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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.





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  2. luranabrown says:

    I haven’t read “The Stornoway Way” but could appreciate many insights and had to nod at statements like “the current idea of Gaelic culture and the islands as a place characterised by picturesque vistas and people stuck in the past”. Personal note—my father is a first-generation Scottish-American, and my family visited Scotland twice when I was a child; both times, we stayed at the University of Stirling, which rents to tourists over the summer. I remember some of the grounds and the ceilidhs. 🙂

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  5. […] those who revel in minority languages’ archaic untranslatability. A joke for which the critic Berthold Schoene fell, claiming they were the best part of the novel for showing “the peculiar expressiveness […]

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