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

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: