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.

Modern, United States

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.

Modern, United States

Rory McSween of Rockingham, NC: an old Carolina Highlander

There are lots of untapped sources which can help us fill out our knowledge of Scottish Gaelic immigrant communities in North America, especially local newspapers. I recently came across this account of local history from the newspaper The Rocket (June 3, 1897) from the city of Rockingham, North Carolina. In this article, the author (L. H. W.) recalls people from his childhood in the neighborhood (in Richmond County) who were still strongly Gaelic, despite being one or two generations removed from the Scottish Highlands.

The most interesting character in this sketch is a man called Rory McSween in English (or Ruairidh MacSuain in Gaelic). Although the description certainly demonstrates some influence from romantic literature in English (he explicitly mentions Walter Scott), he is clearly attempting a realistic portrayal of someone who was well known by others, including those who were reading the newspaper.

Some of the traits described about Ruairidh contradict modern stereotypes and assumptions about Scots and Scottishness: he was not an excessively pious man in religious terms, but was devoted to his native language, culture, and belief system; although he was able to read Gaelic, he had not been subjected to formal education (which was almost inevitably anglocentric in nature); he cared little about money.

This sketch is a fascinating glimpse of Gaels in North Carolina, one that shows the consistency of Gaelic traits and cultural patterns across the diaspora.

“Little” Rory McSween had several brothers, all of whom exhibited in a remarkable degree the peculiar habits, customs, and characteristics of the Scottish clansmen, down even to a period of seventy five or more years after the family had migrated from Scotland hither.

The oldest of these was Sween, who many of my readers may remember. He was, although born I believe in Richmond County, the most completely typical Highlander I ever knew, and always reminded me of some of Walter Scott’s character portraitures …

His parents were natives of Scotland, and gave to their children not only Scottish features, but Scottish tongues, training, prejudices, and opinions as well, and in none of them did the national tribal characteristics crop out more plainly and unmistakably, than in Sween; and in his loyalty to his race and clan, their habits, custom and belief, his own individual pride, which would never allow him to humble himself to any living man, his native hospitality at his home (a point of national honor), his steadfastness to his friends, his haughty bearing and unswerving devotion to the land and ways of his father, marked him indelibly as a Scotchman indeed, and a true clansman.

I have seen him come into town barefooted, but his graceful carriage, his springing step, his uplifted hand, and proud aye, haughty men, all seemed to say he was a true child of the mountain and the mist, owing allegiance to none whose name he did not bear and when he had partaken of enough usquebaugh to bring out all the Scotch in him, he could be, and often was, the most sarcastic, cutting and proud fellow < … ? … > he had an ineffable, unutterable contempt for the English language, and for everybody who could not answer his hail in Gaelic.

He swallowed his whiskey with a Gaelic sentiment, satirized and cursed his enemies and sang his songs in Gaelic, and in short, was the very impersonation of a wild Hieland man and a McSween.

He was as poor as a pauper but would have starved sooner than beg, was at times a brawler, fighter and swearer, but was truthful, and like all his race, an at least habitual observer of the Sabbath, and there was not enough money in the state to bring him to do a mean act.

I do not know that he was, even in the smallest sense, an educated man, beyond his ability to read Gaelic. He spoke English fluently and correctly, but never when he could use Gaelic, and was as skilled in Scottish folklore and legendary wisdom as an Hieland oracle or prophetic seer.

Modern, United States

African and Gaelic Identities in the Diasporas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It is in Ballinaby that I was born and raised

It is in Ballinaby that I always lived.”

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

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

Literature, Modern, Scottish Gaelic Literature, United States

A Gaelic Valentine from 1909 L.A.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Original Gaelic Text

Gaol is Ceòl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My English Translation

Love and Music

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada, Modern, North America, Scotland, Scottish Gaelic Literature, United States

Bardic Visions in North Dakota

The song-poem by this Scottish Gaelic poet, Domhnall Aonghas Stiùbhart, who spent the latter part of his life in North Dakota, harkened back to the idyllic days of his youth in the Highlands. Like many of his contemporaries, his life’s path consisted of many stages of migration: he was born on the Isle of Skye in 1838, but his family moved to Prince Edward Island (Canada) in 1841. He went to work on the railroad as an adult and eventually settled in North Dakota, where he died in 1914.

