on Scottish Highland military history, engagement with empire, stereotypes of natives, and more …
Matthew Dziennik was raised in the village of Kingussie in Badenoch in the Scottish Highlands. He was awarded a Ph.D. in History at the University of Edinburgh and is the author of The Fatal Land: War, Empire and the Highland Soldier in British America (Yale University Press, 2015). He is currently assistant professor of British and British Imperial History at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis.
[Originally published 2016 October 21 by Michael Newton]
(1) We might start by first of all acknowledging the significant military role that Scottish Highlanders had in the history of North America that have had real political and territorial consequences, from the French and Indian War down to the U.S. Civil War. How would you characterize the nature of that involvement and how has it influenced the image of the Highlander as a military figure? What new information has your own research contributed to the understanding of this history?
Gaels were critical to the expansion of the British Empire in North America before 1775 and the subsequent defense of Canada in the 19th century. Highlanders were deployed to Georgia as a bulwark against the Spanish in the 1730s and there were major settlements of Highlanders in North Carolina, New York, Quebec, and Nova Scotia by the American Revolution.
Some of these settlers were former soldiers who had taken the opportunity of land grants in North America following service in the Seven Years’ War. Scots – of which a disproportionate number were Highlanders – comprised almost a third of officers and enlisted men of the British Army in North America in the late 1750s. During the American Revolution, Highlanders may have made up approximately 10% of Loyalist soldiers despite comprising of less than 1% of the American population. The subsequent settlement of these Loyalists in Nova Scotia was important to subsequent Canadian development as part of the British Empire.
It is easy to characterize these military contributions as evidence of defeatism, passivity, or the oppression of the Gàidhealtachd. Many commentators have suggested that with the defeat of Jacobitism and the savage repression of the Highlands that followed in 1746, Gaels were exploited and co-opted to serve as cannon fodder for Britain’s imperial wars. I think, however, that we also have to look at Gaels as proactive agents of imperial expansion.
I’d like to think that if my work has contributed anything to understandings of the Gael in the Americas, it has demonstrated that many young men willingly embraced an imperial system that could individually reward as well as collectively punish. It was obvious to many Highlanders that military service offered an opportunity to escape socio-economic stagnation in the Highlands and secure intellectual and material benefits from the British state. While many Gaels suffered as a result of their enlistment, I think it does a disservice to them to dismiss their choices and interests as the product of powerlessness or ignorance – a common refrain in Anglo-historiography.
(2) On the other hand, the emphasis on military history and the co-option by empire has certainly distorted a holistic and complete understanding of Gaelic culture and society. What strikes you as some of the more important counter-currents to that imperial narrative in your research? What do people misunderstand or misrepresent due to the over-emphasis on the one-dimensional stereotypes of the Highlander as loyal imperial stormtrooper?
I am the wrong person to answer that question! While my historical training may help me collect and interpret evidence with a reasonable degree of sophistication, I chose to write on the role of Gaels in the British military, thereby implicitly reinforcing this one-dimensional view. In a sense, having grown up in the region and having spent so much of my youth absorbing the imagery of the Highlander as an imperial warrior (in regimental museums or army recruiting centres), my work is a product of the colonization of the Highland mind by a self-serving imperial narrative.
This is a major problem and it is a problem shared by other so-called martial peoples throughout the British Empire – Pathans, Sikhs, and Gurkhas as well as Highlanders. The needs of the imperial metropolis came to dominate not only the popular imagery of so-called martial peoples but also peoples’ views of themselves. And the effects of this can be seen long after the British Empire’s authority receded.
There are, however, aspects of the imperial narrative that can be challenged. I try to do so in my work by explaining how young Gaels joined the army for material reasons, not because of a love of militarism; how Gaels frequently and sometimes violently opposed their military and social superiors; how poorer Gaels were quick to abandon their emigration leaders if opportunities arose for better opportunities elsewhere; how most young Highland soldiers were, at least initially, far from the hardened warriors promoted by imperial mythology; and how Gaelic writers used the success of the Highland regiments to inject new confidence and vigor into the communities that they served.
In a wider sense, there are a couple of broader approaches that might help us arrive at a better understanding of Gaelic North American history. The first is to re-focus our energies on the Gaelic language. Language is the essence of a people’s experience and, while there is certainly evidence of the internalization of the imperial narrative in Gaelic sources, there are also numerous challenges to it. Focusing on making these sources available to a new generation of scholars – either through translation or, preferably, Gaelic language training – would do much to advance Gaelic studies.
