Ghetto na Gàidhlig

2007 - 2022

Gaelic Promotion as Social Justice, Part One: Gaelic as the Language of a Minoritised Community

In the first of a series of articles Adam Dahmer explores the importance of promoting the Gaelic language, in response to some of the anti-Gaelic bigotry and misinformation that still exists.

When I first came to Scotland and began to study Gaelic, my teachers warned me about ‘mì-rùn mòr nan Gall’ – the indifference or outright hatred of many people in Scotland toward the Scottish Gaelic language. My own experience has shown me that such prejudice does indeed exist: many is the time I have disclosed my interest in Gaelic only to be told that I’m wasting my energies studying a ‘dead language’, or that it is wrong of me to speak Gaelic in the Lowlands, as it ‘was never spoken here’. These arguments, of course, are easy to refute: Gaelic is very much alive – spoken by over 50,000 people in Scotland and the global Scottish diaspora, and studied as a conversational language by hundreds of thousands of language learners worldwide. As to the geographical range of the language in what is today Scotland, there are very few places in the North of Britain that haven’t hosted long-term Gaelic communities at one time or another: even Caithness and the Lothians – the historically least-Gaelic regions of mainland Scotland – are dotted with Gaelic-language placenames; and Northumberland’s Holy Island is only ‘holy’ because of the Gaelic-speaking monks who once chose to settle there.

A more discouraging argument against Gaelic is the assertion that Gaelic promotion is somehow nativist. The thinking goes that speaking multiple languages only divides people, and that one’s only possible intent in promoting a specifically ‘Scottish’ language must be to incite the national or racial hatred of Scots against non-Scots. What the people who make this argument fail to understand is that Gaelic promotion is itself a social justice cause – no less than anti-racism, anti-fascism, feminism, or LGBTQ activism – as I hope to explain in this and subsequent articles.

People often liken languages to living things, describing the ones used by ordinary people in daily life as ‘living’, and those either forgotten altogether or learned only by specialists for use in institutional or ceremonial settings as ‘dead’. One important difference between languages and things which are actually alive, however, is that no language ‘dies’ of natural causes, but rather because something happens which causes its speakers to stop using it. In the most benign cases of language ‘death’, the language in question might simply have evolved into distinct vernacular forms so different from the original language that they cease to bear its name, as happened with Latin; but – more often than not – the speech communities of ‘dead’ languages were instead forced to abandon their mother tongues through some sort of coercion. In some cases, this has taken the form of outright genocide: human death, on a grand enough a scale, is more than sufficient to bring about language ‘death’. Less obvious but no less horrific than literal genocide is cultural genocide – the gradual destruction of a people through the unmaking of their cultural institutions by more powerful outsiders. It is cultural genocide to which, over the course of almost a millennium, successive Scottish and then British governments and their citizens have subjected, and continue to subject, the speakers of Scottish Gaelic.

Inevitably, some people balk at the notion of an ongoing genocide by the people of Scotland or the United Kingdom at large against Gaelic speakers. Detractors of the theory point out that there are few if any appreciable cultural differences between members of the Gaelic-speaking community and the ‘average’ citizens of the UK. Ironically, this very observation vindicates the allegation of cultural genocide, since it is only the continual efforts of assimilationist outsiders which have gradually eroded the beliefs and traditions that once made Gaelic culture unique.

At this point, some readers might ask what I, a mere learner of Gaelic, mean by ‘Gaelic-speaking-culture’, and for what purpose – and, for that matter, by what right – I speak in its defense. As it happens, there are many ways to answer that question, of which mine is only one. That having been said, there are many language learners – myself included – who defend Gaelic not only for their own sakes, or for the sake of the language itself, but for the sake of those to whom, by right, the Gaelic language historically belongs, and whose existence as a culturally distinct people depends on its continuation as a ‘living’ language: the Scottish Gaels.

Now, at any mention of the Gaels as a ‘people’, and of Gaelic as the language of the Gaels, some readers begin to feel uncomfortable. Am I saying that an ethnic group can have proprietary rights over a language? Yes, I am. Wouldn’t that perspective imply that only Gaels should be allowed to speak Gaelic? No, it does not. Isn’t that way of thinking essentially fascistic in outlook? No, it is most certainly not, and, in the following paragraphs, I’ll do my best to explain why.

