Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind

In 1755 the Scottish Enlightenment historian and future rector of Edinburgh University, Reverend William Robertson, delivered a sermon on the role of ‘the divine wisdom, in the government of the world’.

Robertson was convinced that Christianity’s role in history was to redeem the vices and perfect the virtues of all human societies, and his sermon contained a historical argument that the progress of Western society and Europe’s rise to global domination had been inspired by God through Christian teaching.

The sermon was an exercise in propaganda, and he told his listeners that it would ‘suggest many useful reflections, with regard to the future and universal propagation of Christian knowledge’. These words fell on attentive ears. Robertson was preaching the annual sermon of the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), an organisation formed in Edinburgh in 1709 in order to build and manage schools throughout the Gàidhealtachd. In these schools education had a ‘civilising’ as well as religious mission, with the aims of spreading the English language and maintaining and developing the dominant ecclesiastical and political order in Scotland and Britain.

As Robertson drew to the end of his sermon, he turned to address ‘the chief care’ of the SSPCK. ‘The Highlands and Islands of Scotland,’ he informed his listeners, ‘present to us a scene, which we would little expect in a nation where true religion and polished manners have long flourished’.

After detailing what he considered to be the failings of Gàidhlig society, he concluded: ‘Attached to their own customs, from ignorance and habit, they have hitherto continued a separate people’. In Robertson’s view, the work of the SSPCK was ‘to retrieve that part of the kingdom from ignorance and barbarism, and to introduce the same regular government and independence which are the blessings of other British subjects’. The annual report of the SSPCK which accompanied Robertson’s published sermon was more succinct: the organisation was engaged in ‘work of unwearied perseverance and attention …[to] change the manners of a whole people’.

The SSPCK’s 1755 report announced a new means of effecting that transformation. It was to begin giving financial support to linen-manufacturing colonies that were being established in different parts of the Gàidhealtachd. This would, the SSPCK hoped, ensure that schooling to redeem Gaels from their social barbarity would be accompanied by productive habits of industry. The organisation looked forward to further projects on the same lines throughout the Gàidhealtachd, and to a time when ‘the inhabitants…might at last become useful, industrious and valuable members of society’.

To paraphrase the words of Colonel Henry Pratt, one of the leading nineteenth-century advocates of the culturally devastating North American native residential school system, their views suggest that the SSPCK and William Robertson believed in the ‘killing the Gael to save the man’ model of education for indigenous peoples.

There’s no doubt that the education system imposed under centuries of British imperial rule has helped to take Scottish Gaels far and wide, and it has been commonplace to celebrate the achievements of educated Scottish Gaels such as John MacPherson, governor general of Bengal, or Lachlan MacQuarie, governor general of New South Wales, although the essentially detestable nature of many of these achievements is now being disclosed.

By chronicling colonial experiences from the other side, writers and scholars of colonised indigenous peoples have been at the heart of exposing the actions of Gael and other British imperialists. In relation to schooling, from the perspective of those being ‘educated’, these writers have observed, almost uniformly, that schools were sites of cultural oppression which sought to lead native children out of their native identities.

In this blog I would like to contribute to this process of disclosure, and look at the imperial education of Scottish Gaels from the other side, as it were; not at how it has contributed to ‘saving the man’ (sic), but at how it has ‘killed the Gael’.

To do this, I have first listened to what peoples subjugated by the British empire are telling us about their experiences of colonialism, and sought to learn from that; in this case I have drawn on the memories of the African novelist Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o on his colonial education in mid-twentieth century Kenya, and on the theory of ‘colonial alienation’ that he elaborated on the basis of those experiences. Then, through the lens of his ‘colonial alienation’ idea, I have compared Thiong’o’s experiences in education with those of some roughly contemporaneous Scottish Gaels. I need to acknowledge at the outset that almost all the accounts of colonial education that I have read so far, from Scotland, Kenya, North America and other contexts, have been written by men, and that this overwhelmingly male perspective is a deficiency in what I’ve written here. It seems likely to reflect male privilege in native or colonial societies, or in both. Part of that privilege is the universal use of the male pronoun which is found throughout their writing.


