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.