Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind … 2

Part two of Iain MacKinnon’s exploration of colonisation and education in the Scottish and global context – see part one here.

In the nineteenth century fairly direct forms of oppressive violence and terror appear to have been used in efforts to frighten young Gaels into abandoning their language.

That physical force and forms of psychological terrorism[1] were used to wrest their language from generations of young Highland people is evident in the testimonies of older people I have spoken to, and from others available in the School of Scottish Studies and elsewhere. Michael Newton has also recently made available online some examples he has collected of texts written by Gaels that describe the culturally repressive role of education.

In at least one school the ‘maide crochaidh’ – the ‘hanging’ or ‘punishment’ stick – was hung around the neck of any child overheard speaking Gàidhlig in school.

The idea was that the child heard speaking the language would have the stick placed around their neck and, when they heard another child speak the language, they would pass it on, and so on. At the end of the day the teacher called for the stick and began to systematically flog each child who had worn it during the day.

The correspondence with Thiongo’s experience in Kenya is striking: although the actual terrorist device differs between Gĩkũyũ and Gàidhlig – a button rather than a stick – the process and intent are identical. In ‘Memories of Rannoch’, an autobiographical account published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society in 1981 but originally written in the 1920s, a man from Rannoch recounted a related form of psychological terror which had been used to try to destroy young Gaels’ connection to their language. He recalled an older neighbour telling him how children who spoke Gàidhlig in their school were treated by the schoolmaster.

It [the Gàidhlig language] seems to have been even more sternly discouraged in the early fifties [1850s], for an old man of eighty-eight, Duncan Cameron, now living next door to me here at Druimchruaidh, told me that when he was going to school at Camaghouran, any boy or girl caught speaking Gaelic during school hours was punished by having a human skull suspended round the head for the rest of the day.

In my own family, when my maternal grandmother went to school on Skye in the early twentieth century she spoke only Gàidhlig. Although her teacher was a Gàidhlig speaker, he belted her and others in the class if he caught them speaking the language. Violence engendered a brokenness in our family’s relationship to Gàidhlig which has fractured into the present day. It seems possible that stories such as these are fairly common in families, but have been repressed, as has been the case in other colonial contexts.


Alongside direct physical violence and the instilling of terror in the classroom, there also exists the more pervasive and insidious structural violence that is integral to imperial education’s assault on the mental universe of the colonised and their inner world of emotion and feeling.

In terms that are similar to Thiong’o’s, the Lewis poet and schoolteacher Iain Crichton Smith, observed the individual and collective mental dissociation and splitting engendered by education in a colonial language. His essay ‘Real People in a Real Place’ contains many important insights into the consequences of cultural invasion and I quote from it at length to show how parallels in the practice of colonialism in Africa and the cultural invasion of the Gàidhealtachd are matched by parallels in native responses:

…the imperialist language is imperiously and contemptuously degrading the native one. Because English is associated with so many of the important concerns of the world, including education, and because English is the language spoken by ‘importantpeople such as doctors, many of them incomers, there rises a deep and subtle feeling that English must be superior to Gaelic…The Gaelic speaker feels himself to be inferior, and his language inferior. He begins to think, for instance, that English literature is more important than Gaelic, that as a cutting instrument for getting on in the ‘worldEnglish is more valuable than Gaelic, and that since English is the language of the upper classes it has a real relationship to status and promotionto go from the colloquial world of the village to another where the school is the castle which by its language dominates the surrounding countryside, must be a blow to the psyche, an insult to the brain. To grow up inside a fixed language is a privilege which the islander has not had in recent centuries: he is in fact, and must be, the divided man in the very depths of his consciousness.

Crichton Smith’s account discloses that in addition to its role in inferiorising the native language as the narrative medium of the indigenous world, the school also becomes a primary site of colonisation of the narrative content – the stories and cultural meanings by which indigenous people come to understand their history and make sense of their place in the world.

In her book Decolonizing Methodologies the Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that under colonial rule indigenous peoples have both struggled against the colonisers’ view of history, and yet also been complicit with that view.

We have often allowed our ‘historiesto be told and have then become outsiders as we heard them being retold. Schooling is directly implicated in this process. Through the curriculum and its underlying theory of knowledge, early schools redefined the world and where indigenous people were positioned in the world.

She added that maps of the world reinforced the sense of being in the periphery of the world, while still being considered part of the empire.

Other symbols of our loyalty, such as the flag, were also an integral part of the imperial curriculum. Our orientation to the world was already being redefined…

John Nicolson who grew up on the island of Raasay in the 1930s has written about his schooldays there. Of the schoolroom, he said:

A large map of the world with the British Empire highlighted in pink, maps of the British Isles and the continents, a calendar, a chart showing the flags in colour that make up the Union Jack and a Union Jack flag, adorned the walls.

