Modern, Scotland

Highland Clearances – 2

I have already stressed that much modern historical writing about the Clearances – the era when Gaels were forcibly dispossessed, relocated, and assimilated into the socio-economic norms of the anglophone world – is marred by the fact that so few who do this scholarship can read the many Gaelic sources that offer an insight into how Gaels perceived and reacted to the things that they experienced. Documents in English tend to reflect and reinforce the negative stereotypes and prejudices about the Gaels, and this can invisibly distort evidence and perceptions in favour of the anglophone establishment and against the Gaels.

Still, there are some interesting sources in English written by Gaels that have rarely if ever been used to examine these events. One of the more interesting of these is an extensive poem (roughly 150 pages long) entitled The Grampians Desolate by Alexander Campbell, published in 1804 (which can be read online at this link). This provides some important commentary on what was happening in the Highlands in the 18th century.

Campbell is a very interesting figure. He was a native Gaelic speaker born in 1764 on Loch Lùbnaig, the southern most edge of the Highlands when it was still predominantly Gaelic-speaking. He spent several years collecting Gaelic songs and melodies throughout the Highlands and Western Isles, published some of these songs in books (such as Albyn’s Anthology), and was an early collaborator with Walter Scott.

Moved by the unjust treatment of the Gael, Campbell was moved to publicize their plight to an anglophone audience. His book The Grampians Desolate was intended not just to raise awareness but to raise funds for displaced Highlanders who would be settled on reclaimed waste lands: “the foundation of a Fund for the aid of industrious Peasants, and Tradesmen.” (Note that Campbell uses the term “Grampians” in this work to denote the Highlands as a whole, and not a specific region of it as in current usage.)

Campbell’s poem (as forced and laboured as it sometimes is) and extensive endnotes are well worth reading, although his speculations on antiquarian matters are not always correct in terms of modern scholarship. Regardless, many of his comments on recent and contemporary matters are very incisive. However, this blog entry will deal with dispossession of the Gaels physically and geographically.

Economic production, social structure, cultural production, and human ecology were all tightly interwoven in the (so-called) “Highland clan system,” so it is very interesting to see how Campbell’s observations critique the impositions of the anglophone world on Gaeldom in a variety of ways. He notes the decline of Gaelic indigenous knowledge and cultural practices that accompanied these dramatic socio-economic rearrangements, as well as the impact upon the local flora and fauna. One of his first endnotes explains Highland class structure, traditional rights of landholding and sense of place:

The ancient usage, privilege, or right of the Gael, which, simply considered, amounts to neither more nor less than inheriting, as they were wont time immemorial, their Dùthchas, or hereditary possessions in the order already specified, according to their proximity to the Chief, of whom the chieftains, heads of families, or principal tacksmen, sub-tenants, viz. small farmers, crofters and cottars, held their lands and places of abode. … This then was the order of the subdivision of land, according to ancient usage, privilege, or right, of the several classes of the inhabitants of the Hebrides and Grampian mountains, till within these forty or five-and-forty years; when those rights were disregarded; and the dùthchas of the tacksman which had descended from father to son for many generations, as a species of patrimony, sacred as the heritage of the proprieter himself, was completely abolished. (168-9)

Campbell acknowledges that many Gaels have “chosen” to emigrate to North America and improved their lot greatly there, but that the “push” factors (the problems that drove them away from home) were a very significant element in that so-called “choice”:

It is a matter of infinite regret, that those representations respecting the easy purchase of lands in North America, have seduced many, (particularly those who felt the evils of rack-rent from year to year press on them with accumulated hardships), to leave their native country, in order to become proprietors in a corner of the United States, where taxes are next to nothing … (175)

As a native of the region, Campbell was very familiar with the southern Highlands and its recent history. He provides a short history of the  impact of sheep-keeping in the Highlands, tracing the socio-economic experiment from the southern tip and moving northward.  In 1759, he explains, trials in keeping lowland sheep on the southern extention of the Highlands near Callander in Menteith were profitable enough that they were soon extended further into the Highlands.

