Gaelic, Not Gaelic: Two Scotlands two Diasporas

NYFGIf one looks at Scotland from a certain perspective, it is completely possible to identify two distinct worlds co-existing under one Alban sky. A close reading of north Britain human history reveals about 1,300 post-Roman years of a multi-cultural, multi-lingual, dynamic melting pot of Gaelic, Pict, Norse, Briton and finally Anglo Saxons and Normans. Rich, diverse, cultural intersection. So long as your village wasn’t burned, but even then … every century has one or two of its own challenges.

Eventually, however, history runs into an 18th century nation that has been steadily reduced to a bi-cultural, bi-lingual majority/minority society that even today hosts a societal element that prefers to reduce cultural diversity even further. An onlooker can see a Scotland that has been assimilated and strained of its former native cultural richness in such a way as to yield only two distinct products. Gaelic. Not Gaelic.

Sadly, Gaelic is the only non-Anglo culture that heavily influenced Scotland throughout history that actually persists as a vibrant human community in Scotland, natively speaking it’s own language. That is a tremendous achievement. Today’s Gaelic community in Scotland is remarkable for its tenacity in the face of an astoundingly backward opposition to Gaelic language speakers’ rights.

Now, hop across the pond. In the United States we find the Scottish diaspora suffering the same unbalanced and troublesome cultural pattern. Today’s Scottish American heritage tradition developed in the 19th and 20th centuries largely without contribution from scholarly Gaelic study and increasingly outside of native Gaelic culture including language.

In the United States, genuine understanding of Gaelic immigrant history and culture simply does not exist as the history is almost entirely yet to be written. What an awful – but real – state of affairs: Scottish Americans do not yet have access to resources necessary to understand and appreciate the reality of our distinct Gaelic heritage and identity. And we have largely lost our language, despite the thousands of Gaels who emigrated here living and speaking Gaelic when they arrived. What we can see of the culture is awesomeness. There is so much more yet to reveal.

In light of the lack of Gaelic influence, it isn’t surprising that it has been effectively argued that the Scottish diaspora is the world’s leading brand ambassador for the classic Scottish image of romanticized Tartanry and military Highlandism. That is not the sin. This is the sin: Contrary Gaelic intrusions into the popular story lines are usually discouraged as being political or, boring, or quaint, or worse yet, absolutely useless and of no interest, as Gaelic is often misunderstood to be a dead end that was properly deposited in the unrecoverable past ages ago.

My Gaelic immigrant ancestor came to America in 1776 from Inverness. He was almost certainly bilingual, speaking at least Scottish Gaelic and English, possibly Scots and likely other languages as well. Many like him came here as Gaels with Gaelic families that were left behind in Scotia. Once in North America, Gaelic immigrants spawned families each of which now number in the multi-hundreds, if not thousands in some cases. Sadly, we descendants have largely been reduced to blandly monolingual Scottish Americans, speaking English only – because that is what Americans are supposed to do.

So how should I approach today’s tartan clad, country dancing, claymore swinging Scottish heritage tradition that is so unlike my own actual Gaelic heritage? Simply stated, the Scottish heritage celebrated today is not a celebration of my culture. In many ways, it is a celebration of the marginalization of my culture.

The trend is this: studies have found that those who have become deeply interested in their real Gaelic heritage simply do not mix, by and large, with the highland games and Burns Supper crowd which is where so many people go to learn about and celebrate a Scottish heritage that is new to them. Two Scotlands; two Diasporas.

Today’s active mainstream Scottish Americans understand and celebrate a snapshot of Scotland. A slice only, and too much of it just simply made up or terribly misinformed but understood to be real and perpetuated. The Scottish American community could easily be moving to change, adapt, innovate and update to integrate new scholarship and to support new research as well as to aggressively support and encourage Gaelic language learners. A strong Gaelic American movement could help that to happen.

The truth is, the mainstream stuff is not selling very well to most Scottish Americans, especially the very savvy younger ones. On the other hand, the Outlander stuff is attractive, not in small part because it portrays Gaelic language and culture in a primary, accurate and unromanticized form. And Jamie Fraser.

The active and interested Scottish American heritage community is aging and by all indications it is not growing. As a leader in that community I used to be quite concerned about the internally acknowledged fact that younger people aren’t buying it as much as they need to. Young folks are staying away from what can often be a rigid unwelcoming sometimes nonsensical Scottish American world in droves. Oh the hand wringing.

The good news is, I no longer care so much about that part of the Scottish American world that is rigid, unwelcoming, and nonsensical, because there is an awesome true Gaelic heritage scurrying about in the wings and ready to explode with new awareness and youthful vitality. This is where Gaels’ work should focus. It is not antithetical to the Scottish clan heritage but it is not satisfied with Anglo-centrism or fantasy.

Today’s Anglo-Scottish tradition may be a valid cultural and heritage expression. It is a tradition of fairly recent birth. It doesn’t celebrate my Scottish heritage; it shuns or is indifferent to Gaelic heritage. Accepting it is like asking someone of Lakota Sioux ancestry to be satisfied describing themselves as an “early American”. It simply is not in my DNA.

For today’s Gael, congeniality with the dominant Scottish tradition is one thing; celebration of it is yet another. Everyone is free to choose. But continuing to allow today’s form of Scottish heritage to overshadow and prevent further understanding of Gaelic heritage is a third thing altogether and comes with very negative consequences for Scottish cultural celebration. The solution is more focus and initiative on Gaelic culture and language – Gaelic heritage.