Although he can remember fragments of works composed by Raasay bards of his youth which he would have heard in houses on the island, Nicolson does not mention learning the works of any Gàidhlig bards during his schooldays, other than just two Gàidhlig songs. Although Gàidhlig was the native language of the island, it was not the language of the school. There were two Gàidhlig lessons each week. (Other than the two songs and a number of other Christian paraphrases and hymns, only ‘the inspired word of God’ from the Bible was permitted. Students spent time ‘committing to memory most of the psalms in metre’ and learning by rote ‘the Shorter Catechism – all 107 questions and answers’ and other works of Christian doctrine. However, secular verse in English was part of the curriculum. Among others, Wordsworth, Milton, Longfellow (‘Hiawatha’) and Shakespeare were all taught – and the title of Nicolson’s book of reminiscences, ‘I Remember’, is a line from a poem by the English poet Thomas Hood. In the Raasay children’s detailed lessons on the 17th century civil wars in Britain ‘Cromwell was placed on a pedestal of near sainthood’. Cromwell was the English military leader and dictator who invaded the Gàidhealtachd in the early 1650s following the defeat and execution of the Duke of Montrose. Montrose had led the Royalist Army that had supported Charles I during the civil wars. Many Highland clans had fought with the Royalists. Cromwell established garrisons throughout the Gàidhealtachd and his troops ‘undertook systematic pillaging and burning from Lochaber to Wester Ross’ and regarded Gaels as ‘cruel’, ‘covetous’, ‘wild’, ‘base’, and ‘beggarly’. In Ireland Cromwell was responsible for military atrocities in Drogheda and Wexford where his troops indiscriminately killed women and children whilst taking the towns’ garrisons.

John Nicolson and his classmates were never taught Cromwell’s atrocities as part of ‘their’ history. However, Nicolson, sitting in a primary school on an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, was belted for not knowing how many spans there are on the Forth Rail Bridge on the south-east coast of Scotland, and for mixing up the names of stations on railway lines running between the south of Scotland and England. Such experiences ironically bring to mind the title of poetry collection of the contemporary Gàidhlig bard, Aonghas MacNeacail, called ‘a proper schooling’. John Nicolson left Raasay almost as soon as he left school and joined the merchant navy, travelling to many of the places painted red on his school map. He lived and ended his days in London.

Another Nicolson, the twentieth century Skye bard, Calum Ruadh (Calum Nicolson), was interviewed extensively by the Danish ethnologist Thorkild Knudsen in the late 1960s. Calum responded with eloquence, insight and defiance to the Dane’s deep and searching questions. Only once, to my ears, did he falter. It was when he spoke about education.

But I – I think the greatest thing that ever came here – uhThorkildI think I callI may call you Thorkildis education, even take the country as a whole, we werethe last here, tototoget the benefit of that, they werefirst the Romans came across: they were savages in the south of England. The Romans were – and they educated them, they came as far up here as Perth, but Im damned if they couldconquer the boys up here, never. And thats why we were so late in receivingthe education, that the rest – of civilised Europe had given themWe would never have beenwewould have been stillbut ththe Romans nornor the rest coucould never get here.

I don’t believe the transcription (which was made by a scholar at the School of Scottish Studies) fully conveys the sounds and senses of vacillation and conflictedness that I heard in Calum Ruadh’s voice as he said the last tortured sentence that is represented in the paragraph above.[2] His pride that the unconquerable ‘boys up here’ resisted the imperial legions mixes with the belief that the south of England was peopled by ‘savages’ and that the Romans civilised them, and produces the confused idea, unexpressed, that ‘the boys up here’ might ourselves have been ‘savages’ until ‘so late’ in time because the civilisers ‘could never get here’.

John Nicolson’s account of his schooldays suggests that the same education system that Calum Ruadh extolled, may also have served to engender these confused internalised prejudices, a penetrating ‘deep and subtle feeling’ of inferiority, as Crichton Smith had put it, and a creeping suggestion that there is something not quite right about how we have lived.

Although Calum Ruadh himself did not doubt our ‘lovely language’, our ‘beautiful’ literature and our history ‘as good as any history in Europe’, it seems that, as for other traditions bearers of his time, he sought a refuge in alcohol, which in his case nearly killed him.

In his study written in the early 1980s for the United Nations looking at discrimination against indigenous populations, Jose R Martinez Cobo, who was Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, wrote that states often failed to recognise indigenous ways of learning and sought to replace them with ‘formal, alien and alienating educational processes’. He added:

Although there has been a significant improvement in the effective access of indigenous persons to public education of all kinds and at all levels, such education continues to be characterized to a greater or lesser extent by a marked tendency to deprive indigenous pupils of everything indigenous.