The idea of minoritized communities ‘owning’ aspects of their cultures is well established in social justice discourse: on this foundation rests the concept of cultural appropriation – the reason that white people draw ire for wearing traditionally Black hair styles, and that certain sporting teams in the United States face increasing public disapproval for using ethnic stereotypes of American Indians as their mascots. Believers in social justice judge, rightly, that the Black community ‘owns’ those hairstyles, and can therefore decide who gets to wear them; just as members of the American Indian community have proprietary rights over their traditional regalia and any depictions, however caricatured, of their own bodies. The same logic applies equally well to all cultural artifacts, including languages, that make minoritized communities distinctive. If you belong to a cultural group which has been historically discriminated against, then you have a right to curate how members of more historically dominant cultures use your cultural artifacts, including the way you communicate. British Sign Language, for instance, belongs to the British deaf community. Hearing people may learn to sign, of course, but it would be laughable – not to mention culturally appropriative – for them to consider themselves ‘owners’ of the language in the same way that a member of the deaf community would; or to say, on the basis of having learned the language, that they understood as well as a deaf person what it meant to be deaf.

It would be equally inappropriate for anyone to call a deaf person who reminded a hearing sign-language learner that they were not a stake holder in the deaf community an unjust gatekeeper: their status as a member of a minoritized community means that their decision to defend their cultural property against encroachment or misuse by privileged outsiders would be justified, since it would safeguard the wellbeing of their community. If most members of a minoritized community decide that they want no outsiders at all to use their cultural artifacts without express permission, then people outwith that community are ethically bound to accept that decision. Fortunately, the longstanding consensus among Scottish Gaels is that Scottish Gaelic – for so long in terminal decline – can use all the help it can get in its revitalisation, including the attention of enthusiastic language learners. That doesn’t mean, however, that the language has ceased be the language of the Scottish Gaels, or that they have somehow ceded their cultural rights to the learners.

At this point, some people might object to the suggestion that the Gaels are a minoritized community, or that their struggles are comparable to those of other people for whom the global struggle for social justice exists. Even so, a minoritized community they are: mainstream society, whether in Scotland specifically or in Britain at large, has historically treated them with almost identical prejudice and cruelty to members of any other oppressed minority community in the United Kingdom. By most definitions, they were, in fact, colonized – a process which began almost a thousand years ago, and which has never really abated since. In the next article in this series, I will discuss this colonial process.



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  1. Welsh Sion says:

    Support from Cymraeg/Welsh language activist and professional linguist here with MA in Celtic Studies.

    Glad to have you with us.

    Looking forward to the next installment.

    Cofion cynnes.

    1. Adam Dahmer says:

      Diolch! I’m pleased that you enjoyed it, and I hope you like the next one as well. Also, I appreciate the solidarity!

    2. Adam Dahmer says:

      Diolch! I appreciate the solidarity, and I hope you enjoy rest of the articles in the series, as well!

      1. Adam Dahmer says:

        I see now that I replied twice, lol. I’m still getting the hang of the commenting model. Anyway, I hope at least that the sentiment came through, even if in duplicate 🙂

  2. Dougie Harrison says:

    Many thanks for this Adam, and I look forward to reading more from you in due course. Your presentation has made me see the issues facing Scots Gaelic in a new light.
    I myself know no Gaelic, other than learning the meanings and pronunciations of the mountains I used to climb, and the burns I had to cross to do so, when I was younger and fitter.

    I don’t know the size of Scotland’s other minoritised communities, but suspect there may be as many Gaelic speakers in Scotland as there are trans folk, and maybe totally deaf and blind people too. Which may help some see the minoritisation of Gaelic speakers in a new light?

    1. Adam Dahmer says:

      Thanks, Dougie! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

  3. Cathy says:

    Great article. Although I am a happy Canadian I am only living where I am wonderful as it is because of two deliberately inflicted catastrophes perpetrated on Gaelic-speaking peoples, the Great Hunger and the Highland Clearances. I am trying to reclaim my language even after all this time to be better able to tap into the music literature and history of my ancestors even if I don’t use it in every day conversation.

    1. Adam Dahmer says:

      Hi Cathy! I agree with your sentiments, and I wish you success in reclaiming your ancestral language and culture. What part of Canada do you live in? My wife and I might be moving to Calgary, Alberta in the near future, and we’d love to get in touch with members of the Gaelic community there.

  4. Sìne says:

    “Fortunately, the longstanding consensus among Scottish Gaels is that Scottish Gaelic – for so long in terminal decline – can use all the help it can get in its revitalisation, including the attention of enthusiastic language learners.”

    I would not agree with this statement in an otherwise excellent article, despite myself being an enthusiastic teacher of Gaelic Learners. Some of the ‘help’ has been spectacularly unhelpful and shamefully self-serving. Careers are made on speaking on behalf of the Gaels. There is no longstanding consensus, indeed that is the problem, we’ve never been asked what we think of National Gaelic. We’ve never even had the chance to discuss it among ourselves. We have not been asked if we wished to relinquish control of the future of our native tongue to serve Scotland’s belated desire to have Gaelic as its National Language.

    John Swinney expressed a similar assumption during recent Community engagement meetings, referencing Gaelic’s economic value as Scotland’s number one selling point for visitors. So, the project is perhaps not about saving the language community but about exploiting its language as a resource for others. And we all know that resources are without agency and are instead acted upon.

    Some form of consensus on the way ahead – among Vernacular Gaels – might emerge if Professor O’ Giollagain’s recommendations for the establishment of Urras na Gàidhlig (modelled in the text, Crisis in the Vernacular Gaelic Community, 2020) were to gain its rightful profile in the media. Consensus among Hebridean native speakers would not necessarily go in the direction that you suppose.

    1. Brian says:

      I’ve heard in a few different places that some native Gaelic speakers in Scotland don’t particularly appreciate learners of the language. I’ve seen some clashes on FaceBook between Gaels with differing views on the involvement of “non- Gaels” and concerns over hijacking by Quangos etc of the language. I also spoke to an Englishman a few years back who lived on Lewis and was married to a local and had children who described being told Gaelic wasn’t “for him” by a friend when he had asked the local name for something

      Being Irish and learning Irish (Gaelic) I’ve spent time in the Gaeltacht regions in Ireland where visitors coming to the many colleges as teenagers and adults is a big part of the local economy and really sustains some of these communities. So much so that there was huge concern this year that visitors wouldn’t be able to come due to COVID.

      In these areas the extant Gaelic culture is one of the biggest draws for visitors from the rest of the country and the world to come there. Without the language and associated music and cultural traditions these areas would be poorer economically as well as culturally. Due to this learners from near and further afield are generally seen in a positive light.

      I find the differing situations in communities that share many similar challenges, minoritized language, rural areas, lack of facilities and employment etc quite interesting. I was in Skye recently and sadly as a casual visitor had very Iittle exposure to the language.

      I’d love to see more cooperation between Gaels in Scotland and Ireland and the Isle of Man and more knowledge about the shared culture and history as well as collaboration to ensure that both languages not only continue to survive but actually increase their numbers of speakers.

      1. Sìne says:

        There is no consensus on how we manage our language socially and economically, that is the main point; and, anecdotal accounts of informal engagement do not amount to a generalisable truth about policy or indeed a people and their language.

        External central belt planning by Government and remote academics at national level has driven Gaelic to near-moribundity, and the economic gains that come from Gaelic seldom reach the Native Gaels. Tourism is not actually our raison d-etre, we were here long before the passerine visitors who bring in so much money to the rest of Scotland on their way to tour our land on coaches. Few of us work in the badly-paid and exploitative tourism sector or would ever wish to. We teach, nurse, labour and travel off-shore to make our living. Most of us end up having to leave because land is locked by estates and we cannot build in our own villages. That is the truth of it.

        We would not be poorer culturally or musically without this development as our original arts are deeper and more profound than any of the confected forms that you will see and hear on BBC Alba. We seem to exist in the minds of many as a trope for connecting with something within themselves. It might come a a shock to discover that we actually exist in our own right and for ourselves, the same as every other culture and subculture. We are not entertainment or pastime for others.
        There are too many people, however well-meaning, centring themselves and their own opinions in public discourse about us, while we remain mute and side-lined even in this debate.

        1. Brian says:

          Thanks for the perspective. I wasn’t suggesting that Gaelic areas should be there to provide a holiday or excursion back drop for tourists. I suppose I was just highlighting the different scenarios between two communities with similar but not identical challenges.

          I also wasn’t trying to suggest my limited experience or knowledge was the whole picture of the situation. I was just trying to gauge generally whether the input of people not from the vernacular community is seen as a good or bad thing in general. I suppose like many things it’s all about the way in which people engage and how sensitive or not they are to the wishes of the language community itself.

          I think in Ireland people the Gaeltacht areas also feel like they’ve been neglected by the Dublin based Govt for many years. Seeing reduction in population numbers and emigration etc. The outright hostility that Gaelic seems to face from many quarters of the media and officialdom is thankfully not quite as big a factor.

          I suppose maybe the difference between Scotland and Ireland is the fact that Irish has been given (nominal) official status and it’s symbolic importance to the state means that it is seen as something for all Irish people, native speakers or not. Even if this really only amounts to lip service and real support for the language is hugely lacking.

          As an outsider I understand it’s not my place to determine how the language community respond to the situation. I fully agree that the response should be decided and driven by the vernacular community themselves because it seems clear to me that having a community of non-native learners is not sustainable.

