Loss, Grieving, and Re-/Creating Traditions for an Uncertain Future

The world is gripped in a crisis more profound than humanity has experienced collectively and simultaneously for a very long time. We are only at the beginning of the personal, social, and cultural tolls that this pandemic will visit upon us. If this is not the mortal blow that brings down the current world order as we have known it in recent history, it is a harbinger of those calamities that will await us in short order, not least of which is environmental catastrophe.

There is already, and will be even more, a need to grieve our losses. The death of family, friends, and cultural icons. The impracticality of our previously envisioned plans and dreams. Our faith in the old certainties, even those that seemed to aid our ability to negotiate crises. There is so much to contemplate, with wisdom and discernment, at such a fast pace.

One of the texts I’ve read lately that resonates most with my current feelings about the situation appeared that features an interview with David Kessler, who is an expert on grief. In this interview (strangely enough, in Harvard Business Review), Kessler comments, amongst other things, on the intensity of the moment and the need to process it emotionally:

we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. … The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. … Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. … There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. … Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims. … The truth is a feeling that moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.

David Kessler, interviewed by Scott Berinato

It really struck me when training for my doctorate in Celtic Studies in Scotland that modernity has taken away so many of the rituals and social practices that have allow people to feel and move through the grieving process for the vast majority of our existence as humans. We can’t force ourselves to ignore such fundamental emotions and realities without becoming paralyzed and haunted by them. On the other hand, if we become fixated and overwhelmed by them, stuck within them, we cannot return to the land of the living to engage in the life of the community that endures.

Depiction of Irish keening woman from Hall’s Ireland, Its Scenery, Character, &c, c.1850

This is why most cultures have carefully prescribed traditions of mourning and grief that help to move us through the stages of grief, channeling it through the community and holding us in a socially-distributed safety net that helps to validate that grief and share it so that no single person is deluged by it. These were my observations in A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, published in 2000:

Death in modernist society is the concern of specialized businesses, and it is not too much to suggest that the inability of people to complete their grieving for a loved one is not unrelated to their removal from the processes of death and burial. These matters were the responsibility of kin and community in Gaelic society. … There were too many joys, and tasks, in life to let death trouble one for too long.

A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, pp. 160, 161

The rituals of mourning in Gaelic society into the eighteenth century – such as keening, group round-dances, wakes, and so on – were inherently communal activities. Human beings need contact with one another, arguably, to maintain our humanity and even to understand ourselves. That’s one of the things that makes this current crisis so devastating and difficult – merely being in the presence of one another increases the spread of the contagion.

This is not a new or unique hardship. Much the same contradictions have confronted humanity for millennia, and the tensions between the traditions of communal mourning and the imperatives of isolation due to biological threats have played out many times lately in the so-called undeveloped world. But now even the self-styled first world finds itself in the same predicament. Death – and plagues – are the great levelers, and surely it is time to call Western Exceptionalism (and all of its variants) obsolete.

This brings me to some concluding thoughts about notions of tradition, culture, ritual, and meaning. It is not always possible, or even desirable, to re-enact the rituals of the past precisely, to pretend that we can re-animate the lives of the ancestors verbatim, and re-embody customs exactly as they were in the past. I believe that it is vital to understand these customs and practices, but even more especially to comprehend their underlying principles – how they meet universal human needs but are given culturally-specific expression.

We need to be able to be true to their aims but also flexible in how we attempt to revitalize and apply them in our new realities. I’m explicitly stating that no single person (including me) has all of the answers but that it will take a village of wise elders to reconstitute ritual and custom in a way that is both faithful to ancient tradition but also responsive to contemporary needs. And that will require a much broader sharing of and discussion about Gaelic tradition than has been possible in the recent past, if this particular tree in the Old Growth Forest of humanity is to survive through these crises. And I hope that I may be helpful in the community that wishes to make this possible.

I’d like to conclude with this important note from David Kessler’s interview: “Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. … So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.”

PS. After I initially released this blog post, my friend Déirdre Ní Mhathúna in Scotland sent me a link to a project in which she is involved that is re-introducing the rituals of lamentation to Scotland and Ireland: the Keening Wake.

PPS. If you’re curious about Gaelic rituals of lamentation and customs of grief, I’ve provided documented accounts of them and analyses of them in these two books:

Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders (2019, 2nd. ed.)

The Everyday Life of the Scottish Highlanders (2020)

I have collected further descriptions in a blog post on my Patreon site restricted to patrons.

