Folklife, North America, Scotland

Gaelic Tradition, Gender and Alcohol

Tradition is a two-edged sword. It can be a source of comfort and stability, connecting individuals to a larger supportive community and sense of continuity during times of anxiety and upheaval. It can also used as a rationale for entrenching the privileges of one group against the interests of another and perpetuating intolerance and inequities. Tradition is not an external, impersonal force causing certain things to happen: it is a matter of human agency. Individuals – especially those with power and influence – draw on tradition selectively and creatively in order to justify some agenda, and it is up to the community to decide whether that usage is justifiable or not.

In recent years, scientists have shown that many members of the animal world intentionally ingest substances which alter their states of consciousness. Perhaps the burden of consciousness is so high that we all need some way to escape periodically. I won’t speculate any futher on the reasons, but it is interesting that until synthetic drugs were manufactured in the mid-20th century, all of the substances that have been “abused” – alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, psilocybin, etc – come from cultures which had natural social constraints which limited their impact: i.e., they were limited to ritual use, to limited supplies of availability, to the impact they would have on self-sufficiency, etc. Many of those limiting factors have disappeared, and perhaps people’s ability to self-regulate has not kept up with those changes.

Alcohol specifically has a long history in Gaelic history for several purposes and contexts, and I’ve explored some of these issues in two previous books (A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World and Warriors of the Word), as well as in a forthcoming book (The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic). Here’s a short summary, First, offering it is an act of generosity, hospitality and social cohesion. Second, it was a means of commemorating and even communicating with the ancestral dead – the modern “toast” is a vestige of that. Third, it was a means of invoking an altered state of consciousness, a “high” which intensified the pleasant social conviviality of the occasions on which it was shared amongst hosts and guests. Finally, it provided a quick shot of warmth in a cold climate.

Is it natural and inevitable, then, that Scotland should be a land of rampant alcoholics and that the sons and daughters of Scotland should have similar profiles where alcohol is concerned? Does Gaelic tradition endorse and justify a high incidence of alcohol usage in any community of Highlanders or their descendants? I think not.

Substance abuse is a complex issue, and it would be unwise to attribute it to any single cause or factor. There are multiple entry points and many self-reinforcing factors, but in this blog I’d like to briefly show that the idea that we should question the assumption that Gaelic tradition endorses an (over-)indulgence of alcohol by looking at some literature from Nova Scotia, and then I’ll look at some recent research from Nova Scotia about the consequences and costs of this “tradition.”

The Evidence of Gaelic Song-Poetry

One of the most plentiful and important sources of information we have about Gaelic communities and individuals is song-poetry. These compositions reflect the daily lives and concerns of Gaelic communities, but they also reflect the personalities and aspirations of their specific composers. Song poetry was a constant presence in the lives of Gaels until very recently and cannot but have had a pervasive influence on their values, perceptions and world-view, just as television has had a pervasive influence on the lives of North American adults (and the internet is having on their children).

Whenever a dispute arose that needed communal consensus, a poet would chime in on the debate and put into poetic form one side of an argument. The song-poem could be performed and another poet might respond with his or her own case in verse. One of the favourite formats of these poems of persuation is the “dialogue” poem, which is meant to express both sides of a contention, but of course the poet usually crafted each side carefully so that one was the clear winner.

Numerous song-poems mark debates over items or practices recently introduced to Gaelic communities: tea, Sunday ferries, organs in church, even bagpipes (in the 17th century)! Should the item or practice be accepted into community life? Why or why not? Could it be modified to meet with communal values and aesthetics, or was it just too offensive to native sensibilities? The Temperance Movement had a huge impact on many different communities and had social, religious and moral dimensions, so it is no surprise that it was the subject of numerous Gaelic song-poems.

Before proceeding, however, it should be noted that Gaelic song-poetry complaining of the excesses of drink pre-date the modern Termperance movement by generations. (I’ve published some of it already and more will appear in The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic.) This again confirms that social norms and expectations were not only codified in verse but debated there as well.

According to Dunbar (2008: 81), the first temperance society in Gaelic Nova Scotia was established in Pictou County in 1828, and before long, the religious leaders (in both Catholic and Protestant communities) were pressuring their congregations to sign oaths of abstinence from alcohol. Some notable members of the community did not hold to their oaths long, and this also drew the attention of Gaelic songmakers.

This whole episode was the subject of several song-poems by some of the major poets of the day. Of the songs of two of the poets (Am Bard MacGillean and Domhnall “Gobha” MacGilleFhaolain), Dunbar (2008: 81-2) writes that they “viewed such prohibitions on drinking as slightly un-Gaelic […],” representing instead alcohol as a “core aspect of Gaelic culture; by contrast, promotors of temperance are portrayed as outsiders, and by inference, promotors of an alien culture.”

While this may be the idea that these poets are expressing in their poetry, we should not confuse the rhetorical strategies of these particular male authors – how they are justifying their own agendas – with social realities. Several other poets and poems show a different angle on the matter. A poem by Ailean “The Ridge” MacDhomhnaill from the same era (Rankin 2004: 142-5) is in the form of a debate – or scolding match – between wife and husband, with the wife rebuking him for the excessive costs of his drinking. His wife was a Highlander as well, so this was not an “outsider imposing an alien culture.”

