Canadian Gaeldom: Faded Footprint Redefined

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“[R]ecent research has revealed that Scottish Gaelic was the third-most spoken European language at the time of (Canadian) Confederation. And yet today, apart from scattered homesteads in Nova Scotia, not only has the language receded from the immigrant communities that once spoke it, but it has practically disappeared from public memory. The descendants of Gaels, who once described themselves as bitter enemies of English speakers, are now categorized as ‘English Canadians’ with only occasional nods to the many distinctions that once divided them.” (from Introduction)

I spent my boyhood in Canada, so was keen to buy this book. My early teens were spent in Dunbartonshire, so I already owned a previous volume by Michael Newton (‘From Clyde to Callander’), being a compilation of the Gaelic heritage of the Lennox (last Lochlomondside native-speakers died c1950). A few years back I was privileged to have a coffee with California-raised Newton in Balloch, where he was presenting a paper at a conference on ‘Scott and the Trossachs’. I am enthusiastic about this man’s work.

Dr. Robert Dunbar, Chair of Celtic Languages, Literature, History and Antiquities, Head of Celtic and Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh (and himself a Canadian) gives the following highly positive endorsement of Michael Newton’s new book:

“This extremely rich collection of Gaelic poetry and prose literature from Canada is the single most comprehensive collection of such material we have ever had, and will be an outstanding and unique resource for a long time to come. Dr. Newton has done a remarkable job in retrieving and expertly contextualizing a large amount of fascinating material, showing the rich variety and national extent of the Gaelic experience in Canada. His sensitive and skillful translations open up this material to an English-speaking readership. This outstanding book will be of inestimable value to students, researchers and anyone interested in an important strand in Canada’s multicultural and multilingual identity and in Gaelic culture more generally.”

Let potential readers thus be well reassured regarding gaelophone Newton’s professional credentials: he is a diligent primary-source researcher, a highly sophisticated cultural thinker, and a cage-rattling radical:

“As I write the conclusions to this collection of literature chronicling the experiences of Scottish Gaels in Canada, events are underway to commemorate the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of John A. Macdonald. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, reflecting on the legacy of the Father of Confederation, waxes proudly about his continuation of the British enterprise in North America, with some anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Dominion of Canada. […] A group of international scholars met in Glasgow, Scotland, where Macdonald was born, to investigate the early story of his life more fully during the anniversary. Scotland, looking to assert its own cultural identity and place in world affairs, often looks beyond the British Isles to find exemplars of Scottish ‘success’ and ‘triumph’, with Canada being a favourite hunting ground. Tricia Marwick, Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, attended celebrations of Macdonald’s birthday in Kingston, Ontario, and remarked: ‘I think what is important is that we recognise famous Scots, people who’ve gone abroad and done wonderful things’. […] It is highly doubtful that Canada’s first prime minister would be characterized as a nice man who did ‘wonderful things’ by the native peoples whom he displaced and starved to death, or by the insurgents of the 1869 Red River Resistance whom Macdonald called ‘impulsive half breeds’. He was, at the least, complicit in colonial policies that were devastating to native peoples and profoundly unfair to non-European immigrants. Despite his Scottish birth, Macdonald always spoke of England as the mother country in the political arena. The fact that his parents were native Gaelic speakers from the Highlands did not predispose him to lift a finger to defend their language or even acknowledge its existence publicly. John A.’s behaviour in these matters was the rule rather than the exception. The notion that Macdonald worked for the equality ‘of language, of religion, of property and of person’ for all people in Canada, as Harper claims, is a convenient myth that turns a blind eye to the suffering, exploitation, dispossession and discrimination suffered by indigenous and racialized peoples in colonial territories. It even ignores the prejudices faced by members of his own ancestral ethnicity—Scottish Gaels—when they attempted to maintain, develop, and assert the legitimacy of their own language and culture. Macdonald’s rhetoric of the racial, moral, social and cultural superiority of Britishness mark him out as an effective champion of extending the long legacy of Anglocentric hegemony into North America, one whose negative consequences have yet to be fully unravelled and acknowledged.”

