Goiridh Domhnullach

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

My people are/were Catholic Gaels. Penal Laws against Catholics were introduced with the Scottish Reformation in 1560. From that time onward, although the implementation of the laws were more enforced some times than at others (especially after Jacobite risings), it was illegal for my ancestors to practice their Catholic faith. It was illegal for priests to minister to the people and to give them the sacrements. Religious persecution contributed to my people leaving the Scottish Highlands and Islands.

From at least the 1400s on, as the Inglis (English) language grew in strength in Lowland Scotland, folks living there began to believe more and more that their ancestors had never spoken Scottish Gaelic. They had, for hundreds of years. It’s believed that Scottish Gaelic was the main language across most of Scotland 1,000 years ago. Anti-Gaelic prejudice continued to grow among English speakers over the next few hundred years, as did Gaelic prejudice against “luchd na Beurla”, the “speakers of the English language”. A myth arose in the Lowland mind that the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ language was THE historic language of the Scottish nation, Gaelic was referred to as Erse (Irish), and the Gaels, who had formed the original kingdom of Alba (Scotland), came to be viewed as ‘invading foreigners’, as ‘other’, as barbaric, backwards, savage, and uncivilized. With mindsets like these, it didn’t work against the consciences of those who held power in Lowland Scotland to continually take steps to smash Gaelic society and de-Gaelicize the Gael. Either make them the same as yourself, or exterminate them.

Anti-Gaelic and anti-Gael policies really came to the fore and gained strength in the early 17th century with the Statutes of Iona in 1610 and with Privy Council legislation in 1616. One of the main goals of the former legislation was to implant the English language among the wealthiest and most powerful, the gentry, of Gaelic society, and as well to remove the Bardic orders (professional poets) who operated as the creators and guardians of the identity of the Gaelic nation. The latter legislation placed emphasis on ‘rooting out’ the Gaelic language itself among the whole population and planting the ‘civilized’ English language in its place. Even as far back as this, the opponents of Gaelic society recognized the tremendous importance of language in the maintenance of cultural identity. In their views, Gaels needed to be stripped of their Gaelic identity before they could become proper and productive citizens of the Scottish realm.

The influence and control of ‘luchd na Beurla/na Goill’, ‘the speakers of English/the foreigners/Lowlanders,’ over Scottish Gaelic society continued to grow throughout the 1600s and 1700s and the level of self-determination, control over their own lives, in the Gaelic-speaking Highlands and Islands declined as the English-speaking power-base grew in size and strength in Scotland/Britain.

Concurrent with these anti-Catholic and anti-Gaelic policies was the introduction of capitalism into Gaeldom. Some individual lairds and clans which straddled the Gaidhealtachd (Gaelic-speaking area) and the Galldachd (English-speaking area), which were on the periphery of Gaeldom, acted as mediators and held the door open for these policies, which were detrimental to the Gaels, to come through to Gaelic society and expand there.

In the clan system, people were more valuable than money but this all changed after the failure of the last Jacobite Rising in 1746 and the extreme repression and retribution enacted on the Gaels (especially Jacobite clans and individuals, but also non-Jacobites) by the British state. The males amoung my some lines of my ancestors would have been reduced from clan warriors and farmers to a state of extreme poverty in which they were not much better off than slaves. In one line they would have been made into what has been referred to as ‘seaweed serfs’ as they had to harvest the seaweed for the making of kelp in order to subsist at all as they would have been put on land which was not fertile enough to sustain them. The landed gentry, who came from or acquiesced to, the British state and capitalist system, greatly benefitted financially from this at the expense of the common people.

My ancestors began coming to mainland Nova Scotia in the early 1790s and later moved to Cape Breton Island. Many came to escape the religious persecution of Catholics, because of high increases in rents expected from them and their lower standard of living because of them, and because they had had enough of constant attacks on and the eroding of their culture and society and they saw the promise of escaping all of this in the New World. Most of my ancestors were of the Clan Ranald in Morar, Arasaig, Eigg, and Moidart and, after the defeat of the Jacobite Army at Culloden, British Army troops under Cornwallis (under the Duke of Cumberland’s, the king’s son’s, orders) went through these lands and murdered men, women, and children, raped women and girls, took their cattle and other livestock and killed what they couldn’t take, and burned the homes of the inhabitants.

Most of the branches of my family would have been independent enough financially to arrange their passage here and to establish themselves. Some may have belonged to the tackmen class, but most would have been farmers. Those who came to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island before 1815 may not have been rich financially, but they had enough to make a comfortable life for themselves. The poorest came after 1815, had been forced economically, may have had their passages paid for them, and were only able to occupy the unsettled ‘rear’ lands which were much less fertile and often on mountains.

Although not many Gaels were able to access education through their own language, the language itself remained strong in communities and homes until the mid-20th century in Cape Breton Island. In Nova Scotia, a wave of English language culture swept eastwards and, in conjunction with British colonial policies (in NS and British North America) which undermined Gaelic language, culture, and identity, assimilated Gaels in the mainland counties of Pictou, Guysborough, and Antigonish (before the mid-20th century), before beginning the process again in Cape Breton Island. (The four most easterly counties in Nova Scotia are on Cape Breton Island, and two of them, Inverness and Victoria, have the largest numbers of remaining Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia and, therefore, Canada.)

