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The Gaelic Mafia: Issues of culture, language and resistance in Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way

This essay is an adapted version of the second chapter of my MLitt dissertation, written in 2011 as part of my Masters in Modern Scottish Writing at the University of Stirling. It is left largely unchanged, with the exception of the reference list; where the text itself makes it clear where a quote comes from, it has been left without a footnote, and each source will only be listed in the reference list once.


The following essay will argue that MacNeil’s prose functions to show both that Gaelic literature forms a literary movement of its own and that the Gaelic language does not define this literature per se. At the same time The Stornoway Way can be said to engage with post-colonial and archipelagic discourses through its depiction of islanders and islands. I will thus focus mainly on MacNeil’s portrayal of the island as a cultural symbol, challenging current perceptions of Gaelicness, followed by an analysis of the use of language as a form of cultural resistance in The Stornoway Way. Moreover, this chapter will deal extensively with religion and the way in which it shapes island identities, and influences the islanders’ approaches to the notion of traditional roles.

The Island and the Broken Other

When Berthold Schoene writes that The Stornoway Way is a novel ‘markedly lagging behind that of the rest of contemporary Scotland [that] does not do Hebridean culture any favours[1]’ he is making the same mistake as many other scholars, in that he assumes that MacNeil’s engagement with a minority culture, however negative it may seem, is the result of a sentimental adherence to a past that will not and cannot be revived, rather than an ironic attack on the same from within. Even more remarkably, by referring to the Hebrides as a singular entity, defined by a ‘Hebridean culture,’ he ignores the vast cultural differences between these islands, thereby letting the Isle of Lewis become synonymous with the Hebrides as a whole. By styling the novel as a product of a singular Otherness, Schoene overlooks what I would like to classify as the real purpose of the novel, i.e. on the one hand to challenge the idea of an island and its people as something to be Othered, and on the other hand to dramatize the reasons behind a single individual’s depression as realised by an islander. Thus the novel poignantly deconstructs an aspect of the Gaelic island experience from the perspective of an alcoholic Leòdhasach, making the main character R. Stornoway both fiercely attached to his native island while simultaneously being a global citizen who does not belong anywhere. Schoene, however, is quick to assume that R. Stornoway’s ironic lamentation of modern influences is a result of the islander’s need to remain the Other.

Nothing could be further from the truth; when answering a phone call from an exile friend, R. Stornoway is quick to finish the conversation when the friend starts complaining about the non-native incomers to Lewis, and how they have taken over what was traditionally the Gaelic Heartland and ask the friend to ‘phone [him] back, when [R. Stornoway is] drunk.’[2] In many ways this harsh response to the exile’s idea of the island as a place that needs to remain unchanged is a direct dramatization of MacNeil’s personal views. In an interview conducted by the literary blog Scots Whay Hae, shortly after the publication of MacNeil’s second novel, he states that while ‘there are solid historical reasons as to why characters from [R. Stornoway’s] part of the world might feel culturally slighted […] wallowing in the past offers little in the way of solution.’ R. Stornoway does however refer to Lewis as ‘being that bit different, as all islands are or very soon become’, but rather than seeing this as a proof of the novel’s wish to form a part of a literary tradition of Othering islands and remote places, this should be seen as one part of MacNeil’s careful deconstruction of the very same. In the introduction to These Islands: We Sing, MacNeil sums this point up in the following way; ‘it is a triumph that great writers are outward-looking, not just absorbed in their own internal matters: the same is true of islands.’

In claiming that MacNeil’s prose constitutes an island Trainspotting, written too late to have any influence on modern Scottish literature and that it thus ‘appears disheartingly out of time,’ however, Schoene is committing the crime of ironically seeing Scottish literature as a homogenised entity, where the major differences today are to be found not as a homogenic opposite to something English, but as a multifaceted, heterogenic opposite to, in this case, MacNeil’s Gaelic prose. By referring to MacNeil’s prose as self-indulging and committed to a depressing depiction of island life, he fails to see the way in which MacNeil are ridiculing current ideas of islands as places of Otherness. According to Schoene, the Stornoway Way ‘is unattuned to the majority of new Scottish literature’s experimentation with less isolationist and more cosmopolitan and ‘planetary’ modes of narration.’ Ironically however, this statement disregards the fact that MacNeil’s prose is in many ways characterised by creolisation, i.e. a constant mix of cultural differences and similarities all around the world, and to dismiss The Stornoway Way as being the result of an isolationist approach to island life, is to misunderstand the purpose of the novel. While the opening chapters of the novel seem to answer to Schoene’s reading, in that R. Stornoway explains his alcoholism as the ‘response to our diminishing way of life,’ comparing it to other oppressed cultures’ answers to colonialism ‘the world over, from Native American to Australasian aborigine,’ as a whole, it deconstructs the current idea of Gaelic culture and the islands as a place characterised by picturesque vistas and people stuck in the past. The parts of the novel where R. Stornoway plays up to the Otherness of the Gael and the island function as smoke-screens for the real reason as to why R. Stornoway is addicted to alcohol in the first place; by referring to established ideas of the Other, he is able to hide his own psychological pain, brought about not primarily by the effect of colonialism, but far more by his own religious upbringing’s response to his Hungarian girlfriend’s abortion. Indeed, I would argue that R. Stornoway’s depiction of his island life draws heavily upon archipelagic narrative devices. By observing a strong devotion to the island as a creator of an identity different from the majority, along with the character’s willingness to both emphasise his own individuality as being outside of established cultural boundaries, as well as to take on and merge cultural influences from all over the world, R. Stornoway becomes something more than a member of an isolationist culture. If anything, while the island forms a big part in every islander’s mind according to archipelagic theories, this novel seems to prove that the island creates contemporary global citizens with a strong sense of belonging everywhere, rather than isolated Others that do not wish to interact with a majority culture.

