Gathering Community Around the Vision

The latest Radicalizing the Roots roster is full and it’s another really interesting and diverse group of participants! It’s going on two years since I started the Hidden Glen Folk School to provide the opportunity for participants to connect to the well-springs of Scottish Highland heritage, and in particular to an understanding of indigeneity from a Scottish Gaelic perspective. Participants come for a variety of reasons, and some have little or no Scottish ancestry, but they all wish to gain a better appreciation of the historical experiences and native culture of Scottish Gaels based on authentic sources and reliable scholarly methods – assets that are out of reach for the majority of people, given the neglect of this field in the academy.

Singing while working the quern to produce grain –
Most work was group work accompanied by song

One of the common themes that has emerged in the life stories of participants who come to Hidden Glen, moreover, is they are engaged in community efforts around the aims of social justice and decolonization, and they feel they need a better grounding in the stories of how the imperial projects affected their own ancestors – often having been told to seek out this information from the elders of the native communities in which they work. Participants are coming from all corners of the globe – the Pacific North-West, New Zealand, the Canadian Maritimes, Australia, and so on – to participate in dialogue to explore these issues in a deep and sustained manner.

This, I believe, is one of the unique features of the Hidden Glen Folk School: to facilitate not just personal enrichment but informed and empathetic community engagement and social transformation. Rather than try to explain it any further myself, I’ll let a few of the participants in the current session of the Radicalizing the Roots course express their thoughts in their own words:

“Something that I’ve heard reiterated in so many ways by Indigenous peoples all over has been that white people need to go back to our own roots and reconnect, heal the wounds there in order to stop inflicting more wounds on others. Basically, break free of White hegemony (responsibly). For a while now I’ve held that as true, but I hadn’t been able to work out where to even start until I randomly(?) picked up Gàidhlig one day. Once I started learning Gàidhlig, the more I delved into the language, the more urgently I felt like I needed to contextualise the language within its own history, and find out how that history related to my own understandings of the world. I wanted more context for the everyday life of my ancestors who spoke it, and to find out more about the impacts of colonialism on, and participation in colonialism by, Scottish Gaels. I came across Michael’s work & courses late last year and have now done the introduction course and Reclaiming the Roots, so I’m very ready for the more thorough dive into answers to the more complex questions I’ve had during this whole learning process. As Michael can attest (lol), these topics have been on my mind since the first course. Over time in this learning so far, I feel like I’ve finally been able to take meaningful steps towards unpacking the Whiteness within me, reconnect with some of what’s been lost over the generations, and find the threads of that deeper solidarity with Indigenous peoples, and I really wanna keep going!”

– Participant in Gadigal-Wangal lands, Eora nation (aka “Sydney, Australia”)

“Most of my family’s ties to our ‘Scottishness’ are through the symbols of the Gàidhealtachd specifically – bagpipes, tartans, kilts etc – without any of the deeper meanings attached to them (we had no connection to the clan whose tartan was on my dad’s first kilt, for example). We think of ourselves as Pākehā (on my New Zealand dad’s side), or white (on my American mum’s side), and so these symbols are associated with a white, national Scottishness rather than the deeper meaning of our ethnic Gaelic roots, pre-whiteness. What I really liked about the first readings for the course, then, is how they point out that this ‘tartanism’ papers over the truth of Gaelic Scotland. There is, in fact, a deeper significance to these Gaelic symbols which can open the doors to a much fuller understanding of our relationships both to our roots and to whiteness.”

– Participant in Aotearoa/New Zealand

“I attended Dr. Newton’s “Bury My Heart at Culloden” talk on Sunday and his comment “whiteness is amnesia” really resonated with me. It was around the same time that I was really grappling with my own understanding of whiteness that my grandmother passed away. Part of what she left me was a huge box of old family papers. That sent me down the genealogy rabbit hole, which led to me learning about my first ancestor in North America. John MacQuarrie was born on the Isle of Rhum, fought at Culloden, was captured and sentenced to transport and seven years indenture in Virginia. After serving his indenture, he went to North Carolina, and his children eventually moved to the county in Kentucky where we still live today. Since learning about “Grandpa John” and his story, I have tried to learn more about the history, culture, and language that was taken from him when he was forced to leave his homeland. This seems connected to understanding my own whiteness and what my ancestors willingly or unwillingly gave up when they took on a white identity. I’m also hoping to focus my capstone research for my master’s program in this area and hope this course will help me drill down to some more specifics for that research.”

– Participant in the United States

I plan to extend the operation and scope of Hidden Glen in the Autumn – won’t you plan on joining our community? Togamaid fonn!