Domhnall sent his poem to at least two different newspapers in 1909 (the Oban Times in Scotland and the Casket in Nova Scotia). It echoes the fitful course of his life, recounting in reverse the long journeys he had undertaken across land masses and oceans earlier in life. His text is, to a degree, a reflection of the ancient role of the poet in Gaelic tradition as seer: his mind’s eye traverses the trail home that his heart so much wants to follow. Like many other Gaelic poems expressing a strong attachment to ancestral territory and sense of place, the almost ritualistic enumeration of place names has a strong emotional power. (See Warriors of the Word, 89, 296-304.) These literary devices also feature prominently in another of his surviving song-poems (“Chì mi uam, uam, uam”).

Although Domhnall mentions the Scottish Lowlands (line 54) and names a few places on the Highland-Lowland boundary with names well established in Gaelic tradition (lines 53-6), the majority of the place names he mentions, and the places in which he imagines spending time, are in the Highlands. Gaels’ sense of belonging did not generally extend beyond the Highlands in any strong sense (see lines 24 and 60 in particular).

In his correspondence to the newspapers, he names his current place of residence as “Steuartdail,” which was known in English as “Stewartdale.” It was close to modern Bismark. I assume, but am not certain, that he coined the place name himself to signify his own homestead area. Did he knew any of the Gaels in Manitoba who threatened to move to the Dakotas, dissatisfied with the extreme difficulties they faced in railroad settlement schemes (see Seanchaidh na Coille, 170-5)?

It is perhaps ironic that, like so many of his contemporaries, he laments his exile from his kin and his family’s explusion from their ancestral home (lines 7 and 12), but at the same time defers to the supremacy of the British Empire, only seeking validation for his people as loyal warriors of that authority (lines 61-64). The vision of most Gaelic poets had become highly constrained by imperial conditioning (see discussion in Seanchaidh na Coille, 68-78, 187-9). At least his depiction of the native peoples of the area, the Sioux (line 18), is not overtly negative.

It is noteworthy that this song was modeled on an older Jacobite song. Jacobite songs provided a solid bedrock of song models for many Gaelic poets in North American immigrant communities and he even mentions Prince Charles by name (line 28), suggesting that the choice of this song model was a conscious one. Despite the catastrophic defeat of Jacobite forces at Culloden and the symbolism of that battle in Gaelic tradition as the last independent act of defiance against a hostile, anglocentric state, songs of the Jacobite movement were firmly entrenched in the musical-poetic canon and provided the melodies and choruses (and notes of determination and defiance) used by many “New World” poets.

An informant of the School of Scottish Studies, Johanna MacDonald (1880-1973) of Smiorasairidh, Gleann Ùige, Mùideart / Moidart, sang a portion of this song to Calum Maclean in 1954. (Thanks to my friend Dr. Tiber Falzett for finding this recording and sending me the reference.) You can hear the recording online at this link.

This poem has never received any previous scholarly attention and a few of my interpretations of geographic references are tentative. I would welcome any alternative suggestions about these interpretations.

Original Gaelic Text

Tìr an Fhraoich

Air Fonn — “Ho, ho, rachainn is mi gun rachadh // o-chòin fhéin, le Tearlach”

1 Ho! ho! is mi gun rachadh
O-chòin fhéin, ’se b’ àill leam
Rachainn fhéin gu tìr mo shinnsir
Null a-rithist do thìr nan Gàidheal.

5 Rachainn fhéin a-null do dh’Albainn
’S ann oirr’ dh’ainmichear do ghnàth mi
Is ged is fhada on chaidh ar tearbadh
O! gu dearbh, is tìr mo ghràidh i.