When recalling his early life in rural colonial Kenya, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o described how Gĩkũyũ had been the language of his life and home before he went to school.

We spoke Gĩkũyũ as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gĩkũyũ in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of story-telling around the fireside.

We spoke Gĩkũyũ as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gĩkũyũ in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of story-telling around the fireside.

He recalled that in these communally shared stories – at what Gaels would call a ‘cèilidh’, a visiting and sharing between friends, relatives and neighbours – ‘co-operation as the ultimate good in a community was a constant theme’. The stories were rich in symbolism, whether telling the adventures of animals or humans, and the children would retell the stories they had heard from the adults. The children also came to inhabit the language through games involving ‘riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables or through non[-]sense but musically arranged words’ and, says Thiong’o, the young ones came to value words for their meaning and nuance, a ‘suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning’.

So we learnt the music of the language on top of the content. The language, through images and symbols, gave us a view of the world, but it had a beauty of its own.

However, by the simple fact of going to school, recalls Thiong’o, ‘this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture’.

The role of education in relation to language was twofold, he argues. Firstly, it was to destroy the connection to the indigenous language. Thiong’o said that one of the most humiliating experiences in school was to be caught speaking Gĩkũyũ, ‘the culprit’ being punished by ‘three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks’. Others were forced to wear metal plates round their neck on which was written inscriptions such as ‘I AM STUPID’ or ‘I AM A DONKEY’. Others were fined – ‘money they could hardly afford’.

And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.

The second role of education in relation to language was to extol the coloniser’s language. English was presented as the means to civilisation, with any achievement by the pupils being rewarded in ‘prizes, prestige, applause’.

English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education.

Thiong’o then asks ‘what the colonialist imposition of a foreign language was doing to us children’? With this question he begins to broaden his outlook beyond his own experiences to offer a perspective on colonial education that might fit with the experiences of others among his own people, and among other peoples whose educational experiences have been similar.

Thiong’o argues that ‘the real aim of colonialism was to control the peoples’ wealth’. Colonialism sought domination and control of what the colonised produced, how they produced it and how it was distributed.

But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.

On the one hand this domination involved undermining or destroying every aspect of indigenous culture and elevating the colonial language instead. Establishing the dominion of the English language over the indigenous tongue was crucial to achieving dominion over the mental universe of the colonised.

Thiong’o argues that education in the colonising language robs the child of ‘the real language of life’ as they had experienced life. ‘Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience’.

The content of the learning was also foreign, robbing the child of any sense of connection between ‘the world of his immediate environment in the family and community’ and the world they were being schooled into, which contained a completely different set of ‘images’ about the world.

The child was being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world that was external to himself. He was being made to stand out of himself to look at himself…Since culture does not just reflect the world but actually, through those very images, conditions a child to see that world in a certain way, the colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen and defined by or reflected in the culture of the language of imposition…This resulted in a dissociation of sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation.

Thiong’o’s theory of colonisation and its effects on the colonised proposes:

  1. Colonisation seeks to control the indigenous peoples’ material and non-material wealth through domination of what they produce, how they produce it and how it is distributed
  2. Colonisation undermines or destroys key aspects of indigenous culture
  3. Colonisation elevates the colonisers’ language
  4. Colonisation attacks the mental universe of the colonised and their inner world of emotion and feeling
  5. Colonisation seeks to alienate indigenous children from their natural and social environment through colonial education practices.

Thiong’o specifically used these ideas to launch an attack on generations of African writers whose colonially alienated education had led them to write in and extol their oppressors’ languages over their native languages. However, it is also possible to read his work in conjunction with other anti-colonial scholars who have made more general arguments about colonialism’s effects on native identity and psychology.

