Defining and Invigorating Scottish Gaelic Identity in the Modern World

I recently learned of three events oriented around the Scottish diaspora community happening in North America this summer which I would like to attend but do not expect to: the Scottish North American Leadership Conference 2017 (Guelph, August); and the 2017 COSCA Clan Leaders Caucus (this week at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina); and the Summit of Gaelic Identity (this week at Colaisde na Gàidhlig in Cape Breton).

The latter is specifically focused on the identity and culture of Scottish Gaels – in Canada, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man –, while the former more generally about fostering leadership in the notion of a Scottish diaspora community and identity in a more general way.

The way in which people discuss and assert ethnic identity can be highly problematic, not least because ideas about race – what scholars call “racial essentialism” – have become so dominant in popular discourse and consciousness. The basic notion is that someone is a Gael, or a Pole, or a Spaniard, because of some “essence” passed on to them via their genes from their ancestors. Unfortunately, popular involvement in DNA testing only tends to reinforce these flawed notions of identity and racialist claims of heritage and authenticity.

There are a number of reasons why this is misleading and flawed in general, and in a Scottish and Gaelic context in specific.

First, individual are never single, monolithic sites of identity. Now more than ever, we are hybrids. We belong to multiple kinds of ethnic groups and exercise the freedom to emphasize some more than others, depending on what they offer us and what we wish to highlight.

Second, the elements that make up the building blocks of ethnic identity are things that are by definition created, transmitted, interpreted and performed via culture, not genes. In the Gaelic world, language has been the cornerstone of Gaelic identity from practically the beginning of the literary tradition (as attested in this 7th-century origin myth of the Gaels). This notion of a linguistic core of Gaelic ethnicity continued to be asserted throughout the medieval period (as I’ve discussed in my book Warriors of the Word), and by immigrant Highlanders in North America (as articulated by Alasdair Friseal in this booklet from Glengarry and Domhnall MacMhuirich in New York in this address to a local Gaelic organization).

Third, ethnic groups and identities are always in constant flux, drawing in and losing members and changing the facets of their identity over time. How could there be a single genetic definition for Scottish identity when it has absorbed Celtic (Brythonic and Goidelic), Anglo-Saxon, Scandinavian, French, Flemish, etc., populations over many centuries? Even in the case of the Gaelic community, kin-groups with Scandinavian ancestors (like the MacDonalds and MacLeods) and Anglo-Norman ancestors (like the Frasers and Grants) came to be incorporated into Gaelic society and think of themselves primarily as Gaels.

It never ceases to surprise me how many people – both in Scotland and abroad – resist the fact that Scotland consists of more than one ethnic group and identity. Many people are highly invested in the myth of a singular, homogenous nation, especially those who presume to speak for it. Gaels were the original Scots who founded the nation, but continue to be marginalized in the study of and representation of Scottish culture, except for when some symbols (like tartan, kilts or bagpipes) are needed to distinguish the Lowlands from England. But the building of nation-states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries usually gave the power to define and enshrine an ethnic myth for the nation to one group, at the expense of the others. The disempowerment of the Gaelic community within the formal state and institutions over the last several centuries has meant that some tokens of Gaelic culture were appropriated because they were of use to anglophones, while the rest were subject to neglect and persecution.

Contentions and debates about what a Gael is supposed to be – what are the criteria relevant to claiming to be a Gael – have been divisive and acrimonious for well over a century (I discuss some of my observations in Nova Scotia in this blog post). This is a common phenomenon for marginalized communities whose ability to sustain and nourish their language and culture has been compromised, but the fallout of such bitter disputes can be very damaging and counter-productive. I have been saddened many times by hearing about people who want to be a part of the Gaelic communities in Scotland or Nova Scotia but were given the message (implicitly or explicitly) that they were not “Gaelic enough” on some arbitrary basis. People often forget that Gaelic culture encompassed a much wider geographical span, set of social classes and cultural practices than are visible today, and people cut off from this culture because of the injustices of the past have every right to re-engage with it now, as long as they do so in a mutually respectful manner.

My recommendation is to abandon the notion of ethnic identity as being grounded in individuals and instead be geared towards communities. Rather than asking, “Is s/he a real Gael?” we should be asking, “What is his/her role in the Gaelic community? How can s/he contribute to a Gaelic community and be uplifted by it?”

