Hope for Celtic Studies in N America

Is there hope for Celtic Studies in North America? In its current formulation, I think not. This blog entry is a summary of this topic as explained in the Introduction to the volume Celts in the Americas, which offers an alternative course of development to the North American academy’s current approach.

Fellow academics are likely assume that Celtic Studies is merely another bastion of white, Eurocentric privilege relishing its place in the “Western” canon. The irony – obvious to anyone who’s been trained in the field – is that the very marginal status of Celtic Studies and its sad under-development is exactly due to its long exclusion from these categories. Most of what little activity in Celtic Studies exists in North America is focused on medieval Europe. It rarely gets around to exploring the themes dominant in the academy on this continent – critiques of power, privilege and exclusion – nor does it invest much effort in the stories specific to this continent, stories which no one else will tell if we don’t.

Celtic Studies is too broad a field. In its full scope, it covers some 3,000 years and much of Europe, including the languages, cultures and histories of people who had centuries and centuries of independent development (in the medieval and modern period, these are the Bretons, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots Gaels, and Welsh). An analogy would be replacing English Departments with Germanic Departments which would cover all branches of the Germanic languages over a 3,000 year span (Proto-Germanic, Frankish, Saxon, Norse, Gothic, Dutch, etc.), the histories of all of the people who spoke those languages, and all of their cultural expressions. It would be far too unwieldy and complex of a set of subjects, yet this is the situation in which Celtic Studies finds itself.

This dizzying array of material is simplified in the European Celtic homelands by covering common and prominent subjects but specializing in depth in the language and culture of the area itself: so, Celtic Studies in Brittany concentrates on the Breton language and culture, for example, but students who might want to learn Welsh in detail would go to a Welsh university to study it.

Whether one loves or loathes the nation-state, we cannot avoid the fact that aspects of history and culture which relate directly to the narrative of the nation get special attention and priority. Some privileged group is represented as the core of the nation and their identity, their culture and their (presumed) values are enshrined as national touchstones. Because political and economic power in the British Isles was monopolized by aggressively expansionist and self-triumphant anglophones, “Anglo-Saxonist” myths prevailed over those of the indigenous Celts, who were dismissed as primitive barbarians of a bygone age.

Despite racialized inferiority (which was quite strong in the 19th and early 20th centuries), Celts had the ability to access power and privilege in the growing empire – so long as they did so as honorary Anglo-Saxons, speaking its language, assimilating to its culture, and complying with its agenda of domination and exploitation. However, the subjugation of Celtic cultures and identities is exactly why the Celtic language family has been driven to the verge of extinction – the only Indo-European language family to find itself poised above the abyss of annihilation since the early medieval period.

The strategies and institutions created to conquer and dominate Celtic regions informed the precedents and paradigms that were instrumental in conquering and dominating other indigenous people in the formation of the British Empire. These historical experiences have important implications for understanding the history of the United States and Canada. Taking these facts into consideration will be equally important if Celtic Studies is going to have something to contribute to the reinvigoration and decolonization of the living Celtic communities that remain.

The exclusion of the roles of Celtic peoples in the deep history of Europe allows the false impression that Europe was far more homogenous than it really was, and more reliant upon the ingenuity of the Roman Empire and Germanic peoples than it really was. This problem of exclusion is even more vexed when looking at the history of the British Isles, usually assumed to be the main source of “modernity” in those survey courses about “Western” Civilization, “British” literature, etc.

All too often, “British” simply means “English,” and Celtic peoples, their literatures, languages, law systems, and other cultural expressions – ones that were substantial and influential in their times – are simply ignored. Although the North American academy has taken a decidedly critical stance when it comes to the exclusion of women and people of colour from historical consideration, Celts are rarely granted the benefits of such intellectual allies.

A new agenda needs to be set for Celtic Studies in the North American academy, one that will actually give it traction on this continent, rather than allowing it to remain an esoteric and irrelevant footnote that will dissipate as the last generation of tenured professors retires.

I would suggest that this new agenda incorporate the following issues:

  • Rather than remaining framed solely in medieval Europe, Celtic Studies as practiced in the North American academy needs to prioritize those cultural remains and expressions that are unique to this continent. Just as each Celtic homeland highlights what is unique to it and should be nurtured by its institutions, so does the United States and Canada have distinctive resources and narratives that are worthy of scrutinity.
  • North American Celtic Studies needs to push at the weak points of the imperial facades that are relied upon for the post-colonial counter-narrative. In many other fields, terms like “British,” “white,” “Eurocentric,” and “Western” are monolithic reference points that scholars of Celtic Studies are uniquely positioned to challenge, critique, disentangle and nuance.
  • North American Celtic Studies scholars need to pool their research and resources to provide coursebooks and readers that can be used by the non-specialist in survey courses that clearly articulate the accomplishments and experiences of Celtic peoples in ways that address the common concerns of the North American academy (power, privilege, exclusion, imperialism, colonialism, identity politics, etc.).

The humanities in general are under siege in the academy, and Celtic Studies occupies a rather vulnerable and marginal position in that contested ground. Unless scholars of Celtic Studies think more strategically about the formulation and emphases of the field in relation to the rest of the North American academy, it is likely to fall to more aggressive and strategic competitors, despite the legitimacy of fields developing knowledge about other subordinated peoples.