Help Envision The Folk School Future

I’m in the process of envisioning how to expand and extend the Hidden Glen Folk School of Scottish Highland Heritage to be an even more useful and powerful tool for personal and social transformation, especially with the help of my friend Tad Hargrave.

Where should the carrying stream of tradition take us next? (Dochart Falls, Killin)

What I have sensed from all working with many different participants over the last two years from all over the world is that people are not only searching for new paradigms to re-structure their values and visions, but they’re also seeking to understand the wreckage of the past so that they can avoid repeating its mistakes and help to right some of its wrongs. And they also want to find what is valuable and life-enhancing from the past so that they can (re-)claim it and sustain it. This deepening of understanding requires time, patience, and experience in a sustained manner.

The courses currently offered at Hidden Glen work in sequence roughly like this:

  • Introduction to Scottish Highland Heritage: Build a general understanding of the history and cultural context;
  • Reclaiming the Roots: Go into depth into understanding the social framework, the most important forms of cultural expression (especially literature), and the spiritual and cosmological framework.
  • Radicalizing the Roots: Understand the meaning of coloniality and its impact on Scottish Gaeldom and its ripples throughout the British Empire.

I need to add a course to build out the curriculum for participants. Which of these possible courses do you think I should create as the next offering?

Your input will help me to focus where to move things next. Please reply to this blog post or email me directly if you have more detailed suggestions!

This Saturday is Bealltainn, the beginning of the bright half of the year in Gaelic cosmology. If you watch BBC Alba, you can catch me speaking about the customs and meaning of Bealltainn this Saturday.

Let’s hope that the dark part of things is moving behind us and that there is a bright light at the end of this long tunnel that brings healing and solidarity.

On Anglo-Saxons, Whiteness, and Cultural Amnesia

There seemed to be a brief moment last week when certain Republicans in the United States were about to launch a new political brand harkening back to supposedly “Anglo-Saxon” traditions that underpin their cultural outlook and ethnic identity. The term “Anglo-Saxon” has long been used by the dominant group in British colonies to lend their interpretation of history and identity a ring of some time-hallowed authenticity. However, as scholars (such as Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm and Dr. Annie Abrams) were quick to point out, the way in which the term has been used is not only a racist dog-whistle, but it contradicts the history of what really happened in the past of Western Europe.

Prototypical Anglo-Saxons looking for lands to conquer

Although whiteness is a social construct that reserves certain powers, privileges, and advantages for those who match roughly “European” physical features, whiteness has a cultural and linguistic core which is anglonormative and anglocentric. Think about the rabid English-only lobby, the rapid assimilation of immigrants to a monolingual monoculture, and the narrow literary and cultural canon which form the basis of universal education in Anglo-America. While people of other ethnic or racial origins may be lauded for their contributions to the anglosphere, the fact that other cultural norms and ethno-linguistic traditions might exist is often ignored.

Whiteness allows people of all of those various backgrounds to forget about those actual roots and become honorary Anglo-Saxons – and guard those vaunted traditions carefully from the Others. What is particularly ironic is that loads of people vaunting these supposedly Anglo-Saxon roots, and supposedly superior ways of being, are descended from the native Celtic peoples (such as those of Wales, Scotland and Ireland) who fought against English colonization for centuries and were racialized as inferior even into the twentieth century (and some, to a degree, to the present). Their ancestry is no more Anglo-Saxon than a Ukrainian.

Assimilation allowed relegating that trauma and conflict to the past, silencing past “defeats” to join the upper echelons of an oppressive system and offered reassurance that a person might no longer be the target of prejudice and persecution – even if someone else would be. Identifying with Anglo-Saxons and Vikings, who were ruthless invaders and exploiters, equates to elevating yourself to the top of the food chain, which is why these Germanic groups were fetishized by anglophones in the nineteenth century. But it also entails leaving your actual cultural traditions and expressions behind, and in the case of Celtic peoples, this has left a vacuum of knowledge and experience, usually filled up by silly stereotypes and romantic nonsense.

The United States has a particularly egregious history of dehumanization and brutality which is wrapped up in unresolved multi-generational injustices. Immigrants were usually people who had suffered from conflict and poverty. They entered into a society and system which was itself traumatizing and built on inequality. Modernity itself is alienating and built on objectifying abstractions, and destroys the reciprocity of meaningful community. The world of the working-class is a world of things, made of people who build, buy, and own things. Thingification is dehumanizing. Power corrupts, and racial hierarchies are a form of power, and power is pathological. When you are a member of the working class, you have to work hard against the merciless objectification inherent in the system to hold on to your own humanity and that of others.