Soon after these attempts to introduce the alien, or black-faced Linton breed of sheep into the highlands, several shepherds from the hilly districts of south or Scottish border, took large tracts of country for sheep-walks; and among the first who ventured within the confines of the Grampian hills was one Lackwyne, who went to Cowal in Argylshire. Not long after this adventure, other two of the name of Murray, who came somewhere from the Border, settled in Glenfallach and Glendochart in Perthshire; and a short time thereafter, one Lindsay stocked a considerable stretch of country near Locheirin-head, in the same country. From these beginnings, then, we date the sheep-store system, which within the last twenty years has spread so rapidly in every direction; and which at present threatens to extirpate not only the native breeds of sheep and black cattle, but even the ancient race of the Gael, the “bold peasantry” of our mountains and western isles. (210)

His local perspective on events in the 18th century are quite valuable and accord with Gaelic sources upon which I’ll be remarking in a later blog entry.

It’s also very interesting to me that he is critical (to a degree, at least) of the impact of colonization on native peoples as the empire was expanding: while exchange (commercial and cultural) between peoples was a positive outcome of exploration, he seems to disapprove of colonial domination. (Note in this quote that the term “adventurers” was used of explorers actively seeking to colonize and exploit lands that don’t belong to them.)

The discovery of India and America forms one of those epochs in the history of mankind, which give a turn to the intellectual, but more especially to the active feelings of the soul. Any one the least conversant in ancient and modern history is fully aware that the predominant passions of adventurers are, inordinate ambition and an ungovernable degree of avarice; which certainly debase the mind, and stifle the generous emotions that exalt human nature, and distinguish the individual. (208)

Campbell is connecting the deleterious changes in the Highlands to those elsewhere, especially in the verses to which this endnote are attached.

In the next blog entry I will  point out some Gaelic sources predating 1800 that make similar comments about the impact of so-called “improvement.”

North America

Scottish Studies in North America

Blind-Spots, Exclusions and Academic Apartheid

As Scotland moves towards independence and projecting a national identity on the world stage, centres of intellectual activity devoted to Scotland’s history and cultural achievements gain new significance in legitimating it as a sovereign entity with distinctive characteristics and unique contributions. Not only is the field of Scottish Studies within Scotland becoming more interested in the history of diasporic movements out of the country, but there are increasing efforts to develop positions or centres of Scottish Studies in other countries, especially those where “Scottish influence” has been notable.

Certain Scots have played powerful roles in, and made prominent contributions to, both the United States and Canada (although we should be careful about automatically registering “pride” for all of their exploits). One major problem to date in understanding these roles and contributions is that Gaelic has been virtually excluded from the conventional practice of “Scottish” Studies. If the subjects of enquiry are effectively limited to the Lowlands and no Gaelic materials consulted, the associated chairs, programmes, and departments should be labelled as “Scottish Lowland Studies” rather than “Scottish.”

While the situation has improved somewhat over the last decade or so, there are still many books and articles about history, literature, music, etc. being published which claim to be about “Scotland” or “Scottish” topics, but which do not acknowledge the existence of, or incorporate perspectives from, Gaelic society and culture in the periods in question. Doing so, of course, requires appropriate training that has typically been the responsibility of Celtic Studies departments and specialists in the past, but this is no excuse for propagating the colonial pretence that Gaelic is somehow less worthy, less cultured, and less Scottish than the rest of the country, and therefore does not merit inclusion.

The exclusion of Gaelic on its own merits from research on the formation of Canada, in particular, is inexcusable. At the time of confederation (1867), Gaelic was the third-most spoken European language in the Dominion (Dembling 2006). Significant immigrant communities could be found in every province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While most of these have since assimilated into the dominant anglophone or francophone majority around them, there are still many documentary and cultural remains from these communities that offer unique insights into their values, beliefs, experiences, hopes and fears (Newton 2013).

These Gaelic communities and their cultural expressions were distinctive from their Lowland peers. While Gaels are Scots, they are a distinctive group that require particular training to study properly; they are Gaels first and foremost, and cannot be lumped together with all Scots in a generic manner (Newton 2011a). However, given that there is no-one within North American centres of “Scottish Studies” with the skills to read, analyze and interpret these materials, the rate of progress and amount of output about these issues has been abysmally slow.

