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.)

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!

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.

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.

A Better Scottish Diaspora is Possible

Scottish Highland Games may be fun and entertaining, but if we are to judge them by the standards of historical accuracy and cultural authenticity, they are little more than a sham circus.

People wearing tartan kilts celebrate their Lowland Scottish ancestors who would have looked down on Highanders for their clothing and language. Dancers – mostly children – do “Highland dancing” under the assumption that the dance form derives from Highland tradition, unaware that almost all of it was invented by 19th and 20th century urbanites projecting stereotypes about Highlanders. Clan societies give overly simplistic solutions (we are a sept of “Clan X,” we wear this tartan) that distort the histories of the very cultures they are supposed to be promoting.

Those who have had the opportunity and good fortune to explore Scotland’s real Highland heritage – that which is rooted in its native Gaelic language and culture – realize that there is a lot to celebrate that is fun, appealing and informative, but that very little of it is being represented or supported through the mainstream of Scottish heritage in North America.

Most Scottish heritage groups are simply social clubs with tartan window dressing and a splash of whisky tasting, which is not necessarily a problem in itself. Some of it, however, supports racist ideologies and can easily reinforce notions of white supremacy (when in fact Scots are not a race and have their own regional identities based on language and culture, not genetics). Little wonder that so many Scots find the charade embarrassing and that it gets so little traction from its potential audience.

Although I explored these issues in a lengthy article in 2005, I’m revisiting them again with the aim of establishing a new organization in North America to help network and support those of us who really enjoy, care about and want to be engaged in Gaelic tradition in a manner that is authentic and has integrity.

I’ve therefore solicited opinions and ideas from several North American contacts who have been involved in Scottish Gaelic. Judging from my own experience and past research, these are representative opinions.

  • Richard Aszling: from Chicago, with a degree in Music and certificates in special education, bilingual education, and English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • Liam Alastair Crouse: from Rhode Island, now working in South Uist as Ceòlas Gaelic Development Officer
  • Tiber Falzett: From Prince Edward Island and Pennsylvania, with a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from University of Edinburgh
  • Anne Landin: from North Carolina, Editor of The Argyll Colony Plus magazine
  • Sharon Pace MacLeod: born in Ontario, a musician, singer and scholar of Celtic spiritual traditions
  • Toby Rider: IT professional/musician born in Tiawan, raised in California, fluent in English and Mandarin, and working on Gaelic
  • Caroline Root: Gaelic teacher in Colorado

One person asked to remain anonymous because they worry that their opinions may offend others who have invested themselves in the mythology and iconography of tartanism and feel threatened when it is questioned. That in itself indicates how divided the Scottish diaspora in North America has become, and how lacking in leadership and representation those who wish to engage in Gaelic culture are in the mainstream.

We can do better. We can re-envision the way that we celebrate and develop Scottish Highland heritage in North America so that it is more authentic, more fulfilling, more life-enriching, and more supportive of Gaelic communities in Scotland as well as ethnic communities in North America. Here are the opinions of others that reflect these aspirations.

(1) How important do you think the Gaelic language and culture are in the representation of Scottish heritage in North America? Why?


Considering that what most Americans celebrate about Scottish culture comes from Gaelic culture in the beginning, I think it is a travesty that Gaelic as the primary lens through which the culture was passed down to us has been marginalized as much here as it has been both in England and in Scotland. It is in the nature of Americans to attempt to get away with cultural appropriation. Given our melting pot status across two centuries, it is difficult for Americans to see how this would be a bad thing. Often times, when you bring up the fact that cultural appropriation on this scale is a crime against the very thing that they are trying to celebrate, you often get hostility and outright rage in response. It simply what we do, as Americans. I think that at this point it is somewhat easier to get through to some people who attend what I call the Highland Games circuit because of the high profile efforts of many Gaelic organisations both in the United States, in Scotland, and in Canada, but when it comes to individual celebratory Scottish groups under the umbrella of the Highland Games circuit, you often find the same amount of hostility and indignation as you did 20 years ago to the idea of including the use of Gaelic in regular activities within the groups. It is of utmost importance to bring Gaelic language back into the collective mindset involved in the celebration of Scottish culture in the United States. Given the amount of people in the United States who celebrate what they considered to be Scottish culture, bringing the connection between Gaelic and what people perceive to be Scottish culture to light will increase the survival of the language as a whole, even in spite of continued persecution within the construct that is the current United Kingdom.

Richard Aszling

In my opinion, Gaelic language and culture are essential in the representation of Scottish heritage in North America. There are millions of Americans and Canadians that are descended from Scottish Gaels, and for the vast majority of them, the closest thing that they have to access to their cultural heritage is symbology. At best, these symbols (the kilt, tartan, Highland Games, bagpipes, clan badges, etc.) are empty, stripped of their meaning without a rich cultural context passed down from generation to generation through the language that was first used ­ and thus best used ­ to describe them; at worst, they have been perverted (e.g. militarized) by successive imperial Anglo­Saxon states. In order for those of us who descend from the Highland Scots to be able to access the culture that, absent colonial domination, could have ­ dare I say should have? ­ been passed down to us, we have to move beyond these symbols and begin to understand their origins along with a host of other cultural practices in a way that is only truly possible through the Gaelic language. It is the language that first delineated that culture and it is indispensable to its understanding.

Liam Alastair Crouse

While I don’t believe that a minute understanding of the Gaelic language and culture is obligatory for all those partaking in and benefiting from Scottish Heritage within the North American, I do believe that the language and culture are an inextricable part of the story of Scottish immigrants in North America. The bilingual nature, and indeed the oft incompatible identities of Scottish immigrants – Lowland and Highland, is a reality which has been blurred in the subsumption of the cultures into the monolingual North American heteroculture. More so, knowledge of the Gaelic language and culture does not solely help to shed light on this skewing of the historic narrative, but may also help to also reverse language trends in the home country, i.e. to help to support revitalisation efforts in Scotland. As an example, and as food for thought, many descendants of Gaels came from areas which no longer speak Gaelic in Scotland, or are very weak. Sending those ‘troops’ into the breach, with their lack of sociolinguistic norms of the Gaels and their lack of cultural trauma, may help provide buffer and turn the tide.

Tiber Falzett

[I feel] strongly that such a sea-change resulting in their collective and unified support, commitment and ownership of such a mandate/idea would be a tremendous windfall.
The Clan Donald Educational and Charitable Trust was very kind in supporting my first two-years of postgraduate work at the University of Edinburgh, as I know they were with many other burgeoning Scottish Gaelic scholars over the years. For this I am most grateful.

From recent personal experiences doing grass-roots public scholarship related to Scottish Gaelic on Prince Edward Island, it is most interestingly an Irish heritage organization, expressing commitment to hosting seminars pertinent to Island Scottish Gaelic tradition as well as in offering community-based Scottish Gaelic and Modern Irish language courses, and a homestead focused on sustainable organic agricultural and native small-scale forestry/woodlot management that have taken the greatest interest and are now lending strong support to the renewal of our Island’s local forms of documented Scottish Gaelic ethnolinguistic expression and tradition. I would say that support from such varied contexts to Scottish Gaelic is most encouraging and indeed heartening. Headway is also being made by underlining the common threads, demonstrating the importance of, and advocating for of all our Island communities’ Intagible Cultural Heritage new and old from various ethnolinguistic contexts as transmitted and maintained over multiple generations on these shores. This is of course small-scale and also in its infancy so I look forward to seeing if the seeds that are being sown on the Island will offer up a harvest.

Anne Landin

There are probably a lot more people of Lowland Scot ancestry in the United States than Highland; while some Gaelic speakers from various parts of the country and Canada migrated west to such places as Manitoba and California in the early 20th century, it is only in a few areas such as North Carolina and New York, and in the deep south and southwest where Highland Scots settled in the 18th and 19th century, that people might have a strong interest based on heritage alone.

