Dr Will Lamb is a Senior Lecturer in Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Previous to this, he was a lecturer at the University of the Highlands and Islands, at Lews Castle College Benbecula. Focusing broadly on Gaelic ethnology, Will’s research interests range from oral tradition to quantitative dialectology. While editing his 2012 book, Keith Norman MacDonald’s Puirt-à-Beul, Will became interested in the history of dance song in Scotland, and its connection to early instrumental music. He is currently involved in several projects on this topic. Apart from his academic work, Will is as an accomplished traditional musician, and has played and recorded with performers such as Fin and Hamish Moore, Lurach and Fred Morrison.
1. Tell us a little bit about your background and how it connects you to Scottish Gaelic: Where are you from? When and how did you first become aware of Scottish Gaelic? Do you have close family connections? What inspired you to learn the language? How did you go about it?
I’m from Baltimore, Maryland. I first became aware of Scottish Gaelic (ScG) when I was 12, reading an encyclopaedia entry for Nova Scotia. I couldn’t believe that there were still Gaelic speakers in North America in the 1980s. I suppose this sat in my subconscious for many years. When I was 20, my siblings and I went on a trip to Britain and Ireland, and I won a silly contest for learning how to pronounce a long Welsh town name. I was hooked on Welsh for a while. At an immersion course in Ottawa, I picked up the 1971 version of Teach Yourself Scottish Gaelic on a whim. That lit the fuse.
The folklore, culture and complicated grammar of Scottish Gaelic fascinated me. I started studying Gaelic in earnest and drove 3 hours return to attend a weekly class in Northern Virginia, taught by Wayne Clarke. I was also playing Scottish and Irish music at sessions in Baltimore. My Scottish ancestors were from Jedburgh and Edinburgh, so family roots weren’t the main consideration. But when I first went to Scotland, during that trip when I was 20, something clicked when we passed through the border from England. It felt like something more than blind romanticism, but maybe that is all it was. I can’t explain it.
After a year obsessed with Gaelic, I tried to spend 6 months in Uist. I contacted a crofting family that was willing to take me in, and bought my ticket. I was naïve and didn’t buy a return ticket. British immigration confiscated my passport, stuck me in a locked room for 6 hours and put me on the next flight home. It was a painful lesson, but I was even more determined. I nursed my bruised ego, regrouped, and applied to St Francis Xavier University for a non-graduating year, focussing on Gaelic, linguistics and folklore. It was the best thing that could have happened. Catriona Parsons and Kenneth Nielson were brilliant, inspiring teachers. Ken put me in touch with Jim Watson in Cape Breton. Jim thumped me with Gaelic for a week, whilst taking me around to spend time with older, native speakers. And luckily, during my year at St FX, the student cohort was full of great traditional musicians. After that, it was onto the University of Edinburgh for an MSc and PhD.
Despite a head full of linguistic knowledge, it wasn’t until I started spending extended periods time in North Uist that I became fluent. It was a long road, but a thrilling ride. Learning Gaelic is guerrilla warfare: you’ve got to seize incursion opportunities where you can, and keep your head up. Accept that there are people who – regardless of your fluency and ‘credentials’ – will never speak to you in Gaelic if you are not from a Gaelic-speaking background. No sweat. There are a lot of other good Gaelic speakers out there who will.
2. Your research covers a wide range of domains: Linguistics; Oral Narrative; Ethnomusicology. Tell us a little about the eclectic nature of Scottish Gaelic Studies, how you engage in research and why it matters. How does Scottish Gaelic Studies illuminate Scottish culture and history as a whole? How can academic efforts add to the attempts to revitalize and enrich Gaelic as a living language and culture today?
Scottish Gaelic Studies is a broad subject area. By definition, anything applies which concerns the language or the people who speak it. My colleagues, and some of my post-graduate students, do things that I know very little about (e.g. medieval studies and language policy). If pushed, I’d say I’m an ethnologist, because the discipline has strong precedents in folklore, linguistics and musicology. But it’s all boxes and semantics.
I engage in two kinds of research, broadly speaking: data-intensive linguistics and diachronic musicology. I like the two very different challenges involved. With dialectology and corpus linguistics, you work with discrete data sets. There is joy from the confinement; it’s always a well-defined microcosm. You can also back up your assertions statistically. With historical musicology, you’re faced with either finding new sources – which are vanishingly rare – or interpreting the available one in a new way.
