2007 - 2021

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.

Comments (17)

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  1. Michael says:

    A very interesting read.

    I think the the ongoing implications of the following paragraph can’t be overstated. We are still living with the consequences of the opportunity and freedom from feudalism that the colonies provided, and the terrible price paid by the people of those lands. It is why so many of us have such a connection and love of, and ambivalence towards, the U.S., Australia etc.

    “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.”

  2. Achmacath mac 'ille Motha says:

    I think this paper falls into a trap of accepting the divide and rule approach adopted by centralised UK and Scottish Governments by swallowing the Highlands = Gaelic, Lowlands = Teutonic line. Gaelic was spoken until at least 1600 in Galloway and Carrick, maybe quite a bit later. Carrick ladies (at least some whose names are recorded) insisted on using ‘nic’ ‘daughter’ instead of ‘mac’ in their personal names as late as 1781, eg Anne nicClure and Grace nicCandlish 1771. In the ‘Flyting of Dunbar and Kenndie’ we see Walter Kennedie, a Gaelic speaker defend Gaelic and the SW Gàidhealtachd against Anglo-Scot Dunbar in a way that was noticeably absent further north at the time.
    Indeed it is probably that Gaelic has a longer history in the Rhinns of Galloway than on Lewis. It is clear that the place-names of the former are far more straightforward Gaelic (albeit anglicised) than those of the latter.
    The reasons for the demise of the Gaelic language in the SW Gàidhealtachd were probably a bit different from those that prevailed further north, the extreme cold in the late seventeenth century supposedly killed off/drove out a lot of upland Gaels, to be replaced by Scots speakers as tenants eventually but I think the reformation and the English bible was the main thing.

  3. O Connor Sean says:

    Fascinating article .Sad to hear of the forced erosion of an ancient and cultured civilisation . It still survives in music,dancing,literature, revival of the language etc and will gradually resurrect due to its quality and meaningfulness and innate spirituality.

    1. Achmacath mac 'ille Motha says:

      Oh really? Meanwhile intergenerational transmission of the language has almost stopped in the Western Isles. It is being taught in small numbers in schools, most of whose pupils don’t use it out of class or after they leave school.
      Apart from that the revival is going really well!

      1. O Connor Sean says:

        Achmacath, I note your frustration but it’s such a complex question. The position in Rep of Ireland is very similar to what you have outlined for Scotland . I am supposedly fluent in Irish (Gaeilge) after doing all my secondary school education through Irish. However when I was at secondary school the Gaeilge was forced onto us -corporal punishment was widely in use and the vast majority of my peers ended up having very ambivalent feelings about our native language ! It’s good to see nowadays corporal punishment is banned and most children that study and speak Gaeilge do so because they have a genuine interest and desire to do so. My generation proved that you cannot coerce people into speaking a language . I listen to my son and daughter and 2 grandchildren whose primary interest is Irish Music but who have a desire to speak some Gaeilge . I am wise enough to see I cannot force them to a love of their native language I can only encourage and enable them .

        1. Achmacath mac ille Motha says:

          Sean, I appreciate your comments. I used to go to Eire to meet work colleagues from time to time and they spoke Irish like I spoke French (having been a very imperfect student at secondary school). I never heard an Irish conversation there in any of my visits.
          My concern is that Gaelic is being reduced to a kind of recreational (middle class?) affectation taken up by those with some time to spare, perhaps an interest in music or whatever. Meanwhile the last native speakers are (largely) voting with their mouths and by refusing to pass it on to their kids and driving the final nail into the language’s coffin as a real spoken community language
          The reasons why this is happening are probably complex and linked in part at least to some of the points in the article above. But make no mistake this language (as a spoken community tongue, not a curio) is on its way out unless something drastically changes and fast.
          I read recently that there are only 18,000 habitual users of Irish Gaelic, not many more than habitual users of Gaelic in Scotland. That is a cataclysmic failure on the part of the Irish State.

  4. Seunas says:

    The United Kingdom did not exist in 1688.
    England and Scotland were separate kingdoms with their own parliaments until 1707, Ireland until 1801. So there were no UK forces. They were Scottish forces acting against their own people. None of that of course excuses the actions of William, but historical anachronisms are to be avoided

  5. Robin Turner says:

    I think the United kingdom did not exist in year 1668.