Tha mo dhachaigh ’s an Iar-Thuath seo
10 Le fearainn, taighean, buar is barr innt’;
Is ged a tha, bidh [mi] tric fo ghruaman
Is mise fuadaicht’ o mo chairdean.

Mi ’n tìr fharsaing àrd an fheòir seo
Far am bheil gach seòrsa tàmhach
15 Iad as gach cinneach ’s an Roinn Eòrpa
Is dhe gach seòrsa, dòigh is cànain.

Mi muigh aig abhainn mhóir Missouri
An tìr nan Sioux bha ùdlaidh, gàbhaidh,
Nuair a thàinig mi d’ an dùthaich
20 Is a shuidhich mi air tùs ’s an Dàil seo.

Thionndaidhinn-s’ an-sin air uilinn
Mach gu Muile nam beann àrda;
Dhèanainn tadhal anns an Òban
Is dhèanainn comhradh riu’ ’s a’ Ghàidhlig.

25 Shiubhlainn thairis troimh na Morairne
Is Àrd na Murchan nan stùc àrda
Is bheirinn sùil gu ceann Loch Mhùideart
’S ann a stiùir am Prionnsa Tearlach.

O cheann Loch Seile gu Caolas Shléite
30 Gu Baile ’n Stream is troimh Chaol Acain
An sin gu tìr MhicGilleChaluim
Is ’na sheann chlachan, dhèanainn dàil ann.

Sin bheirinn sùil gu Rubha Thùineis
Is bheirinn sùil gu Rubha Ghearrloch;
35 Ach stiùrainn fhéin staigh gu Port Rìgh
Is an tìr mo shinnsir rithist a tà mi.

Eilean Sgitheanach a’ chèo seo
Nam beanntan móra ’s nan lochan àlainn;
Ris an cainteadh Tìr MhicDhomhnaill
40 Is Tìr MhicLeòid, is cha b’ i bu tàire.

Dh’fhàgainn fhéin tìr àrd Dacòta
Troimh Mhinnesota is gu Chicàgo
Thairis air na Lochan Móra
Is thar Chòmhnaird Chanada as airde.

45 An sin troimh Chanada Ìochdrach
Is sìos Abhainn Naomh Labhrainn;
Thriallainn-s’ troimh na Roinnean Ìosal
Is air Prionnsa Ìomhair, chuirinn fàilte.

An sin rachainn thairis air a’ chuan
50 Tha stuadhach buaireasach do ghnàth,
Marcachd air a tonnan uaibhreach
Gus aig Abhainn Chluaidh ’n tàmhainn.

Chithinn Glaschu, chithinn Grianaig
Is an Tìr Ìosal, iomadh àite:
55 Rachainn fhéin do’n Eilean Bhóideach
Air Rothasaidh chuirinn fàilte.

Ás a sin a-mach gu Arainn
Ach cha b’ fhada chuirinn dàil ann;
Stiùirinn-sa mach gu Cinn Tìre
60 Is Eilean Ìle ’n Tìr na Gàidhlig.

Tìr nan gaisgeach, treuna seòlta
Gu buaidh-chomhrag anns na blàraibh;
Is bu tric a chuidich ris a’ ghlòr
Tha nis a’ comhdach seann Bhritannia.

65 Ged a tha mi an Dacòta
B’ e bhith ’n seann Scotia b’ àill leam
Bhith rithist measg an fhraoich is nan neòinean
Far an robh mi ’n òig mo làithean.


Line 30: This is printed in the original as “Baile ’n Stream” which I take as a typo for Baile an t-Sròim, although I could be mistaken.

My English Translation

The Land of Heather

(1-4) Ho! ho! I would go, o-chòin, it is what I would like to do, I myself would go to the land of my ancestors, back over to the land of the Gaels.

(5-8) I myself would go over to Scotland, I will talk about her constantly; and although we were parted long ago, o! indeed, she is the land of my love.

