Behind the Anglo Norman Veil: A holiday message about Gaelic vernacular economics

NYFGOne of the things that discourages individuals from recognizing and exploring, not to mention enjoying, their Scottish Gaelic heritage is the widespread view that the only distinct aspect of Gaelic culture was, and is, its Celtic language. Many people consciously and unconsciously are assured that beyond “Ceud Mile Failte” and “Slainte”, Gaelic culture is basically little different from, well, Scottish culture, and that Gaelic culture’s few fundamental distinctions are well represented in today’s Tartan melting pot. That was my view prior to a more detailed exploration, from the Gaelic perspective instead of the more popular and traditional Scottish perspective. I found that I was so wrong, and very happily so, because I have found, instead, an incredible treasure chest of Gaelic heritage.

Gaelic Scotland faced the world from a fundamentally different angle than did the Normans or the Anglo Saxons. The differences were especially apparent prior to the wide scale erosion of Gaelic-ness that began following launch of James I’s official fatwa against Gaelic culture in the 17th century. Gaelic was not just a bits and pieces society, but rather, a well developed culture with a future:

Indeed, politics, economy, marriage, kinship, possession of land and of property, were all woven together into an inextricable web in Highland society, to produce a culture which was both dynamic and self-perpetuating.

— Rosemary Ommer, Journal of Historical Geography (1986)

This broad distinct Gaelic identity is what makes Scottish Gaelic its own culture and ethnicity, worthy of separate study and understanding.

How do you say “Its the Economy Stupid!” in Gaelic?  So here we are in these end of 2015 days that are so liberally seasoned with holidays of various sorts. Economics might seem to be an odd choice for a discussion topic for a holiday Gaelic post, but, as Gaels we should know by now that not everything is as it first appears to be. True here. For history’s Gaels, the economy was a child of Gaelic morals and spirituality.

Profit and Love.  As we finally begin to work through this year’s celebrations, we are hit with a barrage of two primary ideas: Capitalism and Love. Across much of the world, those two seemingly disparate ideas are melded easily together at this time of year because Capitalism is based upon the idea of production and sale of surplus goods and services for personal profit while Western expressions of Love are best made by buying great stuff and giving it to those that you … love.

It’s almost magical in its elegance but this western European enlightenment approach has left many people unsatisfied with life, despite apparently having played the game in the correct manner all these years and by the rules. Depending upon which news channel one watches, the idea of runaway capitalism and the decline of community can dominate entire newscasts. Many people are looking for the right way forward but not enough of them are looking to the past for some direction.

So, for a moment, lets peek behind Scotland’s Anglo-Norman veil and take a look at the very different approach taken by Gaelic society regarding “the economy.”

Subsistence and Community. One of the things that some have loved to call “barbaric” about Scottish Gaels was their habit of maintaining a sustainable, subsistence economy. Although we have been taught that such an economy is a strong indicator of great poverty and oppression, Gaels did it as a strategy that was directly adapted to the land upon which they lived and the resources at their disposal. Individuals in Gaelic communities produced almost everything they needed. They did not, on the whole, produce surplus for cash trade outside of the community.

A clan’s wealth ultimately depended upon the amount of productive territory under its control, but productivity was measured in terms of social value rather than surplus for export.

— Michael Newton, Warriors of the Word (2009) at p.141

Yes, good years did produce surplus but the Scottish Gael didn’t just stand there in the middle of his field and marvel at all the potatoes. As a matter of Gaelic policy and practice, surplus was distributed to those in the community who needed it. And this was not done as capitalism disguised as social enterprise. Sharing was a critical pillar of Gaelic economics.

Writing of his own 20th century experience as a youth fishing for his family and “the neighbours” on Lewis/Harris, Alastair McIntosh reveals some of the last agonal breaths of what he calls “Gaelic vernacular economy.” In the 1960s, few households owned freezers or even refrigerators and the reason had little to do with the nasty Hebridean weather.

Whenever I came back with a good catch, I’d share it out as I cycled home the 5 miles through Ranish, Crossbost and Leurbost villages.  This was the late 1960s and even then few people had fridges; still fewer freezers. There was just no demand for them. Neither was there money to buy such hardware. If you had a supply of something perishable, you shared. When your neighbours had a surplus, you received. People’s ‘deep freezes’ were, in effect, the village itself – with the advantage that what you got was always fresh and there was no need for nuclear power stations or defrost disaster insurance policies.

— Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul (2001) at p.28

In Soil and Soul, McIntosh uses a term taken from social thinker Ivan Illich to describe traditional Gaelic economy. In the Hebridean vernacular economy that dominated Lewis/Harris in those days, “people understood themselves to be responsible for one another.” (Soil and Soul at p.29)  McIntosh has packaged the idea of a Gaelic vernacular economy into three traditional concepts – mutuality, reciprocity and exchange (barter) – and one introduced idea – cash.

In the twentieth century Lewis underwent an economic transition such as more ‘developed’ parts of the world had experienced much earlier in history. The island shifted along the spectrum of mutuality, reciprocity and exchange, headlong into the cash economy. Once surpluses were shared and this yielded goodwill. Mutual dependency was the glue that facilitated social cohesion. Now, because money (unlike fish and eggs) does not rot, it can be invested, yielding interest, a dividend or capital gains. Money thereby takes on second-order characteristics over and above its primary accounting role; it makes money out of itself. This has the effect of shifting benefit away from the community and towards individuals. It assists the concentration of wealth, and that leads to an increasing rigidity in access to resources for the majority.

Whereas the vernacular economy is necessarily mindful of the human biological processes by which goods and services come into being, the new way – capitalism – reduces human labour and nature’s providence to figures  on the London or Tokyo stock exchanges.

— Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul (2001) at pp. 30 – 31

So as not to unnecessarily cause heartburn for our many Capitalist friends, while this wee post does identify a traditional Gaelic approach to an enduring human subject, it does not argue the merits of the past versus the present.  However, like my far more talented kinsman Alastair McIntosh, I believe that the past “should be carried forward to inform the future. In this way, fresh light can be shed on the story of modern times and wisdom harnessed to knowledge.”  Like Alastair, we should all recognize the tremendous value in not only saving our access to Gaelic cultural wisdom and experience but in exploring, learning, understanding and applying it to this rather prickly period of human history. We might find a few helpful ideas.

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