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A Case for Gaelic in Kentucky

Sin sibh, a chàirdean! (Greetings, friends!) After the better part of a decade abroad, I’m coming home to Kentucky. As is true of most people who undertake journeys of comparable length, my travels have changed me quite markedly in some respects, and left me unaltered in others: where I was a Centrist Liberal, I’m now a Leftist; where I was single, I’m now married; and where before I spoke only English and Spanish, I am now also a speaker of Scottish Gaelic. Unchanged is my admiration for Kentucky, and the people, places, and cultural traditions that make the Commonwealth beautiful and distinctive. It is for the sake of that admiration, and in hopes of furthering that beauty and distinctiveness, that I hope to help revive Scottish Gaelic as a living language in the Commonwealth. The people of Kentucky stand to benefit from the local revival of Scottish Gaelic in several ways, and –  by enumerating some of these potential benefits in the passages to follow, and by explaining at least in part my plan for undertaking that revival – I hope to generate interest in the project of Gaelic’s reintroduction, and to inspire readers to work with me toward the accomplishment of that goal.

What is Scottish Gaelic?

It might be helpful, before explaining my reasons for proposing a Kentucky Gaelic revival, to give a description of the language involved. Scottish Gaelic belongs to the Celtic branch of the Indo-European languages, making it a distant cousin of the Romance languages (such as French and Spanish), the Slavic languages (such as Russian and Czech), the Baltic Languages (such as Lithuanian and Latvian) and the Germanic languages (such as English and German), among others. Its fellow Celtic languages are further divided into the Brythonic or Brittonic languages (Breton, Cornish, and Welsh), and the Goidelic or Gaelic languages (Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic itself). Although, in colloquial English, the word ‘Gaelic’ is often used indiscriminately to refer to any of the three Goidelic languages, and some speakers of each of the three languages find them all to be at least somewhat mutually intelligible with one another, it is important to note that each does constitute a distinct form of speech, and that, outwith the context of pan-Gaelicism – that is, the movement to politically or culturally unite the speakers of the three Goidelic languages under the banner of one pan-Gaelic nation or state – it is considered both technically and politically incorrect to treat them as through they were merely dialects of the same language. In this piece, from here on out, I will use the term ‘Goidelic languages’ to refer to Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic collectively; and both ‘Gaelic’ and ‘Scottish Gaelic’ to refer to the Scottish Gaelic language specifically.

How should Gaelic be pronounced?

In using the word ‘Gaelic’ to refer to the Scottish Gaelic language, it should be noted that Scottish Gaels from Scotland tend to pronounce the name of the language in such a way that its first syllable rhymes with ‘gal’, even when speaking English; whereas Scottish Gaels from Nova Scotia tend to pronounce it in such a way that the same syllable rhymes with ‘whale’. This has to do mostly with ideological differences concerning the conception of Gaelic identity and the different priorities of the two speech communities. In Scotland, the Scottish Gaels have been eager to assert their identity as Scottish, in opposition to the view among some people from outwith the Gaelic community that Scottish Gaelic is merely a highly divergent form of Irish. This outsider perspective implies that the Scottish Gaels and their language are not as Scottish as the other surviving local Scottish ethnic group, the Scots – who, since around the year 1400, have traditionally called Gaelic ‘Erse’ (Irish) in their own language, which they call ‘Scots’ (Scottish). By insisting that Gaelic be pronounced in English the same way it is in the Scottish Gaelic language itself (Gàidhlig), the Scottish Gaels in Scotland can more easily assert their Scottishness. Confusingly for learners, Scottish Gaels in Scotland still do occasionally use the English-language pronunciation of Gaelic – that is, ‘Gael-ik’ – when translating the Gaelic word Gàidhealach, an adjective used to describe things that are culturally – rather than linguistically – Gaelic; and there are some dialects of Scottish Gaelic in the southern Inner Hebrides that pronounce Gaelic as Gael-ik even in Gaelic! Even so, it’s generally safer and more respectful to pronounce Gaelic as Gal-ik in Scotland even when speaking English.

By contrast, the Scottish Gaels of Nova Scotia have had no local challenges to their ancestral Scottishness, and, in any case, are not citizens of Scotland, but of Canada. Consequently, they can assert the general Gaelicness of their cultural and linguistic identity without running the risk of being misidentified as Irish or Manx, and have chosen to pronounce the name of their language accordingly: Gàidhlig (Gal-ik) in Gaelic, and Gaelic (Gael-ik) in English.  Because I learned Gaelic in Scotland, I tend to pronounce it the Scottish way, although – since I now live in North America – I will not attempt to impose that pronunciation on others, especially on Scottish Gaelic speakers from Nova Scotia.