Albert Memmi, for instance, believed that ‘The first ambition of the colonized is to become equal to that splendid model [the colonizer] and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him’. Disappearances of this sort are not uncommon. However, even when the colonized revolt successfully against their vanishing psyche, in Memmi’s view they still remain living in a psyche defined by the colonizer, defined by what they are not: ‘So goes the drama of the man who is a product and victim of colonialism. He almost never succeeds in corresponding to himself’.

The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, in her work on post-colonial elites in India, argues that Frantz Fanon’s analysis of colonial psychodynamics in mid-twentieth-century North Africa came to a similar conclusion:

The terrible cost of colonialism, in Fanon’s eyes, is that in yearning to be like the white coloniser, the black colonised man comes to accept the white man’s vision of the black man and so to lose himself. He is alienated from himself when he feels most white, and humiliated when he feels most black. And so, perpetually, the black man is torn, rejecting himself to be white, only then to grasp a more terrible vision of his never-to-be-scrubbed-clean skin. ‘A Negro is forever in combat with his own image’. (Luhrmann 2000: 178, 179)

Imperial relationships in the twentieth century Gàidhealtachd unfolded in very different ways to those in British Kenya or French Algeria. However, the second part of this blog will disclose regimes of schooling in the area which resonate with those imposed on externally colonized peoples.



This article is re-published with kind permission of The Empire at Home. 

Comments (26)

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  1. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    Thank you for this informative article.

    I was aware of the experience of colonised peoples furth of Scotland, through various books and papers, and I was aware of the situation in Scotland via the experiences of, mainly, my Gaelic speaking mother in the first two decades of the 20th century. To her dying day she had a powerful sense of resentment against those who had oppressed her and her culture. Like many Gaels, she spoke and wrote English (sic) very well, with a wide vocabulary and a nuanced knowledge of idioms. In that she was like most of the Gaelic diaspora, who spread good and bod effects across the globe.

    I was unaware of the role of the SPCK. I had heard of it and, indeed, my secondary school in the 1960s had a SPCK ‘club’, but I was not aware of the origins as you have described them and the work they undertook in the Gaidhealtaghd.

    Of course, Scots, Doric, Norn, Shetlandic and other languages and variations of English within the British/Irish archipelago also suffered suppression. Indeed, it could be argued that within England, the local senses of Englishness have been substantially obliterated by such cultural colonialism and this has been used to divide and rule, with the vilification of multiculturalism, being an aspect of this. Part of the support for Brexit in England derives from the perceived threat to the imposed culture which many have internalised. Rather than seeing who the real oppressors are, some throughout England, see the ‘threat’ deriving from ‘immigrants’. There are economic and political strands. too, but the cultural one is a potent one.

    1. Maxwell Macleod says:

      I am grateful as ever to Iain MacKinnon whose work over the years has brought me so much pleasure and information and who has added to both in this excellent essay. However he criticises William Robertson for being a propagandist and then, only days before a General Election in which the Scottish Nationalists are playing a pivotal role, does exactly the same himself by writing a piece whose hidden agenda is obviously to further the thesis that the wretched ministers have been the agents of the English in subjugating the indigenous people of the Highlands by In many cases this may be true , and I would concur with his main theme that this was a significant trend. However that is propaganda not objective analysis if he does point out that some in the church were pushing in the opposite direction, all be it at a later date. For example in 1824 my forebear Caraid-nan-Gaidheal ( Friend of the Highlander ) persuaded the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly ( The Church’s Governing Body ) to support moves to further gaelic education in the Highlands leading to a situation in which over 22,000 children were being taught in their native gaelic tongue. He also published gaelic texts and magazines that were widely distributed by the church , and indeed spent time with Queen Victoria and according to legend married her to John Brown, quite possibly in a service that involved the use of Gaelic. So in principle he is correct, but the subject needs to be fleshed out if is to be moved from false gaelic news, and propaganda, to a true evaluation of the situation

      1. Iain MacKinnon says:

        Hold fast Max – at least until you’ve read part two!