PS. [17 Nov 2013] To put it in the simplest and starkest terms, there is no recognizable community in the US which is Celtic in any meaningful way, let alone been effective in maintaining its Celticity through socio-political mechanisms (policies and institutions which would protect its language and culture) and education (institutions and practices that would ensure that its language, culture and history were taught, researched and developed). Even in Canada, the only community that would come close to qualifying is eastern Nova Scotia, and even that case is a very limited and restricted one. The marginalization of Celtic communities in their European homelands has further stymied favorable developments of this nature. Without a social and political context, it is hard to see how patronage for Celtic Studies could be stable and sufficient to thrive in North America.

Selected Bibliography

Michael Newton. “ ‘Western Civilization’ as seen by the Celtic West.” 2011.

Michael Newton, Robert Dunbar, Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin and Daniel Williams. “Introduction: The Past and Future Celt.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 5-17. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

The Fallacies of “Celtic Music”

Or , “Is there such a thing as ‘Celtic Music’?”

Back in the old days, before the internet, there were these great places called “music shops.” You could wander around the aisles, exploring all kinds of musicians and their works, and discover things you hadn’t anticipated. But even then, the music business and music shop owners had to categorize music into genres so that they could place the albums into physical spaces, often called “bins.”

I chanced upon “Celtic music” in the early 1980s, along with a lot of other people. It’s one of the things that motivated me to engage in Celtic Studies and learn the Scottish Gaelic language. It’s only after getting into the historical and linguistic details of the poetic-musical heritage of a specific group – Scottish Gaels – that the problems with the term and surrounding industry became clear to me. It is a multibillion dollar business that does not invite scrutiny or critical analysis, only the warm and fuzzy (or “mystical and haunting” or “merry and gay” – take your pick of clichés) reception of a paying audience.


But, given that this is a big industry that exists by repackaging the assets of generations of collective genius, or creating new products claiming to represent the artistic legacy of a native community, it is surprising that it has received so little critical analysis, not least from the cultural critics of academia. As Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin has recently noted, it is ironic that a continent that boasts so many people of Celtic ancestry, who often claim to be proud of that ancestry, should invest so little in understanding this accessible aspect of their inheritance, despite the intensive exploitation of it in popular media:

Despite this ubiquitous profile, the academic role of Celtic music in the New World still remains dubious and selective. While independent schools and institutions from Cape Breton and California undertake exemplary work teaching and preserving Celtic music, it is untenable that this soundscape receives so little attention from the upper echelons of Celtic scholarship in North America. […] In the quest to educate the Celts of North America, it is clear that the “score” between Harvard and Hollywood is a very uneven one indeed. (2013: 204).

This blog will do very little to improve that score, and indeed, I can hardly expect most people to want to scrutinize the historical origins and cultural context of music which they appreciate only as an aesthetic experience. Still, I find it very problematic that many musicians who make a living by gleaning this communal asset and professing themselves as a link in the chain of tradition should care so little about understanding where it comes from, who developed it, how and why, or what impact their careers may have on the communities from whom their living is derived (see my previous blog entry on cultural appropriation).

I was very honoured last summer (2012), then, when the annual Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival invited me (through the good graces of Mary Jane Lamond) to speak about the concept of Celtic music for a day conference that preceded their folk-music festival, and this blog is a summary of the talk I presented there.

These issues are not specific to Celtic peoples, but are representative of conflicts around the world wherever local and indigenous musical traditions encounter the global music industry. Once you’re conscious of the issue, you can see it all over the place, from Nunavut to Nepal.

Slippery Celts

The problem with “Celtic music” begins with the term “Celtic” itself: What does it mean, and to whom? The field of Celtic Studies itself went through an intense period of debate about and reflection on this issue beginning in the 1990s and it is much more mature because of the challenge, although the results have made very little impact on popular culture.

“Celtic” means practically anything in popular discourse, and a term that can mean anything means nothing. If it is to have any substance at all, “Celtic” needs to refer to languages derived (in various ways) from a Common Celtic ancestor, the communities that spoke these languages, and the cultural expressions of these communities. It cannot, therefore, refer to geography or genetic makeup given that  Celtic languages spread over diverse populations, Celtic-speaking people migrated, and a change of language brings a change of culture. So, in musical terms for the modern period, this means the music of the parts of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, Man, Scotland and Wales that speak Celtic languages.

I  find it very problematic that the lack of critical thinking about the meaning of “Celtic” and “Celtic music” in North America has enabled all kinds of misrepresentation and marginalization to happen, as well as unjustifiable leaps of logic. For example, because many people have misinterpreted “Celtic music” to mean the music of rural people from the British Isles, wonderful music that rightfully belongs to the anglophone world – like the Child Ballads (such as “Barbara Allen” or “The Two Sisters”) – gets mislabelled as “Celtic.” Then, to further confuse the matter, because people who should know better call such material “Celtic,” they then derive things like Country-Western Music and Cowboy Ballads from Celts. Doing this not only unfairly conceals the legitimate and important legacy of English folk-music in North America, it leaves unexamined the most indigenous strands of Celtic musics that are the least familiar to anglophones.

