The “Great Highland” bagpipe is now an iconic symbol of Scottishness in Scotland and abroad, but inadequate attention has been paid to how Highlanders themselves perceived, described and discussed their musical traditions and instruments amongst themselves. The following poem is, as far as I know, the earliest surviving commentary in Gaelic – thus composed by Gaels about their own tradition, for “internal” discussion, as it were – about the bagpipe and its role in Gaelic tradition that survives from the North American diaspora.
I transcribed the text several years ago from the newspaper The Casket and Barry Shears recently asked me to provide a usable edition and translation for a new book project on which he is currently working. It is an interesting poem that provides us with important insight not just about the bagpipes but about self-perceptions at this very transitional point in time, as the Gaelic community was re-establishing itself in a new geographical and socio-political context.
Notes and Analysis
The text is essentially a panegyric – the dominant rhetorical mode of Gaelic poetry – to the bagpipe in which the instrument is addressed directly and, to a degree, personified. This is not an uncommon literary convention, but there are not many other Gaelic poems that work quite in the same way (Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s “Moladh Mòraig” is another). The poet’s social role as panegyrist and a warning to the subject of praise to maintain standards is particularly explicit in lines 79-81. The sound of the bagpipe is compared to a frightening shriek (lines 17, 38 and 54), although it is also (as in many other Gaelic sources) compared to the sound of a bird (line 15) and a Gaelic choral song (line 31).
The poet alludes to the human bagpiper but he remains un-nnamed, a secondary figure in comparison to the instrument itself. I am unsure of the identity of this bagpiper, although Barry may know who is intended. Regardless, the agility of his fingers and hands is noted by the poet (lines 10 and 74).
Also central to the piece is the militaristic role of the instrument and the musical tradition. It is absolutely crucial to take into account the Gaelic community’s desperate and servile need for external validation via military employment (as I have discussed at length in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 68-120, 507-14). Highlanders were experiencing severe social trauma and physical dislocation at this time and attempting to push against the dominant anglocentric narrative of the inferiority and deficiency of Gaelic culture and society. Militarism provided a means for Highlanders to assert their value to an empire expanding through the use of force and violence, imagery which is striking in this text (lines 19-48).
As has been noted by previous scholars, conflict against the French (see lines 31-45) was instrumental in cementing a sense of Britishness in this period, and warfare between the two empires extended into battles in North America. The poet shares a marked note of self-congratulary reassurance that the people of England grew to appreciate Highlanders’ martial skills (lines 55-57). There is only a muted reference to the Jacobite Cause (lines 58-60).
It should be noted that the original text contained a number of errors and irregular spellings, so some emendations have been necessary. I am relatively certain about the text as it now stands in this edition.
Edition and Translation
Rann do’n phìob mhóir Ghàidhealaich a rinneadh ’s a’ bhliadhna 1816 le neach àraid air dha a bhràthair (a thàinig ’s an àm sin da’n dùthaich seo mach á Albainn) a chluinntinn a’ cluich ro thaitneach air a’ phìob, thuirt e na focail seo a leanas.
1 A chorr-fheadanach,
Nan dos mór-fhuaim:
Thig ceòl leadarra
5 Gun obadh,
Ás do sgòrnan.
’S e dian ruith-leumach,
Gun bhith sgòdach,
10 Le meur mhìn-bhuilleach,
Nan cliath bhinn-fhuaimneach,
Gun dìth eòlais,
Lìonte, sgoinneil thu,
’S fhiach do cheileireadh,
15 ’S gach big chomhnard;
Bu mhiann loinneil leinn,
Do sgiamh eireachdail,
’Thighinn ’nar comhdhail.
’S neo-ghann spiorad bhuat,
20 An àm tionalaidh
Do dh’fhir òga;
Cha teann giorag riuth’,
Ach sannt mire-chath
An strìth comhraig.
25 Gach pong chuireadach,
Toirt fonn iomairt dhoibh
Le sunnd mòrail,
Gach sonn bunailteach,
Bu throm buillean bhuath’
30 An camp fòirneirt.
Nuair chluinnte luinneag bhuat,
Ged b’ aingidh Bonapart,
Rinn fann-bhuilleach e;
’S a mheall a phròis air,
35 Tighinn teann bu duilich leis
Air rang do chomhlain.
Rinn’ call fuileach air,
Le’n ceannsgal ’s t’ iollagaich,
A ghléidh buaidh-làraich,
40 Air Frangaich ghuineadach,
Nach mall air gunnaireachd,
A threut gu bàs i.
Fhuair cliù mar thoilleadh iad,
Bho Dhiùc Wellington,
45 Le’n sgoinn ’s an àraich:
Fuil dhlùth ’g imeachd leò,
’S lùbadh mhuineachan,
Air ruinn na stàilinn.
50 Toirt dùsgadh caithreamach
Do shuinn shàr-bheum;
Le sùrd casgairt orr’,
Smùid ’s spealtaireachd,
Chluinnte an rànail.
55 Bu lìonor batail leò,
’S miadhail Sasann orra
Gu gnìomh gàbhaidh;
Nam b’ fhiach acainean
Gach triath air gaisgichean,
60 Cha strìochdadh Teàrlach.
Tha t’ fhuaim neo-airtnealach,
Bheir cruadal sgairtealach,
Do dhùthchas Ghàidheal;
Deagh bhuaidh a thachairt riuth’
65 Bheir nuallan taitneach ort:
’S ann diubh mo bhràthair.
Gach coigreach ’chlisgidh tu,
Gun chorr fiosraich ort,
Na eòlas nàduir,
70 An comhraig sgrios-bhuilleach,
Bheir leòn dha, misneach ann
Do cheòl, toirt tàth ast’.