        1. Maxwell macleod says:

          On the edge of my seat.

          1. maxwell macleod says:

            Sadly Iain I am not gifted with an dara sheallidh and am only able to comment on what you have written rather than what you are going to! I look forward to a broader approach.

          2. Iain MacKinnon says:

            Hello Maxwell,

            Your assumptions about the conception of this article are misconceived and your allegations of electoral propaganda baseless. In addressing them, let me say that the writing of your family over centuries has been an influence and inspiration to me, from some of Norman Macleod the second’s early ‘comraidhean’ to your own regular scintillations in Scottish Review and Bella. And, perhaps most of all, Norman Macleod the third’s ‘Morvern: A Highland Parish’ (Birlinn edition). I find it such a powerful and important source on Gaelic society and attitudes in the later nineteenth century. And moreover, it is a joy to read – so brilliantly written. What a gift runs to communicate runs through your family!

            And I don’t take issue with the facts you put forward here, about the efforts of Caraid nan Gaidheal and others to introduce Gaelic language education in the nineteenth century. But I didn’t feel a need to mention them in the article as, although the efforts were no doubt sincere and determined, they were in my view largely ineffectual in the greater scheme of things. That was in no small part a result of factors quite beyond their control (such as the effects of the potato famines), However, the general political quietism of some of those leaders in Gaelic society might also be seen from today as a more subtle form of subjugation within the pervasive context of British imperialism in the nineteenth century. From that perspective, Maxwell, your own disputatious and courageous contributions towards public life and liberation in Scotland over decades deepen immeasurably the kindliness and Christian goodwill in the good words of your less obstreperous ancestors.

    2. BSA says:

      Is Doric a language or one of several dialects of Scots ? Ayrshire and others seem to me to be equally rich and robust as Doric and they are all immediately mutually understandable ?

    3. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Thanks for these comments Alasdair. Your mother was not alone. It is a common thread, albeit one that is often not brought to the surface. As someone living and working in an England which is being pulled apart over identity related issues such as Brexit, multiculturalism and the many legacies of imperialism – at least as far back as 1066 – I particularly appreciate your views on the complexity of Englishness.

  2. Josef Ó Luain says:

    Amidst Jo Swinson’s currently, all too frequent, R.P.ese type maelstroms of rounded vowels and omitted “Rs” (when preceded by a vowel), it’s good to hear her odd wee “lapses” into glottal-stop territory, a la her native Bearsden/ Milngavie, or wherever the squirrel-murderess hails from.

  3. John S Warren says:

    One small point that is not intended to be pedantic; William Robertson became Principal, not Rector of Edinburgh University. He was an important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, the leader of the Moderate Party that dominated the Church of Scotland for decades, an influential historian, the close friend of David Hume and the literary mentor of James Hutton.

    1. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Thanks John. You’re right, of course. I don’t mention it in the piece but part of my interest in Principal Robertson is his role in developing the stadial theory of social development – the idea that a regular form of progress can be observed in societies, from hunter-gatherer through pastoralist to farming and commerce, and that these exist along a cline from savagery (hunter-gatherer) to civility (commerce). It is one of the main ideas to come out of the Scottish and French Enlightenments and has had a huge and enduring role on the social sciences and on development theory and practice.

      Most scholars who’ve studied this say that when it was first being developed in the 1750s, the stadial theorists (with Robertson to the fore) took native Americans as the epitome of savagery. But Robertson’s SSPCK sermon is interesting to me because it suggests (alongside some other sources) that Gaels weren’t far from Enlightenment philosophers’ thoughts in regard to this idea too – hardly surprising only a decade or so after Culloden. This was also at a time when the SSPCK was considering how to extend its mission to America.

      There’s been some good work touching on this in recent years. Specifically in relation to SSPCK, although she has been criticised for a lack of knowledge of Gaelic sources, I like Margaret Connell Szasz’s take, and Jamie Kelly is close to completing a revisionist PhD thesis on the SSPCK, taking issue with John Lorne Campbell’s critical stance on it.

