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.
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’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
“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.
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.
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 …
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!
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.
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!”
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.
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’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!
The world is gripped in a crisis more profound than humanity has experienced collectively and simultaneously for a very long time. We are only at the beginning of the personal, social, and cultural tolls that this pandemic will visit upon us. If this is not the mortal blow that brings down the current world order as we have known it in recent history, it is a harbinger of those calamities that will await us in short order, not least of which is environmental catastrophe.
There is already, and will be even more, a need to grieve our losses. The death of family, friends, and cultural icons. The impracticality of our previously envisioned plans and dreams. Our faith in the old certainties, even those that seemed to aid our ability to negotiate crises. There is so much to contemplate, with wisdom and discernment, at such a fast pace.
One of the texts I’ve read lately that resonates most with my current feelings about the situation appeared that features an interview with David Kessler, who is an expert on grief. In this interview (strangely enough, in Harvard Business Review), Kessler comments, amongst other things, on the intensity of the moment and the need to process it emotionally:
we’re feeling a number of different griefs. We feel the world has changed, and it has. We know this is temporary, but it doesn’t feel that way, and we realize things will be different. … The loss of normalcy; the fear of economic toll; the loss of connection. This is hitting us and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air. … Understanding the stages of grief is a start. But whenever I talk about the stages of grief, I have to remind people that the stages aren’t linear and may not happen in this order. It’s not a map but it provides some scaffolding for this unknown world. … There is something powerful about naming this as grief. It helps us feel what’s inside of us. … Your work is to feel your sadness and fear and anger whether or not someone else is feeling something. Fighting it doesn’t help because your body is producing the feeling. If we allow the feelings to happen, they’ll happen in an orderly way, and it empowers us. Then we’re not victims. … The truth is a feeling that moves through us. We feel it and it goes and then we go to the next feeling. There’s no gang out to get us. It’s absurd to think we shouldn’t feel grief right now. Let yourself feel the grief and keep going.
David Kessler, interviewed by Scott Berinato
It really struck me when training for my doctorate in Celtic Studies in Scotland that modernity has taken away so many of the rituals and social practices that have allow people to feel and move through the grieving process for the vast majority of our existence as humans. We can’t force ourselves to ignore such fundamental emotions and realities without becoming paralyzed and haunted by them. On the other hand, if we become fixated and overwhelmed by them, stuck within them, we cannot return to the land of the living to engage in the life of the community that endures.
This is why most cultures have carefully prescribed traditions of mourning and grief that help to move us through the stages of grief, channeling it through the community and holding us in a socially-distributed safety net that helps to validate that grief and share it so that no single person is deluged by it. These were my observations in A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, published in 2000:
Death in modernist society is the concern of specialized businesses, and it is not too much to suggest that the inability of people to complete their grieving for a loved one is not unrelated to their removal from the processes of death and burial. These matters were the responsibility of kin and community in Gaelic society. … There were too many joys, and tasks, in life to let death trouble one for too long.
A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World, pp. 160, 161
The rituals of mourning in Gaelic society into the eighteenth century – such as keening, group round-dances, wakes, and so on – were inherently communal activities. Human beings need contact with one another, arguably, to maintain our humanity and even to understand ourselves. That’s one of the things that makes this current crisis so devastating and difficult – merely being in the presence of one another increases the spread of the contagion.
This is not a new or unique hardship. Much the same contradictions have confronted humanity for millennia, and the tensions between the traditions of communal mourning and the imperatives of isolation due to biological threats have played out many times lately in the so-called undeveloped world. But now even the self-styled first world finds itself in the same predicament. Death – and plagues – are the great levelers, and surely it is time to call Western Exceptionalism (and all of its variants) obsolete.
This brings me to some concluding thoughts about notions of tradition, culture, ritual, and meaning. It is not always possible, or even desirable, to re-enact the rituals of the past precisely, to pretend that we can re-animate the lives of the ancestors verbatim, and re-embody customs exactly as they were in the past. I believe that it is vital to understand these customs and practices, but even more especially to comprehend their underlying principles – how they meet universal human needs but are given culturally-specific expression.
We need to be able to be true to their aims but also flexible in how we attempt to revitalize and apply them in our new realities. I’m explicitly stating that no single person (including me) has all of the answers but that it will take a village of wise elders to reconstitute ritual and custom in a way that is both faithful to ancient tradition but also responsive to contemporary needs. And that will require a much broader sharing of and discussion about Gaelic tradition than has been possible in the recent past, if this particular tree in the Old Growth Forest of humanity is to survive through these crises. And I hope that I may be helpful in the community that wishes to make this possible.