Tha uaislean measail
Air do chuairtean clis-mheurach
75 A cluichear làn-mhath
Le fuaim dheas-làmhach,
Bheir buaidh theas-ghràdhach,
A chluinntear àghmhor.
Thuirt mi ’n urrad ud,
80 Toirt cliù ’s urram dhuit:
’S cùm gun tàir e;
’S a’ phuing, chan urra’ mi,
Chionn sin, sguiridh mi,
’S gum bu slàn leat.
A poem to the Great Highland bagpipe that was composed in the year 1816 by a particular person after he heard his brother (who had immigrated at that time to this country from Scotland) playing very melodiously on the bagpipe: he uttered these following words.
1-6: O pointy chantered-one, (who is) long beaked, and has drones that make great sound: melodious music comes abundantly out of your throat.
7-12: It is vigorous, quick-leaping, truly animated, without any deficiency; with a precisely striking finger of a melodious run of notes, with no lack of skill.
13-18: You are perfected and efficacious, every smooth chirp is worthy of celebration; we sincerely wish for your elegant shriek to meet up with us.
19-24: You do not lack spirit when it is time to gather up the young men; dread will not visit them, but rather a lust for fighting in the strife of combat.
25-30: Every enticing (musical) note provides an impetus to them with majestic energy; every steadfast warrior pounds out heavy blows in the war camp.
31-36: Even though Bonapart is bellicose, he would become faint-hearted when he would hear a song from you; his arrogance failed him, he was sorry to come close to a column of the battalion.
37-42: Their power and your shriek, that won the battle, caused him a bloody loss, and a loss to the fierce French; swift in their use of guns, continuing until they died (?).
43-48: They received the honour they were due from the Duke of Wellington from their efficacy in the battle-field: shedding copious amounts of (enemy) blood and breaking necks on the points of steel-blades.
49-54: A booming “crowning movement” [section of pìobaireachd] giving a triumphant awakening to hard-pummeling heroes; with the excitement of combat in them, gunpowder-smoke and melee, the roar (of the pipe) could be heard.
55-60: They fought many battles and England esteemed them for dangerous deeds; if the concerns of all chieftains for warriors had been heeded, [Prince] Charles would not have lost.
61-66: Your high-spirited sound gives fierce resilience to Gaelic heritage; it is good luck to encounter those who give a pleasant report of you: my brother is one of those (who do).
67-72: Every stranger, who knows nothing of you beyond the obvious, who you would startle in death-dealing combat that will wound him, there is inspiration in your music that weakens (the enemy’s) cohesion.
73-78: Nobles are fond of your quick-fingered cycles that are expertly played with fine-handed sound, that has a passionate effect, that is heard gloriously.
79-84: What I have just said gives you praise and honour: do not bring it reproach; I cannot add to that, and so I will stop; farewell to you.
Thanks to Hugh Cheape for suggesting an emendation on the Gaelic text and feedback about it.
People have an instinctive need to make sense of the experience of their forbearers and community, and to understand what that might reveal about themselves and their destiny in a larger historical and social framework. Is there an emergent pattern that explains the trials, triumphs and tendencies of our predecessors that might also provide guidance for our present and future dilemmas? Can it inspire us to realize the potentials that we contain and the means of achieving them? Our need for explanatory narratives is natural and universal, but different kinds of aspirations, ideals and explanatory mechanisms prevail at differing times and in various circumstances. It is perhaps unsurprising that in an era of the ubiquity of the internet and a reassertion of biological determinism, many people are constructing social meaning by reading it into genetic codes, genealogy, and Google search engine results.
The triumph of Donald Trump in the 2016 US presidential election sent shock waves amongst progressives of all stripes within the country and abroad. Trump resorted to forms of prejudice and scapegoating that have emboldened a resurgence of bigotry, racism, and misogyny. Some of the most vocal supporters of Trump have been white supremacists eager to see the end of Obama’s appointment and the return of a white figurehead in charge of national politics. Although masquerading under the moniker “alt-right” in public media, many of them are motivated by racial animus, even to the point of identifying with Nazi ideology and symbolism. They describes themselves as having a “psychic connection” with Trump, who entered the political arena by claiming that Obama was born in Kenya and wasn’t an American citizen.
For some self-declared white nationalists, race and identity are the paramount factors for individual and communal destiny. Richard B. Spencer, a leading ideologue of the “alt-right movement, told National Public Radio after the election:
What I would ultimately want is this ideal of a safe space effectively for Europeans. This is a big empire that would accept all Europeans. It would be a place for Germans. It would be a place for Slavs. It would be a place for Celts. It would be a place for white Americans and so on. 
It is troubling that the rhetoric of white supremacy and Nazism is being reiterated verbatim on the public stage. In a convention in Washington D.C. on November 19, Spenser said that America belonged to white people, the supposed “children of the sun,” a race of conquerors and creators who had been marginalized but now, in the era of President-elect Donald J. Trump, were “awakening to their own identity.” 
Obama’s presidency had the paradoxical effect of reasserting racist strains of American culture that many of us assumed were obsolete or would soon be. In July, a Republican congressman from Iowa, Steve King, remarked that “white people” had done more for civilization than any other “subgroup.” When given a chance to clarify his comments, he further claimed:
What I really said was ‘Western civilization’ and when you describe Western civilization, that can mean much of Western civilization happens to be Caucasians. But we should not apologize for our culture or our civilization. … The contributions that were made by Western civilization itself, and by Americans, by Americans of all races, stand far above the rest of the world. The Western civilization and the American civilization are a superior culture.