      1. John S Warren says:

        Yes, the stadial theory was a linchpin of the Scottish Enlightenment project, and to a greater or lesser extent elements are found in Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Henry Home (Lord Kames) and John Millar. It can also be found in that formative influence in Scottish Enlightenment thought Francis Hutcheson, teaching and developing ideas that in turn inspired him from Carmichael, Pufendorf and Grotius. I suspect we can even find elements of it in the work of James Burnett (Lord Monboddo), and others; and finally, it finds articulation within the grand sweep of Dougald Stewart’s unifying concept of Conjectural History; who provided a fin de siècle, unconscious obituary to the originality, authority and standing of the thought of the 18th century literati at the dawn of the new century.

        There is an important but often overlooked strand of what I will call here ‘connective tissue’ between the ideas of the social-historical theorists among the literati , including Robertson and the great contemporary Scoittish anatomists; for example William Hunter and John Hunter. I hesitate to refer to my own work here, but if you are interested in this proposition, elements of the ‘connective tissue’ are discussed in my paper ‘Darwin’s missing links’: in the academic Journal ‘History of European Ideas’; Vol.43, No.8, (2017). It is behind a paywall, so you would require an academic institution access. Please forgive the self-advertisement, but it did seem germane.

        1. John S Warren says:

          Dugald Stewart. Fumble fingers! Apologies.

          1. Iain MacKinnon says:

            Thanks for these suggestions John.

        2. Iain MacKinnon says:

          Dear John,

          Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve downloaded your article today and look forward to reading it. In studying this issue in terms of intellectual history I’ve been reading Meek’s ‘Ignoble Savage’, Hopfl’s ‘From Savage to Scotsman’, the volume on William Robertson in the CUP ‘Ideas in Context’ series, Silvia Sebastiani’s ‘Race, Gender and the Limits of Progress’ and, more generally, James Tully’s work on ‘progress and scepticism’. Are there some other works you would recommend?

          1. John S Warren says:

            If you mean in terms of evolution, then Bill Jenkins has just published ‘Evolution Before Darwin: Theories of the Transmutation of Species in Edinburgh, 1804 – 1834’ (EUP; Oct., 2019). There is much more that could be written on this issue, in which the Enlightenment had a powerful influence, but this is a history that has been drowned out by the narrow priorities set by the Darwin Industry. Nicholas Wade heroically attempted to rehabilitate WC Wells in ‘Destined for Distinguished Oblivion’ (Kluwer, 2003), but the title describes the problem. WJ Dempster wrote two books on Patrick Matthew that perhaps suffer from his frustration with the ‘conventional wisdom’, but nevertheless discusses the tension between catastrophism and gradualism that should remind us of the underlying importance of the issue for the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment. William Hunter is one of the most important figures, but although he has been researched (there are a number of books), he remains an enigmatic figure, and books and papers have tended to focus on his collecting or teaching (or the contentious issue of accessing dead bodies for teaching anatomy), and very little has focused on the critical aspects of his work, for Enlightenment thought. His brother John Hunter has received more attention, but William, much more, represents a paradigm of the Scottish Enlightenment literati in thought and outlook. Nicolaas Rupke wrote a refreshing book on Richard Owen (whose career was built entirely on his work in, and the remarkable reputation of, John Hunter’s Hunterian Museum in London). William Hunter’s career was in London (but his museum, the model for John’s, is in Glasgow University, Hunterian Museum), and although that London location may seem trivial it perhaps led to him slipping out of view in Scotland.

          2. John S Warren says:

            Oops! I thought I had included a really important work, but inexplicably omitted it. Here it is: Colin Kidd, ‘The Forging of Races: Race and Scripture in the Protestant Atlantic World, 1600-2000’ (CUP, 2006). I could add to this a long bibliography, but there is a very extensive one in Kidd’s book (see endnotes).

          3. John S Warren says:

            Jeffrey Smitten published a biography of William Robertson last year.

