… on a life engaged in Gaelic language, literature and culture, from Toronto to Edinburgh.
Professor Robert Dunbar is the current Chair of Celtic Languages, Literature, History and Antiquities at the University of Edinburgh. He was previously Senior Research Professor at the University of the Highlands and Islands, and Research Director of the inter-university Soillse Research Project. Originally a native of Canada, Dr. Dunbar has been involved in Gaelic language development for almost twenty years in Scotland.
1. Where are you from? What is your familial or community background? Who was the last Gaelic speaker you know of in your family?
I’m from that famous Gàidhealtachd city, Toronto, Canada! On my father’s side, my ancestry is largely Highland Scottish. My ancestor Alexander Dunbar emigrated to the East River of Pictou in 1784. He was in the 84th Highland Emigrants’ Regiment, raised to fight for the British in the American War of Independence. He was from Strathnairn, Inverness-shire, just a couple of miles down-river from Culloden. It was a thoroughly Gaelic-speaking area at the time. Most of my ancestors on my paternal grandfather’s side were from Inverness-shire—Frasers, Grants, and a Campbell from Glenurquhart—and all were Gaels.
There was a relative who insisted that there was a link to the Bard MacLean, on whom I did my PhD, but I’ve never been able to work that out, although there is a link to Alexander Maclean Sinclair, the bard’s grandson and himself a hugely important Gaelic scholar, through a great-great-grandmother. On my grandmother’s side, my ancestry is all from Sutherlandshire and from Kintail and Lochalsh, all having emigrated to Cape Breton in the early nineteenth century.
Gaelic was spoken down to my father’s generation. He was the youngest of ten. My grandfather was a coalminer in Cape Breton, but had moved to Alberta to work in a mine in Canmore, just before my dad was born. Some of the older siblings had some Gaelic. Two aunties, who ended up staying in Alberta, often greeted each other on the phone in Gaelic. An uncle who had moved to Toronto would greet me with the words ‘mo ghaolain’, as would my dad. My dad had some Gaelic words and a few phrases that he had picked up when he was a boy, particularly when visiting his grandparents in Cape Breton. I guess this planted a latent interest in Gaelic in me, but one which I only began to explore in my late 20s.
2. Who and what inspired you to come to Celtic / Gaelic Studies? What was your path into and through the field like? How did you get your training?
Like I said, I guess I had a latent interest in Gaelic, but as a teenager and young adult, I was very interested in contemporary politics and in international affairs—I did my undergraduate degree at University of Toronto in politics, history, and international relations. At that point in my life, I was thinking about going into the Canadian foreign service. After graduating, I went to Brazil and spent the better part of a year there—my French was pretty fluent at the time, and I was very interested in Latin America, and thought that if I added another language, Portuguese, and had some experience living in a country like Brazil, it would help me to get into the foreign service. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life, and the friends I made there are still amongst my closest friends—like family, really.
It was really in Brazil that I decided to find out more about Gaelic. Brazil is another country of immigrants and people valued their ancestry as well as all aspects of their culture, local, regional and national. They were interested in where my people were from, and I got to thinking about how I should really know more about my own background. That watered and nourished the seed that had been planted earlier, I suppose. Anyhow, one of my professors at U of T who had been in the foreign service advised me to get a law degree, as the most interesting jobs in the foreign service were then being done by lawyers and people with business degrees, so when I returned to Canada, that is what I did—a joint degree in law and business administration. Law school was pretty demanding, but I promised myself that I would start learning Gaelic once I had graduated.