Whatever other motivations and elements have gone into the toxic cauldron that makes up white nationalism and the “alt-right,” it is strongly reactionary. Proponents rail against the strictures of political correctness, reveling in Trump’s machismo, spontaneous outbursts of self-righteous anger, and professed disdain for élitism and plurality. Like their role model, their own self-interests trump any pretense of a moral compass conditioned by consideration for the greater good.
It would be a glib exercise to find further fault with this “basket of deplorables.” Instead, I’d like to point out that in at least some respects the alt-right is a backlash against the far Left, that both are trapped in a gridlock battle over absolutist authority, and both can engage in self-deceiving forms of presentism. The concept of “safe spaces,” for example, was advocated by the Left and has been appropriated, with a vengeance, by spokespeople of the Right such as Spenser.
Much if not most of this oppositional dialectic is centred on the ideology and rhetoric of race. Concurrent with the social struggle for Civil Rights, humanities scholars in the American academy turned increasingly on the country’s history of oppression and privilege, and found the lived experience of racialized citizens of the Republic far short of its ideals of equality and freedom. From an initial emphasis on race-based slavery and the dispossession and genocide of native peoples, the critical lens of domination and marginalization has widened to encompass gender and sexual orientation. Humanities scholars in the U.S. almost by definition are expected to champion the rights and legitimacy of groups other than the straight, white patriarchy.
There is, of course, good reason for promoting peoples and cultural expressions other than those of dominant empires. Slavery is horrific and its legacy – in financial, structural and psychic terms – still persist in American society. Settler colonialism has taken a devastating toll on the lives and sovereignty of native peoples in the Americas and elsewhere. Likewise, there can be no denying that patriarchal and heteronormative practices and norms marginalize the lives and well-being of women and people whose identities do not align with institutional conventions. There is no doubt that scholars of the academy have played a crucial role in exposing historical injustices, advocating the extension of the ideal of liberty and celebrating exemplars of lives lived in such struggles. Those are, I think, praiseworthy achievements born of altruism.
But what is the purpose of higher education? What and who should it represent for whom, and how it can best function in a complex, pluralist world without creating new contradictions of its own? I find myself in the awkward position of critiquing the humanities in American academia but not wishing for it to be rendered vulnerable to the usual attacks in the process. I consider the role of the humanities in the academy as more important than the so-called STEM disciplines and I oppose the notion that higher education be subject to corporate objectives such as job training, innovation for industry, and the commodification of knowledge for the marketplace.
Far too often, however, I see an over-reaction and over-simplification of the history and multi-layered dynamics of oppression and exploitation: the guilt of educated white liberals can be easily turned into self-loathing and a repudiation of forms of identity and cultural expression that are associated in any way with “whiteness,” without rigorous attempts to understand or contextualize them. Interpreting social phenomena exclusively through the lenses of race, gender and sexual orientation can create blinders that impede forward vision and retrospective insight.
I could recount numerous anecdotes from my own experience, but lest you think that I’m exaggerating, an editorial from the UNC newspaper on November 21, 2016 offers one of many examples. Now, admittedly, this is commentary from undergraduate students, and it’s impossible to tell who is responsible for giving them such a problematic view of history, but this general sentiment seems widespread:
Let’s take history classes for example. Almost all of the important figures students learn about are men who come from Western Europe with maybe the exception of the ancient Greeks and Egyptians — who are still considered parts of the “western canon.” … White students learn about all the good, and a limited amount of the bad, that their ancestors did. Why is this not afforded to other groups?
It is all too common for both faculty and students to forget that whiteness is a social construct that took many generations to appear as stable and consistent as it does today; that “the western canon” and “Western Civilization” are recent and artificial constructs representing the élite of a select set of empires at particular times, not the cultural and intellectual background of all people of a geographical zone or skin tone; that anglophones in the early American colonies exercised the power to define “whiteness” in their own image, according to their own specific ethnic and linguistic norms, and that these differ from the heritage of many other Europeans; that study of history is not a catalogue of good and bad deeds. It is as if the far Left expects that European imperialism only started with explorers who crossed the ocean and encountered people who looked different from themselves.
The ahistorical, monolithic stereotypes of the far Left are based on contemporary racial categories that implicitly apportion blame and shame, on the one hand, and heroic struggle, on the other, according to skin color, polarizing people into extreme positions rather than facilitating their empathy with people of other racial categories or their flexibility to embrace hybrid and multiple identities. This issue is highlighted in a recent article:
Young white men, reacting to social and educational constructs that paint them as the embodiment of historical evil, are fertile ground for white supremacists. They are very aware of the dichotomy between non-white culture, which must be valued at all times (even in the midst of terror attacks), and white culture, which must be criticized and devalued. … many resent the pedagogical transformations that their history and culture are undergoing. White historical figures once held in too high esteem have swung the other way into utter disrepute. Also, the histories of no other peoples are being held to these lofty standards. … White people are being asked—or pushed—to take stock of their whiteness and identify with it more. This is a remarkably bad idea. The last thing our society needs is for white people to feel more tribal. 
My goal here is to explain, not excuse, these trends and while I don’t wish to underplay the dangers posed by white supremacists, I think that the “alt-right” should be read as a reactionary rejection of these extremes of the Left which pivot around racial categorization. Unfortunately, activity on both sides has tended to retrench racial blocs, not blur their boundaries or delegitimate their premises.
Some on the “alt-right” have opportunistically latched on to symbols associated with Celtic and/or Scottish heritage, especially since many Americans now categorized as “white” actually do have this in their ancestry. I must reiterate that whiteness in America is not inclusively pan-European in practice but has a specifically Anglo-Saxon-Protestant mythic core and set of norms. But I must also note that standard racialized classification overlooks the many people who have a mixture of non-European ancestry and Celtic heritage who have as much a right to claim and celebrate their Celticity as anyone else.