Sacrifice Your Family On The Altar of Money

It’s like a parody of capitalism actually expressed out loud by the people who have benefited the most from it and are least likely to suffer its most negative effects: people should sacrifice themselves during this pandemic in order to save “The Economy.” It’s like the Biblical parable of Moloch come to life to demonstrate the moral failings of the world order. If anything about this pandemic should shock us out of our complacency about “normalcy,” about the sheer absurdity of modernity and the warped values it touts as “progress,” it should be this.

Late 19th century illustration of sacrifice to Moloch

Elderly people are venerated in indigenous societies because they are expected to have accumulated wisdom and have long-term perspective. They embody continuity and guidance. They bridge the generations and maintain tradition. They have value beyond their ability to produce material goods. In fact, they help us to see what true value is. A Gaelic proverb says, Dà rud nach còir a bhith falamh: goile an t-seann duine agus làmh an leanaibh bhig “Two things that should not be empty: the stomach of the elder and the hand of the little child.” And another draws a metaphor about community, A dh’aindeoin cumadh an fhòid, gheibh thu àite ’s a’ chruaich dha “Whatever the shape of the peat, you will find a niche in the stack for it.”

Some of our current world leaders, and most of our cultural imperatives, show no such moral maturity or wisdom. It is chilling to hear the cruel and callous rhetoric coming from those empowered to provide leadership, yet demonstrate that they can only draw from the poisoned wells of selfishness and objectification. Basic principles of compassion and reverence for the weakest amongst us are explicitly stated in virtually all religious systems, but these false prophets often distort them to meet their own agendas.

What does it say about our society that people think of the elderly so dismissively—and moreover, that they feel no shame about expressing such thoughts publicly? I find myself wondering whether this colossal moral failure is exacerbated by the most troubled parts of our cultural and economic life. When people are measured and valued by their economic productivity, it is easy to treat people whose most economically productive days have passed as, well, worthless. …

Varied ethical and religious traditions find their own ways to affirm an elemental truth of human life: The elderly deserve our respect and, when necessary, our protection. The mark of a decent society is that it resists the temptation to spurn the defenseless. It is almost a truism that the moral fabric of a society is best measured by how it treats the vulnerable in its midst—and yet it is a lesson we never seem to tire of forgetting. “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old,” the Bible says—look out for them and, in the process, become more human yourself.

Shai Held, “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly” The Atlantic 12 March 2020

This does not have to be our fate. The economy – stupid – is a social construct, not a law of nature. We have the free will to follow better council, to seek wiser elders, and to reroot our values in a more humane set of principles. Abandon false gods, do not sacrifice your soul and your fellow living beings to this folly.

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.

War-Mad Celts?

The idea that the Celts were or are inherently war-like, natural-born soldiers who love to fight, is one of the oldest and most persistent stereotypes that adhere to the present to both the Scottish Highlanders and Irish, although in slightly different forms and for different reasons.

The image of Scottish Highlanders as innate brawny warriors, fighting for loyalty and honour – such as still celebrated at Highland Games and in popular fiction – was carefully crafted by Highland landlords during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century so that they could benefit from a booming military-industrial complex that fed the expansion of the British Empire by acting as the exclusive channel for recruiting the tenants on their estates.

Anyone who doubts this historical reality should read Andrew MacKillop’s ground-breaking book ‘More Fruitful than the Soil?’: Army, Empire and the Scottish Highlands 1715-1815, in which he concludes:

The British state’s willingness to create distinctive recruiting arrangements centred upon what was perceived as the chiefs’ clan power, points to an alternative analysis for the effects of large-scale war upon the eighteenth-century Highlands. … ‘Provincial’ interests were as likely to reinvent themselves and become agents of the state, thereby manipulating its authority for its own ends and reinforcing their own status. Highland landlords, through their manipulation of the metropolitan centre’s belief in clanship, constitute a particularly high-profile and successful Scottish example of this process. Moreover, to justify excessive rewards of patronage landlords needed to distinguish themselves from their competitors: this they did by deliberately emphasising the uniqueness, both real and imaginary, of the Highlands.

MacKillop, ‘More Fruitful than the Soil?’, 238

We should always be cautious whenever an entire society or culture is essentialized as just one thing or personifying just one kind of trait. Societies always consist of multiple and contrary strands and elements, which are highlighted or reinforced by specific contexts or agendas. There have been, in reality, Gaels who criticized warfare and violence, and Gaelic traditions and narratives that advocate for peace and resolution rather than bloodshed.

