“Anti-Gaelic Racism” does not exist

Exile was both the making and breaking of the Gaels. In the mid-19th century, there were almost as many Gàidhlig speakers in Canada as in Scotland. And while Gaels in the Highlands and Islands were languishing in the blight-ridden, poverty-stricken, chronically diseased crofting communities of the West, their cousins in Canada were building a new country.

It is a matter of pride perhaps, that nearly 500 years after the reign of James IV, the last King of Scots to speak Gàidhlig, the most common  language among the Fathers of the Canadian Confederation in 1867 was Gàidhlig, with Canada’s first two Prime Ministers being Gaels, whose families were Gàidhlig-speaking victims of the Clearances, and who in all probability had Gàidhlig (at least passively) themselves.

But the faint pride we might take from excelling in exile is tempered by the actions of the Canadian Gaels themselves. A recent article on The Huffington Post discusses a new piece of music about John A. MacDonald, Highlander and Canada’s founding Prime Minister, and his assaults on the indigenous peoples of the continent. In a parliamentary speech, only two decades after the Potato Famine in Ireland and Scotland,

“he bragged that the government would withhold food ‘until the Indians were on the verge of starvation, to reduce the expense.’ Hunger became a convenient tool for forcing the First Nation people onto marginal reserve lands to secure the development of both the CPR and immigrant farm settlement.”

And any who resisted the expansion of Canada to the Pacific were executed, in his own words, in order to

“convince the Red Man that the White Man rules”

In this way, John A. MacDonald justified atrocities using a mixture of racism and economic reasoning. As the brilliant Michael Newton has pointed out, the Clearances were similarly justified – by invoking overpopulation and economic development, the pain massaged by the fact the “Gaels were seen as being a distinct and inferior race to that of the Anglo-Saxon.” It is deeply troubling that a people who suffered so much in Scotland were happy  to oppress all-and-sundry in the New World. Even before the Clearances, many Gaels in the Carolinas were slave-owners and overseers, forcing the slaves to speak the language, to the extent that some even argue their Presbyterian psalm-singing seeded African-American Gospel music!

Why I am worrying so much about Gaels and racism? Because not too long ago, Alex Gabriel used my article ‘Why can’t people just call me by my name?’ as a hook for his own post over at Godlessness in Theory about the racism he suffered as a result of being half-Romany, half-Lithuanian. Alex’s post was frank and heartfelt and definitely worth a read. But, although I really appreciated the plug, I was very uncomfortable with even the tiniest implication that people misnaming me qualified as racism. Alex, self-confessed “tea-sipping white Englishman,” writes:

“My country practised empire in miniature before its ships had sailed, and a twee, home-baked colonialism survives in its treatment of the Celtic nations. I know that while I hope I’m an exception, I sometimes fail to be. (It was only months ago I learnt, to great but well-deserved discomfort, the effect of calling Ireland part of the British Isles.)”

I have often discussed my family and community’s use of a minority language with two of my friends, British Bangladeshis, who both use Bengali at home. And though its easy to find common ground here, Gaels’ role as footsoldiers of the British Empire means there is always tension in any attempt to compare ourselves to other minority groups, as R. Stornoway does in The Stornoway Way:

“The Western Islander’s response to our diminishing way of life is that of the oppressed the world over, from Native American to Australasian aborigine: a powerful urge to drink oneself underground.”

Tellingly, Kevin MacNeil has R. Stonoway use the old-fashioned, Imperial term aborigine, reflecting how Gaels have been inculcated with the values of Empire. And though Gaels have had little historical interaction with European Roma, well into the late 20th century the roads of the Highlands and Islanders were roamed by “travelling people.” In Timothy Neat’s Voice of the Bard, the poet Donald MacDonald (Dòmhnall Aonghais Bhàinof South Lochboisdale on South Uist, offers this description:

“There are some beautiful girls among the travelling people but they seem to lose their looks whilst still young women. It’s the poor conditions they live in, they hit the bottle, they smoke and that dries and wrinkles the skin. They have handsome men amongst the tinker people. And there’s a gift for fighting amongst the men. Often we’d see them fighting amongst themselves over in the camp but, it’s a strange thing, in the morning they’d be the best of friends. […] We were always pleased to see them, though none have been here for many years now.”

Though Highland Travellers and “Pakistanis” are typically spoken of fondly, to liberal sensibilities Dòmhnall’s description of the travellers is sexist and paternalistic – indeed, ceàrd (tinker) is an insult as bad as you can get in colloquial Gàidhlig!

