Cultural Fragility and What Really Matters

The Scottish Gaelic language and culture have somehow survived to the present, despite centuries of deprivation, hardship, and persecution – much of it created deliberately by anglophone adversaries. From the usurpation of the upper echelons of Scottish society in the twelfth century, to the Statutes of Iona enforcing the angloconformity of the Highland aristocracy in 1609, to the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and 19th centuries, to the 1872 Education Act underlining the English-only agenda of the school system, the ability of Gaeldom to foster its own health and self-interest has been systematically undermined.

And yet, somehow, a stubborn spirit of communal values prevailed, at least amongst a few, who were committed to seeing that they not only survived physically and materially, but survived as a culture. That their songs, stories, and identity would be passed on to the next generation. But this took the courage to dissent from the “prevailing wisdom” that English held the exclusive key to the future and that Gaelic was doomed to fail and needed to be swept away into the rubbish bin of history. It took the courage to see beyond the materialistic triumphalism of anglo-modernity and value something that was unseeable and unmeasurable by all ordinary yardsticks of progress, that in fact contradicted them.

No one commits to working in and with Scottish Gaelic because of the expectation of fame or monetary reward. If you want a life of minimal stress and trouble, it is far easier to go with the flow of anglophone society and not try to swim against those tides. I’ve been involved in Gaelic revitalization for about a quarter century now, and my experience of most everyone I meet who is involved in minoritized languages and cultures as a whole is that they do it for altruistic reasons, because it is the right thing to do in the long run, even if it entails social and economic costs to them personally.

It is thus very distressing for me, at least, to think about the work that so much of us have done air son na cùise “for the cause,” to keep Gaelic – and other minoritized communities – alive in communities that are very fragile, and disproportionately spoken amongst a largely elderly demographic, that could be quickly undone by the ravages of the COVID-19 virus. I have been anticipating introducing my young daughter to Gaelic-speaking elders and friends in Scotland and bridging the geographical and generational divide, but sadly I wonder: will that even be possible in coming years, or even months?

Hugh Cheape, Cailean MacGilleain, and Michael Newton at a Highland cemetery in North Carolina, 2005

How can we prevent a potentially disastrous outcome in terms of the loss of life, the loss of cultural knowledge that those elders embody, and sense of community and affection that has bound us all together to keep that tradition and common purpose alive? How can we even maintain our sense of humanity in the face of such overwhelming fear and grief? Can we find inspiration in the struggles of the past?

The simultaneous crises that now confront humanity are really without parallel, and handling them effectively will require stepping back and thinking deeply about the big picture. This will be a lost opportunity if people are so fixated on the materialistic preoccupations of the recent past that they simply want a return to “normalcy.” The world as it is stands now was built by empire, coloniality, structural inequality, cultural subjugation, and environmental annihilation. We stand on the brink of an abyss, and COVID-19 is not the only existential challenge we face. We should use this time to reflect on what really matters and how we can readjust our values and direction accordingly.

In all indigenous cultures, survival is only possible because of the value placed on the community as a whole, by emphasizing the importance of the common good, in honoring the precedents manifested by tradition, and by giving to those who are needy. The proverb Gus an tràighear a’ mhuir le cliabh, cha bhi fear fial falamh “The generous man will not be empty-handed until the ocean is emptied with a creel” is one of many expressions of the commitment to generosity in Gaelic culture.

There is an equally famous quip in anglo-American culture: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” What does he win? Apparently some form of notoriety in a culture obsessed with materialism, that is destroying the environment and eradicating species at a record rate in order to fill insatiable desires for material goods. But at the cost of our humanity, our spiritual lives, and our sense of perspective. What is more important? Life itself, in its fullness and rich, invisible web of interconnections, or some artificial modern social construct like “the economy”? How did we get here? What is the purpose of this world we’ve constructed?

Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.

But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.

Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.

“Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,” [she said].

Remy Blumenfeld, “How a 15,000-year-old Human Bone Could Help You Through the Coronavirus”

What are the songs and stories that will double our resolve and our resilience to survive these challenges? Can we find common purpose and maintain our common humanity, despite fear and uncertainty? What and who will you choose to value? What do indigenous cultures have to say about survival and the things that really matter? You will notice quickly that it has nothing to do with materialism, with a false sense of superiority over or separation from nature, or selfishness. May you carry that with you in coming days.

2 thoughts on “Cultural Fragility and What Really Matters

  • As the son of archaeologist parents, I find the larger sign of “civilization” is a time about 10,000 years ago when we start finding signs of 3 generations, e.g. people living beyond the age of 40. Although our species has been extant for over 100,000 years minimum, yet physiologically we are not designed to survive much past the age of 35 thanks to the physical demands of a hunting and gathering culture. Physical health starts to decline shortly thereafter. Although some might argue that agriculture and pastoralism account for the rise of people, and that is part of it no doubt thanks to the greater abundance of sustenance and extra time to address other problems, I tend to believe the survival of the elderly with their knowledge accrued over an entire lifetime and the time to reflect on how it might be useful really marks the appearance of civilized people. Unfortunately in modern times we are now seeing resource hoarding by a privileged few counteracting the hopes of philosophers and scientists that our accrued knowledge and applied wisdom will make the world a better place for everybody. Youth are exploited for the benefit of a few and the aging population is denigrated as a drag on the economy. The indigenous values of people working together in small groups for the benefit of everybody have been replaced by gross materialism and corporate anonymity. It’s a sad time for humanity and entirely unnecessary.


  • What stories and songs? The ones that touch me are tales of personal awareness, caring, learning and connection, intimacy through music, cultural beauty through rhythm and sounds, movement, dances, sharing and feeling as listening to or reading personal journeys that gave rise to a passion for the eloquence you offer, the truth, as it evolved us. I feel great peace, trusting this phase of Nature. I send Celtic healing prayers for the unfolding.


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