Filling The Gaelic Gap: Cultural Reclamation and Revival In The Diaspora

NYFGThis is the first in a series of Bletherskite blog posts that we like to call “Not Your Father’s Gaelic”. We briefly introduced the series a few weeks back. The broad goal of the NYFG project is to provide needed support and energy for a growing Gaelic cultural and language revitalization movement within the Scottish Diaspora and in Scotland. NYFG will be spreading the gospel in pursuit of filling the Gaelic Gap in Scottish history and heritage and in keeping the Gaelic language alive.

Just to get us all on the same page before going too far forward, lets talk a little about what and where Scottish Gaelic culture is found in history and where it is today. Gaelic culture set a permanent foothold on the western Scottish mainland around the 4th century A.D., not too long after the Romans abandoned ship and went back to Rome. It is generally acknowledged that in 843 A.D. Kenneth MacAlpine gained control of the Gaelic and Pictish portions of what we today call Scotland and began a ruling Gaelic dynasty in North Britain that lasted relatively unscathed until the 12th century. In 1124 A. D. Scottish King David I began aggressively to supplant the Kingdom of Alba’s Gaelic culture in Scotland with Anglo Norman culture, language, institutions and individuals . The result was the birth of a Kingdom of Scotland that was and continued to be solidly Anglo-Norman at the top end, albeit equipped with a rather independent national mindset.

Extent of Gaelic culture & language 15th Century.  Blue = Gaelic, Yellow = Scots, Orange = Norn

15th Century Gaelic culture. Blue = Gaelic, Yellow = Scots, Orange = Norn

The force of the Anglo-Norman flood into and through the Gaelic world was sudden and massive when David, a Gael by only the slimmest of threads and with considerable support from the English King, added the Gaelic Kingdom of Scotland to his existing title and allegiance as Prince of Cumbria and right hand man to England’s King Henry I. From that point forward the Kingdom of Scotland and Scotland’s indigenous Gaelic culture and civilization began a centuries long divergence from one another. The divide can still be seen today.

Despite not seeing eye to eye with the increasingly Anglo-Norman influenced Scottish Kingdom, a distinct and very vibrant Gaelic culture and civilization resisted assimilation and continued to blossom reaching its greatest Scottish inflorescence with the Finlaggan based Lordship of the Isles during the 14th and 15th centuries. Despite the more limiting name and reputation, the Lordship of the Isles was not a civilization limited to a single clan – Clan Donald – nor was it limited by the geographical extent of Scotland’s western islands. Rather, the protection and influence of the Gaelic Lordship extended across much of the remaining Gaelic speaking portions of Scotland.

Gaelic speakers reflected in Scottish decennial census 1891 - 2001

Gaelic speakers reflected in Scottish decennial census 1891 – 2001

Unfortunately the Lordship collapsed near the close of the 15th century and began to suffer open and direct Scottish anti-Gaelic policies ranging from forced assimilation to extermination. Despite reductions caused by the persistent implementation of an anti-Gaelic mindset, native Gaelic culture and language has not been extirpated and it survives in the far western Scottish mainland and in the Hebrides. Today efforts aimed toward Gaelic cultural and language revitalization are well underway and even supported to a certain degree by the Scottish government.

Beginning in the 17th century and over the course of the following two and a half centuries, a significant Gaelic diaspora left Scotland and became planted in the New World. We are the progeny of that Diaspora. With perhaps the sole exception of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada and perhaps a few small pockets elsewhere in that Commonwealth nation, native Gaelic culture and language have disappeared from New World shores.

The point of a Scottish Gaelic revitalization movement in places like America is not to create a warlike tattooed ethnic Gaelic mob that overtakes our present federal government and issues broad swords, great kilts and bagpipes to all citizens no matter how much fun that seems like it would be. The principal point is to join in the movement to save Scotland’s indigenous culture – our culture – from extinction (an event which lies not that distant on the Gaelic horizon) and to ensure that Gaelic culture remains alive and expanding in the Gaelic ancestral homeland and across the Gaelic world. By engaging in this journey with and in support of our Gaelic brothers and sisters in Alba our own interests will be enriched in previously unanticipated ways – more on that below.

Members of the Gaelic Diaspora are descendants of a distinctive indigenous culture that has been forced to fight for its own intellectual sovereignty and cultural autonomy since the 12th century. The remarkable thing is it is still fighting.