Here I would like to draw upon the studies of the Oceanic sociologist Epeli Hau‘ofa, who has come to be a major voice within archipelagic literary criticism. Though talking mainly of Oceania in his essay ‘Our Sea of Islands’, he refers to the constant exchange between islands and islanders not as a form of mobility that happens because of the colonial belief that ‘their countries are poor, but because they had been unnaturally confined and severed from much of their traditional sources of wealth, and because it is in their blood to be mobile.’[3] As is pointed out throughout the novel, people constantly leave the island to seek work in faraway places, or as the main character states, ‘I’ve lived away from the island myself, of course,’ thereby emphasising the island’s position as a place of constant exchange. But the internationality of the island is not merely emphasised by the constant movement of the islanders. Thus, when R. Stornoway asks Kevin MacNeil about the fishing in a Swedish lake, he renames it ‘Loch Mälaren’ to make it seem a part of his island.  Indeed, a strong cultural uniqueness is often emphasised by island cultures, meaning that exiles still identify first and foremost as islanders, regardless of where they find themselves at any given time. This point is perhaps best described by the poet Iàin Crichton Smith in his essay ‘Real People in a Real Place.’ According to Smith, the exile ‘wishes  to return to a place where doors were never locked, where crime was unimaginable, where real sorrow was not  to be found, from which death had been banished.’[4]  Illuminating this point, the question of return seems to harrow all those who leave Lewis in MacNeil’s novel; R. Stornoway’s ‘friend’ Seonaidh tells him over the phone that ‘it’s great [you]’ve moved back – he’s envious man.’ Yet, as is acknowledged by Smith, and echoed by R. Stornoway who dismisses his friend’s nostalgic envy, the exile’s nostalgia is as bad as the Othering carried out by non-islanders, as this nostalgia constitutes a  ‘disservice to the islander by making him unreal.’

This is not to say that R. Stornoway fully understands the ambiguous duality of the island himself. Nor does he fully act in a way that shows that he works outwith a discourse of Otherness. While in the opening pages of The Stornoway Way he is quick to offer us an altered map of the world, where his native Lewis has been removed from the peripheries to the centre – thereby creating a world where the island becomes the focal point of society rather than an ambiguous paradise – his description of the island as having a ‘gently venomous […] passive-aggressive nature’ is at the same time creating a new version of Other, rather than fully deconstructing it. By presenting a map where Lewis takes the central place, R. Stornoway questions, much like Hau‘ofa, the neo-colonialist idea of islands as small peripheral entities condemned to a situation where they will always have to depend on a larger nation’s support. However, by holding on to a discourse of difference, he emphasises the identity of his own people as worthy of recognition, not needing to be defined by a majority. Instead of letting others define what makes his people different, R. Stornoway is determined to define these differences himself, by showing how his island constitutes a society that is anything but tangential. In many ways this can be seen as an islander’s response to this supposed Otherness of himself – the island is not just far away from the Mainland, the opposite is also true – and instead of playing up to the idea of Lewis as a ‘sleepy sheepy tranquil place,’ R. Stornoway describes his native island and Stornoway as he sees these places, i.e. as anything but ‘postcard pretty.’ Moreover, he shows that the Othering of the island works in both ways; when arriving in Edinburgh for the first time he explains that the city ‘shimmered in my mind like a dim magical city swathed in nineteenth-century mists [… it was] a city suffused in secrecy, whether under a sickly moon or a watery sun.’

The entire novel, while largely devoted to questions surrounding the depiction of the island, as well as the islanders’ culture, is dedicated to ‘tomorrow’s Lewis and the Scotland of next week,’ thereby making it clear to the reader that the writer is questioning the archipelagic denotation of island life by literary scholars, as well as the supposed obsession with identity issues in Scottish and Gaelic literature, or to use MacNeil’s words, ‘someday we’ll look back on all this, laugh, and then change the subject.’ Interestingly, however, this statement is then followed by an angry rebuttal of voices speaking for R. Stornoway’s people, telling ‘everyone from Holden Caulfield to Bridget Jones [to be fucked], fuck all the American and English phoney fictions that claim to speak for us; they don’t know we exist and they never did.’ Rather than showing that R. Stornoway fully believes in the opening words of the novel, and that his act of self-definition is based solely on an intimate understanding of Lewis’s Gaelic culture, this portrays him as someone who is letting the Othering forced upon his island and his people define him.

Schoene sees this as one of the main faults of the novel, and points out that far more than being colonised by aforementioned literary characters, R. Stornoway’s rebuttal of them echoes the writing style of Welsh, and that ‘to identify oneself, however self-assertively, against some other culture’s hegemony is not to extricate oneself from it but in fact to confirm the inescapability of its ubiquitous influence.’ Yet, to dismiss R. Stornoway as someone who is only working within the discourse of self-victimisation is to misunderstand him entirely; far more than simply allowing himself to be colonised, he questions the imbalance between the majority and the minority, acknowledges its existence, and then proceeds to portray his own culture based on his own understanding of it. While his destructive relationship with alcohol functions as a way to ‘repress or at least internalise [his] problems,’ he never proposes that his addiction is the result of years of cultural oppression from the outside. Likewise, when he refers to poverty as the ‘default state of the Gael’ he is not linking this statement to the dominant forces of outsiders trying to define his culture; he is merely stating what to him seems to be a self-evident fact.

Similarly, when he talks about religion, and in particular the ‘Sunday, exfuckingscuse me, the Sabbath,’ he is both acknowledging and mocking the perceived traditionally strict religiousness of the islands, and showing that he, as an islander, ‘do[es] not want to live like this, under the pressure of one of those Churches that want to lead us not into temptation but into biblical times, into backwardness.’ If anything, this shows that an islander may feel the same need to break free from the oppressive forces of religion as any Mainlander, as to him ‘the Wee Free mind is often wee, but seldom free.’ Yet what is interesting here is not so much R. Stornoway’s challenging of persisting stereotypes with regards to the islanders’ relationship with religion, but rather the duality of his approach. While these quotations function as a critique of the islanders, they are also keys to R. Stornoway’s own alcoholism. As a representative of the plurality of the island, R. Stornoway is not merely dismissing religion as an oppressive force, just as he is not merely painting the English or Mainland Scotland as a colonial force; he is also unknowingly acting within his own understanding of a religious framework. To R. Stornoway God exists, but he is far from the vengeful deity his fellow islanders wish to portray him as. Thus, though openly dismissive of the ‘cooree’ religiousness of his fellow islanders, he is far from being as unaffected by the religious moral code they follow as he wishes to be. In many ways his alcoholism is a direct result of his own religiousness, rather than his attempt to escape it, and while he frequently makes fun of religious people, he is equally dismissive of atheists, and convinces himself that a local long deceased atheist is ‘probably still arguing with God that he doesn’t exist.’