          I’ll continue to watch the situation from afar with interest and hope that Scottish Gaelic not only continues but increases it use as a language of the community.

        2. Anna NicDhòmhnaill says:

          Brilliant comments. I could not agree more. All Gaelic development is totally alienating (for me anyway) and aimed at ‘growing Gaelic.’ I just can’t help thinking what the hell! Imagine being told by people who’ve done a few classes that they’re the big experts in the language. It is so insulting. So I have nothing to do with Gaelic apart from speaking it the odd time to my family.

    2. Adam Dahmer says:

      Deagh phuing! I didn’t mean to imply that Gaels universally approve of the *ways* that learners have chosen to help Gaelic (or to hijack it, as it may be); I only meant that the vast majority of Gaels don’t object to the idea of non-Gaels learning the language. If you disagree, I welcome your engagement, but I suspect that – as long as learners quit trying to control the Gaelic language movement – you wouldn’t mind them learning the language. Does that make more sense?

      1. MacDúchais says:

        “I suspect that – as long as learners quit trying to control the Gaelic language movement – you wouldn’t mind them learning the language.” Where does Sine even infer that? As for learners ‘controlling’ the Gaelic language movement, what do you mean by the ‘language movement’? Pressure groups, like Misneachd? Indeed, how many of its members are native Gaelic speakers from the Gàidhealtachd?

  5. Calum H says:

    What is a Gael? What is a “Native Gael”?

    The article and some of the comments slide between indicating those who simply still speak a language and “a people”, with an implication that “the Gaels” are as distinct a group from their fellow Scots as the Australian Aborigines are from the white Australians.

    What is the difference between
    Mr MacDonald of Skye, who speaks Gaelic and comes from a Gaelic speaking family and Mr MacDonald of Edinburgh whose does not speak Gaelic and whose family hasn’t done so in perhaps 500 years?

    Or, for that matter, Mrs Burns whose family haven’t spoken Gaelic in 700 years?

    They are all Scots. They may register almost identically in an examination of their DNA.

    If Mrs Burns and Mr MacDonald learn Gaelic, are they Gaels? If they pass it in to their children and their grandchildren, are they Gaels?

    1. Adam Dahmer says:

      This is a good question, and one that I attempt to answer in a subsequent article in the series. As I see it, a Gael is someone raised by or adopted by Gaels, whatever their biological ancestry. Learning Gaelic , or having Gaelic ancestry, does not make on a Gael, unless one has been accepted by Gaels as a member of a Gaelic family and/or community. That’s my thinking, anyway, although I would be interested to hear the opinions of those who consider themselves Gaels; I myself am not a Gael – only a learner of Scottish Gaelic.

      1. Brian says:

        In NI there’s a growing number of children being educated in Irish and families being raised in Irish. In the majority of these families the parents will not be native speakers and will have learned Irish in school, night classes or the Gaeltacht. Their children will be raised in an Irish speaking family with an Irish speaking community around them albeit still in its infancy.

        The Irish language movement in NI encompasses people from both sides of the political divide and includes native speakers who have moved to NI, people who may have had Irish speaking ancestors recently or more distantly and those with no ancestors who speak the language.

        Are these people Gaels, are they “Neo-Gaels”, are the parents not Gaels but the children are?

        I’m not saying I have an opinion but it seems to me it’s not a clear cut or easily defined thing. People living in the Gaeltacht/Gàidhealtachd are clearly Gaels. People learning Gaelic solo as a hobby somewhere far flung is probably not. Shades in between are probably harder to be definitive.

        Obviously a lot of that is not applicable to the Scottish situation but I’m interested in the parallels (and disparities) between Éire agus Alba.

        1. Adam Dahmer says:

          Hi Brian! I agree that the case of the language-use movement in Ireland is fascinating, and that there is a grey area. I personally would like to see the term Gael more precisely defined and universally understood, and I think there should be a distinction between Gaelic communities that have transmitted the language organically, and those which where initiated artificially by learners of the language with minimal transmission from native speakers. As it see it, the essential meaning and worth of Gaelic’s revitalisation is rooted in the indigeneity of the Gaels, and that their identity should therefore receive the same respect as those of other indigenous peoples. If I learned Cherokee, for instance, it would be ridiculous for me to claim to be Cherokee., or – if I raised them without input from Cherokees – for my children to claim to be Cherokee. That would be seen as culturally appropriative and wrong. I think it is the same in the Gaelic case, whether in Ireland or in Scotland. I’m all for the creation of intentional communities built to promote Gaelic – in fact, I would like to create one in Kentucky, where I am soon to be living. But I think that we won’t be Gaels, even if we succeed in producing a new generation of native Gaelic speakers. I think that – if the project succeeds – we will opt to call ourselves Gall-Gaels.

