Scottish Studies in North America: Blind-Spots, Exclusions and Academic Apartheid

[Originally written 2013]

As Scotland moves towards independence and projecting a national identity on the world stage, centres of intellectual activity devoted to Scotland’s history and cultural achievements gain new significance in legitimating it as a sovereign entity with distinctive characteristics and unique contributions. Not only is the field of Scottish Studies within Scotland becoming more interested in the history of diasporic movements out of the country, but there are increasing efforts to develop positions or centres of Scottish Studies in other countries, especially those where “Scottish influence” has been notable.

Certain Scots have played powerful roles in, and made prominent contributions to, both the United States and Canada (although we should be careful about automatically registering “pride” for all of their exploits). One major problem to date in understanding these roles and contributions is that Gaelic has been virtually excluded from the conventional practice of “Scottish” Studies. If the subjects of enquiry are effectively limited to the Lowlands and no Gaelic materials consulted, the associated chairs, programmes, and departments should be labelled as “Scottish Lowland Studies” rather than “Scottish.”

While the situation has improved somewhat over the last decade or so, there are still many books and articles about history, literature, music, etc. being published which claim to be about “Scotland” or “Scottish” topics, but which do not acknowledge the existence of, or incorporate perspectives from, Gaelic society and culture in the periods in question. Doing so, of course, requires appropriate training that has typically been the responsibility of Celtic Studies departments and specialists in the past, but this is no excuse for propagating the colonial pretence that Gaelic is somehow less worthy, less cultured, and less Scottish than the rest of the country, and therefore does not merit inclusion.

The exclusion of Gaelic on its own merits from research on the formation of Canada, in particular, is inexcusable. At the time of confederation (1867), Gaelic was the third-most spoken European language in the Dominion (Dembling 2006). Significant immigrant communities could be found in every province in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While most of these have since assimilated into the dominant anglophone or francophone majority around them, there are still many documentary and cultural remains from these communities that offer unique insights into their values, beliefs, experiences, hopes and fears (Newton 2013).

These Gaelic communities and their cultural expressions were distinctive from their Lowland peers. While Gaels are Scots, they are a distinctive group that require particular training to study properly; they are Gaels first and foremost, and cannot be lumped together with all Scots in a generic manner (Newton 2011a). However, given that there is no-one within North American centres of “Scottish Studies” with the skills to read, analyze and interpret these materials, the rate of progress and amount of output about these issues has been abysmally slow.

Too often, if Gaelic texts are used at all, it is only in translated excerpts in English to illustrate the pre-determined conclusions of the author (Kennedy 1999). Research into Scottish Highland immigrant communities in North America needs to employ primary sources produced in Gaelic as foundational evidence, rather than decoration. There are many such sources which await proper scrutiny, and doing so will allow many new lines of research to be developed which allow a degree of detail and intimacy that is simply not available in anglophone sources. As there are no practicing Scottish Studies academics with the skills for handling Gaelic materials, however, there is no ability within the North American academy to train the next generation of scholars who might take up this virtually untouched field and develop it properly in the future.

It is possible that the existing programmes of Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph and Simon Fraser University could continue to develop, and there is talk of endowing a chair of Scottish Studies at McGill University. Do those lobbying for and appointing these positions understand the importance of including Gaelic as a fundamental skill in this research? I have spoken too often in the past with supporters of these schemes who were resigned to the idea that Gaelic is a low priority and will never be properly supported. Will a new and more self-confident Scotland allow such continued neglience and apartheid? I hope not.

2018 Post-Script

The main improvement in the situation since 2013 has been the appointment of Dr James Fraser in 2015 at the Centre for Scottish Studies at the University of Guelph. His engagement with research on early Scotland is of an inherently Celtic and Gaelic nature, and he has aspirations to further develop a Gaelic dimension at the Centre (see statement in this newsletter). However, there is little sign of improvement elsewhere. In fact, the creation of a chair in McGill University in Montreal seems to be focused on the development of business and banking.

Select Bibliography

Jonathan Dembling. “Gaelic in Canada: new evidence from an old census.” In Cànan & Cultur / Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 3, edited by Wilson McLeod, James Fraser and Anja Gunderloch, 203-14. Edinburgh, Scotland: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006.

Michael Kennedy. “ ‘Lochaber no more’: A Critical Examination of Highland Emigration Mythology.” In Myth, Migration and the Making of Memory: Scotia and Nova Scotia c.1700-1990, edited by Marjory Harper and Michael Vance, 267-97. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 1999.

Michael Newton. “Scotland’s Two Solitudes Abroad: Scottish Gaelic Immigrant Identity and Culture in North America.” In The Shaping of Scottish Identities: Sex, Nation, and the Worlds Beyond, edited by Jodi A. Campbell, Elizabeth Ewan, and Heather Parker, 215-33. Guelph, ON: Guelph Series in Scottish Scottish Studies, 2011a.

Michael Newton. “Beyond the single narrative: The Scottish Gaelic legacy in Canada.” History Scotland 11.5 (Sept/Oct 2011b): 46-50.

Michael Newton. “Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 76-93. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

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