I’d like to conclude with this important note from David Kessler’s interview: “Finally, it’s a good time to stock up on compassion. Everyone will have different levels of fear and grief and it manifests in different ways. … So be patient. Think about who someone usually is and not who they seem to be in this moment.”
PS. After I initially released this blog post, my friend Déirdre Ní Mhathúna in Scotland sent me a link to a project in which she is involved that is re-introducing the rituals of lamentation to Scotland and Ireland: the Keening Wake.
PPS. If you’re curious about Gaelic rituals of lamentation and customs of grief, I’ve provided documented accounts of them and analyses of them in these two books:
It’s like a parody of capitalism actually expressed out loud by the people who have benefited the most from it and are least likely to suffer its most negative effects: people should sacrifice themselves during this pandemic in order to save “The Economy.” It’s like the Biblical parable of Moloch come to life to demonstrate the moral failings of the world order. If anything about this pandemic should shock us out of our complacency about “normalcy,” about the sheer absurdity of modernity and the warped values it touts as “progress,” it should be this.
Elderly people are venerated in indigenous societies because they are expected to have accumulated wisdom and have long-term perspective. They embody continuity and guidance. They bridge the generations and maintain tradition. They have value beyond their ability to produce material goods. In fact, they help us to see what true value is. A Gaelic proverb says, Dà rud nach còir a bhith falamh: goile an t-seann duine agus làmh an leanaibh bhig “Two things that should not be empty: the stomach of the elder and the hand of the little child.” And another draws a metaphor about community, A dh’aindeoin cumadh an fhòid, gheibh thu àite ’s a’ chruaich dha “Whatever the shape of the peat, you will find a niche in the stack for it.”
Some of our current world leaders, and most of our cultural imperatives, show no such moral maturity or wisdom. It is chilling to hear the cruel and callous rhetoric coming from those empowered to provide leadership, yet demonstrate that they can only draw from the poisoned wells of selfishness and objectification. Basic principles of compassion and reverence for the weakest amongst us are explicitly stated in virtually all religious systems, but these false prophets often distort them to meet their own agendas.
What does it say about our society that people think of the elderly so dismissively—and moreover, that they feel no shame about expressing such thoughts publicly? I find myself wondering whether this colossal moral failure is exacerbated by the most troubled parts of our cultural and economic life. When people are measured and valued by their economic productivity, it is easy to treat people whose most economically productive days have passed as, well, worthless. …
Varied ethical and religious traditions find their own ways to affirm an elemental truth of human life: The elderly deserve our respect and, when necessary, our protection. The mark of a decent society is that it resists the temptation to spurn the defenseless. It is almost a truism that the moral fabric of a society is best measured by how it treats the vulnerable in its midst—and yet it is a lesson we never seem to tire of forgetting. “You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old,” the Bible says—look out for them and, in the process, become more human yourself.
This does not have to be our fate. The economy – stupid – is a social construct, not a law of nature. We have the free will to follow better council, to seek wiser elders, and to reroot our values in a more humane set of principles. Abandon false gods, do not sacrifice your soul and your fellow living beings to this folly.
The Scottish Gaelic language and culture have somehow survived to the present, despite centuries of deprivation, hardship, and persecution – much of it created deliberately by anglophone adversaries. From the usurpation of the upper echelons of Scottish society in the twelfth century, to the Statutes of Iona enforcing the angloconformity of the Highland aristocracy in 1609, to the Highland Clearances of the late 18th and 19th centuries, to the 1872 Education Act underlining the English-only agenda of the school system, the ability of Gaeldom to foster its own health and self-interest has been systematically undermined.
And yet, somehow, a stubborn spirit of communal values prevailed, at least amongst a few, who were committed to seeing that they not only survived physically and materially, but survived as a culture. That their songs, stories, and identity would be passed on to the next generation. But this took the courage to dissent from the “prevailing wisdom” that English held the exclusive key to the future and that Gaelic was doomed to fail and needed to be swept away into the rubbish bin of history. It took the courage to see beyond the materialistic triumphalism of anglo-modernity and value something that was unseeable and unmeasurable by all ordinary yardsticks of progress, that in fact contradicted them.
No one commits to working in and with Scottish Gaelic because of the expectation of fame or monetary reward. If you want a life of minimal stress and trouble, it is far easier to go with the flow of anglophone society and not try to swim against those tides. I’ve been involved in Gaelic revitalization for about a quarter century now, and my experience of most everyone I meet who is involved in minoritized languages and cultures as a whole is that they do it for altruistic reasons, because it is the right thing to do in the long run, even if it entails social and economic costs to them personally.
