Decolonization Is For Everyone, Especially White People (Part 2)

In the old “clan system” of the Scottish Highlands, most people were dependents of some clan chief who provided them with land and protection in exchange for their loyalty and service. Those who had no chieftain and no hold on the land, for various reasons, were called “broken men” (in English or Lowland Scots). These desperate men were hired to carry out all manner of misdeeds – robbery, pillaging, assassinations, destruction of goods and property – by malicious agents stirring up trouble in the Highlands and along the Highland-Lowland border.

I’ve never seen a Gaelic term that corresponds directly to “broken men” but my guess is that it would be daoine gun dùthchas or daoine gun dùthaich. That term was used, interestingly, in at least one case when a child was born of Highland emigrants who had left Scotland but not yet settled in new immigrant communities. Trauma and land hunger can drive people to desperate measures, and people whose humanity has been broken and damaged are quite capable of passing those wounds on to others and can serve as useful tools in enterprises of domination and exploitation.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, many analysts and strategists urged intervening in failed states, seeing them as breeding grounds for terrorism The logic, as I remember and understood it, was that when a society disintegrates and collapses, the personal and cultural damage is huge and stirs a great deal of anger and resentment, especially when it can be perceived as having been caused by outside forces who benefit from it (for example, First-World Countries who exploit the resources of countries and weaken the government to keep them dependent and easy to manipulate). Young men, especially, are easy targets for recruitment into terrorist organizations, who redirect their anger into a larger narrative, often one with religious and social significance.

The development of whiteness in North America, I believe, is analogous to this view of failed states feeding terrorism. Immigrants came from many different ethnic communities in the “Old World(s),” often fleeing persecution and trauma, but on arrival were assigned to a racial category that did not reflect their own ancestral identity or norms. At the same time, whiteness itself is an identity and cultural framework derived from an imperial Anglo-Saxon foundation, leaving little room for alternatives and willing to use violence and the threat of violence to impose its domination on others.

Down through the centuries, European-descended fatcats offered “whiteness” as ruthless protection against the fear and pressure riding alongside the American dream of unlimited possibility — and charged unfathomable interest. Whiteness provides “an organization of experience around power,” “an omnipotent fantasy, a fantasy of fullness,” Altman observes, guarding against our most primal insecurities about ourselves, and the dangerous unpredictability of life in a world built on economic exploitation.

Natasha Stovall, “Whiteness on the Couch”

And there can be little doubt that whiteness and its status of supremacy was claimed, asserted, and performed through the use of terrorist violence to reinforce these racial categories.

Mass colonization of the lands of the Louisiana Purchase began in earnest after the war of 1812. Image from Smithsonian.

Power comes with a dehumanizing pathology that affects all who wield it, as demonstrated in such social science experiments as Zimbardo’s guards-and-prisoners role-play, and Milgram’s electric shock tests. That’s one of the sad realities of power: it corrupts all it touches and is constantly shifting to match opportunities. Those who wish to defuse the dehumanizing effects of power and injustice would do well to heed the wisdom of such thinkers as Paulo Freire in seeing the possibility of redeeming the humanity of both of the parties trapped in the strife, for their mutual benefit:

Because it is a distortion of being more fully human, sooner or later being less human leads the oppressed to struggle against those who made them so. In order for the struggle to have meaning, the oppressed must not, in seeking to regain their humanity (which is a way to create it), become in turn oppressors of the oppressors, but rather restorers of the humanity of both.

This, then, is the great humanistic and historical task of the oppressed: to liberate themselves and their oppressors as well. The oppressors, who oppress, exploit, and rape by virtue of their power, cannot find in this power, the strength to liberate either the oppressed or themselves. Only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both. Any attempt to ‘soften’ the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity; indeed, the attempt never goes beyond this. In order to have the continued opportunity to express their ‘generosity’, the oppressors must perpetuate injustice as well. An unjust social order is the permanent fount of this ‘generosity’, which is nourished by death, despair, and poverty. That is why its dispensers become desperate at the slightest threat to the source of that false generosity.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

As I noted in the previous blog post on this theme, it is of great significance to me that so many “white folk” working with indigenous peoples, or with other oppressed groups, or inspired by their struggles, come to take an interest in unraveling the trail of coloniality in their own ancestral history, a desire to heal the inter-cultural wounds in which they were implicated. It takes insight and courage to even begin the journey of our mutual liberation, and we need a village to provide us with support and guidance along the way.

