on the history of Scots, Scots Gaels, and Scots-Irish, and digging up the history below generations of American amnesia…
Peter Gilmore has taken an active part in promoting Celtic languages and cultures for more than 30 years. He has served as Scottish Chair of the Celtic League American Branch, was a member of An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach, Conradh na Gaeilge, and a founder of the former Strathspey and Reel Society of Western Pennsylvania. He has competed at the ACGA Mod and at feiseanna in New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Ireland. He has studied Gàidhlig and Gaeilge, and taught Irish at numerous venues.
In recent years he has extensively studied the phenomenon of the “Scots-Irish” (what he prefers to call “Irish Presbyterians”), with numerous publications. The most recent of these is the article “Refracted Republicanism: Plowden’s History, Paddy’s Resource, and Irish Jacobins in Western Pennsylvania,” which appeared in Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Vol. 83, No. 3 (Summer 2016). Formerly the editor of a trade union journal, he is currently an adjunct lecturer in history at Pittsburgh universities.
Peter was the first Celtic language teacher from whom I received any formal instruction, taking Irish classes from him in 1991. He also hosted a Celtic music radio show at the time in Pittsburgh which inspired me early on my journey into Celtic Studies. We’ve shared personal experiences and research materials in the years since, and I’m very pleased that he was willing to share his knowledge about the diasporic aspects of Scottish history with me for this interview.
[Originally published 2016 October 5 by Michael Newton]
(1) If I’m not mistaken, your interests were initially more strongly on the Gaelic side of matters than the anglophone side, but after years of scholarship on the Scotch-Irish, you’re now one of the authorities. Most people think of the Scots and the Irish as being fairly homogenous nationalities, rather than consisting of distinct ethnolinguistic clusters that don’t correspond to national borders, especially as we look further back in time. How would you explain, in a nutshell, the main fault-lines of Scottish ethnicity to a neophyte?
Scotland has been a multicultural, multilingual nation, in some sense, from probably whatever “beginning” one chooses to assign. That’s key. What might be described as “the main fault-lines of Scottish ethnicity” can be explained in terms of power—who has it, and how it’s being used, and against whom it’s being used. Political dominance belonged to Gaels when Cumbric speakers with deep familial roots in what had become Alba found themselves referred to as “foreign Britons.” And it was a signal that Scots-speakers had achieved supremacy when the Gaelic term duine uasal, signifying respect, became transformed into “duniwassal,” denoting a crude and demeaning rusticity.
And so, grasshopper, what you perceive as “Scottish” is the product of multi-layered historical processes which have not eradicated but greatly obscured the Gaels and their inestimable cultural contributions. (And don’t, please, pretend that there’s something essentially, ineluctably “Scottish” about those who went to Ulster. But that’s another story.)
(2) What are your observations about the distinctions between these groups, as they evolved over time, and what commonalities they might have had? What role does language in particular play?
I’m sure it has everything to do with my particular vantage point, but I have been more impressed with processes of adaptation, borrowing, and cultural absorption than with distinctions per se. What strikes me as of great historical significance are the shifting border areas, zones of bilingualism, with their propensity to facilitate cultural transfer. Language is obviously crucial, not only in allowing communication, but also assisting in the out-migration of Gaelic lexicon and concepts.
After reading Nicholas Wolf’s An Irish-Speaking Island, I was struck not only by how extensively Irish was spoken 1770-1870 and how tenaciously the Irish held on to their language, but also by how a lengthy period of bilingualism shaped Irish culture—significantly, the sense of “Irishness” brought to North America in the second half of the nineteenth century.
I suspect something similar occurred in Scotland earlier. We’re back to power, really. The decisive loss of control over the political and economic levers of society by Gaelic speakers helps explain the tragic disconnect between a living literary tradition and the broader national culture—ironically, as the culture of the Gaels imprinted itself strongly on what would be recognized as “Scottish.” I’m not forgetting the stolen, the imposed, and the artificial; rather I’m privileging the organic. I’m imagining (without difficulty) a Lowland Scots-speaking fiddler hearing an absolutely enticing tune and style from a fiddler raised with Gaelic, and making that tune and that style his own (albeit with the inevitable individual modifications).