That, in my opinion, is the only productive way forward. Gaelic communities have been losing members for centuries because of the invasive nature of anglocentric power. Gaels often felt in the past that they had to make an exclusive choice (they could only be a Gael or an anglophone); they felt that their socio-economic opportunities would be highly compromised by aligning themselves with the Gaelic community.

That no longer has to be the case. If I choose to, I can choose to engage with the Gaelic community, with the Navajo-speaking community, with the LGBT community, and with the Muslim community. These do not have to be exclusive and in fact, such cross-community linkages are increasingly important in a fraught world of ethnocentric scapegoating.

Looking historically, it is clear that there have always been many ways of being a Gael. Gaels have always been members of multiple communities. I’ve explored in other places how even people of African and Native American ancestry were members of Gaelic communities (as in this article and this blog post). Not only that, some of the greatest modern champions of Scottish Gaelic culture have been those who have come from outside its “traditional” bounds and helped to question its presumed limitations and expand its capacities.

I hope that those meeting to discuss the idea of Gaelic identity and culture will focus on strengthening the Gaelic communities that remain and not implicitly impose some kind of genetic or geographical litmus test on Gaelicness that reinforces the perception of an exclusive and inflexible community closed to introspection and transformation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Scottish Gaelic Bard in Vancouver, Domhnall MacIlleathain

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald Currie’s address to the New York Gaelic Society (c.1892)

There were a surprising number of organizations created and organized by Scottish Gaels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the United States, mostly all in large cities. Probably the most active center of activity for Scottish heritage societies in general was New York city (see more details in section 5.2 of this article).

One of the active members of this group was a man named Domhnall MacMhuirich (or “Donald Currie” in English). He gave an address in Gaelic to the organization in late 1892 (as far as I can tell) in which he addresses the landmarks of Highland history and the purpose of the group in maintaining the essentials of Gaelic language, culture and identity. Some extracts, and my translation, follow:

Is cianail ri aithris an t-atharrachadh eagalach a thàinig air gach gleann fasgach, dosrach, an Tìr nam Beann on latha thàinig Prionnsa Teàrlach air tìr am Muideart […] Bho latha Chul-Lodair cha d’fhuair na Gàidheil fois fo chumhachd lagh agus feachd Shasann, ach a-measg gach deuchainn is cruaidh-chàs a dh’fhuiling iad cha do thréig iad an duinealas, agus cha do reic iad an gràdh no ’n spéis a thug iad do phearsa Prionnsa air na bha d’òr an Sasainn. Chaidh am fògradh á tìr an gaoil gu dùthchannan céin […]

Cho fad ’s a bhios  òrain Ghàidhlig is Bheurla ’gan seinn agus innealan ciùil ’gan gleusadh, bidh Bliadhna Theàrlaich beò an inntinn nan Gàidheal. […]

Nach muladach dà-rìreabh na glinn bhòidheach ’s srathan còmhnard an-diugh a bhith dol fàs fo chaoraich ’s fo fhéidh far am b’ àbhaist an sùgradh is an cridhealas a bha daonnan umhail do gach deuchainn is trioblaid a chaidh a sparradh orra le luchd lagha na tìre. […]

Tha mi toilichte cluinntinn gum bheil fìor Ghàidheil a-measg a’ chomainn seo tha déidheil air litreachas, cànain, is ceòl ar n-athraichean, agus seann chleachdainnean Gàidhealtachd na h-Alba chumail beò agus ged tha sinn fada air falbh bho thìr nan àrd bheann, bitheamaid duineal, grunndail, cairdeil agus bàigheil ri càch a chéile.