Too often, if Gaelic texts are used at all, it is only in translated excerpts in English to illustrate the pre-determined conclusions of the author (Kennedy 1999). Research into Scottish Highland immigrant communities in North America needs to employ primary sources produced in Gaelic as foundational evidence, rather than decoration. There are many such sources which await proper scrutiny, and doing so will allow many new lines of research to be developed which allow a degree of detail and intimacy that is simply not available in anglophone sources. As there are no practicing Scottish Studies academics with the skills for handling Gaelic materials, however, there is no ability within the North American academy to train the next generation of scholars who might take up this virtually untouched field and develop it properly in the future.

It is possible that the existing programmes of Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph and Simon Fraser University could continue to develop, and there is talk of endowing a chair of Scottish Studies at McGill University. Do those lobbying for and appointing these positions understand the importance of including Gaelic as a fundamental skill in this research? I have spoken too often in the past with supporters of these schemes who were resigned to the idea that Gaelic is a low priority and will never be properly supported. Will a new and more self-confident Scotland allow such continued neglience and apartheid? I hope not.

2018 Post-Script

The main improvement in the situation since 2013 has been the appointment of Dr James Fraser in 2015 at the Centre for Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph. His engagement with research on early Scotland is of an inherently Celtic and Gaelic nature, and he has aspirations to further develop a Gaelic dimension at the Centre (see statement in this newsletter). However, there is little sign of improvement elsewhere. In fact, the creation of a chair in McGill University in Montreal seems to be focused on the development of business and banking.

Select Bibliography

Jonathan Dembling. “Gaelic in Canada: new evidence from an old census.” In Cànan & Cultur / Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 3, edited by Wilson McLeod, James Fraser and Anja Gunderloch, 203-14. Edinburgh, Scotland: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006.

Michael Kennedy. “ ‘Lochaber no more’: A Critical Examination of Highland Emigration Mythology.” In Myth, Migration and the Making of Memory: Scotia and Nova Scotia c.1700-1990, edited by Marjory Harper and Michael Vance, 267-97. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999.

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

Michael Newton. “Beyond the single narrative: The Scottish Gaelic legacy in Canada.” History Scotland 11.5 (Sept/Oct 2011b): 46-50.

Michael Newton. “Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 76-93. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Clothing, Modern

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.

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.


Launching the blog

As part of re-entering the Digital Humanities world, I’m launching this blog, which I’m calling The Virtual Gael, playing on various associations of the term “virtual.”

  • I was not born into a Gaelic-speaking family or community, but have learnt to speak, read and write Gaelic fairly well. Am I virtually a Gael? (Let’s leave those worms in the can. I only refer to myself as a Gaelic speaker.)
  • I see my work as contributing to Gaelic communities’ cultural reclamation efforts – although the members of these communities and the resources involved are widely dispersed. Nowadays, social media enables global communication and collaboration so that users can form “virtual communities.”
  • I exploit digital tools and technology – “virtual technologies” – to create content and carry out my research.

So, I’ll be using this blog to weave several different strands of my work and thought processes together. It will allow me:

  • To share my work on digital tools and content and solicit your responses. My next blog post will be about my new digital humanities project, which I’m currently calling Celtic Poets in North America.
  • To share odd bits of Scottish Gaelic research and ideas that don’t necessarily fit into scholarly journals. For example, in another post coming up soon I’ll reveal a Gaelic poem composed by a native of the Isle of Bute that I came across lately: tobar ainneamh is annasach!
  • To express my opinions about Gaelic revitalization, the neglect of Celtic sources in academia (especially in North America), the misrepresentation of Celtic peoples (especially Scottish Gaels) in popular culture, and the need to apply modern critical methods (especially post-colonialism) to modern Celtic Studies in North America.
  • To review and discussion new publications (my own and those of others).
  • To discuss anything else that yanks my chain, rocks my boat, or chaps my hide. Fire faire!

And, by the way, I can’t write polished text at one go — I find myself rewriting and editing blogs for at least another day after my initial draft!