I’d like to share another message I received from another person who’s had an awakening of this nature which has led them to their Scottish Highland heritage:

I was heartened to read your blog today and am excited to “meet” a kindred soul exploring these topics. About 5 years ago, I began being drawn into working with Indigenous people in the region where I live (Northern Arizona). We were collaborating on films, developing curricula, supporting their food sovereignty, cultural revitalization, etc. The more I got to know Indigenous people, I felt a strange “call” happening that I couldn’t name, and I longed to be included more and more. I also began to understand the extremely painful, ongoing dynamics of the settler colonial project, and that even though I was being welcomed, there were also serious barriers to my inclusion, for good reason.

Immediately after being invited into some ceremonial practices, very strange things started to happen – I became sensitized to my Scottish ancestry, and learned for the first time that I had an ancestor who had migrated to North Carolina in 1739. His descendants later went on to receive land grants and enslave people. And so I realized that I would be the first in 9 generations to wake up, look at this, and begin the healing process.

My heart was broken. As I began unpacking it all, an ethnoautobiographical book started to emerge. This has become a massive, life-transforming process. I have been working on it for the last 3.5 years, and am now in the phase of editing per the recommendations of several readers. I am beginning to publish related articles, and hope to have a website up soon. I hope to publish this book in the next year or two. Going through this process has given me the capacity to continue working with Indigenous-led community organizing and Truth/Conciliation work in our community.

Hilary Giovale, 26 November 2019

I’ll be offering a new course (Radicalizing the Roots) in early 2020 on exactly these themes within the context of Scottish Highland history and heritage. Please join us.

Source Notes:

  • On “broken men,” see Allan Macinnes, Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788 (1996), pp. 22, 32, 51.
  • On duine gun dùthaich, see Margaret Bennett, Oatmeal and the Catechism (2003), p.10.
  • The quote from Paulo Friere is from page 21 of his classic work The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
  • On the relevance of Zimbardo’s and Milgram’s research to understanding oppressive systems, see Alastair McIntosh Soil and Soul (2001), 109-114, 166-68.

Thanks, as always, to Alastair McIntosh for fruitful discussions on these topics and citations to Freire.

Decolonization Is For Everyone, Especially White People (Part 1)

Map of Celtic languages
The estimated density of native Celtic languages in the year 1900, during dramatic declines.

The many effects of empire and colonialism on this planet over the last 500 years have been so deep and profound that there is no region that has not been deeply scarred by them. Dialog between indigenous groups and those settled on their lands has continued to evolve and make waves in public awareness. As that shift in consciousness has unfolded over many years now in North America, many “white people” have sought a deeper understanding of how their own ancestors fit into this larger historical phenomenon and how they might help to undo some of the terrible damage done by colonization.

The fact is that it is a messy, complex, and ugly set of intersections and it takes a great deal of effort to unwind the many facets of this history in the detail that it deserves. The enormity of the challenge of decolonization, and the question of even how to begin explaining it, is on my mind as I prepare for a Hidden Glen class specifically on this topic (Radicalizing the Roots), to be offered in early 2020.

