Geoffrey May

What do you know about the reasons for emigration from Scotland?

Ancestors evicted from Kintyre by Campbell of Argyl in 1650.

If you live overseas yourself, where do you live and can you say a few words about your personal Scottish diaspora story?

I live in Cape Breton Island.

Have any of your ancestors or members of your family emigrated? If so, where to? And do you know anything about their story overseas?

My father’s ancestors were evicted from their lands in Kintyre in 1650, when Campbell of Argyle purchased the debts of Donald of Islay, and evicted his tenants. The family went to Holland, and from there to Bavaria, where many of their descendants still live in Obenbright. At the time they arrived Bavaria had been largely depopulated by the 30 Years War and accompanying plague. My great grandfather left Bavaria and moved to England following service in the Franco -Prussian War.
The family history was collected by one of my father’s uncles who visited the family between the World Wars. My grandfather emigrated to New York where my father was born. In 1928 , my grandparents took my father to England to meet family. While there, the stock market crashed, and it was decided to remain in England, where there was work for a commercial artist. My grandfather  had my father join the American Army when he came of age. After the war, my father took advantage  of the G I Bill, met my mother and remained in the US  until 1974, when we moved to Cape Breton Island. As a child I knew my family was Scottish, members of Clan MacDonald . I had a keen interest in history and read lots of Scottish history. I especially enjoyed reading about Jacobite uprisings ,and enjoyed thinking about  my ancestors ” natural war like nature”. Our move to Cape Breton Island was principally owing to the beautiful scenery and ocean , but also Scottishness. In fact we first came here because my father wanted to attend the International Pipe Band Championships , which were held in Toronto in August 1972. My mother called a travel agent “Find we bagpipes somewhere NOT Toronto” , and the agent did some searching and reported that the Gaelic Mod, at the Gaelic College overlapped the Toronto championships, and my father accepted the substitute. In those days the Gaelic Mod was a week long event, and my father and I were happy to spend day after day watching the competitions of piping, drumming and highland dancing. My mother became bored and while killing time, bought a house overlooking the Bras D’or Lakes near Baddeck.
Two summers later we were living  in Margaree Harbour, where we bought a gift shop and restaurant , which always included a piper on staff, and my father took to wearing a kilt , eventually year round. I married, and my wife was the descendant of highland Scots who settled at Cape Breton in the late 17 and early 1800s. Our shop morphed from souvenirs to a “tartan circus”, selling lots of clan regalia and tartans ( blankets, ties , scarves, kilts, note books, etc etc ).
One summer a new piper joined staff, Angus MacKenzie, a native born Cape Breton Gaelic speaker, and his mother, who drove him to work, a Gaelic teacher. Maureen Rankin MacKenzie began teaching Gaelic to my wife and me, when she dropped Angus off, a few phrases , which I thought might be of value to employ with tourists. Effectively Maureen and her husband Ronald, from Uist, primed the pump, and my wife and I began lessons, and joined a chorus of Gaelic singers.
As I met more older Gaelic speakers , I was struck by their kindness and dignity, and their utter lack  of ” warlike nature”, which really shook my confidence in my reading of history. I also realized that the songs I was learning were history, history of the Gael, from the Gael. I could also see in the language clues to attitudes that would form a Gaelic world view , and started re-reading my histories. It appears to me from Gaelic language and Brehon Law, and also from Gaelic stories, that Gaelic culture was organized on the principal that personal honour  trumped property rights, and that the accumulation of wealth was regarded in bad taste and discouraged. I came to see that when Malcolm Canmor invaded Alba, his dynasty was involved in a constant struggle to impose feudalism (based on centralized power and primacy of personal property ) on the Gaels. Whereas Scottish history depicts England as the age-old enemy of Scotland it appears that the imposition of feudalism and Scottish  English language dialect ( now declared Scots ) was the more significant activity, the border between England and Scotland hardly moved, but the power of the Gael was steadily diminished, during the Canmor and Stewart dynasties. So the “warlike nature” was nothing but the  Gaels’ resistance to a political and social structure that in many regards was the opposite of what they lived and believed. National histories are inherently “nationalistic”, so we can read either the history of Scotland, or the History of Ireland, or the history of Mann, but never the history of the Gael.

What do you think is the legacy of the Scots abroad?

The Gaelic settlers of Canada is the main difference between Canadian and US attitudes.

Ending with something light-hearted: what did you think when first looking at the image called ‘Piper Kerr and Emperor penguin’?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>