You might be a Gael if …
I wrote a Not Your Father’s Gaelic blog post a few weeks ago wherein I expressed how nice it would be to have neighbors who are aware of and interested in their Scottish Gaelic heritage. Perhaps even neighbors with whom I could joke around in Gaelic! As it is, even my own (Italian American) mother’s eyes glaze over when I begin to get Gaelic-y.
Of course there are loads of people with Scottish Gaelic heritage just about everywhere in America. The problem is, they have no clue of the incredible heritage that they – and their children and grandchildren – are missing. Lets face the facts: precious few Scottish Americans are actually aware that they enjoy Scottish heritage and somewhat less than a micron of that number understand their Scottish Gaelic roots. Suffice it to say that one would not likely hike through the hyper-cultural polyglot of New York City and expect to happen upon a “little Gaidhealtachd” or a corner vendor selling haggis on a stick. Not gonna happen.
Why not? Gaelic immigration to America has been significant relative to other immigrant cultures. And this is important: people came here as Gaels – these were not people who considered themselves Scottish with a side dish of Gaelic ancestry. They spoke Gaelic – many spoke it exclusively – and they engaged in Gaelic tradition and lifeways in America. It is not a difficult task to unmask at least one or three folk of Gaelic heritage in almost any office or workplace in America today. What happened to Gaelic culture in America?
This particular post is not nearly as depressing and with hope it will provide a few moments of light-hearted enlightenment about what a Gael has been and is today. After all, the first job of a Gaelic activist in America is to introduce other people of Gaelic ancestry to an awesome lost heritage and in doing so, further enrich American lives.
So, in the spirit of our Ulster Scot brothers and sisters who dot the hills and hollows of Appalachia, please enjoy the inaugural edition of–
“You might be a Gael …”
You might be a Gael if you think you’re a “highlander”. Evidence of the presence and influence of Scottish Gaelic culture and language can be found throughout Scotland in clues such as Gaelic local place names. However, the Scottish highlands and islands have for centuries been the Gaelic heartland of Scotland. Gaels would not originally have referred to themselves as “highlanders” but might have used the Scottish Gaelic term “Gaidheal” or “braigheach”. Such a mountaineer would be living not in “the highlands” but in “a’ Ghaidhealtachd”. Generally accepted scholarship indicates that the modern Scottish split personality between “highland” and “lowland” – Gaelic and non-Gaelic – was not firmly in place until the 14th century. From there it only deepened and widened.
You might be a Gael if you like Outlander. Author Diana Gabaldon is one of the first popular fiction authors to take Gaelic culture seriously – the other being author of the outstanding “Bone Rattler” series, Eliot Pattison. Happily, Gabaldon’s pro-Gaelic approach has been taken up by the creators and crew of the StarzTV Outlander television series.
Not only is Scottish Gaelic correctly and appropriately spoken in the series but the actors and crew themselves have become outstanding ambassadors on behalf of the Scottish Gaelic culture. The three gods of Outlander Gaelic, Gillebride MacMillan, Adhamh O Broin and Gary Lewis are pictured above as part of Gary’s launch of a great online Gaelic learning site. Read about the real life Colum Mackenzie’s favorite online Scottish Gaelic language learning website LearnGaelic.scot.
You might be a Gael if you have never really got used to using the letters J, K, Q, V, X, Y and Z. That’s because the Scottish Gaelic alphabet does not use those letters. What does that sound like you ask? Try this: The website An Sgeulachd Ghoirid (the short story) is a wonderful site where you can hear Scottish short stories spoken by real people. It is a great site if you speak Gaelic but if you don’t it is absolutely fascinating. Check out the site and listen to a few stories to get an idea of what your ancestral language actually sounds like. And its nothing like English!
