[Originally published December 24, 2015 by Michael Newton]
The idea of raising funds among Americans to support the development of Gaelic in higher education may sound revolutionary, but it’s actually been attempted before and received strong support from men of rank and station – and it might have changed the face of Gaelic education in Scotland.
It is a popularly held notion that all Scots place a strong emphasis on being well educated and literate, but this oversimplified assertion ignores the fact that education in Scotland was an arm of colonization. Official legislation (of the Scottish Privy Council in 1616) explicitly called for Gaelic to be “abolished and removed” and for schools to be built to promote English and Protestantism for political purposes. Thus, education has been a primary means by which Gaels have been denied the right to be educated in their own language or the benefit of developing their own traditions and institutions of learning and literacy which they had in previous centuries. (How many people will be commemorating the four hundred year anniversary of this heinous act?)
In 1926, a public campaign was announced to collect funds among sympathetic Scottish Americans to create a new college in Scotland to tend to the needs of Gaels in Scotland. It seems to have been inspired by a trip made by Angus Robertson, then president of An Comunn Gàidhealach, to the United States and led to the formation of the American Iona Society. This organization was headed by successful men in their day, including John Finley (editor of the New York Times) and William Hamilton (editor of the Wall Street Journal).
The rationale presented by the American Iona Society for supporting the proposed college were that (1) Gaelic had inadequate – really just token – support in the four main universities in Scotland; (2) unlike the US, where citizens were well served by nearby colleges, Gaels had to travel far away from home and into a foreign cultural zone in order to receive education; (3) the Highlands were disadvantaged and under-developed in many respects and an institution was needed to address challenges specific to that region; (4) Scottish-Americans wished to recognize the contributions made to the US by Scottish emigrants with this act of generosity.
The name of the proposed college, Iona, was a homage to the renowned centre of learning (whose name is actually “Ì” or “Eilean Idhe” – “Iona” was a medieval scribal error that was picked up in English) that had trained so many of the early Gaelic literati. Several locations in the Western Highlands were proposed for the site of the college, one of them being Iona itself.
In 1926, Professor Gerig, then the holder of the Chair of Celtic at Columbia University, wrote a letter in support of the initiative not only stressing the importance of the scholarship to be done on Scottish Gaelic but also the help that such an institution could offer to the desperate situation of the language:
Only the Irish are making any consistent attempt to preserve their language, and for that purpose the campaigns mentioned above were started here. … While at least eight different American Universities offer courses in Irish, either ancient or modern … there is not, so far as I know, a single institution on this side of the Atlantic, offering a course in Scottish Gaelic. … (The Scotsman February 23, 1923)
Robertson was aware that the four existing universities in the Lowlands would be threatened by this potential competition. He wrote pre-emptively, “Leading Scots educators will, when the time is ripe, consult with leading American educators in a spirit of kindliness and harmony. We have no desire to antagonize any of the four existing Universities. …” (An Gàidheal 22 (1927): 90).
The criticism and doubt sown in letters to Lowland newspapers such as the Scotsman indicate that these parties were indeed attempting to undermine the effort, claiming that they deserved any monies collected in order to strengthen their own existing departments and chairs. Attempting a new venture in the (supposedly) “notoriously problematic” Highlands was asserted to be too risky. Jealousies between potential host locations in the Highlands further fragmented the vision.
The campaign skidded to a halt with the 1929 Wall Street Crash and ensuing Great Depression. It was re-instated in 1935 but, as has happened so often to efforts meant to benefit Gaeldom, the same vested interests prevented anything from materializing. Unfortunately, all that remains of the campaign today is a small fund.
It took a wealthy and visionary Scot – Iain Noble – to take undertake this endeavour within Scotland on his own in the 1970s. The formation of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic-medium college based on Skye, is a story of persistence and triumph. But much more could be done on behalf of Gaelic in North America that would benefit the language communities of both continents, as well as provide much needed illumination on this neglected aspect of our history and culture, if we could harnass the goodwill and prosperity of the descendants of Gaelic emigrants today.
NOTE: I have also written about a short-lived proposal in 1902 to endow a chair at an American university to support research about Gaelic. See Michael Newton, “‘Becoming Cold-hearted like the Gentiles Around Them’: Scottish Gaelic in the United States 1872-1912.” eKeltoi 2 (2003), 120.
Thanks to Dr. Wilson McLeod of University of Edinburgh for providing some of the primary sources used for this article.