  4. maxwell macleod says:

    I am surprised that you have not touched on Trevor Royle’s largely tongue in cheek suggestion that if the Hanovarians hadn’t won in 1745 that the Scottish Enlightenment might never have happened, nor indeed the subsequent industrialisation!

  5. SleepingDog says:

    The Doctrine of (Christian) Discovery, and concepts like Terra Nullius, were used along with theories of racial dominance and ideas like Adam Smith’s cycle of hunting > pastoral > agricultural > commercial societies to justify the genocide of colonized peoples who were to be either swept away (effectively killed off) by the more commercially-advanced ‘races’ or identified as perpetual enemy demon-worshipping heathens (and effectively killed off). This was a contested subject in the early days of European global colonization.
    “The Valladolid debate (1550–1551) was the first moral debate in European history to discuss the rights and treatment of an indigenous people by conquerors.”
    In his book Savage Anxieties: The Invention of Western Civilization, Robert A Williams Jr traces the historical developments of arguments along the savage–civilized axis up until the 21st century and the beginnings of new rights-based indigeneous advocacy, resulting in the 2007 rejection of the Doctrine of Discovery (and support for redress in Article 28) by the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

    If you want to redress a male bias in this topic, I can recommend Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation by Silvia Federici (2nd edition, 2014), a feminist, anti-colonialist, historical-economic-philosophical-political-social analysis. She notes that women were strongly represented in heretic movements and perhaps they kept more of the Old Ways including language alive than the menfolk (this is, anyway, what Steve Gibbs, artist and professor from Toihoukura School of Māori Visual Arts in Aotearoa/New Zealand, says about his Māori heritage and language, his female relatives passed it all down, the men were ‘useless’ in this respect).

    The SSPCK rings a bell, but I cannot remember in what context.

  6. Martin McCrae says:

    Brilliant. We are waking up to the profound power of conditioning and the destructive nature of egoic consciousness.
    This article brings into the open what has been hidden and denied , not only in the treatment of the Gaels but in the treatment of ourselves.
    Time to awaken or not

  7. maxwell macleod says:

    Thank you indeed for your comments, which I will treasure. To be in any way associated with my illustrious forebears is of inflationary and undeserved benefit to my failing self concept and may well reduce my therapy bills in the future. If there was indeed no intention to use your researches for political ends then my apologies are sincere, I judge largely by intention. If I was to add any illustrative anecdote ( I am naught but an idle story teller ) to your work it would be this . My late father, the grandson of a key assistant to Dwelly, spent many of his childhood holidays on Mull around the turn of the century visiting an island that contained many gaelic monoglots . He then went on, fluent in basic latin and greek so no fool, to be the adjutant of the 8th Argyls in the first world war where he would have heard gaelic every day and to employ many gaels in the restoration of Iona Cathedral. And yet he would tell me that he had not a word of gaelic. The great Norman’s daughter Annie also claimed that she had not a word, and yet when dying only spoke gaelic. We are the children of a raped culture Iain and I wish you well in your work.

    1. Iain MacKinnon says:

      That’s a hell of a story Maxwell. We are living in the ashes. Your work is to remind us of the fire. Go well!

      1. maxwell macleod says:

        It gets worse Iain. Annie, daughter of one of the greatest writer of gaelic prose, was the assistant to a folk lore collector who wandered the land anglicising gaelic songs.
        One day, sailing off Lochailort she heard a cracker and the pair gave it a doing.
        Result… Speed bonny boat like a bord on a wing. Or mas Maggie Fyffe’s yorkshire mother used to term it; ” Overt Seatert Skye.”

  8. Roland Stiven says:

    The commentary almost as illuminating as the article, and so polite! thanks all.

  9. Ken MacKinnon says:

    Very perceptive analysis. To think that this was prompted by a sermon on the Divine Wisdom – surely a sin against the Holy Ghost!

    Part 2 of the blog on the role of the school in Gaelic Scotland eagerly awaited.

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