Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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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.

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