It is to the credit of indigenous peoples that they often prod the North Americans of European descent who work with them to research their own ancestral histories, so that they can reclaim and decolonize their own heritage. It, in fact, shows great compassion and wisdom on their part, and it has prompted some people to engage in important fact-finding and soul-searching missions. I was reminded of this by a message I received from doctoral student Brenda Hunter, in thanks for research materials that I have made available on my academia.edu webpage. She says:

What sparked my interest is, I’ll be honest, heritage. I have always been interested in linguistics and at 63 I am finally wondering why I never considered learning the language of my people. I helped many elementary students learn their Native American languages but when asked by an elder what my people spoke I had no words to share. It stunned me how complete the assimilation was. Not their choice, nor mine. The elder challenged me to come back and greet him in our language. I explained our history and he pointed out how they lost their language too and weren’t allowed to practice their traditions or wear their regalia. Over the years I have revisited that challenge. There are no Gaelic speakers I know of willing to teach me in Nebraska. I don’t wear tartan nor kilts for show. My grandfather had a piece that he kept away as did my grandmother. I have no idea where they went but I hope whoever has them knows the story.

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this to become a windy novel. It’s just that what you write about hits home. Here in the US (I am from Massachusetts) we are cultural orphans. We know our genealogy and who came from where and also why they left. Most were not from choice. Some washed ashore in PEI or Nova Scotia. The indigenous people here suggest we go home, but they find it hard to believe that we have been forgotten as if we never existed. Maybe that’s why my ancestors lost their language. Maybe they knew there was no going home again.

A friend went to Scotland to attend a conference. She asked what I wanted her to bring me from there. I didn’t want anything touristy, just a rock from the sea and a hand full of dirt, to be a tangible reminder of where we came from.

That, Michael, is what sparked my interest. It’s always there, that longing for something beyond mere words.

(Brenda Hunter, 24 November 2019)

Needless to say, I was honored that she shared these experiences and feelings with me, and I wrote her back. She told me further about a writing exercise that she did with students that she taught, who were to respond in stream of consciousness on the topic “If I Could Change the World.” Her own outpouring at that time was this:

To allow indigenous people all over the world to return to their homelands unfettered by the further effects of colonization so they can practice their ceremonies, traditions, and ways of life that support their sovereignty, self determination, and sustainability.

To support the cultural orphans, deeply damaged by assimilation due to colonization, in finding a way back to their roots. For those that have remained in their ancestral homeland, may they be willing to accept their long-lost relatives with open arms and an open mind. They are your kin. Watch for them and take them in as they relearn their place and ways. Be patient for they have lost hope and need encouragement

These are not unusual revelations, in my experience, for many “white people” working with indigenous folks: having become attuned to the value of indigeneity, many become thirsty for knowledge about their own peoples’ cultures and experiences, and want to find a way “back home” again, or want to find what “home” even means. People with Gaelic ancestry are fortunate that they have the possibility of learning about a beautiful and rich heritage that still exists, on the margins, waiting to be revitalized.

In fact, most of the students in my current Reclaiming the Roots course are engaged in these issues of decolonization and revitalization exactly because they have ongoing relationships with native peoples and communities which make these questions of direct relevance to their work and their lives.

This is knotty topic that I hope to unpack a bit more on blog posts as I prepare course materials. If you have had a similar experience, share it with me on the Hidden Glen contact page!

The Truth of Folktales

I’ve been engaged in aspects of Scottish Gaelic oral tradition for over two decades and have been advocating their value and importance for as long. Now that I have a young child, I read traditional stories to her in Gaelic and often wonder what impact they have on her, and how they have subtly shaped minds – thoughts, values, and behavior – in the past.

Back in March of this year (2019), National Public Radio aired a fascinating episode about how the Inuit use storytelling to educate and socialize their children. One of the generalized observations of this practice is that:

Oral storytelling is what’s known as a human universal. For tens of thousands of years, it has been a key way that parents teach children about values and how to behave.

Modern hunter-gatherer groups use stories to teach sharing, respect for both genders and conflict avoidance, a recent study reported, after analyzing 89 stories from nine different tribes in Southeast Asia and Africa. With the Agta, a hunter-gatherer population of the Philippines, good storytelling skills are prized more than hunting skills or medicinal knowledge, the study found.

Today many American parents outsource their oral storytelling to screens. And in doing so, I wonder if we’re missing out on an easy — and effective — way of disciplining and changing behavior. Could small children be somehow “wired” to learn through stories?