Nor ought readers to discount this volume as only about “Gaelic in Canada”. That would be to miss, for example, powerful accounts and analysis of the Scottish Clearances:

“Many historians of the Clearances simply treat these events as the inevitable calculus of economics and the irrepressible march of modernity. The resistance of some scholars to take these Gaelic perspectives seriously could be interpreted as an attempt to maintain the authority of an Anglocentric master narrative that asserts that the British Empire was an unstoppable force for civilization, progress, and enlightenment. […] If Gaelic perspectives were taken seriously, they might highlight the injustices perpetrated in the past that have created one of the most concentrated and unjust landholding patterns in the world, one in which native Highlanders are still disenfranchised. They might suggest that reparations are in order. As Dòmhnall Iain Dòmhnallach has recently argued, the Highland Land Agitation of the 1880s deserves to be celebrated and its agenda pressed forward in the present.”


“The British Empire’s ability to expand the territories under its control from 1756 to 1815 owed much to the fact that it spent from 75 per cent to 85 per cent of its budget on military enterprises. Landowners sought to tap these vast financial resources and enhance their own social rank by selling their Highland tenantry as natural-born soldiers who could be recruited in large numbers by leveraging their hereditary clan relationships. Highlanders of many social ranks seemed to believe that they could gain favour with the London government and dispel any lingering suspicions of Jacobite sympathies by a conspicuous demonstration of their loyalty in military service. Thus, the economic-political interests of the land-owning elite and the military ambitions of the empire conspired in the Highlands’ specialization in military recruitment, a specialization justified by recourse to obsolete and ethnocentric myths about supposed Gaelic ‘savagery’. In 1756 the young chieftain Simon Fraser of Lovat—son of an executed Jacobite ‘rebel’—successfully petitioned to raise a regiment to fight against French forces in North America and within two months about 2,000 Highlanders were mobilized for action. Some 12,000 Highland soldiers in total were involved by the end of the Seven Years’ War in other regiments as well. Gaels perceived themselves to have proved their mettle and their loyalties prominently by their efforts, not least on the Plains of Abraham. […] Soldiers and sailors who had fought in the North American theatre of the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763) were eligible for land grants in British North America as rewards for their military service.”

Leading on from the foregoing, the central punch of the book for me is the highlighting and analysis of the agonizingly fragmented (lethally “skewered”?) identity of those brutally cleared from Scotland who then found themselves enlisted as British troops:

“Some Gaels consciously or unconsciously blotted these debasing episodes of eviction and the associated shame from communal memory, even if they were left with emotional scars and cultural traumas that were difficult to resolve. Some made an effort, especially through oral tradition, to create a heroic emigration narrative that could turn the experience of defeat and dispossession into a triumph of self-determination and success. Many others, however, were left with an inferiority complex that not only encouraged them to seek the external validation of the anglophone world but to ultimately assimilate to its norms as thoroughly as possible in order to gain its status and privilege.”


“In perhaps no other domains of the immigrant experience are the ironies and contradictions of Gaelic history more manifest than those of military triumphalism and tartanism. The Highland soldier became an icon of British imperial supremacy and earned the accolades of the anglophone world so long as his energies and ambitions were directed toward imperial ends. Gaels proved in Canada and elsewhere that they were capable of attaining privilege and power by deferring to anglophone norms, but once they renounced the legitimacy of their own language and culture there was nothing left but a hollow shell of tartanism. Canadian Gaelic literary texts were beginning to embrace tartanistic clichés by the early decades of the 19th century, demonstrating that Highlanders were aware of these stereotypes and willing to conform to them to win approval. They thus could play the role of gallant, manly champions capable of conquering any country and yet were incapable of defending their rights on their own turf.”