      2. Calum H says:

        I personally think that it’s a lot simpler than that. Historically, in Scotland, Gaels were Scots who spoke Gaelic.

        If they were not Scots, but still spoke Gaelic, they would be known as foreign-Gaels. This could continue for several generations because this was a time when ancestry was important.

        In the modern world, such ancestry based definitions would not be tolerated. So perhaps we should return to the simpler original meaning of Gael as a Scot who speaks Gaelic and include “New Scots” who speak Gaelic as “New Gaels”.

        If those who were raised in a family which had been Gaelic speaking for several generations wish to claim some special status among Scots who have chosen to learn Gaelic then perhaps they can do so by other means than laying exclusive claim to the simple linguistic signifier “Gael”.

        Perhaps “Native Gaels”, “Gaels” and “New Gaels”?

        Or the whole minefield could just be avoided and all those who speak Gaelic in Scotland could just called “Gaels”.

        1. Brian says:

          Michael Newton, the Gaelic scholar, writes about Gaelic speaking communities in North America and how it wasn’t unknown for N American indigenous peoples to speak Gaelic and for people of African descent to live in Gaelic communities speaking Gaelic and in some instances becoming well known as singers and musicians. Despite not having any ancestry from Scotland they obviously identified very strongly with Gaelic culture. His point is that Gaelic culture was based on the language and less so on ethnicity. This obviously links in with your comments about “New Gaels”.

          I suppose I have a vested interest in the viewpoint that people who use Gaelic and immerse themselves in the culture can “become” a Gael. I’m learning Irish and want my children to be speakers.

          None of this is to deny the importance of people and communities which have always had Gaelic as their language and despite fierce pressure and discrimination protected and passed on the language and culture.

          1. Calum H says:

            Well I’m sure my opinion has no validity because I have not been “adopted” or “accepted” by any Gaelic speaking community – like some “made guy” in the Mafia or some other exclusive secret society – but I consider Gaelic to be the primary sign of a Gael.

            So, for what it’s worth, I for one would consider you and likely refer to you and your children as Gaels, having acquired Irish Gaelic and cherishing Irish culture.

            But what is my opinion worth?

        2. Adam Dahmer says:

          Hi Calum! I know a lot of people who feel as you do, and I respect that opinion, but I think personally that it would be a very bad idea to make the term ‘Gael’ synonymous with the term ‘Gaelic-speaker’. The Gaels, as I try to point out in the article, are a minoritized indigenous people whose culture historically consisted of more than just their language. I like to make the comparison between Gaels and other indigenous peoples in order to explain my way of thinking on the subject – a comparison which I think is entirely valid. Take the example of the Maori of New Zealand: people who are not Maori can learn the Maori language, but that does not make them Maori. In fact, anyone who didn’t belong to a Maori community but who claimed to be Maori just because they spoke the language would be considered an appropriator of Maori culture. It should be emphasized that this is not racial or genetic essentialism – a white, Black, or Native American person could be considered Maori, but only if they were raised or adopted by Maori. It’s not about blood at all, and it isn’t entirely about language – instead, indigenous ethnic identity has to do with the transmission of the target culture intergenerationally within families and communities. It doesn’t matter whether the ties that bind those families and communities together are by blood or adoption, but they cannot be synthesized by non-community members through adult language learning alone: once they’re broken, they’re broken beyond repair – and that’s why it’s so important not to let them break in the first place. Holding the Gaels to a different standard than that to which other indigenous peoples are held undermines the status of the Gaels as indigenous, and should therefore be avoided, since the indigeneity of the Gaels is the ethical foundation on which the validity of the whole project of language revitalization rests.

          It should be emphasized that this doesn’t mean that learners are somehow ‘lesser than Gaels’ or ‘worthless’ by comparison to Gaels – it’s just that they are not Gaels, and, as such, they should remember that the movement to revitalize Gaelic, if it is to be ethical, exists not for their sake, but for the sake of Gaels. For them to do otherwise is inherently disrespectful to Gaelic culture. That’s my thinking, anyway. Does my point make sense, and do those arguments appeal to you?

          1. Calum H says:

            Hi Adam, thanks for replying.

            You ended by asking if your arguments made sense and appealled to me.

            I’ll try not to be harsh but due to the fact that I find the arguments highly offensive, I don’t find them appealling, no.

