Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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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.’


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