Scottish Gaels settled in many other parts of Canada as well and you would find a fair number of Gaelic speaking communities and households in Canada, outside of Nova Scotia, 100 to 130 years ago. At the time of Canadian confederation, Scottish Gaelic was the 3rd most spoken language in the Dominion after English and French. Since that time, due to economic and educational policies throughout the country which have worked against or ignored Gaelic language and culture as a very strong contributor to the making and identity of this nation, the public’s perception, and that of people of Gaelic descent, of the importance and even existence of the Gaels and their language and culture here has declined to such a point that it is almost non-existent. This has been complicated by the mythology of “Scottish culture” as opposed to the genuine “Gaelic culture” which has been promoted both here and abroad for over a century and a half by those who, for whatever reasons, have bought into ‘Britishness’.

After the smashing of Scottish Gaelic society after the failure of the last Jacobite rising, those who had lived comfortably in their own land were brought to a state of extreme poverty. At the same time, the British state utilized the martial skills and spirit of Gaelic society to expand the British Empire to the benefit of those who already monopolized both wealth and power. Gaelic society was no longer a threat, no longer to be feared, and its warriors had become the shock troops of the British Army. It wasn’t proper, in British society, to refer to these as Gaelic troops, as that would draw comparisons to the rebel, Catholic, Gaelic Irish, who would just never learn how to behave as good, loyal, British subjects! It was very acceptable to refer to them as ‘Scottish’ or ‘Highland’ troops (Scotland, having become part of Great Britain in 1707, could be considered British).

A sort of Brigadoon, anglo-centric (English-speaking) culture grew up from this morass and became what we know as ‘Scottish culture’ – whiskey, tartans, pipe-bands, Highland dancing, cultural competitions (piping and dance), and Highland games. In Nova Scotia and Cape Breton (as I’m sure in all other Gaelic areas of what is now Canada), this ‘Scottish culture’ was strongest in more urban areas and conducted in and transmitted by the English language by and large. Meanwhile, in Gaelic speaking homes and communities, a more traditional, genuine culture was lived and encapsulated the Gaelic language and world-view, and vibrant traditions of storytelling, song, Gaelic (step-)dance, dance-piping and dance-fiddling, foodways, and faith traditions. Due to provincial government and education policies and those of the Gaelic College, which began in Cape Breton in the late 1930s, traditional, authentic Gaelic culture was relegated a lower status and ‘Scottishness’ and ‘Scottish culture’ were much more promoted, with cultural ‘experts’ and improvers’ from outside of Gaelic culture being more highly regarded by non-Gaels and, unfortunately, often by Gaels themselves.

Language-wise, there wasn’t much hope for the Gaelic language and (eventually) its attendant culture in Nova Scotia as, in the early 21st century, the last of its strongest native speakers were dying off. However, about a decade ago, this began to change due to a number of reasons. Internationally, people became more aware of the importance of bio-diversity and also of cultural and linguistic diversity. People in Nova Scotia and Gaels themselves began to honour the extremely long and rich legacy of the Scottish Gaelic language and culture both here and abroad. Government began to take the first concrete steps to support the language as the ‘life’s blood’ of the culture, a culture which paid huge financial dividends to provincial and community coffers! And thirdly, a new movement of community-based language acquisition called Gaidhlig aig Baile (Gaelic in the Community) gave and continues to give inspiration, motivation, and direction to a linguistic and cultural renewal here.

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

See above.

I’m from a community called Braigh na h-Aibhneadh (Kingsville and Glendale) which is in southern Inverness County, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. It was settled from the 1790s till the 1840s by Scottish Gaels, Clan Ranald people, predominately from Arasaig, Moidart, Lochaber, and Morar. 15 years ago, almost everyone of the oldest generations were native Gaelic speakers who had learned Gaelic as a secondary language through the school system or had been raised in bi-linguaal households. Today, those who had the strongest language competence have passed on and a small handfull of native speakers and semi-speakers remain, but younger generations are also acquiring the language now.

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

From the 1880s on, many Gaels emigrated from Cape Breton Island and eastern Nova Scotia. Earlier on it was to “The Boston States”, the U.S., especially Mass. and some to Detroit. Others went to western Canada. In the 1960s and 1970s and into the ’80s, Ontario became the main destination. In the 1970s, greater numbers started to move to Alberta for work. This increased through the ’80s and ’90s and now, most of our youth go to live and work in the ‘tar sands’ of Fort McMurray in northern Alberta. Older men and women still have their homes in Cape Breton but “commute” back and forth to Alberta, things like “3 weeks in, 2 weeks home”.

There is very little retention of post-teen youth in Nova Scotia. Their culture tells them that their job is to move away to find work and a lifestyle elsewhere. This is largely due to the fact that they identify strongest with a generic, North American, consumer, mass-media culture of consumption and less with their ancestral Gaelic culture.

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

Fot the Gaels, it’s far too much a hidden legacy, and extremely cultural. I believe that the Gaelic worldview and frame of mind greatly influenced those of Canada, which I see as the most Gaelic nation in the world, next to Ireland and Scotland. What is hockey? Camanachd on skates and ice.

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

How sad it is that a strong, dynamic, expressive, and dynamic culture such as Scottish Gaelic culture has been reduced so greatly to the ludicrous stereotypes of Brigadoonery that are ‘Scottish culture’. (Sorry. I’m always serious on these matters. Not too serious about a lot of other things in my life!)

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