Looking at Scottish land with an indigenous Gaelic eye

NYFGI am of the opinion that there is value in pre-colonial indigenous ideas about how to get on in this world and so they are worth exploring. I live in the midst of recognized indigenous cultures in every direction, as far as the eye can see. Some of these cultures are still alive; others just remnants disclosed in relics like the paintings and etchings in rocks.

Scottish Gaelic culture is an indigenous culture as well, but unlike the natives with whom I share our North American landscape, Gaels are not so well recognized for their indigenousness and do not universally recognize themselves as one of the world’s remaining indigenous people.

The label “indigenous” is not deeply understood by most and there is not popular agreement as to the word’s meaning. Merriam – Webster Dictionary provides this definition: “produced, living, or existing naturally in a particular region or environment.” Clearly, that works better with plants than humans. Coincidentally though, the Merriam – Webster online dictionary also provides the following example of the proper use of the word indigenous:

“Viking invaders quickly subdued the indigenous population, known as the Picts.” —Jared M. Diamond, Collapse, 2005

As far as official definitions go, the global indigenous community has been rightfully reluctant to subscribe to a universal definition of indigenousness, understanding that no single definition could capture the vast diversity of indigenous peoples across the planet. The U.N. has not adopted a specific definition and does not maintain a list of who is and who is not indigenous. Indeed, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (“UNDRIP”) mandates that self-determination of indigenousness is a human right, an approach that itself prohibits any “official” listing.

There is, however, some widely supported scholarly guidance and this working definition is worth quoting in its entirety, especially since we are wasting no trees in doing so, here at ScotClans.com:

Working definition of indigenous peoples by Jose R. Martinez Cobo

Indigenous communities, peoples and nations are those which, having a historical continuity with pre-invasion and pre-colonial societies that developed on their territories, consider themselves distinct from other sectors of the societies now prevailing on those territories, or parts of them. They form at present non-dominant sectors of society and are determined to preserve, develop and transmit to future generations their ancestral territories, and their ethnic identity, as the basis of their continued existence as peoples, in accordance with their own cultural patterns, social institutions and legal system.

This historical continuity may consist of the continuation, for an extended period reaching into the present of one or more of the following factors:

  • Occupation of ancestral lands, or at least of part of them
  • Common ancestry with the original occupants of these lands
  • Culture in general, or in specific manifestations (such as religion, living under a tribal system, membership of an indigenous community, dress, means of livelihood, lifestyle, etc.)
  • Language (whether used as the only language, as mother-tongue, as the habitual means of communication at home or in the family, or as the main, preferred, habitual, general or normal language)
  • Residence in certain parts of the country, or in certain regions of the world
  • Other relevant factors.

On an individual basis, an indigenous person is one who belongs to these indigenous populations through self-identification as indigenous (group consciousness) and is recognized and accepted by these populations as one of its members (acceptance by the group). This preserves for these communities the sovereign right and power to decide who belongs to them, without external interference.

UNDRIP also recognizes the paramount importance of self-determination:

Article 33 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

1. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine their own identity or membership in accordance with their customs and traditions. This does not impair the right of indigenous individuals to obtain citizenship of the States in which they live.

2. Indigenous peoples have the right to determine the structures and to select the membership of their institutions in accordance with their own procedures.

People like to argue about technical details of which culture is indigenous to a place and which is not. As we’ve already seen, dictionary definitions do not provide much direction.  Without rehashing the facts, how about this: Scottish Gaelic is classified as an indigenous language under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. Works for me. Scottish Gaelic is an indigenous culture, but how did it get to be something separate and apart from the rest of Scotland and what have been the consequences of marginalization?

A national divorce. The Scottish kingdom was a Gaelic kingdom before it was Scottish. Of course Scottish and Gaelic are very different things in this and other contexts. By the opening of the 10th century, the Dal Riata Gaels and the still mysterious Picts were united under an Alban flag and there began the kingdom of Alba. From a significant original land base the PictoGaelic realm expanded into almost all of what we know as Scotland today. Gaelic place names are found everywhere in North Britain. At its zenith Gaelic influence was ubiquitous and easily distinguished from English society to the south.

Eventually however, following several centuries of waging hot and cold war against invasive Anglo-Norman influence, the Gaelic kingdom of Alba had succumbed to a new Scottishness and the sphere of continuing Gaelic influence had retreated to the Highlands and Islands. Outside of the remote Gaelic heartland, Scottish Gaelic culture and institutions were largely replaced with Anglo-Norman norms. One of the most unfortunate aspects of this separation was the prejudicial animosity and acrimony that accompanied this divorce of Scotland’s Gaelic and non-Gaelic (highland-lowland) pathways. This is where Gaelic became indigenous and Scottish became something new.