The problem then is that Gaels might be quick to compare their culture’s fate to the oppressed, but in our words and deeds we haven’t always displayed the solidarity we invoke today. When I started following the media coverage of Gàidhlig last year, I was shocked by some of the ill-informed and ungenerous views expressed by the likes of Hugh Reilly. This is a chronic problem, as Emily McEwan Fujita or Kenneth MacKinnon showed in their in-depth reports on the press discourse surrounding Gàidhlig, where the same tropes appear again and again – Gàidhlig is a dead language, a crude patois, a waste of taxpayer’s money  being forced on the real Lowland Scotland where it was never spoken by the middle-class Gaelic Mafia.

I have been quick to label these attitudes as “bigoted” and “semi-racist.” It really is tempting to agree with An Sionnach Fionn, who has written about what he calls “Anti-Gaelic Racism:”

“…those who say that they ‘hate Gaelic’ don’t actually hate the Gaelic languages – they hate those who speak the Gaelic languages.”

While attacking the Hugh Reilly and his ilk gains my blog (and The Scotsman website!) lots of traffic, I’m starting to suspect that trigger-happy offendedness may not be the most helpful way of writing about Gàidhlig issues. We know the public are on our side, with the 2013 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey showing a majority of Scots support current spending on the language. When Hugh Reilly says:

“BBC Alba, a channel whereby one can watch football with the annoying Gaelic commentary turned down and await the half-time analysis in English by monolingual pundits.”

Is Tocasaid‘s response really helpful, if we accept its inappropriate to liken Gaels’ situation to the plight of other non-white minorities?

“Would he write something along the lines of, ‘I like a curry but can’t stand the annoying Asians talking in Urdu and can’t wait to get home to my ane white folk’?”

Are indigenous white Gaels really comparable to Scots Asians? With the 2011 Census now revealing the Western Isles are now just barely over 50% Gàidhlig, to write of ethnic, or even ethnolinguistic Gaels is increasingly outdated. On my father’s side I am as Gàidhealach as can be, but my mother is from Lancashire. I grew up in Eriskay, a Gàidhlig-speaking community, but I now live in the south of England.

It’s a fact that most Gàidhlig-speakers now live in the Lowlands, and with the rise of GME, Gàidhlig-speakers can now be of all nationalities, of all skin-colours, of all religions. Maybe its a shame that Gaelicness as an ethnicity has been assimilated almost entirely into the English world – look at Skye, almost Anglicized beyond help, or the Western Isles, where only in places like Ness or the Middle District of South Uist, do traditional Gàidhlig crofting communities survive. Yes, there is antipathy toward our language and culture in the media. Yes, its ignorant and bigoted. But its not racism, and to call it so disguises the subtleties of the Gàidhlig experience, past and present.

17 thoughts on ““Anti-Gaelic Racism” does not exist

  1. I graciously accept the rebuke – but my suggestion wasn’t necessarily that Gaels be termed a race (I’m in no way qualified to take part in that discussion), so much as that the category of “funny names” which people aggressively fail to get right is implicitly racist regardless of the culture at hand. It leans on a sense of foreignness, and the notion names which seem less than sufficiently native merit less attention or respect. Racism targets things, after all, that aren’t races in themselves: accents, modes of dress, religions. Names too, I think.

    On the point of English chauvinism being colonialistic, I’d point out inhabitants of many countries in the British Empire fought for it, but the parallel was mainly just aesthetic. It has limits, agreed, and certainly I wouldn’t wish to transgress them.

    1. Hi Alex, thanks for the comment. Not really an attack on you, I understood you weren’t making an explicit comparison. Others do make them, however. (Myself included!). And I wanted to set some kind of record straight. This post grew more out of reading up on some of the stuff the victims of the Clearances did once they got across the Atlantic (or ended up in Australia or New Zealand), rather than a late reaction to your post. Cheers!

    2. Yes, it was even imperial policy to import citizens from one part of the Empire to another in order to set up power structures with one minority group granted superiority over the locals. We took Indians to Africa and they moved Africans around and fiddled the administrative borders to keep an intermediate tier that would suppress the local majority on our behalf.

      Is it worth trying to work out how to apportion blame? Not if it’s just a means for ever level of the hierarchy to pass the buck to someone else…

  2. An interesting piece and I understand the intellectual uneasiness felt by some in using a term like “racism” but how else do you describe a body of attitudes that range from antipathy to active hatred when they are based on a clear “group” identifier? That the person being discriminated against is speaking or associating with a language other than the language being spoken by the person who is being discriminatory.