In such circumstances, as Fanon and the native American scholar Glenn Coulthard in his book Red Skin, White Masks have made clear, physical attributes such as skin colour act as a reminder of distinction for many indigenous peoples.

What, then, of the colonized white person? To paraphrase the work of Luhrmann quoted earlier in this blog:

What, then, of the colonized white person? To paraphrase the work of Luhrmann quoted earlier in this blog:

The terrible cost of colonialism…is that in yearning to be like the British coloniser, the colonised Gael comes to accept the British man’s vision of the Gael and so to lose herself. She is alienated from herself when she feels most British, and humiliated when she feels most like a Gael. And so, perpetually, the Gael is torn, rejecting herself to be British…only then to grasp a more terrible vision of her now-scrubbed-clean skin. Here, then, is the terrible difference: because of the colour of her skin, the Gael can allow herself to disappear into the colonial body completely, and become a Highlander … A Gael is forever in combat to remember her own image

The deprivations of the state education system throughout the twentieth century have been a major cause of systematic confusion and inner conflict that many Gaels hold towards our language, culture and sense of identity, causing some of us to express negative attitudes and opinions towards our own culture, or to lose ourselves, as Gaels, completely. These deprivations have been integral to the ‘work of unwearied perseverance and attention’ that the British imperial state has led over two-and-a-half centuries to ‘change the manners of a whole people’, as the SSPCK described its project in 1755. The products of such work include our colonised minds.


[1] In 1974 the British Government defined ‘terrorism’ as ‘the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear’.

[2] The recording can be heard on-line at: and the section begins five minutes and 37 seconds into the recording.

Comments (10)

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  1. George Farlow says:

    Amazingly when we moved to London as kids we didn’t get belted for lapsing into the odd Scots word. In fact they rather liked our accents, often asking us to repeat; not because they didn’t understand but that they just liked to hear us speak. So different from getting belted in Lanarkshire.

    1. Billy Kay tells a story of being raised in Ayrshire – where 364 days a year you would get belted for speaking in Scots, but on Burns Day you’d get a prize.

  2. SleepingDog says:

    I read Sue Palmer’s summary of language acquisition research in her book Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It (2015 edition), particularly in Chapter 5: It’s Good to Talk, where she writes about the early-years immersion in spoken sound (in an extended family, younger members can learn how older adults teach language), involving repeating simple sounds of motherese/parentese, chanting, singing and so on (p123):
    “Old nursery rhymes, songs and jingles may sound nonsensical to contemporary ears, but the reason they’ve been passed through the ages is that they’re ideal for introducing children to the rhythms of language and tuning their ears to language sounds.”
    If children are unable to learn these specific components of language such as phonemes in infancy, they may not be able to speak the language fluently when older, and may also have literacy problems especially with a phonetic script.

    The sad thing is that, even without colonization, children may be less fluent in language by the time they attend school these days for a variety of reasons that Palmer covers in her book (I’m only half way through it). I wonder, though, how much language I really picked up in formal lessons in school, or how much real spoken communication I ever did in class. I agree this is attempted culturicide by terror, and maybe teachers followed some kind of British Empire manual on the subject, but I suspect children generally make a distinction anyway about classroom-speak and out-of-classroom-speak, and it would take additional measures to kill off a language.

    Some Austronesian peoples celebrate the arrival of Christianity as “the Coming of the Light” and appear to accept the bonfires and looting of their cultural treasures (in Māori ‘taonga’ is used for these sacred items often locked up in British museums). Yet the Word can be oppressive indeed:
    ‘The silence is suffocating’: family abuse ‘epidemic’ uncovered in Samoa
    and in some ways reminiscent of Scottish Christian patriarchy, domestic abuse, hypocrisy and cant.

    1. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Sleeping dog, thanks for the good comments and helpful references you have made in both parts of this article – particularly the Maori parallels.

  3. Muiris says:

    Similarly in Ireland, the National School system was instituted in 1831, with a ‘bata scóir’, or ‘mada scóir’, a ‘tally stick’, hung around a child’s neck. The stick was scored, each time the child spoke Gaelic, & punished accordingly at the end of day. Famine, (most notably in 1840s with potato blight, when a million died), & a pattern of emigration, to mainly English speaking places did the rest.

    The same sense of inferiority ‘I thank the grace that has on me smiled, to make me a happy contented English child’ was inculcated. The association of Gaelic with poverty & ultimate ‘uncool’ persisted into political independence. Although not a native speaker, I spoke Gaelic to my children growing up, which ironically was perhaps easier to do living in Britain, than it might have been on my own island.