Indigeneity versus Autochthony, and Revival versus Revitalization

Scottish Gaelic is considered indigenous (that is, ‘native’) to Scotland, where it is the country’s oldest living language, and where it has enjoyed official recognition as a national language since the passage by the Scottish Parliament of the 2005 Gaelic Act. It was once believed that Gaelic had come to Scotland with Irish migrants sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries AD, but the preponderance of evidence now suggests that –  rather than the Irish Sea serving as the evolutionary barrier between the Goidelic and Brythonic languages, as was once thought – the dividing line in the evolution of the two branches of the Celtic languages was actually the Druim Alban (in modern Scottish Gaelic, Druim na h-Alba – that is, ‘the Spine of Scotland’), the mountain range dividing the West Coast of Scotland from the Scottish Interior. According to this theory, proto-Goidelic had begun to evolve in Western Scotland as early as it had in Ireland, centuries earlier than had previously been supposed.  In any case, Scottish Gaelic was the founding language of the Scottish state, as is attested by the country’s Latin name, Scotia: the Latin word for Gaels – the ethnic group that has historically spoken the Goidelic languages – was Scoti, meaning that both Scotia and its English-language equivalent, Scotland, translate to ‘Land of the Gaels’, and, therefore, ‘Land of the Gaelic Speakers’.

By the eleventh century AD, Gaelic had replaced the Brythonic-Celtic Pictish language and out-competed the Old English language to become the most widely spoken language in Scotland. However – because of centuries of state persecution beginning with its rejection by the Scottish monarchy during the eleventh-century reign of Malcolm III,  and escalating to outright cultural genocide against Gaelic speakers during the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, the Jacobite Wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the Highland Clearances of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries – it has declined so dramatically over the course of the last millennium that it is spoken by only around one percent of the Scottish population today. At present, census data and expert consensus indicates that there are likely fewer than 60,000 fluent speakers of Scottish Gaelic world-wide. Most of them (around 57,000) live in Scotland, but many dozens are scattered throughout non-Gaelic speaking communities in the global Scottish diaspora (including right here in Kentucky); and a few hundred native speakers reside in Nova Scotia, Canada.

In Nova Scotia, especially in the area known as Cape Breton, Gaelic is considered not indigenous, like the local Mi’kmaq language, but ‘autochthonous’ – a word assembled from ancient Greek roots that means literally ‘self-earthed’ or ‘self-rooted’. Designating a language autochthonous means that, although the language in question is not native to a particular area, it nonetheless has a community of native speakers who are local to that area.  It should be noted that some academics make a slightly different contrast between ‘indigenous’ and ‘autochthonous’ than the one I have just outlined, using the former term to describe languages or cultures that are not only native to the areas in which they now reside, but which have been victims of colonial processes; and the latter term to describe languages or cultures which have been both the victims and the beneficiaries of such processes; for now, however, we will use the simpler definition of the term as introduced at the start of this passage, whereby, when a language has native speakers born in, raised in, and local to to its place of origin, it is indigenous to that area; and, when a language has native speakers born in, raised in, and local to an area from which it did not originate, it is autochthonous to that area.

In the case of Gaelic in Nova Scotia, the ‘autochthony’ of the language means that some Nova Scotians speak it as their first language, even though they were born and raised in Nova Scotia and the language itself originated in Scotland. Scottish Gaelic took root in Nova Scotia as the result of large-scale emigration to the area by Gaelic-speaking refugees expelled from Scotland during the Highland Clearances. Because of similar migration, Scottish Gaelic used to be autochthonous in some parts of the United States: anyone in the US who has any Scottish heritage likely has ancestors who spoke Gaelic, and some of these ancestors might have passed down knowledge of the language for a few generations even after settling in the New World. Many Kentuckians can trace their ancestry back to Scotland, but, sadly – unlike in Nova Scotia – the Gaelic-language heritage of Kentuckians has been largely lost to cultural assimilation, and there are currently no communities in Kentucky where Scottish Gaelic is spoken as a living language. It is my goal, however, to change that situation, by reviving Gaelic in Kentucky.