It is primarily through R. Stornoway’s relationship with the Hungarian exchange student Eva, however, that we truly come to see him as a broken individual, affected by the religious climate of his native island.  It is a strong belief in abortion as a mortal sin, I would argue, that has made him turn to alcohol, and finally suicide as the ultimate way to overcome what he sees as the murder of his daughter by the only woman he has ever truly loved. When Eva tells him that she ‘had no choice but to get rid of it,’ he is offended by the denotation of the unborn child as an ‘it’ – ‘‘It?’ [he] gasp[s] in spiteful urgency’ – and what follows is a loud argument in which R. Stornoway lays bare the expectations his island upbringing has put on him, should he ever impregnate a woman. To an islander a pregnancy equals ‘A child. Marriage. Sleeplessness. Debt. A home,’ and not an abortion, i.e. the act of ‘a murderer.’ Yet the fact that this single act forms the main reason for R. Stornoway becoming an alcoholic is not immediately evident to the reader, and R. Stornoway’s choice to end his life is thus rather unexpected. This is not to say that MacNeil does not give away hints that foreground R. Stornoway’s suicide. Though R. Stornoway spends a considerable amount of time on hiding the cause of his depression through the use of an ironic inter-play between what he sees as the Mainland view of the island, and what he, as an islander knows it to be, he gives the reader subtle hints to the reason behind his depression through the description of one of his dreams in the first section of the novel.

Giving the reader a detailed account of the island as experienced both away from and on the island emphasises the plurality of both Lewis and himself. In many ways the novel could thus be seen to serve two purposes: First, as a post-devolution, post-colonial island response to a number of misconceptions about Gaelicness, and second, a more personal journey into one individual’s depression outwith as well as within the boundaries of culture.

The Use of Language in the Stornoway Way

The novel’s plurality, where R. Stornoway is voicing both himself as well as the subaltern community he is a member of through his use of internal and external monologues and dialogues, brings us to what I consider to be the most important aspect of The Stornoway Way, i.e. its attempt at reconstructing current misconceptions of Gaelicness through a post-colonial use of language in the novel.

MacNeil’s novel forms in many ways a perfect example of one of ‘several responses to th[e] dominance of the imperial language, […][i.e.] subversion,’[5] and it is exactly by using English, but an English infused with Gaelic words and occasionally grammatical structures, that the author manages to create a character who is not just challenging current ideas of Gaelicness as seen by the majority, but also equally keen on dismantling the academic overtones that Gaelic has acquired within the Gaelic community itself. This is far from a new approach within post-colonial literatures; while writers like Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o emphasise the importance of using one’s native language, thereby rejecting the colonial force’s influences upon one’s culture, R. Stornoway’s approach to his language echoes Chinua Achebe’s opinion that he has ‘been given a language and he intends to use it.’[6] Indeed, instead of mourning the decline of Gaelic at the hands of the English language’s popularity, R. Stornoway refers to his native language as a force to be reckoned with, and by seemingly attacking the othering of Gaelic at the beginning of the novel, he introduces, through the use of foot-notes, a variety of Gaelic words and concepts. He tells the reader that ‘there is a current and inexplicably widespread misconception that Gaelic, because it is a language of near-mythical age, does not have a vocabulary adequate to cope with the most modern of ideas [and that he thus] shall be providing […] among these footnotes, instances of Gaelic words that prove just how contemporary a language Gaelic is,’ consequently offering the readers an insight into the perceived Otherness of his people from the perspective of an othered individual in order to fully deconstruct yet another part of Gaelicness from within.

The Gaelic world-view that R. Stornoway presents through these words constitutes, however, by and large an ironic pun on behalf of the outsider. When Berthold Schoene refers to R. Stornoway’s footnotes as ‘the novel’s greatest achievement […][as they] successfully advertise[…] the peculiar expressiveness of the Gaelic language as unrivalled,’ he exposes his own position as an outsider. In fact, rather than being accurate translations of genuine concepts found in Gaelic culture, the majority of the words listed are made up of names of villages on Lewis, all of which have been given new, exotic meanings as a way of ridiculing the concept of linguistic and cultural untranslatability. In many ways the choice of village names as inaccurate translations of Gaelic concepts is intimately linked with R. Stornoway’s opinion that one should not ‘hold the atlas the way it is printed.’ By using village names as words, he creates a new, imaginary map of the islands, which challenges existing readings of them.

This is not explicitly stated in the novel as can be seen through Schoene’s misreading of the words listed, and it would thus be unfair to fully dismiss his reading of the novel. However, while this is the case, R. Stornoway does leave several hints to the untrustworthiness of his translations throughout the novel. His suggestion that ‘non-Gaelic speakers should learn these words and drop them into casual conversations at sophisticated dinner parties, debates, business meetings and so on’ is characterised by a tone of mockery, aimed both at the upper-class and the Gaelic elite at the same time. At the same time he gives himself away in one of his initial translations; in claiming that Bearnaraigh – i.e. the Gaelic name of a tiny island situated in a loch on the north-west coast of Lewis – translates as ‘the art of passing of subtle lies (with sincerity) to tourists,’ he is giving a hint, however vague, to his reader to think twice before he decides to use the ‘Gaelic’ words he is being presented with. Similarly, when R. Stornoway suddenly decides to stop compiling his Gaelic dictionary, the way he tells the reader to learn Gaelic, not because it is a language, as good as any other to learn, but because it appeals to the idea of the island and its inhabitants as Others, is loaded with contempt for the Othering of his people, or as R. Stornoway says; ‘go on! Do it! You’ll be amazed! The language has only eighteen letters in its alphabet! Each letter is intimately connected to a tree!’