“Well, I’d say kids learn well through narrative and explanations,” says psychologist Deena Weisberg at Villanova University, who studies how small children interpret fiction. “We learn best through things that are interesting to us. And stories, by their nature, can have lots of things in them that are much more interesting in a way that bare statements don’t.”

This rings very true to me, and one of the examples provided by the NPR episode relates to the dangers of drowning in waters that are omnipresent in the Inuit’s environment. To warn children away from these dangers, “If a child walks too close to the water, the monster will put you in his pouch, drag you down to the ocean and adopt you out to another family.”

Scottish Gaels will recognize this story pattern right away: the same basic warning is epitomized by stories about the each-uisge (“water-horse”), which accumulated a set of related beliefs and motifs in the Scottish Highlands.

A likely depiction of an each-uisge on a symbol stone at Aberlemno (the place name itself signifying a watery confluence)

It is clear to me that Gaelic oral tradition is a hugely complex, rich, and sophisticated cultural eco-system serving many different functions for people in different ways and contexts. It was essentially the medium of learning for all but the few élite who supplemented it – until the eighteenth century – with a vigorous and deeply rooted literate tradition. The céilidh house was the focal point of the oral tradition, where all members of the community could gather to share their vast store of stories, songs, riddles, proverbs, and other genres, and to apply them to their contemporary circumstances and challenges.

The Gaelic scholar John Lorne Campbell described the tradition as he experienced it in South Uist, but this would have been equally true of other parts of the Highlands in the eighteenth century:

It was not a question of a few people knowing a few songs or stories by heart and reciting them occasionally at some party or concert: it is a case of a number of people knowing forty or fifty traditional songs, or scores of stories, and not the same songs or stories, but often different ones, so that the total runs into thousands of different songs and many hundreds of different stories …

Strange Things (1968), p. 8

He goes on to quote the Swedish folklorist C. W. von Sydow in this discussion:

Among the richest and most outstanding folk-traditions in Europe is that of the Gaels in Ireland and Scotland, and it is one of the most important objects of European folk-tale research to pay as much attention to it as possible. Its rich vitality is to attributed partly to the fact that people have had their present dwelling places so long, partly that there used to be professional narrators, there being nothing analogous to them in Teutonic territory.

One of the results of a community investing their minds and energy in stories such as those of the each-uisge is that the world is alive with energies and beings with whom human beings can have relationships, and that demand respect. This is quite different from the view of the universe as a dead machine mindlessly obeying the rules of physics which the scientific revolution produced. Some of these stories explicitly warn Gaels not to over-exhaust the natural resources in their environment (a topic I explored in the Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World), but in an even more general sense, they contribute to an animistic worldview, as Sean Kane comments in his wonderful book Wisdom of the Mythtellers:

The events that happened there were compelled by greater-than-human powers, the powers which intersect with our world at various points … The myth teaches that these sacred places are to be respected for their own sake, not for what human beings can make of them. Myth, in its own ecologically discreet form, among people who live by hunting and fishing and gathering, seems to be the song of the place to itself, which humans overhear. …

The stories remembered by the mythtellers were pictures of the flow of life and information from special places on the earth where that energy was felt most keenly. Once the power of the place is lost to memory, myth is uprooted; knowledge of the earth’s processes becomes a different kind of knowledge, manipulated and applied by man.

Wisdom of the Mythtellers (1994), p. 50

And indeed, efforts to uproot Gaelic myth and the traditions of telling folktales (and this is not an appropriate time to examine the details of terminology like “folktale” or analyze specific genres of oral tradition) have long been under attack. The very first book printed in Gaelic – an adaptation of the Book of Common Order, rendered into Classical Gaelic as a church text and published in 1567 – castigates Highlanders for having more interest in the “vain, hurtful, lying, worldly tales about the Tuatha Dé Danann, and the sons of Milesius, and the heroes and Fionn mac Cumhnaill with his warriors” than the “truth” of the gospel. The church opposed the secular folktale tradition (and note that the first characters noted by the writer were the native Gaelic gods), in other words, because it distracted Highlanders from church teachings, which meant that they were putting their souls in peril.