In Scotland and Nova Scotia, Gaelic is being revitalized – that is, restored to health – since it has never ceased to be spoken in those areas. In Kentucky, where no locally-born native speakers of Gaelic remain alive today, Gaelic will have to undergo not revitalization, but revival – that is, a figurative resurrection. Although this may seem like a lofty aim, it is entirely achievable. Two of the six Celtic languages – Manx and Cornish – have already been successfully revived after dying out completely even in their countries of origin; it is my belief that, by learning from their examples and applying those lessons to the Kentuckian context, we can have similar success with Gaelic in the Commonwealth. If anything, it should be easier for us than for the Manx and the Cornish revivalists, since there are two regions – Scotland and Nova Scotia – in which Gaelic still survives; by enlisting the help of native speakers from these areas, and using the two region’s Gaelic communities to provide language immersion opportunities for would-be Kentucky Gaelic speakers, we can restore Gaelic to life with relative ease by comparison to those revivalists who had no living native speakers to assist them in their efforts, but who nonetheless succeeded.

Living Languages versus Dead Languages

Throughout this piece – for example, in the preceding sentence – I have been using the metaphor of life and death to describe the status of spoken languages. Many linguists dislike comparisons drawn between languages and living things, because they are necessarily inaccurate – languages, of course, are not actually alive. When people refer to a language as ‘living’, they generally mean that it is known and used on a regular basis by people who learned it in early childhood, ideally as a first language. In Kentucky, English is a living language with some autochthonous dialects. English has been transmitted from generation to generation as a first language in Kentucky for more than  twenty-five decades, and speakers of English have developed regional dialects of English distinctive to different parts of the Commonwealth. Spanish is another living language of Kentucky, and is in the early stages of its autochthonization, although it might not fully autochthonize: many Kentuckians have been raised in Spanish-speaking households by fluently Spanish-speaking parents; however, because of the process of cultural and linguistic assimilation, most of these Spanish-speaking Kentuckians will not transmit fluent Spanish to their own children, who will instead grow up speaking English, be it an autochthonous Kentuckian dialect or a form more closely approximating American Standard English – which has become increasingly hegemonic in Kentucky owing to its higher prestige and greater media presence than the local dialects.

We cannot, at present, know with certainty whether Gaelic fully autochthonized in Kentucky the way it has in Nova Scotia; or the way that Spanish may yet do throughout the Southern United States. Kentucky Gaelic speakers are not known to have produced any Gaelic-language print media, and so the only evidence of Gaelic-speakers in the Commonwealth comes from English-language anecdotal accounts – whether written contemporaneously, or passed down orally to the present – noting the presence of Gaelic speakers in Kentucky in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, the absence of native Gaelic speakers in Kentucky today demonstrates that, sadly, the process of autochthonization, however advanced, eventually lost out to the more pervasive process of linguistic and cultural assimilation, meaning that Gaelic in Kentucky is today a ‘dead’ language – that is, a language which is either wholly unknown and unused, or learned by specialists exclusively for institutional or ceremonial purposes.

The loss of Gaelic in Kentucky represents a diminution in the Commonwealth’s linguistic and cultural diversity, and – in some ways – a victory for racism, since many Gaelic speakers abandoned their language as part of the process of ceasing to belong to minoritized European immigrant communities and instead becoming ‘white’ Americans. It is my hope that by reviving Gaelic, those Kentuckians of all races who participate in the revival can help undo some of the damage done by the construct of whiteness, which has so negatively impacted the Commonwealth by endangering the wellbeing and social solidarity of its citizens.

The Kentucky Gaelic Revival as Anti-Racist Action

Among the foremost reasons for reviving Gaelic in Kentucky is its potential to further the cause of anti-racism. As many of you may already know, the construct of race in America is not organic, timeless and immutable; but artificial, relatively recently created, and constantly changing. The concepts of whiteness and Blackness were invented by American and Caribbean plantation owners in the late seventeenth century to keep their servants and slaves from uniting to overthrow the plantation system. Previously, the masters had divided the population according to the religious categories of Protestant, Catholic, and non-Christian – with the Protestants at the top of the hierarchy, the non-Christians on the bottom, and the Catholics in an uncomfortable liminal space in between. However – with more and more non-Christians and Catholics converting to Protestant Christianity – the possibility that worker solidarity might lead to revolution against the colonial elite seemed ever more likely. By dividing the colonial underclasses according to skin color, in addition to religion – according white workers better treatment and more rights than Black slaves, and thereby creating a sense of false solidarity between working-class whites and the wealthy plantation owners – the colonial land barons were able to destroy the solidarity that had begun to exist between white and Black victims of exploitation, and thus protect themselves and their wealth from the threats of both systemic reform and armed revolution.