To see R. Stornoway as a supporter of a Gaelic revitalisation project initiated by Mainland academics and aimed at strengthening the Gaelic language and culture in the Gàidhealtachd, however, is to misunderstand him entirely; while he may be a fierce supporter of the island, he also separates himself from it. When confronted by a local woman who questions his love for the people of Lewis, he states that while he has ‘a fucking life’s worth of ambition and love for [his] people […] they’re not [his] people and [he’s] not theirs.’ Moreover, he makes it a point in distancing himself from the local representative of the Gaelic elite, or as he calls them, ‘the Gaelic Mafia,’ which he sees as falsely representing the culture of the islanders. While Murdani Nardini is a fluent speaker of Gaelic, ‘often seen on Gaelic TV programmes pontificating vehemently about the language,’ R. Stornoway sees him as a ‘rentagaelicgob[…],’ as detached from the reality of Gaelic life, as other outsiders. Thus, when addressing Nardini in Gaelic, he makes it a point in using the title ‘a Mhaighstir,’ i.e. master, not only to emphasise his own Gaelicness through the use of Gaelic, but also to distance himself from a part of said Gaelicness that he sees as inauthentic.

While R. Stornoway sees himself as first and foremost a Leòdhasach and secondly a Scot, who has nothing to do with what he refers to as the ‘D.Q. (=Disunited Queendom),’ his relationship with Mainland Scotland is nonetheless rather ambiguous. While his critique against the English is voiced in an openly verbal and aggressive way, he is equally dismissive of non-Gaelic Scots, which he sees as trying to label parts of his culture ‘Scottish’ that were never universally Scottish in the first place – ‘[the Scots] stripped [us, the Gaels] of the rights to our own land, our heritage’. Thus, when he laments the changes affecting his island, he divides said critique into two parts. The first is related to the ways in which Mainland Scots – ‘druidic and pretentious wankers alike’ – have imagined his islands as mythical and stuck in the past, the second is related to language. By imitating the way American English has changed both the language and culture of the island, he critiques his native ‘insular Lewis [now] smotherhugged by global America.’ When R. Stornoway mockingly imitates one of the island teenagers – ‘tshust giv mee thuh fish an tships, muthurfuckur’ – his phonetic representation of the same shows a peculiar mix of Americanisms, BBC English and pronunciations specific to Gaelic English, but his consecutive critique of the same constitutes something more than an attack on contemporary globalism and its influence on the Isle of Lewis. Pointing out how ‘Gaidheals especially are discriminated against to this very day,’ and how, ‘like Native Africans and Native North Americans and Aboriginal Australasians, [the] Gaidheals were stripped of the rights to [their] own land, [their] own heritage,’ the real critique is aimed at Mainland Scotland, or, to use R. Stornoway’s own words; ‘invisible bigotry is the worst kind of all.’ In other words, while R. Stornoway repeatedly attacks the visual influences of American commercialism, he is simultaneously distancing himself from Mainland Scotland – which he sees as having abandoned the Gaels – in a much more subtle way. Indeed, rather than being against other languages, R. Stornoway states that multilingualism is attractive, ‘strongly implying open-mindedness, intelligence and a powerful ability to empathize,’ whereas Mainland Scotland to him constitutes the centre of the power that ‘rounded up [the Gaels] like sheep to make way for sheep.’

The last point relating to the use of language throughout the novel that I wish to raise in this essay opens up a number of issues regarding the international qualities of Gaelic literature; while R. Stornoway at a first glance comes off as a single-minded, broken individual, his language shows him to be something more. Through a subtle use of literary paraphrases borrowed from both British and international writers alike, ranging from the Gaelic poetry of Alasdair MacMhaigstir Alasdair, to Edward Lear and Kafka, he shows himself to truly be a global citizen, rather than an isolated islander. By paraphrasing Marlowe while drunk – ‘this is the house that launched a thousand parties’ – he emphasises not only his own duality, but also the diversity of his island culture, thereby showing the futility of trying to define any one culture as singular. If anything, it is finally R. Stornoway’s use of language, not the plot itself, that portrays him as the very personification of the archipelagic qualities of the island he inhabits, thereby showing not only that Gaelic literature cannot and should not be defined as Gaelic based solely on the use of the language in a text, but also that Gaelic, as indeed all cultures, is a multi-faceted thing. It would thus be inaccurate on one hand to describe Gaelicness as an easily definable singular entity and on the other to identify current Gaelic literature as an easily ignored subgenre of contemporary Scottish literature.

[1] Berthold Schoene: ‘Going Cosmopolitan: Reconstituting ‘Scottishness’ in Post-devolution Criticism’ in The Endinburgh Companion to Contemporary Scottish Literature, ed. Berthold Schoene, p. 14 , (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 7-16.

[2] Kevin MacNeil: The Stornoway Way, p. 18, (London: Penguin, 2005).

[3] Epeli Hau‘ofa: ‘Our Sea of Islands,’ p. 11, in A New Oceania: Rediscovering Our Sea of Islands, ed. by Epeli Hau’ofa (Suva, Fiji: The University of the Pacific, 1993), pp.2-16.

[4] Iàin Crichton Smith: ‘Real People in a Real Place, p. 17, in Towards the Human, (Midlothian: MacDonald Printers, 1986), pp. 13-72.

[5] Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin: ‘Introduction to Part Ten: Language,’ p. 261, in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 261-262.

[6] Chinua Achebe, quoted in Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o; ‘The Language of African Literature’ in The Post-Colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin, p. 263, (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 263-267.



Imagining Islands: Archipelagic Theory

Gaelic culture is intimately linked with islands. Some of Gaeldom’s most prolific writers have devoted a large amount of their production to islands and the Western Isles represent one of the few remaining places where Gaelic is still spoken by the majority of the population. Perhaps it is thus not all too surprising that Gaelic culture has often been described in insular terms by literary scholars. Yet, while islands historically were imagined by the Western mind ‘as places of possibility and promise’ – this can be seen in novels such as The Coral Islands in which islands are styled as places to colonise and possess – globalism has over time changed the way in which islands are perceived and the same might be said of the way in which literary critics have analysed Gaelic literature over the last decades. Today, rather than being seen as places to colonise, archipelagos such as the Outer Hebrides have thus instead come to be seen as ‘sites of cultural stagnation,’ or picturesque, timeless paradises. Similarly Gaelic literature and culture is often depicted as a product of an obsolete linguistic island stuck in a now long gone past. This is, however, a flawed way of approaching Gaelic literature. If anything, contemporary Gaelic literature is concerned with a wish to break free from a stereotypical characterisation of the spaces and people it describes. By abandoning presupposed stylistic and linguistic ideals, Gaelic literature both redefines cultural boundaries and challenges existing ideas of Gaelicness. Furthermore, it addresses a perceived Otherness and deconstructs it from within, while distancing itself from Mainland Scottish literature.