The Gaelic language is of interest to many people who have no ancestral links to it and this is probably based on the realization that it is related to “Celtic” music or has other meaning for those people.

Sharon Pace MacLeod

Very important. The U.S. is of course a melting pot of cultures, each of which has made an enormous contribution to this huge and diverse continent. From the myriad Indigenous cultures of North America (many of which are also involved in a struggle for recognition, and efforts to recover from colonialism and preserve their identity, cultures and languages) to immigrants from around the globe – including many parts of Europe.
Most Americans have a only a vague notion of our cultural history – from ‘Indians’ (who are viewed as either existing only in the past, or as relics of an irrelevant past), to settlers from England, and later, waves of immigrants primarily from Ireland, Italy, Germany, Poland, and (out west) from China and Japan. While the Irish contribution to American culture is well documented and discussed, those from Scotland receive much less attention or credit for their remarkable contributions to this culture.

More focus is now being given to the contributions of Native Americans, African-Americans, and Mexican Americans – as it should be. Being inclusive of all of the gifts from all of America’s most influential population groups is crucial to maintaining our diversity and our inclusiveness, and to understanding who we are.

Toby Rider

Gaelic language should be fundamental to the representation of Scottish culture in North America. Particularly in regions that received immigrants that came from The Highlands & Western Isles, ie: native Gaelic speakers. For example Nova Scotia & North Carolina. Imagine visiting Chinatown or Moneterey Park in California and not hearing anyone speaking Chinese.. Language indeed is the key to the front door of a culture.

Caroline Root

I’d say most people don’t know that Gaelic exists. Some only know of it in a historical context and some only know about it because of Outlander and then there are the few people who learn about it and really know something about the language. I don’t think there are too many negative feelings about Gaelic it is more that people either don’t know or just don’t think about it.

(2) Do you think that Gaelic has been well, or equitably, represented by the mainstream Scottish heritage groups on this continent? Why or why not? How could this be improved?


I am not entirely sure what does or doesn’t constitute a “Scottish heritage group”. If by that you mean any group claiming to be a supporter of one aspect of Scottish culture or another, then I think the answer is two part. The ones that are specifically Gaelic-related–Slighe nan Gàidheal in Seattle, Washington and ACGA with members all over the U. S. and Canada–do as well as their individual members and administrative structures allow for. Slighe nan Gàidheal is essentially a Gaelic community centered around Seattle, Washington and does really well providing opportunities for both language learning and for participating in Gaelic-centric activities. ACGA encompasses a far larger area (most of the North American continent), but is hampered in its outreach by its own corporate structure which concentrates all the decision-making at the top of the organization (between 12 and 15 people depending on the year) and places the responsibility for implementing decisions concerning outreach and activities on the backs of approximately 8 or 9 of its close to 200 dues-paying members. That being said, both organizations break their proverbial (and sometimes literal) necks doing the best job they can with what they have and though the progress may seem small on an overall scale, measurable headway has been made in getting the word out about Gaelic being the source of much of the “traditions” carried on by people in the Highland Games circuit. Is it adequate to turn the tide against losing the language? No, but every little bit helps. As far as other Scottish heritage groups–things like the Scottish-American Military Society and the hundreds of different clan societies and their various sub-branches–go and how they contribute, it really depends on which group you encounter. It can even vary widely within geographic regions within a sub-chapter of the clan society. There are some clan societies which embrace their Gaelic associations, both past and present, and actively encourage anyone who has any language aptitude to learn Gaelic and use it; others–and I have experienced this personally within my own chapter of my clan society–will actually turn their backs on you, the entire group of them, and pretend as if you weren’t standing right beside them when you mention the word Gaelic. And yet, within the geographic area where I live, there are now 4 people who are actively interested in learning and using Gaelic within the scope of their individual participation within the clan society, while the rest of clan members in the other grouped states, still choose to ostracize anyone who mentions it. It really is a mixed bag.

How to improve it? Well, in my case what seems to have worked so far is joining a Scottish heritage group and gently exposing them to the language to see which people are receptive and which aren’t. Then I have focused on those who are and encouraged them to learn, either by providing all the resources and information I have on how to do it (and in some cases actually using technology to help them to start, which in many cases is the hardest hurdle to cross) or introducing them to people who can help them do it. The more of us there are in a group, the less ability the nay-sayers have to ostracize, marginalize, or ignore the language and people attempting to use it. Sometimes I have run into a solid wall of rejection–to the point of being banned electronically from membership in online forums for particular groups–and moved on; the whole “you can lead a horse to water” saying. Essentially, I think the best approach is to have positive, energetic people with boots on the ground going out into various heritage societies, armed with a clear understanding of what cultural appropriation means and how to avoid it, the ability to politely persuade people to learn outside their own comfortable boxes of ignorance, a thick skin and aversion to the word “no”, and the ability to present Gaelic as the source of much of the Highland Games circuit’s traditions in as non-threatening and convincing way as possible.

Richard Aszling

I do not think that Gaelic has been well represented in mainstream heritage societies. Though I am not myself a member of any clan society ­ several of which I could lay claim to ­ or umbrella Scottish heritage society, I have researched them and found the presence of Gaelic to be marginal at best ­ a motto here a greeting there. I can only imagine that this is due to the fact that, outside of Nova Scotia in general and Cape Breton in particular, the language has been lost, in most cases for several hundred years. In the meantime the idea of Scottish culture as being represented by Burn’s Nights (no disrespect to the poet!), Feasts of the Haggis, tartan kilts, and pipe bands has come to stand in for what has been lost, and it has all been communicated by the Gael’s adopted language ­ English. As advocates for the Gaelic language, I think that we can improve on this situation by joining these heritage societies and making our love for the language and culture known; offering ourselves to be educators to the best of our ability; publicizing and attending the National Mòd whenever at all possible; teaching the language to our children (something that I am endeavoring to do); making connections with Irish heritage societies, fostering partnerships and highlighting cultural ties, especially if they offer Irish language classes as the Irish American Heritage Center here in Chicago does; and learning from those groups who have been successful at building a Gaelic community (e.g. Slighe nan Gàidheal in Seattle).

Liam Alasdair Crouse

Gaelic has been subsumed and forgotten by the mainstream. I wonder if Donald Trump ever mentioned Scottish Gaelic in a public forum before? He has mentioned Scotland, co-dhiùbh. Just an example. Another might be the un-Gaelicising of the Clans.

Gaelic has not been equitably represented because it is a minority culture, one which has not fared well under the Anglo-American cultural hegemony. Majority culture, mainstream Scottish Heritage groups included whether they know it or not, happily consume the more digestible portions of Gaelic culture, while leaving the leftover marrow and sinew to rot.

It can be improved through education, I believe. I do not think that many are hostile to the language and culture as some once were. Many can be brought back into the fold if properly taught about their cultural inheritance.

Anne Landin

I’m not sure what a “mainstream” Scottish heritage group is. I have found that clan societies in general and “Scottish heritage” societies such as the one here in New Bern exist primarily as a social club where activities are sponsored entirely for the purpose of giving the members a chance to dress up in their kilts and tartans. In talking to members of these groups, I have found most have no knowledge or have misinformation about topics related to Scottish history. Note that these are generally older people.

I have tried to promote interest in Gaelic and in actual Scottish history, particularly highland history, to them with no effect. They sometimes won’t even take publications to read which are offered for free. I would guess people in groups such as these might be prevailed upon for a donation but otherwise do not seem to want to learn or change their minds about things they have believed for a long time. They do have money to spend, and they usually have traveled to Scotland.