Unfortunately for cultural diversity, even within the Highlands and Islands, traditional Gaelic communities joined their lowland neighbors in having to deal with fundamental changes in the Gaelic socio-economic building blocks. Among other things, Anglicization has been highly erosive of the primary markers of Gaelic indigenousness. By the 14th century, Lowland Scots and English commenters began to interpret and label Gaelic identity as “savage”, “barbaric” and “uncivilized” and the popular Scottish policy was, by hook or crook, to civilize the Erse savages. Today we recognize that same identity as a native or indigenous culture persistently existing within Scottish political boundaries.

One of the things that changed the most was the relationship between Gaels and the land upon which they and their ancestors lived. A society’s approach to and behavior in the natural world – including land – is a good marker of indigenous perspective. Indigenous people often tend to enjoy a more direct connection and interaction with the natural world, placing themselves squarely within nature as an interconnected part of it, as opposed to separate from, and dominant over, the natural world. According to those who are beginning to study the subject, Gaelic culture did a good bit of that.  Erosion of that cultural marker turns an affectionate cohabitation with natural landscape into fear and a drive to dominate and improve the bleakness and danger of an undeveloped wilderness. Hello Scottish “civilization,” good bye indigeneity.

Historian Jim Hunter spends a bit of time contrasting a traditional Gaelic outlook toward nature and a typical Anglo-Norman outlook as part of his book On The Other Side Of Sorrow: Nature and People in the Scottish Highlands. Hunter’s aim in the book, which was re-released just last year, is to support the characterization of Gaelic society as what we would today call “green”. He presents a convincing case. Other works, including Alastair McIntosh’s Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, have begun to explore the Gaelic relationship to land, resources and place in a more systematic and focused and modern way. I will take a closer look at these new interpretations, as well as the North American perspective coming from scholars Michael Newton and Colin Calloway in a future post. For now, lets just try to deal with the reality of how much Gaelicness was actually lost to modern Scotland.

Almost all of the land. We are fortunate to have Andy Wightman’s excellent reminder of the What, How, When and Why of the great Gaelic land loss. In his definitive book The Poor Had No Lawyers: Who owns Scotland and how they got it  Wightman catalogues a massive legal and cultural conversion of land use and control that is as complete as if it had followed a violent conquest. As it turns out the Anglo-Norman tinged Scottish conversion of Gaelic land law and custom into its own feudal law and practice is manifested today with plenty of legal cover. Nevertheless, Wightman clearly demonstrates the varied ways in which the decision to hit the reset button on the Gaelic world was made by a small handful of powerful non-Gaelic elite.

In Wightman’s own words, his book follows on from prior scholarship focusing on “the legal and political mechanisms that enabled vast areas of Scotland to be appropriated by private interests.” Additionally, appropriation of land from the commons and conveyance into new private ownership was not just a highland occurrence. Wightman continues, “Equally, whilst for good historical reasons land issues have become associated with the Highlands and Islands almost to the exclusion of the rest of the country, the historic struggle for land rights took place across the whole country.”

The acquisitive processes and outcomes described in The Poor Had No Lawyers were more than just a rearrangement of who owns land. They were part of a larger cultural conversion from a Gaelic kingdom to a Scottish kingdom, one that was influenced largely by Anglo-Norman law and institutions and less by old Gaelic versions.

Today Scottish land law bears little resemblance to the Gaelic system it replaced and a tiny number of people continue to own and control the vast majority of Scottish land. For many reasons, it is important to try to understand what was lost as that process developed through history. Andrew Wightman notes that this is at least part of his intent in The Poor Had No Lawyers:

“But what I want to convey is how the theft of Scotland’s commons has robbed us not only of extensive communal interests in land but of a sense of connection with place which is leading to all sorts of social and economic problems.”

That’s plenty for this Sunday. There is more to the story of Gaelic relationships to land and natural resources in Scotland and in diaspora countries. Stay tuned and Get Your Gaelic On!




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One thought on “Looking at Scottish land with an indigenous Gaelic eye

  1. Alastair McIntosh

    Thank you for recognising a key part of what I was trying to do with Soil & Soul? Have you seen Iain MacKinnon’s report on crofters and indigeniety on the SCF website? Why does all this matter? Because it is about reclaiming the soul that is the only power that can drive reconnection, or connection for the very first time, to the Earth, and therefore, to our human future (he says, writing in the week of COP21 Paris). This work of reindigenisation is equally for non-indigenous, those who’ve temporarily lost the plot (literally), as we see in our work here in Govan, Glasgow, on urban poverty at http://www.galgael.org, and I have expressed most fully in my annotated poem (Google): The GalGael Peoples of Scotland. Go well, bless.


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