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US Bid to save Gaelic culture from Scots

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 capacities”.

“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. It’s 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 Gaels.

“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 powerlessness.”

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.”

The Highlanders 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 culture.

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 the culture.

10th August 2003

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