The SSPCK and a painful link between Gaelic and Native American cultures

NYFGWhat is the SSPCK? Well, it is not the Society in Scotland for the Protection of Christian Kangaroos although much damage and loss might have been avoided if protecting kangaroos had been the organization’s mission.

Instead, the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) has followed in the first footsteps of British empire conducting cultural mop-up operations by erasing, as much as possible, native people’s language, spirituality and lifestyle and replacing them with English language and the Church of Scotland.

Since 1709 the stated primary goal of the SSPCK has been the spread of the “Reformed” (Presbyterian) Christian religion, initially throughout the Scottish highlands and islands and then, theoretically, the world. During the 18th century it pursued that mission by establishing “charity schools” throughout Gaeldom and was one of the first groups to focus on the cultural assimilation of native children. For the first half century of its existence, the SSPCK steadfastly refused to allow any Gaelic language into its classrooms. Only grudgingly were Gaelic educational materials used – offered back to back with English translations – until learning could be accomplished in English.

The SSPCK and its supporters have preferred to call this “education” but that description leaves off the most critical part of what this still-operating organization has done. In the Scottish highlands and islands and then in North America, the work of the SSPCK has been cultural cleansing and over the long run it has left a damaging legacy for those on two continents whose lives its programs and ideas have directly or indirectly touched.

Founded by Scottish Royal Charter in 1709, just two years after the 1707 Act of Union joined England and Scotland into one kingdom, the SSPCK was modeled after an English counterpart already operating from London. The Scottish group was created as a charitable organization capable of receiving funds to discharge the mission of establishing schools to bring “Christian knowledge” to the Scottish highlands and islands and other “remote corners” of Scotland together with “Popish and Infidel Parts of the World”. Members and financial donors were limited to Protestants. Significant funding for the work of the SSPCK came from private Scottish and English gentlemen, the Church of Scotland and the Scottish government. In North America, the work of the SSPCK was also supported by colonial governments with the royal governors themselves often sitting on SSPCK Boards. Civilizing the “heathen” natives was very much a group effort.

SSPCK in the Highlands

In an attempt to solidify an unpopular political union with England, the SSPCK sought to impose its own concept of Scottish identity on those most “foreign” Gaelic speaking parts of north Britain. Politics was not alone at the heart of the SSPCK mission however. Sectarian religious competition played a significant part as well. Recall that the Act of Union that brought political union to Great Britain had also brought supremacy to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland unleashing waves of anti-Episcopal persecution and pulpit cleansing along with the traditional anti-Catholic fervor. The “Christian Knowledge” imposed by the SSPCK in its “Charity Schools” was that of the Presbyterian faith taught entirely through Presbyterian materials. The SSPCK sought a universal transformation from Gael to British subject including the political, spiritual and practical. The year 1738 saw the opening of the first SSPCK industrial arts school in the Highlands, re-teaching Gaelic children how to live, work and play in the image of the new British subject.

In the case of the SSPCK, the 1707 Act of Union brought a new energy, cause and platform – not to mention significant public and private funding – to Scotland’s Anglo-supported centuries-long war on Gaels and Gaelic culture and society. The political nature of the SSPCK efforts in the Scottish highlands and islands is made clear in the numbers: In 1715 the SSPCK operated 25 schools in Gaeldom. By 1760, following two Jacobite risings (1715 and 1745), that number had swollen to 146 schools, each one promoting the House of Hanover and working towards use of the English language and labor in place of the native Gaelic ways. By the closing decades of the 18th century, Great Britain had gotten serious about removing its Gaelic problem.