For instance, there is some debate over the age of puirt-à-beul. I was looking at David Young’s manuscripts recently, which date from the 1730s and early 40s, and noticed three transparent puirt titles with musical notation. Although that only provides a terminus ante quem, it does suggest that we can discard the hypothesis that puirt arose in response to the aftermath of Culloden.
Why does research on Gaelic matter? I’d say it only matters if it is of interest to someone, and hopefully to people outwith the academy. As scholars, we have a responsibility to try to engage with the narratives that surround our disciplines, and contribute to them where we can. Occasionally, we feel that we have grounds to challenge them. For instance, as Michael Newton and others have shown, Gaels are consistently under-represented in the historical narrative about Scotland and its diaspora. So, we try to address this where possible, and necessary.
Academics can contribute to revitalisation attempts in numerous ways. They can improve our descriptions of the language and its dialects for use in pedagogical materials. They can raise awareness of the language, through engagement with popular press and media, both conventional and on-line. They can take an interest in the remaining Gaelic-speaking communities, and give back to them, through things like Tobar an Dualchais and other Knowledge Exchange initiatives. And finally, they can continue to inspire and teach large numbers of students.
3. Do you see very much interest from North Americans in Scottish Studies and Scottish Gaelic Studies? What do you think is inspiring their interests? What new insight about American history and culture could they gain by adding a knowledge of Scottish (Gaelic) Studies to their training? What are common popular misunderstandings and misrepresentations about Scotland and Scottish identity that mislead people seeking their heritage and how can Scottish Gaelic Studies help to address them?
I was joking with a postgraduate student yesterday, who grew up about 10 miles away from me, about the large numbers of North Americans studying some aspect of Scottish culture. We thought we really should hold a conference about this phenomenon at some point! There is a lot of interest from North Americans in Scottish Studies and Scottish Gaelic Studies. I think the thing that holds many back is the challenge of becoming fluent in Scottish Gaelic. Many people – not just North Americans – underestimate the time and commitment necessary to reach fluency. But there are so many more ways to learn Gaelic now than there were in the pre-internet era. Although minority languages are increasingly swept up in the tide of linguistic (and cultural) homogenisation, it is – paradoxically – a great time to find out about them and learn them.
North Americans over here get inspired to study Gaelic and Scottish Studies for any number of reasons. Some have family relations. Many are seeking a connection to an area and group of people that combine familiar and exotic elements. This gives them, perhaps, a feeling of solidarity and belonging that they didn’t have before.
In terms of new insights about American history from studying Gaelic and Scottish Studies, how about that Gaelic was one of the three most widely spoken languages in Canada at the beginning of the 20th century? Or, that Gaelic persisted in North Carolina well into the 20th century?
If someone is interested in folklore, the road of Gaelic Studies is paved with gold. Long traditional narratives were still being told until fairly recently, and you can listen to them on-line; in some cases, you can watch videos of great storytellers. The School of Scottish Studies Archives has thousands of hours of songs, tales and music. If you learn Gaelic well, you acquire a very special key that unlocks countless doors, behind which the most fascinating material resides.
4. Do you see ways in which scholars engaging in Scottish Gaelic Studies in American universities could have a symbiotic relationship with those in Scotland? What might be enabled by those potential synergies for the benefit of the Gaelic community in Scotland and North America, as well for other endangered languages?
By attending conferences in both regions, and engaging with each other’s work, I think this symbiosis will continue and grow. Scholars in North America can highlight the enormous value of the substantial Gaelic sources on their side of the Atlantic. We can, of course, continue to put primary sources on line, to provide access to them no matter where you reside. Increasingly, geography is less important. The GaelicUSA Visiting Lectureship at UNC is a great development, and could increase cooperation between the countries.
The Gaelic-speaking communities themselves are in a fragile state. My advice would be to visit them while you can, and let people know how passionate you are about the language and culture. I’m worried about the long-term survival of Gaelic communities, but learning Gaelic well and teaching your children the language is two obvious ways to contribute. Also, if you are a student at a university without Gaelic studies, you could try petitioning them to teach the language, or at least include some Gaelic-related content on suitable programmes. There are countless lifetimes’ worth of work to do in Gaelic Studies.
Most minority languages are in similar or worse positions. Advances made in Scotland, particularly on the side of legislation (e.g. Gaelic Medium Education), provide useful templates and inspiration for other linguistic communities. As so many of the people who study Gaelic have experience of other languages, they are in an excellent position to advise the government and the academy on how we can support the Gaelic language and its determined, but still under-resourced, community of speakers.
Tapadh leat gu mór!