(I appreciate that many Gaelic advocates regard Robert Burns with intense disdain, but I would suggest their vehemence may be more properly directed to the Burns cult, its claims and affectations, rather than the poet himself. This may seem like horrific heresy, but I’d argue that in a certain, real sense Burns is appropriately regarded as “the national bard” precisely because of his interest and respect for the culture of the Gaels. The fiddler-poet who purposely sought out Niel Gow in Perthshire was neither engaged in some escapade of Walter-Scott-like fantasizing nor trapped in the unconscious monotone of a Lallans-only state of being.)
Commonalities existed because of the roughly similar material conditions experienced by the rural majorities in each language community; shared cultural expressions developed out of centuries of interactions, including the long periods when Gaelic-speakers wielded power over much of Scotland. Ulster in the seventeenth century (and after) offers some clues. To mention one, the Scots incomers and native Irish alike observed Hallowe’en and with the same or similar customs.
One historian of Ulster Presbyterians, in discussing this holiday, proposes that “Feasting and celebration were considered appropriate at this time, as the harvest had been gathered in, the cattle had returned from summer grazing, and the long nights of winter beckoned.” That should, perhaps, seem rather familiar. Those arriving from Scotland in the seventeenth century included Gaelic speakers, and Scots speakers, and bilinguals, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, and Catholics. Again, that sometimes ethereal or seemingly artificial entity, “Scottish culture,” is a creation in part of long processes of interaction.
(3) Why do you think that North Americans retain so little memory of the distinctions between various kinds of Scots and Irish, even when the generational gap is not large? In what ways is this a problem, in terms of historical representation or accurate forms of ethnic celebration? Are there obvious parallels with other ethnic groups? How do they deal with these dilemmas?
I’m much less certain of the Canadian experience, but south of the border the answer seems clearer. As a scholar of migration put it, Americanization is the “destruction of memory.” In the late nineteenth century especially, newcomers recruited for the massive project—of often brute and brutalizing work—of the US industrial revolution became themselves products, remolded, refitted, repackaged, to be appropriately subordinate in their host society. While the record speaks more of the millions from southern and eastern Europe, one should not suppose Gaels were exempted from the process.
It’s worth noting that many of the industrial recruits/conscripts were stateless linguistic/cultural minorities subordinated to (and oppressed by) old-war empires. In places like Pittsburgh, the new workers were quickly labeled (and dismissed) as “Hunkies” (Hungarians) despite their linguistic/cultural diversity. And yet, because of these circumstances, ethnic identity formation took place, and even accelerated, in the US. European Poles might have been citizens of three different empires, but in American cities they could create ethnic organizations and assemble an ethnic consciousness irrespective of old-world international boundaries—opportunities denied them at home.
And yet, given the circumstances, this, too, was a repackaging constrained by the exigencies of American experience and demands. A comparison with the Highland Scots (and Irish) experiences is instructive. Due to the close commercial, industrial, and cultural ties between the US and UK, Americans already received (prepackaged) images of Gaels, and their own experiences were viewed, to or more or less degrees, through these lens.
I’d argue that Gaels had relatively less scope to refashion and reimage the power of reinvigorated culture. The near-counter example would be the ability of politically mobilized Irish-Americans to contribute to homeland nationalism. But the fact that transactions were largely in English, aimed at shaping politics in London and Washington, taking place in an Anglophone Atlantic world speaks to what was lost.
I can’t help but mention Andrew Carnegie, the best-known Scottish-American of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century. He’s the poster-child for G. Gregory Smith’s notion of Caledonian Antisyzygy, the very embodiment “of dueling polarities within one entity.” Carnegie, the shrewd and slippery businessman and driver of labor, viewed himself as a Burnsian working-class radical. Carnegie, the confidante of US presidents, reveled in his own peculiar notions of Scottishness. And what Scottishness was this? On a library-donation tour of Ireland, Carnegie noted that he was greeted with céad míle fáilte, just as he was by the peasants on his Highland estate. And there you have it. Libraries and concert halls and scholarships will be forthcoming, to be sure, but in the meantime, peasants—be they from Slovakia or Sutherland—must do as they are told. And the libraries and amenities provided most certainly will not recognize their own languages or allow peasants to develop a healthy indigenous self-consciousness.
