‘Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry’ by Silke Stroh

'Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry' by Silke StrohIn the last thirty years, several literary critics and historians have included a reference to Scottish literature–however brief or passing—in their postcolonial analyses. Whether Scottish political and cultural history may justify the assessment of Scotland as a cultural periphery and marginalised ethnicity within the British mainstream is still an open and controversial debate, with endless arguments pro and against this theory. Silke Stroh’s ambitious book undoubtedly participates in this debate, yet, as she clearly states in her extremely informative and erudite introduction, it is not her intention ‘to make any judgements on the question whether Scotland can, economically or politically, legitimately be called an “internal colony” or not’. Stroh’s central concern is different: without denying the complexities and ambiguities that the adoption of a postcolonial approach to Scottish literature may involve, she conceives postcolonialism (rather than post-colonialism) as a methodology for examining recurring discursive patterns that she sees as common ‘in the context of inter– or transcultural encounters and power imbalances’ (p. 14).

An example of such imbalances is the marginalised state that Gaelic studies still occupy within British, and more specifically Scottish, academia. Thus, one of the primary aims of this book is to deal with the Gaidhealtach’s peripherality within both Scotland and Britain, and, by adopting as broad a theoretical framework as possible, to show that the inclusion in this framework of Scottish Gaelic literature represents an important contribution to the deconstruction of the essentialist binarisms (coloniser/colonised, Gaels/Anglophone people, Scots/English) which have often marked postcolonial discourse. Like the Scots, the Gaels are ‘uneasy subjects’ within such discourse: as both potentially colonised subjects of the British state and colonisers in British overseas territories, they cannot be ‘easily’ and unquestionably assessed in simplistic postcolonial terms. In other words, the Gaels’ predicament can be understood only if, first of all, the field of Postcolonial Studies is extended beyond its original central concern with Britain (or Europe’s) extra-European colonies, in order to include also internal fringes (such as the ‘Others’ in Ireland, Scotland and Wales), and, secondly, if postcolonialism is intended as a series of discursive patterns characterised by ambiguities, hybridity and in-betweenness not exclusively relevant to post-independence socio-political contexts. From the Middles Ages to nowadays, Scottish Gaels had to find ways of handling the complexities of their situation, and Stroh shows how these negotiations emerge in poetic discourse throughout the centuries.

The book aims to demonstrate ‘the existence of a substantial matrix of post/colonial themes throughout the history of Scottish, Celtic and Gaelic identity discourses’ (p. 18), as well as the legitimacy of comparing some of those themes with overseas experiences of (post)colonialism. Although, from the Union onwards, the Scottish Lowlands may be regarded as having suffered from othering and marginalisation on the part of the British mainstream, Stroh crucially underlines the difference between Lowlands and Highlands, and the specificity of the internal Gaelic margin’s experience as even ‘more “Other” to Britain’s mainstream(s)’ (p. 36). The poetic texts she selects do not always lend themselves to post/colonial readings in unproblematic ways. On the contrary, the author openly admits that the postcolonial debate applied to the Scottish Celtic question presents several limits due to various factors—inter alia, whiteness, cultural similarities, participation in the overseas colonisation, and the absence of independence struggles. Nevertheless, these are limits that do not pertain only to Scotland’s and its Celtic fringe’s ambiguous position in the context of colonial and imperial discourse, but also to the ‘postcoloniality’ of settler cultures, such as Australia and New Zealand. These issues are clearly framed by the author in her rich Introduction, in which, equally clearly, she highlights the advantages of examining Celticness from a postcolonial perspective.

For example, after delineating how, from the eighteenth-century onwards, the concept of Celticness was no longer used exclusively to indicate the barbarians of ancient Greece and Rome but was extended to include the ‘barbarian Others’ of modern Europe (like the Celtic fringe in Scotland, Ireland and Wales), Stroh takes a step backward to argue that the association of Celticness with barbarianism and certain discursive patterns conventionally identified as colonial precede European modernity, overseas colonialism, and Enlightenment philosophy. ‘Celtic barbarians’, she contends, ‘played a vital role in European discourses on civilisation and colonisation ever since these discourse began in Classical Antiquity’ (p. 16). This is perhaps Stroh’s most convincing argument, offering an original contribution to the idea—now shared by many critics and theorists—that the field of postcolonial studies should be re-conceptualised by means of a comparative method retaining the field’s analytical tools but overcoming simplistic binarisms and ‘transcending the narrow fixation on the category “colony”‘ (p. 336) to replace it with the more inclusive term ‘periphery’.