    The Irish language is spoken fluently by a small minority in Ireland, haltingly by a slightly bigger number and is identified with as their “native language” by a much larger number even though many of them would have at best a few basic words or phrases (in the last census of Ireland 41% of the population identified themselves as being in these three groups – excluding non-Irish nationals, the percentage of Irish-born who claim they have no knowledge of Irish at all is probably around 48% or less). Yet even people who don’t speak Irish in any way but who identify with it are targeted for abuse. And that includes plenty of people born outside of Ireland but now resident here (as Danish, American and Czech friends of mine can testify to).

    How would you categorise these opinions below expressed today on a current affairs website in Ireland, all relating to Irish:

    “John Dunne: Should scrap it, as its outdated rubbish. Its missing words in all. Caveman talk. Rubbish caveman language. English is a beautiful language, speaking Irish makes people sound inbred.

    Luke Sullivan: Many of them are dying from the forced over exposure to Irish as children. It’s well known scientific fact, and all but dwarfs the teenaged sun bed scandal, it even kills more people than smoking.”

    Bigoted? Discriminatory? Or simply racist?

    For me “anti-Gaelic racism” is based on language and culture first, the identification of someone as a Gaelophone by an Anglophone and the subsequent negative reaction. If a British person was to express hatred towards a Romanian or Pole technically that is “xenophobia”. But colloquially it would be called “racism”. In this day and age the two seem interchangeable?

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Someone said of me on facebook with regards to this article “Nach e a tha fuireachd ann an saoghal gun brigh” – isn’t he living in a world without meaning. But I suppose what I’m trying to do is clarify meanings. Its a great rhetorical tool to call criticizing minority languages racism, but I feel deeply uncomfortable doing that. When I wander round the streets of Oxford, people look at me and see a white person, probably British because I dress like a student. Its not like if I were black where I’d have a much bigger chance of being jailed unjustly due to people seeing my skin colour, or if the fact I was wearing a veil made me more likely to stopped by airport security. Being labelled Gaidheil or Gaeilgeoirí.just isn’t comparable in negative outcomes to being labelled Asian or Muslim or Black, at least in my opinion.

      1. But then you’re quantifying degrees of discrimination. I am less discriminated against than a Afro-Caribbean or Asian person in contemporary Britain because I have no obvious physical characteristics to mark me as a “other” (in this case a Gaelophone). You could also add that you can hide your linguistic identity by only using English in public therefore forestalling those who may react negatively upon hearing you speak in Gaelic (on the phone or to others).

        However that reminds me of black people in the 19th and 20th centuries attempting to pass as “white” because they possessed mixed-heritage or stereotypical European features in predominately white (and frequently discriminatory) societies. Or to take another tack, how many young men and women did (and still do) hide away their own sexuality simply because it is easier to do so in terms of the reception they receive in society at large?

        Ok, you are unlikely in Britain to be physically attacked for publicly speaking in Scottish, Welsh or Cornish, but you are also unlikely to receive the same degree of public or private acceptance/services as an English-speaker. And that in nations where those languages are indigenous as are the communities which speak them (in the case of the former two at least). If you are unable to receive access to the services of the state via your own or preferred/adopted language but must use another speech then what is that but a form of discrimination against the “group” you belong to or identify with?

        I think using “racism” solely as a term for discrimination based upon perceived biological differences is itself uncomfortable. There is no race but the human race. The older sense of the word (as least as used in Ireland) with reference to nationality, community, heritage, (self-)identify, culture and language is more applicable.

        We remain with a situation, here at least, where an Irish-speaking citizen of Ireland is demonstrably at a disadvantage compared to an English-speaking citizen if the Irish-speaker chooses to use his own language. Indeed in Ireland speaking in Irish to police officers who only speak English will lead to your arrest because you should be treated as (and I quote) “a foreigner” as has happened twice in the last year. That we know of.

        I admit though that the Irish situation is quite different in some respects from the British one.

  3. Mmmm. If you are to quote me, at least quote me in context.

    So, where do I start?

    First of all, I can’t recall using the term ‘anti-Gaelic racism’ in my piece.Could you highlight it somewhere for me? I did call Reilly a bigot and in the context of the quote above, could actually specify what is incorrect. If I understand the Race Relations Act correctly, as a layperson, Reilly could indeed be prosecuted for saying the very same things about Asians, Jews or even the Irish and escpecially Irish travellers. Have I misunderstood the RRA?