Back specifically to language:

“Unlike immigrant groups from beyond the British Isles, Scottish Gaels (like the Irish and Welsh) had a long-standing history of conflict with the anglophone world and had been represented as the “primitive Other” in the venerated canon of anglophone literature and historiography. The dominance of Anglocentric perspectives in Canada as well as in the national institutions of their own homeland presented an extra dimension of difficulty for Gaels to maintain their language and culture. […] The common pattern in North America when immigrants enter into highly interconnected, urban settings is that the ancestral language is lost within three generations. This does not explain why or how the shift from Gaelic to English happened in the more substantial and cohesive rural settlements, such as in the Maritimes, however. Dòmhnall MacGill-Eain Sinclair, writing in 1950, described deliberate attempts to eradicate Gaelic in Nova Scotia through coercion: ‘… in Scotland it has suffered greatly by restrictive laws. In the Highlands, children whose mother tongue it was, were forbidden to speak it in school, and if caught speaking it, were punished. This strange idea came over to Nova Scotia. Dr. Chisholm of Bridgeville, Pictou County, told me that in his early days children who spoke Gaelic were accompanied home from school by others who were to report to the teacher if they heard Gaelic spoken. If caught they were punished, just as in Scotland. Thus in about one generation Gaelic was killed in Pictou County.'”

Also regarding imported prejudices from Scotland:

“These animosities were carried forward into Canada just as much as any common sense of ‘Scottishness’, especially when Highland immigrants did not conform to the ethnolinguistic norms and expectations of anglophones. In a survey of Gaelic traditions in Prince Edward Island conducted in 1987, for example, John Shaw remarked, ‘A small portion of PEI Scots had come from the Scottish Lowlands and according to reports they demonstrated naked hostility to Gaelic—more so than any other ethnic group.”’

In summary (from Michael Newton’s final chapter, ‘Conclusions’):

“Canadian Gaels express the expectation in many texts that they will be remembered for their legacy in North America. They would be disappointed, to say the least, that today they are generally lumped together with their long-time rivals, Lowland Scots, and even more often tossed into the ‘British’ or ‘English-speaking’ divide of Canadian ethnicity, as though they were indistinguishable from the people with whom they fought for centuries for their identity and cultural sovereignty. Many other immigrant groups can look back to homelands where their culture has been valorized and enshrined by national institutions that foster the development of its traditions of learning and literature. Until very recently Scottish Gaels, to the contrary, could only look back at their conquest and domination by rivals whom they had long deprecated and who gained the power to dictate educational and political policies and institutions that inferiorized Gaelic and attempted to replace it with English. This volume contains only a small sampling of the sources available in books, periodicals, manuscripts and archives to tell the story of Canadian Gaelic communities in their own words. Despite a modest show of interest in Scottish Studies in North America, very little effort is being made to address and explore the Gaelic immigrant experience in the universities of either Canada or the United States. In fact, anglophone scholars and mainstream historians have all too often conspired to keep Gaelic voices obscured and peripheral. Take, for example, an essay published in 2014 about Scottish cultural organizations in the global diaspora in which two organizations originally formed by emigrants in Australia are extolled because they: ‘invited membership from across the multi-ethnic communities in which they operated from the outset. Additionally, both were careful to counter that inherently insular Gaelic language objective with a more accessible and inclusive expression of Highland culture, namely the staging of an annual Highland Games for the whole community.'”

The following opening verse of a poem (“Albannaich Chanada” by Revd. Dr. Alasdair MacGill-Eain Sinclair of Nova Scotia) perhaps encapsulates the tension in the book:

“Bho Alba thàinig mo shluagh-sa
Thar cuain do’n àirde an iar
A chogadh air son Bhreatainn,
Gu calma, seasmhach, dian.”

(“My people came from Scotland
across the ocean to the west
to fight for Britain
bravely, resolutely, keenly.”)