Whiteness cuts us off from the ancestral experiences of pain and shame that could open an empathetic bridge to our fellow human beings (and other sentient beings) facing the same injustices in the present. And that is why I think it makes sense for Scottish Gaels as communities – and all other ethnic communities – to understand the events and forces of the past and present as a collective exercise, rather than sweeping them under the rug with the other unwanted reminders of poverty, persecution, and subjugation.

Those are some of the motivating factors I find among participants who join my Radicalizing the Roots course. Liberate yourself from the stultifying fake history of the Anglo-Saxon caucus today!

The Meaning of Culloden and Radicalizing the Roots Course

First of all, I’ll be offering the course Radicalizing the Roots: Decolonizing Scottish Heritage and Deconstructing Whiteness through Gaelic Lenses again, starting on May 13th. The effects of the pandemic have restricted the amount of time I have available to teach, but I’m trying to make time to offer these courses, especially because I know that a lot of people are asking important, probing questions about the meaning of Scottish history and heritage, and how it intersects with a number of issues like social justice in the present day.

Secondly, I’m honored to be featured for an interview on Sunday 18th April commemorating the 275th anniversary of the Battle of Culloden, the first in a series of discussions about the intersections between Scottish history and social justice concerns of the present. The talk, entitled “Bury My Heart at Culloden” after a long article I wrote some years ago, is being organized by Sgoil Gàidhlig Bhaile an Taigh Mhòir of Baltimore and will explore the ripple effects of that fateful day both in Scotland and North America.

Culloden Moor (National Trust for Scotland)

So, what should or could we make of the Battle of Culloden in terms of Scottish history and culture? Any major historical episode, such as the Jacobite Rising of 1745 and its conclusion on the Battle of Culloden, will be complex and open to a number of different interpretative lenses – but that does not of course mean that all interpretations are equally valid or useful from some point of view.

Scholars have made various totalizing claims about the ’45: that it was an inter-dynastic power struggle, or a civil war, or a conflict between the “Old World” and modernity, or a religious war, or the fool-hardy dream of a vain prince. While all of these and other ideas offer potential ways of approaching the events, what’s often missing is the fact that the backbone of the Jacobite army was comprised of Scottish Gaels who had their own perspective on the matter, which is evident in song and story that persists to the present day, even though it’s often ignored.

Take, for example, the response of the Gaelic activist group Misneachd in response to an exhibition in 2017 at the National Museums of Scotland about Jacobitism:

“This is cultural appropriation and English language colonisation of our history. The museum is attempting to make money and raise its profile internationally from a history completely interlinked with the language of the Highlands. Even now, we sing the Gaelic songs composed at that time and tell the tales connected with the events. Gaelic, and the Gaelic peoples of the Highlands as a minority population, still suffer from the consequences of Culloden. One of the main difficulties faced by Gaelic speakers is their compatriots’ lack of understanding of how strong the link is between Gaelic and the important events in our history. If we present our history without any reference to the important part Gaelic played in it, it is little wonder some Scots still don’t understand that Gaelic has relevance in Scotland today.”

The Scotsman 24 June 2017

That’s only four years ago, and the pattern of neglect persists. It’s as though “qualified” people either don’t know that there are ample sources of information about what Gaels thought about the movement or they don’t think that their opinions are worth examining and taking seriously. Because, after all, they were just primitive rustics whose way of life was doomed to extinction, right? That seems to be the prevailing attitude, just as it was about the other natives who had to be conquered for modernity to prevail … but I digress.

So, what do the Gaelic sources tell us? Here are the main themes (which I’ve explored in the book Warriors of the Word as well as in other books and articles).

First, Gaels experienced a siege mentality, seeing the anglophone world hemming them in and persecuting them for being different. The Jacobite Risings focused their energies in opposition to those who were disenfranchising them and gave them an heroic role to play in changing the tide – or so they hoped. It is little wonder that one of the motivational stories told in Gaelic concerned a prophecy that a messianic figure would return to Scotland and lead the Gaels into battle and restore their status in the country (an idea I’ve explored in this article). Messianic hopes are often the sign of desperation, and the prophecy explicitly reflects the Gaels’ self-consciousness of their marginalization in the nation they founded.

Second, the Jacobite Risings were framed through ethnic lenses, as a conflict between the Gaelic world and the English world. This is not a claim that the actual ethnicity of every person on each side was a literal match, only that there was a perceived approximate alignment between ethnic and political allegiance. Just as in all of the “Indian Wars” across North America there were always native scouts and soldiers in the U.S. government ranks, so were there Highland soldiers fighting in the Hanoverian ranks – but that did not change the overall tenor of Gaelic perceptions of the meaning of the conflict. And you can see that ethnic coloring in practically all of the Gaelic sources.