    Now, I have Irish ‘blood’ on both sides of my family and speak a little of the Gaelic tongue. It’s seems strange that were someone to abuse me on ground of my Irish Gaelic family they could be prosecuted under the RRA. However, were I to be abused for speaking Scottish Gaelic to my family, they wouldn’t. Worse, another Gael may take issue with the very nature of the hate crime. Now, being ‘white’ as you say may preclude me from the kind of attacks that non-white still suffer. On the other hand, white people are still attacked on account of their Irishness.

    To re-iterate, my Irishness (albeit 2 generations removed) is racial but my Scottishness isn’t?

    You also seem to highlight the Gaels’ role as enforcer of imperialism against non-whites. Is this a valid repudiation of my article on Reilly? If so, then surely action against anti-Irish discrimination is also invalid, not least because of the continuing racism that Irish travellers suffer in Ireland.

    It should also be noted that in much of the British Empire, some sections of the local population colluded with the colonialists. Put this in the context of the above. I could also touch upon the issue of slavery – who should shoulder the most blame for the shameful history of slavery in the ‘new world’? Those white people who bought and transported the slaves or those black Africans who sold neighbouring tribes?

    There is also the issue of what race is, given that all humans are biologically the same – black Africans and white Gaels are both homo sapien. However, if i’m not mistaken, race is understood in terms of culture and ethnicity with language being a significant marker of both. Surely then, Gaels do suffer racism?

    By this, I don’t mean someone merely questioning the wisdom of bi-lingual roadsigns but being referred to as ‘pigs’ as Reilly does. This by most people’s account is offensive. Am I and my young children really ‘swine’ on account of the language we speak at home?

    If you find my ‘direct’ approach not to your liking, then fair enough, we’ll agree to disagree. However, after more than two decades of being involved in both Gaelic and anti-racist/fascist activities – on occasion to my physical discomfort – I don’t have much tolerance for bigots. And while I wouldn’t for a moment suggest that people should act outwith the law, I know and admire many people who were active in such movements as Anti-Fascist Action in the 90s and the ANL of the 70s. In 90s Edinburgh, I can recall local AFA activists successfully defeating a violent BNP who had harrassed and physically attacked Asian familes, lesbian and gay people, women’s groups and the Irish community.

    And yes, we Gaels/Scots don’t have to face this kind of hatred today. But hatred there is. The last irony is that the Scottish Government recently brought in legislation to counter hate-speech in football grounds and online. I wonder how close Reilly comes to this. Had he shouted ‘pigs’ at an Irish football player in an Old Firm game he would have been arrested. Luckily for him, he can vent his frustrations on the Gaels in the pages of the Scotsman.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I enjoy your blog. The”Anti-Gaelic Racism” is a quote from the Sionnach Fionn, not you. You make a good argument, and certainly have more life experience than me. I’m quite new to this whole worrying about ‘Cor na Gaidhlig’ thing, as I spent 18 years in blissful ignorance in Eriskay, before ending up in England, and realizing I cared about the fate of my language, so I started a blog about it as I like writing. I wrote my own attack on Reilly as well.

  4. You have changed your title. You appear to be back-tracking. Racism certainly does exist. Tocasaid’s argument using Asians – swap the term for Gaels – is a very very good one. Anti-Gael prejudice – particularly Gaels from the Western Isles/Skye/Argyll i.e. na ‘Gaidheal duthchasach’ – does exist. And it is racist. My own family has experienced it from Scots who, when learning of their ethnic background, went out of their way to bully and harass on the basis of ethnicity. You set back the cause of Gaelic with this essay.

    1. How recent though? I just find it very uncomfortable to compare my experience as a white Gaidhig-speaking Eirisgeach to what Muslims or Romany people suffer in Europe today. Fair enough, we can find isolated examples of Gaels still being mocked in the modern day (which is why I changed the title), but we don’t suffer any kind of systematic oppression.

  5. “we don’t suffer any kind of systematic oppression.”


    We certainly did, and the mental scars and effects of it are only too obvious. Hate is hate is hate and no-one has the right to use their freedom of speech to denigrate others or deny others their own freedom no matter what their language, family background, nationality, culture or religion is.

  6. D.I.MacDonald, racism does not have to be ‘systematic oppression’. You seem to be suggesting that the targeting of individuals or families is somehow doesn’t count. Even if only one person a year was targeted, that is still completely unacceptable – and is racism, whether you deny it or not. Again, to use Tocasaid’s argument, would you say there is no ‘racism’ if only one Asian, or one Jew, or one Irish person was targeted?