At first, whiteness was the exclusive right of ‘Anglo-Saxons’, a term which today is synonymous with all white people, but which during the colonial-era referred only to the ethnic group historically associated with the English language – whether the English-descended landowners in the American colonies, the English-descended servants whom they were trying to coax into class betrayal, or their relatives back in England. Other kinds of people who are today considered white – such as people of German, Mediterranean, and Slavic descent – were only gradually granted access to the white identity over the course of the ensuing decades. Among the last ethnic groups to be admitted into the club of whiteness were the Celtic peoples – that is, the non-Anglo-Saxon Britons (the historical speakers of the Welsh, Cornish and Breton languages) and the Gaels (the historical speakers of the Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic languages). It is to one branch of these peoples – the aforementioned Scottish Gaels – that the Scottish Gaelic language belongs, and that their conversion to whiteness furthered their disuse of that language is significant. Indeed, the surrender of the Gaels’ indigeneity in exchange for whiteness, as exemplified by their rejection of the Gaelic language in favor of English, provides a model for the group self-investiture of ethnic identity which I would like to emulate in reverse – using Gaelic to dismantle white identity among the descendants of the Gaels just as English was used to dismantle their ancestors’ indigeneity. Put simply, whereas the Gaels in America gave up Gaelic to become white, thereby increasing the power of whiteness and Anglo-Saxon cultural assimilationism on the national stage, I would like their descendants in Kentucky – and anyone of any other heritage interested in helping those descendants in their mission – to relearn Gaelic as a way to reject white identity and its privileges, and help make space for greater cultural and ethnic diversity in Kentucky.

The Gaels, the Scots-Irish, and Their Transformation into White Americans

Most of the of the people in Kentucky who today call themselves ‘white Americans’ are descended from various cultural groups whose languages and cultures were slowly erased over the course of centuries so that they could be replaced by the white American identity. Two of the largest of these groups, in Kentucky at least, were the Scottish Gaels and the Scots Irish (also known as the Scotch Irish) – both of whom would have been historically connected to the Scottish Gaelic language at the time of their immigration to Kentucky (albeit in different degrees), and whose Kentuckian descendants would stand to benefit from a reconnection to that language and its cultural traditions.

The Scottish Gaels are one of three branches of Gaeldom who, along with the Irish Gaels and the Manx Gaels, make up the Gaelic ethnic group, the languages of whom form the the Goidelic or Gaelic language family (which is, in turn, a sub-division of the larger Celtic and still larger Indo-European language families). The Scottish Gaels – so called because their branch of the Gaelic ethnic group historically resided in Scotland – founded the Scottish nation through a cultural and political merger with the Brythonic-language-speaking Picts in around 900 AD. In the eleventh century, Malcolm III of Scotland (a Scottish Gael) married Margaret of Wessex (an Anglo Saxon). Under her influence, the Scottish royal court and the Scottish clergy began to abandon the Gaelic language; an influx of Anglo-Saxon nobility fleeing the Norman conquest of England were invited to settle in Scotland; and trade with England and the Germanic-language-speaking Low Countries dramatically increased. As a result of these changes, Gaelic eventually ceased to be the official language of Scotland, and the Scottish Lowlands transitioned, by around the year 1350 AD, from speaking Gaelic to speaking Middle English – the language that would eventually become Scots. By the mid-1500s or so (and far earlier in some parts of Scotland), the Scots-speaking Lowlanders had come to think of themselves as belonging to a different ethnic group than the Gaels, and believed that their language and culture were more ‘Scottish’ than those of the Gaels. It was at this stage that they stopped calling Gaelic ‘Scots’ (Scottish) and began using that term for their own language, which they had previously called ‘Inglis’ (English).

