‘Seanchaidh na Coille | The Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada’ edited by Michael Newton

'Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada' edited by Michael NewtonWhile there have been various excellent anthologies of Gaelic poetry since the 1990s, these focused mainly on texts from Scotland itself. The corpus of Gaelic diaspora literature has received much less systematic attention, and much of it was hard to access for a wider modern readership, for instance because many texts remained scattered in nineteenth- or early twentieth-century century newspapers or long out-of-print books, and often confined to monolingual sources. The Canadian side of this diasporic literary corpus now finally becomes more accessible to a larger contemporary audience through Newton’s wide-ranging, well-structured bilingual anthology. The time-span covered extends from the eighteenth century to the 1930s. The volume is not only an editorial achievement, but also an admirable feat in translation, since most of the English translations were done by Newton himself.

As might be expected from the central place of song-poetry in the Gaelic literary tradition, this genre also occupies a central place in Seanchaidh na Coille. But unlike the major Scottish Gaelic anthologies of recent years, Newton’s collection also includes prose, such as public speeches, letters and articles published in newspapers, selections from advice manuals, excerpts from book chapters on Gaelic social and cultural history, a political letter to a senator, and transcripts of oral memoirs. Some of the Gaelic prose texts are translations from anglophone originals, which highlights translation as another interesting branch of Gaelic diasporic writing.

The collection opens with a substantial general ‘Introduction’ by the editor. This is followed by nine thematic sections, each of which opens with its own specific introduction, before presenting a range of literary texts concerned with the section topic. The introductions also include many excerpts from other Gaelic diasporic texts which could not be included in their entirety, justly reflecting the larger scope of the corpus and offering tantalising glimpses of further texts which await rediscovery and more detailed study by a wider readership. The first section, ‘The Subjugation of Gaeldom’, sets the stage by exploring some of the social factors that caused so many Scottish Gaels to emigrate to Canada in the first place. Most of the poems in this section were actually composed in Scotland rather than Canada, but they help to illuminate the historical and mental frameworks that shaped the migrant experience. Several of these poems are also known to have circulated among Canadian Gaels and can thus, at least to some extent, be regarded as part of the Canadian Gaelic canon as far as transmission and performance are concerned. Moreover, two of these texts are here edited from Canadian rather than Scottish sources. This also reveals an interesting variant of a well-known poem by Iain MacCodruim which is significantly longer than the standard Scottish version.

The section ‘Militarism and Tartanism’ presents poems and prose which, similar to anglophone discourses of romantic Highlandism, celebrate the Gaels as noble savages and heroic warriors in the service of the British nation and its empire. However, there are also notes of ambivalence, for instance concerning the number of lives lost, or concerning the fact that the Gaelic minority’s faithful service was often ill rewarded by a mainstream that continued to be hostile to Gaelic culture.

The ‘Migration’ section again includes some poems composed in Scotland, such as Iain Grannd’s musings on his emigration plans (although these never came to fruition). Here, Newton gives two very different versions of the text, one from Scottish, one from Canadian transmission, showing how oral tradition adapted texts to different local situations. Another poem that speaks from a pre-emigration Scottish viewpoint is Anna NicGill-Ìosa’s which anticipated her transatlantic relocation of 1786. Then there is Ailean ‘the Ridge’ MacDhòmhnaill’s poem supposedly composed during the actual voyage onboard ship, and several poems and prose texts composed in Canada which ponder their authors’ experiences of migration and arrival in retrospect. There are also excerpts from an emigrant guidebook and from a pro-migration PR brochure. Several themes from this section are continued in the next one, entitled ‘Settlement’. The texts in these two sections (and others) show a range of different responses to the migration experience. As might be expected, these include bitterness at the push factors that induced people to leave Scotland, a search for continuity and enduring Scottish affiliations (at times nostalgically romanticised), laments about the hardships of colonial ‘pioneering’, but also to endorsements of Canada, for instance as a land of great natural beauty, social opportunity, freedom from oppressive Scottish landlords, and successful new home-making in the diaspora which also created new, Canadian, patriotic loyalties. There are also touches of humour, for instance about settlers’ struggles with the local fauna, reflected in mock-heroic and satirical poems about bears and mice plundering their farms — alongside human exploiters: rodent infestations are put on par with those of ‘bears, merchants and bureaucrats’ (‘mathain, marsantan, is maoir‘, 199-200), and the beasties are bidden to settle in other districts instead. What we would now call ecocritical concerns are anticipated in another interesting text, Lachlann MacMhuirich’s poem about the devastation settlers’ fires wrought on the forests and the wild animals that inhabited them. Composed in the second half of the nineteenth century by a descendant of the most famous Scottish poetic dynasty whose roots go back to the Middle Ages, this text is also an intriguing instance of the long continuity of Gaelic poetic tradition.

