I’ve written previously about the efforts led by Aonghus MacDhonnchaidh (Angus Robertson) to create a Gaelic-centred institution of higher learning in Scotland in the 1920s, backed by social and financial capital from the US (in this GaelicUSA blog post and in my book We’re Indians Sure Enough: The Legacy of Scottish Highlanders in the United States). Unfortunately, the existing universities in Scotland jealously guarded their monopoly on learning and would not acknowledge the legitimacy of a Gaelic-centred education in any case (education having become synonymous with anglicization).
There are further important details about the vision for this institution in Robertson’s rare monograph Children of the Fore-World (1933). He embarked on a visit to the U.S. in his role as president of An Comunn Gàidhealach (in Scotland) in 1924, where, apparently, he met backers of his ambitions and set the enterprise on a solid footing.
CHAPTER XIV: The Iona Celtic University
As the proposal to found a seminary for the study of Celtic culture and Celtic idealism on the island of Iona – with the preservation of the Gaelic language in Scotland as an objective – is attracting no undeserved universal attention, the manner of its inception may not be without interest.
In November 1924, during a visit to America, I had the privilege of addressing the Chamber of Commerce of New York. The following is the substance of my remarks on the occasion, from the incidence of which arose the formation of The American Iona Society, with constitution and objects as subjoined:
Address of Mr Angus Robertson, President of the Highlanders Association of Scotland
Mr President and Gentlemen,— I think an appreciation of the people that spoke the Celtic languages as never been put in more eloquent words than by one of your greatest writers – possibly your greatest – Ralph Waldo Emerson, who refers to the Celtic stock as being one of the oldest blood of the world. …
We are, however, coming to a fateful hour in the history and traditions of this wonderful race. The descendants of those who disseminated the most poetic and civilizing influences – now acclaimed as having saved England and North-western Europe from the worst excesses of the Dark Ages – are in danger of being absorbed for ever. Habits and modes of thought which had obtained for well over three thousand years will pass in our generation if we do not decide to save them. Art, song, culture and the humanities may have a country but no location. America has, I dare say, reaped the fruits of Celtic civilization as those who now speak the Gaelic tongue … Apart from the spoken language, we cannot preserve for the use of other generations its creative culture, its lore and its humanizing influences. I think that we, on the other side, can look to America for that responsive touch that is necessary to fulfill an ideal in which the superstructure would be yours as well as ours. I therefore make no apology if I appeal to you to join with us in saving the identity of an ancient race. Let me further say that no nation in Western Europe became known to history until it came in contact with the Celts. They have touched every continent of the world as a collective race except America; and I wish I could say to you now, ‘Take this race of about 250,000 souls and place them in a separate community in your midst and they will become a powerful inspiration, transmitting such ideals as they have, in the past, given to other countries’. We are struggling to preserve their spoken language. It is as much to the interest of America as to the interest of other nations that it should be preserved. A Gaelic college on the sacred island of Iona – a spot as well known throughout the world as Jerusalem – is an object I should like to see accomplished. With your sympathy it can. For it would, indeed, be a beautiful message if I were able to tell my people: ‘This college belongs to the human race and America wants to join in a covenant with its memories!’ Should such a happy junction of events materialize, a future generation will trace this helpful action of this great continent of yours and of its great men and proclaim that, after all, it is something to live with affection in a nation’s memory.
I thank you most deeply and sincerely for this wonderful courtesy; and I know my people will equally appreciate it. I again thank you most cordially.
The President. — Gentlemen, this was a purely educational address. It was not an appeal along any other lines, and I hope that Mr. Robertson will feel from your cordial response and reception given to him that he has received the gesture, at least, that he said would be so helpful and desirable at this time.
CHARTER: The University of the State of New York // Provisional Charter of American Iona Society, Inc.
This instrument witnesseth that the Regents of the University of the State of New York have granted this provisional charter incorporating
Richard M. Montgomery, Esq.