All of the evidence suggests that such warnings did little to suppress Gaelic appetites for these traditional oral narratives for another two centuries. It was the cataclysmic changes that were ushered in by the interference of a ruthlessly anglocentric government, occupying the Highlands literally and Highland institutions culturally, in the aftermath of Culloden that instigated the dramatic decline of the oral traditions.

Still, for at least a generation or two, church ministers knew that it would be easier to reshape oral traditions to carry messages of their own rather than destroy them altogether. Most of ministers in the eighteenth-century Highlands were themselves Gaels who had heard stories about unsuspecting children playing near lochs being lured by the each-uisge, leaping upon the backs of the beautiful creatures, only to be drowned at the bottom of the dark waters. Understanding them implicitly to be cautionary tales, they made them oral missionaries of the triumphant Protestant regime: the children were playing on the Sabbath, according to the revised versions, and one of the party was saved simply because he had a Bible with him.

This was only a temporary respite in the war on secular Gaelic tradition, however, especially since the school-master, armed with an English-only curriculum, soon appeared in every Highland parish to humiliate the young and old who paid heed to “foolish stories.” There was no physical evidence, after all, for eich-uisge or fairies or other supernatural beings, such as the stories claimed. And with the bedrock of Gaelic tradition cracked and broken and stigmatized, other forms of cultural expression were similarly brought into disrespect and disrepair.

From a modern anthropological point of view, we can appreciate that the function and utility of traditional narratives does not depend upon the “truth” of their content. The fact that such emissaries of a coldly intellectual modernity confused literal reality with the Higher Truth of Stories is symptomatic of the ways that coloniality has destroyed indigenous cultures and ultimately failed humanity. And that’s a very sad story.

School is in Session!

Since announcing the creation of Hidden Glen Folk School some six weeks ago, I’ve been incredibly busy doing talks and performances, preparing classes, attending events, writing blogs, producing podcasts (in the Hidden Glen podcast seriesFaceBook group here), networking, and arranging future events. It’s been quite fun and exciting to connect with people interested in and supportive of finding out about Scottish Highland heritage, history, and culture.

Here are some highlights:

Speaking at the Orange County Library, Hillsborough, with Dr. Arwin Smallwood on 30 September 2019.

Building on interest in the Scottish heritage of North Carolina as celebrated in the popular Outlander series, the “Outlandish Hillsborough” series of events began on September 30 with a lecture on the peoples of colonial North Carolina, presented by Dr. Arwin Smallwood (covering Native Americans and African Americans) and myself (covering Scottish Highlanders). The library said that it was the best attended event they’ve ever held.

I also told stories on the two main days of the event at the Ayr Mount historic property: traditional stories of the Scottish Highlands on one day, and stories of immigrant Highlanders in North Carolina on the other.

I attended a conference in Cape Breton about revitalizing languages, which I described in this blogpost. The songs and fellowship provided me with a real boost of encouragement and validation.

Presenting at The Gathering in Greensboro

I presented a talk about the cosmology, belief systems and rituals of Scottish Highlanders at the time of their immigration to North America at The Gathering in Greensboro, North Carolina, a gathering of Neo-pagans, on 19 October. I enjoyed putting these obscure and arcane materials together and exploring their implications for the audience, who responded quite enthusiastically to the talk. I’d love to bring it to other crowds.

Teaching a Gaelic song to Spanish-medium primary school students.

Finally, I made a visit to my daughter’s Spanish-medium primary school to share Scottish Highland heritage with students. (My daughter attends the school, as a result, we use three languages at home: Gaelic, English and Spanish.) I told them about the Scottish Highlands, emigration to North America, relationships between words in Spanish and Gaelic, and about Oidhche Shamhna (“Halloween,” roughly speaking) in Gaelic tradition. I also pointed out that some of them have Gaelic names, I taught them the chorus of a Gaelic song (which they were singing in the picture above) and told them some traditional tales that happen around Oidhche Shamhna, which was their favorite part of my presentation. I got plenty of questions about the sìthichean (“fairies,” roughly speaking) and how to say their names in Gaelic.