I did my training for a big Toronto law firm and was hired on, and it was then that I decided to enrol in a Gaelic night-school class offered by the Toronto Board of Education. I was working a huge number of hours, and Gaelic really made life bearable, as did Saturday morning Cape Breton fiddling lessons which I took with Sandy MacIntyre, of Inverness, Cape Breton, and the Cape Breton dances which were held every month in Toronto in those days. Some people in demanding, high pressure jobs do yoga or work out, or drink, or whatever, to deal with it. For me, Gaelic was the answer. Every Thursday night, I would escape my office in one of the Toronto skyscrapers to spend three extremely pleasant hours at Bloor Collegiate at Bloor and Dufferin in Toronto—my mother’s old high school!—learning Gaelic. I had two excellent teachers, John Maclean, ‘Seònaidh Mòr’, a wonderful man from North Uist who, sadly, passed away in the autumn of 1994, just after I had left to study in London, England, and Katie MacDonald, ‘Ceitidh Dhodaidh’, from Iochdar, South Uist, who is now back home in Iochdar. They taught me so much, and I owe them a great deal for setting me on course.
There were quite a lot of Gaels in Toronto at the time—this was the early 1990s: the Gaelic Society of Toronto was very active—and I’m delighted to see that it is back in good form—and there was a local Mòd, Mòd Ontario, which was held every spring, and where I met so many great Gaelic singers and tradition-bearers—Art Cormack and his wife Shona, Mary Anne Kennedy, Kenny Thomson of the Glasgow Gaelic Choir, Seumas Watson from Cape Breton, Iseabail Macaskill, John Murdo Morrison of Harris, Donnie ‘Large’ MacDonald, Ruairidh Caimbeul of Barra, Cathy Ann MacPhee, and Seònaidh Ailig Mac a’ Phearsain, who was always encouraging and a great, great ‘fear an taighe’. Through these organisations, I met so many people who supported and taught and befriended me, and it would be difficult to list them all, but I would mention in particular Christine and Blair Houser—Christine is a fine Gaelic singer, as was her brother, the late Willie Beaton, and is from Lochcarron by way of Glasgow—Flora Skeaff (Thomson), from Lewis, and Rhoda and Ken MacRitchie—Rhoda is from Harris, and Ken from Barvas, Lewis, and Rhoda, especially, was and still is a great friend and a great mentor. I was often in Ottawa in those days, and would usually visit Donald Rankin, a native of Mabou who had gone to Queen’s University in Kingston in the 1930s and who had made a career as an economist in the Canadian federal government. He was a great Gaelic speaker, a witty and interesting conversationalist, and a warm and generous host, and he became a great friend and taught me so much about the language and the culture.
I also took every opportunity I could get to travel to Cape Breton, and from about 1991 to 1994, when I came to the UK, I took classes every summer at the Gaelic College, in St. Ann’s. I was taught there by Hector MacNeil, from Cape Breton, and Catrìona Parsons, originally from Lewis. I became friends with Seumas Watson, and I have to say that I learned as much from these friends and mentors as from anyone, as well as from the very many Cape Breton Gaels I had the pleasure and honour to meet and spend time with. I owe a great deal to Seumas. He took me on many a memorable house visit, and taught me so much, not just about Gaelic. He, and Hector, became particularly close and valued friends. I owe them more than I can tell, and more than I could ever repay.
In the early 1990s, there were still lots of older Gaelic speakers on the North Shore, and loads of excellent singers at the milling frolics that were held in the summers at the North River Hall. Féis an Eilein got going in those years, and there were lots of excellent Gaelic speakers, singers and tradition-bearers in Christmas Island and all the way up to Boisdale and Frenchvale, and over to Castlebay, and on the Iona peninsula, and in Mabou, and around Glendale parish. So many of these Gaels were so generous with their time and knowledge, and, my, what enjoyable and fun company they were! People like Sandy Cameron of Mabou, a good fiddler and great raconteur. And Margaret MacLean of Boisdale, one of the finest traditional singers I ever heard, whom I tried to visit every chance I got. People like Maxie MacNeil and Jamie and Rod C. MacNeil and Neil Gillis and Murdock MacNeil and Peter Joe MacLean and Peter Jack MacLean. Well, what wonderful people they were. The memories still bring a smile to my face. So many have gone, and we won’t see their likes again, although I am so delighted that there are now so many excellent young Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia. Not only do they have the language, so many are becoming really fine exponents of the oral culture and the culture more generally. They are doing those older Gaelic-speakers proud, and are doing so much to ensure that the ‘carrying stream’ of tradition keeps flowing.
