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.

Where the Wild Things Were and Should Be

Only a few species of large wild mammals continue to exist in the Highlands of Scotland, and many of these are now managed on large private estates for the pleasure of a few élite landowners. Although there are many local legends about the killing of the last wolf, some of these claim that the last member of the species was killed in 1743. Whether or not this is an accurate historical event does not concern me as much at present as the fact that it dovetails conveniently with the last Jacobite Rising. That is to say, the collective Gaelic “folk mind” seems to make a rough equation between the extinction of this emblematic wild creature with the conquest of the Scottish Highlands, so often portrayed as the last stronghold of wild savagery on the island of Britain.

Medieval stone sculpture of wolf from Scottish Highlands

These were some of the thoughts on which I was pondering on Friday as I joined a large crowd of protestors expressing their concerns about the future of this planet and its diverse environments and species. Our ability to survive as an interconnected set of organic beings and spaces depends on allowing for the integrity and self-determination of Nature over the human enterprise to dominate, and exploit it. As Henry David Thoreau surmised, “in Wilderness is the preservation of the World.”

Wolves are particularly interesting in the Gaelic context because we have some 1,500 years of information which reflect perceptions about and relationships with canines. Wolves are dangerous predators that threaten to destroy and consume the domesticated creatures that humans keep for our own subsistence. Their close cousins, dogs, however, are long-time allies that defend us and our “property” from the incursions of such intruders. The ambiguity of the canine – attacker or defender, wild or tamed – has been an endless source of fascination and symbolism of reflection for Gaels.

The figure Cú Chulainn, the “hound of Ulster,” is arguably the best known Gaelic hero with some deep totemic connection to canines, but there are many others. Warriors who operated outside the normal bounds of the settled community were said to have worn wolf skins and behave as wolves, that is, outside the normal constraints of morality. I have explored elsewhere how the legend of the Grey Hound of Meoble, which survives to the present in Nova Scotia, reflects similar concerns and motifs.

Saint Fáelán (anglicised as “Fillan”) was active in Perthshire in the early eighth century. He name means “little wolf.” According to an early sixteenth-century account, he was building a church in a place designated by God when his oxen were unyoked. A wolf came and ate one of the oxen and Fáelán, realizing that he could not continue his work building the church, made a prayer to God. Straightaway the wolf returned, tame and ready to take the place of the ox he had killed. The wolf remained in this tame state, on the oxen team, until after the work for the church was complete, after which it returned to its “wild” state of Nature.

What does this story mean? It is a parable about harnessing wild Nature for human – and holy – endeavor, thus demonstrating the superiority of the Christian God. Such was the power of the saint, and God, that those things that were formerly beyond human control, typified by the wolf, could be domesticated. It is a relief for me to know that the wolf was not killed or changed permanently after it made restitution for the damage that it had done, but allowed to return to its natural state and role.

This small sampling indicates the tension between wild and domesticated, human-controlled and nature-beyond-human-control, in Gaelic literature and tradition. It is an inherent conflict that exists in all societies: How do we co-exist with the plants and animals that share the same ecosystem with us? How do we set limitations and boundaries on our behavior so that we do not over-consume and destroy the resources available? What is the meaning of place, of life itself?

The questions that we must confront to assure our survival on this planet are not just technological or economic or political, but ultimately spiritual. In a characteristically insightful article highlighting the disturbing accelerating extinction of species, anthropologist Wade Davis summarizes the worldview of indigenous cultures and their relationship to Nature:

“What these cultures have done, however, is to forge through time and ritual a traditional mystique of the earth that is based not only on deep attachment to the land but also on far more subtle intuition — the idea that the land itself is breathed into being by human consciousness. They do not perceive mountains, rivers and forests as being inanimate, as mere props on a stage upon which the human drama unfolds. For these societies, the land is alive, a dynamic force to be embraced and transformed by the human imagination, sustained by memory.”