            Let me explain. The Gaels are not ‘a minoritized indigenous people’. And it’s this false belief that is, in my opinion, skewing your entire perspective.

            In another article you pointed out that Scotland was created by and ruled by Gaels and that Gaelic was once the language of almost all Scotland. You also pointed out that Scotland means the “Land of the Gaels”. So we can say that ‘Scot’ originally meant ‘Gael’. Likewise, the Gaelic Language was once called the ‘Scottish’ language. Keeping that clearly in mind might help, so I shall refer to Gaels as ‘Scots’ and their language as ‘Scottish’ in this reply.

            You make a comparison to the Maori and the Cherokee. In both cases, the lands of these peoples were invaded and stolen by settlers from another ‘race’, from another culture, from another continent who then suppressed their native culture and language and imposed their own.

            This is utterly different from what happened in Scotland. Here, from the 11th century, Gaelic leaders voluntarily courted foreign influence and culture and set about transforming their own Gàidhealtachd – Scotland. This internal process continued for the next millennium, or at least up to the Union, until, only a little more than 200 years ago, Gaelic finally retreated from the Lowlands and passed behind the Highland Line where it continued its retreat, until this day. There were no foreign invaders, no other “people” to oppress the Gaelic “people”. It was an internal process among one “people” – the Scots.

            Of course, some white New Zealander learning the Maori language does not make them Maori – because there is a ‘racial’ element to Maori identity. You claim it’s not about ‘blood’ but for a non Maori to ‘become’ Maori they they would have to be adopted by people – not just with Maori language and culture – but with Maori ‘blood’. Even then, because of their European ancestry, they would likely never be fully accepted by all Maori due to this racial element.

            You say “it’s not about blood at all… indigenous ethnic identity has to do with the transmission of the target culture intergenerationally within families and communities… once [those ties] are broken, they’re broken beyond repair.”

            Yet a Maori living outside the Maori community, raised without their ancestral language or culture, is still Maori. A Cherokee is still Cherokee. According to your criteria, that identification should be withheld from them, as you would withold it from the Scots, even if they learn the language. But it is not witheld.

            Returning to Scotland. Seeing as the Scots were Gaels and and the Gaelic language was “Scottish” then the Gaelic language and identity belongs to the Scots and to Scotland. We don’t call all Scots Gaels because it’s a linguistic identifier. Today, Scots are not Gaels until they also speak Gaelic.

            The “indigenous people” of Scotland are the Scots. To claim that ‘Gaels’ are indigenous is to imply that other Scots are not, which is absurd, wrong and incredibly offensive. The Gaels are Scots who still speak Gaelic. It is the language which is indigenous. Gaels are not “a people”, the Scots are “a people”, the Gaels are those Scots who still speak Gaelic and, I would argue, those Scots who learn their own indigenous language, the oldest “Scottish” language – Gaelic.

          2. Adam Dahmer says:

            Hi Calum! I thank you for your frankness, but I disagree strongly with your views, on a number of points.

            In the first place, I think that it is entirely valid to place the Gaels within the framework of indigeneity. Their existence as a people long pre-dates the construct of whiteness, and should not be viewed though the lens of modern race. While the Gaels, since the time of their partial absorption into the Anglophone linguistic and cultural mainstream, have been considered white, and have themselves been complicit in the processes of imperialism and colonialism, this does not negate the fact of their own victimization by these same processes. The Gaels have every right to assert their own indigineity – at least in Scotland – and all non-Gaels have every obligation to support them in making that assertion.

            Secondly, I must insist that there is no such thing as the ‘Scottish people’, at least in a cultural sense. The Scots were a people when that term referred concretely to the Gaels, but have not been since. In its modern sense – referring only to the various cultural groups which today happen to co-exist under the administration of the Scottish government – the Scots do not constitute a national or cultural unity. To say that the Scots are a people makes no more sense than saying that the Americans or the Canadians are a people; to do so conflates identity based on state administration with identity based on cultural affiliation. Gaelic is a language of Scotland, yes, but it is *the* language of the Scottish Gaels. It belongs to them more than it belongs to non-Gaelic Scots, and that is as it should be.