By that time, there was real animosity between the Lowland Scots and the Scottish Gaels, with the former group thinking of the latter as barbarians, and the latter regarding the former as foreign usurpers of the Scottish Lowlands, despite the ongoing self-identification of both parties as Scots, and their fealty to the same monarch. To this day, the Scottish Gaelic word Gall can refer to either a foreigner or a Lowlander, and the phrase Beurla Gallda (foreigner’s English/ Lowlander’s English) can be used to refer to the Scots language. The persecution of Gaels by Lowland Scots increased dramatically after the Protestant Reformation of 1560, since the Gaels were slower than the Lowland Scots to adopt the new religion. From that time on, attacks on the Gaels and their culture could be disguised as evangelism, and the Scottish parliament passed various laws in the 1600s attempting to force the Gaels to abandon the institutions – such as support of Gaelic poets by the nobility, and education of the ruling classes in Gaelic – that made them culturally unique. When, in the 1680s, the Protestant King William of Orange became the ruler of Scotland and England, most of the Scottish Gaels sided with his rival, the exiled King James VII, hoping that they would be well-treated by the old monarch if they helped restore him to the throne. Ultimately, that struggle – called the Jacobite risings after Jacobus, the Latin name for James – would rage off and on for decades, outliving both King William and his successor Queen Anne.  However, despite great tactical skill and martial valor on the part of the Gaels, the final Jacobite rising of 1745 ended in Jacobite defeat at the 1746 battle of Culloden, after which the Scottish Highlands were invaded and occupied by the British Army, the Scottish Gaels were forcibly disarmed, and the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge introduced, with government support, a school system designed to turn the Gaelic children into Protestant English-speakers. Meanwhile, the heirs to the Scottish Gaelic aristocrats, having been forced to conform to the customs of the English-speaking nobility and no longer able to act as the war-leaders of their people, began to think of themselves simply as landlords. As such, they became increasingly frustrated with the poverty of their Gaelic-speaking tenants, who – conquered and disarmed – were no longer able to provide military service in lieu of the rents they could not afford to pay. So, beginning in the 1750s, the Highland landlords began to evict their tenantry by the thousands, driving them off the land with hired mercenaries authorized to use deadly force, and replacing them with the sheep and red deer whose over-grazing has reduced the Scottish Highlands to the treeless condition in which one finds them today.

It was only at this stage, in the 1750s and later – when they had been forcibly disarmed, forbidden from wearing their traditional clothing, made to send their children to English-language-only schools, forced to give up their ancestral methods of social and political organization, and in many cases driven violently from their lands in the aforementioned mass-evictions (known today as the Highland Clearances) – that it became the norm for people in the English-speaking cultural mainstream to accept the Scottish Gaels as ‘white’ on an equivalent basis with the English. Even then, the moniker only fully extended as far as those Gaels who had ceased to speak Gaelic; even today, Gaelic language use in Scotland is looked on in some quarters as a marker of subaltern status within whiteness, and a threat to the cultural and political unity of the United Kingdom.

Most of the Scottish Gaels who emigrated to North America during the time of the Highland Clearances (roughly 1760 to 1860, but somewhat earlier or much later in some cases) encountered the same forces of Anglo-Saxon assimilationism that they had hoped to leave behind them in Scotland. The choice before them in the New World was simple, but stark: they could remain as Gaels, speaking Gaelic and honoring the traditions of their ancestors, but living as social outcasts in North American society; or they could assimilate to the Anglophone mainstream, be recognized as ‘white’, and have the possibility of accessing economic stability and political power in their new countries. Not surprisingly, most chose the second option – and that’s why no Gaelic is natively spoken in Kentucky today.

Interestingly, one group of people who were granted whiteness far earlier than the Scottish Gaels were in some ways their cultural descendants. The Scots-Irish (or Scotch Irish) were so called because they came from Scotland to invade and colonize Ulster (the northernmost of the traditional five provinces of Ireland) at the behest of King James VI of Scotland in the early 1600s, so that they could militarily conquer the local Irish Catholics. These colonists consisted of Lowland Scots (the aforesaid historical speakers of the Scots language, whose ancestors would, some 300 years before, have been mostly Gaelic-speaking) and Scottish Highlanders (at that time, essentially another term for Scottish Gaels) who had converted early to Protestantism. For many of the Highlanders, the motivations underlying their Protestant conversion would have doubtless resembled those undergirding the North American Gaelic-speakers’ later conversion to whiteness, although for many it might also have been a question of sincere religious conviction.

It must be said that ultimately, despite the initial danger it posed to Gaelic culture when wielded by the Lowlanders as a justification for anti-Gaelic bigotry, Protestantism took on a wholly different character in the hands of the Gaels themselves, on both sides of the Irish Sea: Protestant Goidelic-language-speakers would rank among the leaders of both the unsuccessful but inspiring 1798 attempt to liberate Ireland from the British Crown, and in various movements in Scotland throughout the 1800s to resist the Highland Clearances, including the activities of the formidable Highland Land League in the 1880s and 1890s; and Presbyterian denominations such as the Free Presbyterian Church served as institutional bastions of Scottish Gaelic during the twentieth century.

