Primary Sources on Gàidhlig Coloniality (Part 1)

I am preparing materials for a new online course looking at Gaelic history and heritage through a radical lens – coloniality, decolonization, racialism, whiteness, and social justice –, called Radicalizing the Roots, though Hidden Glen Folk School. 

I’m also prompted to make a renewed effort to gather relevant materials to support the thesis of the recent article Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind by my friend Dr. Iain MacKinnon.

I have many texts from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that describe and contextualize the cultural conquest and colonization of the Scottish Highlands in the book Warriors of the Word (2009, 2019), and excerpts from texts up to the early twentieth century. There are a number of further relevant texts in the new anthology An Ubhal as Àirde / The Highest Apple.

This blog post, and several others to follow, will focus primarily on the period from the early nineteenth century to mid-twentieth century, providing texts mostly written by Gaels about the experience of having their language, culture, and identity repressed by an angloconformist state that saw the existence of Gaelic as a threat and exerted great effort to marginalize and stigmatize indigenous Celtic “Others.” These are not meant to be an exhaustive list, merely ones that I have encountered and kept copies of.

Source: Eoghann MacColla (Evan MacColl), Letter to editor of The Scottish-American Journal, 13 January 1881

“Another barbarous mode of forcing us to make English our sole vehicle of speech at school was to make all trespassers on that rule carry on their breasts, suspended by a gad made to go round the neck, the skull of some dead horse! and which he was by no means to get rid of until some other luckless fellow might be overheard whispering a word in the prohibited tongue. How Highland parents, with the least common sense, could approve of all this is to me inexplicable. Little wonder if, under such circumstances, we could often devoutly wish that the Saxon and his tongue had never existed! It is to be hoped that no such foul, short-sighted means of killing off my good mother-tongue are still allowed to exist in any part of the Highlands. If it must die — though I see no good reason why it should — let it have at least a little fair play in the fight for its life.”

Source: Alexander Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica, 1900, vol. 1, xxxi-ii

A young lady said :– ‘When we came to Islay I was sent to the parish school to obtain a proper grounding in arithmetic. I was charmed with the schoolgirls and their Gaelic songs. But the schoolmaster (a Lowlander) denounced Gaelic speech and Gaelic songs. On getting out of school one evening the girls resumed a song they had been singing the previous evening. The schoolmaster heard us, however, and called us back. He punished us till the blood trickled from our fingers, although we were big girls with the dawn of womanhood upon us. The thought of that scene thrills me with indignation.’

Source: I. A. MacLeòid, Letter to An Gàidheal April 1938, p. 116 “The Present Position of Gaelic”

Sir,— Permit me to refer briefly to one or two points that emerge from the recent correspondence in An Gaidheal on the above subject.
My sole excuse for writing you in English now for the first time is the fear that your distinguished correspondent of the many titles would not understand me in our mother tongue, and would fail to appreciate my flights in beautifully polished Gaelic periods.
Was it not he who likened Gaelic to an ancient cart, and English as a motor vehicle? Evidently his education as a true Gael was neglected, and his acquaintance with Gaelic is but slight, or he would see the impropriety of the simile. If we grant that English corresponds to the motor car, then Gaelic, by comparison, is surely an aeroplane; for, in its clarity of conception and elegance of expression, in its flashing vigour and vital forcefulness, in the subtle music and sheer sublimity of its movement, Gaelic as a vehicle of thought is on a higher plane altogether.
Sir Murdoch MacDonald’s strange letter bristles with false assumptions. I shall content myself with dealing with one only. According to him one of the two fundamental objects of education is “to make him (i.e. the recipient), by its spiritual influence on the mind, a contented and happy citizen in whatever circumstances he may find himself.” To me that seems the sine qua non of slavery. Indeed, contentment under all circumstances is not only undesirable, but quite impossible of attainment with any living creatures, much less with intelligent human beings. Even plants register discontent, and make valiant efforts to avoid obstacles and to surmount difficulties. Let me interpret this astounding doctrine. In other words, “Though you may spend your miserable existence in a vile slum in the midst of a distressed area, and though you may have forgotten many years ago what work for wages is like, and cannot remember when your family enjoyed a square meal, you should refrain from exhibiting any ill-bred signs of discontent, but should derive endless solace from the fact that your destiny and that of your children (should any survive), are in the hands of gentlemen who are so highly educated that they can contemplate your trifling troubles with complete complacency — men who have drunk so deeply of the imperial springs of English diplomacy that not only can they witness the terrible plight of their own people with sublime equanimity, but they can, with equally supreme indifference, survey disruptive international forces that rock the whole world. Why worry? They are at Westminster. All’s right with the world.
The Gaels have no reason to be happy with such a gospel, although they have listened to it for a long time.  And what applies to the Gaels here applies equally to the rest of the people of Scotland.  The welfare of one is bound up with the welfare of all.
The crucial sentence in Mr J. C. MacDonald Hay’s October letter runs, “The real enemy of the Gaelic is the English Educational System.” That statement cannot be seriously challenged. Col. Gilbert Gunn writes that he cannot accept it, but he fails to refute it. He says that “there is no English propaganda as such,” but what was the whole system from its inception but perpetual, pernicious propaganda? Col. Gunn further points out that “matters are entirely in the power of the Local Education Committees and the County Councils.” That is so much the worse for Gaelic as long as such bodies accepts a mischievous system and continue to administer it to our disadvantage. But the truth is that the broad lines of the educational policy of this country are laid down in London for English children. The Scottish Education Department tamely follows along parallel lines, and our Local Authorities are not given much latitude to initiate changes which diverge from those. Unfortunately, the little latitude allowed is not taken advantage of beccause most of the memebrs of those authorities happen to be men of the same type as your correspondent, Sir Murdoch MacDonald. A Gael in name, he apparently despises the traditions of his ancestors, treats with mild contempt the language of his constituents, and would place a ban on all Gaelic instruction outside Sunday schools. He sees no commerical gain in Gaelic. Mo thruaighe bhochd. Bu tu mo Ghaidheal. [What a pity. You were my Gael.]
Does not all this go to show how this corroding poison has eaten in to our very marrow? This insidious virus has permeated our being and has given us an inferiority complex with regard to ourselves and our language, and a false standard of values with regard to everything.  And when those to whom we should look for leadership, distinguished men, presumably wise and learned, reveal such distorted views and disseminate such deplorable doctrines, what can we expect from the common herd but confusion of ideas, despair, and inertness?
I am certain that Mr MacDonald Hay and the friends of Gaelic have no dislike to the English Language as such. It is an excellent thing in its own place. Nor have they any animosity whatsoever towards the English people, either individually or collectively. But, while recognising contributory factors, they do see in the English Education System as imposed on the Highlands the prime cause of the Gael’s undoing, and much as they would welcome speedy reforms, the more far-seeing among them feel that such fundamental changes as are necessary for an effective remedy are likely to ensue only when Gaels and Scots regain control of the affairs of their own country. They cannot effect that without leaders who possess vision and courage, nor yet without co-operation and unity of purpose among all classes and creeds throughout our country. But the voice of a united Scotland was ever a mighty voice, and if only Scots would realise the truth of Mr MacDonald Hay’s statement that “the salvation of the Gaelic is the greatest need of Scotland to-day” then, not only would we in our day witness the dawn of a golden age for our language and literature, but we would also see the beginning of a great and prosperous era for Scotland and its people.
Gun greasadh Dia an lath sin, agus gu neartaicheadh e iadsan a tha a’ strì gus an staid ion-mhiannaichte sin a thoirt gu buil. Buaidh leis na seòid, agus an corr ri an àireamh. [May God expedite that day, and may be strengthen those who struggle to bring that worthwhile state to be. May the heroes be victorious and the others be held to account.]