    1. Charles L. Gallagher says:

      As a youngster holidaying on the family farm in the West of Ireland I remember many happy hours playing with youngsters of my own age who were attending the nearby Irish Gaelic Summer School and became quite proficient at playing Hurling and Gaelic Football, probably where I got my interest in Rugby Union Football a few years later.

  4. Alastair McIntosh says:

    Yesterday I chanced to speak with a former British diplomat about Brexit and the psychologies that drive it. He said “Say Cromwell to any Irish school child over the age of six and they’ll say Drogheda and Wexford. Say Drogheda and Wexford to any British school child and they won’t know what we’re talking about.” He lamented the woeful ignorance of our own history in which we have been kept, the way it has been used by the oligarchic right to displace anger onto Europe, and the consequences of that displacement that much of England hardly understands because the confidence trick pulled on them has been so effective.

  5. William Ross says:


    I read your two articles with interest and with mixed feelings.

    I was raised in the County of Sutherland and my father was from one of the Easter Ross “villages” He was born in 1916 and went to primary school in the 1920s leaving school in the early 1930s. He was raised in a Gaelic -speaking home. His oldest sister, born in around 1905 was fluent in Gaelic but none of the rest of the brood was fluent. They did however use many Gaelic words in their English as well as a great deal of Gaelic idiom. Their parents did nothing to teach them Gaelic and actually used Gaelic to speak in code. In my grandfather`s time they were belted in school for speaking Gaelic. Gaelic was belted out of Easter Ross you can be sure.

    In a strange way, the old people loved Gaelic but saw it as a dying language. As a boy, I became conscious that my father was using words that did not make sense in English. I took an interest and wrote down all the phrases I could find, without any knowledge of Gaelic spelling of course. I will never forget his ringing phrases: Tha mi sgith ( I am tired); that`s the deachainn ( problem) with him; co-th`ann ( who is it); bi sabhach a bhalaich !( be quiet boy!); och amadan! ( o foolish boy) and so on. I got really interested and bought a little book called “Gaelic without Groans” which fascinated me. I spoke with all the old people I could find and at university I hung out with lads from North Uist ( Uibhist a Tuath) and developed a limited speaking ability for ceilidhs etc. Its a difficult language and I get no practice at all here in Aberdeenshire.

    There was no Gaelic teaching in Sutherland in the 1970s but Free Church services were still being put on in Easter Ross into that decade.

    My parents did nothing to encourage me to learn Gaelic. Oh they were very keen on French and Latin. The sense was that Gaelic was a language for funny old poor rustics. ( sounds as if they were Brexiteers!) It reminded me of Lance Corporal Jones who was a character of the same era. The crofters I grew up with were natural comics like ( Dad`s Army) Jones and Frazer. I am so glad that I have my Gaelic experience which is far from perfect. I am now turning to learning it again as my retirement looms. I even for my sins agreed to teach a basic course here under heavy caveat that Willie Ross is not fluent etc. Chan`eil Uilleam fileanta idir!

    Rev W Robertson was, as John Warren pointed out under the first article, a key figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He is mentioned no fewer than 26 times in Arthur Herman`s “The Scottish Enlightenment : The Scots `Invention of the Modern World” He was no bible- bashing know -nothing. There is no doubt that establishment Scotland of that era was fixated on the new British nation and had no positive narrative for Celtic Scotland. As a boy I sensed that, and felt that we were a people defeated and disrespected. I naturally supported the SNP and have done so ever since.

    I think that Robertson`s societal theory is pretty accurate. (” Commerce tends to wear off those prejudices which maintain distinction and animosity between nations”)

    I disagree with almost everything that appears in Bella but I still read it often. Knowing the communities who were robbed of their heritage, I cannot help feel that Highland identity is a basic part of my life. Yet it is not a national identity. It is undeniable that being Highland is in some ways exclusive. My mother from Sutherland moved to the “village” in her later years. She was never really accepted even though she was as Highland as any of them. I myself married a Venezuelan and it almost feels as if she had been with me in these formative days of the 1970s. Outsiders can be accepted but it is not easy.

    I don`t think that marxism would have had any traction with my crofters. They loved their people, their land and their God.They were often uncompromsing.
    ” Take back control” well summarises them. They were the type of “backward” class who would have been slaughtered in the Soviet collectivization.

    Thanks for your writing Iain. Sgriobh a rithist


    1. Dear William, thanks very much for your comment. I really appreciate that you read Bella even though you dont agree with all (or any) of it. The point isn’t to create a space of cosy consensus anyway, that would be a dead space.

    2. Iain MacKinnon says:

      Abair beachd – moran taing.

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