about building Gaelic communities in the U.S. …
Richard Hill is a Gaelic teacher who lives in Seattle, Washington. A native of Wyoming, he has been studying Gaelic for 50 years and teaching it since 1989. Richard was a founding member of Slighe nan Gàidheal, a lively Gaelic organization based in the Seattle area. He currently works for the Tom Douglas Restaurant Corporation in Seattle.
[Originally published 2016 October 17 by Michael Newton]
(1) Where and how did you acquire an interest in Gaelic? Why did you decide to learn it and how did you go about doing so?
Some of my earliest memories are of my parents and grandparents talking about our family from Scotland. My father’s side of the family immigrated to North Carolina in the 1740s. Ancestors on my mother’s side came to America in two groups, one which arrived in Georgia in the 1730s and a second which came from the Outer Hebrides in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When I was seven, one of my brothers was in a production of “MacBeth” at the University of Wyoming. When he told me the story of the play complete with kings, queens, witches, castles, and sword-wielding warriors… I was hooked. I knew then that I needed to learn this language that my ancestors had spoken.
I read every book on Scotland in two county libraries (and re-read them…and re-read them). I nagged my parents into letting me take bagpipe lessons. I ordered a teach-yourself course from a Scottish shop in of all places, Seattle, WA. I was lucky because many Scottish emigrants had come to Fremont County, WY to work in the ranching industry.
My godfather, a Scotsman named Campbell Alexander MacDougall, introduced me to a native speaker from Gairloch, a lovely gentleman named Murdo MacDonald. He was my first Gaelic teacher. Murdo was full of great stories, especially about his service in the MacKenzie and Seaforth Highlanders in World War I. He was at the battle of Galipoli and his recollections of his fellow kilted soldiers being shot down as they attempted to scale the cliffs were particularly sad.
(2) It is remarkable to find the lively community of Gaelic speakers, singers and enthusiasts that is Slighe nan Gàidheal in the Pacific North-west. Tell us about the history of the group, how it started and what it does and what has kept it going.
I attended a Gaelic song workshop taught by Christine Primrose at Oberlin College in the summer of 1989. It was wonderful and I truly understood then how song had filled the lives of the Gaels for centuries. When I came back to Seattle I figured that I could teach the songs that Christine had taught me. That little song class of three students grew into language lessons and teaching forty students/week. A choir formed and before we knew it we had the beginnings of a Gaelic society. I and four of my students decided to incorporate and received our official documents from the state of Washington in 1997.
Slighe nan Gàidheal will be twenty years old next year. We’ve been fortunate to count many “language-buffs” and musicians among our members and I think this has given Slighe a lot of vibrancy over the years. Our tenth festival, Féis Seattle 2016, was a great success. We have forty-one students in four levels signed up for our monthly classes and a large choir preparing to compete at the Royal National Mod in Fort William in 2017.
(3) You have seen many people become engaged in Gaelic in your years of involvement. What do you think attracts them to Gaelic and motivates them? Are there common patterns or types of people with particular sets of interests? How does or can their engagement with Gaelic enrich their sense of community, of identity, and of history? Do people feel more informed about Scottish history and culture through this process?
I think there are many things which attract people to Gaelic: family connections to Scotland, Scottish history, beautiful music, poetry…there’s a long list.
We are blessed to have a lot of musicians here in the Northwest who are interested in bagpiping, fiddling, and playing the harp and this has certainly brought many people into Slighe nan Gàidheal. Gaelic is also attractive to many in the neo-pagan movement here on the coast.
I believe that once these different groups of people get their “toes wet” in Gaelic, their understanding of their attraction to it really changes. We certainly aren’t taught anything about Celtic languages and cultures in school (yet!). When we learn about who the Gaels really are, what their lives were like in the Old Country, what caused them to immigrate, and what they’ve contributed…we have a much richer sense of identity.
I think Slighe has done a great job in the last twenty years providing this kind of education to the community, and we’re not done yet. I’m a passionate proponent not only of teaching the language, but also the history and culture. There’s still a lot of “Tartan Twilight” fluff floating around out there and I’m glad that we’re helping to dispel it and that we’re beginning to build a genuine Gaelic-interest community.
(4) What is the interface and interaction between native Gaelic speakers – whether from Scotland or Nova Scotia – and the learner community around Slighe? What does or can each group gain from the other in the exchange? Do you think that this type of community and relationship building could be replicated elsewhere in the US? How?
We have been incredibly lucky to have so many expat Gaels living just to the north of us in British Columbia. I don’t think there would be a Slighe nan Gàidheal if we hadn’t met them. They’ve been our first teachers, and the Mòds, choirs, and céilidhs in Vancouver and Victoria have given us excellent opportunities for learning about the Gaelic world.
In return I think we’ve instilled some great energy and fresh viewpoints into their events. Being from the US, we have a different way of approaching things and I think the optimism and passion of Slighe members has surprised, amused, and cheered the older Gaelic generation in BC.
My advice to any Gaelic organization in the United States would be to spend time with native speakers as often as you possibly can. Invite them to your events, hire them to come teach, ask them to write down their experiences as Gaels. They’re the oak forest, we’re the saplings. I think it’s of utmost importance that we learn and care for their language as best we can and show them the gratitude and respect which they deserve.
(5) What is your vision for the future of Gaelic and Slighe? How might an organization like GaelicUSA facilitate support for these kinds of community-building measures and educational experiences around the US?
I have a great deal of optimism about the future of Gaelic. Gaelic language and culture are both powerful and deep. There is a sense of history there, sensitive poetry, great music, an ancient connection to the Earth, rich humor, and hardiness. Lots of people want these things in their lives. Some of us have a familial connection to Gaelic which only grows stronger as we learn more about it.
What we’ve been lacking up to now is education and it’s crucial. I sincerely hope that Slighe and Gaelic USA will continue to provide educational opportunities for anyone wanting to learn about Gaelic. Language courses, festivals like the Féis, chances to sing and create other kinds of Gaelic music…all these things will help to inject life energy into the Gaelic movement.
It’s amazing to even be talking about a “Gaelic movement” in the US but I think we can now. Even after many years of neglect and animosity towards it, Gaelic still continues to attract learners from our country who study in Scotland and Nova Scotia and then come back and share what they’ve learned. Now we’re beginning to found institutions of our own which will continue to do this work. “Tha ‘t-am againn,” mar a chanas iad. It’s about time.