By any reasonable reading of history, literary, cultural and intellectual contributions, and demographic representation, Celtic Studies has been a truly neglected field in North America. I have argued that this is exactly because of the colonial biases of educational (and other) institutions that follow from the British imperial experience.
There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pride in one’s ancestors or heritage, and there is no means of preventing the exploitation of symbols which are effectively in the public domain. What we can do, however, is challenge the interpretation of history and emblems, and offer counter-narratives that can serve to impede the radicalization of white supremacists. What I find distressing about the situation in the U.S. is the simultaneous currency of certain elements of Celticity in popular culture – especially modern forms of music, dance and iconography – and the dearth of trained scholars who can engage meaningfully in the interpretation of Celtic culture and history, especially as they relate to the diasporic experience. The assimilation of the many Celtic-speaking communities that once thrived on the continent, and the disenfranchisement of those in Europe, makes it all the harder to ground expectations and conjectures in reality. White supremacists are thus able to project their fantasies into this void with little opposition from the academy. Some right-wing Celtophiles even express explicit resentment that their heritage is neglected while that of people of color is given reflexive deference and respect, as though this is an intentional tactic in a liberal conspiracy.
Texts and online content coming from Scottish sources are automatically perceived as carrying authenticity and weight, and people in Scotland engaging with public representation of Scottish heritage – whether as scholarship or heritage tourism – ought to feel a moral obligation to represent their work so as not to reinforce problematic assumptions about race and racial categories. In my own estimation, Scottish scholars have demonstrated widespread failure to understand the nature of identity politics in North America and how it intersects with their own topics.
I have been arguing for a long time now that Celtic languages and cultures are worthy of studying in their own right but also that they provide important insights into the ideologies and practices of the “Long History” of anglocentric British imperialism. The Anglo-British élite had already been asserting their own innate superiority over Celtic rivals for centuries before launching overseas ventures, and it is no surprise that the practice of ethnic Othering was transferred directly onto Native Americans in this refocus of activity.
Such continuities in the exercise of power highlights what makes British imperial history in North America different from that of the Spanish, French, Dutch and so on. They also indicate the glaring contradictions of modern Americans, such as congressman Steve King, quoted above, who claim that “Caucasians” made the most important contributions to so-called “Western Civilization”: not only were Celts initially excluded from the category of whiteness, but their political and cultural subjugation were justified exactly on the grounds that they were racially inferior and incapable of creating a viable civilization of their own.
Of course, it is exactly the malleability of racial categories that distinguishes the historical trajectory of Celtic peoples from those who are physically distinct. No two experiences of conquest and oppression are the same: they are bound to differ by numerous factors and circumstances, so it should never be safe to assume that terms and theoretical constructs like “imperialism,” “colonialism,” and “coloniality” represent exactly the same thing across different times, places and peoples. A better account of how Celtic communities were subjugated and co-opted into systems of domination and exploitation can provide a vital case study to supplement the predominant narrative of racialism, especially because the underlying social and political processes continue to play out in the exercise of power and privilege in contemporary America and beyond.
There is ample evidence from Celtic and Scottish Studies itself that can be used to contradict and refute many of the common assumptions and assertions made by white supremacists. I would summarize methods for its use as follows:
Take account of colonialism and coloniality in Celtic/Scottish history
Take account of whiteness in emigrant “success”
Discuss the consequences of co-option into empire
Focus on language and culture, not genes, blood or symbolic identity
Focus on communities, not essentialized individuals
Highlight non-“white” members of Celtic/Scottish communities
Examine the ideologies and practices of domination, not skin color
Highlight resistance to and critique of domination and exploitation
“Reality checks”: contact with traditional communities and cultural expressions
This is no small task. If Scottish scholars and writers are concerned about the revival of racism and serious about voicing disapproval of such movements, the standard narrative about Scotland, Scottish history and the diasporic experience in specific all need to be recrafted. Scottish entanglement in empire will need to be examined critically, and the lingering legacies of coloniality in Scottish life will need to be treated seriously. Celticity and Scottishness need to be distinguished and disassociated from whiteness so that racists cannot hide behind them.
At the same time, the struggle over the ownership and use of Scottish or Celtic heritage should not be a cause to trigger the self-loathing cringe, or to regurgitate the false idea that Celticity is a romantic and artificial fabrication for the gullible, or to claim that Celtic, Gaelic or Scottish cultures are throwbacks to primitive and irrational states of being that have been rendered redundant and are dangerously tainted by nationalism. These too are symptoms of a colonial hangover.
It has been asserted far too often in the past, implicitly or explicitly, that only anglophone cultures are modern and offer the sole mechanisms for progress, inclusivity and multiculturalism. These were always ethnocentric conceits and the widespread support of Trump and BREXIT by xenophobic anglophiles ought to lay them to rest. Scotland, Celtic-speaking communities, and all societies in general, have the potential within them to embolden tribalism, hatred, fear-mongering and exploitation on the one hand, or compassion, inclusivity, equality, and justice, on the other. It is a question of what vision the leaders of those communities choose, how they cultivate or neglect the many contrasting strands of their history, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. There is an urgent need across Europe and the Americas to provide people – especially young white males – with role models and heroic narratives that do not endorse or celebrate violent force or the domination and exploitation of other people, social groups, or living beings.