Thesis Statement

In my estimation, there are four main problems with the idea of “Celtic music” as popularly portrayed in mainstream anglophone culture:

  • “Celtic” is an artificial super-category that obscures internal divisions and distinctions that should be primary markers of identification (i.e., Irish, Welsh, Breton, etc), as well as the strands of tradition within a branch.
  • Expectations about what should be considered “Celtic” are based on externally derived perceptions and stereotypes (primarily from the anglophone world), rather than on the norms and aesthetics internal to the cultures themselves.
  • Music produced under the “Celtic” genre meant to have widespread appeal must conform to a very different aesthetic system than that of its native origin; it must almost inevitably be hybridized and transformed to be delivered to a “mainstream” (non-local) audience.
  • Much of the music placed in the “Celtic” genre is not derived wholly from Celtic-speaking communities, but results from engagement with Western European music in general.

Let me expound a little on these points before examining the case of Scottish Gaelic in particular.

I’m My Own Person

The stereotype would have us believe that Celtic music (and any other cultural form) would be ancient and virtually unchanging, but this is not the case. Each of the different regions developed independently, and this is reflected in their languages as well as cultural expressions. Even the three branches with the greatest portion common history – Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic – are very distinct in their musical aspects. This is even more the case when looking at the distinctions with Breton, Cornish and Welsh.

Not only does the term “Celtic” hide the developments and distinctions that have evolved over many centuries of separate evolution between these primary branches, but even within these primary branches there are regional differences. There are important dialectal differences between the Gaelic of Perthshire and South Uist, for example, and this would have been the case for the variations of melodies and songs sung in these areas as well.

The final aspect of this point is that even within a major branch – such as Irish or Welsh – musical tradition is not a single thing but consists of many different strands, each with its own origin, function, social associations, trajectories of development, etc.

How Did He Get In Here?

Because of the deeply-entrenched stereotypes about Celts, lots of things get included in the virtual “Celtic bin” that don’t relate to or derive from Celtic-speaking communities at all.  I’ve already mentioned the mislabelling of rural parts of the anglophone British Isles as “Celtic,” which results in placing people who would never call themselves or their music “Celtic” into a category created for a global audience.

The fallacy of labelling all of Scotland Celtic, for example, results in categorizing the people of the Scottish Lowlands, who speak a language derived largely from Middle English (which came to be called “Scots” in the 15th century), Celtic, despite the fact that they have long disavowed any connection with Celtic peoples (to simplify a complex issue). They now find themselves performing music at Celtic Festivals and Highland Games that real Celts would have found (and still find) foreign. What irony. This also results in music like that of Robert Burns as being labelled as “Celtic” whereas it would be more sensibly labelled a manifestation of anglophone tradition (it’s certainly unlike the song traditions in Scottish Gaelic).

There is another mutant of “Celtic music” created by the industry, of course, the modern New Age variety which is not rooted in any living community but that of an idealized wonderland, based entirely upon the Celticism of the Romantic period. Some of its leading proponents at the moment are Loreena McKennitt and Enya (or maybe my mental list is already outdated). While this music may be pleasant (I enjoy some of it myself), it has little or nothing to do with real Celtic-speaking communities but simply plays with the stereotypes of the popular anglophone imaginary world.

I Did It Your Way

Different cultures have different musical aesthetics: concepts and judgments about what makes music and a musical performance good, bad, pleasing, etc. The aesthetic systems of music performed by members of indigenous cultures (and in such cultures, it is a common expectation for all people to participate in some way) can be quite different from that of the global marketplace, where only professionally-trained musicians in expensive studios with bands produce highly polished products.

It is quite difficult to make a living as a musician, and I sympathize with the complexity of the negotiation between adherence to tradition and making a product that enough people will want to buy to allow one to survive. However, changing the aesthetics and basic qualities of a musical tradition to meet the expectations of an external audience, who may not understand or appreciate why the music has evolved in a certain way, can undermine a community’s own perceptions of its tradition and its inherent worth. And that undermines the very asset that defines the tradition and its communal nature.

Local or European?

Despite the stereotypes of Celts living in remote and isolated places, far from the developments of the rest of Europe, they have been engaged with the rest of Western Europe. Celtic communities have encountered new musical trends emanating from the rest of world, and in the past communities and the native intelligentsia had great freedom in negotiating how they would respond to external innovations: rejecting, adapting or hybridizing them on their own terms. (I’ll show a few examples below.)

Because Celtic communities did absorb aspects of the musical trends of Western Art Music in the early modern period (and develop them according to local conditions), this means that there is a particular strand in the musical traditions of Celtic communities which creates common musical ground with other European cultures: especially that of social dance music in the form of reels and jigs (and the harp music of O’Carolan). However, this is the most recent and least indigenous of musical strands, and if this is the strand that gets all of the attention from a global market because it is the least alienating to a non-Celtic audience, it creates a false sense of familiarity and ignores the least “modern” and most native strands.

Scottish Gaelic Song Traditions

I’ll illustrate some of these issues by examining what I feel have been many of the most dominant strands of Scottish Gaelic song tradition in the chronological order of their likely development (a topic which is covered in greater detail in my book Warriors of the Word). This list is not even exhaustive: I’ve not discussed religious hymns, pipe songs, or several other prominent forms, demonstrating the diversity within a single tradition.

