness (and other forms of identity), negotiate about the nature of their evolving cultures in North American settings, reconcile themselves with the decline of their languages and come to terms with the marginalization and discrimination of others who could not access racialized privilege? These are some of the questions that we can best answer by examining their literary productions in their own languages and within the frameworks of their own cultural heritages, but which are occluded from view if we only look through racialized lenses. And these comments do not even begin to address the issues pertaining to the many distinct communities indigenous to this continent who have and continue to use their own languages to express their own cultures and concerns.

My own humanistic research has been on the Scottish Gaelic immigrant communities which could be found all over North America in the 19th century. There is not a single faculty member in the United States now working on the literary output of this group; probably the only faculty member in the US to have ever done so was the late Charles Dunn of Harvard, who ceased to be active in this area some thirty or more years ago. As a result, the cultural and literary expressions of Scottish Gaelic communities are poorly if at all represented in academia and there can be virtually no “beachhead” for extending developments into the digital realm. There are individual woman writers of all racial designations whose English-language output has been successfully made more accessible to the public by the academy than that of the entire North American Gaelic community. It must also be emphasized that Scottish Gaelic identity was traditionally expressed and understood in ethnolinguistic rather than racial terms: there were (and still are) people of non-European ancestry who produced cultural and literary expressions in Gaelic which need to be accessed and interpreted for the fullness of this community, and the American story, to be understood. Scottish Gaelic is a highly endangered language and culture in the present exactly because of its historical marginalization at the hands of an anglophone hegemony, so merely characterizing it in racial terms (which do not reflect the internal diversity of its constituent members) is misleading.

The Palimpsest project presents an example of Gaelic’s marginalization in the digital realm (albeit in a Scottish context). This impressive digital project contains a database of literary texts that are dynamically mapped to locations Edinburgh (the capital of Scotland). This work was facilitated by the easy availability of a large number of texts (about 550) in English. Despite the fact that Gaelic has been spoken and used as a medium for literary production in Edinburgh for centuries, however, the project did not integrate any Gaelic sources and as a result, Gaelic is invisible and marginalized. Including Gaelic would not only require scanning and editing the relevant primary sources (labor-intensive and hence expensive work which has not yet been done), but also handling linguistic issues (like morphology) that are not accounted for in a anglonormative digital infrastructure. When I contacted the project director about this concern, he was apologetic and invited contributions from Gaelic scholars – but it is unrealistic to expect such efforts to be accomplished without a practical funding model.

I have no doubt that the same set of concerns could be argued for many other ethnic groups in North America, native and immigrant, each of which contains multitudes and are dealt a disservice by reducing them to a simplistic racialized identity. This in fact contributes to the delusion that racial blocs represent natural and organic dividing lines between human beings that have historical continuity, rather than breaking down such social constructs and peeling back the diversity of voices that lay behind them that challenge such simplistic projections into the past.

Will digital humanities be able to live up to its radical potential and represent the diversity of our historical communities in all of their breadth, depth and complexities? Like other academic goals, it’s a lofty one and one often thwarted by our own biases and blind-spots.


John D. Martin III and Carolyn Runyon, “Digital Humanities, Digital Hegemony.” ACM Computers & Society 46.1 (2016): 20-26.

Michael Newton. “’Did you hear about the Gaelic-speaking African?’: Scottish Gaelic Folklore about Identity in North America.” Comparative American Studies 8.2 (June 2010): 88-106.

Michael Newton. “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, ed. Michael Newton, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Michael Newton. “Highland Canon Fodder: Scottish Gaelic Literature in North American Contexts.” eKeltoi 1 (2016): 147-175.

Marc Shell. Introduction to American Babel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.

A Gaelic Valentine from 1909 L.A.

If there were a Gaelic equivalent to Paul MacCartney’s “Silly Love Songs,” this would be it. Even more remarkably, it was composed in Los Angeles no later than 1909 by Domhnall MacAoidh, apparently an emigrant from one of the Western Isles (though that is as specific as I can currently guess).

This is one of many texts in my files that shows not only the continuity of Gaelic literary tradition and production in North America, but also the ability of Gaelic poets to engage in the contemporary world and issues which concerned them. Although MacAoidh draws upon the literary conventions and allusions available to him in Gaelic literature, he does not shy away from invoking popular music and literature of his own time (Dame Nellie Melba in line 25, Mozart in line 26, Robert Burns in line 31 and Tennyson in line 33).

The title given by the poet is “Gaol is Ceòl,” an allusion to an old Gaelic proverb: “Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal / Ach mairidh gaol is ceòl” (Life may come to an end, but music and love will endure).

The song begins its exploration of the theme of love – its universality and endurance – by reflecting its presence among species of birds. This literary conceit needs to be examined in the light of old Gaelic cosmological ideas, such as that birds originally spoke Gaelic. Indeed, there are many Gaelic sayings attributed to birds, some of them gnomic, and they are represented as paragons of poetic eloquence. MacAoidh is here finding precedence for the human need to express love in the form of song in the bird kingdom.

