One of the primary aims of Urras Gàidhlig nan Stàitean Aonaichte / the Scottish Gaelic Foundation of the U.S.A. – its most ambitious goal – is to endow a chair of Scottish Gaelic Studies in a university in the United States. This pronouncement might cause people to ask some basic questions: What is Scottish Gaelic Studies? How would it look in North America? What would it tell us?
These are reasonable questions to ask, and since the achievement of our ambitions will only be realized with the cooperation and collaboration of allies and supporters, the answers to these questions are worth exploring.
Language is fundamental to culture: it is simply not possible to study a culture seriously without a knowledge of the language(s) of that society. A knowledge of Scottish Gaelic is the foundational basis of any scholarship dealing with cultural expressions produced by Gaelic communities, whether at home in Scotland or in immigrant settings in North America. How accurate or complete would an account of the history of France be if the scholars who wrote it couldn’t read French but instead insisted on using only sources written in German or English? Not very, and yet this is the kind of treatment that has been commonplace where the history of the Gaels has been concerned.
Gaelic culture can boast of many intellectual and cultural achievements that are worthy of study, with a lineage of literary output that can rival that of any other civilization in Europe. Many of those who inherited this heritage and brought it with them to North America valued it too. Why, then, should we be content to ignore it, and only celebrate the superficial external road-signs of Highland origins: tartans, kilts, etc? Is that what a people who are truly proud of their culture do? Why do we still insist on teaching about the importance of “British Literature” and “British History” in American schools in courses that ignore the contributions and even existence of Celtic-speaking peoples in those same contexts? Aren’t those biases and exclusions in our origin myths worth examining and criticizing for what they are?
Gaelic communities produced a wealth of materials that are crying out for attention, especially in the immigrant setting. Materials in the form of literature, music, song and “folkways” are particularly rich in content. These materials can, in turn, be analyzed and interpreted for what they tell us about the opinions of Gaels regarding such matters as identity, religion, cultural allegiances, assimilation (or resistance to it), the emigrant experience, historical consciousness, musical aesthetics, literary continuity, political engagement and relations with other ethnic groups. In other words, all of the standard questions that scholars pose about the many ethnic groups which they investigate so that our knowledge can be said to be mature and grounded in solid evidence (rather than speculation, stereotypes or unfounded claims).
To get a taste of the range of work in the field of Scottish Gaelic Studies, follow this web link. For a discussion of the important but neglected body of Scottish Gaelic literature in North America, see this article.
Scottish Gaelic Studies will develop in a North American context by focusing on the following issues:
* Locate and identify sources and create indices: Primary evidence about Gaelic immigrants and immigrant communities are not only scattered in a variety of kinds of sources – manuscripts in private collections and archives, local newspapers, rare books, field recordings, etc – but many of these are often found far away from the American locales they describe: in Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, etc. Collaborative efforts with scholars in these other locales will enable compiling a definitive index of the necessary sources.
* Locate and identify individuals and communities: There is still no definitive inventory of Gaelic immigrant communities and individuals of interest that would facilitate the work of searching local sources implicit in the previous entry above.
* Create definitive editions of texts: There are many Gaelic texts composed by American Gaels, particularly in the form of song-poetry, that contain information that is absolutely crucial to an understanding of the experiences and perceptions of individuals and communities. Creating definition editions (including translations into English) requires finding and comparing all of the surviving variations of texts, sorting out the nature of these variations and their potential meanings, and modernizing the orthography of texts to modern standards.
* Apply disciplinary tools to sources: The availability of reliable primary sources will enable a range of new questions and areas of enquiry to be applied to the remains of the past: specialists in history, literature, sociology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, and so on, will be able to bring their own methods to bear on these materials to bring a better and deeper understanding of the Gaelic emigrant experience than was ever previously possible.
It takes years for aspiring scholars to acquire all of the necessary skills and knowledge to carry out this kind of research. The work itself is detailed and laborious and requires dedication, insight, collaboration and patience. It will not be possible for Scottish Gaelic Studies to take root and prosper until it finds proper support in the academy.
Although North America has long been home to many distinct native peoples, and many other ethnic groups have immigrated to the continent over the last several centuries, large numbers of Scottish Gaelic immigrants settled all around the US and Canada, often at key places and times. Many of their descendants were able to integrate themselves into the dominant majority by assimilating to the linguistic and cultural norms of the anglophone establishment, and gain privilege and power in the process, but the end result of this angloconformity has been the effective erasure of Gaelic heritage – particularly because of the long history of the stigmatization of the Gaelic language and culture and its reduction to simplistic icons, rather being than cherished, sustained and protected by formal institutions.
We have a greater respect for diversity than ever before, and a recognition of the vulnerability of the many marginalized languages around the world, of which Scottish Gaelic is one. What better way could we understand the global village, the plight of refugees, or the costs of angloconformity than by reclaiming and nurturing this heritage? Many other ethnic groups – English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Norwegian, Ukranian, Polish, Lebanese, etc. – have ensured that their histories and experiences have been taken seriously so that their legacy as immigrants in North America is properly taken into account: why shouldn’t the descendants of Scottish Gaels – who certainly possess the means to accomplish this – do the same?