On one particularly memorable Gaelic immersion at the Gaelic College, my ‘classmates’ included Allan J. MacEachen and Joe Neil MacNeil, ‘Eòs Nìll Bhig’. Allan J. was a Gaelic-speaker from Cape Breton and one of the most important Canadian politicians of the 20th century, having been deputy Prime Minister under Pierre Trudeau. He was still Liberal leader in the Senate of Canada when I met him at the immersion (although I had met him on many occasions beforehand), and I was deeply impressed by his commitment to the language, and by his exceptional intelligence and his great sense of humour. Joe Neil, of course, was one of the greatest Gaelic informants of the 20th century, and for those who showed an interest in the language, he was extremely generous with his knowledge. At the end of the week, Joe Neil was joined by Dan Angus Beaton of Blackstone, Inverness County, another great, great tradition-bearer, and they exchanged stories and it was just marvellous. Now, what better education and training could you want than that?!
In 1994, I decided I had had enough of life in a big Toronto law firm. Law school had been a challenging but extremely rewarding experience—in the movie ‘The Paper Chase’, about first year law students at Harvard, the Professor, Kingsfield, tells his students that they come into law school with ‘a head full of mush’ and leave thinking like lawyers, and in my experience, there was certainly a lot of truth to that, and it prepared me well for anything that I ever did thereafter. I also enjoyed working as a lawyer, and it really sharpened my analytical, reasoning, and writing skills. But I knew that the type of law I was doing wasn’t for me, so I decided to take a leave of absence and do a masters of law at the London School of Economics, allowing me to go back to what had interested me most in law school: human rights and international law. University of London and LSE in particular was a great intellectual experience.
I studied with Rosalyn Higgins, one of the great international lawyers of her generation, who was then on the United Nations Human Rights Committee, and who was appointed to the International Court of Justice—the World Court, in the Hague—while we were studying with her. Her human rights course had a module on minority rights, and this is where I first studied in some depth the two treaties that came to dominate much of my work in subsequent years, the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. That course, together with the Canadian Constitutional Law course I did as a law student at Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto, where I first looked closely at the language rights provisions of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, ended up being two of the most important courses I ever did, in relation to a good part of the work I’ve done on Gaelic and other minoritised languages.
I had certainly considered an academic career as an alternative to working in a legal practice, and in early 1995, I saw that the University of Glasgow School of Law was advertising. I applied, went for an interview—it was held on St Patrick’s Day!—and I ended up getting the job. I managed to keep up my love of Gaelic while in London—I took night school classes in London at the City Lit, where I was lucky enough to have another excellent teacher, Chrissie Webb, a native of Lewis, and I got involved with the London Gaelic Society, where Calum Graham, another native of Lewis, was very generous with his time and great knowledge, and with the London Gaelic choir.
Even before I got the job in Glasgow, I began thinking about doing a PhD in Gaelic. Although I didn’t have a degree in Celtic, I was by then pretty fluent in Gaelic and had developed a pretty good grounding in many aspects of the culture. I contacted Prof. Willie Gillies at Edinburgh, and he invited me to come to see him when I was next in Scotland. I paid him a visit on St. Patrick’s Day, just after my job interview at Glasgow University. I met Willie, Ronnie Black, Robby Ó Maolalaigh, and Ailean Dòmhnallach, all of whom were in the Celtic Department at Edinburgh at the time, and all were encouraging and supportive. Edinburgh had just received a gift of recordings of Joe Heaney, and there was a group of singers from Carna who had come to Edinburgh for the occasion. It was an absolutely marvellous weekend of Irish and Scottish Gaelic culture. I applied to Edinburgh straight away, and was accepted. Once I was given the job at Glasgow, I knew that I could only do the PhD part-time, and in retrospect, it was far more challenging that I could ever have expected.