The only other organization I am familiar with is our North Carolina Scottish Heritage Society, whose main function is to publish The Argyll Colony Plus. This journal features research by academics and others who are sending us new material and it promotes, if not Gaelic itself, at least real scholarship in Scottish and highland history. I try to see that some Gaelic related material is included in most issues and occasionally these receive comment from readers, but I can’t be sure what effect they have. We do have several members who have learned a little Gaelic and others who email me from time to time asking for a translation or definition. We have had only very occasional support from other Gaelic speakers, mostly in Scotland.

In the absence of any real history being taught in the schools today, especially in grammar school, resources to do special programs in the schools to interest children would be a very good use of funding. That would involve recruiting people and training them as well as marketing to sell the idea to the schools.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

Outside of Highland Games, and Scottish clan events, Scottish culture is fairly invisible in the tapestry of American culture. Much more focus and funding has been provided for Irish-American culture – I suspect partly because of sheer numbers in the north-east, and their rise to political power in the early 20th century.

I think Scottish Games and Clan Societies are extremely enthusiastic and sincere in their appreciation of their heritage, but this is often a ‘surface’ understanding of that culture. One can find Adult Education classes in Irish Gaelic in various parts of the country, but Scottish Gaelic is only rarely offered. Appreciating the difficulty of the language – and the challenges incurred by adult learners – it’s important to have compassion for the lack of numbers in terms of Gaelic learners.

I think that there could be great benefit from including ‘Introduction to Scottish Gaelic’ language, song and culture events at Highland Games around the country. These could help people ‘break the ice’ and also connect with teachers, learning materials, online resources, and learning groups. Brochures could be provided helping people connect with reliable books and websites in order to learn more authentic information about Gaelic culture and language. The internet will be of great assistance in helping people access this information and also join on-line groups for continued learning and support. Toiling alone in obscurity ensures that people may give up the task.

Toby Rider

The represenation of Gaelic by Scottish heritage groups in North America has been laughable at best, completely depressing at worst. The biggest offenders as far as omitting The Gaelic are these various clan associations. The one exception to this of course in the An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach, the Gaelic association. They do a good job.

I think this can be improved through two methods: 1. Better education, 2. Somehow divorcing the idea of Scottish heritage groups as being synonmous with “white pride” or “white power” groups. In some areas, especially in American South, Scottish heritage organziations cater to the same people as The Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ku Klux Klan, etc.

Caroline Root

No, I don’t think they have been well or equitably represented. Where they are represented the fact that they were Gaelic speakers and part of a different culture is often ignored. I’m not sure why but it could be that if it were acknowledged that they were ‘other’ it would make them harder to relate to or just make things more complicated. People often want simple history, where there is a good guy and a bad guy and all the lines are clear and a history that they can look at without having to look beyond the confines of their own culture.
I don’t know how to change that, you’d have to change all the people and that would take a lot of time, but I have seen some small changes already so who knows.

(3) What do you think would be the advantage(s) of better and more informed inclusion of Gaelic in North American celebrations and representations of Scottish heritage?


I covered this a little in one of my previous answers, but essentially, the more Gaelic is recognized as the true source of much of the Highland Games circuit’s traditions, the more likely people who aren’t completely averse to the learning of ANY language will attempt to learn it and give Gaels in whatever form they take the opportunity to pass on both Gaelic language and culture to future generations.

Richard Aszling

The advantage of better and more informed inclusion of Gaelic in the North American Scottish cultural representations is simply this: another potential place for Gaelic language and culture to thrive outside of Scotland. This is, perhaps, overly idealistic, but it is a dream of mine. In my mind, the Gaels came to North America. We are here and we more than likely not going back to Scotland. In many ways we are American, for better or worse, but can we not also be Gaels? I grew up in the city of Chicago among people of all different cultural, linguistic, and socioeconomic backgrounds, and I saw a place for each one of them in the City of Chicago, this most American city. Can I not be a Chicagoan and also a Gael?

Liam Alastair Crouse

A flowering of Scottish studies in North America, as well as a new resurgence of those interested in Gaelic language returning to the Old Country to renew ‘the fight’. In its own right, I believe that Scottish studies has much to tell us both of ourselves as Americans & Canadians as it does about the story of the Gael. However, I must admit that I see that the ultimate destination for any Scottish studies or inclusion of Gaelic in celebrations and representations of Scottish heritage must be to renew the language and the culture in a serious, un-tokenistic way. I am willing to concede, however, that only in Scotland could this happen.

Anne Landin

How do you propose to include Gaelic? As a volunteer, I have run Gaelic tents at various highland games for many years, and while we have a lot of people drop in and ask a few questions, and we hand out free phrase books, comics and coloring books for children, very few people ever pursue learning the language from this experience as far as I know.

During the last year or so since Outlander was made into a TV show, there has been a lot more interest in Gaelic, especially from older women, but I have doubts that they would make the effort to try to actually learn the language. However, these people might be interested in supporting and promoting others learning the language with their donations.

ACGA has not supported these Gaelic tents in many years as far as I know. At one time we tried to establish some procedures and standardized materials to use which could be loaned out to anyone willing to set up a tent at highland games or other events, but ACGA’s regional representative program was not well organized, and trying to go through a (usually inactive) intermediary was frustrating; it is easier just to do it yourself.

The failure of this effort to be able to provide follow up and classes for those who showed interest at the games or other events has been discouraging. I have handed out lists of useful websites but if there were classes available which could be advertised as such and were easily accessible, and someone or group would follow up with those who have shown an interest, this would encourage more people to learn Gaelic and/or learn about Gaelic history. I am not optimistic that many would stick with it for very long unless there was LOTS of follow up and encouragement.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

To include those of Scottish ancestry in the national discussion and appreciation of culture and heritage in North America, as well as to educate those of other ancestral backgrounds about the unique contributions of that culture. With the popularity of Outlander, and earlier, the Highlander series, as well as Braveheart and Rob Roy (despite their historical inaccuracies), it’s clear that many people are interested in and resonate with this culture and would like to learn more about it.Without any type of serious or sustained Scottish Gaelic learning programs in educations of higher learning, the entire burden falls on Scottish Heritage groups (who may not have the expertise or ability to sustain it).

In addition, those who are interested will undoubtedly go on the internet looking for information. Where the historical, cultural and linguistic information is not presented in an accessible or engaging way (as may often be the case in academic sources), people will gravitate to popular materials ranging from ‘gently misguided history’ to the aggregious portrayals of Gaelic / Celtic culture and beliefs rampant in New Age and Neo-Pagan books and websites, which are highly visible and visually enticing on many websites.

i think it would be of great interest to move beyond the ‘whisky, tartan and shortbread’ version of Gaelic culture (fun though that can be for many people) in cultural celebrations, classes, exhibits and courses. This will take an awareness of what is being promoted, why that is resonant for the general populace, and without scolding them, entice people into stepping farther into the authentic culture with books, CD’s, learning programs, arts programs, online resources and the like. This is founded of course in academic research and cultural knowledge, but is also a human-based creative effort which I think can be highly successful if approached correctly.

Toby Rider

We can preserve our culture, genuinely. Not a cartoon version. Other immigrant groups here in North America have done such a good job of preserving and transmitting their culture, that it is not uncommon for the offspring of immigrants to return to the old country, to work or visit for extended periods. They have the ability to converse fluently in their mother tongue and completely understand the subtilties of the parent culture. That’s not happening with the offspring of Gaels in North America.

Another thing which would be most beneficial are activities which bring the young offspring of diaspora together, so that friendships can be built which span across the great distances. I would say that The Gaelic College on Cape Breton Island is a good positive example (on a very small scale). Another excellent example of the type of actitvity I am thinking of is the “Overseas Compatriot Youth Formosa Study Tour to Taiwan”, informally known as the Love Boat. It is a four-week summer program for about 400–600 college-aged male and female students who are ethnically Taiwanese.