Instead of cementing existing misconceptions about islands and islanders as insignificant and peripheral, post-devolution Gaelic literature connects itself with the world in a number of different ways. By refusing to acknowledge the Scottish mainland as a centre from which the islands are removed, and instead styling the Western Isles as multicultural centres of global exchange, Gaelic literature establishes both itself as well as islands as ‘site[s] of a double-identity, rather than as places where the people have remained unchanged for aeons. What contemporary Gaelic literature seems to illustrate is that if Scotland constitutes a centre, which in itself is already a peripheral literary sphere by virtue of its juxtaposition to the rest of the United Kingdom, then Gaelic writing is, in theory, ‘twice removed from the sphere of mainstream majority literature.’ By both accepting and challenging this world-view, drawing upon archipelagic and post-colonial discourses, however, Gaelic writers manage to create a space entirely their own within their prose, that can be defined as neither stereotypically Gaelic nor inherently Scottish.

In doing this Gaelic literature effectively disqualifies the notion of both itself and the islands as being small and insignificant. As Epeli Hau‘ofa suggests, ‘the idea of [geographical] smallness is relative depending on what is included and excluded,’ and this seems to be something that Gaelic writers agree wholeheartedly with.

But islands are not only perceived as peripheral by most people, islanders have at the same time often come to be seen as isolationist and backwards. Much like Hau‘ofa, however, contemporary Gaelic writers seem to resist the notion of islands as singular entities defined by boundedness. In post-devolution Gaelic literature, islands are instead perceived both as symbols of cultures and geographical spaces, as ‘at once both historical site[s] and metaphoric constructions,’ a locale both defined as a singular oneness and a place where a constant cultural exchange is taking place. Chris Bongie clarifies this by stating that ‘the island is a figure that can and must be read in more than one way,’ and the same might be said of Gaelic literature. Rather than being concerned with either a confirmation of stereotypical ideas of Gaelicness or a complete dismissal of these ideas, contemporary Gaelic literature is instead in the process of reinventing itself.

Minority Literatures and Post-Colonial Theory: A Scottish Perspective

Despite Michael Gardiner’s claim that ‘Scotland is not in any sense post-colonial,’ literary critics have employed post-colonial theories to analyse Scottish literature for a long time. Since Tom Nairn referred to the Act of Union as a ‘political castration,’ it has often been argued that as long as Scotland remains a stateless nation, Scottish literary criticism will be forced to focus on the country’s ‘cultural paralysis and political trauma.’ Yet, at the same time, it is important to understand that Scotland as a nation can neither be defined ‘as coloniser or colonised – to believe it was definitively identifiable as either would be to misunderstand it fundamentally as a nation.’ And even if many Scottish critics have appropriated post-colonial theories, Scotland is rarely, if ever, defined as an ex-colony by post-colonial critics. If post-colonial theories have any role at all to play within a Scottish context it is far more – to quote Stefanie Lehner – as ‘an ethical form of criticism […][urging us] to morally evaluate the ways in which unequal power relations and practices of domination are produced by the colonial readership.’ Using this approach to analysing Gaelic literature has one major advantage; by employing a post-colonial model of analysis that is not ‘conducted in national terms’ it becomes possible to see Gaelic literature as a wish to ‘explor[e …] the processes and practices of domination and resistance within but also outside and beyond the parameters of the national.’

What makes Scottish Gaelic writing post-colonial then is its engagement with what could be defined as post-colonial, subaltern representations of language, gender, and class. In short, I would argue that the post-colonial qualities of Gaelic literature do not lie in the fact that Gaelic in any way could be defined as a victim of colonialism, but far more in its refusal to take on the role of a subaltern voice within the Scottish state. If anything, Gaelic literature is heavily influenced by questions of linguistic diversity and as such it deals extensively with culture as being global regardless of whether or not Gaelic is the main mode of communication throughout a text.

In Deleuzian terms, Gaelic literature in Gaelic is an obvious example of a minority literature. Not only does it seem to engage with linguistic and communal issues from the perspective of a subaltern culture, but, as Deleuze suggests, the use of a minority language is always a political one. Looking only at literature that has been written in Gaelic as being truly Gaelic will, however, ultimately produce flawed results. Not only does such an approach ignore basic ideas of linguistic fluidity as paramount to the survival of a language and culture, it simultaneously strips Gaelic writers of the right to use language in the same way as other, contemporary Scottish writers. What is more, denying writers linguistic freedom in order to classify them as a valid representative of their culture is to misunderstand what defines a post-colonial minority in the first place. Indeed, when critics claim that minority writers should stick to their ‘own language’ in order for their prose to be ‘authentic’, they effectively ignore the polyglot reality most minority writers find themselves in. This however is a fickle approach to Scottish literature, as the existence of different voices that draw upon and interact with one another is exactly what makes Scottish literature post-colonial in the first place. Gaelic authors writing in English have realised that to be Scottish is to be multifaceted to begin with, and thus their choice to use a mix of English and Gaelic becomes as political, if not more political, as the choice to solely employ the native voice of the minority, i.e. Gaelic. In many ways Anglo-Gaelic writers seem to disregard the idea that one needs to write in Gaelic to depict Gaelicness authentically, thereby ignoring the belief that to write in Gaelic is to commit ‘to a form of expression that speaks on behalf of all cultural minorities in an act of resistance to the increasingly global domination of English.’

What is more, since the establishment of the Ùr-sgeul initiative by the Gaelic Book Trust, a large number of novels have been published in which the very core of Gaelicness as being old-fashioned and single-minded is questioned; or to quote Michael Klevenhaus, the editor of the bilingual collection An Claigeann aig Damien Hirst, ‘Many people think of Gaelic as a language coming from the mists of Avalon’ when the opposite is true. The book Klevenhaus edited is full of ‘UFOs, a gay couple, women, people living today and in the future,’ and it is far from the only example of modern Gaelic literature, which challenges the notion of Gaelicness as distant and behind the times.