In those days, I wasn’t required to do a masters before proceeding to the PhD. I nevertheless audited all of the honours courses then being offered, including Gaelic language classes, and the training I got in those classes from Willie, Ronnie, Robby and Ailean was second to none. I did all the Gaelic options available, did Common Classical Gaelic with Ronnie and Robby, and it was in these classes that I met Michael Newton, Wilson McLeod and many others who have become dear friends and valued colleagues. Thomas Clancy had by then started teaching at Glasgow University’s Celtic department, and I also joined him for an Old Irish reading group he had organised, and it was in these sessions that I got to know other friends and fine scholars, such as Alex Woolf, Gilbert Markus, and Abigail Burnyeat. The PhD topic on which I ultimately settled was the secular poetry of John Maclean, ‘Bàrd Thighearna Cholla’, ‘The Bard Maclean’. My supervisors at first were Willie Gillies and Ronnie Black, but when Ronnie retired, Prof. Donald Meek came to Edinburgh, and he became my supervisor, with Willie. Donald is related to the poet, and I really could not have a better supervisory team than he and Willie.
In 2004, Aberdeen was reconstituting its Celtic Department. In addition to working on my PhD, I had developed what I think was a pretty good reputation as a legal scholar; my legal scholarship focused on minority rights and in particular minority language rights. I and Wilson McLeod had helped to draft Comunn na Gàidhlig’s 1997 proposals for a Gaelic language act—‘Inbhe Thèarainte’, or ‘Secure Status’, was how CNAG described the proposals. By 2003 I was advising the first Bòrd na Gàidhlig on the Gaelic Language Bill that was being considered at the time, and was closely involved in the development of the legislation which became the Gaelic Language (Scotland) Act 2005. I was also working a lot on minority issues with international organisations such as the Council of Europe. Aberdeen were interested in developing a masters degree in language policy and planning for minority languages like Gaelic, and given these various involvements, they encouraged me to apply, which I did.
I was hired as a Reader in Law and Celtic—I think the first and perhaps only person to have such a cross-appointment. I taught courses on the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples in international law, culture in international law, and other international law courses in the Aberdeen Law School, as well as courses on the masters in language policy and planning, and courses in Gaelic literature and 19th century Gaelic culture in the Celtic Department. It was a marvellous experience. The downside was the workload. A 50-50% appointment to two schools became more like 75-75%, and that couldn’t go on. In 2010, I had the chance to become research director of the Soillse research project—I had just been made Professor of Law and Celtic at Aberdeen—and decided to give it a go. I thought it was an important project, and tied in nicely with a lot of the work I had been doing. Ultimately, in 2013, I was lucky enough to be given the Chair in Celtic at Edinburgh, a huge honour, and that is where I now can be found.
3. Can you explain a bit about your own research? What have you done and what is its significance? What else do you plan on pursuing in the future?
Right now, I am working on three big projects. I have been on research leave for all of the calendar year 2018, thanks to a British Academy Fellowship. These are pretty competitive, so I was delighted to be awarded one. I am working on a book on language law and policy for Welsh, Gaelic and Irish (in both the Republic and Northern Ireland). I have done a lot of writing on this over the years, and this gives me the chance to put together a major monograph. I’m hoping that it will be done in 2019, for publication in 2020. I think it will be the first major treatment of this topic, so I’m pretty excited about it. I now have a huge amount of material, and I think there could be another book on Wales alone—some pretty remarkable things are happening there right now in a lot of different areas, and I think that Wales, in particular, merits an even closer look.