  6. MacNaughton says:

    Sorry, but this is really a very poor history of the decline of Gaelic Scotland, full of totally unfounded assertions with no references or citations and sprinkled with factual errors…

    If Gaelic Scotland needs another spokesperson, I’m afraid it isn’t this author of the above article if this piece is anything to go by….

    1. MacNaughton says:

      The whole philosophy of this piece is full of flawed thinking. The Lowland Scots of 13th or 14th didn’t think about this national identity or that, because such an idea simply didnt exist at the time. That too is a modern invention which requires a modern State to exist.

      Most likely many would have been multilingual, because that is the most frequently the case in human history. Monolingualism is an invention of the modern nation State and it’s education system. The natural state in 14th Scotland would likely have been be illiterate multilingualism

      Our ancestors back then had never so much as seen a map to know what Scotland even looked like, likewise, there was nothing recognizably like the State. There was the crown and the church and the clan chief or factor. And lots of warring factions.

      Likewise the idea that the 45 rising was about the Gaels trying to assert some kind of control over their lives…well, the clan system was a feudal system in which the clansmen were given the means of sustenance in return for their military services. The author paints the picture of the clansmen of the 45 rationally deciding to rise up, when the reality is that they were entirely dependent on what their clan chief decided which often would ride in what was in it for them personally, or else what they they felt compelled to do because of the oaths taken to the Stewart dynasty.

      There is no mention either in this article of, say, the fact that clan Campbell, the most powerful clan along with the MacDonalds, always sided with the British State and the crown…

      We are very fortunate in Scotland to have such first rate historians as Tom Devine and in the case of the Highlands, James Hunter whose “Last of the Free” is a superb book…

  7. MacNaughton says:

    Also, to talk of the Gaels being “victims of cultural genocide” is highly contentious, especially when it comes from a non-gael.

    Firstly, do the Gaels see themselves as victims of cultural genocide? I have never heard a Gael say as much. The Gaels have been culturally oppressed and to a large extent colonized, but colonization and oppression is not the same thing as genocide which arguably cannot take an adjective of any kind.

    Most importantly of all perhaps, the Highlands have suffered depopulation, like much of rural Europe. But there has never been a mass act of book burning of Gaelic texts, say, which is what a cultural genocide would look like I reckon.

    The word “genocide” has a very specific history and usage. It came into usage specifically to describe the horrors of Nazi Germany and the attempt to liquidate European Jews and became a recognizable crime only at the Nuremberg trials. Under international law, genocide has a very specific definition and it is not just the same thing as mass murder.

    To mix it up with the cultural oppression and standardization which happened in many European countries from the 19th century on as a direct result of the rise of the Nation State is a serious mistake and loose talk…

    1. Gashty McGonnard says:

      In case you haven’t seen it, MacNaughton, the author gives an explanation of where he’s coming from with the ‘genocide’ idea in the previously published (here) part of this article. My take on all of this is somewhere between yours and his — I think he makes a reasonable case for his choice of words though, right or no.

      1. MacNaughton says:

        I think I might well have used the expression ‘cultural genocide’ in the past to describe what has happened to Gaelic Scotland, so I understand where the author is coming from and share his basic sympathies about the matter.

        But I think genocide is the wrong word. There would have to have been a mass organized attempt to liquidate any expression of Gaelic culture for it to constitute genocide. That never happened. What happened is what we would call today “cultural appropriation”. You know, Lowlanders like Walter Scott helped themselves to Highland culture and adapted it to their own ends for a State which was simultaneously throwing thousands of Gaels off their land and ridiculing and suppressing authentic 19th century Gaelic culture…

        1. Domhnall says:

          I respectfully disagree. I think a major point in this debate I was the rise of racism. Racism as we know it today was not always around. However it was something that developed and the Gaels were definitely seen as an inferior race. There are many examples of Scotti h newspapers ( even the Up Inverness Courier) debating what to do about the Gaels. Replacing them with teutonic German farmers seen as a solution. Racism against Gaels is well documented and widespread through the sources. It was on a part with racism against the Irish cut ll asted well into the 20 the century . Supremacism of the teutonic people has been a real threat for a long time. It was widespread thought across Europe and the UK and beyond for centuries now. The white man’s burden. Gaels were white but they weren’t thought of as properly white. Part of a doomed culture and people. The noble savage. All rehashed Roman propaganda. …..it was cultural genocide because the same supremacist principles applied. It was seen as inferior and so something you encouraged to die out. Just as eugenicists saw inferior races to be killed off or at least not encouraged. People sterilised etc. Genocide can be used in my opinion because the sentiment of supremacism and everything else being deemed something to be weeded out and killed off stands.