This is what I hope to achieve with Hidden Glen Folk School: finding opportunities to help people to connect with Scottish Highland heritage in fun, engaging and insightful ways. As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats is famed for saying, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Why don’t you come to Hidden Glen to have your fire lit? In just over a week we’ll be coming together for these two online courses:

Halloween and the Wisdom of Death in Gaelic Tradition

The aspirations of modernity to enable humanity to transcend physical limitations, such as death, are not only self-deluding but dangerous. Our current environmental crisis demonstrates that the long effort by civilization to dominate and exploit nature without deference to the cyclic character of the organic world – attempting to impose a linear process of extraction, consumption, and disposal of non-organic products – is eco-suicide. Modernity is a death cult pretending to be a life-giver, whereas indigenous knowledge traditions are life-givers often appearing to be death cults.

This critique of modernity is not new – discerning minds have been voicing it for generations. One of my own main influences in understanding the flaws and blind-spots of technocratic modernity is Lewis Mumford (1895-1990), one of the protégés of the Scottish polymath Patrick Geddes (1854-1932). Mumford’s masterpiece The Myth of the Machine (two volumes, 1967-1970) traces not only the technological developments that accompanied civilization but also its psychoses and its self-legitimizing myths that lead inevitably to violence, exploitation and self-destruction. In the section about the rise of monotheism in the cults of Mediterranean kings, for example, he notes:

The notion of ‘eternal life,’ with neither conception, growth, fruition, nor decay – an existence as fixed, as sterilized, as loveless, as purposeless, as unchanging as that of a royal mummy – is only death in another form. … From the standpoint of human life, indeed, all of organic existence, this assertion of absolute power was a confession of psychological immaturity – a radical failure to understand the natural processes birth and growth, of maturation and death.

Mumford, The Myth Of the Machine, vol 1: Technics and Human Development (1967), p. 203

After following these developments to the present day, and reflecting the capacity for mass murder and environmental disaster already obvious decades ago, he issues a dire warning against the self-destructive capacity of the machinery and ideas driving modernity and urges the public to re-embrace the organic (not the technocratic machine) as their guiding principle:

In taking an organic model one must renounce the paranoid claims and foolish hopes of the Power Complex, and accept finiteness, limitation, incompleteness, uncertainty, and eventual death as necessary attributes of life – and more than this, as the condition for achieving wholeness, autonomy, and creativity. … If we are to prevent megatechnics from further controlling and deforming every aspect of human culture, we shall be able to do so only with the aid of a radically different model derived directly, not from machines, but from living organisms and organic complexes (ecosystems).

Mumford, The Myth of the Machine, part 2: The Pentagon of Power (1970), pp. 394, 395

What Mumford is describing is what is characterized by and embodied in indigenous knowledge systems, which have a very different relationship to the world and the nature of being in the world.

The sun penetrating directly to the back of the internal chamber of Newgrange on the winter solstice.

In indigenous Gaelic cosmology, it is the ritualized and cyclic connection with the dead that constantly provides the energy and non-material stuff of life. We acknowledge the dead at ceremonial times because they are still members of our community, and because they are a link in the chain of tradition that provides us with meaning and stability. From the human point of view, we are the living and they are the dead, but from their point of view, they are the eternally living and we are the fleeting shadows. We are reflections of one another and need to continually renew that reciprocal bond of kinship – embodying their names, their stories, their honor of tradition itself – to maintain the space-time-mind equilibrium without which life has no essence or meaning.

In the traditional Gaelic calendar – like that of many other peoples – the new time period begins with the dark: the new day starts at sunset, the new month starts with the new (dark) moon, the new year starts with the onset of the dark half of the year: Samhain, corresponding to modern Halloween. The darkest part of winter is called na mìosan marbha “the dead months” in Gaelic. The cycle of life, then, begins with the descent into darkness and the appearance of death.