It is depressing to discuss the terrible changes that have come upon every leafy, sheltering glen in the Highlands since the day that Prince Charles landed in Moidart. Since the day of the battle of Culloden, the Gaels had no peace from the power of the law and military troops of England, but amongst all of the trials and tribulations that they endured, they never relinquished their bravery, and they never sold their love or devotion for the person of Prince Charles for all of the gold of England. They were expelled from their beloved homeland to foreign countries […]

The Year of Prince Charles [1745] will live on in the memory of every Gael for as long as Gaelic and English songs are sung and musical instruments are played. […]

It is truly depressing how the beautiful glens and smooth straths are today being depopulated for sheep and deer, where there was once the human joy and bliss that overcame every trial and tribulation that was forced on them by government politicians. […]

I am happy to hear that there are true Gaels in this society who are passionate about keeping the literature, language, and music of our ancestors, and the ancient traditions of the Scottish Highlands, alive, and although we are far away from the Highlands, let us be brave, well-grounded, friendly and caring to one another.

Domhnall Mac na Ceardaich’s Address to Canadian Gaels

One of the important Gaelic literati in early-twentieth-century Scotland was Barraman Domhnall Mac na Ceardaich. A very large volume containing a collection of his songs, poems, plays, and essays – 473 pages worth! – was released in 2014, entitled D.M.N.C. (his initials). Although I have not fully read it, I don’t think that the editors were aware that Domhnall was a contributor to the newspaper The Casket in Nova Scotia and wrote letters addressed to fellow Gaels in Canada.

Below is an extract from one of his letters (3 March 1927). In it, he addresses readers as Gaels of Canada – not Scots, or Catholics, or any such subgrouping – and exhorts them to stay true to their language. This demonstrates The Casket as one of several periodicals that connected Gaels across the Atlantic as well as Canada via print culture.


A mhuinntir mo ghaoil; a chlanna Ghàidheal Chanada, beannaicheam dhuibh an cànain bhlath, bhinn, bhuadhar ur sinnsir – cuiream failte, furan, agus fichead flath fialaidh oirbh an ainm mo dhùthcha, an ainm ur dearbh-mhuinntreach agus ur Gàidhealtachd fhéin; an ainm nam Beannachdan geala! […]

An là a chailleas gineal a’ Ghàidheil cuimhne air cànain bheannaichte Chaluim Chille, – an là a chailleas e an iuchair luachmhor seo, gun caill e am feasda aon seòl, aon chomas sonraichte, air a leas spioradail fhéin a dhèanamh gu h-iomchuidh. Oir ‘s a’ Ghàidhlig tha taisgte eòlas agus aithne spioradail sluagh a bha, agus a tha, air leth spioradail. […]

A mhuinntir mo ghaoil: Gàidheal gun eòlas air a chànain fhéin, gun ùidh gun aithne an cainnt uasail oileanta a shinnsir, chan eil ann ach leth-duine; duine easbhuidheach. Dh’fhaodainn a ràdh le fìrinne nach eil ann mar an ceudna ach duine aineolach ged an robh aige làn a chinn de theangannan choigreach, oir tha e a dh’easbhuidh eòlas air litreachas agus meanmna cinnich air na bhuilich Dia buadhan toirbheartach anma agus innsgin agus aignidh. Tha e, a dh’aon fhacal, a dh’easbhuidh na h-iuchrach ud – a fhreagras an glais dhìomhair doruis anma fhéin. […]

O my beloved people; o Gaels of Canada, let me bless you in the warm, melodious, virtuous language of your ancestors – I salute you, and send you noble, generous greetings in the name of my country, in the name of your people and your own Gaelic community; in the name of the fair blessings! […]

The day that the Gaelic generation loses its knowledge of the blessed language of St Columba, – the day that it loses this precious key, it will lose forever one means, one special capacity, for its own spiritual well-being to be properly tended. For it is in the Gaelic language that is embedded knowledge and insight of a people who were, and are, exceptionally spiritual. […]

O my beloved people: a Gael who has no knowledge of his own language, with no interest in or acquaintance of the noble, learned language of his ancestors, is only half a person; a person lacking. I can say truthfully [he is] likewise an ignorant person even if his head of full of the languages of strangers, for he lacks knowledge of the literature and imagination of the ethnic group on whom God has bestowed powerful virtues of the soul and mind. He is, in one word, lacking that key that opens the secret door to his own soul. […]

Gaelic Literacy in Nova Scotia and Gaelic Literary Networks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Empire-Building after Culloden

The Battle of Culloden – April 16, 1746 – was a brutal and fateful event. Not just because of the ethnocidal impact it had on the native Gaels of the Highlands, but because it removed the last internal obstacle to hegemony for an anglo-British empire and facilitated more brutal and oppressive forms of colonial rule. The unrestrained ability to coalesce and focus all of the human resources at the disposal of the British Crown was equally lethal to people much further afield.