So to begin the project, and again, just to ensure that we are all starting from the same place with regard to what we are discussing and why, here’s NYFG’s Gaelic Cultural Revitalization elevator speech (this is the Empire State Building version):

1.  Scottish heritage presents the potential for far more diversity than what is generally reflected at modern Scottish heritage celebrations and what is understood by the Scottish Diaspora. Scottish heritage, as practiced today, is but a narrow slice of the potential world of Scottish heritage that is yet to be uncovered and reclaimed. What we celebrate today is primarily a monochrome reflection of the Walter Scott-ish romanticized Scotland – heavy on the Highlands – that British Victorian culture appreciated as fashionable in the mid 19th century and that has been perpetuated by the mainstream of 19th and 20th century Scottish historical writing. The rich and vibrant Gaelic culture is rarely if ever acknowledged and explained.

2.  Our current understanding of Scottish heritage is incomplete and includes a good deal of mis-information. There is truth and important substance in today’s understanding and performance of Scottish heritage but it must be teased out of the larger romanticized picture and when found it presents only anglicized, truncated and incomplete versions of important historically based events.

3.  There is actually a very rich and largely untapped back-story to the Scottish heritage that we actively celebrate today. The back-story is the story of a native Gaelic culture that has for centuries been resisting but ever retreating westward through the lifeless remains of abandoned Gaelic identities of assimilated Celtic brothers and sisters – new “Scots”. Since the 12th century the history of Scotland has been the history of the competition between an aggressively expansionist and ultimately imperial Anglo-Norman culture in England and a persistently resilient native Gaelic culture that had been present in numbers in North Britain since the 4th century and in possession and cultural control of most of modern Scotland since the 9th century. That competitive story continues to shape Scottish events and culture to this day.

4.  Gaelic Lives. One of the oft repeated falsehoods of today’s version of Scottish heritage is the perception that “Gaelic is dead.” We are told with sadness that the Gaelic culture (whatever that was is not important) died along with the clan system in 1745 following a systemic illness that began in the 17th century. Even worse, we are fed the story that wild unfriendly isolated unlearned Gaelic tribes without art or a reasonable religion failed because the progress of human civilization depended upon a conversion of such savages to Britannia. Good job Britain and good riddance to the scruffy Gaelic culture. The reality is that Gaelic culture and therefore our Gaelic heritage is certainly not dead and never has been. Indeed, there presently is a strong Gaelic revival and revitalization movement growing in Scotland and across a global Gaelic diaspora.

5.  Our generations’ task: Filling the Gaelic Gap. Our parents and grand parents left us with a vibrant, proud, colorful edition of Scottish heritage that is actively celebrated across the globe at hundreds of annual highland games, Burns Suppers and on St. Andrews Day. Of many achievements, perhaps their most important contribution in the long term was to keep the fire lit and to bring an awareness of Scottish heritage to a broader base of people. The next step – and our generation’s duty – is to fill in the Gaelic back-story and to do all that we can to support the revitalization and re-invigoration of our global Gaelic culture in the Gaelic homeland and abroad.

6.  Benefits of Gaelic Revitalization in the Diaspora: The benefits of this multi-lifetime, multi-generational endeavor are clear and compelling:

  • Participating in a broad-based Gaelic cultural revitalization movement will result in a more diverse, complete and precise understanding of Scottish heritage that speaks to a broader range of the Scottish Diaspora, particularly including younger generations.
  • The process of regaining a solid ethnic connection by shining a new light and energy on a threatened ancestral culture results in a boosted sense of ethnic pride, usefulness and community and a greater tolerance and capacity to understand other ethnicities, including other native ethnic groups who have suffered fates similar to the Gael sometimes at the hands of displaced Gaels themselves.
  • Gaining a better understanding and focus on the complete picture of our Scottish heritage is likely to yield improved relationships with many native Gaels who hold a differing view of the Victorian expression of Scottish heritage. We too often blindly celebrate processes, results, individuals and activities that have caused and continue to cause great tension in Scotland even today. Even though the Diaspora is willing to bury the hatchet so to speak, there are many in Scotland who suffer a still open wound and are much less prepared to let it go.

Summing it up and looking ahead. The Diaspora’s first and primary contribution to the Gaelic revival should be the reclamation of Gaelic culture and language within our own national boundaries. It was here and now it’s gone. It’s well worth recovering. Further, the more of us that are prepared and have the capacity to support the Scottish Gaelic revival as it occurs in Scotland the better. This is our niche. In terms of new research and work, that’s where we should start – in our own backyards.