I am always impressed by the ability of academics to present incandescent material calmly. I am not an academic. Here in closing is my own bitterly ironic response:

Ah! The smirking genius of Empire! The unstaunchable seeping alchemy whereby the Hideous Project is internalised and ferociously furthered by doubly enthralled victims! How supremely delicious the grotesque spectacle of schizoid zealots thrusting the Imperial Banner aloft with one hand while throttling themselves with the other! The mirth of it! The deep, gut-warming, ecstatically tectonic, MIRTH of it all…!


Comments (10)

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  1. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Am I alone in thinking that this paragraph might shed light on the psychohistory of a certain politician and his constituency?

    “Some Gaels consciously or unconsciously blotted these debasing episodes of eviction and the associated shame from communal memory, even if they were left with emotional scars and cultural traumas that were difficult to resolve. Some made an effort, especially through oral tradition, to create a heroic emigration narrative that could turn the experience of defeat and dispossession into a triumph of self-determination and success. Many others, however, were left with an inferiority complex that not only encouraged them to seek the external validation of the anglophone world but to ultimately assimilate to its norms as thoroughly as possible in order to gain its status and privilege.”

  2. Iain MacKinnon says:

    This is a wise and generous review which lets the author and the book speak for itself – and it does so eloquently, as you would expect with Michael Newton’s work. I would add that Newton’s ‘Warriors of the Word’, published in 2009 by Birlinn, is the best resource book I know of for anyone wishing to learn more about Gaelic Scotland. Clear and comprehensive, it’s an outstanding work and deserves to be much better known.

  3. Alf Baird says:

    “..the suffering, exploitation, dispossession and discrimination suffered by indigenous and racialized peoples in colonial territories”

    Most of this statement surely also applies to the colony of Scotland today, and whilst there is the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005 which officially recognises that language and funds its promotion, there is undoubtedly still ongoing discrimination against the Scots language and hence the Scots people whereby the state refuses to teach Scots language in schools and universities and refuses to pass a Scots Language (Scotland) Act.

  4. Fay Kennedy. says:

    A very interesting review and comments thank you. As an expatriate Glaswegian Scot living in Australia for half a century there is so much to discover and analyse to understand the catastrophe that colonialism creates in particular to the military madness that continues while ignoring the suffering and experience of displacement where the words are lost and hence the erasing of story and history. For it leads to the victim to so often becoming a victimiser. When there is dignity which means honouring the real then this at least makes it possible to challenge the fantasy that just maintains the status quo. The oppressed need to tell their story without shame for it’s their duty to enlighten the oppressor not join them. I am no psychologist but Donald Trump is a deeply wounded and angry man whose mother’s ancestry had been victims of the decimation of Highland culture. He carries within him traces of that great suffering even though he may not wish to consider that. Who knows whether he ever heard a Gaelic lullaby in his tender years?
    Music and language are our entry into the larger world that is why it is a terrible tragedy on a people when their language is destroyed for that is to destroy a culture.
    There is no ignoring the effects of that here in Australia where the indigenous peoples have been almost obliterated by the actions of Mother England and her military might. Much of it manned by poor Scots, Irish, and Welsh who in their turn inflicted what had been done to them on the poor natives of the land.
    There are too the good actions of the Scots which are rarely recognised in this country other than the tartan model and sad when there is so much that is interesting and important. It troubles me on a personal level and as much as I try to educate others it’s a source of frustration. Even so the history has to be told the stories shared so that there may be better systems developed for the current models are not working for far too many folk.
    I feel a deep loss at not learning Gaelic and keen to learn more of the culture particularly in relation to landcare and ownership which will be a major problem here in Australia where the theft is on such a grand scale it’s almost impossible to comprehend.
    Language should be at the centre of our education system and should be the foundation to continue to discover our history and hopefully learn from it so that there can be new systems and structures that support human beings to build a better place for all peoples on this planet not the handful of privileged folk who are leading us to catastrophe.

  5. Ewan Macintyre says:

    According to Felipe Fernández-Armesto the Highlands and Islands of Scotland are a conquered colony of the Scottish Lowland Empire.