The impact of European empires on peoples in the Americas – especially native peoples and people brought unwillingly as slaves – is the topic of impassioned discussion, especially because the negative consequences are very much still with us in the form of institutionalized and racialized privilege, not to mention the compromised sovereignty of First Nations.

Too many people assume, however, that the practices and ideologies that inform domination, exploitation and dehumanization – especially in the anglophone realms of the US and Canada – were virtually invented in the encounters of North American imperialism when “white people” came into conflict with “people of color.” While racial polarities are certainly dominant now and go a large way to explain the disparities of power and privilege of the present, categories we now take for granted (“white,” “black,” “Indian,” etc.) all took generations to form and settle. What is clear from analyzing historical events and conflicts in the generations and centuries before English colonization of North America began is that all of the concepts, values, structures and practices of imperialism had a long gestation time in the British Isles themselves as anglophones sought to conquer and dominate neighboring Celtic societies (see some discussion here).

There has been a long-running controversy in Nova Scotia about the monuments built to celebrate the victories of the brutal military leader Edward Cornwallis, whose colonization schemes involved violence and brutality against the native Mi’kmaw (see WikiPedia article here). This controversy is an echo of debates about the representation and monumentalization of colonial figures all over the world. It is surely significant that Cornwallis’s formative experience was at the Battle of Culloden.

An English soldier, Michael Hughes, wrote A Plain and Authentic Journal of the Late Rebellion (London, 1747), in which he describes his actions in the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6 as an English soldier who fought for the Duke of Cumberland. The following section (pp.52-3, 54, 55) concerns the Hanoverian troops sent to wreak vengeance and destruction on the Jacobites in the Highlands after their defeat on Culloden Moor.

The last Command, consisting of 800 Men, was given to Lord George Sacville, and Lieut. Colonel Cornwallis; with full Commission to plunder, burn and destroy thro’ all the West Part of Innernesshire called Lochaber, from the Glens above Knoidart, down to Arasack, Moidart, and Swenard, opposite to Mull; and positive Orders to bring no more Prisoners to the Camp. The Body divided themselves different Ways, with a full Resolution to finish their Work; and for better managing the Persuit, they have Orders to take nothing but their Firelocks and Ammunition.
Our party was 320 Men under Colonel Corwallis, a brave Officer of great Humanity and Honour. When we first set out, twas intended to march all Night, but a great Rain caused us to halt. […]
From hence the Party marched along the Seacoast through Moidart, burning of Houses, driving away the Cattel, and shooting those Vagrants who were found about the Mountains. Lord George Sacville was another Way with 480 Men. We camped in a Valley 12 Mile from the Ile of Mull, and detached Parties about their Sheils and Glens, who did great Execution among those who were still in Arms, obstinately refusing to submit and accept of Pardon. […]
At a Fortnight’s End, Lord George’s Part returned to Fort Augustus with near a thousand head of Cattel; and for fifty Miles round there was no Man or Beast to be seen. His Lordship finished his Commission with that Fidelity and Conduct as becomes a good Officer; for it ought to be known, that this last part of the Campaign was of the greatest Consequence to the Public, tho most troublesome in the Performance.

The best discussion that I’ve yet found about the consolidation of imperial power and colonial force that followed Culloden is the book Rebellion and Savagery: The Jacobite Rising of 1745 and the British Empire by Geoffrey Plank 2006. It is well worth reading at length, but these excerpts from the conclusions are indicative of these patterns:

The dispute over the meaning of the army’s actions in the Highlands paralleled other, ongoing conversations over the governance of Britain’s colonies. Cumberland’s officers, after they were stationed in colonial posts, differed from their predecessors in their zeal for advancing British civilization. In a variety of contexts, in the Mediterranean as well as in North America, they sought to promote the use of the English language, serve the cause of Protestantism, and encourage commercial exchange. They also generally hoped to establish English-style law courts, though their interest in legal reform was subordinated to an overriding concern to assert the supremacy of the British government under George II.