Stroh manages to highlight the possibility and usefulness of extending postcolonial discourses and frameworks to the intra-British Celtic fringe by looking at a wide corpus of pre-modern, modern and contemporary Gaelic poems. The author has privileged texts that have appeared in bilingual editions, or, when not available, she supplies her own translations, so as not to put off non-Gaelic-speaking readers. By focusing on the applicability of postcolonial theories solely to Scottish Gaelic verse, this book importantly extends the scope of Celtic postcolonialism, which so far has mostly centred on Irish literature, and, consequently, foregrounds the parallels between experiences of cultural marginalisation and subjugation, notwithstanding geo-historical differences among them, or what she defines as ‘transperipherality’—a condition shared not only by British Celtic fringes but also by different social and racial groups across the globe.

The book follows a chronological line, and each of the nine central chapters presents a survey of selected texts in Gaelic poetry which can be read in post/colonial terms, situating them in a specific historical and cultural background, yet, at the same time, bringing to the fore those ideological and thematic aspects that allow us to place them in a larger inter– and trans-national context. As has been mentioned, the extremely informative Introduction (Chapter One) essentially aims at justifying the applicability of certain discursive aspects of both colonialism and postcolonialism to Scotland and, specifically, its ‘Celtic fringe’. Some of its parts may sound redundant to the reader familiar with the theoretical issues of postcolonialism, but, on the other hand, the author’s survey&Mdash;and reviewing—of the major concepts of this field of studies turn out to be germane if one considers that she is also addressing a non-specialised audience. Here as elsewhere in the book the reader may find some of her arguments not persuasive enough—her abstaining from an analysis of the historical and political frameworks underpinning Gaelic literature may be part of this problem. However, Stroh herself acknowledges that impasses are likely to remain in this kind of analysis, because there is ‘no simple “yes” or “no” answer to the Scottish or Celtic postcolonial question’, and so one must accept that ‘here as well as in overseas post/colonial cultures, certain phenomena can be fruitfully understood in postcolonial terms while others cannot’ (p. 31). I think this admission is not a sign of critical weakness on her part but of deference towards the complexity of the whole postcolonial discourse, in a bold attempt to strike a balance between what may be regarded as the general or comparative, and what, on the contrary, varies according to specific social, cultural and literary contexts.

After the Introduction, Stroh devotes a chapter (Chapter Two) to aspects of pre-modern discourses about Celts, Scots and Gaels, from classical Greece and Rome through the ‘Dark Ages’ and early medieval Britain to the high and later Middle Ages. She interestingly—and mostly convincingly—argues these discourses may be regarded as looking forward to modern and contemporary (post)colonial frameworks, while, at the same time, admitting again the questionability and limitations of postcolonial theory when applied retrospectively. The Celtic Other emerges as the ignoble savage in both Greek texts about the continental Celts, and Roman texts about the British Celts; yet even more interesting is how this Other turns into a ‘Same’, and therefore a ‘noble savage’, when it suited the hegemonic Self to assimilate or appropriate Gaeldom. This suggests, in Stroh’s words, that ‘there were already so many commonalities between coloniser and colonised that conquest was the best for both sides’ (p. 45). In her view, this development from ‘ignoble’ into ‘noble’ savage anticipates the way in which, after Culloden, the Highlanders turned from dangerous Jacobites into examples of idealised primitivism.