Even the earliest evidence of Gaelic traditions illustrates that this was the common understanding of the purpose of kingship. The term sìdh refers to both “peace” and “the Otherworld” in the oldest layer of Gaelic literature, with the implication that the king ensures peace and prosperity in his kingdom by maintaining the proper relationship with the Otherworld. Kennings for chieftains incorporating the element sìdh, such as crann-sìdhe, continued to be used in Scottish Gaelic literature into the eighteenth century.

The oldest Gaelic wisdom text composed c.700 to guide kings states (in translation, and in part):

… He should lift up mercy, it will raise him up. He should be considerate of his tribe, they will be considerate of him. He should give deliverance to his tribes, they will deliver him. He should calm his tribe, they will calm him. Tell him – it is through the sovereign’s truth that the death toll of a mighty war-band [and] great lightning bursts are kept away from people. …

Audacht Morainn “The Testament of Morann”

This sounds a lot more like the Beatitudes of Jesus than Braveheart. Arguably the first international treaty to protect innocent civilians in war-time was created and promoted by Adomnán of Iona in 697, gathering the signatures of many Gaelic, Pictish, Brythonic, and Anglo-Saxon kings to ratify Lex Innocentium (or Cáin Adomnáin, to give it its Gaelic title).

Many people assume that the portrayal of warrior-heroes such as Cú Chulainn in Gaelic literature serve to glorify warfare, when in fact some of the stories serve as cautionary tales about the heavy personal and social costs of excessive violence. The tragedy of how Cú Chulainn killed his only son – often called “Bàs Connlaoich” in Scottish Gaelic, which survived into the twentieth century in song and prose form – was one of the more popular and heart-rending narratives of this type, and anyone who actually studies the tale will realize that it is a critique, not a celebration, of warfare.

The lopsided fixation on militarism and rugged Highland warriors obscures the many forms of “soft power” that were used effectively as aspects of the clan system, most especially diplomacy between chieftains, the persuasive power of the spin-doctor poets (filidhean and baird) employed by chieftains who had the latitude to travel widely between courts, and the dynamism of social bonds such as contracts of manrent, fosterage and strategic marriages.

Mel Gibson imaginatively portraying
William Wallace in Braveheart.

Of course, it requires a person to do more than cast a casual glance at stereotyped images of brawny barbarians in order to gain an understanding how Gaelic culture works at its many levels, and the over-simplified misrepresentations of Highland history overshadows those more nuanced perspectives. Indeed, this approach of reducing Highlanders to caricatures of primitive peasants whose society was doomed to fail due to being “undeveloped” and “obsolete” in the modern world has been used by apologists of angloconformist empire for well over three centuries, enabling people to ignore and underestimate the many accomplishments of Gaeldom and its distinctive civilization in its many diverse facets.

The conquest and absorption of the Scottish Highlands into the British Empire dramatically changed the balance of power and the latitude of options available, but even if there are numerous examples of native Highland poets who were willing and eager to celebrate Gaelic contributions to imperial military enterprises, and a gradual acceptance, through the course of the eighteenth century, of this role in empire, there are interesting cross-currents that also deserve notice.

Some Gaelic primary sources suggest ambivalence if not regret about military service. There are tales and song about young Highland men drinking at the tavern, only to wake up later to be told that they had taken the King’s Shilling and must now pay off their debt through serving in the military. Press-gangs used even more coercive force to bring young men into military service (see my edition of such a poem here). Others simply wanted to leave their military posts and return home (see my edition of such a poem here). There is also evidence from the Canadian diaspora, as I’ve documented in Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, of what we would now recognize as PTSD.

The history of warfare in the Gaelic world, as well as of participation in militarism and empire, is not as simple and straightforward as the modern stereotypes of gallant and handsome Highland regiments might suggest. For a more comprehensive and broader approach to understanding Highland history and heritage beyond the stereotypes, you can join the Hidden Glen learning community! See Course listings here.

New Course! Introduction to Scottish Highland Heritage

There are many ways that people become captivated by the Scottish Highlands and its heritage: some people find out through DNA tests or family trees that they have Highland ancestors; some people have been dazzled by the music of the fiddle or bagpipe; some people are enamored by novels, films or television series such as Outlander; others have been raised by their family itself with an awareness of their Highland heritage.

Whatever reasons you have for being drawn into understanding, celebrating, and engaging in these traditions, you may want to understand them in depth, beyond what the costumes and parades portray. It is for this reason that I’ve created a new, introductory-level course for Hidden Glen Folk School of Scottish Heritage: many people want to go beyond the merely ornamental and symbolic, and get to know this heritage in its sophisticated beauty and nuance, as a real culture with real people in a real place. Even though there are plenty of sources to tell us about the lived experiences of Scottish Highlanders, expertise in these matters is quite hard to find.