The second and third are essentially turning my PhD, awarded many years ago now, into two books. The first is a scholarly edition of the secular poetry of John MacLean, the Bard MacLean, which will be published by the Scottish Gaelic Texts Society. Much of the work is done, and I expect that it will finally be in print in 2019. The other is a biography of this poet. We have relatively few such works, and I hope that this book will be a good contribution to scholarship on the Gaelic tradition of song-poetry. MacLean was a very interesting and, I will argue, a significant figure. He was one of the last of the ‘family poets’—he was poet to MacLean of Coll, a significant branch of the MacLeans—and was perhaps the most significant of the poets who had emigrated to the new world. He was also a very significant composer of spiritual verse in the Presbyterian tradition, and was also an assiduous collector of Gaelic song-poetry, some of which he published himself. This book is taking a little more time, though—in my PhD, I focused on the secular poetry, but MacLean composed almost as much religious verse as secular material, and I really need to include that aspect of his life and work. This also involves editing the religious verse—like his secular verse, much of his religious verse was published by his grandson, Alexander Maclean Sinclair, but Sinclair took very large editorial liberties with the texts. Fortunately, MacLean’s own manuscripts, as well as a collection he published himself in 1835, provide the basis for definitive editions. In addition to the biography, editing the spiritual verse will be a future project. This is something that Donald Meek is interested in, and so I’m hopeful that the spiritual verse will appear in the not-too-distant future.
After getting through this material, there are three or four major areas that I’d like to explore in the mid-term. I’m very interested in Gaelic humour. Humour is central to all human societies, and in my experience, humour is a big part of Gaelic culture. Strangely, there has been very little done on it, something that is even more strange given the growth in recent decades of humour research. I’m just now trying to finish an article based on a paper I gave a couple of years ago on ‘amadain ghlice’, ‘wise fools’, and more will follow in this area.
A second area is Gaelic in Canada. I’ve done a lot of work recently on Jonathan G. MacKinnon, who has become something of a hero to me, and I think that a whole book could be written on him. He was a prodigious Gaelic prose writer—his contributions to his paper ‘Mac-Talla’ alone make him one of the most productive Gaelic writers of all time—and I think that a collection of his prose is also overdue. More generally, I think that a social and cultural history of Gaelic in Canada is also needed.
A third area is Gaelic policy in Scotland. We have now had a language act for thirteen years—it has been in force for over twelve—and I think we need to take a closer look at its accomplishments and failures. We tend to assume that legislation is an important part of any effort to maintain and revitalise minority languages—one scholar, Francois Grin, has said that legislation is necessary in such efforts though not by itself sufficient—but we don’t know nearly enough about whether and how legislation can contribute, and I think that a close look at Gaelic could provide a lot of useful clues that will be important not only to Gaelic in Scotland but to minority language revitalisation scholarship more generally. Finally, I was for years a member of the board of MG Alba and was involved in the creation of BBC Alba. I think we need to take a closer look at the role of media in general and television in particular in Gaelic policy.
So, there’s a lot on the plate there. There are, of course, areas that I want to return to. It was Gaelic oral tradition and song which really stoked the fires of my interest in the language and culture in the early 1990s, as will be clear from an earlier answer. Sitting across George Square from the School of Scottish Studies Archives and down the road from the National Library of Scotland’s remarkable holdings, I really want to make more time for work which draws on these resources. I am particularly interested in the waulking song tradition, and in oral narrative. I am also extremely keen on developing projects which link the resources in the School and the National Library to the communities from which the materials came in the first place. Underlying much of what I’ve tried to do over the last twenty-three years in academe is a desire to support the Gaelic language and, especially, the communities of speakers. I hope and expect that this will continue to lie at the heart of what I do.
4. Do you believe that there is much support for or knowledge of Celtic / Gaelic Studies in the North American academy as a whole? Are faculty and administration equipped to support research that young scholars want to do in the field, or encouraging of that work? Why or why not? What could or should be done?