Caroline Root

Very basically I could say I teach Scottish Gaelic and not get blank stares and people saying ‘what’s that?’. It would also give people a richer more in depth perspective on history.

(4) Why do you think this has not already happened? What is preventing this state of affairs? Have things improved over the last decade or so? Why or why not?


One could write a doctoral thesis in response to the first question, here. The number of factors involved in preventing Gaelic from being included in the collective consciousness of the Scottish diaspora are legion. Everything from local attitudes against polyglots in general, to political associations where none should exist between Gaelic and some sort of aggressive fringe with an ulterior motive, to American Nationalism (the “Speak English, damn it!” movement), to (wrongly) considering it a regional language rather than a “Scottish” language (“It wasn’t spoken in MY clan; we’re from X, not the Western Isles”), to just plain laziness or apathy, and many more besides. At the core the things that are preventing the correction of the situation are basic human fallacies: apathy, ignorance, narrow-mindedness, individual pride and self-importance, and extreme resistance to “change” or fear of the unknown or both. The same tools with which these basic fallacies are addressed are the same ones that should be used when trying to improve the lot of Gaelic in North America. Things have improved *somewhat* over the last decade. Part of that comes from the ever-wider use of social media to expose more people to the language, to discuss the wider issues surrounding its survival, to organize and coordinate Gaelic events, and to get the word out about those events. Social media basically bypasses the traditional hurdle of having to pay someone in the traditional media (who are likely to have an anti-Gaelic bias or a skewed notion of what they want to say about it that is different from what you are paying them to say or are just completely ignorant of the subject and apathetic to your proposal to get the word out, even if paid to do so) to publicize Gaelic events and get the word out. It’s much easier for information to “go viral” on social media and it reaches far more people much faster than traditional media does at this stage. That’s not to say that social media doesn’t have its problems–misinformation is just as easily spread as correct information and there are thousands upon thousands of people out there who know just enough to think they know something who have never encountered the concept of cultural appropriation, much less to know it should be avoided, who spread misinformation like wildfire. So, there are no real complete and all-encompassing methods that one can point to and say, “THIS! This is how we should do it!” It’s going to have to be a very carefully examined (and re-examined) group of methods, adjusted and tweaked according to geography, response, and effectiveness on a regular basis by people who *all agree on the goals and methodology and general process by which it is done*. Without that last, it’s doomed to failure anyway no matter how much effort the individuals involved put into it.

Richard Aszling

In a word, ignorance. The colonial domination of the Scots and the Highlanders in particular coupled with the relentlessly monoglot nature of the Anglosphere has blinded people to the fact that there is even a separate Gaelic culture in Scotland. The final nail in the coffin here is the idea that Gaelic is a dead language. I think that the more that Americans wake up to the way that international capitalism dominates our cultural discourse, the more they yearn for something that is more authentic and rooted in community. I am convinced that that is a large part of the boom in interest in genealogy. If we, as advocates of Gaelic language and culture, are prepared to educate those that are seeking this information, I believe that there will be a wealth of opportunities for the language to take root and grow throughout the continent. I see the beginnings of this in the fandom that’s growing up around the Outlander series. I wonder just how many people have begun to take a deeper look into the language because of those books and the television show!

Liam Alastair Crouse

Gaelic has only in a few decades come to the public fore in Scotland, and Native American languages are left to wither in western reservations – there is little wonder! I believe that the arrival of the post-modern world and its philosophy of pluralism has helped.
I believe that the established hegemony is preventing it. America, certainly, asserts assimilation and unity. It is no wonder that the country is innately afraid of true multiculturalism and the dissention which that may bring.

Anne Landin

Lack of money, lack of time, lack of manpower, lack of organization. Support for Gaelic is too fragmented. Most individuals as well as organizations are only interested in maintaining their own position, not in cooperating with other individuals or groups to establish a bigger net. This is probably due in some part to lack of funding (not enough to go around) and resulting protectionism.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

Inertia, lack of funds, lack of understanding, and lack of qualified teachers and presenters.

The common person in North America has only limited time, energy and money to devote to study. But they can learn through experience, through inspirational presentations and workshops, and through the arts.

I think the internet has been of some help in connecting learners and enthusiasts, and can be of even more use if utilized in a concerted way to provide a main resource of connection and interconnection.

Toby Rider

Two reasons: 1. Excuse making, 2. Laziness. The U.S. in particular is one of the most monolingual countries in The World. Not because there aren’t plenty of opportunities to learn, but rather more people would prefer to sit on their sofas, watch football, drink cheap beer, eat pork rinds and make excuses for why they don’t have time to do things.

Caroline Root

Here is the thing, wearing a kilt is easy and so are most of the things that people do so that they ‘feel Scottish’ at least compared to learning Gaelic. And again the thing about people liking easy history. Basically people can be very lazy. Things have improved.  Whatever you think of it Outlander has allowed people to be both lazy and learn more about Gaelic. Also the amount of information about Gaelic and resources to learn it on the internet is so much vaster than it was. You no longer have to scrabble to find printed resources and horde every scrap of paper pertaining to Gaelic like I did when I started so things are getting much better.

(5) Imagine that there was a Foundation that had funds available for projects for those who had adequate skills and imagination to carry out projects aimed at developing resources for North Americans engaged in Gaelic. What kind of projects would you initiative yourself if such funds were available? What do you think could or should be done by others? How would this improve the state of Gaelic and those people and communities who speak and celebrate it in N America?


The first project I would fund would be a group people–and I know them by name, if you want them–to get together and write a comprehensive, Gaelic language course that includes all the cultural eccentricities that only Native Speakers seem to know and only half the time are willing to impart without being annoyed first. I have been studying Gaelic off and on for over 25 years and only last night did I find out that “mas e ur/do toil/thoil e” is an annoying phrase only used by learners who don’t know any better which annoys native speakers. And it needs to be geared as much for the solitary learner as for those with group learning available. With a combination of teaching methods employed, sight, hearing, and doing–all the general ways in which people learn things.

As far as projects I myself would be willing to contribute, putting together a sort of “operations manual” for how to get involved in various heritage groups for recruiting purposes, put up a teaching booth Highland Games to get people exposed and begin to educate them, and the ins and outs of how to deal with nay-sayers, aggressive and argumentative people, and what kinds of activities to use for promoting the language and bringing people “into the fold” so to speak. Another project (and pet peeve) I would like to address is how to create and sustain LOCAL GAELIC GROUPS under a national (or continental?) umbrella organization to guide them. This business of having a national organization where the activity is centered in one or two locations across the continent (where the primary active administration lives–ahem!) when the membership is spread out across the entirety of the continent has got to be the most inefficient system of recruitment and information promulgation around. All three of these projects would be extremely helpful in getting the word out. Having a broad-spectrum Gaelic course that teaches what every learner should know (and what native speakers know by their being taught it natively) instead of having to use 5 or 6 different books or courses, part of which are well done and parts of which are either outdated or badly constructed in the first place, to teach complete, square-one type learners is imperative. I’ve heard that _Blas na Gàidhlig_ comes close to being what I’m talking about, but I haven’t yet laid aside the $200 to buy it to find out. Having local Gaelic groups, with their own local administrations (which will have handbooks with guidelines and rules in them for how to effectively run a local chapter of a larger Gaelic-centric organization) which report to the larger umbrella organization will decentralize the responsibility (and the budgetary requirements) for getting many of these proposed activities going, particularly if the fundraising or monetary contribution efforts were also decentralized, yet kept in line through a comprehensive system of reporting and legal responsibility. It goes from a few people at the top needing to plan, fund, and run every single event an organization does to people in various places across the continent recruiting locals, putting on their own local versions of what the umbrella organization would do, funding it potentially from both the local and the umbrella coffers, and being able to delegate and let the *membership* feel like they are paying for more than just a newsletter every quarter and are actively involved in the maintenance of the language and culture.

