Exile was both the making and breaking of the Gaels. In the mid-19th century, there were almost as many Gàidhlig speakers in Canada as in Scotland. And while Gaels in the Highlands and Islands were languishing in the blight-ridden, poverty-stricken, chronically diseased crofting communities of the West, their cousins in Canada were building a new country.
It is a matter of pride perhaps, that nearly 500 years after the reign of James IV, the last King of Scots to speak Gàidhlig, the most common language among the Fathers of the Canadian Confederation in 1867 was Gàidhlig, with Canada’s first two Prime Ministers being Gaels, whose families were Gàidhlig-speaking victims of the Clearances, and who in all probability had Gàidhlig (at least passively) themselves.
But the faint pride we might take from excelling in exile is tempered by the actions of the Canadian Gaels themselves. A recent article on The Huffington Post discusses a new piece of music about John A. MacDonald, Highlander and Canada’s founding Prime Minister, and his assaults on the indigenous peoples of the continent. In a parliamentary speech, only two decades after the Potato Famine in Ireland and Scotland,
“he bragged that the government would withhold food ‘until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.’ Hunger became a convenient tool for forcing the First Nation people onto marginal reserve lands to secure the development of both the CPR and immigrant farm settlement.”
And any who resisted the expansion of Canada to the Pacific were executed, in his own words, in order to
“convince the Red Man that the White Man rules”
In this way, John A. MacDonald justified atrocities using a mixture of racism and economic reasoning. As the brilliant Michael Newton has pointed out, the Clearances were similarly justified – by invoking overpopulation and economic development, the pain massaged by the fact the “Gaels were seen as being a distinct and inferior race to that of the Anglo-Saxon.” It is deeply troubling that a people who suffered so much in Scotland were happy to oppress all-and-sundry in the New World. Even before the Clearances, many Gaels in the Carolinas were slave-owners and overseers, forcing the slaves to speak the language, to the extent that some even argue their Presbyterian psalm-singing seeded African-American Gospel music!
Why I am worrying so much about Gaels and racism? Because not too long ago, Alex Gabriel, a predecessor in my role as President of OxASH, used my article ‘Why can’t people just call me by my name?’ as a hook for his own post over at Godlessness in Theory about the racism he suffered as a result of being half-Romany, half-Lithuanian. Alex’s post was frank and heartfelt and definitely worth a read. But, although I really appreciated the plug, I was very uncomfortable with even the tiniest implication that people misnaming me qualified as racism. Alex, self-confessed “tea-sipping white Englishman,” writes:
“My country practised empire in miniature before its ships had sailed, and a twee, home-baked colonialism survives in its treatment of the Celtic nations. I know that while I hope I’m an exception, I sometimes fail to be. (It was only months ago I learnt, to great but well-deserved discomfort, the effect of calling Ireland part of the British Isles.)”
I have often discussed my family and community’s use of a minority language with two of my friends, one British, one Bangladeshi, who both use Bengali at home. And though its easy to find common ground here, Gaels’ role as footsoldiers of the British Empire means there is always tension in any attempt to compare ourselves to other minority groups, as R. Stornoway does in The Stornoway Way:
“The Western Islander’s response to our diminishing way of life is that of the oppressed the world over, from Native American to Australasian aborigine: a powerful urge to drink oneself underground.”
Tellingly, Kevin MacNeil has R. Stonoway use the old-fashioned, Imperial term aborigine, reflecting how Gaels have been inculcated with the values of Empire. And though Gaels have had little historical interaction with European Roma, well into the late 20th century the roads of the Highlands and Islanders were roamed by “travelling people.” In Timothy Neat’s Voice of the Bard, the poet Donald MacDonald (Dòmhnall Aonghais Bhàin) of South Lochboisdale on South Uist, offers this description:
“There are some beautiful girls among the travelling people but they seem to lose their looks whilst still young women. It’s the poor conditions they live in, they hit the bottle, they smoke and that dries and wrinkles the skin. They have handsome men amongst the tinker people. And there’s a gift for fighting amongst the men. Often we’d see them fighting amongst themselves over in the camp but, it’s a strange thing, in the morning they’d be the best of friends. […] We were always pleased to see them, though none have been here for many years now.”
Though Highland Travellers and “Pakistanis” are typically spoken of fondly, to liberal sensibilities Dòmhnall’s description of the travellers is sexist and paternalistic – indeed, ceàrd (tinker) is an insult as bad as you can get in colloquial Gàidhlig!
The problem then is that Gaels might be quick to compare their culture’s fate to the oppressed, but in our words and deeds we haven’t always displayed the solidarity we invoke today. When I started following the media coverage of Gàidhlig last year, I was shocked by some of the ill-informed and ungenerous views expressed by the likes of Hugh Reilly. This is a chronic problem, as Emily McEwan Fujita or Kenneth MacKinnon showed in their in-depth reports on the press discourse surrounding Gàidhlig, where the same tropes appear again and again – Gàidhlig is a dead language, a crude patois, a waste of taxpayer’s money being forced on the real Lowland Scotland where it was never spoken by the middle-class Gaelic Mafia.
I have been quick to label these attitudes as “bigoted” and “semi-racist.” It really is tempting to agree with An Sionnach Fionn, who has written about what he calls “Anti-Gaelic Racism:”
“…those who say that they ‘hate Gaelic’ don’t actually hate the Gaelic languages – they hate those who speak the Gaelic languages.”
While attacking the Hugh Reilly and his ilk gains my blog (and The Scotsman website!) lots of traffic, I’m starting to suspect that trigger-happy offendedness may not be the most helpful way of writing about Gàidhlig issues. We know the public are on our side, with the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showing a majority of Scots support current spending on the language. When Hugh Reilly says:
“BBC Alba, a channel whereby one can watch football with the annoying Gaelic commentary turned down and await the half-time analysis in English by monolingual pundits.”
Is Tocasaid‘s response really helpful, if we accept its inappropriate to liken Gaels’ situation to the plight of other non-white minorities?
“Would he write something along the lines of, ‘I like a curry but can’t stand the annoying Asians talking in Urdu and can’t wait to get home to my ane white folk’?”
Are indigenous white Gaels really comparable to Scots Asians? With the 2011 Census now revealing the Western Isles are now just barely over 50% Gàidhlig, to write of ethnic, or even ethnolinguistic Gaels is increasingly outdated. On my father’s side I am as Gàidhealach as can be, but my mother is from Lancashire. I grew up in Eriskay, a Gàidhlig-speaking community, but I now live in the south of England.
It’s a fact that most Gàidhlig-speakers now live in the Lowlands, and with the rise of GME, Gàidhlig-speakers can now be of all nationalities, of all skin-colours, of all religions. Maybe its a shame that Gaelicness as an ethnicity has been assimilated almost entirely into the English world – look at Skye, almost Anglicized beyond help, or the Western Isles, where only in places like Ness or the Middle District of South Uist, do traditional Gàidhlig crofting communities survive. Yes, there is antipathy toward our language and culture in the media. Yes, its ignorant and bigoted. But its not racism, and to call it so disguises the subtleties of the Gàidhlig experience, past and present.