Highland games, the Mod, Sir Walter Scot and
English blamed for distorting the true picture of the intellectual Gael
By Noel Young
As if the
Clearances were not bad enough, the Highland calamity continues to be
compounded by a view of the glens as home to woad-painted savages,
lawless thugs and bloodthirsty MacMafiosi.
It is time to get real
about genuine Highland heritage in the post-Braveheart era, and to
recognise that Gaelic culture was at the forefront of literature,
medicine and European law long before English began to crawl from the
linguistic slime and evolve out of Anglo-Saxon.
A millennium before Mel
Gibson was cheekily mooning at the English army, it was apparently Gaels
who brought literacy to the north of England in an earlier, altogether
more civilised cultural exchange.
So says a US-based
scholar of such ethnography, with a mission to challenge some Highland
myths. Dr Michael Newton is not short of people to blame for this
ethnocide: the Duke of Cumberland at Culloden, Walter Scott, the
Victorians, Hollywood and even Highland games. This revisionist take on
Highland heritage is to be the focus of a conference, which Newton is
organising, at the University of Richmond in Virginia. He plans to show
the Highlander as having a legitimate culture and intellectual
I am tired of the
Hollywood image now being peddled of the Highlander as a woad-painted
noble savage, he said. And I am irked by people talking about Gaelic
having only an oral tradition. The Gaels were literate before the
English and actually brought literacy to the northern English.
Some 1302 years before
the European Convention of Human Rights was incorporated into Scots law,
Newton claims the monks living on Iona in 697 were penning the first
international human rights treaty. Gaelic was one of only four languages
in which European medical knowledge was written and studied prior to the
15th century along with Arabic, Latin and Greek.
So why did it go so
wrong? Newton a Californian who studied for a Celtic studies doctorate
from Edinburgh University and researched at Glasgow University has
explanations galore. He reckons the problem was mainly one of
self-esteem, with the damage already done a century before the Jacobite
defeat at Culloden in 1746.
All the structures in
Scotland around the Gaelic speaker were Anglophone. Its a bit like the
Navajo in the US: in their schools they were beaten for speaking their
own language. That weakened their resistance to the instruments of
ethnocide and that is not too strong a word for what happened to the
When they arrived in
America, the Highlanders already believed their language was inferior to
English. This contrasts them with other immigrant groups such as the
French and Germans, whose languages are still heard in the US. Being
forced out of Scotland only reinforced their low self-esteem and
The Highlanders answer
was to become a martial race in the service of the British crown, their
bagpipes terrifying opponents of the empire. In America, that meant
acting as a buffer against the Spanish in the south and the French in
the north .
But Newton is also
unhappy about such stereotyping of the Highlanders military virtues,
and reckons they were happier at home, being intellectual. There is a
common myth that the Highlanders were lawless thugs and bloodthirsty
mafiosos, he said . Gaelic culture was far from that. The Gaelic legal
system was already assuming written form by 800, making it the
earliest-documented in western Europe.
In more recent times,
Scots have aggravated the damage done to Gaeldom by highlighting Lowland
literature: Outside agents have reinvented Highland history with false
icons. Instead of Burns and Scott, the descendants of those Highland
immigrants should have on their walls poets such as Duncan Ban McIntyre,
Iain Lom MacDonald and Alexander MacDonald.
themselves continue to indulge in institutions designed to preserve
their culture, which have instead distorted the true Gaelic tradition,
through Highland games, with their competitions, pipe bands and dancing,
and also the Gaelic Mod. It was immigrant communities in North America,
like that in Cape Breton, which held on to the purer form of the
In the US, the most
recent census showed a 40% increase in the numbers identifying
themselves as having Scottish roots not because there is a rise in
people with such roots, but because people are becoming increasingly
aware and proud of them. That means, said Newton, that Highland games in
the US indulge a thirst for what he calls neo-tribalism, which could be
even more confusing.
At one such event, he
found a Glaswegian group, Clann An Drumma, who were, according to the
programme, doing Pictish drumming passed down from their ancestors.
Sheer nonsense, said Newton. The Picts were extinct for 1000 years
before percussion made its way into Celtic music, and that was just
about 50 years ago. Market forces are striving to misrepresent history.
The conference, promising
vigorous debate, will be held in November, and run by the Virginia
Historical Society and Richmond University. Keynote speaker will be
Harvard Emeritus Professor Charles Dunn, whose book on Gaels in Cape
Breton and Nova Scotia, published 50 years ago, rekindled US interest in
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