Richard Aszling

I would organize outreach events at Highland Games and Scottish heritage and clan societies, I would organize partnerships along the lines of the Iomairt Cholm Cille with Irish heritage societies to foster ties between the cultures, I would help document the history of Gaels in North America, I would make Gaelic available as a language subject at universities throughout the continent, I would foster partnerships between Gaelic groups throughout the country and the extent native communities in Canada and Scotland (e.g. seek to extend the practice of pairing advanced learners with language mentors from said communities), I would create learning resources aimed at North American ears and sensibilities, I would create support groups for advanced learners who are parent and are seeking to raise their children with the language, I would expand Gaelic cultural events like the Mòd, I would seek to create scholarships for learners and their families ­ especially if there were children being raised by non­native speakers ­ to travel to the Gàidhealtachd, I would publicize the existence of new Gaelic cultural groups in the United States and Canada in Scotland and encourage Gaels that were emigrating to contact their local group and become involved.

Liam Alastair Crouse

I, and another American, were working to the very same end… and are to a degree. It is only time and physical estrangement that is lacking currently. We envisioned a media-rich website to tell the Gaelic story to those of the Scottish cultural diaspora in North America, i.e. those of the Clans, etc. I think that short, media-rich content is the way to go in the current markets.

The end goal is to get people to begin to engage with the culture/language. There’s enough there to keep them going once they’re hooked. It’s getting them hooked – or rather, ferrying their interest in a Victorian-style Scottish Heritage thing, to an interest in genuine language and culture.

Anne Landin

Set up an “office of Gaelic Affairs” similar to what was available in Nova Scotia, with paid staff to develop resources and disseminate information. I think this might be more useful and easier and cheaper to do, at least in the beginning, than to establish and maintain a university department with all the negotiations, politics and constant budget issues that would involve. If at some point it is determined that there would be an abundance of young people seriously interested in obtaining a degree in Gaelic studies in the US, then I would be in favor of it. Otherwise, scholarships to schools elsewhere would be cheaper and easier.

I would favor frequent exchange of information regarding resources, endeavors and accomplishments in promoting Gaelic (or other minority languages) to and from other parts of the world, and availability of paper and electronic communications between people engaged in promoting Gaelic in Scotland, Canada, the US and elsewhere.

Take the Scottish Heritage Center at Laurinburg as an example of how much one person can accomplish but also as an example of the limits of what one person can do. With decent funding, such a place could serve as a hub for outreach and learning. Apparently with very tight funding, the Center can’t even afford an archivist/librarian – someone to be there on a daily basis so the public can use its resources. It’s a “one man show”. People who have research libraries and valuable historical papers are not inclined to leave them to the Center because of uncertainty regarding its future.

Sharon Paice MacLeod

I would feel inspired and qualified to make contributions in two main areas: music, and traditional belief.

Through Gaelic song and early forms of traditional instrumental music, people can viscerally experience the beauty of the Gaelic language and that hard-to-qualify transcendent quality of music which enables people from other backgrounds to understand in a non-verbal way the culture, traditions, beliefs and dreams of another culture. Not everyone has the capacity to study and learn another language – but they can learn to appreciate it and respect it, and support those who do study and preserve the language and culture.

I think there is also great interest in Gaelic culture – worldview and way of life – and also traditional beliefs and practices. This comes from many large interest groups in the U.S., from alternative healing and herbal medicine, to appreciation of indigenous cultures, to ecological imperatives, and the desire for authentic and sustainable ways of life. It is imperative to separate authentic Gaelic culture from the vast New-Age and NeoPagan maelstrom which can sometimes co-opt aspects of it, or more often, to simply ‘speak for it’ (usually with beliefs or practices taken from other cultures). This is not only disrespectful, but unacceptable.

A formal Scottish Gaelic department is crucial in the United States, as well as an official cultural body whose task it is not only to oversee projects and initiatives, but to reach out to people around the country – both of Scottish ancestry and other cultural backgrounds – to develop educational, cultural and artistic programs, and share both the beauty of – and the struggles inherent in – reviving, restoring, reclaiming and transmitting this unique and valuable cultural tradition.

Not only would it give ‘status’ to the language and culture, it would provide a respected and recognized way for students to learn and engage in this culture and its history and contributions. Partnered with the organization, it can bring small, scattered and disparate groups of learners, enthusiasts, and potential learners, teachers and future tradition bearers into contact with other. Having a central authoritative body staffed by those from within the culture and those who are recognized experts in the culture will bring Scottish Gaelic culture into view and up onto the stage with other cultural traditions that are already acknowledge and supported in the U.S.

Another benefit would be bringing an awareness of those already deeply involved in the culture – whether individuals or communities – into contact with each other, and into contact with those who are interested in learning or experiencing the culture and language on a deeper level. Uniting these scattered and often ‘invisible’ or ‘silent’ resources and tradition bearers would be enormous. Status / Recognition, Defining the Culture and its Relevance, Shining a Light on the Resonant Aspects of the Culture, and Fostering Connection – these are key.

Caroline Root

I’ve been wanting to put together a guide book on north american animals in Gaelic. I think we could also use more games and toys not only for the younger learners but also they would be a fun way for adult learners to practice their Gaelic.

Scottish-American Pride: Only Skin Deep?

One of the “celebrities” in the virtual Scottish-American Hall of Fame is Andrew Carnegie, an immigrant who made millions (mostly by exploiting other immigrants). He did establish important philanthropic charities that continue to do good work to this day. Carnegie Mellon University carries his name as well as that of Andrew Mellon, the son of a Scotch-Irish immigrant and another common darling of the Scottish-American crowd.

If Scottish-American heritage and history is to be something other than a tartan charade, it needs to be taken seriously in the halls of academia and be developed formally, and subjected to the same scrutiny as that of other peoples. Look, for example, at the Chair of Lithuanian Studies at the University of Illinois or the Chair in Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University.

One might expect, or at least hope, that a place such as Carnegie Mellon that likes to play up its Scottish roots with the iconography of the thistle and a bagpipe band might recognize the untapped potential of the field of Scottish Studies, or at least be sympathetic to its relevance in looking at North American history. Back in 2004, when I was looking desperately for some kind of academic patronage, I wrote the Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences and found a strangely negative and dismissive attitude that I have seen repeated in many other places. Here’s the proof, in this letter.


Allow me to rephrase his comments: “Yes, we’re happy to play up the tartanism for fun and team spirit, but we can’t really take this stuff seriously.”

As I’ve said in a large number of articles and books now (such as this one), unless this immigrant legacy can be more fully explored, recovered, examined and celebrated by those equipped to do so seriously, it will only be a tartan charade easily co-opted by right-wing conservatives and faux clan chieftains parading around in silly costumes.

This will mean doing more than leading alumni and assorted students on summer holidays to Scotland, or offering a “Scottish cinema” class in Film Studies. Scottish Studies (or Scottish Gaelic Studies more specifically, in the case of my research) is a multidisciplinary domain that requires more than the narrow focus of specialized silos of modern American academia to investigate and interpret the cultural expressions and productions of the past and present. It is the lack of commitment to this heritage in a serious way that has left the field fallow and Scottish-Americans uninformed about their own ancestral origins. Why can’t Scottish-Americans, who, as a group, do not lack resources or influence, do any better?

Producing meaningful research requires a huge investment in time and training to begin with, and significant on-going time to search through materials and produce analyses that are informed by relevant and rigorous methods. None of this can happen without the backing of a community who wants to see it happen and will support those ongoing efforts. Scottish Studies in North America has been largely left to armchair enthusiasts, which is perhaps one reason why few scholars from other disciplinary perspectives take it seriously.