“In their efforts to assimilate the Highlands with the Lowlands through ‘education’, representatives of the SSPCK regularly assigned stereotypes of what it was to be a Highlander, and in doing so were making a conscious statement about what British patriots such as themselves were not, drawing mainly on ideas of foreignness, physical remoteness from civilized society, the dangers of Catholic or even heathen religious practices, and the isolation caused by continued use of the Gaelic language.” Justine Atkinson, The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge: Establishing identity under the Union (2010)

Until recently, much of the written history and analysis of the work of the SSPCK in Scotland and in North America has been congratulatory, pointing to the “success” of SSPCK missionaries and schools in “civilizing” “heathens” (i.e. erasing native language and custom and replacing it with English language and custom). There is, however, a different perspective that is not so cheery. Claimed charitable motivation was not likely the primary factor in the work of the SSPCK charity schools:

“The hold of the chiefs over the clans was still considered strong in the early eighteenth century, and nowhere was the chief’s power more evident than the Western Islands. At a time when Scotland was coming to terms with the meaning of Union, it did not sit well that these petty lords continued to divide the loyalties of British subjects. This was perhaps more of a motivation for the SSPCK than was the people’s poverty that the Society and others blamed on the Highland chiefs.” Atkinson, 2010

Everything about the SSPCK begins from a position of arrogant assumption and domination that overshadows any purported charitable purpose. The SSPCK was a tool to advance the interests of a Protestant British empire at the expense of native individuals and cultural diversity.

It is one thing for individuals to voluntarily pick and choose to adopt new elements of political, spiritual or social structure that the individual decides may well improve their life. It is a very different thing for an existing life to be stripped down and replaced with the political, spiritual and social systems of an occupying nation bolted on through the use of physical, economic and interpersonal force. It is important to distinguish between the two and to recognize that the SSPCK and other missionary organizations like it engaged primarily in the latter. Indeed, even when native individuals and cultures appeared to request British “education” and “civilization”, such actions must be understood to have occurred within a multi-generational context of cultural persecution and physical and social violence that softened and eroded native identity even before the first bare footsteps crossed the charity school threshold. 

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the core mission of the SSPCK was informed by religious sectarianism, arrogance, intolerance and imperial domination but it was packaged as benevolent Christian reform heralding a new future, much like the 18th and 19th century clearances and removals were. Progress meant lives disrupted and turned completely inside out so that heathens, barbarians and savages may be saved and the Union preserved. When it hopped the Atlantic and set up shop in British North America, the SSPCK joined the movement to entrench British dominance on a global scale.

The SSPCK and its legacy in North America

In 1717 a London based Presbyterian minister dangled a substantial carrot before the SSPCK, in the form of a healthy annually renewing bequest, promised on the condition that the organization launch a ministry in some “heathen and infidel lands” such as British North America. Here is where the story takes a particularly tragic and horribly damaging step. In 1730 the SSPCK joined a small cadre of similar organizations that were pioneering cultural cleansing in Britain’s North American colonies. Building on what was learned in the Scottish highlands and islands, the SSPCK came to British North America and created a link between Gaels and Native North Americans that all would have been better without.

“The characteristics that identified the SSPCK operation in Scotland were in time reproduced in America. For example, the society served primarily in the highlands and islands of Scotland (the frontier) and recruited their personnel, for instance, schoolmasters, whenever possible, from the local persons who met their qualifications. To provide supervision, pastors and elders as well as noted citizens were enlisted to serve as examiners who in turn reported to the Board of Directors in Edinburgh.” Frederick V. Mills, Sr., The Society in Scotland for Propagation of Christian Knowledge in British North America, 1730 – 1775 (2007)

Under the promise of Dr. Daniel Williams’ bequest, the SSPCK set up shop in colonial Massachusetts and unleashed at least a score of missionaries, schoolmasters, assistants and interpreters on the heathens. One SSPCK charity school evolved into Dartmouth College but there were others operating until the American revolution put an end to British involvement in converting natives. At the first ordination service for newly minted SSPCK missionaries in British North America the Reverend Samuel Sewell preached a sermon entitled “Christ Victorious Over The Powers Of Darkness.” Links back to the Scottish Highlands were strong. On behalf of the SSPCK, Massachusetts colonial governor Jonathan Belcher reported the organization’s progress directly back to none other than the Earl of Islay, later the Duke of Argyle in Scotland.

Despite the most auspicious beginning, significant funding and strong support from the very heights of British power, SSPCK initial efforts failed within the first five years. Interestingly, they failed for the very same reasons that created difficulties for SSPCK missionaries operating in Gaeldom.