  8. O Connor Sean says:

    Unfortunately have to agree with you Achmacath -over here its dying . Our young people here are very Americanised from films,music,fashion etc and its difficult to see a way back/forward. Maybe when Scotland is a Republic and our 2 countries become more intrinsically linked there could be a “jump” factor to spur interest in Gaelic identity ?

  9. Calum H says:

    ” by the late 1300s, almost the whole of the Scottish Lowlands had given up Gaelic in favour of Middle English”

    Oh my God. Desperately, woefully wrong. You are off by many centuries.

    Nothing works against the preservation of Gaelic more than falsely telling the Scottish people that they have not spoken it for the best part of 1000 years.

  10. Calum H says:

    It’s interesting that while asserting the victimhood of “the Gaels” this article totally “others” those it claims are the victimizers, so that one would imagine some other, external force in Scotland which “did this” to “the Gaels”. In fact it was an internal process.

    Scottish Gaels intermarried with foreign royal dynasties and sought assistance and support from foreign agents, whom they accorded “favoured status”. The children and grandchildren of these Royal Gaels built burghs in Scotland and seeded a different language across the land. Gaels did this to their own Gàidhealtachd – for as the article also notes Scotland means ‘The Land of the Gaels’ – and thus they, the Gaels, began its transformation.

    The neat trick in creating this sense of a big bad “other” is how the word “Gael” is used. When Scots who speak Gaelic – Gaels – such as 11th century Scottish Kings contribute to the decline of Gaelic they are called “Scottish”, so that we have “Scottish” people oppressing “Gaels”, despite the fact both parties were Gaels.

    If these “Scots” stop using Gaelic they are called “Lowlanders” (despite the fact they still lived in the Lowlands when they were “Gaels”), so now “Lowlanders” (formerly Gaels) can be said to oppress “Gaels”. Of course, this rule doesn’t apply in the Highlands, where they too can lose Gaelic and speak English for centuries but somehow still live in “An Ghàidhealtachd” and can lay claim to the Gaelic identity – explain that one to me.

    I’ve already pointed out that the claim that the Lowlands were no longer Gaelic speaking by the 1300’s is utterly false. The Bruce, a Gaelic speaker, was writing to the Irish at this time speaking of “Nostra Natio” – “our nation”, the Gaelic nation of the Scots and the Irish and speaking of them being united by the same language and national ancestry. In the 16th century we have Kennedy, a Lowland poet from south of the Forth Clyde line, a native Lowland Gael, describing Gaelic as the language of every true Scotsman. And we know that Gaelic did not disappear from Lowland areas south if the Forth Clyde line until the very late 18th century, if not the early 19th.

    So, given the Lowland Gael Kennedy’s comments in the 16th century, what are we to make not only of the claim that Gaelic was confined to the Highlands by the 1300’s but the many bold asserions about what “Lowlanders thought”.

    Mind reading is not part of historical research and gross generalisations should have no part in it either.

    You have no idea what “Lowlanders thought”. You might have some clue what a certain highly privileged class based in Lowland power centres may have thought – who were almost as alien to ordinary Lowland Scots as they were to Highland Scots – but no clue what the ordinary Lowland Scot thought. Yes this article assigns negative beliefs, attitudes and motivations to Lowland Scots about “Gaels” as if they were some homogenous lump and a clear cut “other”, despite the fact that they were formerly Gaels and many still were Gaels. The article claims “Lowlanders … came to see themselves … “, “Lowlanders” believed … “, “Lowlanders despised”.

    It’s sterotyping, othering tripe. Stereotripe.

    The closest thing we have to an authentic Lowland voice of ordinary Lowland Scots is that of the common Lowland poets, like Burns and Hogg. Show me the claimed hatred of Gaels there. Where is it?

    Assigning negative beliefs and ‘hatreds’ to others is often a way of masking and projecting our own prejudices.

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