From Highlanders to Tar-Heels: Part 2

The Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Community of the Cape Fear

(The following blog entry is a summary of a talk about the Scottish Gaelic immigrant community of the Cape Fear of the Carolinas during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, delivered as a public lecture at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, on April 6, 2015. For part one of this talk series, please see this blog entry.)

A Picture Speaks Louder…

Modern cliches and stereotypes have obscured the culture and historical legacy of the Scottish Gaelic immigrants of North Carolina, but this is not a new phenomenon. In fact, even a century ago the descendants of the original immigrants were busily remoulding their own image in order to present themselves as mainstream, Anglo-Saxons worthy of the racial dividends of whiteness.  And it is these processes, as much as other factors, that have served to make the story of Scottish Gaels in the Carolinas (and in fact, all of North America) virtually invisible in the present.

This is well illustrated by a picture of female students of the newly formed Flora McDonald College in approximately 1915. These young women were described as the “May Day Scotch Dancers” in this image (originally from this webpage):


Let’s parse this image, assuming that it is intended to give us some specific messages. The young women are arrayed in tartan skirts, their arms in the pose of Highland dancers. Clearly they are meant to embody their Highland heritage. In the center of the image is a maypole, thus asserting the continuity of ancient traditions. Off to the right is an automobile, an innovative piece of technology asserting modernity. The message is thus that Scottish heritage lives strongly in the present.

There are serious problems with accepting this symbolism at face value, however. Highland dancing does not have an ancient lineage: it is primarily a nineteenth-century genre that was imported from Scotland to North America (i.e., this was not a tradition brought by immigrants and practiced continuously to the day when this picture was taken). Furthermore, women only began to be allowed to perform and compete in public Highland dance competitions around the turn of the century. The costume worn by the women also represents a recent import of symbolic ethnicity from Scotland (the sash in particular was a late addition).

Most troubling, however, is the maypole. There is absolutely no evidence any use of the maypole in the calendar customs  of Scottish Gaeldom (or of any of the insular Celts, for that matter). The maypole was, instead, a Germanic ritual symbol: or at least, this is what the late nineteenth-century folklore revivalists believed. The reason why the descendants of Scottish Gaels were adopted the elements of Germanic symbolic ethnicity in the early twentieth century will become clearer.

A Socio-Linguistic Profile of Cape Fear Gaeldom

The biography of a Baptist minister from the Highlands who arrived in 1807 attests to the strength of the Gaelic language at the beginning of the nineteenth century:

…preaching and singing in the Gaelic language was indispensable for many years in the churches throughout the Scotch region. Many of the old Highlanders could scarcely speak a word in the English language, and could not at all follow a regular discourse in it.

In another account from 1829, the town of Fayetteville was said to be such a strong bastion of Gaelic speech that even public servants needed to be able to speak the language (and presumably read and write it):

The number of these Highlanders and their descendants, who still retain almost exclusively their native language, is so considerable, that a clerk who understands Gaelic, forms a necessary part of the Post-office establishment.

There were clear signs of the decline of Gaelic by 1846, however, and the growing dominance of English:

The influence of this language has been great upon the Scotch settlements in Carolina. There have been some disadvantages attending it, and the language is fast passing away. But for a long time it was a bond of union, and a preservation of those feelings and principles peculiar to the Scotch … change has been so gradual in putting off the Gaelic, and adopting the English, that the people of Cumberland have suffered as little, from a change of their language, as any people that have ever undergone that unwelcome process.

This quote suggests that the transition was gradual from generation to generation. By this time, of course, Gaels had been settling in the Cape Fear for over a century. Still, the author remarks on the power of language to embody and facilitate social cohesion and to transmit cultural values.

An immigrant language (or a language threatened by the growing dominance of another) needs to have a domain in which it has a special value or function, and in many communities religion provided such a haven and purpose. Although growing numbers of the younger generations born in America came to speak English, the older generation remained more comfortable in Gaelic for a considerable time. Ministers attempted to cater to both audiences by providing two services each Sunday, one in Gaelic and the other in English.

Religion, likewise, provided the main if not only impulse for producing written literature among the Gaels of the Cape Fear (although, as I showed in the previous blog, there was obviously a prolific strain of oral literature being actively produced). A writer for a local newspaper noted some of the literary products of the Gaelic community, some of them apparently printed in North Carolina itself:

But they had also in their possession small books, written by Godly pious men, as follows: Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress; translated into Gaelic, sermons several small books, containing spiritual songs. One of those small books, written and published by Padruig Grannd, in Scotland, and reprinted in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, by William Hunter in 1826, now lies before the writer. It is a book of only 77 pages, and has eighteen spiritual songs … The Bible, the Psalms of David, sacred hymns and spiritual songs, sermons, Pilgrim’s Progress, all of them in their Gaelic language. The emigrants, or many of them, had all these in their possession. (The Robesonian October 8, 1925)

Religious services can be powerful emotional experiences both because of the spiritual content and because of the associations with family and community. When Rev. John C Sinclair extended his services in 1860 to a nearby community that had not had a Gaelics-speaking minister for a decade, people were visibly moved:

The Gaelic language is spoken in its purity by many in these counties, and in both my churches I preach it every Sabbath. On last Sabbath I assisted at the dispensation of the Lord’s Supper in a congregation 40 miles distance from my home; and preached and served a table at which upward of 150 had taken their seats, who have not heard a sermon in the language of their childhood for the last ten years. Many a tear was shed during the service, many a warm shake of hand, such as a Highlander can give, was given and many a blessing was bestowed upon your correspondent at parting with the warm-hearted people. The Rev. Colin MacIver, a native of Stornoway, Lewis, was the last preacher who could preach in Gaelic till I came to the state two years ago. He died in this town in 1850, much respected and regretted by his countrymen in North Carolina. (Weekly Raleigh Register October 24, 1860)

Still, the evidence is that already by the time of the American Civil War, Gaelic was increasingly marginalized and English the dominant language among the younger generation. A Scottish visitor to the Cape Fear in 1868, the Rev. David Macrae, noted:

Gaelic has almost entirely died out in the settlement. For some time it was the common language. The early settlers taught it even to their negro slaves; but English seems now universal. I met with very few who could either read or speak the Gaelic: thought many had been more or less familiar with it in childhood. One lady gave me a very old Gaelic psalm-book which she had often heard her mother read aloud in the old sing-song fashion by the fireside. … I was told that in some parts of the settlement which I had not the opportunity of visiting, Gaelic is still understood, and cherished by a few enthusiastic Highlanders with a romantic attachment.

In 1872, Rev. John C. Sinclair, in very a dispirited tone, notes that by that time Gaelic no longer enjoyed the support of religious institutions and that the loss of the language brought in its wake a loss of cultural traits and practices:

The old race is gone and their descendants have given up, in a great degree, the customs and manners of the old Gaels. The ancient Celtic language is nearly dead, except with the few families who arrived within the last thirty years. … There is no Gaelic preached in the Carolinas now, and not likely to be in the future.