Let me make a few preliminary observations before getting into the details. First, the music-poetic tradition in Scottish Gaelic has been strongly shaped by the needs and patronage of the native Gaelic élite over many centuries, and filtered down to level of the peasantry as a pervasive influence. Second, even to the present, the primary role of song in Gaelic musical tradition is to communicate and the words take highest priority (over the musical aspect). Third, the linguistic characteristics of Scottish Gaelic (strong initial stress, vowel length, epenthetic vowels, etc – features which are quite different from most varieties of Irish) have had a strong influence on the characteristics of the music.

Work Songs

There are a variety of manual tasks that are normally performed to song accompaniment, such as milking cattle, rowing boats, grinding grain, fulling cloth, and so on. These songs were particularly useful for keeping labour synchronized when it was done in groups, but they were also done because of the enjoyment of singing and participation in song.

There is no way to document the lineage of these song types (and there may be more than one distinct origin), but they are probably as old as the tasks themselves: perhaps two thousand years if not more. This is arguably the oldest and most indigenous strand of the Gaelic music-song tradition, but because these related to the activities of the peasantry they are not well documented. There are probably fragments of the song texts that appear  in written sources by about the 8th century, but the musical aspects are completely obscure until about the 18th century – about the time when composers stopped creating new songs in this genre (only a few seem to be composed in the 19th century).

Gaelic work songs are often structured as group choruses which are interspersed with solo stanzas (the exact form of the metre is highly variable, according to rules which were never documented and which we no longer have access to). There are resemblances to other early Celtic song forms, which also hints at their antiquity, and no other Celtic branch has preserved so much of this strata as Scottish Gaelic. These songs reflect personal concerns and issues of the peasantry although they often discuss relations with the aristocracy.

In this song genre, rhythm takes precedent over natural spoken word stress patterns, given that this is the function of this song type: to accompany work that happens with a regular beat. Here’s a nice example of a work song of this type, done to “full” (or “mill”) cloth. The strong rhythmic allows for it to be easily adapted into the modern Celtic marketplace – even Enya has done so.

Strophic Metre (i.e., Iorram)

By the 17th century we have examples of a primarily oral form of Scottish Gaelic song-poetry composed by poets who don’t necessarily have formal education or professional positions but who are concerned with politics and clan affairs. The structure of this song type is that each stanza consists of at least 2 lines with 2 stresses each (linked by end-rhyme), concluded with by a longer line with 3 stresses; the final 3rd stress of each stanza connects with rhyme. Although it has a fairly regular stress pattern, it would not always follow as regular a musical beat as modern pop music would expect.

In the past the metre of this song-type has been called “strophic” in English, but I follow the hypothesis of William Matheson and Roibeart Ó Maolalaigh that this is a very old song metre called iorram that survived in Scotland but was marginalized by the poetic “trade union” in Ireland during the medieval period. (Here’s an example from the audio archives of the School of Scottish Studies of a song from 1705 in this metre.)

Stylistically, it conveys a set of image-oriented punches but is not suitable for narrative or expository purposes. It was not used to convey emotional or personal issues but rather social and political concerns, and the praise of ruler and clan. Social factors rendered this song-type virtually obsolete by mid-1800s and it is not easily “modernized” into a consumable commodity for the global music market.

Syllabic Verse (Dàn)

The current scholarly consensus is that the song-poetry form known in Gaelic as dàn (or dán in its Classical Gaelic and Irish form) was developed by the late 6th century by Christian monks who were cross-fertilizing Gaelic poetry with Latin poetry. Iona – now considered part of Scotland – was one of the places where such literary experimentation was happening.

The medieval Gaelic literary order was extremely meticulous and well regulated: during their education poets would be trained to learn the specifications of hundreds of specific metres of the dán form (classified by the number of syllables in a line, patterns of alliteration, types of rhyme, etc.), with each grade of poet being assigned increasingly complex and demanding metres. This education was expensive, and so it was inherently tied up with the interests and concerns of the nobility, who were the patrons of the system (by the 13th century, anyway).

Since the professional literary order was killed by British imperialism – in the 17th century in Ireland, and by the mid-18th century in Scotland – we can only make educated guesses about how it was performed, especially in its musical aspect (here’s a recent reconstruction of a medieval Gaelic song-poem to a harp). Our guesses are at least informed by elements that survived amongst the peasantry, especially Heroic Ballads (mostly Fenian/Ossianic Ballads) and religious hymns made in the same form. It’s interesting to note that only two of these items survived in Ireland, whereas about eight have been recorded in Gaelic Scotland and a further item from Nova Scotia (MacInnes 2006: 184-21).

The performance of the dán form is regulated by speech-rhythms and not governed by a regular stress; its long lines and speech-like format make it ideal for narrative and expository purposes. It enjoys a high-social register associations, and was seldom used to express personal or emotional issues but was rather used for elevated purposes. It was the only verse form that we know was performed with instrumental accompaniment: the clàrsach (Gaelic harp).

The characteristics of dán make it difficult to turn into audio commodities for the modern global market-place. It basically fell out of common circulation by the early 20th century, although a few well-educated Gaelic singers have recently recorded very palatable arrangements of these materials for commercial recordings.