  7. I suggest being careful about hyperbolic claims of the Gaelicness of Canadian Prime Ministers and other diasporic figures. Some people might have paraded bits of tartan when it was safe and quaint, but they were quick to express their solidarity with Anglo-Saxons publicly when it counted — like on issues of language, culture and policy. Otherwise there would still be a lot more Gaelic-speaking communities in N America and elsewhere.

    The issue of complicity in ethnocide, domination and oppression is certainly not unique to the Gaels — as Tocasaid states, every group of every “colour” has blood on their hands. Yet, there are some very interesting counter-examples of Gaels who did empathise with the oppressed and resist empire, so it’s a complex picture.

    I hope to comment on these issues in a forthcoming blog entry of my own soon — is mar sin, tapadh leat air son uinneag fhosgladh!

    1. Surely that’s the very issue though? All those occasions when “our own” sided with the Empire against both ither Gaels (including Irish) and indigenous peoples all over the world? That’s the dirty secret they don’t teach you about in GME, and, to me at least, makes the narrative of a racially oppressed minority difficult to uphold…

      I look forward to your post. Seeing as it was your reading your blog that got me interested in what came of the diasporic Gaels, I suspect this interested amateur will learn alot…

  8. The problem is with how we dissect the concept of “race”. Racial identities are cyphers that encode how a group fits into the social order — they are not biological realities and they change over time. Once the Gaels were seen as a separate race — before they were safely assimilated. And Gaels and other Europeans (and people of mixed ancestry) were able to leave their previous cultural and linguistic identities behind and become complementary Anglo-Saxons in the Empire — but then you can’t really call them “Gaels” anymore, because for all intents and purposes, they aren’t, given that being a Gael is a matter of language and culture, unless you actually believe in the reality of race, which is a social construct!

    The discourse of race as an essential identity is so fixed in people’s minds that it overshadows how cultural identities and access to political power are contested and fluidly formed at different places and times.

  9. http://newsnetscotland.com/index.php/scottish-news/8447-man-facing-jail-after-broadcast-urged-listeners-to-bang-bang-bang-young-journalist

    I wonder if it will be of any comfort to the journalist to find out that ‘Irish Catholics’ have been complicit in repression of the travelling community and in child abuse? Of course, most of us probably realise that the complicity of a few does not justify the harrassment of many and that those ‘Irish Catholics’ who are somehow guilty of a crime are no more representative of their ‘people’ (some may say race) than those Gaels were who took a role in Empire building, the best part of two centuries ago.

  10. Really interesting article and subsequent discussion.

    I agree with Dòmhnall Iain totally when he says there is always tension in attempts to compare ourselves to other minority groups, particularly with regard to imperialism etc. But at no point did he say that action against anti-Gaelic (or anti-Irish) discrimination was “invalid” because of this tension, as Tocasaid implies.

    For me, a lot of this discussion comes down to the idea of “intersectionality” (a concept that has been kicking around feminist discourse for decades), in that, when it comes to oppression, there are various factors at play and it is not sufficient to simply use a one-size-fits-all approach, whether you’re discussing racism, sexism or whatever.

    More recent feminist discussion has featured the phrase “check your privilege” to invoke the same concept – in other words, consider how your oppression as a woman is affected by your socio-economic class, your sexuality, your skin colour etc. So though I suffer oppression because I’m a woman, I don’t suffer as much oppression as a black woman, or a gay woman, or a woman who has been denied education.

    In the same vein, though I suffer oppression because I belong to a minority group, I don’t suffer as much as someone who belongs to a minority group but it also non-white, poor, denied education etc. Yes, this is, as Séamas says, “quantifying degrees of discrimination”, but I think it’s necessary to do that when it’s the reality. I think that was Dòmhnall Iain’s point – its uncomfortable and unhelpful to whitewash over the differences in context and the various factors at play.

    Some people do get outraged at the idea of intersectionality and privilege-checking – How dare you diminish MY suffering! Is MY experience not important? This is just FURTHER evidence of my oppression! – because the narrative of their own oppression is so tightly-held, there’s no room for the suffering of any other group. But it’s not a zero-sum game, and it is of course possible to tackle oppression while acknowledging your privileges, and acknowledging others who are more oppressed than you. That’s the kind of movement I want to see, whether it’s feminism or anti-racism or whatever.

    When discussing Gaelic matters, I’m personally not comfortable with using the term “racism”, but then it’s up to the individual.

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