In the many years that I’ve teaching and giving presentations, I’ve noticed a number of common questions about the way of life of Scottish Highlanders during the clan era. These are at the core of what we’ll be discussing in the course:

  • What do the terms “Celt(ic),” “Scot(tish),” “Gael(ic)” mean and what are the differences between them?
  • How did the division between the Highlands and Lowlands emerge in Scotland?
  • Where do Highland surnames come from and what do they mean?
  • How did the clan system really work? What social roles did people occupy in the clan system?
  • What stories did people tell about the origins of clans and how should we interpret them today?
  • How did Highlanders provide food, shelter, and clothing for themselves?
  • What did Highlanders do to commemorate birth, marriage, and death?

As a bonus to learners of Scottish Gaelic – including the thousands using DuoLingo – the coursepack includes a glossary of Gaelic terms relevant for the concepts discussed each week.

Come and join other participants from around the world in these online learning sessions! See details about the course at this link.

Drink from the Well-Springs of Scottish Highland Heritage in Spring 2020

Another set of enthusiastic participants has completed the latest round of course offerings in the Hidden Glen Folk School – Reclaiming the Roots, for the second time, and Radicalizing the Roots, for the first time –, and it’s been a wonderfully enriching experience for everyone, including myself. Our group conversations have frequently reflected on how a deep engagement with Scottish Gaelic tradition can help to root and center us as we work on the incredibly complex and delicate challenges in the world around us.

These two six-week courses will be again offered in the Spring, from early April to mid May, as well as a new four-week introductory-level course about Scottish Highland heritage. See the Course Listings on this webpage.

For the first time, I’ll be making video recordings from the summary portion of class sessions available to participants who cannot attend the Zoom chats in real-time. I’ll also be adding an “open office hour” on Sundays (usually 3:30 – 4:30 PM EST) via Zoom to answer questions and address issues for course participants.

If you’ve been wondering what these courses might offer you, and the sort of people who take part in them, here are comments from some of the participants in the latest round of courses:

“This course is perfect for those with Gaelic roots looking to decolonize themselves and heal from toxic whiteness because it presents a message and a history full of connection to land, song, prayer, responsibility and kinship. This kind of history cannot be simply learned from a book. The course allows participants to connect to each other’s personal journeys and context, and Michael’s guidance throughout allows for assumptions and misrepresentations of indigenous Gaelic culture to be gently replaced with a deep and transformative awareness of a history waiting to be reclaimed.”

“Reclaiming the Roots served as a valuable confirmation for the wisdom of my Highland Ancestors. I enjoyed seeing glimpses of their culture and cosmologies that were interwoven with the land. This class would be useful for anyone who wants to understand how colonialism affected Indigenous Highlanders. The tactics of shaming, displacement, and loss of language were used against our ancestors before they migrated to other lands. This course is based on historical research from original Gaelic sources.”

– Hilary Giovale

“I recommend this course to anyone wanting to understand how the Gaels were colonized historically, and to explore the consequences of colonization for modern-day Gaels. Michael Newton is one of the very few scholars with expertise in this area, and his extensive knowledge of Gaelic culture and history makes him the ideal instructor. I very much appreciated the course as an entry point into the study of Gaelic de/colonization, and I feel much better prepared for further study of this topic, and to participate more sensitively in community conversations.”

Dr. Heather Sparling, Canada Research Chair in Musical Traditions, Cape Breton University

“My family’s story is one of Nova Scotia Scots settling in the then new colony of British Columbia, of clearing over a hundred acres of trees to create a farm, and of displacing the indigenous population. The course has helped me integrate that family story with the larger Gaelic story. And the course will somehow enable me to deal with our family history with less freight, less through a lens of guilt and more in a contextualized way. … How reassuring to know that one can embrace all of what we experience, and not confine ourselves to considering as praiseworthy only the dissectable, measurable, controllable, harnessable and merely physical parts of what we experience. I like to think that I had this realization before taking the course, but having this realization articulated with clarity and in context certainly has been very good.”

– Douglas MacAdams, Q.C., D.D. (Hon), British Columbia

I’ve also been busy doing talks and presentations on the historical background of the immigration of Scottish Highlanders to North America, so as to put the Outlander saga into its proper context. Here are a couple of pictures from recent events.