Amhran / Òran (Minstrelry)

This song form probably dates from the 13th century, when the Gaels encountered the European minstrel tradition, especially in the context of Anglo-French contacts of various forms (especially colonization and occupation). Thus, this too is a hybridized song-poem form that represents the accommodation of new ideas into Gaelic literary/musical tradition.

This metre is characterized by long lines with regular stress and rhymes on accented vowels; it is sung to symmetrical melodic structures (e.g., ABBA). Thus, it represents a Gaelic response to a Europe-wide medieval musical fashion. Songs of this form followed the minstrel precedent of being primarily about love, although it was later adapted for other purposes (like politics), given that the long metrical lines allow for narrative and expository purposes. (Here’s a classic example, a song of unrequited love.)

This metre would have been shunned by the learned, professional poetic order. It certainly came to the fore in their collapse, however, and many powerful songs – usually in vernacular forms of the language – were composed in Gaelic Scotland and Ireland in metres of this form.

Port-á-Beul (Mouth Music)

A musical revolution swept through Western Europe in the late 17th and 18th centuries, when portable fiddles enabled a “democratization” of musical expression coupled with physical movement: social dance. With the native Gaelic aristocracy – the patrons of the old Gaelic musical and poetic order – gone, these new fashions had little competition, especially amongst the peasantry who embraced them.

This is the era when modern dance forms and their accompanying and corresponding social dance music forms emerge over a wide area of Western Europe. Local communities adapted their own forms of these fashions, and the Scottish Gaelic world (no longer closely coupled with its Irish counterpart) responded by adapting these forms into rhythms and structures compatible with the linguistic features of Gaelic. This is when the reel is adopted into Gaelic tradition, and a new form – the strathspey (reel) – emerges. The musical structure of puirt in Gaelic regions is like that of other regions: AABB. Here’s a catchy set performed by Julie Fowlis and her band.

The musical forms were echoed by a new Gaelic song form: port-á-beul. This literally means “tunes from a mouth” and is sharply distinguished from song-poetry proper, being of low social register and little poetic weight (Sparling 2000). However, they are rhythmically and melodically interesting and catchy to a modern European ear, which is what has made them popular items in the repertoire of popular Gaelic bands.

Further Observations

The Scottish Gaelic musical tradition (especially in terms of song) is not a single thing but a number of distinct but interlocking strands with specific origins, functions, social associations and trajectories of development. These are reflections of the historical experience and cultural context of Scottish Gaelic communities and do not automatically qualify them for kinship with other Celtic groups.

Songs forms that are more musical and less textually oriented are more easily appreciated by non-Gaelic-speaking audience, but these are for the most part the low-register materials from the folk, not the élite, strata of tradition. The most popular “Celtic” music in the global marketplace is that of social dance music, typically played on the fiddle, but also adapted for voice, bagpipes, piano, guitar, etc. This is really a hybrid musical form, pan-European in origin and not very old (late 17th century at the earliest, but mostly late 18th or 19th century);  little or no specific “knowledge” of Gaelic musical tradition or language is in it or needed by an audience to appreciate it. This, in turn, means that the range of the Gaelic repertoire least known to an outside audience is the most indigenous and distinctive, and the most tied to communicating cultural knowledge.

Communal Tradition vs Global Marketplace

There is an underlying conflict between the meaning and reproduction of tradition within a local community, and the demands of the global marketplace, which I’ve summarized in the chart below.


Cultural production becomes problematic when communal assets are no longer produced, judged, appreciated and supported by the members of a community but are commodities for an external audience. This raises a number of important issues: Who should be the arbiter of the aesthetics of that community? On what basis should old characteristics be dropped or changed, and new ones adopted?

I’m not advocating that Gaelic music tradition (or that of any people) should be fossilized and static; the historical summary above demonstrates very clearly that Gaels  encountered musical innovations in the past and negotiated adaptation on their own terms. Such negotiation is very difficult to do when a culture has an inferiority complex or no longer understands the historical development and internal logic of its own musical systems well enough to renew it when confronted by a culture that claims superiority.

“Celtic music” is simply the music produced by people who speak a Celtic language, and some groups have experimented with modern European forms like rock, jazz, and punk. Communities have to be able to express themselves in order to make sense of their own experiences, celebrate their successes and mourn their losses. For that process to be powerful and meaningful enough to capture the totality of real, lived experiences, musicians need to be able to draw on everything that is available to themselves and their audiences that connects them to their humanity and identity, and negotiate the process of production and meaning on their own terms and in their own languages – whether or not it can appeal to an outside audience and earn them big bucks.

Select Bibliography

Malcolm Chapman. “Thoughts on Celtic Music.” In Ethnicity, Identity and Music: The Musical Construction of Place, edited by Martin Stokes, 29-44. Berg: Oxford/New York, 1994.

John MacInnes. Dùthchas nan Gàidheal: Selected Essays of John MacInnes. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2006.

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

Gearóid Ó hAllmhuráin. “The Stranger’s Land: Historical Traditions and Postmodern Temptations in the Celtic Soundscapes of North America.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 187-208. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Scott Reiss. “Tradition and Imaginary: Irish Traditional Music and the Celtic Phenomenon.” In Celticisms: from Center to Fringe, edited by Martin Stokes and Philip Bohlman, 145-69. Scarecrow Press, 2003.