Still, languages sometimes linger among communities, families and individuals after they appear to be dead elsewhere. A report in a North Carolina newspaper in 1901 appears to describe the surprising survival of Gaelic in at least one locale:

There is a section of Harnett county, distant about twenty miles north of Fayetteville, where the Gaelic language is as commonly spoken as English. The negroes in that section speak Gaelic as well as the white people. It is to be regretted that a language as comprehensive as the Gaelic should die out. A sermon preached in this language can be understood by the most ignorant and unlettered person who is familiar with the Gaelic speech.  … In my younger days, family worship was conducted in Gaelic. Gaelic Bibles and confessions of faith were used and on Sundays two sermons were preached, the first generally in English and the second in Gaelic. In my younger days, heard was at Galatia church in Cumberland county in 1860, when the Scottish assembled from far and near, “from over the hills and far away,” to hear a sermon in their native tongue. There are more places than the one mentioned in Harnett where the Gaelic is spoken. Within three years past I have seen young children at play in western Cumberland addressing each other in the language of their ancestors.  (The Semi-Weekly Messenger [of Wilmington], August 13, 1901)

Another newspaper printed a similar portrayal of the persistence of Gaelic a week later:

If a Scotch Highlander were to visit a certain section of Harnett county he would be tempted to believe that he was still in his own country. The Gaelic language is spoken by the people of the section in question almost as much as the English. It is said that when the Cape Fear section was first settled by the Scotch the English language was seldom heard. Parents in this particular section taught it to their children, consequently it is still in use. Even the negroes speak it. (Statesville Record & Landmark August 20, 1901)

Older people reminiscing about their younger days frequently mention the ubiquity of the Gaelic language and Highland traits. Take, for example, these comments from Lumberton in 1903: “The Colonel always spoke of the remarkable hospitality of the people in those days, and that the Gaelic was almost universally the spoken language. All salutations to an arriving guest were in Gaelic …” (The Robesonian [of Lumberton] July 31, 1903)

In all of these accounts, the language is noted as a social bond and badge of cultural identity, and its import in transcending racial boundaries is commonly remarked upon. Regardless, by the second decade of the twentieth century, many local comments seem to declare the language essentially dead. For example, a local of Maxton describes a visit in 1911 from an old friend and their reflections of days of old:

Mr. Chisholm and family spent a day with us recently. I asked him if he recollected his grandmother, who was a native of Scotland (and one of the “blessed Macs”). He told me he did not, then I gave him my impressions of her, as my early recollection recalled her … She spoke her native Gaelic tongue and could use the English only brokenly, which made it interesting to me. I am sorry that the Gaelic language has become extinct in these parts, but I know of no one at all now … (The Robesonian [Lumberton] February 16, 1911)

As far as I have been able to ascertain, the last fluent speaker of Gaelic was probably a Mr. Prevatt of Lumberton who died in 1931: “The elder Mr. Prevatt spoke the Gaelic language and read in Gaelic, and his old Gaelic Bible is still in the possession of his grandson here.” (The Robesonian June 29, 1931)

What is immediately notable about this is that “Prevatt” is not a Highland name: it was clearly the case that the language was strong enough in the community to integrate non-Gaels and facilitate their learning the language and culture (most likely through maternal bonds). It should be noted, however, that as late as the 1980s, fragments of Gaelic were recorded from Malcolm and Lauchlin Shaw of Harnett County, even though they had imperfect knowledge of what they meant. (See discussion in MacDonald, “Cultural Retention.”)

The documentary sources sometimes offer occasional glimpses of the social pressures that worked against Gaelic and the linguistic transitions from Gaelic to English. In an historical account about late nineteenth-century Fayetteville, for example, it was noted:

The language was sometimes understood by individuals who never spoke it. One Sand Hills lady would occasionally have a caller spend a day in conversation during which the visitor would never speak an English word – and the hostess never speak a word in Gaelic!

This seems to describe one person who was an active Gaelic speaker with a passive knowledge of English who could converse with an active English speaker with a passive knowledge of Gaelic. As time went on, however, knowledge of Gaelic became more rare, but those who valued their ancestral heritage mourned the loss of it. When Lachlan Campbell of Barbecue Creek appeared to be nearing the end of his life (apparently in the later nineteenth century), his friend Gilbert Shaw of Flat Branch came to keep him company.

Gaelic accents, coupled with the use of certain spirits offered in hospitality to fortify him against the effects of a long, cold drive, inspired Mr. Shaw to begin singing old hymns in Gaelic for the edification and entertainment of his invalid friend. Meanwhile, Dr. McCormick arrived … “Mr. Shaw, you come now and spend the night with me. …” [said the doctor.]  “No, I’ll have to stay here and visit Cousin Lachlan,” he said, his voice breaking, “It will not be long before there’ll be nobody left to sing the old songs in Gaelic.”

Keeping the songs going was tantamount to asserting the survival not only of these people but of their culture and their identity. Formal institutions pressed the de facto privilege of English and interfacing with governments and representatives of the law almost invariably required a knowledge of English. In 1813, for example, Alexander MacMillian wrote to University of North Carolina Board of Trustees concerned that his fellow Scots could lose their property because they had not taken oath of naturalization (see Gibson, Scotland County, 42).

Educational institutions automatically reinforced the primacy of English and even before they left Scotland most Gaelic speakers had taught to defer to the superior status of anglophones in formal domains. A group of Cape Fear Gaels went out to Wayne County, Mississippi, in the early nineteenth century, and apparently the school that they established was run by Gaelic speakings and initially catered for the language:

The first school was established about 1812. The Gaelic language was spoken exclusive among the settlers, and was also taught in their school. This language remained the vernacular until the early [18]20’s, when other settlers arrived, some of whose children knew English alone. For the sake of the English speaking children the teacher then forbade the further use of Gaelic in the school room. Having been discarded in the school, the Gaelic language soon fell into disuse except to a limited extent among the older people. …

Similar pressures were said to have a negative impact on the last strongholds of Gaelic in North Carolina, as an account from Poe’s Bottom relates: “According to my grandmother, the family spoke Gaelic in public and at home until the State of North Carolina decided in 1906 that only English would be taught in public schools. She was a Highlander from Cumberland County.”

Racialism and Identity

The legacy of slavery meant that power and privilege in North America were largely defined in racial terms. To access this privilege Gaels not only needed to assimilate linguistically, they needed to place themselves within the bounds of whiteness and emphasize their racial credentials. Notions of the Manifest Destiny of the Anglo-Saxons dominated the nineteenth-century United States (as they other regions of British influence) and anti-Celtic sentiment was commonplace. Take, for example, the 1898 manifesto of People’s Party of North Carolina: “Neither this State nor any other State will ever be governed and controlled by any but the Anglo-Saxon race as long as that race shall dwell in it.”

The late nineteenth-century saw more political unrest in Ireland as continued resistence to British rule took new forms. Anti-Irish prejudice spread easily to anglophone settlements in North America and some people went so far as assert that people of Celtic (or Irish) racial descent were as unable to govern themselves (politically, socially, or emotionally) as people of African origin, as did William Thomas in his 1901 The American Negro:

What are the negro’s qualifications for such leadership as a movement of this sort implies? It is an observed fact that negro and Celtic leadership is susceptible to the weakness of ungovernable desire; that both acknowledge but slight amenability to wholesome restraint; and that, in the case of each, inconsiderate zeal has wrought irreparable injury to the race which it represents. (See further discussion in Newton, “Celticity in the Old South.”)

Like so many other aspects of life, the ability to govern was defined in racial terms. In order to bolster their qualifications for empowerment in public life, Carolinians of Scottish descent highlighted their supposed racial affinity to Anglo-Saxons. Race is, after all, not a biological reality but a social construct that can be manipulated to further the agendas of specific groups. It is no surprise, then, that in 1928 Angus McLean (a descendent of the Cape Fear Gaels), then Governor of North Carolina, unveiled a monument to the Scottish Gaelic colonists of the Cape Fear, describing them as “a branch of the great Anglo-Saxon family.”

This, then, helps explain why folkloric elements from Germanic cultures are evident in the photograph at the beginning of this essay which are supposed to depict Highland identity.

At the same time, of course, a popular set of symbols had been developed and packaged in Scotland to represent the ancient past, symbols rooted in the antiquities of the Highlands but co-opted to serve the purposes of providing a colourful and distinctive set of markers to all regions of Scotland: Highlandism. It is perhaps ironic that these symbols gained greater purpose and emotive expression as cultural practices and content – such as language – faded due to the assimilative pressures of anglophone society in both Britain and North America.