Such continuity is even more evident in an elegy by MacMhuirich in the ‘Love and Death’ section, which is modelled on a Scottish Clanranald elegy from c. 1715. Canadian elegies also show how the Scottish Gaelic ‘panegyric code’, traditionally often centred around the clan aristocracy, was adapted to modern diasporic social conditions, for instance shifting from military warriors to spiritual ‘warriors’ of nineteenth-century Christian piety who functioned as a ‘battle-pillar of the church’ (‘Ursainn-chathana h-eaglais‘, 265, 267). The ‘love’ poems comprise both romantic love and other forms of affection — and even a man’s eulogy to his horse, with further interesting adaptations of panegyric traditions. There is also a charming meta-poetic vignette on singing Gaelic love songs on Canadian streetcars, to the consternation of non-Gaelic passengers. We return to ‘Religion’ in a dedicated section that contains hymns, praise of a popular priest, comments on church politics, and celebrations of missionary efforts. The latter parallel the military poems in their praise of imperialism — this time as a vehicle for spreading Christianity to infidels and ‘savage peoples’.

The section ‘Language and Literature’ features explanations of oral traditions, tributes to individual poets, and anxieties about the danger of losing the Gaelic language and culture under the pressures of diaspora life and anglocentric ‘modernity’. However, there is also praise of people and initiatives that preserve the Gaelic heritage: mothers who passed Gaelic culture on to their children, as well as the Gaelic press (where poems again adapt the panegyric ‘warrior’ code) and cultural organisations. There are also vindications of Gaelic culture against its detractors. Cultural preservation and cultural change are also central in the next section, ‘Identity and Associations’. At times, it is quite poignant to read the various texts which express anxiety about language loss in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, problems which are still very much with us today, with so much language preservation and revival work still needing to be done.

The final section, ‘Politics’, again gives various examples of older panegyric traditions being adapted to modern circumstances, in this case democratic politics and election campaigns. Similar poetic adaptations happened in nineteenth-century Gaelic Scotland, and Newton’s Canadian examples provide interesting parallels. The section also contains speeches, including one which strikingly foreshadows more recent British debates about the use of Gaelic in Parliament and education: a speech given (in Gaelic!) at the Nova Scotia Assembly in 1879 about the legitimacy of Gaelic teaching in schools. Further highlights include a senate speech from 1890 proposing to make Gaelic one of Canada’s official languages, and a humorous song-poem about failed attempts to repeal the Canadian Federation in the 1880s.

The editor’s ‘Conclusion’ chapter complements his ‘Introductions’ by providing further useful commentary. The volume is rounded off by an appendix containing short biographies of authors, a helpful index, and maps which identify the precise locations associated with the texts in this anthology. Further illustrations scattered throughout the book — photographs of authors, other community members and a monument; as well as reproductions from old newspaper pages — also help (like the texts themselves) to make the world of the earlier Gaelic diaspora come to life. My only (very minor) critique of the book’s structure is that the contents table only gives titles. Adding the names of authors, and perhaps dates, would have made the collection even easier to navigate.