Scottish Gaelic Literature – A Historical and Cultural Context

Scottish Gaelic inhabits a peculiar spot in post-devolution Scotland. On one hand the language is nearing extinction, with fewer than 60,000 fluent speakers left in the country according to the 2001 Census while at the same time, Scottish Gaelic has experienced a cultural revival since devolution. However, this revival has not managed to disprove the notion that Gaelic literature is a primarily poetic movement. As John Storey puts it, ‘Gaelic fiction appears to suffer against Gaelic poetry when it comes to grabbing the attention of reviewers (and editors).’ As a result of this misguided characterisation of Gaelic literature, Gaelic writers are frequently denied the right to a full sense of linguistic fluidity, which characterises other post-devolution Scottish writers’ fiction. When seen as symbols of a culture in peril, a writer who refuses to subscribe to the idea of himself as a victim is rarely seen as a forerunner of his culture’s literary movement.

Additionally, when Gaelic literature is analysed, it becomes frequently stereotyped as mystical, old-fashioned and different from other forms of Scottish literature. Daniel O’Rourke, among others, shows this in his analysis of a number of Gaelic writers in the introduction to Dream State, writing that Gaelic poetry ‘seems only circumstantially and incidentally contemporary.’ Moreover, while Roderick Watson claims that ‘the case for linguistic and cultural pluralism has been upheld with increasing sophistication ever since’ MacDiarmid argued for the existence of a trilingual Scotland, the role Gaelic has played in this polyglot marriage has on the whole been a predominantly ignored one. Of the hundred best Scottish books to have been written according to a survey carried out by the Scottish Book Trust in cooperation with The List in 2005, only one was in Gaelic. Scottish literature to the post-devolution mind is primarily written in Scots or English at the expense of Gaelic, and it would thus be hard to argue that the ‘three-voiced country’ Iàin Crichton Smith pays tribute to in his poem ‘The Beginning of a New Song’ uses all of its voices in the same way.

Perhaps more important then, in order to secure the survival of the Gaelic language, has been a number of political decisions made by the Scottish Parliament. Since its opening, both a Gaelic Book Council and a board responsible for ‘the promotion of Gaelic’ have been established. Yet, even though the government has implemented a Gaelic Language Act to strengthen the language, Gaelic still lacks the same public visibility that its sister language Irish has in Ireland. In part this could be explained as an effect of history; the place Irish played in the formation of a national identity within the newly formed Irish Republic was largely inhabited by Scots in pre-devolution Scotland. This in turn has led to a massive neglect of Gaelic as a medium fit to both promote Scottishness and challenge ideas of Britishness.

The effect of this neglect of Gaelic is striking. The previous census recorded a substantial loss of speakers in the Gàidhealtachd, with the Western Isles losing nearly 20% of its speakers between 1991 and 2001. Despite the opening of a major Gaelic school in Glasgow, and the establishment of a national Gaelic TV channel the numbers of speakers are still dwindling. Even if the interest in Gaelic as a cultural signifier of identity is high within most parts of Scotland, the large majority of Scots have at the same time little or no knowledge whatsoever of the language. And, more importantly, while Gaelic is taught in a number of schools throughout Scotland, it seems to have lost its place in the homes of Gaels. What used to be an oral community language has over the last decades slowly turned into what now mainly seems to be a written and in essence moribund language. As a language Gaelic thus continues to be not only critically endangered, but also largely marginalised in Scotland, despite a transfer of power to Holyrood. Even more remarkably; twelve years after devolution it still remains doubtful whether the forthcoming results from the 2011 census will show any halt or decrease whatsoever in the loss of speakers in the Gaelic heartland.

But Gaelic is not only marginalised as a language per se. As a literary vehicle Gaelic continues to be misinterpreted as a subcategory of Scottish literature, rather than a literary movement of its own. As such it is ‘frequently stereotyped as ethnocentric, provincial, and closed to any other cultural alterity than [its] own in relation to the dominant culture out of whose shadow [it] wish[es] to escape.’

To a large number of literary scholars, a Gaelic writer is first and foremost an emblem of a language, rather than a writer in his own right. O’Rourke writes of the poet Anne Frater that she, as well as other Gaelic writers, have ‘cultural responsibilities,’ and Berthold Schoene sees the use of the Gaelic language in Kevin MacNeil’s The Stornoway Way as one of the novel’s few good qualities. Despite the fact that the Gaelic literary production since devolution, if the ‘small size of the Gaelic-speaking community [is taken into consideration], has been of remarkable quantity and quality,’ literary critics rarely focus on the astonishing diversity that exists within the Gaelic literary space. While current literary criticism in Scotland acknowledges the impossibility of creating a valid definition of something inherently Scottish, and the task of ‘construing homogeneity from evident heterogeneity’ seems to have been left behind, Gaelic literature is still perceived as distinct from other forms of Scottish literature. In other words, where other writers are analysed on the basis of their genres, and other Scottish writers can claim that their ‘cultural history has been a lot about having no identity,’ Gaelic becomes the imposed genre of all Gaelic writers. This becomes particularly clear if one reads interviews with Gaelic writers, which in general seem to focus on Gaelic authors’ responsibility to represent Gaelic in an authentic way.

One of the main problems here, according to Storey, seems to be the lack of reviews of contemporary Gaelic literature in English. Whenever Gaelic literature is reviewed, it is mainly in Gaelic, and when Gaelic literature does appear in English, unless in translation, reviewers seldom classify it as a product of a Gaelic literary movement. Moreover, reviewers of Gaelic literature tend to criticise the use of English in Gaelic prose, thereby ignoring the plurilingual reality Gaelic writers inhabit. Indeed, as Storey states, ‘while diversity within published Gaelic prose appears to be increasing,’ this seems to be ignored by the reviewers.

This is not to say that Gaelic writers in any way accept the stereotypes or limitations imposed on them by literary critics as valid; the contrary is true. Post-devolution Gaelic fiction is not only characterised by a linguistic hybridity and a global outlook on the world, it frequently challenges ideas of what constitutes Scottish literature, in that it refuses to become a subaltern, monoglot subgenre of the same. Here it might prove useful to turn to Homi K. Bhaba’s understanding of culture as something which is ‘never unitary in [it]sel[f], nor simply dualistic in relation of Self and Other.’ This is especially true when it comes to Gaelic literature.