(9-12) My home is here in the North-West, with its land, homes, livestock and crops; even so, I am often gloomy, having been driven away from my kin.

(13-16) I am in this expansive, high land of grass where all types [of people] live; they belong to every ethnic group in Europe, from every origin, way of life and language.

(17-20) I am out on the great Missouri river, in the land of the Sioux who were surly and dangerous when I first came to the country and settled in this dale.

(21-24) I would lean back then [and imagine going] out to Mull of the great mountains; I would visit Oban and I would speak to them in Gaelic.

(25-28) I would travel over through Morven and Ardnamurchan of the high peaks; and I would gaze out to the head of Loch Moidart where Prince Charles was directed.

(29-32) From the head of Loch Shiel to the Sound of Sleat, to Strom Ferry [?] and through Kyleakin; thence to the land of MacGilleChaluim [MacLeods of Raasay], and I would visit the old village there.

(33-36) And then I would gave out to Rubha Thùineis and over to the Point of Gairloch; but I would direct myself inland to Portree, and I am back in the land of my ancestors.

(37-40) This misty Isle of Skye of the great mountains and the beautiful lochs which is called “The Land of MacDonald and of MacLeod”: she is not the worst [i.e., she’s pretty good].

(41-44) I myself would leave the high land of Dakota through Minnesota and go towards Chicago, across the Great Lakes and over the plain of Upper Canada.

(45-48) Thence through Lower Canada and down the St. Lawrence River; I would travel through the Lower North Shore [?] and I would welcome Prince Edward [Island].

(49-52) Thence I would go across the ocean, which is always full of swelling walls [of water] and in ferment, mounted on her high-spirited waves until I would come to rest at the River Clyde.

(53-56) I would see Glasgow, I would see Greenock, and many places in the Lowlands; I would myself go to the Isle of Bute and I would welcome Rothesay.

(57-60) From there out to the island of Arran, although I would not tarry there long; I would direct myself out towards Kintyre and the Island of Islay in the land of Gaelic.

(61-64) The land of the warriors who are brave and well-trained for achieving victory on the battlefields and who often augmented the glory that now ornaments ancient Britannia.

(65-68) Although I am in Dakota, I would greatly like to be an auld Scotland, to be again among the heather and the daisies where I once lived in the days of my youth.


Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2009.

Michael Newton. Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

Canada, Modern, North America, United States

Scottish Gaels of the Pacific Northwest

Although most Scottish Highlanders migrated in extended families or entire communities in the 18th and early 19th centuries, changes in social structures and socio-economic patterns changed how and where they migrated in the later 19th and 20th centuries. More individuals moved from Gaelic communities in Scotland and North America to centers of economic activity and opportunity, particularly large cities, as Gaelic families and older settlements fragmented.

Very large numbers of Scottish Gaels were attracted to the Pacific Northwest and could be found in Seattle and Vancouver, in particular. When I interviewed Neil MacLeod in Vancouver in 2006, he told me about the Gaelic community that thrived in the area when his family moved there from Alaska:

When we arrived here in 1924 there were approximately 20,000 people that could speak Gaelic in the British Columbia area. There were 26 [Scottish] societies here. If you wanted a job in the Fire Department and you could speak Gaelic, you had a job; if you wanted a job in the Police Department and you could speak Gaelic, you had a job, and if you played the pipes, you’d get in quicker.

Seattle boasted a Gaelic community just as vibrant at the time (and it has been revived in recent years through the auspices of Slighe nan Gàidheal). The Seattle Scottish Gaelic Society held regular céilidhs and organized the annual Highland Games for the region.

Gaels all over North America subscribed to Gaelic periodicals published in Nova Scotia to help them keep track of friends, community members and cultural activities scattered all over the continent. Despite the enormous distances, these print materials kept folks in touch with each other and informed them about the issues (and literature) that mattered to them as Gaels.