[19 further names]
and their associates and successors as an educational institution for the preservation and encouragement of Celtic culture, and particularly the culture of the Scots Gael as embodied in Language, Literature, Music, Arts and Crafts by their teaching and use, study and expansion, and the establishment of a centre of Gaelic culture to be developed into a Celtic institution of higher learning under the corporate name of American Iona Society, due to be located in Scotland, with its principal office to be located in the City of New York with the persons named as incorporators for its first Board of Trustees, to hold until their successors shall be chosen by the members of the corporation […]
Granted May 23, 1925, by the Regents of the University of the State of New York executed under this seal and recorded in their office No. 3445.
CHAPTER XVI: Lest we Forget
To one familiar with the progressive activities of An Comunn during its earlier tenuous years, and the awakening sense of our Highland people to-day, the prognostication could readily be formed that the salvation of the Gaelic speech is at hand. Its promoters are encouraged to harbour this faith for two obvious reasons. Firstly, the Gael is regaining consciousness of a pride of race. Secondly – and it behoves us to be jealous of its significance – we have gained the sympathy of an outer world. Disinterested zeal is the key-word of this national awakening. Patriotic men and women – though we do not fully measure their sacrifice – have, even in the midst of despair, given of their time and substance, so as to preserve for us and for succeeding ages the hierarchy of the Gaelic soul.
But the tasks of hope, while well on the way, are not yet accomplished. Much remains to be done. ‘The way to a mother’s heart’, says the celebrated Jean Paul Richter, ‘is through her children; the way to a people’s heart is through its language’. Our primary duty now, and always, is to teach the parent that it is nothing short of criminal to deprive the Gaelic-speaking child of the early exercise of his spiritual birthright.
[…] Is it, therefore, not a reasonable and natural proposition to suggest that the teaching of such art should form a necessary part of the Highland – and, for that matter, the Scottish – child’s education? If this claim is profitably vouched for – and who, in the light of modern knowledge, so arrant as to deny the ordinance?– we should, in all conscience, expect the child to be taught through his first intelligible medium, his mother-tongue. Nothing less will content us. And should authority, by any specious argument, ignore the plea, then authority is a traitor, whether the authority be vested in an elected body or in a popinjay.
[…] I should like to visualize a time when every village in the Highlands will have its magic circle of Gaelic philosophers and bards, where the Ollamh would aspire to recite his seven times fifty tales for the inherent glory which the reward of merit alone can give. The laconic word would then wing its moral to a quickened intelligence, and the value of the proverbs of our language would once again resume their instructive significance. Gaelic and English would thus develop on parallel lines, each the complement of the other. Medical men have demonstrated that a child assimilates more than two languages without strain or trouble.
I am prepared to advance the further postulate: if the average Scots child were taught Gaelic instead of French or Spanish, he would be given the key to a world of intellectual potentialities unapproachable by these or any other foreign language. He has a right to know the language of his blood, the, at one time, spoken speech of the whole Scottish nation, to limit but one of its provisional confines.
At present he is surrounded by surviving symbols of his early Gaelic ancestry in the place-names of his country – names which to the initiated breathe the fragrance of poetry – and yet he is entirely ignorant, for the most part, of their meaning, or at best he learns it from third-hand knowledge. Some day I hope the giant educator will discover this latent dynamic power, and apply its efficacy to the training of our youth. Let us remember the achievements of the missionary teachings of the early Celtic Church, representatives of which were at the head of scholastic seminaries in Europe for hundreds of years. That subtle, noble, inspiring, soulful and self-sacrificing influence is still the heritage and gift of our Gaelic-speaking people, and, perhaps, the four magic letters of IONA may yet carry a deeper and more passionate note into modern civilization than the S.P.Q.R. of the Roman Eagles.
His vision is still relevant for Gaels and many other marginalized peoples who have been denied the opportunity to use their own languages as a medium for education and to develop and expand the intellectual dimensions of their heritage in a manner consistent with it. It is GaelicUSA’s hope that we can make good on Robertson’s vision now to bring Gaelic the educational opportunities it needs and deserves.
PS. There is an Iona College in New Rochelle, New York (see this link), which was established in 1940. Might this college have been a residual result of Robertson’s efforts? It’s an intriguing possibility, but I don’t yet know … It would also be interesting to know if this effort had any influence on the establishment of Colaisde na Gàidhlig / The Gaelic College in Cape Breton.