            Thirdly, I reject completely the assertion that the Gaels voluntarily surrendered Gaelic culture in the Lowlands. What you see as one nation (the Scots) willingly abandoning their lamguage and culture in half of their territory; I see as the creation of two nations (the Gaels and the Lowland Scots) – one of which, from its inception, behaved antagonistically toward its antecedent. In any case, what precipitated the decline of Gaelic in the Lowlands were the machinations of the Scottish royals following the reign of Malcolm III and Queen Margaret. The monarchy divested itself of Gaelic cultural attributes in favour of English cultural attributes; the general populace in the areas where the royals held sway was compelled by various means to follow the example of the royals; and then, over time, the Lowlanders – now no longer embracing a Gaelic identity because of having been culturally Anglicized, but unwilling to fully embrace an English identity – became a separate ethnic group from the Scottish Gaels. By the early modern period, what had been one nation of Scots (Gaels) had become two nations – Highland Scots (Gaels) and Lowland Scots (Non Gaels) – the latter of which began to subject the former to cultural genocide. The abandonment of a people’s national identity is seldom if ever a choice. Had the Gaels truly had unfettered agency, they and their language would have never declined at all in Scotland.

            Finally, I take strong issue with the assertion that any genetic descendent of a given ethnic group is biologically entitled to claim membership in that ethnic group, with or without any cultural affiliation to the ethnic group in question. In the US at least, the blood quantum system was nothing more than a terrible injustice imposed on indigenous Americans by their colonial oppressors, and has had innumerable unfortunate consequences. One of these is that any number of US residents claiming to be ‘part Indian’ in any degree (many of whom also simultaneously claim a white identity) often represent themselves as cultural ambassadors of people to whom they have no cultural connection. I stand by the assertion that if you weren’t raised by or adopted by a family or community of a given ethnic group, you cannot legitimately claim to belong to that ethnic group. State-based and race-based definitions of group identity have clearly interposed themselves in these calculations in the views of some people, but I for one refuse to be swayed. The idea of the nation – in the sense of a people of a common cultural heritage – existed long before the modern conception of either states or races, and it is at the level of the nation, in this original sense, that culture thrives. The Scots are not a nation, but the Gaels in Scotland are. The Canadians are not a nation, but the Mi’kmaq in Canada are. Each of these nations, like all nations, has a national right to its cultural commodities, including its language, and that right is not conferred by blood, but the intergenerational familial and communal transmission of the cultural attributes themselves.

            So, that’s my thought on the subject. You’re welcome to contest it, but I doubt we’ll find much common ground: my opinion on the matter of the indigeneity of the Scottish Gaels and their status as a nation is firmly decided.

  6. Calum H says:

    The Gaels lack of a separate indigenous status has absolutely nothing to do with their being white. Nothing whatsoever.

    It’s to do with the fact that – by whatever measure one uses – they are the same people as the rest of the Scottish nation and are only indigenous by virtue of being part of that Scottish nation. They are, perhaps, the most linguistically and culturally indigenous segment of the Scottish nation, due to the fact that what is oldest and most distinct about the Scots survived longest among this section of Scotland’s population. That is what defines them. That’s all.

    If there is no such thing as “the Scottish People” then there can be no such thing as “The Gaels”, for they are the same. What the Gaels are, the Scots in general were and what the Scots are, I assure you the Gaels soon will be (unless the Scottish nation effectively intervenes). Likewise, if the Scottish nation intervenes and the Gaels respond as true stewards of the Scottish legacy, and not as possessive hoarders of it, many more Scots will become what the Gaels are.

    This flexibility is not possible in the other indigenous models you referred to, because they are not remotely the same, and really do involve two separate”nations”. Not so in Scotland.

    Gaelic is a language of Scotland and it is *a* language of the Gaels. They speak English, just as other Scots do. They are indistinguishable from other Scots except by an ability to speak that Scottish language – something which any other Scot can learn to do. There are some few Scottish Gaels who are stewards of a deeper more ancient Scottish culture, but they are few and far between, and hard to find among the thousands of ordinary hard working Scottish men and women of the Gàidhealtachd who sigh and curse while on hold with BT, who make playlists on their iPod, who fret over bills, and who put their kids paintings on their fridge. Ordinary Scots, but the last of the Scots who, as well as speaking English, also speak the original Scottish language.

    I agree that the Lowland Gaels did not willingly surrender their language or culture – their Gaelic leaders did, and they had little choice in the matter, being able to eat and surviving being more pressing issues for them, in any case. I never meant to suggest it was willingly done, except by Gaelic rulers (and even then, I see intense external pressure driving this process – but that’s another story).

    What I do reject as absurd is the notion that this process created “two nations”. This is old and thoroughly debunked propaganda. It was originally formulated by the Scottish ruling class to escape the sneers and accusations of barbarism by their southern neighbours. Desperate to be seen as equal they began to “other” native Scottish culture and pretend it had nothing to do with them in their representations to the English and other nations. This notion was later taken up by Unionists as propaganda designed to weaken the cohesion of the Scottish nation – ‘Divide and Rule’ – and help render it assimilable by the British state. This coincided with popular English racial myths which offered the Scots a choice, do you want to be part of the master race or a noble savage? A a Teuton or a Celt? Ambitious chancers in the Scottish power centres opted for for the former, and insisted Lowland Scotland be dragged into it with them, without choice. Of course, it had nothing to do with the truth. Further, the Romantics made being a noble savage all the rage, so that these beads and baubles suddenly rocketed in value and the Highland Cult was born.

