Now that Urras Gàidhlig nan Stàitean Aonaichte has a good number of members on the board, it would be appropriate for us to introduce ourselves and explain why we think the Gaelic element of Scottish heritage is important and why we think this organization is needed.
I spent seven years in Scotland (1992-99) and fell in love with the landscape, the people, the cultures, and the languages, Gaelic and Gaelic culture in particular. My involvement gave me a focus for my passion for music, dance, literature, history, folklore, human ecology and social justice and a means of contributing to a real community that deserves the support to redress historical wrongs.
I came back – rather reluctantly – to the United States after receiving a Ph.D. in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh. My eyes had been opened during my time in Scotland to the great beauty and bounty of Gaelic culture and literature, but also to its marginalized, vulnerable state. I wanted to share with others what I had learned and what could be productively done with this knowledge, on behalf of Gaels in Scotland and others who had had similar historical experiences. It was my optimistic belief that there would be many others such as myself who were passionate about Scottish heritage.
I have met many other individuals in the US and Canada who share my enthusiasm for Gaelic and my concern for its future, not least in the last communities where it is spoken as a living language, in Nova Scotia. I have been able to share my experience and knowledge with groups whose mission it is to teach and promote Gaelic in North America, as well as with Scottish heritage groups of various sorts. It is clear that there are a lot of people in North America who proudly wave the tartan banner of their Scottish heritage, and many others who want to participate in the traditions simply because they are appealing, fun and worthwhile for their own sake. And that’s great.
But Scottish heritage also deserves to be taken seriously. A culture is not a costume. Scottish tradition is not a one dimensional Brigadoon: it has numerous facets and divides. A great many Scottish emigrants came to North America as Gaels and knew nothing about Robert Burns (for example) – even if they were to have been told about him, his language and culture would have been foreign and irrelevant to them. The story of these Highland immigrants and their descendants, their efforts to find dignity for their language and culture, the traditions they brought with them and how they attempted to reconcile them with the dominant anglophone hegemony, is rarely acknowledged or told. But that story is as interesting and complex as that of any other immigrant ethnic group. And it can still speak to us about our contemporary lives.
While it takes a lot of time, effort and money to acquire the skills necessary to engage in these matters, there is very little support for North America for those of us born on this side of the pond to get the necessary training. Even after we do – usually by going to Scotland, at great personal expense – there appears to be no means of finding the employment necessary to put them to use, so as to develop the scholarship necessary to put it alongside that of every other major ethnic community. There were a number of other North Americans who studied Scottish or Celtic Studies at the University of Edinburgh with me. Those who stayed in Scotland have done well for themselves and have made very positive contributions to Scottish culture. None of us who returned – despite our competence – have been able to find the sustained academic patronage necessary to do the same here. North Americans are still going to Scotland and falling in love with it, and learning Gaelic, and finding the same barriers.
The lack of opportunities to study, question, and engage with it seriously in North America has meant that the vacuum has often been filled with misrepresentations and misunderstandings. In the worst case, it has been appropriated by racists and bigots who can hide behind an exotic facade of presumed “heritage.” This casts an unnecessarily negative shadow on what should be an inclusive celebration of a legacy shared by people of many skin colors and ancestral origins.
Imagine the difference it could make if the many people who celebrate their Scottish Highland ancestry in North America could make a meaningful contribution to developing and sustaining it here. Imagine if that support could actually have a positive impact on communities in Scotland, from which their ancestors emigrated and still face the same challenges. Imagine if that involvement could help them understand the nature of minoritized cultures and languages around the world. This is the promise that Urras Gàidhlig nan Stàitean Aonaichte / Scottish Gaelic Foundation of the United States offers, one not even mentioned in other Scottish heritage organizations. I know that there are many others who share this vision and aspiration, and who want to share it with others. Please join us in this worthwhile quest.