A memory of these communities is preserved in the following letter sent to the monthly periodical Teachdaire nan Gàidheal (The Gaelic Messenger) in 1926 by a Gael resident in Seattle who had been born and raised in Cape Breton. A number of important points (seen clearly in other sources as well) are illustrated in this letter. First, Gaels conceived of their identity primarily as Gaelic; the notion of a “Scottish” identity was of a more remote and abstract nature. Their own native language carried, expressed and perpetuated their culture and identity; Gaelic literature was the fullest and most sophisticated form of this linguistic and cultural package. This allegiance to the Gaelic community and culture was, after all, the reason why people in Vancouver, Seattle, Boston, New York, Toronto, Winnipeg, San Francisco, and other cities contributed and subscribed to Gaelic periodicals: so that they could continue to be members of the wider “virtual” Gaelic community that spanned the continent via print, whether they happened to have been born originally in Scotland or North America.

The original letter in Gaelic comes first; I have followed it with my own English translation with important points about identity marked in boldface.

Thàinig Teachdaire nan Gàidheal air a chuairt mhìosail an latha roimhe, agus faodaidh tu bhith cinnteach gun d’ rinn Gàidheil Seattle mór ghàirdeachas ri thighinn. Gum bu fada beò thu agus comasach air tadhal oirnn daonnan le d’ naidheachdan tairis tlàth. Chan eil uair a leughas mi an Teachdaire nach tàlaidh a chomhradh grinn an cainnt uasal mo chinnidh m’ aire, a dh’aindeoin drip, gu beachd smuain air làithean m’ òige ’s an t-sòlais, nuair nach robh nì eile air m’ aire ach mire, mànran agus cridhealas, ’nam dhachaigh an Ceap Breatainn mo ghaoil.

Bha Mòd Albannach Gàidheil Seattle air a chuir air adhart le mór ghreadhnas air an 4mh latha de’n Lùnastal fo chùl-taic Fine Chloinn Choinnich is N[aoimh] Anndra. Bha mu chòig mìle pearsa làthair agus shoirbhich an latha leo anabarrach math. Thàinig àireamh na bu mhotha na b’ àbhaist de cho-fharpaisean pìobaireachd is dannsa á Vancouver agus rinn sin cùisean na bu taitniche dhuinn uile …

Chaith an sluagh a bha cruinn latha cridheil toilichte. Cha chluinnte guth ach Gàidhlig ré an latha is nuair a thàinig cridhealas an latha gu crìch, thriall gach aon gu dhachaigh fhéin làn riaraichte gun do chuir iad seachad latha comhla ri Gàidheil Seattle a leanas buan ’nan cuimhne.

The Gaelic Messenger came on its monthly tour the other day, and you can be sure that the Gaels of Seattle greatly celebrated its arrival. May you last long and always be capable of visiting us with your pleasant, well-spoken news. There is never a time that I read the Messenger that its elegant conversation in the noble language of my people does not draw to my mind the days of my youth and happiness, despite busy distractions, when there was nothing but sport and play and joy on my mind in my home in my beloved Cape Breton.

The Scottish Games of the Gaels of Seattle were held with great festivity on the 4th of July under the auspices of the MacKenzie [Clan society?] and St. Andrews [Society?]. There were about five thousand people present and the event went extraordinarily well. A much greater number than usual of the bagpipe and dance competitors came from Vancouver and that made the events all the more enjoyable for us all …

The assembled crowd spent a very happy, joyous day. Nothing but Gaelic was heard spoken all day long and when the delights of the day came to an end, every one returned to his own home fully satisfied that he had spent a day in the company of the Gaels of Seattle that will always last in their memories.

Further Reading

For further materials about Gaelic communities in the Pacific Northwest, see Michael Newton, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada.

For further discussion of Scottish Gaelic identity in North America, see the following:

“Gaelic Identities in Nova Scotia: Some Literary, Historical and Sociological Perspectives.”

“Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity in North America.”

“Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas” in Celts in the Americas.