Gaelic Promotion as Social Justice, Part 2: The Gaels as Victims of Cultural genocide
In the last article in this series (‘Gaelic Promotion as Social Justice, Part One: Gaelic as the Language of a Minoritised Community’), I argued that the Scottish Gaels constitute a minority ethnic group that has been continuously subjected since the Middle Ages to an ongoing process of cultural genocide. In this article, I will recount the story of that genocide, demonstrating that the decline of the Gaels and their language in Scotland did not happen coincidentally, but rather as the result of a series of deliberate decisions by people either indifferent to or malicious toward Gaelic community.
Most historians agree that the decline of Gaelic in Scotland began with the marriage of the Scottish King Malcolm III to the English princess Margaret of Wessex in the late eleventh century. Until that point, Gaelic had served as the primary civic and administrative language of Scotland since the kingdom’s founding in around 900 AD. The modern name of the country reflects these Gaelic origins: the term ‘Scot’ comes from the Latin word Scotus, meaning Gael; thus, the Latin name ‘Scotia’ and its Scots- and English-language counterpart ‘Scotland’ both mean ‘The Land of the Gaels’. With Queen Margaret, however, came an influx of Anglo-Saxon nobility fleeing the Norman conquest of England, whose favoured status with the royals led to the abandonment of Gaelic at court and among the clergy. These developments, along with extensive royal encouragement of trade with English and Low Country merchants in the Central Belt and along the East Coast, meant that by the late 1300s, almost the whole of the Scottish Lowlands had given up Gaelic in favour of Middle English – the ancestor of the modern Scots language.
During this time period – between about 1350 and 1500 – the Lowland Scots underwent a cultural shift in the way they viewed themselves and the Gaelic language. Before this period, the vast majority of Scottish people, even in the Lowlands, had considered themselves, as Scots, to have a Gaelic cultural identity, and had looked on Gaelic as the Scottish national language, even if they themselves could no longer speak it. By the end of the period, however, the Lowlanders had almost universally come to see themselves as both culturally distinct from the Gaels, and as the most culturally ‘Scottish’ ethnic group in Scotland. They began to call their own language not Inglis (English), as they had done previously, but Scots (Scottish); and to label the language of the Gaelic Highlanders not Scottish, as they had done previously but Erse (Irish). Thus, the Scottish Gaels came to be looked on as foreigners in the country they had founded, and increasingly had to endure the contempt of their non-Gaelic countrymen.
For much of the period of Gaelic’s decline in the Lowlands, it had continued to thrive in the Scottish Hebrides, where the Lordship of the Isles – a hybrid Norse-Gaelic polity only nominally subordinate to the Scottish Crown – had become the great standard bearer of Scottish Gaelic culture. However, in 1493, the Scottish state destroyed the Lordship of the Isles, throwing the Western Isles and coastal Highlands into more than a century of political chaos. Although the ensuing lawlessness resulted directly from the actions of the Scottish government, it lent credence to the growing belief among Lowlanders that the Gaels were uncouth barbarians.
After the Protestant Reformation in the mid-sixteenth century, the new religion spread more slowly in the Highlands than in the Lowlands, giving Lowlanders a further excuse to despise Gaelic because of its new associations with religious dissent. In 1609, the Scottish Parliament passed the Statutes of Iona – laws requiring, among other things, that the Highland aristocracy educate their children in English in the Lowlands, outlaw the patronage of Gaelic poets in their territories, and install Protestant ministers from outwith the Highlands in their local parishes. In those districts where they were enforced, these edicts had a ruinous effect on Gaelic culture, impoverishing and expelling the bardic intelligentsia, alienating political leaders from the language of their people, and giving over the pulpit to hostile strangers who looked on the Gaels as their inferiors.
Persecution of the Gaels only intensified in 1688 with the ascension of William of Orange to throne of the United Kingdom. It was under William’s regime that government forces of the UK orchestrated the massacre of the MacDonalds at Glencoe, and that occupying British soldiers erected Fort William in the Highlands in order to better subdue the region’s Gaelic inhabitants.
The Scottish Gaels’ last stand as a semi-self-governing people took place in the mid-1700s. With the British Crown’s transition from the House of Orange to the House of Hanover in 1714, many Gaels thought – in desperation, and probably wrongly – that they might get a reprieve from state persecution if they succeeded in restoring the Stuart monarchy. Consequently, Gaelic Highlanders rallied in large numbers to the banner of James VII and his son Charles in the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745. The final defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden in 1746 gave the government the opportunity to deal an almost fatal blow against Gaelic culture in Scotland. The Highlands came under renewed military occupation, and the 1746 Act of Proscription and related acts of Parliament forbade the Gaels from bearing arms and from wearing their traditional styles of clothing. Further legislation greatly reduced the political influence of the Gaelic leadership by abolishing the traditional rights and responsibilities of the Highland aristocracy, changing their role from chieftains who had seen their clans-folk as extended family members to landlords who saw their dependents as rent-paying tenants. Beginning in the 1750s, many of these landlords calculated that it would be more cost-effective to graze sheep on their lands than to collect rent, and commenced to evict the tenantry en masse. The lairds and their agents often coerced householders into abandoning their homes by subjecting them to potentially lethal violence, such as by ruthlessly beating evictees, or by burning their houses – sometimes with the occupants still inside.
Meanwhile, the Society in Scotland for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge had set about establishing schools in the Highlands with the aim of forcing the local children to culturally assimilate to the British mainstream. Numerous Gaelic families have passed down stories of relatives who were mocked or beaten for using Gaelic at school, and in consequence of these and similar policies, Gaelic-use was effectively banished from the public domain.
Ironically, one of the few chances for material advancement available to Gaels in this dark period lay in either seeking employment with the British armed forces, or acting as ‘settlers’ in the British colonial project – thereby participating in two of the institutions, militarism and colonialism, which were foremost in responsibility for the degradation of the Gaels themselves as a people.
For those Gaels who, against the odds, did manage to remain in the Highlands, their world continued to collapse around them. Over-grazing by sheep and red deer turned the once semi-forested Highlands into a treeless wasteland dotted here and there with the crumbling foundations of villages destroyed in the Clearances. Meanwhile, the rents only rose, and the gradual recategorization of the Gaels as British citizens did little to preserve their culture. Though they might no longer have been thought of as ‘savage’, their way of life still was, and it was judged that the process of ‘civilising’ the Highlanders would not be complete until they thought and spoke only in English – a belief seemingly held by a disturbing number of Scottish people even today.
In the next article in the series, I will explore the phenomenon of anti-Gaelic bigotry, and attempt to refute some of the most common arguments in its favour.