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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.

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