You might be a Gael if every time the massed regimental pipe bands begin to march at your local highland games you drop your scotch eggs and run for the hills. Don’t feel bad, it’s a Gaelic thing. That is exactly what your Gaelic ancestors might have felt like every time one of the Royal Independent Highland Companies darkened the door of a wee Gaelic cottage. More often than not the visit was not in a friendly spirit as these precursors to the famous Black Watch regiment were hired by the Crown to keep the peace and enforce the King’s law in the Gaelic highlands.
Worse, although plenty of Gaels filled out the ranks of many brave and glorious Scottish regiments, Gaelic military service on behalf of the British crown was not always voluntary.
Indeed, it was a known practice for 18th and 19th century clan chiefs to require the military service of their clansfolk’s Gaelic sons in British foreign wars in order for clan families to be allowed to remain on clan land and continue to live and farm in the manner that their ancestors had done for hundreds of years. It was an ugly trade in sons for land. Introduction of Anglo-Norman feudal land tenure transformed clan lands into the exclusive property of the clan chief through royal grant. By adopting a feudal title, the chief became a landlord and ceased to be a clan leader. Of course the clan chief pocketed the enlistment bounties paid by the British government and thereby added another personal income stream that could help to subsidize an increasingly expensive “chiefly” lifestyle.
You might be a Gael if you get a strange, exhilarating, warm and fuzzy feeling when you glimpse viking longships on the horizon. Yes, there was tension, battle and blood between Gaels and Vikings. Beginning in the late 8th century and continuing for six hundred years hence, the Gaelic western coast and northern islands were heavily influenced by Norsemen. But there was also trade, intermarriage, children and a blending of the Norse and the Gaelic cultures that is part of what made a Scottish Gael a unique and wonderful animal. Are you an e-book reader? If so, get a screamin’ good deal on George Henderson’s pre-1910 book The Norse Influence on Celtic Scotland. Download the Kindle edition now on Amazon for $1.59. True story. What do you have to lose?
You might be a Gael if you secretly think that the kind of kilt that guys wear today is just wrong. It is. Well, sort of. At least from the traditional Scottish Gaelic perspective. The original Gaelic form of the kilt was developed in the 16th century and is called the “feileadh mhor” or great kilt. It is a single large wrap that is gathered around the body and fixed at the waist with a belt while the lower half of the garment is draped around the upper part of the legs to the knee. The upper part of the great kilt can be worn as a cloak over the shoulder or even over the head in bad weather. The great kilt fit the work and lifestyle of the Gael very well for centuries. Watch Outlander’s Jamie Fraser show you how to put such a thing on. If you don’t know who Jamie Fraser is, watch the clip. Then watch the Starz production of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander.
The garment that has become so ubiquitous at Scottish highland games and other celebrations is a highly stylized version of an 18th century modification of the traditional Gaelic great kilt. It was likely developed to accommodate different sorts of work and industry and a different lifestyle that was being introduced to the highlands in the wake of the first Jacobite rising in 1715 in order to civilize Gaelic society and make it more productive for the larger United Kingdom.
By the time the small kilt or “feileadh beag” became popular among the Scottish diaspora in the late 19th and 20th centuries, it had undergone further modifications to suit kilted British military regiments. Fashion overtook function though, on the hips of romantic Victorian gentlemen who got a kick out of dressing up as a stylized version of the very same Gaels that had only recently been utterly defeated and subjugated and who would soon be physically removed from much of their Gaelic homeland altogether.
Not that there is anything wrong with your military style Victorian gentlemen’s “small kilt” – plenty a Gael wore something like it just prior to the 1746 “Dress Act” prohibiting the wearing of any type of highland dress except in service of the Crown in Scottish military regiments. And plenty of Gaels wore the small kilt into battle as part of a kilted British regiment. But for those of Gaelic ancestry today, there is an option that is more respectful of Gaelic heritage and, frankly guys, looks a great deal better on the bod! Next time you empty your sporran and trade a son to buy a new kilt – make it a great kilt and …
Get Your Gaelic On!