“In spite of this cooperation, from both private and government agencies, at the end of five years Belcher informed the Edinburgh directors that the enterprise ‘lacked success.’ Several hints are given to explain this conclusion. All three missionaries had served as chaplains to the garrisons where they were appointed and hence had only occasional contact with the Indians. Parker, at Fort Richmond, found that the Indians moving around made his work difficult. The Indian languages were another problem. The loneliness of their locations, the hazardous conditions, and the activities of the Jesuits collectively contributed to the termination of their mission.” Mills, 2007

Following initial failure, missionaries were replaced and new schools launched. Eventually, lessons learned by the SSPCK in the Scottish highlands and islands and in New England in the 18th century contributed to the making of adjustments in missionary approach that would eventually devastate thousands of Native American families for centuries to come. 

563px-Carlisle_pupilsBy far the most damaging legacy of the SSPCK flows from the impact of its “charity school” concept targeting North American native peoples. As an influential pioneer in the cultural cleansing industry in Scotland and North America, particularly through education of native children in residential schools, the SSPCK participates as a progenitor in what eventually became the tragic and cruel practice of “assimilation through immersion” in America. By the late 19th century, after over a century of trial and error, the Christian missionary vision had become this:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”  — Richard Pratt, U.S. Army, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1892

By 1885 over 100 native boarding schools had been established across America. In 1970 there were an estimated 60,000 native children held in American Indian Boarding Schools – the highest figure in the history of the boarding school system. In 2007 that figure had declined to 9,500. Negative impacts continue to be felt across Native communities today.

It’s Alive! A 21st Century SSPCK – because why?

431px-Chiricahua_Apaches_Four_Months_After_Arriving_at_CarlisleTo the extent the cultural cleansing agenda of the SSPCK missionaries and schools did find success, the world is a less rich and less diverse place today because of it. Complete success proved elusive, especially prior the the 20th century, because in reality, native cultures neither needed or wanted what the missionaries offered. Assimilation and conversion were always forced. From 1709 onward deep into the 20th century, the SSPCK and its progeny persistently carried on the battle to darken Gaelic and Native American cultural lights for the simple reason that, though severely eroded, neither Gaelic nor Native American cultures have ever been brought to surrender. 

Apparently, neither has the SSPCK. The organization was “reconstituted and revitalized” in 2009 and today the organization provides grants to Christian mission projects in the Scottish highlands and islands and in “foreign areas.” Detailed information on the benefits to the highlands and islands as well as to foreign areas served is not provided on the SSPCK website. With hope, today’s revitalized SSPCK is hard at work to help repair some of the damage initiated through its now 300-plus- year history of cultural meddling in Scotland and America.


8 thoughts on “The SSPCK and a painful link between Gaelic and Native American cultures

  1. Daibhidh

    Susan. It’s hard to see where your hateful prejudice stops and facts begin. I can’t comment on North America but the work of the SSPCK was a blessing to Scotland and the reformed faith has in fact been the method by which preservation of the Gaelic culture has occurred. It was not a “foreign” power imposing but our own country providing education that was not otherwise available. The chiefs and the clans sold us for sheep farming. Who killed Gaelic culture, the folly of feudal lords who gave no mercy to the people who were forced to offer them “loyalty”. Your 21st century mindset has muddled your analytical abilities.

    • Susan McIntosh Post author

      Daibhidh – Thank you for your comment. First, I am afraid that you have confused passion against injustice with hate. On the substance, the blessings of the SSPCK were likely not felt as keenly by Catholics, Episcopalians, non-English speakers and others as it was by Presbyterians and Unionists who believed their way was the holy preordained way and the best thing around to impose upon uncivil heathen Gaels and Native American peoples. Additionally, the chiefs and “feudal lords” who, in your words “sold you for sheep” and “gave no mercy to the people” also funded the SSPCK. As did their British government. In a 21st century minded phrase, follow the money.