Thirdly, the defeat of Culloden was seen (rightly) as a watershed in Highland society. This is remarked upon in many Gaelic sources. It is not because of the number of soldiers that lost their lives in the battle, but because “the whole weight of the Government, for a number of years, was employed to dissolve every tie between the chief and the clan …” as Ramsay of Ochtertyre remarked. In other words, an intensive and sustained campaign to break Gaelic society and assimilate it from the top down was carried out, informed by, and informing, colonial efforts elsewhere in the Empire.

These are some of the issues I’ll be discussing briefly on Sunday, and some of those to be explored in greater detail by participants in the Radicalizing the Roots course I’ll be leading in coming weeks.

P.S. By the way, the above comments are only about Gaelic perceptions of the events as articulated in a great many songs and stories composed by men and women across the Highlands. I am not implying that these perceptions were realities in literal historical terms, or that Highland support of the Jacobite cause was the best thing to do, or that Gaels would have benefited from a Jacobite victory. It is merely to relay and make sense of these experiences from a Gaelic point of view.

Reclaiming the Roots: Re-Launching in late March

There have been surprising and remarkable developments around Gaelic in the last couple of years, some of them quite unexpected. Although Gaelic remains highly endangered in Scotland itself and in the last speech community outside of Scotland – in Nova Scotia, Canada – there have probably never before been so many adults learning the language. The DuoLingo app is one of the main reasons for the sudden explosion, although the additional publicity brought by the Outlander television series and other forms of popular culture have helped to bring further exposure as well.

While the provisions for learning the Scottish Gaelic language are quite good in many respects, and only getting better, instruction about wider aspects of the history, traditions, and folklife of the Scottish Highlands is much harder to come by.

Reconstructed Highland thatched house at Kingussie Folk Museum.

I created the Reclaiming the Roots course for people who wish to dive into the fascinating details of Scottish Gaeldom, especially for those approaching it with an interest in indigenous knowledge and cultures. I have reconfigured it slightly from previous iterations by asking that participants already be familiar with some of the basics of Scottish history and culture, such as offered in the Introductory course, so that we can spent more time on some of the subtle nuances, practices and characters, such as evidenced in cosmology, human ecology, gender, and the sense of belonging.

I’ll be offering the course on six consecutive Thursdays from March 25th to April 29th. If you’d like to join us, please order your copy of the coursebook, Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders, so that you’ll have it in time to read for our first meeting!

You can see the comments from previous participants in this blog post.

New Book Announcement: Gaelic In Your Gob

I’m excited to announce the release of a new book that I’ve been working on for the last year. It’s called Gaelic In Your Gob: Four Dozen English Words that Came from the Scottish Highlands. It’s a light-hearted exploration of 48 words that were borrowed into English from Scottish Gaelic, each of which is explained with its own short essay that reveals the use of the word in Scottish Gaelic texts and English texts, and the means by which the Gaelic word came into English. Many of these words (30 to be exact) are accompanied by humorous illustrations. The book opens with an extended introduction to the history of the Gaelic and English languages and the history of the study of these languages, so as to contextualize how we’ve come to understand borrowings such as these.

One of the most common topics that pops up amongst anglophones studying Scottish Gaelic is whether certain words in English that resemble words in Gaelic were originally derived the former or the latter language – with a great deal of wild speculation. There has never before been a full book account of these interesting and important questions, especially in a form accessible to a general readership.

Paperback ISBN 978-0-9713858-4-9
Published Feb 2021 by Ingram / Saorsa Media
215 pages with 30 illustrations by Natalia Lopes, 2 diagrams and map

Order it through your local bookshop, or via (US), (Canada), (UK), (Austr@lia), or other online retailers.

“This book combines Michael’s scholarship with humour. It showcases a delightfully gung-ho attitude to rabbit-hole dives into finer detail whilst retaining total intelligibility and reading pleasure for the person discovering the Scottish Gaelic language for the very first time or simply looking for a good old wander onto a less-beaten etymological track … If your sights have been set on acquiring Scottish Gaelic, you couldn’t make a better start than this little book, showing that for all its seeming exotic remoteness to the modern English speaker, a surprising number of our Gaelic words have in fact been in your gob all along.”

Àdhamh Ó Broin, Gaelic Consultant for Outlander

“His careful scholarship and characteristically engaging style are on full display. While the etymological notes the book offers are thoughtful and intriguing, they serve most notably as a vehicle for the author’s illuminating insights into the cultural, historical, and linguistic interplay between Gaelic-, Scots-, and English-speaking communities.”

