Canada, Folklife, Modern, Scotland

The Role of a Scholar in Gaelic and other Marginalized Cultures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Canada, Folklife, Modern

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaelic was essentially the social language of the community.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada, Folklife, Modern, North America, United States

Interview with Prof Charles Dunn of Harvard in 2002

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MN: So that first summer – was that 1941?

CD: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MN: But no body was there to do it?

CD: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada, Modern, Scottish Gaelic Literature

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.”
Canada, Modern

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. […]

Canada, Modern, Period, Scottish Gaelic Literature

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.

Canada, Modern, Scottish Gaelic Literature

Alexander Fraser as Ethnographer in Gaelic Ontario

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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