Humankind will not survive if we do not allow space for undomesticated, wild Nature to exist and thrive in its own right, beyond our desire to dominate and exploit it. We need to allow not just physical space, but also cultural and spiritual space. A space in our imaginations and hearts for relationships that are not just based on money, objectification, and transactions. We can gain great awareness about the issues and choices available to create better potential futures by looking deeply into our own history and across to other cultures. These are some of the main aims of Hidden Glen Folk School – to provide you with the tools and resources to come to significant insights that inspire you to make changes that have a positive impact on your life and the world.

There are currently efforts to reintroduce wild species like the wolf back to the Scottish Highlands At the same time, many people in Scotland and Nova Scotia are making a concerted effort to revitalize Gaelic and restore its resilience after centuries of persecution and marginalization. We can, though collective consciousness and sustained effort, undo some of the harm of the past. How will you make a space in your own life for wildness and Nature? Can engagement in Scottish Highland tradition help you regain a sense of rootedness, of balance, and meaningful relationships?

Launching the Folk School

Stories matter. The stories that are told to us and that we tell to ourselves mold our expectations and aspirations, suggest role-models or villains, indicate what is desirable, possible, or unacceptable, and provide a constellation of cultural reference points that are absorbed, whether consciously or unconsciously, into our psyches.

Native peoples all around the world have been in a long struggle to keep or regain control of their own stories. Many find that reclaiming their own native languages, cultures, and lands is both healing and empowering.

Gaelic proverb: “The man who loses his language loses his world.”

A recent article from New Zealand, “Using Māori storytelling to help and to heal,” illustrates this well:

“I grew up with Greek stories, I grew up with English stories. So going back to these [Māori] stories, it decolonises our experiences in life, so we engage with our source material, our source knowledge, Māori knowledge.”

– Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki, a clinical psychologist and a senior research fellow at Waikato University

The iconography of the Scottish Highlands – tartans, kilts, bagpipes –, and the colorful pageantry around it, creates a smokescreen around the colonial experience of Scottish Gaels over the last four centuries. The layers of romanticization and exoticization both obscure and trivialize a complex history and rich culture. The neglect of these issues in the academy makes it even more difficult for the millions of people descended from Scottish Highlanders to find accurate information and useful methods for interpreting and analyzing it.

This has been true even in Scotland itself, as Alastair McIntosh relates:

‘But why didn’t you people teach us this stuff too?’ I demanded, waving the book and speaking in an almost accusatory tone. But I didn’t need to worry. Cicero knew exactly what I meant and was sympathetic.
‘Ah, well …,’ he replied, signally a conversational deepening of psychological depth. ‘You see, it was not in the curriculum. And in any case, we were ashamed of it.’

– Alastair McIntosh, Soil and Soul (2001), p. 95

Between renewed interest in genealogy, popular media such as Outlander, and growing efforts in Scotland and Canada to revitalize the Gaelic language, increasing numbers of people are becoming aware of their Scottish Highland ancestry and interested in getting in touch with it in various ways. Other people immerse themselves in Gaelic tradition without any ancestral ties, drawn by its intrinsic beauty. It is a truly remarkable, stimulating, valuable legacy well worth exploring.

Indigenous cultures can help us to understand what it means to belong to a place and to a community. They can help to heal us from inter-generational wounds of dispossession and cultural disorientation. As Cailín Laing has recently written about her experience of learning Gaelic in Nova Scotia:

“What could I become if I were to channel this confusion and curiosity into breaking the chain of colonization and shame? … I have discovered what I consider to have been the most integral part of my learning: the transmission of language and culture through community and the development of a meaningful connection to my people.”

Cailín Laing, “Tha Gàidhlig agad co-dhiù | learning through loving, healing through connecting” July 31, 2019

Hidden Glen Folk School of Scottish Highland Heritage is dedicated to the mission of connecting people to authentic Scottish Gaelic culture so that they can drink deeply from the well of tradition and the cup of community to satisfy their curiosity, to enable their healing, and to contribute to the restoration of the world.