Dr. Ian Clayton, Associate Professor of Linguistics, University of Nevada, Reno

“Michael Newton’s study of the Gaelic element in modern English and Scots is a book with impact. He gives a masterly account of the history of Scottish Gaelic, a language of inspired poets and songwriters, before going on to previous discussion (some of it enthusiastic but eccentric) of the Celtic element in English. The main part of his book provides analysis of nearly fifty important borrowings, word by word. Some of them (banshee, coronach, loch, slogan, whisky) are familiar. Others (dulse, ingle, jilt) will come as a surprise even to professional linguists. Clearly written, and yet underpinned by reference to the latest research, Michael Newton’s survey will be essential not only to academic researchers, but to anyone with a love of Scotland’s Highland heritage and the languages of Scotland and beyond.”

Dr. Andrew Breeze, Professor of Linguistics, University of Navarra

NOTE 16 February 2021: On receiving my printed copies of the book, I recognized that the inner margin of the initial layout of the book needed to be widened. The printers now have a revised layout with improved inner margins (which I submitted within a day of receiving the printed proofs) and that layout should now be actively used for printing.

Healing Internalized Inferiority and Breaking the Chain of Abuse

DuoLingo released a version of their language-learning app for Scottish Gaelic in the Autumn of 2019 and in little more than a year, more than 500,000 people had signed up to gain some knowledge of a tongue that is in a highly endangered state due to centuries of neglect and persecution from anglophones, especially those who have wielded power and monopolized privilege in state institutions. Many thousands of these DuoLingo learners from around the world are on FaceBook groups, and while discussion tends to be focused on getting help with questions around grammar, syntax, and idiom, some of it relates to wider questions of history, social conditions, and ethnicity.

An anecdote was just shared on one of these groups that I think is worth exploring further:

“My partner and I stayed in a B&B near Lochcarron, in 1978. In those days much of Scotland, and the Western Highlands in particular, was firmly closed on Sundays and we were despairing of finding anywhere to stay, so we were very grateful for the elderly couple – an old blind shepherd and his wife, who ignored the local convention and kept their B&B sign up. They were lovely too. The old shepherd said something I will never forget: he said ‘I have the Gaelic, I’m no ashamed’. That took me aback, the first time I realised that this man and others of his generation were taught that speaking the native language of the Highlands was something shameful, something to be discouraged.”

And, as might be expected, the sharing of this anecdote prompted others to respond with stories within their own families of how their own parents, grandparents, or other forebears, were made to feel ashamed of Gaelic by people invested with authority by institutions such as the school or church, and how that shame discouraged them from valuing Gaelic or allowing others to use or speak it. Here are a few of those responses:

“My own father was belted at school for speaking his first language. He wasn’t ashamed and was trying to teach my mother, before he died at 43. It’s repeated all over Scotland. And the prejudice and ingrained institutional prejudice is still a big issue for the language today. You see it everywhere in Scotland.”

“A friend of mine’s mother was beaten at school for speaking Gaelic. We’ve all lost so much and not even realised.”

“As I understand it from conversations I’ve had with folk from native speaking households, not only were they physically disciplined at school if they used their first language (this is in mid-late 1900s, not that long ago), but the families were made to believe the kids would not amount to anything in life. Like they’d be seen as backwards, stupid, and not have the same opportunities as others. Sadly, it worked.”

“My family too. That’s why I was determined to keep it.”

Of course, being physically punished or psychologically brutalized in school does not by itself entirely account for the entire phenomenon of abandoning a language: the shepherd in the first anecdote resisted the negative attitudes of the anglophone ascendency, as did the final response that I’ve quoted. But discussion about the sad state of Gaelic and its history of marginalization in Scotland and in colonial contexts like Nova Scotia always brings similar stories to the fore, which suggests that people and families find them to be meaningful, pithy encapsulations of the struggles that they and their communities have had in maintaining any meaningful amount of control over their own cultural and linguistic identities, and the merciless iron fist that the anglophone world has exercised against such possibilities for centuries.

(For further discussion of anti-Gaelic education through a colonial lens, see this important article by Iain MacKinnon. I’ve collected a few other examples in this blog post.)

There is clear evidence that Scottish Highlanders internalized a sense of inferiority, as far as their native language and culture was concerned, in the eighteenth century, particularly after the defeat of the Jacobite cause at the Battle of Culloden (history I’ve discussed at length in my book Warriors of the Word and in some articles and blog posts such as this one).