In the 1600s, however, the relationship between Protestantism and Scottish Gaelic – indeed, between Protestantism and any Goidelic language – was still a largely antagonistic one. Although most of the Lowland Scots in Ulster had Scottish Gaelic ancestors, and the Highlanders among them were Gaels themselves, all of the Scots Irish ultimately gave up the use of the Scottish Gaelic language – probably because it was closely related to Irish, the language of the Catholics they had been sent to Ireland to oppress. It remains unclear, however, how long it took this process of linguistic abandonment to unfold; I hold out hope that, among the Scots Irish settlers in eighteenth-century Kentucky, some Gaelic speakers still remained.

Today, the conquering military prowess of the Scots Irish is seen by their descendants as something to be celebrated, and – indeed – martial valor is upheld as a praiseworthy trait by members of many cultures throughout the world. However, it must be remembered that the battle-readiness of the Scots Irish had a dark side: from the beginning of their history as a people, they did not fight on their own behalf, but as cannon-fodder for imperial regimes – a role which their descendants in the United States have continued to play down to the present. This servility and blind loyalty in military service to morally bankrupt powers – reminiscent of the Russian and Ukrainian Cossacks and their anti-Jewish pogroms in service to the Czars – cannot form an ethically acceptable basis for ethnic pride, and should not be pressed into service as such. Certainly, their dogged loyalty to the cause of empire – whether British or American – has never seen the Scots Irish well rewarded by the powers they served. Although, because they had willingly become tools of English imperialism early in their history, they were accepted as white almost as soon as the English themselves, the American powers-that-be have never let them fully ascend the hierarchical ladder atop which all whites theoretically stand together. The sort of whiteness awarded the Scots-Irish – like that granted the English servants of the Virginian and Caribbean planters at the time of the inception of whiteness – has, for the most part, never granted them the same protections that whiteness guarantees the bloodline descendants and cultural heirs of the Anglo-Saxon elite. The people in the United States most strongly associated with Scots Irish decent are the Appalachians – a group largely dismissed as dismissed as ‘white trash’ by the national elite, and mercilessly exploited, whether for profit or mere entertainment, whenever they aren’t simply ignored and left to languish in their poverty. As ever, ‘white solidarity’ is the just the hollow rallying cry of rich, powerful whites to poor, powerless ones – urging them to put their lives and livelihoods on the line to defend privileges they will never fully enjoy against people of color with whom they have more in common than their employers do with them.  

At the time that they were allowed to become white, both the Scots Irish and the Scottish Gaels were probably relieved, because it meant that, from then on, they could – theoretically, if not in practice – avoid being exploited by white people, and start exploiting non-white people themselves. In hindsight, we can see that this attitude is ethically reprehensible, not to mention logically fallacious; and that, had the Scots Irish and Scottish Gaels rejected whiteness, and stood in solidarity with other non-white peoples to resist Anglo-Saxon imperialism and English-language hegemony, the world would probably be a different and better place than it is today. Sadly, as it happened, the two peoples instead made the proverbial bed in which modern Americans are forced to lie. The Scots Irish people who emigrated to what would become the Southern United States in the eighteenth century did espouse whiteness, and did the same thing to Indigenous Americans in the New World that their ancestors had done to the Irish Gaels in Ulster in the previous century – violently evicting the local people and occupying their lands, some of which they converted into farmsteads worked by forced labour. Even though the Scottish Gaels had been colonized themselves, many of those evicted in the Highland Clearances also ended up pursuing careers as soldiers and settlers – doing to others in America what the British had done to them in Scotland.

Ultimately, the Scots Irish and the Scottish Gaels were largely responsible for the white settlement of the Southern United States, including what is today Kentucky, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. By giving up their ancestral Scottish Gaelic language and allowing themselves to become culturally white, and thereby agreeing to ally themselves with English-descended colonists in advancing and benefiting from the processes of American Indian genocide and Black slavery, they helped lay the foundations of the United States as it exists today – a country defined by centuries-old unjust hierarchies of race, class, and region, in which linguistic and cultural diversity are continually suppressed in favor of assimilation to the Anglophone mainstream; and which, through its military and economic might, has exported the project of Anglo-American cultural and linguistic assimilation throughout much of the world.