Well, here’s a problem. In America and for the most part for the global Diaspora we will be starting from scratch in terms of reclaiming a Gaelic cultural legacy and we simply are not prepared to do that.

Gaelic culture disappeared from our shores almost immediately, usually within a generation or two of arrival. There were pockets of resiliency of course and some of those lasted even into the early 20th century. Today Gaelic language and the culture that goes along with it is pretty much gone as far as native Gaelic speakers in the New World.

The disappearance of Gaelic culture so quickly and so completely from diaspora shores is a bit of a puzzle itself. Gaelic culture and language arrived in significant force in the New World in a robust and healthy condition on the tongues of some of the increasingly rare native Gaelic speakers then remaining in Scotland. Those who arrived in the New World with their Gaelic identity intact were those whose families had held onto their Gaelic heritage come hell or high water through centuries of harassment in Scotland. And then it was gone.

That is a story that yet needs to be told. For now, it is sufficient to note that Scottish Gaelic studies in the Diaspora will essentially be looking back through the centuries and starting from near ground level to build up the story from there. It is easy and accurate to lament the present lack of scholarly resources available to help tell the Gaelic Diaspora story. Its worse than that. We don’t presently have the academic and scholarly capacity to tell that story. To identify what it is from its own expressions in its own language. To learn it and understand it and then tell it. We can’t do that. We don’t have a single Scottish studies program in North America that is equipped to investigate, analyze and relate the Gaelic story in the New World. Period. Not one. Not a single one. Not one program, not one scholar. Rectifying that deficiency is step number one. There will be more on that subject in the very next Not Your Father’s Gaelic blog post.

In the meanwhile get a better handle on this sad state of affairs here.

Want to learn more about Gaelic Revival in Scotland?

Although seriously endangered and having lost language speakers steadily for many years, some of the most recent statistics are showing an uptick in the success of Gaelic revitalization efforts in Scotland. Recently an English speaking dad whose children are learning Gaelic on Skye told the New Statesman “There has always been an impression that Gaelic is a bit of a nostalgic, inward-looking culture, but it seems to have a lot of energy and passion behind it now.”

Continue learning here.


3 thoughts on “Filling The Gaelic Gap: Cultural Reclamation and Revival In The Diaspora

  1. Sine McKenna

    Hi Susan,
    Thank you for a great article and one I will definitely use with my students in our Celtic Studies programme at The University of Ottawa. We teach Irish and Scots Gaelic language and traditions as well as Welsh. We used to offer the Breton language,but unfortunately there wasn;t enough interest.

    The Chair was founded by Dr. Gordon MacLennan in the 1970s and Dr. Pawl Birt, his successor, has done a first class job offering courses of a high caliber and ensuring that the authentic cultures of the these languages are taught. We have several hundred students who enroll in our courses each year and offer a minor in Celtic Studies.

  2. Chas Mac Donald

    The idea? Fair. The approach? Lacking in any real meaningful substance. Why? Because there is no such thing as Gàidhlig culture. There is culture practiced or forms expressed through Gàidhlig, but making the language totemic is a fundamental problem at the beginning, and ine which will do damage down the line. It is no more accurate or useful than to say Highland culture. Or Scottish culture. These things are overarching category errors. Culture is determined by people and their actions, and their actions are determined by their interactions, or connections. The language is far too big, used in far too many spheres, to be a useful tool for understanding the culture(s) it is posited to represent. The only way to understand culture is in its forms. Song culture, for instance, will have influences from at least three main sources. If we are to accept that the diaspora are Scots (in itself a very contestable idea), then we have to accept that the Scottish forms of culture in the diaspora as they evolved two and three plus generations after emigration, will have other influences. So Gàidhlig automatically becomes a bit part, albeit a fairly important one.

    What we have here is a clutching at a totem. This is not a bad thing in its intent. Far from it. And much to be admired. But it will restrict the scholarly ambition. Or it will become so diverse that this anchor point will cease to have any meaning.

    An old man came to my parents several years back from Nova Scotia. He was a lobster creeler, much like we have plenty of on the west coast. He was taken out for a day with a local creeler. His host was of east coast heritage. Neither spoke Gàidhlig. But they shared cultural practices through their activities. Are these two to be excised from this conversation? I certainly doubt that is the intent.

    In short, be careful about the lens used to inspect the object. If it is only rose tinted, you’ll get no further than a rose tinted outcome. And at least somewhere you indicated that was not the goal. The music culture … music, not song … has a completely different language attached. Pìobaireachd does not use the language of man, but relies on other languages. That should be confirmation enough.


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