Despite this, Gaelic writers are often portrayed as post-colonial ‘language loyalists,’ to quote a term used by Alice Entwistle, concerned with representations of Gaelicness and nothing more. The irony in this assumption is the fact that questions of self-representation are inherently universal rather than the product of a suppressed Other trying to come to grasp with its position within a multi-cultural sphere. This is not to say that Gaelic literature is not post-colonial, but the problem with current Scottish literary criticism of Gaelic literature, is that it seems to misinterpret signs of post-colonialism as failed attempts at lamenting ‘the death-rattles of [the Gaelic] culture […] and language.’

Alasdair Gray and the Settlers

Over the last couple of week, Alasdair Gray’s essay Settlers and Colonists, to be published in a forthcoming book on Scottish independence edited by Scott Hames, has been described as an anti-English, racist text by what I presume to be Unionists who in most cases have not even bothered to read the entire essay in the first place.

While the essay in itself does include a number of problematic passages, it is not the perceived stab at Englishmen that I question when reading it – Gray makes it clear that his essay draws on personal experiences, so to treat it as an academic defence of anti-Englishness and a biased support of independence is thus preposterous – but rather its waffled use of post-colonial terminology, and its failure to consider class alongside Gray’s use of the terms Settler/Colonist to describe two types of incomers to Scotland. In fact, what has been most frequently stated as proofs of Gray’s anti-Englishness by journalists and laymen alike is indeed nothing but a couple of plain-spoken facts, presented without a detailed analysis of the same attached to them, presumably left out to avoid writing too long an essay.

It is true that Scottish culture – if Scottish culture is static and cannot change – was left out of the Glasgow Capital of Culture year in that it failed to acknowledge the city’s actual history and instead focused on deleting an in many ways stereotypical and false picture of Glasgow as a city characterised by violence and run over by rabid lefties.

It is true that many Scots ‘regard[…] Scotland from a London perspective’, and to point this out as Gray does throughout the essay, or to question it does not constitute an act of bigotry in itself.

In other words, this essay is not the product of an anti-English mind because it in a more or less factual way questions the appointment to a job of someone. Gray is merely pointing out that a now dead English producer at BBC Glasgow with no interest in Scotland had been sent there from London to take charge of the broadcasting, as an effect of fear of losing control over Scotland’s media during the first referendum discussions in 1979. The essay is also not anti-English because it tells its readers that the director of Creative Scotland is English and has confessed to having no understanding of Scottish culture. Rather, what does make these statements when considered as part of the essay as a whole somewhat problematic is instead their failure to discuss whether it is indeed the incomer status of these people and their Englishness as anchored in a non-commitment to a Scottish reality on a long term basis, or if it is their educational and societal background, regardless of birthplace, that lead to them to being appointed to these positions in the first place.

Indeed, most critics of Gray’s essay take offence to what can be seen as a snarky remark that followed aforementioned facts; ‘Ain’t Scotland lucky?’ On it’s own, it is a loaded comment, but what everyone so far has failed to comment on is the fact that Gray did expect a certain backlash and gave a preemptive answer to the same in his essay;

If you feel these former remarks are full of anti-English prejudice, remember that these colonists were invited here and employed by Scots without confidence in their own land and people.

If his defence is any good is questionable. In short, Gray is not so much expressing signs of anti-Englishness in his response, as he is using it to give a voice to a national disbelief in Scottish agency. What Gray is doing here, however, is feeding into a discourse where some Scots writers for a long time have seen themselves as members of a colonised state, which at the same time ‘only became one nation through resistance to continually renewed efforts by the southern government to subdue them’. During the 20th and 21st century, Scottish writers and the Scottish public alike have spent a considerable time dealing with what by Stephanie Lehner has been described as ‘a cultural paralysis and political trauma.’ As such Scots see themselves as the sons and daughters of, to quote Tom Nairn, ‘a political castration’, so repressed by the English that they have abandoned hope of themselves. Yet, at the same time Gray acknowledges the fact that the Union is the product of ‘a severe economic depression, [in which] the main owners of Scotland were paid to become a tenth part of England’s parliament’, thereby undermining the entire idea that Scotland was colonised in the first place.

The truth is that Scotland within its own borders cannot be classified as either a colonised victim or a coloniser, to try to characterise it as either betrays a misunderstanding of historical facts, or an over-simplification of the same. Gray does neither, but at the same time his presentation of Scotland’s involvement in the British Empire – ‘For over two and a half centuries colonists and settlers from Scotland – and Ireland – helped the London government to establish and administer a British Empire’ – is border-line romantic and far too simplistic, and paired with an equally simplistic description of the terms settler and colonist, it opens up his essay for criticism that takes away from the actual point with the essay, i.e. that ‘only one question should be asked by that referendum: Do we who live in Scotland want an independent government?’.

But to get to said point, which is one I wholly agree with – anyone resident in Scotland, regardless of their birthplace, should be allowed to decide whether or not they want to be living in a state that is separated from the United Kingdom – he expects the reader to force themselves through a whole lot of historical inaccuracies and anecdotal waffle.

Gray opens his essay with the following sentences;

‘A Scottish wordsmith said, ‘Outgoers and incomers made, make every land’. Yes. Both kinds can be divided into Settlers or Colonists’.

He goes on to claim that a colonist is an invader, set on returning to his homeland, whereas a settler is an invader that chooses to stay in the place they’ve invaded. This in itself is inaccurate in that a settler still forms a part of a colonial oppression of an indigenous group of people – he will always remain a colonist – thus making the division flawed, but it is also highly problematic to be talking about Settlers and Colonists in a Scottish context, as it devalues actual indigenous decolonial discourses elsewhere, where the terminology surrounding settlers and colonists has an actual role to play. Settlers are people who have unlawfully taken over another nation’s lands against their will, or entered into treaties they may or may not adhere to as is more often the case. Today, Settler and Colonists are thus terms that are almost exclusively used when discussing indigenous decolonisation, a discourse that Scottish writers love to pay lip-service to, but in which they as Scots don’t have an actual role as oppressed Others to play.

Calling the English settlers or colonists in Scotland is redundant, seeing as contemporary Scottishness is a concept that was forged out of a homogenising tartanised romanticism as presented by Sir Walter Scott in the first place anyway. To then use state borders and with it a form of land-based jus sanguinis to define Scottishness, without acknowledging the vast differences that still exists between different parts of the country, as well as the close cross-border relationship between northern England and Scotland in stark contrast to the political relationship between Holirood and Westminster is simplistic and obscures the actual message Gray is trying to deliver.