It is thus very distressing for me, at least, to think about the work that so much of us have done air son na cùise “for the cause,” to keep Gaelic – and other minoritized communities – alive in communities that are very fragile, and disproportionately spoken amongst a largely elderly demographic, that could be quickly undone by the ravages of the COVID-19 virus. I have been anticipating introducing my young daughter to Gaelic-speaking elders and friends in Scotland and bridging the geographical and generational divide, but sadly I wonder: will that even be possible in coming years, or even months?
How can we prevent a potentially disastrous outcome in terms of the loss of life, the loss of cultural knowledge that those elders embody, and sense of community and affection that has bound us all together to keep that tradition and common purpose alive? How can we even maintain our sense of humanity in the face of such overwhelming fear and grief? Can we find inspiration in the struggles of the past?
The simultaneous crises that now confront humanity are really without parallel, and handling them effectively will require stepping back and thinking deeply about the big picture. This will be a lost opportunity if people are so fixated on the materialistic preoccupations of the recent past that they simply want a return to “normalcy.” The world as it is stands now was built by empire, coloniality, structural inequality, cultural subjugation, and environmental annihilation. We stand on the brink of an abyss, and COVID-19 is not the only existential challenge we face. We should use this time to reflect on what really matters and how we can readjust our values and direction accordingly.
In all indigenous cultures, survival is only possible because of the value placed on the community as a whole, by emphasizing the importance of the common good, in honoring the precedents manifested by tradition, and by giving to those who are needy. The proverb Gus an tràighear a’ mhuir le cliabh, cha bhi fear fial falamh “The generous man will not be empty-handed until the ocean is emptied with a creel” is one of many expressions of the commitment to generosity in Gaelic culture.
There is an equally famous quip in anglo-American culture: “He who dies with the most toys wins.” What does he win? Apparently some form of notoriety in a culture obsessed with materialism, that is destroying the environment and eradicating species at a record rate in order to fill insatiable desires for material goods. But at the cost of our humanity, our spiritual lives, and our sense of perspective. What is more important? Life itself, in its fullness and rich, invisible web of interconnections, or some artificial modern social construct like “the economy”? How did we get here? What is the purpose of this world we’ve constructed?
Years ago, the anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about clay pots, tools for hunting, grinding-stones, or religious artifacts.
But no. Mead said that the first evidence of civilization was a 15,000 years old fractured femur found in an archaeological site. A femur is the longest bone in the body, linking hip to knee. In societies without the benefits of modern medicine, it takes about six weeks of rest for a fractured femur to heal. This particular bone had been broken and had healed.
Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, you cannot drink or hunt for food. Wounded in this way, you are meat for your predators. No creature survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. You are eaten first.
A broken femur that has healed is evidence that another person has taken time to stay with the fallen, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended them through recovery. A healed femur indicates that someone has helped a fellow human, rather than abandoning them to save their own life.
“Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts,” [she said].
What are the songs and stories that will double our resolve and our resilience to survive these challenges? Can we find common purpose and maintain our common humanity, despite fear and uncertainty? What and who will you choose to value? What do indigenous cultures have to say about survival and the things that really matter? You will notice quickly that it has nothing to do with materialism, with a false sense of superiority over or separation from nature, or selfishness. May you carry that with you in coming days.
The idea that the Celts were or are inherently war-like, natural-born soldiers who love to fight, is one of the oldest and most persistent stereotypes that adhere to the present to both the Scottish Highlanders and Irish, although in slightly different forms and for different reasons.
The image of Scottish Highlanders as innate brawny warriors, fighting for loyalty and honour – such as still celebrated at Highland Games and in popular fiction – was carefully crafted by Highland landlords during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century so that they could benefit from a booming military-industrial complex that fed the expansion of the British Empire by acting as the exclusive channel for recruiting the tenants on their estates.
Anyone who doubts this historical reality should read Andrew MacKillop’s ground-breaking book ‘More Fruitful than the Soil?’: Army, Empire and the Scottish Highlands 1715-1815, in which he concludes:
The British state’s willingness to create distinctive recruiting arrangements centred upon what was perceived as the chiefs’ clan power, points to an alternative analysis for the effects of large-scale war upon the eighteenth-century Highlands. … ‘Provincial’ interests were as likely to reinvent themselves and become agents of the state, thereby manipulating its authority for its own ends and reinforcing their own status. Highland landlords, through their manipulation of the metropolitan centre’s belief in clanship, constitute a particularly high-profile and successful Scottish example of this process. Moreover, to justify excessive rewards of patronage landlords needed to distinguish themselves from their competitors: this they did by deliberately emphasising the uniqueness, both real and imaginary, of the Highlands.
