Scottish Gaelic Studies in the Diaspora: Isn’t Nova Scotia doing this?

NYFGWhat a wonderfully robust response to the first official Not Your Father’s Gaelic blog post. Thanks to everyone and it is great to see some real interest in the topic. One very important comment thread in particular has emerged and I thought I might address it here in a new post.  I am certain this isn’t the last time we will be visiting this critical issue.

Scottish Gaelic Studies in the Diaspora: Isn’t Nova Scotia doing this?

No, at least not the “this” to which I refer and that I believe is critically important. Work and programs at Canadian institutions such as St. Francis Xavier and University of Ottawa are great at what they do and what they do is important and progressive. With regard to Scottish Gaelic studies, however, I am concerned with what they do not do – vigorously research and publish in the Scottish Gaelic field.

I came face to face with this dilemma when I sought to add more depth and precision and therefore clarity to my own understanding of my Gaelic ancestors’ world, especially after they left Scotia. In particular I was interested in learning the historical view of the Gaels themselves, primarily through their own narrative, rather than learning more of the historical view of what is basically a distinct Anglo culture that approaches Gaelic culture from an imperial or at least a dominant perspective. Just for context, as we know, most British and American historians have not done a bang up job describing the history and culture of the native peoples of North America. Don’t expect them to have done much better with the Gaels. The model just doesn’t yield great results. I want a Gaelic narrative.

Boom there was the problem. Historical research and publishing on the subject of the Gaelic Diaspora in America did not leap to the screen to satisfy my Google searches. There is very little Scottish Gaelic Diaspora history out there on the whole and shockingly little fresh research and publishing that approaches the topic at all, let alone research that approaches it by investigating and analyzing Gaelic language resources as primary beginnings from which to frame and respond to historical questions.

That’s what I was looking for and I simply couldn’t find much of it. Most of what I have found has been the work of Dr. Michael Newton. It’s very good stuff and if you haven’t read what Dr. Newton has to say about the North American Gaelic Diaspora you should try some of it. And honestly, there is not much more out there to satisfy those of us with a curiosity to know more about our Gaelic American history and heritage.

In my previous NYFG post I provided a link to a 2013 blog post by Dr. Newton entitled “Scottish Studies in North America” carrying the tag line “Blind Spots, Exclusions and Academic Apartheid”. I encourage anyone who is interested in this subject to take a peek at it if you haven’t already. Here it is again.  In it Dr. Newton confirms that my failure to find the resources I was looking for was not due entirely to my shoddy research and he addresses the problem thusly:

 “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.”

The scarcity of properly trained and supported Gaelic scholars in the Diaspora, especially when compared to other North American ethnic groups, is of course attributable to more than one cause. However, it is not due to the lack of qualified and interested candidates. There seems to be a real lack of support at the large university level, at least in America, for a true Gaelic diaspora program. Not even St. Francis Xavier in Nova Scotia offers a doctoral level degree let alone research and publishing support.

The highest degree at St. FX is the Master of Arts in Celtic Studies – not even Scottish Gaelic studies.  It is striking that the Gaelic people, the native culture of Scotland, are consistently lumped into the “too big to fail” world of “Celtic Studies” at the university level instead of given the focus and support that the reality of Gaelic history demands. With no such support there will be little new research and publication. Without new research and publication we are severely constrained in learning and teaching the story of the Scottish Gael in the Diaspora.





One thought on “Scottish Gaelic Studies in the Diaspora: Isn’t Nova Scotia doing this?

  1. Goiridh Domhnullach

    This may be of interest to you:
    In 1919, Comunn Gaidhealach Caitligeach Chanada (the Scottish Catholic Society of Canada) was formed in Chirstmas Island. Too bad that they didn’t label it, more correctly translated from the Gaelic, the Gaelic Catholic Society of Canada.The main push of this body was to motivate people to keep up their faith, language and culture, to stay in the rural communities, farm more efficiently and be more self-sufficient. Through the 1920s, they published the magazine, “Am Mosgladh” (The Awakening). The articles are in both english and Gaelic. You can access them on-line here. Have a read and discover what some of the leaders of the Gaels in NS were saying in the 1920s. I believe that this movement greatly influenced the beginning of the StFX Extension Department and The Antigonish Movement. Unfortunately, the main driver in this organization, Fr. Donald MacAdam, who was the first to teach Gaelic at StFX in 1891, died in 1926 and I think that this took a lot of momentum away from the movement. Throughout the Diocese of Antigonish (Mainland Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island) there were branches of the society. Glendale, Cape Breton had the “Montrose Branch” until 1929 at least.


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