It has been inspiring to see a radical and progressive voice emerging in Scotland in recent years, one that has the courage to decry, in Gaelic, Scots, and English, the legacy of empire, one that embraces the pluralities of Scotland’s multiethnic past and carries them confidently into the future. This is a voice that needs to be heard in Trump’s America.
Thanks to Kent Jewell, Peter Gilmore, Tad Hargrave, Alastair McIntosh and Daniel Gwydion Williams for feedback and comments on earlier drafts.
I’ve recently come across a very short Gaelic ode to an organization in Winnipeg formed by immigrants from the Isle of Lewis which is worth comment. I found the original Gaelic text in the book Bàrdachd á Leódhas (Gairm, 1969). The editor did not provide a source or author for the poem.
There are several things of note about the short poem.
First is the deeply religious expression of communal identity at that point in time: faith in Providence is expressed in general, but certainly the religious element of Lewis-folklife is what separates them from the “wild natives” of the region (line 5 – although I suspect that mnathan “women” may be a typo for mathan “bear(s)”).
Second is the value placed on the Gaelic language and culture of the community and the expectation that they will be able to sustain their ancestral tradition (lines 7 and 8). This hope is expressed many times by immigrant Gaels in the early stages of their emigration experience, although many also later expressed disillusionment and bitterness about the lack of support to make this aspiration real, including members of the Winnipeg community itself (see Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 250-56 and this blog post).
Note that the nickname “language of the heather” for Gaelic is an apt one, given the ubiquity of heather in the Highlands as well as the use of heather in the nickname for Lewis itself (Eilean an Fhraoich “the Isle of Heather”).
Comunn Leódhais Winnipeg, 1913
1. Mìle fàilte air muinntir Leódhais – ge b’e àit’ am bheil ac’ comhnaidh –
Buaidh ’s beannachd bho Iehòbhadh comhla;
Freasdal Dhé ’gan dìon bho ghàbhaidh, stòr gun dìth air tìr ’s air sàl dhaibh
Coirc’ is eòrna ’s torr buntàta, crodh is bàth[ai]ch is lìn.
5. Ma chuir Sealbh a-mach gu Iar sibh, measg nam beann is nam mnathan fiadhaich,
Far nach fhaic sibh cuan no siaban, feadag chiar no naosg,
Bithibh aoidheil, coibhneil, càirdeil – far nach caill ur clann a’ Ghàidhlig:
Cùl na làimhe ris a’ ghràisg a chàineas cainnt an fhraoich.
The Lewis Association of Winnipeg, 1913
1. A thousand welcomes to the people of Lewis – wherever they live –
Both success and blessings from Jehovah;
May God’s Providence protect them from danger; may they have abundance on land and on sea,
Oats and grain and plenty of potatoes, cattle and byre and textiles.
5. If Fate has sent you westward, amongst the mountains and the wild women,
Where you cannot see the ocean, or sea-spray, the plover or snipe,
Be cheerful, kind, friendly – Where your children will not lose their Gaelic:
Defiance to the rabble who disparage the language of the heather.
I’m preparing for a talk at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures (in June in Vancouver) on the literary and cultural activities of Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser” in English). He’s an interesting and complicated man (the first archivist of the Province of Ontario, among other things) who left an important but largely unexamined Gaelic legacy.
I’ve already edited and translated several things he wrote in my recent anthology of Canadian-Gaelic literature, Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, but he wrote and edited much more, such as the address to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society in 1901 printed in the brochure I examine in this blog post. The brochure is titled Cànain agus Cliù ar Sinnsearan and was printed in 1901.
I have translated the text of this address into English from the original Gaelic below and precede each paragraph with a number in square brackets for reference. You can find a digitized scan of the original Gaelic text at this webpage (unfortunately I’ve been told that it is not accessible in every country).
One word in the title of this brochure requires some discussion: cliù. Etymologically it refers to what is heard, but in common usage it signifies the reputation that a person acquires through their behavior and actions. It has positive associations, by default, as other terms would be used for infamy, and in particular it often refers to the exemplary precedents set by role models. It is a concept at the centre of the Gaelic literary world, given that the role of the poet was to uphold traditional ideals and those who lived up to them through the composition and performance of texts. I have chosen to translate cliù as “renown,” but it should be clear that it carries a deep communal and historical resonance in Gaelic.
Friseal makes a number of very important points about identity, culture and oral tradition in this address, ones that are entirely consistent with Gaelic perspectives across generations that I have examined in previous articles (such as “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad”) and books (Warriors of the Word for Scotland and Seanchaidh na Coille for Canada), but that contrast with common contemporary beliefs and assumptions.
Gaelic identity, in specific, is Friseal’s concern: he does not conjure any generalized notion of Scottishness; he does not invoke tartans or tartanism or other forms of symbolic ethnicity. While he does refer to the Highlands and the heather (paragraph 3), these provide geographical associations rather than any essentialized tokens or sublimations for ethnic expression. Like many other Gaels before and after him, Friseal states explicitly that language, not ancestry, is at the core of Gaelic identity and he provides evidence of this (also in paragraph 3) in the form of the assimilated population of early Gaelic settlements in Canada as well as an aristocrat who rejected his own Gaelic ancestry.
While it may not be clear in the translation, in the original Gaelic the terms for Gael and Highlander (as ethnonyms), Gaelic and Highland (as adjectives), Gaeldom and the Highlands (as locales and communities) are all the same: it is only the recent alienation of language from culture that has created the distinction.