Heather Sparling. Puirt-a-Beul: An Ethnographic Study of Mouth Music In Cape Breton. MA thesis, York University (Toronto). 2000.

Cultural Appropriation: Gaels and other Natives

Showbiz antics this summer, especially Johnny Depp’s portrayal of Tonto in the Lone Ranger movie and Miley Cyrus’s MTV dance performance, have prompted necessary public discussions about cultural appropriation. It’s tempting to try to boost the hits to my blog by inserting provocative pictures from one of those entertainment enterprises, but you’ll have to settle instead for one of the scores of illustrations from romance novels featuring Highlanders (hopefully this will draw readers in droves) to prepare you for appropriations from “people of pallor.”


What do we mean by “Cultural appropriation”? The WikiPedia entry on Cultural Appropriation begins with an attempted definition:

Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It describes acculturation or assimilation, but can imply a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture.[1][2] It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and artreligionlanguage, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, can take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held.

The problem I have with this definition is that it is too broad, attempting to describe borrowing and exchanges of all sorts. The term “cultural appropriation” is used most often by critics to describe the co-opting of a cultural element in a context of asymmetrical power relations between two groups, where the more powerful group takes those elements for its own purposes, and the lesser group has no control over or benefit from that borrowing.

Scottish Gaelic culture (whose members in Scotland are known by the somewhat misleading moniker “Highland(er)”) has been subject to rampant cultural appropriation for centuries as a result of its subordination to anglophone culture in an anglocentric British empire. While the construction of Highlandism is a favourite topic of sociologists in a Scottish context, the vantage point is almost always external: the reaction of Gaels and impact upon Gaelic culture is almost never explored or even acknowledged. Similar examinations could be made on other Celtic groups, although I will confine my remarks to Scottish Gaels.

Systems of domination and exploitation have been well explored and articulated by scholars in the North American academy, but the fact that a particular set of western European empires developed imperialism and capitalism on this continent has led to a misleading racialization of issues, as though only “white” people can oppress and only people with “non-white” physical features can be victims. The construction of whiteness in North America since the 18th century has been a means of justifying privilege for a particular group by recourse to biological theories – this is certainly true – but the concept of race silences many forms of conflict and oppression that have nothing to do with race in reality. While scholars quickly and universally decry “wannabes” appropriating the cultural assets of First Nations/Indigenous Americans and people of African ancestry, they seem to celebrate the appropriation of the assets of Celtic people as legitimate entertainment. Again, the legacy of race seems to me to form the unspoken boundary, although I’d also expect that the scholars in question know nothing about, or have no empathy for, the struggles of Celtic-speaking communities to maintain their languages and cultures in the face of anglophone hegemony.

Much of what is written about cultural appropriation, marginalization and oppression of native peoples is applicable to the Gaelic historical experience to a surprising degree. This is not to equate the historical experiences of any two ethnic groups, given that forms of domination and subordination varied according to time, place and the players involved. The point of departure between Gaels and many other native groups – the divergence in their experiences of oppression and access to privileges – is exactly the construction of race and whiteness. And it is absolutely crucial to distinguish between Scottish Gaels and Lowland/anglophone Scots, particularly as Lowlanders were very keen to be recognized as bone-fide WASPs, as Anglo-Saxon as their English neighbours, in past centuries.

In this blog, I’ll explore a little bit of the cultural appropriation to which Scottish Gaels have been subject, how this relates to their subordinate position in the British polity, and how these processes contribute to marginalization and subservience. I’ll concentrate on two of the more popular forms of these reconstituted appropriations: tartan and Highland Dancing. (I could extend the analysis with Highland Games and other such nonsense, but I’m not getting paid to write this!)

To set the tone, I think it’s appropriate to quote from the online article “Why Tonto Matters”:

In order to justify the genocide against Native peoples in this country, we must be painted as inferior–that’s the colonial game. These images continue that process. The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress. These stereotypical images like Johnny Depp’s Tonto feed into this ongoing cycle, and until we demand more, our contemporary existence (and therefore the “real” problems in Indian Country) simply doesn’t exist in the minds of the dominant culture.

How can we expect mainstream support for sovereignty, self-determination, Nation Building, tribally-controlled education, health care, and jobs when the 90% of Americans only view Native people as one-dimensional stereotypes, situated in the historic past, or even worse, situated in their imaginations? I argue that we can’t–and that, to me, is why Tonto matters.


Tartan is a fabric that has spawned love and loathing, admiration and skepticism. As is well known, tartan was the textile par excellence of the Gaelic warrior, a symbol of Highland identity. For Gaels, the colors of a tartan were a sign of wealth, as Hugh Cheape has explained in recent research. (Hugh Trevor-Roper’s article in The Invention of Tradition about Scotland has caused much unnecessary confusion and misrepresentation of the true history of tartan, as well as numerous other things.)