While this imperial agenda to enforce the superiority of the anglophone world at the expense of the native language and culture of the Highlands was reflected and reinforced by all formal institutions in Scotland, it is particularly heart-breaking to see the role that schools often played in this tortuous brain-washing. Teachers are authority figures who exercise a great deal of influence on the thoughts and values of the students in their charge, who in most cases want to earn the approval and endorsement of the teacher. The very idea of education – passing patterns of thought from teacher to student – is predicated on this hierarchy. Once the concepts and belief of education are inculcated upon a new generation, the pattern can replicate itself. In other words, once the idea has been transmitted that Gaelic is inferior and not worth nurturing, that an English-only world is the only path through progress and modernity, then it doesn’t matter what the identity of the teacher is, the same imperial agenda can be promoted.

A very similar set of “methods of instruction” – the murder machine, as Pádraic Pearse called it – was practiced across the Celtic communities of Scotland, Ireland, Man and Wales in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and sometimes beyond. A student who was caught speaking their native language was forced to wear a badge of shame, such as the skull of a dead animal, and other students were responsible for reporting them when that happened. One of the common practices was for the student who wore the object of shame to listen for another student using Gaelic and the object would be passed to him or her. In some cases, at the end of the school day, only the student who ended up with the object would be thrashed, and in other cases, each of the students who had been caught would be thrashed in turn.

It was a brutal means of brainwashing children to believe in the subordination of their native language and culture, and it is more than just a metaphor or analogy for the chain of coloniality that was transferred to other settings such as First Nations Residential Schools. This was exactly how cultural marginalization was passed from one generation to the next, how subservience to imperial power was imprinted on bodies and minds, and how unresolved trauma was re-enacted upon the most vulnerable groups in geographical circles radiating outward until it bled out into colonial settlements.

One of the missions that I have with the Hidden Glen Folk School is to give participants the tools to understand and interrupt this chain of coloniality within their own lives. How? First of all, by delving into the real, concrete cultural expressions of Gaelic culture, participants can learn and experience for themselves that this is and was not an inferior way of being in the world or seeing the world. It did not need to be invaded, conquered and assimilated for its own good. It is and was a fully-functioning, sophisticated, beautiful, valid society and identity in its own right on its own terms.

Second, if participants can have deep engagement with Gaelic culture, they can come to realize in their own way that the marginalization of Gaelic society and the imposition of assimilation into an anglocentric, imperial world was an injustice that caused great harm to people not just at a material level but at psychological, social, and spiritual levels. And if participants can gain empathy with Gaels who went through those experiences, and the reasons why they were traumatic, they can gain greater understanding of similar experiences of injustice committed against other ethnic groups in the past and present and gain greater empathy with them.

Finally, one of my courses, Radicalizing the Roots, covers the history of coloniality in the Gaelic world. It allows participants to learn about the history of empire as it has intersected with Gaeldom in very specific terms, the particular circumstances, practices, and beliefs involved, and demonstrates that these follow fairly common patterns of Othering and hegemony – phenomena that have happened and continue to happen all around the world due to the nature of power and impulses of dehumanization that accompany it. The experience of coloniality, disenfranchisement and oppression are detrimental to all involved in different ways. These are lessons that every generation experiences and must take account of on its own terms.

These insights and experiences can provide solid foundations for engaging with people who work for a more just and equal world where people and communities can live and act in solidarity as peers, recognizing our common humanity, our common flaws and shortcomings, giving each other the chance for healing from our many scars and the chance for redemption from our many past faults, weaknesses, sins, and mistakes. There are many entryways into the dialog of Truth and Reconciliation and we all need to start somewhere.

For some people, this journey might start with joining DuoLingo and learning a little bit of Scottish Gaelic and discovering that it’s fun and not impossible to learn. For those who want to delve deeply, I expect to offer the next course in my series, Reclaiming the Roots, in the next month or two. The pandemic has forced me to put teaching on the back-burner for a time, and I’ve been caught up in a couple of book projects, but I’m trying to keep the teaching simmering as best as I can. Stay tuned …

Ask Me Anything on Reddit About Scottish Highland Immigrant Communities in North America

It seems safe to assume that every interest group has online fora where people can meet and discuss issues on the internet. I was recently asked to chair a Q&A session on the Ask Historians group on Reddit (on this webpage) so that participants can ask any questions that they may have about the history, literature, culture, and legacy of Scottish Highland immigrant communities in North America. I’ll be fielding your questions on Sunday 13th December in two live sessions: 10AM-noon EST and 1-3PM EST.