The vital connection between life and death is further revealed in the rituals of Oidhche Shamhna “Halloween.” Along with their co-inhabitants of the Otherworld, the sìthichean (“fairies” is a crude translation), the dead come to visit the living. A wide variety of divination rituals were practiced to determine the future of people, with death always being a possibility. When a person died, their body was kept in the house for three days so that family and community members could have direct and personal contact with it, to come to terms with the loss of that person and their own mortality.

If life on this planet is to survive, we have to change our relationship to stuff – that is, materiality – and to time. We have to be content with less. We have to live slowly and thoughtfully through an active connection to the imagination and the spirit. We should honor and look for the insights and joys in which our predecessors took solace. We have to embrace the cyclic nature of the organic world, of which death is a necessary stage.

We should not acquiesce to the myth that our problems are just a matter of materiality that technology will solve for us in some more enlightened future being engineered in laboratories by corporations. A livable future will belong to those who respect the wisdom of the indigenous past. Corporate modernity and political leaders will not relinquish their monopolies freely or easily – we will have to free ourselves from that stranglehold by liberating ourselves from the myths and ransoms meant to keep us trapped in the cycle of dependence, rather than free to embrace the ancestral wisdom of death.

Connecting with Song to Revitalize Languages and Communities

How do you breathe the spark of life into a language which has been marginalized, if not destroyed, by a legacy of colonization and stigmatization? Can we regrow the bonds of community by rejoicing in the vibrant musical traditions of the past? Do we lose something of the authentic center of a culture if we translate modern pop songs into a native language in order to attract today’s youth into our ranks? How do we acknowledge and mourn the losses of the past while still holding out hope for the future?

Those are some of the questions that emerged when I was in Cape Breton, Canada, last week to join a small host of passionate activists revitalizing their languages and communities through the use of song and music at a symposium entitled A’ Chànain Cheòlmhor: Language Revitalization through Music (which was hosted by the Language in Lyrics – Gaelic Songs of Nova Scotia project). Although the majority who came are engaged in Scottish Gaelic (in both Scotland and Nova Scotia), we also shared common visions and enthusiasm with people involved in Irish, Cornish, Apache, Cherokee, Basque and Jèrriais.

Singing Gaelic songs (òrain luaidh) around the milling table.

It was an extremely enjoyable and inspiring event, not least because we actually practiced what we preach: we sang a song together in one of these endangered languages at the start of every session, and then sang and danced at céilidhs after the end of the formal program until the wee morning hours. Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College in Nova Scotia was an ideal setting for this event, as we could draw from the talents and experiences of the surrounding Mi’kmaq, Acadian, and Gaelic communities.

Once you get involved in language and culture revitalization, and connect to other people doing the same work in other communities, you quickly realize that the issues and challenges are nearly identical, despite whatever incidental differences may seem to divide us: geography, skin colour, religion and so on. A common, unifying experience, it seems to me, is that the integrity and self-determination of communities with endangered languages has been undermined, often brutally, through dispossession, colonization, empire, and subjugation, and that the trauma of that dislocation – in geographical, cultural, linguistic, and spiritual terms – echoes through the generations. It is not natural for people living on their own territory to stop using their native language with one another: it is always the indication of some kind of hostile hegemonic force inserting itself between members and generations of that community.

Lodaidh MacFhionghain (Gaelic poet and CEO of the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs) and myself at the conference.

The speakers at the conference displayed an impressive range of skills and creative approaches to reintroducing the linguistic and musical heritage of communities to their natural heirs and reinvigorating them with new practices and materials.

Although the speakers shared many important insights about language, songs and the ways in which they interact, one of those that made the biggest impression on me was made by Prof. David Samuels of New York University, who works with the Apache. He discussed how the modern notion of linguistic equivalence can undermine the legitimacy of minoritized languages. If, as is often assumed, there is only one reality, and all languages are simply interchangeable codes for referring to the objects in that single reality, then there is little point in maintaining a multiplicity of languages: we could instead agree on a single linguistic standard.