Talk at library in Cary, North Carolina.
Talk at library in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Reclaiming and Feeding Roots Deeper Than Whiteness

Between the 18th and 20th centuries the élite of a handful of empires conquered most of the planet and justified their domination and exploitation with the myth that the “master races” alone were capable and worthy of wielding the reigns of power. Their superior civilization and genetic endowments – so the claim went – made them uniquely capable of mastering the physical plane and the social realm, so as to create the best of all possible worlds. Modernity, as defined and governed by those who promoted whiteness as the pinnacle of the human race, became the dominant theology of secular salvation.

A depiction of the supposed racial hierarchy from a textbook for American students
Maury’s New Complete Geography (1906)

This imperial order materially benefited some people, while oppressing many others and depriving subject peoples of their languages, cultures, self-determination, dignity, and humanity. It also set into motion the cult of consumerism and the triumphalism of materiality that has accelerated into the existential crises of ecological catastrophe that looms over our collective future .

Can we envision a more just, a sustainable, a nature-oriented world? How could people create a sense of meaning and purpose with their lives and communities if they could no longer rely on materialism and whiteness to fill those existential roles and serve those grand narratives?

Those are questions that have driven my engagement in Scottish Gaelic tradition and folk culture, which has helped to anchor and enrich my own life. A recent profound article about the many repercussions of environmental disaster strikes a similar note:

I don’t know how to disentangle myself or my family from this way of being, this web of extraction that surrounds us with objects that seem to pop up, magically, out of the ground. I don’t even know how to frame the question, how to name the work that’s called for. (It’s not a problem, I remind myself, it’s a predicament.)

One thing I know that helps – one piece of the work – is to gather and share the embers of other ways of being, blowing them gently into flame together, knowing how much unfinished history we carry with us. Listening to those who have more experience than I do of the ways life has been made to work in other times and places, one theme I hear is how much work goes into making a grown-up. It’s not just something you become by virtue of surviving childhood, or sitting out enough years in schoolrooms and lecture theatres. When the time comes, it takes a work of initiation on which much of the life of your community is focused. You have to be cooked in the flames, I’ve heard it said, and the frame of initiation which your culture builds is the vessel that gives you a chance of coming through the fire.

From “Notes From Underground #7: I Only Have One Prediction for You” by Dougald Hine Bella Caledonia 9th January 2020

Indigenous cultures and knowledge systems provide alternative ways of being and seeing that have nurtured communities for many millennia in ways that serve human needs without destroying the ecological neighbourhood in which they live. All of humanity was once indigenous – how can we rediscover, reclaim, and re-root those seeds of indigeneity?

The colourful iconography of the Scottish Highlands presents a kind of double-edged sword, or perhaps claymore. These images are ultimately derived from native Highland fashions to various degrees, and their unique charms draw much attention, but they can also act as a barrier to and distraction from revealing and exploring the deeper layers of indigenous Gaelic culture: belief systems, historical experiences, and diverse forms of cultural expression. In fact, these ethnic symbols have largely been co-opted by conservative groups and forces that would rather that we not pry too hard behind them, or questions whose purposes they truly serve.

I created Hidden Glen Folk School to provide mentor-ship and community to those who want to explore the nuances and complexities of the Scottish Gaelic world, one as elaborate, tangled, sophisticated, and rich as any other. And in thinking about this goal, I am mindful of the visionary work of Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., who stated in 1956:

the end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., at the Montgomery victory rally, 1956

Keep an eye out for announcements of the Spring 2020 course offerings (starting in March).

A Toast To the Lassies From a Highland Poetess

I have the rare and unexpected privilege to be in Memphis this weekend to present traditional Highland literature in Scottish Gaelic to the Memphis Scottish Society during their annual Burns Nicht Gala, so as to span the Highland-Lowland divide in the representation of Scottish heritage. (See a previous article I wrote about this issue at this link.)

I’ll leave the question aside for now as to whether or not Elvis had Scottish ancestry (there are some amusing mashups, such as the picture below), and share with you one of my contributions to the evening, my Toast To The Lassies lifting the Gaelic female voice in the proceedings. …


As I said in my presentation about Highland poets last night, although Robert Burns was certainly an exceptional poet, the Burns ritual has often had the effect of monopolizing the spotlight and drawing attention away from the many other bards worthy of our attention, especially when he is claimed as “Scotland’s National Poet.” There are several distinctive literary traditions in the multi-ethnic nation that is Scotland, and Burns belongs to just one of them.