It’s also interesting to note the difference between this Gaelic cultural stance and the orientation of modern clan associations. Many descendants of the Highland diaspora today who join clan associations experience “Scottishness” through a narrow lens of genealogy or surname affiliation, that is, solely through people sharing the same surname (or supposed septs of the same clan federation). Friseal delivered this talk to the first annual meeting of the Clan Donald Society, yet he downplays any such exclusive focus on the MacDonalds, even to the point of naming and setting aside the great founder figures and warrior-figures of the clan (paragraph 6). He instead states that their common identity as Gaels is the most important issue (paragraph 1) and extols the achievements of the common Gael in the domestication of the landscape (paragraph 6).
Given that language is key to Gaelic identity and culture, Friseal spends the majority of his address exhorting his fellow Gaels to sustain it and to value it. He explicitly names some of the factors working against the transmission of Gaelic (in paragraph 5), such as the stigmatization of the language during cultural conflict with anglophones and the perceived competition between the material rewards available through English and an allegiance to Gaelic based on non-material factors. He peppers his text with lyrics from popular Gaelic songs and makes explicit mention of how oral tradition keeps memory of specific places and historical experiences alive in communal memory (paragraphs 3, 6, 8, 12 and 14).
There is a very notable aspect of visual symbolism in the booklet, and that is the use of “Celtic knotwork” at the beginning and end of the book. This appeared at the same time as a few other Gaelic publications (such as Carmina Gadelica) were drawing on this medieval artistic heritage. It seems to be indicative of the growing “pan-Celtic consciousness” of the era and its appearance is noteworthy in a brochure printed in Gaelic in Canada.
It should be explicitly noted that there are a number of concepts around identity and culture Friseal does not invoke: he never mentions the notion of whiteness, Britishness, or even Scottishness. He never says that he is proud of his clan, nor does he disparage the French or any other ethnic group, or overplay military stereotypes or militancy. He merely underscores the importance of the Gaelic language and culture, its role in expressing and maintaining Gaelic identity, and its perilous condition at the time. These, I will argue, are features of most of his writings in Gaelic and contrast with the discourse of racialism and anglocentric triumphalism that we generally expect in anglophone discourse of the time.
[Blurb below the portrait of Friseal]
“Reminiscing about the good humour of the old days. Respectfully, I am Alexander Fraser.”
 O, great leader, and gentle women and men: I consider it one of the greatest privileges that my compatriots in Canada have ever been bestowed upon me to have received an invitation to be with you here today, at this great spectacular gathering for the Clan Donald Society. I do not have suitable words to express to you the pleasure that it gives me to be with my compatriots here at the first annual meeting of this organization, and to be gazing at the kind visages of the Gaels of Glengarry, people who are famous as true Gaels throughout this country and throughout the Highlands of Scotland. Under the patronage of Clan Donald, this large crowd meets today, and if there is one of the Highland clans that has garnered renown beyond the others in Canada, it is the MacDonalds. But, as the poet said, – “We are all brothers, give me your hand,” – we are here as Gaels, and especially as the Gaels of Glengarry, to be exhorting and encouraging each other, to sustain the customs, traditions and renown of our ancestors – especially their renown.
 We have acquired as a people an invaluable heritage from our forefathers – religion, virtue, loyalty, natural beauty, kindness, morality, generosity, and many other assets, and the golden vessel in which those virtues are stored is the pure, melodious tongue of our forefathers. It would be a sad and ugly day for the Gaels if Gaelic were to die :— a dark, sad day on which the most precious gift which we have ever received from our mothers and fathers would be forever lost.
 My compatriots — I am before you today with two primary messages — on the one hand, keep alive our mother tongue; on the other hand, keep alive the renown of our ancestors. When Gaelic will die, the glorious crown of the Gael will fall from his head; the emblem of our people will be blotted out from the history of the world; the pine tree will shoot out its branches, and the heather will open its pink-blossomed leaves on the Scottish mountains, as always – they will not change, for they follow the eternal habits of nature; but, alas! The pine tree will no longer be the emblem of the Clan Alpine on that sorrowful day, or the heather the emblem of the Clan Donald, for in the absence of that ancient language that “Adam spoke in Paradise itself,” where would the Gaels be? They would not be able to be found throughout the peoples of the world. Don’t we find evidence of this in our own country? On every side of the great St. Lawrence River, in Quebec City, there are MacDonalds and Frasers, branches of the MacGillivrays, MacIntoshes, MacKenzies, MacLeans, Munros and Rosses, and other people with Highland names; generations of Gaels who came to Canada about 150 years ago. The names are there, but are they Gaels who bear them? Alas, they are not, but people who became French in their language, in their traditions, in their religion and in their hearts. It’s not long since Sir John Ross, a person who was, according to the opinion of many a seanchaidh, the heir of the Earldom of Ross, said that he would rather be a member of the French Parliament in Canada, than to be a great lord among the Gaels of Scotland. Likewise, the thoughts of many men have been corrupted by worldly desires, and there is no escape from this conclusion, that the end of our generation will be likewise, when Gaelic bows its grey, aged, honorable head, and gives its last breath. It will not leave a people who will be called “Gaels” in its wake, since the generations who will follow us will be swallowed up in the fatal, forgetful ocean of the world.
 But, must that happen? Is the condition of Gaelic so bad and hopeless as this? It is difficult to answer those questions. If the Gaels would arise, as they should, there would be no doubt about the matter. It is still in their own hands to deliver a solid victory. Are we, the Gaels as a whole, doing would we can do and should do in this matter? It must be admitted, with sadness, with great sadness, that we are not. In many families, very little is done to acquire a knowledge of Gaelic. Isn’t this a shameful thing? Is it any wonder that some of us are pained about this back-sliding? I entreat you to lend an open ear to these words, and to be repentant, before it is too late. I am unfurling the victorious banner of Gaelic open before you today; I am casting its sails open on the wind; I am obliging you, o men and women of Glengarry, – children of the warriors, generation of the renowned people from whom you spring – that you will not rest and that you will not fail, until you carry this banner to enduring, eternal and foundational victory!