The problem is that this is not the reality of languages: each language has its own unique way of expressing the world as experienced by its speakers, each with its own unique set of associations and values and nuances. We should emphasize not the synonymous potential but the uniqueness of our chosen languages and the unique worldviews and experience that they offer. If you’re interested in Scottish Highland heritage and culture, there is no better way to immerse yourself in the thought-world of those people than to learn Gaelic songs.

If you’re interested in the history of Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia, the people keeping it alive today, and the role of song in all of that, you may be interested in the video documentary I created in 2012, entitled A’ Seinn an Aghaidh na Balbhachd / Singing Against the Silence.

Want To Celebrate Your Highland Heritage? Start With Poetry.

Put down your tartan, kilt, and family tree, at least for a moment. There is no avoiding the fact that song-poetry not only pervades Scottish Highland life and history but that it has always been the form of cultural expression with the greatest social prestige and cultural weight. While other societies might have considered architecture, or clothing fashions, or oil paintings, or armadas most worthy of their money and attention, this renown and respect was reserved for poets and poetry in the Scottish Highlands and its sister society in Ireland.

Cover of new anthology of Scottish Gaelic literature, An Ubhal as Àirde / The Highest Apple.

If you want to understand the experiences and mental world of Scottish Highlanders in the past, and to a great degree in the present, there is no avoiding the necessity of taking account of the reams of information we have in their own words, meant to express their personal feelings and communal values to one another. Like any sophisticated art form taken up widely in a society, it exists at numerous levels, from the highly trained literary professionals (who exercised great political power up to the eighteenth century) to the village bards who reflected and swayed the opinions of their kinsfolk on matters great and small. But this is a shared, interlinked tradition that has connected all members of Highland society through common bonds of culture, identity and belief.

Do you wonder how Highlanders reacted to the Massacre of Glencoe, or why they fought in the Jacobite Risings, or what they said about the Clearances and subsequent emigration to colonies? Do you wonder how Highland women expressed their passion, or how Highland men expressed their sorrows and losses? What images accompanied Highland children to sleep? What words were sung to Highland cattle as they were milked? Do you want to resolve debates about what Highlanders thought was at the core of their identity? You can go directly to these words and thoughts, and we have centuries worth of these valuable sources. It’s amazing that so many people who wish to celebrate their Highland heritage don’t even know about the existence of this precious literary corpus, a remarkable and beautiful outpouring of thoughts and feelings over a long period of time.

The neglect of Scottish Highland culture, history, and literature in the academy has robbed this venerable heritage of the attention that it needs to be taken seriously and to make resources available to those who wish to understand and study it. Regardless of these hurdles, I have striven for many years to locate these sources, prepare them properly, and put them in the center of my interpretation and teaching of Highland history and culture, such as I offer through Hidden Glen Folk School.

My friend and colleague Dr Wilson McLeod and I have worked for a number of years to complete An Ubhal as Àirde / The Highest Apple, the first comprehensive anthology of Scottish Gaelic literature. It includes over 200 texts of all genres and themes from native Gaels, mostly people in the Highlands but also emigrants in Lowland cities, Canada, the United States, and South Africa.

Do you want to see the Gaelic equivalent of the Mona Lisa, or the Eiffel Tower, or a Lamborghini? Open this volume and read Muireadhach Albanach Ó Dálaigh’s lament for his wife (M’ anam do sgar riomsa a-raoir “My Soul Parted From Me Last Night”). Or Iseabail Ní Mheic Cailéin’s poem expressing her excitement at having a suitor (Atá fleasgach ar mo thí “There’s a Young Man in Pursuit of Me”). Or Somhairle MacGill-Eain’s ode to his people and culture in the wake of the Clearances (Hallaig).

This literature is a precious inheritance, yet one that is mostly invisible at Highland Games, clan societies, and St. Andrews commemorations. Hopefully the availability of volumes such as An Ubhal as Àirde, and well-educated proponents, can start to change that. If you wish to honor and learn about your Highland heritage, the best way to do so is to start with their own words and wishes: study the poets and their masterpieces!

See related article in Scottish Field here.