    You appear to have swallowed every version of these Highland/Lowland myths and it’s Unionist propaganda hook line and sinker and are lost, entranced and delirious deep in noble savage territory. You have swallowed the “othering” of the Lowland Scots (every good fable needs a villain, with which to contrast our hero, right?) and blame them for what they had no power or part in but what Scottish rulers did – rulers almost as alien to ordinary Lowland Scots as they were to Highland Scots.

    Of course, your polarised fantasy is destroyed by the fact that there were still native Lowland Gaels living a few miles from the border in the late 18th century, many likely still alive in the 19th century.

    Finally, as a matter of practicality, your take on these issues, if they were somehow to gain traction, would deal a death blow that would see the rapidly accelerated end of the Gaelic language in Scotland. This is because It is so exclusive, elitist and inherently offensive to the Scots in general. Yet without their financial support, goodwill and active participation, Gaelic is utterly doomed.

  7. MacDúchais says:

    The trouble with your argument, which boils down to “there are many language learners – myself included – who defend Gaelic not only for their own sakes, or for the sake of the language itself, but for the sake of those to whom, by right, the Gaelic language historically belongs”, is that you are seeking to control a narrative that is patently not your own. You have taken the narrative of native speakers and have made it your own. As a result, native speakers may not in fact recognise what you’re saying in their name. Don’t you feel that such narratives are best left to members of the group in question? Would it not be more authentic to pursue your own narrative as a learner, and which is very different from that of a person born and brought up speaking Gaelic? You’re trying to authenticate your own narrative by appropriating – and I use the word advisedly – the native Gael’s narrative. Your own narrative can exist in parallel, in a complementary fashion, and not detract from that of the Gaelic community.

    1. Calum H says:

      The authors narrative literally requires that he appropriate in order “authenticate his own narrative” due to the fact that he insists that there must be some kind of “intergenerational transmission” or adoption into some lineage from a true Gael in order for a non-Gael to “become a Gael”.

      Having apparently received such an anointing, the author feels empowered to speak on behalf of Gaels, to declare who is and who can never be a Gael, and to spread authentic Gaelic culture in his home in the US.

      It’s the the Highland Cult on peyote.

  8. Dave Ward says:

    Gaelic was prominent in Northumbria under Oswald as well.
    ‘At Heavenfield on Hadrian’s Wall, where they had camped the night before battle and where a vision of Colm Cille had inspired Oswald’s victory, the returning king had raised a cross, a sign that his kingdom would embrace the church. Within a year he sent to Iona for a bishop and Aidan, a towering figure in the early English church, founded his modest but highly significant church on Lindisfarne. Such was Oswald’s authority as a warrior and Christian king that most of the English kingdoms recognised him as their overlord and followed his royal example by converting. Oswald’s attachment to the Christian god and his bishop was absolutely genuine and thoroughly Irish in spirit. Oswald sat at the Bishop’s side translating his Gaelic prayers into English; there was no suggestion of Aidan bathing in regal glory, and when a later king gave him a horse he promptly donated it to a poor man he met on his travel’
    It was one of the languages used at the Synod of Whitby.

    1. Calum H says:

      Indeed several generations of the Northumbrian Kings and royal family were Gaels.

  9. Colm Ó Broin says:

    Fluent learner of the Irish language here, this looks like an attempt to transpose the Native-Non Native divide in America to Scotland.

    The situation in Scotland & Ireland is more like that within the Maori, Cherokee etc communities where the majority of people don’t speak the native language of their communities, your argument would be like saying a Maori person who learns the Maori language as an adult has no right to call themselves Maori.

    Trying to foist an ethnic identity on a group that doesn’t see itself as an ethnic group is as problematic as denying an ethnic group that status if it is what they want.

    And as for saying there is no such thing as the Scottish people – that is both offensive and absurd.

    What exactly is the point in this argument, how will creating division help the language in any way.

    For the record I’ve never really used the term ‘Gael’ to describe myself, usually just cainteoir Gaeilge or Gaeilgeoir – but I think the more people say I’m not allowed use it the more inclined I will be to use it : – )

    1. Calum H says:

      Well said Colm. Good to hear an Irish perspective – and a little sanity – on this shared issue.

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