These influences were certainly present in the Carolinas, and in Cape Fear itself. One such example is the town now known as “Ivanhoe.” Originally named “Corbett’s Ferry,” the popularity of Walter Scott was such that the town was renamed in 1890 from the title of his novel Ivanhoe.

The growing divergence between the romantic nostalgia bathed in Highlandism and the reality of the anglophone assimilation of the Cape Fear community is well illustrated by the failed attempt to settle Highlanders in 1884. At the time, the North Carolina Department of Agrilcuture was trying to reinvigorate the flagging agrarian economy in the state, having relied over much on slave labour. Some lingering connections to Scotland remained in the Cape Fear, not least through religious institutions, and an immigrant scheme was concocted to bring in poor Highland crofters to fill these vacancies in these parts of the Carolinas. This not only served the purposes of Highland landlords who were keen about ridding themselves of “excess” population, some organizers of the scheme (particularly Miss Margaret MacLeod from Dundee) saw an opportunity to profit themselves in the process.

One of many advertisements (and copies of advertisements) promoting the scheme can be seen here, printed in a September 1883 issue of the Scottish American Journal (published in New York). McEachern has a very essentialist view of Scottishness, expecting that “racial traits” will make Highland immigrants not only prosperous but compatible with the pre-existing population of the settlement.


Such expectations were not met, however. In the only scholarly investigation of this episode, William Caudill writes:

Within a few months, the majority of the emigrant Scots had left the old Highland settlement of the Upper Cape Fear region in dissatisfaction. … Much of the ‘authentic’ Highland identity which the Scottish-American leaders in North Carolina may have believed themselves to possess, and may have hoped to re- invigorate in their communities through a new influx of Highland emigrants, had been eroded by the passage of time and inevitable cultural assimilation.  … The failure of this effort also demonstrated that the Scottish-Americans of North Carolina’s old Highland Settlement had indeed become assimilated as Americans.

The memory of Scottish origins lingered well after generations of descendants born in the Carolinas lost touch with the language and culture of their ancestors, of course, and some have attempted to maintain connections between Scottish immigrant communities all over North America. In 1914 the annual assembly of the Scottish Society of America convened in Fayetteville, and its president, Dr James A. Macdonald (editor of the Toronto Globe) delivered an address which drew on the rhetoric of racialism to outline the supposed characteristics of Scottishness. He deliberately blurred the lines between the the anglophone and Gaelophone divisions in Scottish life and culture, and attempted to elevate them all by riding the coat-tails of Anglo-Saxon imperialism:

… the ties that bind the United States and Canada are not merely the threads of common blood that run through our population. There are also the stronger ties of a common civilization, a common history and a common international interest.

In all that is most distinctive and most dominating in our life these two countries are one civilization. … these two English-speaking nations, in the great institutions of their life have been moulded and inspired by what may be called the Anglo-Saxon impulse. It is often more Celtic than Saxon, and in these Southern States represented by this Scottish Society, the Anglo-Celtic type has been preserved purer and freer from taint, either in blood or life, than can be found outside of Canada elsewhere in all the American Hemisphere.

Why did the Scottish Society of America choose to meet in Fayetteville that year? The society was lending its support to fund-raising efforts aiming to endow and create Flora MacDonald College, as the conclusion of his talk shows below. The college was in fact opened in 1915; some of the early students are probably featured in the photograph shown at the beginning of this blog.


Shortly thereafter, a Gaelic activist in Scotland (Ms. Juliet MacDonald of Culabhaile, Lochaber), wrote to the North Carolina branch of the Scottish Society of America, imploring them to go beyond Highland tokenism in the college’s makeup:

May I suggest that, to be worthy of its name, the language of the heroine – the Gaelic – should have a part in the curriculum? There can be no feeling of nationality without language and this is the day of the revival of the tongues of smaller nations. Why not begin with our beautiful Celtic music in Gaelic songs and I have no doubt teachers are plentiful with you.

Ms. MacDonald was precocious in her call for linguistic revitalization, especially in the context of marginalized communities, but she was overly optimistic about available Gaelic skills amongst teachers.

Probably the only academic in a North Carolina university who ever showed any interest in Scottish Gaelic was Professor Urban Holmes, Jr., who was Kenan Professor of Romance Philology at the University of North Carolina from 1925 to 1966. He taught himself the language well enough to write a short Gaelic essay in 1953 about the history of Scottish Gaelic in North Carolina. He remarked enthusiastically:

Gaelic songs are so compelling they cannot be forgotten… ‘Highland Call’ written by Paul Green was put on at the theatre in Fayetteville during the winter. …a number of the females at Flora McDonald college in Red Springs who take an interest in Highland matters danced at the festival. … But alas! the Gaelic language made no appearance. We hope that it won’t be long before there is evidence in Fayetteville of the reading and writing of the language that is as ancient as Ossian. (The original essay is reprinted in Kelly and Kelly, Carolina Scots; this is my translation)

Thus, Holmes himself comments on the beauty of the language and its music, but was disappointed with the insufficient will of the descendents of the Cape Fear immigrants to make a concerted effort to go beyond the tokenism of Highlandism and tartanism. Despite the support offered for the study and development of dozens of other languages and ethnic identities at the region’s universities, this, unfortunately, remains the state of Scottish Gaelic to the present in the Carolinas.


Scottish Gaels were a precocious exemplar of a marginalized European minority who were able to acquire the racially-bounded privileges of whiteness in North America by conforming to the standards and norms of anglophones. Forms of symbolic ethnicity (tartanism and Highlandism) offered compensations and sublimations for the loss of their ancestral Gaelic language and its associated traditions.

These issues have been inadequately researched and articulated due to the lack of Gaelic Studies as a scholarly endeavour in North American academia. While popular forms of Scottish identity are celebrated in the Carolinas and elsewhere (particularly Highland Games), they too indulge heavily in symbolic ethnicity and have little to do with the culture of the original Highland immigrants but are extensions of Highlandism imported in the nineteenth century.

NOTE: In my talk, I also spoke about people of African ancestry who spoke Gaelic and engaged in Gaelic music, and the importance of such figures in Gaelic folklore. I will cover that topic in a future blog post.


Caudill, William. “Gone to Seek a Fortune in North Carolina: The Failed Scottish Highland Emigration of 1884.” Dissertation for Master of Arts in Folklore, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2009.

Dunn, Charles. Highland Settler: A Portrait of the Scottish Gael in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia. Cape Breton Island: Breton Books, reprint 1991 [1968].

Foote, William. Sketches of North Carolina. 1846.

Gibson, Joyce. Scotland County Emerging, 1750-1900. N.p., 1995.

Kelly, Douglas and Caroline Kelly. Carolina Scots. Dillon, S.C: 1998.

MacDonald, James. “Cultural Retention and Adaptation Among the Highland Scots of Carolina.” Dissertation for PhD in Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, 1992.

Meyer, Duane. The Highland Scots of North Carolina, 1732-1776, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1961 [1957].

Mills, Kaththea. “Stories from Poe’s Bottom.” Argyll Colony Plus 16.1 (2002): 46-48.

Newton, Michael. We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of the Scottish Highlanders in the United States. Richmond: Saorsa Media, 2001.

— “In Their Own Words: Gaelic Literature in North Carolina.” Scotia 25 (2001), 1-28.

— “Celticity in the Old South.” CrossRoads: A Journal of Southern Culture (2006): 137-49.

— “Gaelic Literature and the Diaspora.” In Susan Manning, et. al (ed.), The Edinburgh History of Scottish Literature, vol. 2, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (2007), 353-9.

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

– “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011.

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

Oates, John. The Story of Fayetteville and the Upper Cape Fear. 3rd ed. Fayetteville Women’s Club, 1981.

Wilkins, Jesse M. “Early Times in Wayne County.” The Mississippi Historical Society 6 (1902).