on the Gaels of the eastern Carolinas, bagpiping, the lack of recognition of Highland heritage in education, and more …
William (“Bill”) Caudill is the Director of the Scottish Heritage Center at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and Instructor of the St. Andrews Pipe Band. He received an M.A., Folklore, with Minor in History, from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 2009 for his dissertation “Gone to Seek a Fortune in North Carolina – The Failed Highland Emigration of 1884.” He can be found all over the eastern U.S. Highland Games circuit during the summer, but we are delighted to have caught up with him and been granted this interview (actually, just before he departed for a visit to Scotland).
[Originally published 2016 May 25 by Michael Newton]
(1) What is your family background and place of origin? How is Highland heritage a part of that picture?
My family shares both Ulster-Scot and Highland Scottish ancestry, but on my maternal grandmother’s side the ancestry was mostly Highland folk who came directly to the Highland settlements of the Upper Cape Fear and Pee Dee River Valleys of the Carolinas. I have Highland ancestors from Skye, Islay, and Glenelg, among other places.
(2) When and how did you first begin to be aware of the Gaelic language and culture and its history in your area? Did you ever hear anything about it or Scottish heritage in school? Why (and how) or why not?
I was aware of the Scottish settlements of the Carolinas from an early age – being a very young history buff. Through family histories and other late 19th and early 20th century “vanity histories” done by family members I knew that the backgrounds of most of these emigrant ancestors were Highland and Gaelic-speaking. I remember as early as in the third grade doing a project on North Carolina history where we had to get tourism brochures from a city in the state. I wrote to Fayetteville and asked particularly for something which related its Scottish connections.
Unfortunately, there was little to be had. I also learned a fairly correct 4-step Highland Fling for a Bicentennial show that our class did which represented the history of our nation and all its ethnic groups. Otherwise, there was little mention of North Carolina’s Scottish connections in the state history books of the day – or in present day for that matter. My grandmother was a teacher, and I have some of her vintage 1930’s state history texts in which the Scots were more prominently mentioned, but that’s certainly not the case today.
(3) Among other things, you are an accomplished bagpiper and pìobaireachd judge. To what degree does that connect you personally to your Gaelic heritage? How might that connection be strengthened, given that the Highland bagpipe tradition was commandeered away from its Gaelic roots in the 19th century? Do you think people are more interested in those folk origins these days and more open to folky interpretations of the music?
I got started piping in the 3rd grade after seeing the Black Watch pipe band and the military band of the Royal Marines on tour in 1976. I thought it was great, and wanted to learn. I was definitely the “strange” child in my area – as piping wasn’t nearly as mainstream 40 years ago as it is now. I would have been much “cooler” back in elementary school if there was as much media coverage of pipers as there is today – what with well-publicized state funerals, TV slots and inclusion in comedy routines and the like, the inclusion by some rock/popular groups, and the like.
As far as my own connections between family and piping, my 4th great grandmother was a MacCrimmon, and her father was from Glenelg and settled in South Carolina very near the state border – so I’d like to think I had some genetic predisposition to piping, but haven’t narrowed that lineage down to one of the famous pipers.
I think the “alternative” approaches to piping are just now being discovered by some of the young pipers of today. Here in the USA, some of the more mature pipers will know of the earlier manuscripts which supposedly are tied more closely to the original Gaelic versions than we see in some of today’s collections, and folks like Dr. Allan MacDonald, Barnaby Brown and others who are exploring alternative Gaelic-rooted settings and arrangements are just now being explored by some on this side of the pond. I do indeed think that some of today’s up-and-coming pipers are perhaps a little more “open” to alternative approaches than was the case only 20 or more years ago when there was less appreciation of “variations” on what was supposedly “set in stone,” so to speak. I think that some are indeed coming to the conclusion that pìobaireachd is not some “museum piece” which is simply to be observed and emulated to exacting standards, but rather that it is still a living tradition.
For example, next year’s Pìobaireachd Society contests have set among their set tunes a number of 20th century compositions which the competitors must submit. There have been some very good collections of 20th century tunes published as well – the most recent being of the compositions of the late Captain John MacLellan – long time principal of the Army School of Piping. So…. it does continue to evolve, and I think that some are beginning to bash those “museum piece” stereotypes and become more accepting of alternative settings and ways of playing. We don’t have any recordings pre-20th century, so who knows whether we’ve got it “right” or not….. so why not appreciate what we do have and keep it vital?
(4) How strong is the consciousness today of the Gaelic heritage of the Cape Fear? Do you think that it is, or could be, an asset to the community? How could that asset be developed or fostered and how might that be of benefit to people? Are there parallels with other groups you can make?