Why do North Americans retain so little memory of the distinctions between various kinds of Scots and Irish? The enormous pressures—and benefits—involved in conforming to acceptable transatlantic notions of ethnic identities and roles. I wore my kilt to a feis at the Pittsburgh Irish Centre, my first in what (in the late 1980s) was my new home city. A foolhardy enterprise, perhaps, with Scottish regiments on duty in Northern Ireland. The men at the gate viewed me warily. “What’s with the kilt?” I was asked. “It seemed appropriate to wear Gaelic attire to a Gaelic event,” I gamely replied. I was welcomed enthusiastically. Had I not countered men who were without English growing up, the result might have been quite different!
Among this later twentieth-century minority of Irish immigrants, there was a keen awareness of distinctions and similarities. Their own healthy awareness of their culture and language made that possible. The imperial rule at home and relentless reprogramming in the US for immigrant generations have circumscribed the possibility of such awareness among the American-born descendants.
(4) What is your experience in trying to develop lines of research about the Scots and Irish in American academia? Do you feel that there is adequate support and encouragement for these fields of enquiry? Why or why not? How is our understanding of American history and culture incomplete or inaccurate due to this lack of attention? How could the position of these fields be improved in American academia?
In both American academia and popular culture more generally my experience in trying to develop lines of research about the Scots and Irish has been met with admixtures of confusion and ignorance. My thesis, that Presbyterians from Ireland of Scottish origin largely constructed western Pennsylvanian Presbyterianism and the initial Irish diaspora in the Pittsburgh region, is sometimes met with bewilderment by those who “think of the Scots and the Irish as being fairly homogenous nationalities.” I’m asking them to consider a more complex past, and it doesn’t compute.
When I point out that these Irish tenant farmers who happened to be Presbyterians shared with the native Irish propensities to produce and consume whiskey, dance jigs and reels to the sound of pipes and fiddle, and to believe in fairies and enchantments, the incomprehension grows. In a Washington, PA, library researching Presbyterian exiles from the 1798 Irish rebellion, I met a seemingly well-educated, knowledgeable man who regarded my mission with incredulity. Surely none of the progenitors of the region’s “Scotch-Irish” were involved in any such uprising, and I was instead searching for exiles from the ’45!
Whenever I mention that some of the earliest Scots Presbyterians in Ulster were Gaelic speakers the difficulties only grow, because surely Gaelic was ever only spoken in the Highlands! There are those Irish-Americans who prefer to believe that the Irish could only ever be Catholic, and Scottish-Americans who prefer to believe that the “Scots-Irish” were necessarily attached to the original “old” country. To be fair, these are largely lay responses. The academic response is much more muted—indifference rather than incredulity—but similarly based on a willingness to accede to comfortably preconceived notions.
In part, I fear, the ground on which I try to work has been tainted both by hyper-nationalism which saw heroic struggle against British rule as the principal and necessary motif in Irish history or filiopietism which could see only a splendidly rugged independence in the hardy pioneers of Scottish cultural inheritance doing England’s dirty work in Ulster and the American backcountry. Understandably but unfortunately, the imperial center’s historical use of marginalized peoples in its hinterland for its overseas projects adds to the difficulty of attempting to recover the actually lived experiences of people transported from Antrim and Argyll to North America.
Overall, I don’t believe there is adequate support and encouragement for enquiry into the immigrant cultures of the British Isles in the United States. And there is a particular blind spot with regards to the nineteenth century. (I’m grateful for the fine new book by Rankin Sherling, The Invisible Irish: Finding Protestants in the Nineteenth-Century Migrations to America.)
In recent decades there’s been recognition of the diverse migrant stream in the colonial era. Well and good; after all, this is foundational. But the nineteenth century seems a bit out of focus; there is still so much more to do. Our understanding of the development of American history and culture is necessarily incomplete, therefore. That said, however, it’s perhaps unfortunate that the nation continues to be a fundamental organizing principle of historical study. Surely this is a modern conceit. Recognizing that migration is a constant in human history, a concentration on shifting patterns of residence, language, and culture might better serve to help us understand this unfolding story and build a non-racist future.