 Will it be said that it was left to the Gaels of our day to sell our birthright for money? for worldly contentment? for the tainted gold of mercantilism? or that the language was betrayed because of the mockery of the Englishman? Is it a trivial matter for us to be as irresponsible as this? O Gaels! Take careful attention that we do not make ourselves a laughing stock and cause of shame to the generations who come after us. Let us be loyal to our language today, let us teach it to our children, and let us pass it down as we received it, pure and uncorrupted, from our forefathers.
 A word or two now about the renown of our ancestors. I don’t intend to speak about Conn of the Hundred Battles, or Colla, or Somerled, or the poets, or the brave warriors who belonged to Clan Donald, at this time. That history is inscribed in the poetry of our land, and will be known for as long as people speak and write Gaelic. But at the heart of this Gaelic county, where I am standing today, I would like to speak about our fathers and mothers who settled in Canada. They were Highland soldiers who won Canada for the British Crown in 1759. Highland claymores protected the country in 1812, and again in 1837, 1866 and in 1884. Our compatriots have not diminished in heroism; they are soldiers, as is their birthright. But as the poet said:
 “Alexander the Great was no warrior
Nor Caesar who forced Rome to surrender …
But he is a warrior who earns victory
Over the fear of life and the horror of death,
Who meets with a courageous heart
Everything which is destined.”
 Even though the history of our soldiers is renowned, it is very appropriate that we should honor the people who left their homes in the Highlands and who came into the thick, dark forests in Canada, and who opened up this country for the world. We can hardly understand the extent of the toil they undertook, to be clearing the land and laying a foundation for the country that will endure the ages. Circumstances were hard for the majority of them; they have no luxury in their homes, there was no elegance around them. But the hearts in their bodies were courageous, their arms were strong, optimism guided their steps and there was no fear that the heroes would give up. Their labours are clear here today. Observe the fertile, productive fields that encompass us – land as beautiful as any on which the merciful sun of Providence shines warm rays; those are the fields, those are the homes, that your forefathers left to us to possess. Often do you sing the songs of the Old Country; about
 “The isle of Mull, the prosperous isle
The sunny isle, which the salt water surrounds.”
 And songs about “The green isle of Islay,” “Islay of the grass,” “where the goodly nobles would be.” You have never seen grassy Lochaber, or the Scottish Highlands. That is where I was born, and until the day I die, my love for the land of my birth and ancestors will never diminish.
 “I love the Highlands, I love every glen,
Every waterfall and corrie in the land of the mountains.”
 Although that is true indeed, I am telling you here, today, that I have never in Scotland or England seen grasslands more beautiful, rich, productive or elegant than the grasslands that your forefathers won from the marshes and the forests, that they left to you. Therefore, keep up their memory in name and in renown. Build a memorial in your hearts for their sake; and let their feats be written down in the history of the country. Follow in their footsteps closely, proclaim that you descended from them and that you are proud of their renown.
 These two things. The renown and language of our people. Do not let the day come in which they are rejected.
 “I love Gaelic, her poetry and her music,
It has often uplifted us when we were harmed;
It is what we learned in the days of our youth
And what we will never leave until we lie down in the sod.”
Lady Baublehead was someone I only saw from a distance, sometimes in brief flashes through the windows of the mansion of the sprawling estate I espied on my long walks through the countryside beyond our village. By this time she was already entering old age, reportedly falling into a state of dementia which only increased after the demise of her husband, Lord Baublehead, rumour had it, accelerated by family squabbles over the future of their collective legacy.
When the funeral was held in our parish church, I was too curious not to enter anonymously and surreptitiously into the ritual proceedings, and try to learn more about her, and the goings-on of the reserved yet illustrious family.
The first to speak at the funeral was Dr. Wiesner, cousin to Lord Baublehead, who was present at the time of her death. His manner, as expected of a man of his rank and learning, was cool and collected as he addressed the assembly. “I shall be as objective as possible, presenting only the facts as they stand. Lady Baublehead was born Sarah Stewart, on February 22, 1922 in Staffin, the Isle of Skye, weighing 8 pounds, 9 ounces. She received very high marks throughout her education, earning distinctions in English and Mathematics in particular. She met Lord Baublehead when they were both students at Edinburgh and were wed on June 3, 1956. Only one child issued from their union, Margaret. Lady Baublehead experienced increasing levels of dysphasia after the death of her beloved husband in 1999. She passed away last Wednesday from related complications. That completes my account.”
The doctor disappeared with a dramatic swish of the black curtain behind the coffin.
Lord Baublehead’s sister, Lady Wrymouth, emerged from the front bench, walking with a steady, stately gait to the pulpit. “We are greatly saddened by the death of our beloved sister,” she stated with decorum. “She was a great asset to our community, indeed to our entire nation. She gave of herself generously whenever anyone asked of her help. She was there with me when I was working tirelessly on my charity for the orphaned children of veterans, just as she exerted herself selflessly with me when I was labouring in the garden. We are so proud of the improvement she was able to effect in her own life through being adopted into our family, having refined herself from a simple and rude state of affairs to that of polish and civilisation. She thus offers a model of progress for all those who wish a better life for themselves and others. If she were here herself, we have no doubt that she would reassure you not to suffer on her account, but only to reflect on your own path, have hope and be grateful.”