As an anthology that includes a considerable amount of background information on biographical, political, socio-cultural and literary contexts, as well as English translations and a critical commentary that does a very good job in explaining complex matters in a jargon-free, succinct manner, this book is a great, accessible resource, even for general readers and those who are new to Gaelic Studies. At the same time, the volume is also of interest to more specialised readers, making a wealth of hitherto often hard-to-access primary materials available in a concentrated, convenient format. Other features which are helpful for scholarly readers are the academic footnotes and references on sources and further reading, as well as Newton’s insightful critical commentary. Despite its necessary succinctness demanded by the anthology format, Newton’s commentary provides many thought-provoking observations that also make this book an important intervention in contemporary criticism, linking Gaelic Studies to wider trends in international literary and cultural theory. While this is still relatively rare in Gaelic Studies, it clearly opens up new perspectives, for instance when Newton tentatively subjects a love-song to a queer reading (274). Elsewhere, this anthology draws on other dynamic areas of contemporary critical theory, i.e. diaspora studies, postcolonialism, and the study of multicultural societies. Both in theoretical terms and in terms of primary material, this collection widens the basis for any further study of the Gaelic diaspora in North America. For instance, literary scholars might be interested in the many references and connections to Gaelic literature from Scotland, as well as to other Gaelic Canadian texts, testifying to a lively and sophisticated scene of literary production and reception. In addition to the interest which these texts hold for scholars in literary and cultural studies, they are also relevant for historians as documents on Gaelic migration experiences and diasporic self-perceptions, as well as on their relationship to the history and identity of Scotland as a whole, to the British and Canadian state, to the idea of empire, and to other ethnic groups.

As such, these materials are not only important for the study of the Gaelic diaspora, but also for the wider corpus of Canadian literature and the history of Canadian multiculturalism. After all, as Newton points out in his ‘Introduction’, ‘Scottish Gaelic was the third-most spoken European language at the time of Confederation’ (1-2). Those who are interested in nineteenth-century Canadian ‘settler’ identities would thus do well to take the Gaelic sources into account. But these are ‘settler’ identities with a twist: While Scottish Gaelic Canadians were often treated as just another part of the (Anglo‐)British imperial mainstream, Newton stresses that Highlanders also had a significant sense of difference from (and at times antagonism to) the anglophone mainstream. As an internal minority within Britain, they often saw their language and traditions threatened by the cultural imperialism of anglophone ‘modernity’ — an experience they shared with many other ‘subaltern peoples’ (2) of the world, such as the indigenous populations of Europe’s overseas colonies. But as white Europeans, the Gaels were also permitted to transform themselves from ‘colonised’ to colonisers, gaining a share in the spoils and triumphalism of British imperialism — perhaps especially if they proved willing to relinquish their own traditions and concede the ‘superiority’ of Anglo-British culture (e.g. 3, 10). Despite frequent identification, Gaels also sometimes show a more sceptical attitude to empire which might be due to their own culture’s subordinate status. Showing both sides of this coin, Newton contributes to a more complex understanding of multicultural Canada in both colonial and postcolonial times. These ambivalences also have implications for contemporary debates about present and future cultural and educational policies.

As a collection which significantly broadens our understanding of Gaelic diasporic literature and identities, and of their relation to the wider society of ‘home’ and ‘host’ country, this book is set to become a standard reference point for any future studies on the subject. It would be fantastic if further work could produce similar anthologies for other locations of Scottish Gaelic diaspora culture, such as Australia or New Zealand.

Seanchaidh na Coille | The Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada edited by Michael Newton is published by Cape Breton University Press, 2015.

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Silke Stroh

Silke Stroh is a post-doctoral researcher in postcolonial studies at the University of Muenster, and currently also a visiting lecturer at the University of Basel. Her publications include Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry (Brill / Rodopi, 2011) and Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination: Anglophone Writing from 1600 to 1900 (Northwestern University Press, 2016).

More articles by Silke Stroh


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