MacKillop, ‘More Fruitful than the Soil?’, 238
We should always be cautious whenever an entire society or culture is essentialized as just one thing or personifying just one kind of trait. Societies always consist of multiple and contrary strands and elements, which are highlighted or reinforced by specific contexts or agendas. There have been, in reality, Gaels who criticized warfare and violence, and Gaelic traditions and narratives that advocate for peace and resolution rather than bloodshed.
Even the earliest evidence of Gaelic traditions illustrates that this was the common understanding of the purpose of kingship. The term sìdh refers to both “peace” and “the Otherworld” in the oldest layer of Gaelic literature, with the implication that the king ensures peace and prosperity in his kingdom by maintaining the proper relationship with the Otherworld. Kennings for chieftains incorporating the element sìdh, such as crann-sìdhe, continued to be used in Scottish Gaelic literature into the eighteenth century.
The oldest Gaelic wisdom text composed c.700 to guide kings states (in translation, and in part):
… He should lift up mercy, it will raise him up. He should be considerate of his tribe, they will be considerate of him. He should give deliverance to his tribes, they will deliver him. He should calm his tribe, they will calm him. Tell him – it is through the sovereign’s truth that the death toll of a mighty war-band [and] great lightning bursts are kept away from people. …
Audacht Morainn “The Testament of Morann”
This sounds a lot more like the Beatitudes of Jesus than Braveheart. Arguably the first international treaty to protect innocent civilians in war-time was created and promoted by Adomnán of Iona in 697, gathering the signatures of many Gaelic, Pictish, Brythonic, and Anglo-Saxon kings to ratify Lex Innocentium (or Cáin Adomnáin, to give it its Gaelic title).
Many people assume that the portrayal of warrior-heroes such as Cú Chulainn in Gaelic literature serve to glorify warfare, when in fact some of the stories serve as cautionary tales about the heavy personal and social costs of excessive violence. The tragedy of how Cú Chulainn killed his only son – often called “Bàs Connlaoich” in Scottish Gaelic, which survived into the twentieth century in song and prose form – was one of the more popular and heart-rending narratives of this type, and anyone who actually studies the tale will realize that it is a critique, not a celebration, of warfare.
The lopsided fixation on militarism and rugged Highland warriors obscures the many forms of “soft power” that were used effectively as aspects of the clan system, most especially diplomacy between chieftains, the persuasive power of the spin-doctor poets (filidhean and baird) employed by chieftains who had the latitude to travel widely between courts, and the dynamism of social bonds such as contracts of manrent, fosterage and strategic marriages.
Of course, it requires a person to do more than cast a casual glance at stereotyped images of brawny barbarians in order to gain an understanding how Gaelic culture works at its many levels, and the over-simplified misrepresentations of Highland history overshadows those more nuanced perspectives. Indeed, this approach of reducing Highlanders to caricatures of primitive peasants whose society was doomed to fail due to being “undeveloped” and “obsolete” in the modern world has been used by apologists of angloconformist empire for well over three centuries, enabling people to ignore and underestimate the many accomplishments of Gaeldom and its distinctive civilization in its many diverse facets.
The conquest and absorption of the Scottish Highlands into the British Empire dramatically changed the balance of power and the latitude of options available, but even if there are numerous examples of native Highland poets who were willing and eager to celebrate Gaelic contributions to imperial military enterprises, and a gradual acceptance, through the course of the eighteenth century, of this role in empire, there are interesting cross-currents that also deserve notice.
Some Gaelic primary sources suggest ambivalence if not regret about military service. There are tales and song about young Highland men drinking at the tavern, only to wake up later to be told that they had taken the King’s Shilling and must now pay off their debt through serving in the military. Press-gangs used even more coercive force to bring young men into military service (see my edition of such a poem here). Others simply wanted to leave their military posts and return home (see my edition of such a poem here). There is also evidence from the Canadian diaspora, as I’ve documented in Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, of what we would now recognize as PTSD.
The history of warfare in the Gaelic world, as well as of participation in militarism and empire, is not as simple and straightforward as the modern stereotypes of gallant and handsome Highland regiments might suggest. For a more comprehensive and broader approach to understanding Highland history and heritage beyond the stereotypes, you can join the Hidden Glen learning community! See Course listings here.