It seems safe to assume that every interest group has online fora where people can meet and discuss issues on the internet. I was recently asked to chair a Q&A session on the Ask Historians group on Reddit (on this webpage) so that participants can ask any questions that they may have about the history, literature, culture, and legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in North America. I’ll be fielding your questions on Sunday 13th December in two live sessions: 10AM-noon EST and 1-3PM EST.
I’ve not previously been a user on Reddit, so I don’t want to try to describe any technical details I may not yet fully understand. However, the general idea is that readers can pose any reasonable question, I’ll choose some of the best questions, and do my best to address them. I expect to make citations of the many articles and books I’ve written about Scottish Gaelic history, culture, and literature contextualized within the Highlands themselves or in immigrant communities in North America.
Why is this kind of session special? In-depth knowledge of this domain – of the history, literature, and culture of the natives of the Scottish Highlands, whether living in the homeland or in overseas colonies – is perversely scarce in North America. Scottish Gaels began to settle in the colonies of North America in the mid-1700s, in large part as refugees and emigrants under duress, and eventually could be found in every state of the US and province of Canada (see overview history booklet here). Today the descendants of the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders number in the millions across the continent.
And yet, there are no academic departments in the US where an aspiring scholar can acquire the scholarly skills needed to understand the culture, language and history of this ethnic group (see related article here), and even in Canada the resources and opportunities are limited and inadequate (see fuller discussion here, here, and here). In a vacuum of information, it is all too easy for myths and misrepresentations to flourish.
It is all too easy to project the conditions and assumptions of the present into the past, which is something often done in popular culture. One might assume from common portrayals of Scottish Highlanders, whether by Hollywood films or Highland Games, that Scottish Highlanders were simply more primitive forms of beings than ourselves but essentially the same, people with funny accents and colorful costumes, but basically Anglo-Americans/-Canadians in embryo.
And that would be to totally misunderstand who they were, what they understood about themselves and their identity, how they saw the world, and what their own experiences and perspectives were. They had their own distinct language that connected them to one another and to their own culture and sense of history – something that the anglophone authorities saw as a “problem” and sought to undermine. This language was the vehicle for their thoughts, beliefs, values, and worldview. It was the medium of their literary tradition, one with a very central place in their daily lives and in their primary forms of cultural expression. It exists in both high register and low register forms, and it tells us a great deal about these very issues. In fact, it is the best and almost only place to find such information, as it is largely missing from anglophone documents, which were created for other purposes and audiences. The stories and songs that they created and told both reflected and informed their sense of self and way of being in the world.
If you want to understand Scottish Highlanders from their own point of view – to get inside their heads – you need to understand their language and to be able to read and interpret their literary remains in their original form (not just through English translations). This is, in fact, true of any nation. How many scholars of French culture and history could claim any level of authority without being able to read primary sources in French? And yet, the sad state of scholarship about Scottish Highlanders – or Scottish Gaels, as they call themselves – is that the skills needed to handle these sources are very scarce, especially in North America.
Fortunately, I have a large catalogue of material to which I can refer in my responses in Reddit. I’ve been pursuing these lines of research – the history, culture, literature, and legacy of Scottish Highlanders in North America – for over two decades, and am one of the very few to have done so (see some of my research publications on this webpage). There are reams and reams of texts to be examined, which have not been subjected to any scholarly scrutiny if they have been noticed at all, and yet there are hardly any trained scholars doing so in the academic institutions of North America because there is insufficient support. That really needs to change.
If you’d like to get a taste of this material, and some insights about what it can tell us about the inner lives of Scottish Gaels, join me on Reddit on Sunday 13th December – is guma fada beò eòlas nan Gàidheal!