      • Jamie Kelly


        I have a few points to make that will adjust your conceived image of the SSPCK. Firstly, the SSPCK was largely dependent on Gaelic-speakers: it was a pre-requisite qualification for all Society schoolmasters, as was good moral standing and an aversion to coercive measures. One schoolmaster, a John Clow, was removed from his post and chastised for attempting to force Catholic children to attend Protestant services. In addition, Catholic parents were just as eager as Protestants to have their children educated in Society schools, showing little resistance to schoolmasters as opposed to chasing away Presbyterian ministers.

        The SSPCK insisted on tapping into local kinship ties to allow natives a substantial role in the education/conversion of their own communities. Its attitude to language and religion was far from static and it cannot be doubted that, at certain times, the Society capitalised on anti-Gaelic sentiment (e.g. immediately after the ’15 Rising) in order to attract donations/funding for its mission, yet the society was open to local innovation in both religious and secular worship. It is no accident that the great Jacobite poet, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, was a schoolmaster for the Society in Ardnamurchan: he was offered a decent wage and the valuable opportunity to communicate the needs of his community to political centres in Edinburgh/London. This led to the SSPCK patronising his project to produce a Gaelic-English vocabulary in 1741. Yes, the Society sometimes exhibit the habit, mostly in their rhetoric, of preferring English to Gaelic. This was a natural consequence of ongoing debates regarding orthography and varied dialects of Gaelic, which made it difficult for the Society to figure out where to put their money with regards to producing a Gaelic Bible. It should be noted that they display a very early commitment to this project as an eventuality.

        I would also like to correct your understanding of the relationship between the SSPCK, local elites and the government. The SSPCK was established to supplement the existing systems of education and governance as its members believed that the government and local heritors were not doing enough – nor would they be pushed to. The SSPCK acted as the sole lobbying group for the benefit of ordinary Highlanders up until the end of the 18th century. Heritors often offered nominal support to the SSPCK, but when cold hard cash was required they became somewhat elusive. A relevant example is the case of Abertarff, in which the society had established a school but required the landowner to build a bridge to enable more children to attend. The society was ignored for 6 years, until it finally received note that the bridge and school had been built: this however was a lie. Local elites (to use an unjustifiably broad brush) were often keen to take advantage of what they saw as “discounted improvements” available from the SSPCK, but they were inevitably cautious when they were required to assist in providing financial support for their own tenants.

        In sum, the SSPCK was an organisation that sought to win over Gaelic communities: yes it was to win them over to the Hanoverians and Protestantism (keep in mind 80% of Highlanders were already Calvinist protestants) and to teach them English, but this was done using predominantly persuasive methods. Today’s Highland history has outgrown old notions of “goodies vs baddies” and the delicate passive Gael vs. the Imperialistic, zealous, anglicising lowlanders. The SSPCK was one organisation among many that operated in the 18th Century Highlands, but it was one of only a few that had the best interests of native Gaels at heart, despite being sometimes misguided and overcautious of Gaelic participation at a central organisational level.

        Apologies for the length of the reply: I am currently in the early stages of a dedicated PhD on the SSPCK from a native perspective and, thus, had a lot to say on the matter!

        • Ron Fletcher

          Hi Jamie,
          My ancestors taught in SSPCK schools in the 1740s thru 1770’s in Migvie-Tarland, Aberdeenshire. I would very much like to have further contact re these schools. Ron Fletcher, Toronto, Canada.

  2. Brian

    Perhaps this debate could be addressed with a simple question: Is it right for an entity or person to force another to practice a belief system other than by what they were raised in? Simple answer: NO! You can argue the “facts” from each sides perspective and you will find the same result. Where ever the western society ventured it enforced their norms. Native people of N & S America, Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, Africa, India and on and on were either changed by force or social pressure. Come to think of it I know of only one expanding empire that had a different approach, Genghis Kahn. If you resisted his rule you were destroyed. If you accepted his authority and paid tribute you were left to your own devices. (better than a pile of skulls) I know you can nit pick variables, but the simple question and answer remains.

  3. Ron Fletcher

    Hi Jamie,

    My ancestors taught in SSPCK schools in Tarland-Migvie from 1744 to 1770’s. I would very much like to contact you on this subject.
    Yours truly,
    Ron Fletcher
    Toronto, Canada.


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