And then there is the issue of gender. The Toast to the Lassies first evolved as a tradition at Burns’ Suppers to thank the women who had prepared the meal, and later increasingly as a self-conscious attempt to make a space for the female voice in a ritual that is heavy on masculinity, machismo, and the male gaze – despite being dependent on the work of women.

So, my toast to the lassies begins with an affirmation of the Highland female voice in Scottish tradition, one that has been marginalized because of both the patriarchal focus of mainstream Scottish heritage and the dominance of the various dialects of the English language. For those who care enough to find them, there are scores of song-poems from the last 600 years in which women express themselves clearly and forcibly. These voices from the past tell us clearly the burdens that women bore in Highland clan society: tending the livestock, milking the cows, churning butter, preparing food, creating clothing, cleaning up the messes made by others, healing the wounded, delivering babies, raising children, searching the battleground for corpses and preparing them for burial, keening the dead … and everything in between.

Given the disproportionate burden placed on Highland women, we can hardly blame them for being skeptical about the men who flatter and court them, only to abandon or overload or marginalize them when they wish.

I’ll let a Highland poetess express these sentiments and concerns in her own words. The poetess is Sìleas na Ceapaich, a Catholic MacDonald woman born in the 1660s who lived in Banffshire after marrying the factor to the Duke of Gordon in about 1685. So, she likely composed this song-poem in the late 1600s as she was having her own daughters.

An toiseach m’ aimsir is mo dhòigh ri bargan,
Gun robh mi ’g earbsa nach cealgte orm;
Cha chòmhradh cearbach air ro bheag leanmhainn
Bho aois mo leanabaidh chaidh fheuchainn dhòmhs’;
Ach nis bho chì mi cor nan daoine,
An comunn gaolach gur faoin a ghlòr,
Cha dèan mi m’ aontadh ri neach fon t-saoghal;
Chan eil gach aon diubh air aon chainnt beòil
. …

When I was a young girl, and hoping for a bargain,
I had confidence that I wouldn’t be deceived;
improper overtures, lacking in candour,
never in my childhood were tried on me;
but now I’m acquainted with men’s behaviour,
and know that the voice of love is weak,
I won’t unite myself with anyone in the wide world,
they are not all sincere in what they speak. …

Oh prudent maiden, do not trust them,
or that dissemblance in their wiles;
everyone on earth believes their protest,
but I am able to say otherwise.
Trust the intellect as it is certain,
and go careful in giving your plight,
despite his words and encouraging prattle,
don’t harm yourself with some silly intrigue. …

Sìleas na Ceapaich

So, let me appeal to the better angels of men, to treat women with respect, kindness, and equality – and to extend those considerations to all people. Burns has been quoted often for his lines: “Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!” His words decrying the effects of cruelty and oppression have been echoed by Christian leaders from Ellen G. White to Martin Luther King.

There is a nauseating wave of bigotry and inhumanity washing over the world, transmitted over social media and exploited by political leaders, manifested as misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Let us therefore inoculate ourselves with the high-minded altruism of Robert Burns, who wrote: “But kindness, sweet kindness, in the fond-sparkling e’e / Has lustre outshining the diamond to me.”

Resolve to Engage With Your Highland Roots in 2020

The turning of the year – on the Gregorian calendar for many people, but on other calendars for others – gives us a chance to reflect on our journey, knowing that it is limited, and the changes we would like to integrate into our lives. An increasingly number of people are aware that the myth of progress encourages us not just to dismiss the knowledge of elders in bygone times but to overlook the many forms of trauma, injustice, dislocation, and disempowerment that have happened, in the mistaken assumption that it was an inevitable step along a linear path of cultural evolution. However, as Wade Davis said so eloquently in his 2009 Massey Lectures The Wayfinders, “The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit.”

Despite the popular misconception of Scottish Highlanders being a European variation of the noble savage, valuable as loyal soldiers but not having a legitimate culture of their own, or any form of literature or civilization to speak of, there is an enormous legacy to explore, one well worth understanding and reclaiming. Hidden Glen Folk School of Scottish Highland Heritage was created to guide you through this vast and intricate web of history and culture, one largely ignored by academic institutions. And a better understanding of this past provides us with powerful tools for making a better future.

The first course offerings, which ran from November to December of 2019, went extremely well, with participants from Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States, each bringing their own perspectives, questions and enthusiasm. And it was striking and significant to me that most of them were engaged not just exclusively with understanding Highland culture in isolation, but that they wanted to put it in dialog with other indigenous communities seeking decolonization and reconciliation. This made our discussions all the more poignant and pertinent in today’s world.