Here is what is in my DNA: Gaelic history and heritage. Despite it being overshadowed and largely forgotten for so long, Gaelic culture in America is not gone. Further, the historical and cultural resources necessary to recover and reclaim Gaelic American history, culture and language are available and bursting with new information – much of it written in Gaelic. We can do this.

It is critical to understand that for my family and many others, the loss of Gaelic culture happened on our side of the Atlantic. People came to British North America and then the United States as Gaels but the culture failed to make it past the first two or three generations here. It is completely appropriate that I be interested in – not to mention a bit disturbed by – the loss of our family’s Gaelic culture particularly because it happened here, and not so very long ago.

Now as much as ever, Americans who have Gaelic ancestry should be delighted to understand themselves as Gaelic Americans. We should see and hear that term more and more often. In addition to or exclusive of Scottish American identity. And it’s not a bad idea for me and other Gaelic-Americans to spend time and interest in reconnecting with our Gaelic past. And supporting Gaelic language and culture revitalization initiatives that will help us give those young cousins who come after us a better understanding of their Gaelic heritage and identity.

Get Your Gaelic On!



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5 thoughts on “Gaelic, Not Gaelic: Two Scotlands two Diasporas

  1. Susan McIntosh Post author

    I am chuffed that the new blog post “Gaelic, Not Gaelic” has stimulated great discussion on social media. There has been an occasional misinterpretation of the message, however, and it is easily cured here.

    A few folks have taken away the thought that Gaelic, Not Gaelic expresses the view that “Tartanry” (to use a nickname for a large concept) is “the enemy” of Gaelic American progress. On the contrary, the blog’s message in that respect is expressed in a few places within the blog, including this:

    “[Tartanry in the Scottish Diaspora] is not the sin. This is the sin: Contrary Gaelic intrusions into the popular story lines are usually discouraged as being political or, boring, or quaint, or worse yet, absolutely useless and of no interest, as Gaelic is often misunderstood to be a dead end that was properly deposited in the unrecoverable past ages ago.”

    In other words, the sin is closed mindedness that results in continued marginalization of Gaelic and Gaelic American heritage. The solution lies in an expansion of the Gaelic movement in the United States that will eventually overcome residual stodginess in favor of cultural diversity.

    The blog then goes on to remind the reader that a vigorous Gaelic American community is “not antithetical” to the Scottish clan system. It has been expressed in social media comments that the New York Caledonian Club is doing an outstanding job of integrating Gaelic and not Gaelic Scottish heritage within one larger club community. Awesome! The NYCC can be congratulated for this as well as other forward looking programs.

    Nevertheless, in far too many folks’ experience, NYCC is the exception not the rule. I am hopeful that we can all agree that the academic study of Gaelic American history and culture and the progress toward Gaelic language revitalization in the United States are items that could certainly use a boost in enthusiasm, dedication and support. No?


    • John Grimaldi

      Susan, I only read your post after I commented on the original article. I apologize for my misunderstanding of your post.
      Almost all of the organizations I mentioned are run by volunteers and would certainly welcome more support!
      As to the academic side of the question, I think that is a very important part of the equation.
      I look forward to continuing this discussion!
      Leis gach deagh dhùrachd,

  2. John Grimaldi

    There are many organizations in the US and in Canada that are working hard to promote Gàidhlig, including An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach, Clan Currie and the NY Caledonian Club. There are many others including Slighe nan Gàidheal and the Toronto Gaelic Learners Association.
    In my opinion, it is better to acknowledge those who are supporting the language and culture than to rail against Tartanry, etc. I bring Gaelic into the Burns Dinners, Highland Games, muaic festivals and so forth. Burns and other Scots poets are part of my heritage in addition to the bards of Gaeldom. The first invitation I had to sing in Gaelic was in a dance program – mostly Highland, but including National and Stepdance, as well as a Gaelic sing-along.
    Is mise le meas,

  3. rodger moffet

    Yes I think there is a ‘new wave of people who are turned off by the stuffy ‘tartanry’ image that persists and is more of a tribute to Sir Walter Scott that in is to highland culture but what worries me about a lot about this new wave is that it also contains just as much fantasy and misinformation as that which it seeks to replace. I’m not specifically referring to the Gaelic culture but more this pseudo Celtic, hairy highland warrior image that is probably more European/Germanic than it is Scottish.

    If we were to believe the hype then the highlands were filled with bare chested warriors beating their targe and equally (though less bare chested) women. Were there no farmers, fisherman or artisans? We loose sight of the opportunity to celebrate the ancestors who lived peacefully through good honest toil and the ones who built the ‘big stuff’ that made Scotland great and the envy of the world.

    There is a great danger that we replace one set of romantic symbols for another set of romantic symbols – education is the key.

  4. Susan McIntosh Post author

    Rodger and Iain – We are in agreement. Education is the key. The lack of quality academic research and publishing in Scottish Gaelic studies currently is a frustrating obstacle to painting and communicating an educated picture of our Gaelic heritage. The encouraging part is that within Scotland, scholars are beginning to piece together the native Gaelic story using Gaelic language resources and perspective. The bad news is that there is precious little scholarship or support for scholarship concerning the incredibly rich and important story of the diaspora Gael. This is important to me. Gaels came to America and Australia and a pocketful of other places, as Gaels. The culture and language has been lost essentially on our watch – in our land – by our people. Let’s get it back!


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