After spending an exhaustive five stanzas (and chorus) on this idea, he moves towards human poets and literary expression. Although it is somewhat implied that Gaelic poets form part of this lineage (lines 22 and 29), none are actually mentioned. This may be because love was actually a very minor theme in the poetic profession and dismissed by many who held the Classical Gaelic tradition in great regard. Instead, MacAoidh focuses on literary expressions of love in other traditions in an inclusive, multilingual and multicultural manner.

Like the old professional Gaelic poets, one of his final stanzas is offered to God and the connection of love between humanity and the divine. He concludes his piece with his devotion to his homeland, the Scottish Highlands, probably one of the Western Isles (line 43 – this may refer to Lewis “Eilean Fraoich,” although he has used a different and slightly broad connotation). But notice that he has not generalized any attachment to a wider sense of Scotland that would encompass the Lowlands.

It may be surprising to learn about Gaelic poets composing Gaelic songs in Los Angeles in the early 20th century, but there was clearly an audience of fellow Gaels for this kind of work. There was, for example, a Celtic Club in the City of Angels co-founded by a Gaelic speaker (Calum MacLeòid) in 1905. Hopefully other evidence of their literary efforts – even if in the form of “silly love songs” – will eventually emerge.

The Original Gaelic Text

Gaol is Ceòl

1 Car-son a bhithinn muladach?
No cuime bhithinn brònach?
Is na h-uile eun ’s a’ choill’ a’ seinn
“Mo ghaol!  Mo ghaol!” ’nan òran?

5 Na h-uile eun air sliabh na coill’
Ri seinn an gaoil an comhnaidh;
’S e guth na cuthaig, “Mo rùn! mo rùn!
“Gug-gùg! Gug-gùg! thoirt pòg dhomh!”

Tha ’n uiseag bhinn ’s a’ mhadainn chiùin
10 Ri seinn chluich le sòlas;
Ri seinn cho binn os cionn nan neòil
“Mo ghaol! mo ghaol! Tuig m’ òran!”

Canary seinn ’na eudadan
A ghaoil-shéis bhinn an comhnaidh;
15 An cluinn thu ’m fonn a th’ aig an truis?
Tha gaol ’na ghuth ro bhòidheach.

Tha eòin cho binn ri seinn ’s an oidhch’
Le guth nas binn’ na òrgan;
Ri seinn gu gaolach fad na h-oidhch’
20 ’Nan comhradh leis an comhnaidh.

An cridh’ tha làn de ghaol do chàch
’Se luaidh nam Bàrd ’nan òran;
’Se ’n ceòl as binn’ ’s na nèamhan àrd
’Se ’n ceòl tha ’n guth nan smeòrach.

25 ’Se fonn as binn’ thug Melba dhuinn
’Se ’n ceòl as binn’ thug Mozart;
Tha ’n gaol ’ga sheinn ’na h-uile cainnt
Cho tric ’s tha ruinn an òrain. [ roinn?

Na h-uile bàrd, ’s na h-uile linn
30 Ri seinn an gaoil an comhnaidh;
Chuir Burns ri seinn, le taghadh cainnt
A ghaol do “Highland Mary.”

Cluinn Tennyson! Leugh “Locksley Hall”
Gus an tuig thu gràdh ’na òrain;
35 Ged ghuil e goirt mu Hallam Hall
Cha bhàsaich “In Memoriam.”

’Se ’ghaol thug Crìosd a-nuas o nèamh
’Se gaol th’ an Dia na tròcair’;
’Se ’n gaol bheir buaidh air bàs is uaigh
40 ’Se gaol bheir suas do ghlòir sinn.

Mo bheannachd null gu Tìr nam Beann
Nan gleann, nan creag is nam mór-shruth!
’S gach aon a tha ’s na h-Eilein Fraoich:
Mo ghaol daibh seo le m’ òran!

My English Translation

Love and Music

Chorus: (1-4) Why would we be sorrowful? And about what would we be sad? When every bird in the forest is singing “My love! My love!” in their songs?

(5-8) Every bird on the forest slope is always singing their love; the voice of the cuckoo says, “Coo coo! Coo coo! Give me a kiss!”

(9-12) The melodious lark in the quiet morning is playfully singing with joy; singing sweetly above the clouds, “My love! My love! Heed my song!”

(13-16) A canary sings its tune in its cage constantly; can you hear the melody of their thrush? There is love in its voice which is very beautiful.

(17-20) Musical birds sing in the night with voices as sweet as an organ; singing of love all night long, their conversation is constantly about it.

(21-24) Their hearts are full of love for others, the topic of the poets is in their songs; it is the sweetest music in the heavens; it is the music in the voice of the thrush.

(25-28) It is the sweetest tune that Melba gave to us; it is the sweetest music of Mozart; love is sung in every language, whenever we listen to their songs.

(29-32) Every poet in every age has always sung of their love; Burns added to that singing, with eloquence of his love to “Highland Mary.”

(33-36) Listen to Tennyson! Read “Locksley Hall” so that you may understand love in his songs; although he sorely lamented Hallam Hall, “In Memoriam” will never die.

(37-40) It is love that Christ brought down from heaven, the God of Mercy is love; it is love that will triumph over death and the grave; it is love that will deliver us up to glory.

(41-44) [Take] my blessings over to the Land of the Mountains, the glens, the craigs and the great rivers! And to everyone in the heathery islands: [give] my love to them with my song!