She returned to the front bench, apparently only now allowing herself to express grief, without her face being exposed to the rest of the congregation. After a long and awkward pause, a woman arose from the opposite bench. The sorrow was much clearer to read on her countenance, even under her dark veil. She carried a compact black book in her hand and opened it as she reached the pulpit.
“This is my mother’s diary. It allows her to speak for herself, over the years, in a way that others cannot. She found it very difficult to leave the community of her birth and the language of her youth. She was courageous and adventurous, able to accommodate herself to the expectations made upon her – learning English, donning apparel previously unknown to her, moving in circles of people previously strange to her – but she was seldom allowed to assert her own opinions or spend her time as she would have preferred.” At this, there was some uncomfortable stirring and coughing from some of the family.
But she continued. “The name she bestowed on me at birth is Maighread, her own mother’s name, although she was willing concede that an English version of my name be used by those who could not pronounce it. She taught me her native language and we spoke it in the privacy of our home and on family visits to Skye, but it was not considered polite to use around others. My father did not entirely disapprove of our language and did not insist that we abstain from our linguistic habits, and he even shielded us from the censure of the rest of his family. Mother was exposed to the disapproval of others after his passing.”
“It was her wish that our home become a museum to the history of her people on her passing, and that is my wish as well. Although many of her brothers and sisters, and their children, have little interest in maintaining the memory of their humble origins, she preferred to celebrate and commemorate all that which built the foundation of her life, and that of many others who did not enjoy the privileges that she married into – even if the strain added greatly to her unhappiness.”
There was an impassioned discussion between neighbours after the funeral was over, with some saying that the doctor was the only person qualified to speak authoritatively about Lady Baublehead, and that the daughter was far too close to the issue to be objective. Others professed preference for the words of Lady Wrymouth, noting her fine, noble sentiments and her advocacy of all that is worthy of emulation. It was a curious proceeding. Some said that the daughter was hoping to find a publisher who could put her mother’s diary into print, to help to settle the conflict over the family inheritance, but seeds of doubt about the lucidity of Lady Baublehead, especially in her later years, have been well sown now – Highlanders are, after all, known to be prone to odd flights of fancy that cannot be taken seriously, and even Lady Margaret must have a touch of that madness –, and the Wiesners have great influence amongst people of letters.
I’m experimenting with Electron as a platform for web-apps that run native and with Vuejs as a dynamic data-binding view component framework. I like both of these software “eco-systems” a lot but I haven’t been satisfied with the solutions for components providing modal dialogs that I’ve found online. (For example, this one or this one.)
Electron supports a dialog element, which is a much better solution than a DIV with high z-index value. Not only that, many of the solutions I’ve seen require a list of Booleans that control whether or not each modal dialog is visible or not; this clutters up the main Vue application object.
My own solution leverages the ability to have a dynamically-bound component: this is either a special “null” dialog or one of the actual working modal dialog windows. Each of the real dialog windows uses a generic dialog component as a child, to handle some of the common functions, and can pass in a class to modify the size of the dialog box. The params object is used for communication of dialog-specific data between the code that uses the dialog and the logic within the dialog itself. Each dialog template can pass a CSS class to modify its size as needed.
I hope this proves useful to others developing on Electron.
(PS: Apologies: WordPress won’t format all of the HTML text content in this blog post properly, so once I have this on GitHub or jsfiddle or something, I’ll post a link. But you should get the idea.)
It’s been almost exactly a year since I wrote a blog post discussing my efforts to use Gaelic with my daughter in the home. She’ll be four in November and we’re still going, and I think that our challenges – and my attempted strategies – are relevant for those using any minority/minoritized language at home, especially when there is a lack of a social community to reinforce the language in the local environment.
Positive Affirmation. I feel more convinced than ever that early learning is a social process that forms, and is nurtured by, emotional bonds. Children at this age want to connect to other people, especially adults, and seek approval and positive affirmation. It’s very hard to avoid the ingrained, automatic habit of praising her for her looks, but we attempt as much as possible to complement her for being smart and capable of doing things. She understands the importance of intelligence and capability and clearly looks for reinforcement on those areas.
I stated to her recently that people who speak two languages are twice as smart as people who only speak one. She then proceeded to claim that she speaks three languages (having picked up on the existence of Spanish from our environment), and has boasted of her linguistic skills to family members. In fact, she’s attempted to teach some Gaelic to our parents who have visited lately. And this, I think, confirms the point that emotional and social bonds are an inherent part of the learning process for children that informs their self-worth.
Highlight Linguistic Diversity: Anglophones tend to be highly monolingual and monocultural, so normalizing multilingualism is important to keep children engaged. Point out when other people are speaking other languages, teach phrases in other languages, and ask to share and exchange bits of language and linguistic cultural (like songs) with other children and parents.
Reading Materials: We have always read a lot with our daughter and she is greatly interested in letters and reading now. Although there are a number of good Gaelic books out there, not least those produced by Acair Ltd, we can only afford to make occasional purchases and they are dwarfed by the number and variety of those in English. We can’t ignore or dismiss that reality.
I try to read at least one book in Gaelic to her at night-time, but even I get a bit weary of the redundancy that comes from our limited selection. Whenever I do read a book in English to her, I always make asides and comment upon the contents of the text and the illustrations in Gaelic. This, I think, helps to keep Gaelic in our dialog and to bridge the bilingual divide. Given that her English will be inevitably stronger than her Gaelic (due to the lack of a language community), these asides facilitate her comprehension of Gaelic by relating it to what we do and read in English.
Keep It Fun: Again, given that learning is ultimately a social process, forming and nurturing emotional bonds, it’s important to keep it as fun as possible. Sing songs, make up rhymes and stories, include their names in things, make videos of them using the language …