I’ve not previously been a user on Reddit, so I don’t want to try to describe any technical details I may not yet fully understand. However, the general idea is that readers can pose any reasonable question, I’ll choose some of the best questions, and do my best to address them. I expect to make citations of the many articles and books I’ve written about Scottish Gaelic history, culture, and literature contextualized within the Highlands themselves or in immigrant communities in North America.

Why is this kind of session special? In-depth knowledge of this domain – of the history, literature, and culture of the natives of the Scottish Highlands, whether living in the homeland or in overseas colonies – is perversely scarce in North America. Scottish Gaels began to settle in the colonies of North America in the mid-1700s, in large part as refugees and emigrants under duress, and eventually could be found in every state of the US and province of Canada (see overview history booklet here). Today the descendants of the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders number in the millions across the continent.

And yet, there are no academic departments in the US where an aspiring scholar can acquire the scholarly skills needed to understand the culture, language and history of this ethnic group (see related article here), and even in Canada the resources and opportunities are limited and inadequate (see fuller discussion here, here, and here). In a vacuum of information, it is all too easy for myths and misrepresentations to flourish.

It is all too easy to project the conditions and assumptions of the present into the past, which is something often done in popular culture. One might assume from common portrayals of Scottish Highlanders, whether by Hollywood films or Highland Games, that Scottish Highlanders were simply more primitive forms of beings than ourselves but essentially the same, people with funny accents and colorful costumes, but basically Anglo-Americans/-Canadians in embryo.

And that would be to totally misunderstand who they were, what they understood about themselves and their identity, how they saw the world, and what their own experiences and perspectives were. They had their own distinct language that connected them to one another and to their own culture and sense of history – something that the anglophone authorities saw as a “problem” and sought to undermine. This language was the vehicle for their thoughts, beliefs, values, and worldview. It was the medium of their literary tradition, one with a very central place in their daily lives and in their primary forms of cultural expression. It exists in both high register and low register forms, and it tells us a great deal about these very issues. In fact, it is the best and almost only place to find such information, as it is largely missing from anglophone documents, which were created for other purposes and audiences. The stories and songs that they created and told both reflected and informed their sense of self and way of being in the world.

If you want to understand Scottish Highlanders from their own point of view – to get inside their heads – you need to understand their language and to be able to read and interpret their literary remains in their original form (not just through English translations). This is, in fact, true of any nation. How many scholars of French culture and history could claim any level of authority without being able to read primary sources in French? And yet, the sad state of scholarship about Scottish Highlanders – or Scottish Gaels, as they call themselves – is that the skills needed to handle these sources are very scarce, especially in North America.

Fortunately, I have a large catalogue of material to which I can refer in my responses in Reddit. I’ve been pursuing these lines of research – the history, culture, literature, and legacy of Scottish Highlanders in North America – for over two decades, and am one of the very few to have done so (see some of my research publications on this webpage). There are reams and reams of texts to be examined, which have not been subjected to any scholarly scrutiny if they have been noticed at all, and yet there are hardly any trained scholars doing so in the academic institutions of North America because there is insufficient support. That really needs to change.

If you’d like to get a taste of this material, and some insights about what it can tell us about the inner lives of Scottish Gaels, join me on Reddit on Sunday 13th December – is guma fada beò eòlas nan Gàidheal!

Rest and Be Thankful – 2021 Course Announcement

As we approach the winter solstice, the pace of life in the natural world begins to slow down and move toward hibernation. The traditional folk calendar of the northern hemisphere recognizes this reality (increasingly the farther north you go!) and allows for social gatherings focusing on reaffirming communal bonds and values, things we need to get us through the hard slog of life. That’s been more true than usual this year, and the dangers of the pandemic preclude us from answering the call to congregate as we usually do to renew our friendships and families, and thus to quench our emotional and spiritual thirsts.

Image from VisitScotland on webpage about site.

As I was meditating on today’s Thanksgiving holiday in the United States, and the notion of deserving the right to rest and be thankful after a long, hard slog, what came to my mind was a marker along one of the main roads in the Highlands given the English name “Rest and Be Thankful.” It indicates the high point of the A83 road nearby the village of Arrochar (an t-Arar in Gaelic), one of the headquarters of the leaders of Clann Phàrlain (the MacFarlane clan). As you can see from photographs taken from this location, where travellers are encourage to stop and rest, the views are stunning. (There are multiple ironies in the toponyms and cultural geography of the site that I’ll leave for now …)

I know from my own experience, and see from others, that the pandemic invites us to look back at our personal lives and at our communal experience from the panoramic long view – it begs us to ask, what has happened, why, and how can we make the world a better place? What do things really cost and what do we really need? We need to slow down in order to even ask, let alone answer, such questions. The pandemic is not a random accident but a symptom of the underlying cultural sicknesses of modernity, and we need to find ways to diagnose and heal from these maladies if humans and our ecosystems are going to have a chance to recover and survive into the future in any recognizable form. And that requires questioning the assumptions of modernity and reassessing traditional wisdom and lifeways, including that of the Gaels. (See the online journal LESS from a very forward-thinking group in Scotland.)