Second, we need to embrace the lessons of postcolonialism. Highlanders have typically been reluctant to cast themselves as an Indigenous people in the manner typically understood by historians. As a result, scholars from out with the Highlands – Eric Richards, Colin Calloway, and Silke Stroh, to name a few – have written some of the best studies of the effects on colonization on the region.
But, if we accept that various forms of colonization did occur, we can use postcolonialism (the study of how knowledge and information is used to construct political or cultural power) to challenge Anglocentric views of the Gàidhealtachd. We can read against the grain when dealing with archives and sources and we can think of English-language documents as only one method among many that contribute to a better understanding of the Highlands and its people.
(3) To what degree has Highland military history been integrated into the study of North American history? Do you think that Gaels have been recognized and analyzed as a people unto themselves in the academic activity in North America, with their own characteristics and cultural contexts and primary sources, or have they simply been lumped together with all Britons and seen through anglophone documentary evidence? What have the consequences been of the standard approach to this historical study? What is missing or incomplete in our historical representation as a result?
Yes and no. It is difficult to strike the right balance.
On the one hand, the repeated use of “England” as shorthand for the British Empire obscures the extent to which non-English speakers drove the colonization process in North America, often for reasons that did not align with interests in the imperial metropole. Similarly, we might think of the rise of Canada and the United States in terms of grand national narratives but, in reality, settler colonialism was a remarkably varied, chaotic, and unfinished experiment in political order. It derived its strength not from the political, economic, or cultural superiority of English-speaking peoples – an argument best made by Winston Churchill – but by the diversity of skills, objectives, and cultures it was able to tolerate. Ignoring this diversity – ignoring the ways in which Gaels experienced North America in specific terms – runs the risk of oversimplification.
On the other hand, there is the risk of ethnic exceptionalism. Some studies of Gaelic settlement in North America make the case that the Gaelic experience was unique; that Gaels were exceptionally qualified to expand British hegemony in the wilds of Canada; or that Gaels, for reasons of historic experiences, engaged with Indigenous peoples on a more sympathetic level. My research, particularly with regard to this last point, suggests that this was not the case.
I am not sure that there is a clear answer to this question. It is certainly the case, however, that too few historians have the necessary skills or training to explore the autonomous Gaelic experience of settlement in the Americas.
(4) Do you find the lack of support for Scottish Gaelic Studies in N America (inc Canada) surprising? Do you think that it could or should be improved? How would scholarship about imperial history, immigrant history, indigenous relations, etc., be made more complete or nuanced by developing the North American dimensions of Scottish Gaelic scholarship?
I do not find the lack of support for Scottish Gaelic studies in North America surprising. Support for Gaelic in Scotland is a relatively recent phenomenon – the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act was only passed in 2005 – and the Gaelic community has been exceptionally proactive in creating a partnership with the Scottish Government that counters historic injustices and emphasizes the importance of Gaelic language provision.
But, while I am not surprised by the lack of support in North America, I do find it surprising that so much has been written on Gaels in the Americas without a firmer grasp of the socio-economic, linguistic, or historic contexts of the Scottish Highlands. As I said, there are not enough researchers with the necessary skills or interests in Gaelic to be able to more fully explore the history of Gaels in the Americas. This should change.
What such a change would do is a more difficult question to answer. I am reluctant to suggest what such support might change in terms of our understandings. One of the primary merits of modern historiography is the sheer variety of topics and approaches that can be pursued. Historical skills and linguistic competence should always be emphasized but what scholars then do with those skills is as varied as the scholars themselves. That is part of the reason why history is such a fascinating part of the humanities.
I would, however, like to see much less written on English views of Gaels and much more written on Gaelic views of themselves and their hopes and aspirations when they arrived in the Americas. That would be a good start.
(5) What are your current and future research plans, and how do they relate to these issues?
The focus of my current research is the recruitment of colonial peoples into the British army in the 18th and 19th centuries. It places the military recruitment of Gaels in the context of wider efforts to bring Indigenous peoples into the British military in the century prior to 1850. This research can help contextualize the Gaelic experience as well as pointing out where the Gaelic experience was different or unique.
I am also thinking a lot about views of colonial peoples in Gaelic writings, particularly in the early nineteenth century when British views more generally became less sympathetic to Indigenous cultures and experiences. How we view others often tells us a lot about how we view ourselves.