Chapters Three and Four analyse examples of Scottish Gaelic poetry from the mid-sixteenth to the late eighteenth-century, the period, that is, which saw the rise of the modern Scottish and later British nation state. This is also the period in which all the contradictions and ambiguities concerning Gaelic otherness particularly emerged in the contemporary poetic discourses. If, on the one hand, Scotland’s Gaelic margins were seen as the backward and barbarous Other to be civilised by the Lowland or English mainstreams, on the other, they could also serve for Scotland as a marker of historical and cultural difference from England, and thus be assumed as an integral part of the Scottish national identity. In any case, Stroh underlines how ‘mainstream discourses about the Gaidhealtachd […] developed increasing resemblances to colonial discourses’ (p. 69), even though, in a period which saw the great expansion of the British empire, the Gaels often turned from ‘internally colonised’ into ‘overseas colonisers’. The author’s central aim in these two chapters is to show the ways in which Gaelic poets responded to the social and political developments of the time—from the endorsement of the cultural hybridity involved by the new nation state to attitudes that may be defined as ‘anti-colonial’ reactions to marginalisation and subalternity. Looking forward to post-independence post-colonial writers, some Jacobite poets ‘wrote back’ to the mainstreams in order to refute their civilising missions and the Gaelic stereotypes constructed to justify them.

The following two chapters (Five and Six) focus on the period from the late eighteenth to the end of the nineteenth century. When the ‘civilising’ mission of backward Gaidhealtachd seemed to be accomplished, the Gaels were assimilated into mainstream literature as romanticised figures of noble savagery and nostalgic symbols of an endangered culture. In particular, between the eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, the idealisation of the Gaelic world is part of the general framework of European Romanticism, which looked at primitive societies as models opposed to materialistic modernity and native traditions as means of redefining national identities. As usual, Stroh ably shows the other side of the coin, underlining in some cases ‘the closeness of romantic images of noble savagery to more openly hostile colonising discourses’ (p. 153) that are based on similar essentialist binarisms (for example centre/rationality vs periphery/irrationality). These discourses predominate in the late-nineteenth-century representation of the Celtic Other, which from the object of Romantic stereotypes turned into the victim of racial/racist ideologies and scientific theories totally unsympathetic to ‘primitive’ otherness. Gaelic responses to these racialist thoughts ranged from ‘nostalgia, resignation, escapism and emigration to radical political protest’ (p. 40). Stroh’s argument is once again nuanced, for instance when she notices that racial ideas on Celticity emerge not only in overtly anti-Celtic discourse, but even in some works of the Celtic Twilight, such as William Sharp’s novel Green Fire.

Finally, Chapters Seven to Nine cover the period from the early twentieth century to the present. Anti– and postcolonial discourses become more prominent throughout this period, in which the revival of both Scot and Gaelic languages represent an attempt to ‘decolonise’ local cultures against the homogenising tendencies of the mainstream. At the same time, though, the Gaelic poetry of this period shows signs of an increasing development towards the acceptance of hybridity, internationalism and pluralism against conservative ideas of nativism and traditionalism. These developments are in line with overseas, international postcolonialism and the theorisation of contact zones between colonisers and colonised. These antagonistic ex-centric and concentric tendencies—the ‘decolonisation’ of Scotland and Gaidhealtachd from anglocentrism and the acceptance of cultural intermixtures and mutual influences—have not disappeared from the contemporary panorama. On the contrary, Stroh’s book is particularly timely because it raises issues that are central to the current debates, or controversies, over Scotland’s complete independence.

Indeed this is a book encouraging us to reflect on what hybridity, transculturalism and multiculturalism really mean. It may not always be an easy read, perhaps sometimes the reader may have an impression of déjà vu, since in each chapter Stroh tends to return to the conceptual aspects expounded in her Introduction—albeit often to expand upon them—or perhaps the reader may also find the author’s multiple ways of punctuating the term ‘postcolonialism’ (post/colonialism, post(-)colonialism, post-colonialism) a little bit excessive. Nonetheless, I believe that most readers would agree with me that Silke Stroh has succeeded in her attempt ‘to provide an overview of various issues and texts which are central to the question of whether Scotland and its Gaidhealtachd have a place in Postcolonial Studies, and whether postcolonial approaches have a place in Scottish Gaelic Studies’ (p. 339). Ultimately, Uneasy Subjectsis strongly commended both to Scottish-Studies scholars and to postcolonial literary critics and theorists.


References & Further Information

Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry by Silke Stroh is the seventeenth volume of the SCROLL series (Scottish Cultural Review of Language and Literature) published by Rodopi, 2011.

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Gioia Angeletti

Gioia Angeletti
Lecturer, English Literature
Universty of Parma

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