The problem is not with the cloth itself, but its historical connotations and what they say about deep cultural divisions within Scotland. By the 17th century, the Lowlands (in broad brushstrokes) had come to align itself strongly with English social, religious and linguistic norms and notions of civilization. The Highlands were portrayed as a backwater of savagery, primitiveness and ignorance (we must be cautious as seeing these as ethnic conceits, not realities). On the other hand, some Lowlanders were worried that their identity and culture was being compromised and diluted by these growing English influences. Highlanders, some argued, were the “Old Scots,” who preserved ancient Scottish ways of life uncontaminated by these pressures.

Because tartan became a specifically Highland textile, and the Highlands were seen as pure and free of English influence, tartan was appropriated by Lowlanders in the 17th century as a symbol of Scottish royalism and identity. English cartoonists and polemicists stereotyped Scotland as a land of tartan, especially when depicting the Stuart dynasts – not making the nuanced division between Highlands and Lowlands. Little wonder, then, especially given that Gaels made up the bulk of Jacobite military forces, that tartan was closely associated with the Jacobite cause from the late 17th century onwards (Pittock 2010: 35-7).

The whole issue of the Jacobite Rising of 1745-6 is complicated because the Highlands had become divided politically by this time and many chieftains were in the pocket of the government, but there is plenty of evidence in Gaelic tradition that most Highlanders backed Prince Charles, in the hopes that his victory would bring relief to their oppression (Newton 2009: 34-6, 70-1). When the Battle of Culloden was lost in 1746, the government did its best to break the cultural independence of Gaeldom, assimilate it, and co-opt anything that would be of benefit to the empire. This necessarily meant converting Highland soldiers to the cause of the empire and diverting all military energies to that direction. Tartan and the kilt – previously emblems of Highland machismo – were banned for Highland civilian males and became the exclusive property of the British war machine (until the repeal of 1782, by which time the Highlands had been “pacified”). The Highlander, safely contained within the bounds of “civilization” – his territory and culture in the tight grip of the anglophone authorities –, could now be turned into a “noble savage” in imaginative literature.

The contradictions became especially pronounced in 1822, when popular author Walter Scott arranged King George IV’s first visit to Scotland. Once again, Lowlanders suffered from an insecurity that Scotland’s identity and culture were being threatened with extinction, but Highland culture offered a “well of resources” that was plundered to make the nation look distinct from England (even if plenty of Lowlanders were mortified and ashamed to be equated with the northern barbarians). A tartan outfit was made for the over-sized king himself and a market quickly emerged for tartan merchandise among the growing bourgeoisie. There was very little manufacture of tartan in the Highlands by this time, but Lowland industry was booming. Textile manufacturers in the Lowlands began fabricating “ancient” tartan patterns and claiming them to be the badges of particular clans, and filled their pockets in the process.

Today, tartan manufacture is a multi-billion pound industry still based in the Lowlands. Even though tartan was seen as a Highland cultural asset up to the early 19th century, when it was scorned, it has been out of Gaelic control for so long that there is no general feeling of ownership or identity about it. It can instead trigger the “Scottish cringe,” and cynicism.

The overuse of tartan by the tourist industry in Nova Scotia has brought about a similar ambivalence, and even disdain, amongst those in the Gaelic community. In fact, rather than try to reclaim the tartan, which has become such an empty stereotype, Nova Scotia Gaels have recently invented an emblem of their own (based on the ancient symbol of wisdom for the Gaels, the salmon).


Tartan enables the misperception that all that is necessary to “play a Highlander for a day” is to don a tartan or kilt. It is part of the “one-dimensional stereotype” that trivializes and exoticizes Gaelic culture, as though it were simply a means of escapism from the “real world” but has no substantial reality of its own. It need not be this way. Some Gaels have reclaimed tartan for the native symbol that it is – but it is very hard to hear their voices and opinions above that of the dominant anglophone culture, and this asymmetry is the problem.

Highland Dancing

I expect that most people engaged in what is commonly called “Highland Dancing” consider themselves to be respectfully learning and performing something rooted in the Scottish Highlands. After all, many of the dances require “traditional costume,” have names like “Flora MacDonald’s Fancy” and are performed at “Highland Games” – surely these are signs of authenticity?

Sadly not, as I have explained elsewhere. Actually, one of the complications is that there are many different dances placed under the “Highland Dancing” label, with different pedigrees and histories. A couple of them – Gille Chaluim and The Irish Washerwoman – probably do have some indigenous elements, but all of the dances are hybrid forms resulting from the intervention of modern formal dance technique, and most of them are entirely non-Highland in origin. So, to call these dances “Highland Dances” is misleading at best.

How can this innocent past-time, which is comprised mostly of young girls, be of any harm to Gaelic culture or the Gaelic community? The fact that it purports to represent Highland culture and history while taking careless liberties with it, and in fact misrepresenting and fabricating it, is highly problematic. Not only is there disregard for the spelling or pronunciation of Gaelic words when they do appear in the titles of dances (like Seann Triubhas, which is seldom spelled correctly), but the supposed “history” of the dances is often explained with some fictional story set in the “barbaric” past of the Highland clans, even for dances created in the last century and a half (long after the extinction of Gaelic clan society). The disjuncture of the “barbaric” past of the people from whom the dances were supposed to have been taken and the present day enables this form of entertainment. What better summary of cultural appropriation could we get than the opening paragraphs of an article on Highland Dancing by Alex McGuire, President elect of the Scottish Official Highland Dancing Association, in the booklet Scotland’s Dances (the proceedings of the 1994 Conference on the Diversity of the Scottish Tradition of Dance):

I’d like to begin by asking you what might appear to be an obvious question – just what is Highland Dancing? When Highland Dancing is mentioned, I suppose to the uninitiated a picture is conjured up of a hairy, war-like Highlander, arms raised aloft, emitting wild guttural sounds, as he leaps over and around the naked blades of claymores!