While you contemplate whether you’d like to join the Reclaiming the Roots course or the Radicalizing the Roots course starting in mid-January, here are some comments from participants:

It is fairly easy to access a reductive or stereotypical portrayal of Highland culture and history – much more difficult to source authentic, detailed and academically-grounded information such as this. More than just a reflection on the past, Reclaiming the Roots invited us to reflect on and make connections with issues of identity, spirituality, colonialism and modern political and ecological crises. Relevant, fascinating and hard to find elsewhere – I highly recommend Dr Michael Newton’s work and this course in particular.

M. Maclachlan, New Zealand

There are many courses about Scottish history, but if you want to examine the traditional relationship between the Gaels and their natural environment without the stifling overlay of imperial agenda, then this class is for you.

Geoffrey Sammons, Kirkland, Washington, USA

Michael Newton has done tremendous research concerning the Gaels, their language and culture. Offering information concerning history, identity worldview, values and traditions, Reclaiming the Roots course was packed full of richness. I’m deeply grateful for the extensive work Michael has undertaken examining Gaelic texts, poetry, song & proverbs and synthesizing all to be gleaned into a beautiful text. Class discussions and online forum were engaging. I greatly appreciated contemplating the reflection questions sparking sharing among participants the ways Gàidhlig culture is relevant in modern times. This course would be well enjoyed by Gàidhlig speakers and learners, anyone wanting to connect more deeply to their own Gaelic heritage, to those involved in language revitalization and community building, and to those wanting to learn more about Gaels and possible counter-cultural responses to coloniality. Highly recommend. 5 stars!

Seigheag ni’n Aonghais | Shay MacMullin, Community Educator (Gàidhlig aig Baile) & Cultural Animator (Baile nan Gàidheal)

Michael’s courses are crucial in illuminating the richness of the Scottish Gaelic world, and are crucial for our time. Highly recommended for anyone who feels the call.

John Anderson, Stirling, Scotland.

Decolonization Is For Everyone, Especially White People (Part 3)

There is an insightful parable that has come to be referred to as “The Fight of Two Wolves Within You” or “”Which one do you feed.” You’ve probably seen it on your social media feed at one time or another. Here’s one version of it:

An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life: “A fight is going on inside me,” he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil–he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you–and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”

This analogy applies as much to societies, cultures, and heritages as it does to individual human beings. These all have the potential within them to embolden tribalism, hatred, fear-mongering, and exploitation, on the one hand, or compassion, inclusivity, equality, and justice, on the other. It is a question of what vision the leaders of those communities choose, how they cultivate or neglect the many contrasting strands of their history and heritage, and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Just as a complex text, like the Bible, can be read and interpreted in many different ways, conservatively or progressively, so can cultures be deployed and instrumentalized selectively in a myriad of ways.

The hyper-masculinized, militaristic
representation of Scottish heritage.

I know that I am not alone in being concerned about how the heritage of the Scottish Highlands has so often been co-opted to support disturbingly conservative agendas, whether it be imperial militarism, colonial nostalgia, toxic masculinity, repressive religion, white supremacy, and so on. It often seems as though these regressive narratives have an exclusive monopoly on the Highland legacy and this offends and alienates many people with this ancestry who could potentially be engaged in re-purposing their heritage to better ends.

Back in 2014, I addressed a gathering of “leaders” of the Scottish-American heritage community and, as usual, highlighted some of the ways in which modern myth-making contradicts the historical, lived realities of Scottish Highlanders in Scotland and as immigrants in North America. Afterwards, one gentleman told me that he found my presentation disturbing, because he had always used Highlanders as role models to personify particular qualities that he wished to impress upon his son – as though Highlanders were simply two-dimensional figures to suit the purposes to which he needed them to serve, and as though any ethnic group should be reduced to such simple caricatures.

The reasons for the contortions of Highland – that is, Gaelic – heritage to these ends has everything to do with broader imperial context rather than any inherent traits. For the last two and a half centuries, Gaeldom has been dominated by conservative forces and personnel, as a matter of limited options as a society conquered by the most aggressive empire of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Gaeldom has been so thoroughly impacted by and intertwined with British imperialism for the last several centuries that it is impossible to understand the history – or culture – without taking this imperial/colonial context into account.

But Gaeldom need not be relegated to or limited by this coloniality: there are radical strands in Gaelic heritage as well that have been waiting to be reclaimed and reactivated. This re-radicalization has been particularly lively in the last decade in Scotland due to a re-enfranchised political context, and as scholars we can question the dominant narrative of conservativeness by highlighting the radical Gaelic voice that does exist, and the potential for self-liberation and social equality latent within the tradition.