And speaking of which … it seems that over 500,000 people have now signed up to learn Scottish Gaelic on DuoLingo. Who would have believed that that was possible? The world still holds many surprises for us.

But, in the meantime, a lot of humans have suffered in many ways, including economically. These conditions have compelled me to put teaching aside for a while, but I’m going to try offering the introductory course again in 2021 at a reduced price to try to accommodate participants who have been hit by the financial effects of the pandemic. You can sign up for Hidden Glen courses on the Shop webpage.

Also, if you’re interested in the legacy of Scottish Highland immigrants and immigrant communities in North America, you might want to join the AskHistorians Reddit AskMeAnything session I’ll be offering on Sunday December 13th 9AM-11AM EST and 1PM-3PM EST. This is my first time on Reddit, so I’m learning too, but I believe you can ask questions and watch the conversation on/from this webpage.

So, for now, as any wise elder will tell you, Leig t’ anail is gabh beachd air do bheannachdan! “Take a breath and meditate on your blessings!”

A Year In Hindsight: Living in Disruption, Disease, and Uncertainty

It’s just over a year since I established Hidden Glen Folk School and began a string of blogs about the contemporary relevance and need for tradition. Samhain – the Gaelic New Year – is fast approaching and seems an appropriate time to look back on the last twelve months.

This last year has been challenging to most of us in many ways, sometimes ways that we could not have possibly predicted a year ago. The pandemic put my own life into financial jeopardy, so I’ve had to delay offering courses until next year while I try to gain some stability – and I’m sure most people have similar experiences, and much worse.

Still, I’d like to share a few of the things about the last year for which I’m grateful personally. First of all, it was very rewarding for me to find so many people who are passionate about Scottish Highland heritage, and enthusiastic about being engaged in it, for a whole host of reasons I’ve outlined in previous blog posts (here’s the first one, from 2019 Sept 22). Given that there are currently about 500,000 people currently learning Scottish Gaelic on DuoLingo – who would have guessed such an enormous crowd – perhaps there is even more interest than anyone expected.

Late last year a volume edited (and largely translated) by my friend and colleague, Prof. Wilson McLeod, and I was released, and in September (2020) we were honored with an award for the best non-fiction Gaelic book of 2020. This volume, The Highest Apple / An Ubhal as Àirde, is the first comprehensive anthology of Scottish Gaelic literature, from its early medieval beginnings to the present day.

Winners of the 2020 Gaelic Book Awards
Names “Wilson McLeod” and “Micheal Newton” inscribed into Donald Meek award for annual best non-fiction Gaelic book award.

Early in 2020, I published the book The Everyday Life of the Clans of the Scottish Highlands, which is available in both print and eBook formats. I’ve received enthusiastic responses from readers in many different countries around the world.

I’ve also got a very significant chapter about an important Gaelic figure in Canadian history – Alexander Fraser, the first provincial archivist of Ontario – in the volume North American Gaels: Speech, Story, and Song in the Diaspora, which will be published in the next few weeks. I’m very excited to see this book, which contains many substantial and important contributions about the Gaelic legacy in North America.

I started a podcast series about the Gaelic legacy in North America – the Hidden Glen Podcast (the FaceBook group is here)– and did some pretty great interviews with people.

I’ve started a series of blogs researching previously ignored recordings of Scottish Gaels in the San Francisco Bay area in 1939-40. These blog posts (see the first one here) will form the basis of a talk I’ll be offering in the summer of 2021 at the next conference about Gaels in North America in Halifax – assuming that COVID is not still disrupting our lives.

I’m currently finishing a new book that I expect to publish early in 2021. I won’t say too much about it at the moment, only to say that it is meant to explain many previously unexplored aspects of the Gaelic legacy around us for a general audience, and it will be heavily illustrated with fun and cheeky cartoons. I’m currently lining up talks and book launch events for 2021.

I expect to start offering courses again in early 2021 – one at a time – and would like to hear from you which you are most interested in taking. The courses I offer will correspond to the level of interest.

Keep an eye on this blog, and please share with friends!

Tha mi an dòchas gum bi cùisean nas fhearr dhuinn uile anns an àm ri teachd!