This is a somewhat difficult question to answer, mainly because I am now living in the UK, and am not as close to things in North American academe, or North America in general, as I’d like. The marginalisation of Celtic and Gaelic Studies in North America is, however, in my opinion obvious and deeply regrettable. There is only a handful of institutions which teach Celtic languages, literatures and cultures. This marginalisation has been explored very rigorously by the likes of Michael Newton, and I think he and others have analysed the situation very effectively, and I don’t have too much to add. What is peculiar, though, is that there has, in my view, been an ‘ethnic revival’ of sorts in North America over the last forty or more years—it is particularly marked in Canada, thanks to the rhetoric surrounding the idea which emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s of Canada as a multicultural society—but that this revival has to a considerable degree passed Celtic cultures by.
I suspect that part of the reason is that Celtic-speakers have in general been pretty thoroughly assimilated, and that for many people who can claim a ‘Celtic’ ancestry, their interest in their heritage, to the extent that it has survived, has been satisfied by forms of cultural expression that are not based on the languages themselves. In my experience, though, this is changing; institutions of higher education have, however, generally been slow to react.
I suspect that at very many institutions, if courses or even degrees were offered, students would come. At Edinburgh, we have set up a pre-honours course, Introduction to Gaelic Language and Culture, which is aimed to a considerable extent at visiting students, and the uptake from North American students—as well as for our Celtic ‘survey’ courses—is very strong. It’s a chicken-and-egg sort of problem. Most academics and administrators at North American universities are almost totally unaware of the existence of Celtic languages and cultures, or about the significant part that those languages and cultures have played in many, many places in North America. Because they don’t have Celtic departments, they don’t hear the story, and because there are no courses available to students, they are unaware of the potential latent demand which, I think, is there. I hope very much that the visiting lectureship at North Carolina which has been put in place for the 2018-19 academic year will begin to show the administration there the potential which exists. If it happens at UNC, which is a fine university, other institutions may begin to take notice.
One final thought relates to how we teach our subject. Through our languages, literatures, cultures and histories, we can explore all of the great issues which have always been central to the humanities, and which remain central to contemporary societal debates: identity, diversity, belonging, exclusion, power, authority, individual and group rights, our relationship to the natural world and custodianship of the environment, our relationship with the past, the meaning of community and of heritage, and so on. There is some very exciting work going on right now, as was evidenced very recently at the Gaelic research conference, Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig, which we were honoured to host at Edinburgh, and we should continue to show our colleagues and our students that we can offer interesting, innovative and fundamentally important perspectives on all these issues.
5. How do you think Celtic / Gaelic Studies could enrich American scholarship about the history, culture and literary of this continent and Europe? What are we missing in our understanding of the story of North America from the lack of development of this field?
Well, for one thing, we are missing the opportunity to tell the true story of many hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to North America: the story of who they were, where they came from, what languages they spoke, what cultures they and their descendants practised, what forms of cultural expression they and their descendants developed in the new world, how they and their descendants felt about their languages and cultures and the loss of those languages and cultures.
As I mentioned in my previous answer, through our languages and cultures and literatures and histories, we can engage with and better understand all of the great questions of our age. We can understand how contemporary North American identities came to be constructed, and what was attendant upon the construction of such identities. In my own experience, developing an understanding of the minority condition which has been experienced by Celtic peoples, both in Europe and in North America, has increased my empathy for other minorities, and increased my understanding of how diversity enriches us and can, in fact, strengthen our societies.
I am convinced that it can help us understand better how we can live with people of diverse backgrounds with mutual respect and tolerance, and what, in this increasingly small world of the 21st century, a world in which we must both live with others and work together to solve the global challenges which threaten us all, could be more important than that. But we are also missing out on cultures and literatures and languages that are inherently worthwhile. The cultural and literary output of Celtic-speaking peoples is remarkably rich and diverse. The languages themselves are endlessly fascinating. Having no knowledge of these languages, literatures, and cultures would leave us much, much poorer.