In the case of my own community, I think they have seen that the Scottish connections can be used as an advantage. When I founded our local Highland Games back in 2009 (actually 2008, as it took a year of planning to get it off the ground) the community saw this event become, to date, the only event which fills up every hotel room in town – and the surrounding communities as well.
I think that even though there are not many sites which blatently “scream Scotland” when one drives by them, that there is a lot which could be done in terms of historical tourism within this region which could further benefit our Scottish and Scottish Gaelic communities simply through interpretation and information. In this area, there are hundreds of people each day who may drive by an old Presbyterian church which was once a bilingual congregation and simply not know of its importance. Fayetteville, the old capital of the settlement has become more attached to its ties to the Marquis de Lafayette who visited and spent one night there than to the thousands of Scots who disembarked from their flat barges traveling up the river from their emigrant ships at Wilmington. This area has not really received the attention which it has deserved for its Scottish and Gaelic connections through the years.
(5) You’ve been running the Scottish Heritage Symposium for a number of years at St. Andrews’ University. What do you think have been the success of the symposium and what have been the biggest challenges?
The symposium was originally started by the Museum of the Cape Fear in Fayetteville (the regional branch of the state history museum) to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the arrival of the Argyll Colony in 1739. I think it was a bigger deal than they ever thought it would be. After five years, the museum dropped their sponsorship of the event – as it had accomplished their goals of celebrating the anniversary of the arrival of the beachhead settlement of Highland folk.
Nonetheless, as a member of the steering committee of the event from its inception, I felt that there was too much interest in the event to ignore, and too much scholarship out there to make folks aware of. I managed to get our university (now called “St. Andrews University,” but at that time “St. Andrews Presbyterian College”) to provide an umbrella for the event and host it on our campus. The first event was successful and it has maintained stability to a great degree to date.
Nonetheless, as in many activities in the Scottish community, we see an aging group of attendees who are not being replaced by younger interested parties as quickly as I would like to see. I think we have been able to offer a huge amount of information to folks over the past 30 years and hope that we can maintain the viability of the event and the further dissemination of information and scholarship through the further interest of younger folks. I think the issue being that here in the USA, that the majority of folks who begin becoming interested in their family history and regional heritage are doing so at near-retirement age as opposed to younger. In this way I was truly an anomaly, myself, and often find myself being the youngest in a group of attendees at many events.
(6) You yourself completed a very interesting Master’s Thesis about the Gaelic community of the Cape Fear and know the shortage of expertise available to develop this subject in North American academia. Do you see a lot of student interest in Highland and Gaelic culture, tradition, history, etc? What are the topics of greatest interest?
I think that the current Outlander phenomenon has created some interest among younger people – as did the earlier releases of Rob Roy and – though I hate to admit it – Braveheart as well, unless a young person is schooled in their family regarding their own Scottish or Highland backgrounds, that it is quite rare for a student to discover and become interested in these topics on their own.
I have found some success in interesting younger people through music – in teaching a survey course on Celtic music and culture on the undergraduate level (which notably has been a very popular offering), as well as through my work in piping. Nonetheless, it is unfortunate but true that the marginalization of “white” ethnic groups to a degree has led fewer young people to explore the Scottish and Celtic links further. They have exposure to many other ethnicities and their contributions to American culture but not that of Scots, and, in particular Gaels.
There are dynamic individuals out there who I’m certain would interest young people if they were given the opportunity, however current curriculum guides and mandates don’t really give an opportunity for focus on “us.” It is quite unfortunate but true. Until the Scots are able to come together and have their voices heard in the way that the Irish-American community (to use one example in which I feel there is greater community organization and mobilization for topics of interest), as well as other ethnicities and nationalities have been heard, then we will be doomed to marginalization forever.
(7) How do you think that an organization like GaelicUSA might be able to engage with and support efforts such as these with a Gaelic/Highland focus in the United States?
I feel that exposure to the language and its beauty is imperative. There are many Highland Gatherings which have practically NO Gaelic activities or exposure. As for myself, it was the exposure to the beauty of Gaelic vocal music that attracted me to an interest in the language itself.
I think that the conducting of workshops and demonstrations in conjunction with Highland Gatherings would be one of the best ways to reach the right audience. I know that the efforts of An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach has several regional Mods, but further participatory outreach for the novices and beginners is important I feel to try to garner further interest.
Putting the language in a historical context as well – such as we have here in my region of the Carolinas – where folks could relate to it in that mindset would also be helpful. Things like Kirkin’ services which could include a Gaelic component, recitals by Gaelic singers, and things of that nature which might give folks more public exposure would also help gain interest I believe.