    “The art of empire is actually the art of collaboration, the art of establishing links with quislings and collaborators in indigenous societies and with local élites and regional powers ….”
    (podcast, BBC Radio 4; In Our Time – Slavery and Empire (2002))

    He should know. He wrote, among many others, a book entitled: Civilisations (2001) (from the Ice Age to the 20th century).

    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      “THE QUHILK DAY it being understand that the ignorance and incivilitie of the saidis Ilis hes daylie incressit be the negligence of gaid educatioun and instructioun of the youth in the knowledge of God and good lettres: FOR remeid quhairof it is enactit that everie gentilman or yeaman within the saidis Ilandis or ony of thame having children maill or famell and being in goodis worth thriescoir ky, sall putt at the leist thair eldest sone or, having na childrene maill, thair eldest dochtir to the scuillis in the lawland and interteny and bring thame up thair quhill thay may be found able sufficientlie to speik, read and wryte Inglische.” (Statutes of Icolmkill 1609)(Collectanea de Rebus Albanicus pp119-20)

      “Thairfor that they shall send thair bairnis being past the age of nyne yeiris to the Scollis in the Lawlandis, to the effect thay may be instructit and trayned to wryte and reid and to speake Inglische; and that nane of thair bairnis sall be served air [heir] unto thame, nor acknawlegeit nor reid as tennentis to his Majestie unles thay can wryte, reid, and speik Inglische.” (Act of Privy Council of Scotland 1616)(Collectanea de Rebus Albanicus p 121)

      “Forasmekle as the kingis Majestie having a speciall care and regaird that the trew religioun be advanced and establisheit in all the pairtis of this kingdome, and that all his Majesties subjectis, especiallie the youth, be exercised and trained up in civilitie, godliness, knowledge and learning, that the vulgar Inglishe toung be universallie plantit, and the Irishe language, which is one of the chief and principall causis of the continwance of barbarities and incivilite amongis the inhabitantis of the Iles and Heylandis, may be abolisheit and removit…” (Act of Privy Council of Scotland 1616)

      1. Alf Baird says:

        Some readers are aware of this. However we should not confuse the mass of impoverished downtrodden lowland Scots fowk with the corrupt aristos and their establishment sidekicks and hangers on who ran things in 1616, and who by and large still run things today.

    2. Ewan Macintyre says:

      Here is another example of a Gael seeking “the external validation of the anglophone world […] to ultimately assimilate to its norms as thoroughly as possible in order to gain its status and privilege.”
      Hector MacDonald, a native Gaelic speaker from Dingwall was asked by a newspaper reporter in 1902:

      “And what do you think, General, will be the future of South Africa? Shall we be able to win over the Boers to friendship as Great Britain has done with other of her enemies?”
      MacDonald – by then a major-general who had risen through the ranks from private soldier in Victoria’s imperial army – gave an imperialist’s reply: “There is the case of the Highlands of Scotland as a parallel. The almost impossible was done there.
      I look for the future to education. It is through the young idea that we must succeed in South Africa. English must be the language there. It may seem hard to kill, so to speak, a nation by making another language compulsory, but it is a sure way and the best way. Nothing but English should be taught, and then the children would think in English and act as English children.”

      1. Alf Baird says:

        “Nothing but English should be taught, and then the children would think in English and act as English children.”

        Nae doot thon establishment-indoctrinated Anglicised culture wis a muckle raison mony Scots fowk votet Naw bak in 2014 an wid aye vote Naw e’en noo. Noo if thay fowk an maist bairns wir taucht Scots (or Gaelic, yon bein thair ain chyce) as well as English……….wid thay aye vote agin Scotlan?

  6. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    PDF of first 14 pages of Michael Newton’s book is available at the link below.

    Included are Endorsements, Contents, Acknowledgements, and a Foreword by Diana Gabaldon (author of ‘Outlander’ books):

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