Source: Frank Fraser Darling, West Highland Survey (1955), 358-59

We have taken the view that Gaeldom has been and still is a living culture, and that in the distant past it was an example of a culture finely adjusted to an environment which placed severe limitations on human existence. As ecologists we are of opinion that such an environment allows no great latitude of behaviour in a culture without serious repercussion and consequence. Change which would not appear to be remarkable in, say, the environment of southern England might be sufficiently great in the Highlands and Islands as to explode or destroy the culture. The fact of difference between the dominant culture and that of Gaeldom is real, but unfortunately it tends to be resisted by both; the fact that Gaeldom has receded through a thousand years to its last fringe on the Atlantic seaboard, where the environment is the sternest in Britain, shows that complete merging into the dominant culture was possible where the environment was kinder and gave more latitude of behaviour. Pressures and infiltrations by a dominant group on an ecological climax-like culture which, to borrow a nautical analogy, has no sea room in which to trim and tack, make for danger. Gaeldom, when it becomes conscious of its heritage, does not want to die, and if Britain is imaginative enough, she will not wish to lose the contributions to graceful living which the Gaelic culture can make. Both parties should forget the notion of numerical, financial, and technological dominance and face the facts, of difference and of environmental limitations, as intellectual equals.
The question which no one has yet carefully analysed in order to make any convincing answer concerning the Highland problem is, Where are we going and what do we want to do? It seems to us that there are three ways to go: first, Gaeldom as a culture can be ignored altogether and every effort made to crush it out, or absorb it into the undifferentiated magma of Western civilization so that any distinctive character is lost; second, Gaeldom can attempt cultural resistance to pressure by reaction, adopting rigidity, looking back over its shoulder and refusing to change; third, it can accept change and evolution in the conscious poise of its own strength and its own values.
The first course was followed as a policy in the eighteenth century, greatly aided by such evil influences as the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge. Such action failed, though it crippled Gaeldom. The attitude is not dead today and the modern counterpart of the Society is the compelling advertisement, not least those new governmental ones which inform you that you will be able to buy more sweeties for the kiddies next week. The indications are that with all the modern armament of propaganda Gaeldom can be effectively finished off. The results of such civiliz ing influences are disturbances in personality, which are expressed in defeatism and frustration in the face of much legislative action designed for sections of the population living in quite different conditions from much of Gaeldom.
The second course implies death from within, because it means in effect that the culture is refusing the challenge of proximity of the dominant culture. An organism which declines challenge and attempts passive defence is doomed. It can no longer evolve, but becomes encysted.
The third course is by far the hardest for all of us, because we do not fully know how. It would be a great test of human behaviour between man and man, and our knowledge of integration of scientific and politic action on an ecological level is as yet dim. We do not have enough administrators trained to the notion that technological advance will not solve the Highland problem without imaginative tolerance and a capacity to foresee consequences.
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 91 exclusive posts
Audio releases
By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 91 exclusive posts
Audio releases