Well, possibly a few hundred years ago, this image could, in reality be seen in certain parts of Scotland, but I’m glad to say we are today a bit more civilised than the wild clansman of yesteryear and now look on Highland Dancing as a social and convivial art which is available to all!

How wonderful! Now that the “wild and wicked” Highlandmen (as they were often called by Lowlanders) have been conquered and their guttural language and primitive ways confined to the past, their assets can be appropriated as entertainment for everybody! This triumphalist view of the past completely disregards the historical experience of domination and conquest that allows the commodification of any Highland cultural element that the anglophone world wishes to “own” for itself. Let me reiterate a section from the article on “Why Tonto Matters”:

The dominant culture therefore continues to marginalize our peoples, to ignore and erase our existence. We are taught everyday, explicitly in classrooms, and implicitly through messages from the media, that our cultures are something of the past, something that exists in negative contrast to “western” values, and something that can be commodified and enjoyed by anyone with $20 to buy a cheap plastic headdress.

Of course, entry into the Highland Dancing circuit requires much more than $20: it’s a commercial industry which charges thousands of dollars for costumes, training, competitions, etc. And very few people who teach it or perform it can tell you a thing about Gaelic culture in the past or present, let alone make any meaningful contribution to the efforts of Gaelic communities in the present.

Like the tartan and kilt, discussed above, the representation of Highland Dance as a “civilized” version of a remote past serves to dissociate the past from the present by turning tradition (a highly artificial one at that) into an emasculated commodity completely divorced from reality.

The response that I usually get from people around these issues is: “Well, it’s just changed. Everything changes. Why fight change?” The problem is not change itself, but who is in charge of that change, who benefits from that change, and who stands to lose. As I have also explained in my article on the history of Highland Dance, any control that Gaels might have had over the art form was finally and completely wrested from them in the early 20th century. Any ability for the art form to represent variations of particular Highland locales or dance-masters, or specifically Gaelic aesthetics, was curtailed as it came under Lowland institutional control and became the standardized, fossilized, athletic competition it is today.

Why It Matters

The infamous Clearances in the Highlands were not just a process of physically dispossessing Gaels, they were also a process of dislocating them from the minds of Scots, especially those with power and privilege, and placing Gaelic culture firmly in the “dustbin” of history, where it need not concern or trouble any “civilized” person. There are still academic volumes being published by scholars on “Scottish” history and literature and any number of subjects which make no mention of Gaelic culture, as though Gaels were not bone-fide Scots or people who mattered.

The ethnocidal efforts of the anglophone world to destroy Gaeldom for more than four centuries has been quite effective, yet there are still Gaelic speakers in Scotland and Canada trying to sustain their language and culture in the 21st century. To make a living community thrive in all of its aspects can be complicated when its language and culture has been stigmatized, and many of its former assets appropriated and re-purposed by the dominant culture.

Again, to refer back to “Why Tonto Matters,” there are real pressing issues of social justice to be addressed in Gaelic communities, most of which are the consequences of centuries of oppression and dispossession. In the run-up to the referendum on independence in Scotland, the fact that the country is plagued by “the most inequitable land ownership in the west” has garnered some press lately, and of course these issues are particularly pronounced in Gaelic regions, where the peasantry had no political representation until 1886. Their language could not be used in courts and they were seen as an inferior race best used as worker drones, imperial soldiers or colonial castoffs.


As I have mentioned, the development of racialism and whiteness is what made the story of Gaels different from that of many other Native peoples, especially in the North American context (Newton 2013). Scottish Highlanders could abandon their language and culture, and invisibly adopt the identity and culture of the Englishman, and many of them did, as fast as they could. And those who accepted the conceit that the Gaelic language and culture were innately inferior, and that all progress was made by absorbing English civilization, made very effective servitor imperialists, inhibiting the ability of other subject people from retaining their distinctiveness (Newton 2011). But that is the subject of another blog entry.

Select Bibliography

Hugh Cheape. “ ‘Gheibhte breacain charnaid’ (‘Scarlet tartans would be got …’): The Re-invention of Tradition.” In From Tartan to Tartanry, edited by Ian Brown, 13-31. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

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

— “ ‘Paying for the Plaid’: Scottish Gaelic Identity Politics in Nineteenth-Century North America.” In From Tartan to Tartanry, edited by Ian Brown, 63-81. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

— “Celtic Cousins or White Settlers? Scottish Highlanders and First Nations.” In Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 5 / Fiftth Scottish Gaelic Research Conference, edited by Kenneth Nilsen, 221-37. Sydney: University of Cape Breton Press, 2011.

— “How Scottish Highlanders Became White: The Introduction of Racialism to Gaelic Literature and Culture.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 283-97. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Murray Pittock. “Plaiding the Invention of Scotland.” In From Tartan to Tartanry, edited by Ian Brown, 32-47. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.