In fact, there are many other Gaelic poems which verify the idea that, just like today, women bore the brunt of men’s excessive drinking and were critical of its negative effects. Another of the major poets of the era, Iain MacGilleBhràth (Iain am Pìobaire), composed a song entitled Gearan Bean an Amadain air a Fear “The compaint of a fool’s wife about her husband” (printed in Mac-Talla 25 Aug 1894). The song represents the poet coming home from a night on the spree, caught by his angry wife on entry. She enumerates the tolls of drink and although the husband is given one stanza to try to contain her reprimand in the middle of the composition, she is allowed to continue on and get the last word. She doesn’t insist that he desist altogether but to choose his companions wisely and exercise moderation.

Another anti-alcoholism song appeared in Mac-Talla (25 January 1901), this time by a woman (Barbara Friseal), entitled Òran Connsachaidh eadar Fear agus Bean mu’n Òl “A song of argument between a husband and wife about drinking.” As the title suggests, it is also in the structure of a dialogue and, as it was written by a woman, it is little surprise that she gets the first and last word. Although the husband insists that he is always drinking toasts in her honour, she reprimands him for his excesses and demands he reform himself.

In these songs, and others like them, women – just as Gàidhealach “Gaelic” as their drunken husbands – assert their worth and attempt to intervene in the excessive behaviours of their partners. Although women did not enjoy the same social status of men in Gaelic society, or have the same opportunities to occupy official roles of authority, enough of their capacity in “informal” institutions, such as the home, is reflected in Gaelic poetry to give voice to their perspectives on complex social issues such as this and should encourage us to think beyond the rhetoric of “a few great men.”

Gàidhealach no Gòrach?

Tradition may suggest norms and offer standards (always as a spectrum of multiple choices), but it is up to us to decide which of many options suit our interests best. Tradition exists to serve us as a community, individually and collectively, not to force us into a straight-jacket. Many Gaels have recognized this in the past. For example, Seumas MacNéill, editor of the Gaelic periodical An Solus-Iùil (printed in Sydney, Cape Breton), wrote in the issue of November 1925, “Tha caochladh chleachdaidhean aig treubhan an t-saoghail, cuid a tha feumail agus cuid nach eil” (“The peoples of the world have a variety of customs, some of which are useful and some of which are not.”) Such Gaelic writers were very capable of and willing to criticize behavior and mould tradition when they thought it necessary.

In earlier times, the process of setting social norms and values, and responding to external innovations, was negotiated from within Gaelic communities, particularly with social mechanisms such as the céilidh, with poets and elders serving as spokespeople and advocates. Nowadays, communal adhesion is broken, the authority of moderating elders is meaningless, and the external narratives of the mainstream anglophone world have greater weight and prestige than those inherited from the past.

One of the shortcomings of modern healthcare – both of physical and mental health – is that patients are examined and treated as individuals, rather than as members of a community whose wellbeing is affected by larger social dynamics. We are not just individuals but members of collectives, and when those collectives are dominated by narratives of inferiority, loss and inadequacy, individuals suffer as well, or seek ways to escape. This, more than anything else, I think, explains the high incidence of alcoholism that sometimes exists in Gaelic communities.

I’ve been living in Nova Scotia for the past five years. It is called “Canada’s Ocean Playground” on car license plates in the province, which I read as a sad statement that it only exists to serve the fancies and wish-fulfillments of Canadians elsewhere. It is the most rural of all Canadian provinces and the only with net depopulation. It also contains the last vestiges of Gaelic communities in North America. A report was issued in November 2011 entitled In Our Words: What Alcohol Use Looks Like In Our Towns, and it makes for sobering reading. Here are a few evocative extracts which describe particular locales and some general patterns (which cannot, of course, be attributed entirely to Gaels):

Per capita alcohol consumption in Nova Scotia rose 9.5% over the last 10 years. […] Nova Scotian men and women consistently drink more heavily than their Canadian counterparts. […] From domestic and sexual violence to common assault, property damage, vandalism, noise and disturbances, key informants across all three towns told us alcohol fuels crime. Police in Bridgewater and Antigonish attributed as much as three-quarters of crimes to alcohol. […] Our informants described a range of personal costs individuals experience because of alcohol, including lost potential, increased impulsivity, unintended pregnancies, risky sex, and inappropriate spending of household income on alcohol. We also heard concerns over the impact of alcohol on depression, anger and overall mental health.

This is not indicative of wellbeing and self-interest but symptomatic of deeper issues that have yet to be openly acknowledged and resolved. Gaelic tradition does not condone self-inflicted violence or abuse of others; it endorses good health, self-control, and self-esteem. It’s hard to imagine how self-reliant communities in an unforgiving environment would have survived otherwise.


I’m adding a postscript after a response from my friend and colleague Robert Dunbar, whose research I hope I have not misrepresented (he has edited the secular poetry of Iain MacGilleain, and written the most detailed overview of Gaelic poetry by Scottish Highland immigrants to North America to date). As he reminds me, even the poetry of Iain MacGilleain which rejects temperance recognizes the stupidity of the excess of drinking. The key is moderation, and this is fairly explicit in the poetry by women as well.

My thoughts on this topic were also inspired by long discussion with my friend Alastair McIntosh, the great writer and eco-spiritual poet-shaman of Govan, Scotland, who shared with me a very disturbing report about the epidemic of substance abuse in Scotland and the social costs to the nation. What could be at the root of such pronounced cultural ills – paralleled by the lowest youth self-esteem in western Europe, according to the World Health Organization – but a national narrative of defeat and inferiority?

You can also see the 2007 report on alcohol abuse in Nova Scotia in general.


Robert Dunbar. “Poets of the Emigrant Generation.” Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness 64 (2008): 22-125.

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

Michael Newton. A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000.

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

The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, forthcoming.

Effie Rankin. Ás a’ Bhràighe: Beyond the Braes. Sydney: Cape Breton University Press, 2004.