It’s fortunate that some of the leaders of the last immigrant community in North America where Scottish Gaelic language and culture has survived – Nova Scotia – are actively engaged in these issues. This is particularly important because they live beside an indigenous Mi’kmaw community which is struggling not just with the revitalization of their language and culture, but also with fundamental issues of land, sovereignty, and reconciliation. The 2016 “Mawiomi / Aonach: Sharing our Paths” symposium was one such opportunity in Nova Scotia to foster dialog reflecting on shared experiences of dispossession, dislocation, and subjugation, in the spirit of reconciliation.

People of Scottish Highland ancestry with a moral compass, who are open to the ideals of justice and equality, can find plenty in their ancestral heritage that aligns with the experience of other marginalized peoples and forms the foundation of an empathetic bridge with them. This is not a small task, however, and there is always the risk of trivialization, especially because of the lack of scholarly resources and guides. Doing this work authentically requires attention to the details and nuances of Scottish Gaelic history and culture, rather than vague, broad-brushstrokes invoking “tribes” and neo-pagan images. It is vital to understand the nature of coloniality, how and why it has been such a centripetal force in the Gaeldom over many centuries, and how it has impacted Gaelic consciousness and allegiances both in the Highlands and in the diaspora.

I’ll be offering the Radicalizing the Roots course through Hidden Glen Folk starting in January 2020, for those who wish to explore these paths toward reconciliation, decolonization, and racial and ethnic equity.

And in that spirit, poet Joyce Rankin of Cape Breton has allowed me to share here a previously unpublished poem she composed about her own journey of awareness about the implications of the immigration of her own Highland ancestors into Mi’kmaw territory and her own desire for reconciliation.

The circle drawn with Mi’kmaq symbols.
From the edge I watch the round dance, hear the drums
– the talk of old wrongs that linger on,
the new beginning that is now.
The Elder gazes out at a circle of white faces.

“You were all refugees”, she says,
“and we took you in”.

And yes, my own people came here in that time.
Disdained and dispossessed,
some came limping and weeping to these shores,
some following families and lovers, some for adventure, or thought of gain.

In the country of our ancestors we lived as you did, linked and sharing,
at once possessing and being possessed
by braes and burns and high peaks, from which we watched the sky.
Where you have the trees, we had the bracken, the heather,

and lived among each other. Until the clans were broken,
not by the great battle, but by a great betrayal.

Until the machines of politics and government
ground us down,
but not grinding us into the earth,
— they dug us out of it,
carried us away in coffin ships,
and we were spit out onto an unknown shore across wide waters.
Ships disgorging their cargos like
combines spewing out husked grain.

And there you were
linked and sharing, possessing and being possessed by
woods and stream, and high peaks from which you watched
a different part of the same sky.

And you helped us then, took us in.
Showed us food to be gathered from the woods and waters;
there was enough for all.
And friendship between us.

We built barns and cut the trees,
brought cattle and farmed the land.
Fished, and kept our language.

Oh but the land, it was the land we wanted.
It was paper deeds that defeated us at home.
and the deeds of spoiled and greedy children of the old chiefs,
the deeds to land we did not own in court of law.
And that lesson we learned and remembered:
You cannot win against the court of law,
and old covenants and sworn obligations are swept away,
along with honour,
by rivers of white paper that flow through courts of law.

In a new place the old story.
By language, race, religion; set apart,
dismissed, diminished. We, the Gaels,
less white than the English,
but whiter than the Mi’kmaq,
chose to press ourselves against the sleeves
of those who held the weapons, and the power.

That fierce connection to the old land,
the desolation of departure,
made us grasp this soil more firmly,
and brought sorrows upon you.

The lawyers came, and the government men,
to measure and label the land.
We wanted the deeds so we fenced it in
and signed our names;
stoked the machines of politics and government
and watched them grind you down.
And why did none of us speak?

The ones who sang of courage were silent,
the ones who sang of honour closed their eyes,
murmured that they meant you no harm.
And in the end, we had the land.

Through your long years of hardship
we did not ever ask, because we did not want to know.
But now there are those who do not wait to be asked;
they tell us what we need to know.

And now the wheel is turning.
For the trees are made into paper
to be pointed and directed like arrows,
reams and reams of paper
gather to a river,
and now it flows again through courts of law.

“We Were All Refugees” Joyce Rankin