Truth be told, as much as I co-sign the conclusion drawn at the end of the essay, it is the first sections of Gray’s essay, which draws heavily upon a traditional Braveheart rhetoric undermined by its own understanding of the ridiculousness of the same, that truly has me questioning the arguments laid forward in his essay. The point he is trying to make is valid and agreeable, the route he takes to get their, however, is both alienating and arrogant.

Gray states that

Colonists and settlers may start with the same homeland and some loyalty to it, a loyalty dependent on support the homeland gives them. The difference between these two sorts of invader becomes obvious when they have subdued the local natives by exterminating many of them, as in Australia, driving them away, as in North America, enslaving them as in South America, or (more rarely) giving some of them equal rights, as may be the case in New Zealand.

The first sentence is only valid if we agree with the practice of making a distinction between colonists and settlers, which I don’t, and the second part of this paragraph is a complete and utter mess for a variety of reasons. Gray’s understanding of British colonial oppression around the world betrays a Western mind spiced up with White Guilt. On one hand, Gray points out the flaws of the colonial machine and seemingly criticises them by listing different colonial crimes carried out by the British, but to not acknowledge the fact that the genocide of indigenous populations was practice across the board, and to buy in to the myth of the now gone Native in North America ensures that contemporary media can continue to ignore the existence of contemporary indigenous peoples and is in essence as problematic as not acknowledging it at all.

But it is the suggestion that the British Empire somehow offered equal rights to the indigenous people of New Zealand that really forces me to collect my raised left eyebrow from the roof whence it has now emigrated. Gray is correct in claiming that New Zealand is unique in the sense that the British set out to sign a treaty with the Maori before the actual large-scale immigration from the British Empire began, and in 1837 Lord Glenelg, the Colonial Secretary at the time stated that the Maori were civilised people to his surprise. Worth noting is that Lord Glenelg was a Scot, the son of an evangelical who rose to the ranks of Chairman of the British East India Company, and the grandson of a Gaelic-speaking soldier who fought against the British in the Battle of Culloden, thus throwing all presupposed ideas of a Scottish victim status on its head.

‘The [Maori] are not Savages living by the Chase, but Tribes who have apportioned the country between them, having fixed Abodes, with an acknowledged Property in the Soil, and with some rude approaches to a regular System of internal Government’.

This statement, which is interesting in itself in that it draws upon the Lockean assumption that only non-savages could own land which had been used to strip Native American and Australian indigenous nations of their rights, lead in turn to the signing of the Waitangi Treaty. Without it being specifically stated in the essay, I assume a superficial understanding of this treaty is what makes Gray wrongfully claim that the Maori have equal rights as the settlers in Aotearoa. The reality, however, is another, in that the treaty reads differently in Maori and English. Moreover it was not signed with the heads of all individual iwi in Aotearoa and over the years, the New Zealand Settler government has used Lord Glenelg’s quote above to argue that the signatories lacked a true understanding of nationhood and sovereignty and that the Treaty as such lacks binding force in law, cf. the Prendergast judgement, thereby stripping the Maori of the equal rights Gray claim they may have with their Settlers.

In the subsequent paragraph, Gray continues his waffled explanation of the terms Settler and Colonist by claiming that the USA has firmly left their Settler status behind.

‘The USA has made all such imperialism a thing of the past. It does not exploit foreign lands by planting settlers in them, as Britain did in Canada and Australia, or sending in their own governors and civil servants, as Britain did in Kenya and India.’ 

Once again, this is wrong. The colonisation of Native American land is far from a thing of the past, and while the government has entered into negotiations with tribes as sovereign nations within the States, the fact is that all of America continues to constitute colonised, settled land, and that the government has imposed a number of laws to restrict indigenous sovereignty to be properly exercised. To suggest something like this in order to argue for Scottish independence is silly and something I thought we’d be spared in the Independence debate.

But the essentialism of Gray’s essay doesn’t stop at appropriating a decolonial discourse. One of the many problematic parts of his essay focuses on non-Scots who have become ‘more effectively Scottish than most born natives’. This can be read in two ways; on one hand it is a challenge of what indeed constitutes Scottishness, but framed by the Settler/Colonist discourse employed by Gray, it sadly becomes an essentialist blood-and-soil argument that even Gray must have realised would make him the victim of criticism from Unionists who want nothing else than to paint all independence supporters as racist, bigoted right-wing nationalists.

What is Scottishness? Is it being born in Scotland, or is it to partake in whatever it is that constitutes a Scottish everyday life, regardless of one’s physical birthplace? Gray answers this question by saying that Scotland is for everyone, and I do believe he is trying to state that to be Scottish merely equals a commitment to Scotland, but once again the framework and arguments he uses to get to this point work against him.

Further on in his essay, Gray goes on to state that

Adventurous people in poor countries have often sought a better life in richer ones, even when not driven from their homelands by famine, as in nineteenth-century Ireland, or by greedy landlords in the Scottish Highlands

He does make it very clear to the reader that colonialism and settler movements between England and Scotland have been inherent in Scottishness for centuries, referring to, among others, James I of England and Tony Blair, but in virtually the same breath as he states that these people have prospered in England, he goes on to lament the apparent draining of resourceful people from Scotland.

I believe this is one of the key faults with Gray’s argument; in appropriating indigenous decolonial terminology, thereby alienating people who would otherwise agree with his actual point – Scotland is for everyone who wants to live there – and attaching English colonialism in Scotland with negativity while not questioning if the same cannot then be said about Scots in high positions in England, he opens himself up for attack by the people who believe that the Union must stay. I am pro-independence, but I believe it is dishonest to the cause to use sentimentalism fuelled by essentialism, intentional or not, to support Scottish independence.

Gray could have spent hundred words on writing that he wants Scotland’s future to be decided by those who choose to live and settle here, he could have drawn upon Bauman and referred to tourists and vagabonds if he felt the need to appropriate an academic discourse, he could have said that Scotland is for everyone who is willing to think of the country as their home, seeing as this seemingly is his point – instead he chose to waste 3300 words on hiding his own very valid points.