Even so, It is my sincere hope that, because the Scots-Irish and Scottish Gaels of Kentucky helped bring about American racism and cultural assimilationism by abandoning Gaelic, we modern Kentuckians can promote racial harmony and cultural diversity by reviving that language; and that, because they cast off the Gaelic language to don the mantle of whiteness, we, by taking up that language, can help do away with whiteness altogether. If Kentuckians now thought of as white forsake solidarity with other white people, aided in undergoing that paradigm shift by their emotional and intellectual investment in the effort to revive a minoritized language that would stand in opposition to the cultural dominion of American standard English (the language of whiteness in the United States and its empire) then they will have succeeded in striking an at least symbolic and perhaps pragmatic blow against the global forces of white hegemony in America and beyond.  

Kentucky Gaelic Revival in Solidarity with the Promotion of Racial Diversity

Even though I envision the work of Gaelic revival in Kentucky as existing to combat the racism brought about by the assumption of white identity by Gaelic and Scots-Irish immigrants to Kentucky, the work of disrupting the white identity of white Kentuckians through the restoration of a Gaelic identity in Kentucky must not be undertaken by white Kentuckians alone.  Although the assumption of whiteness by the Gaels and Scots Irish has most benefited those of their descendants who are now considered white, the process of re-establishing Gaelic in Kentucky will require the active participation of a racially-diverse cohort of language learners. If the Kentuckian learners of Gaelic claim to challenge the construct of whiteness, but appear to be mostly or exclusively phenotypically white, then the revival of Gaelic in Kentucky will run the risk of seeming – or even becoming – an affirmation of the construct of whiteness rather than an attack on that construct, with the new Kentucky Gaelic-speakers viewed as merely a peculiar sub-type of white American; and their culture, likewise, a quaint variation on the theme of white culture rather than a new and vital force inimical to whiteness. If the project is to succeed, then that eventuality – the co-option of the Kentucky Gaelic revival by whiteness – must be avoided at all costs. Thus, I seek to enlist the aid of Kentuckians of all races – as well as all genders, sexual orientations, and religious affiliations – in undertaking the project of Kentucky’s re-Gaelicization.

In seeking this phenotypical diversity among Gaels, the project will in no way deviate from the historical construction of Gaelic identity. Both the idea that Gaels are universally phenotypically pale; and that Gaelic identity can be heritable only genetically, are nothing more than modern misconceptions. Gaelic heritage has always been less about who one’s biological relatives are or what one looks like than about what community one comes from and by whom one was raised. A person who is genetically or phenotypically Black or American Indian, but who was raised by Gaels in a Gaelic-speaking community, is no less a Gael than their adoptive siblings and cousins, as numerous examples from the Nova Scotian context demonstrate. Conversely, a person who is white, but who was not raised by Gaels in a Gaelic speaking community, could not be a Gael unless adopted into a Gaelic community and acculturated to Gaelic traditions in adulthood – and, even in that instance, Gaelic identity would be a thing bestowed upon the incomer at the discretion of the Gaelic community of which they had become part, rather than proclaimed by the incomer, who would have no cultural authority to make such a declaration.

The Question of Cultural Appropriation – Gaels versus Gall-Gaels

Establishing that last parameter of Gaelic identity – the essential non-Gaelicness of people neither raised nor adopted by Gaels – raises the question of how the Kentucky Gaelic Revival can avoid the unjust appropriation of Gaelic culture. In social-justice parlance, cultural appropriation denotes the unsanctioned use of the cultural artifacts of a minoritized culture by individuals from outwith the culture in question. Because the Scottish Gaels are a minoritized ethnic group; and because the Kentuckian descendants of the Scots Irish and the Scottish Gaels ceased to use Gaelic centuries ago, and are no longer conversant with the norms of Gaelic culture; and, finally, because the participants in the revival who come from other ancestral backgrounds might have no historical connection to Gaelic whatsoever, the revivalists of Gaelic in Kentucky would indeed be guilty of the appropriation of Gaelic culture if they declared themselves Gaels. Therefore, in order to avoid the commission of cultural appropriation, the Kentucky Gaelic revivalists must refrain from the full assumption of Gaelic identity – acknowledging that, no matter how many Gaelic cultural traits they come to embody, or how well they speak the Scottish Gaelic language – they will not be Gaels.

So, to recognize the distinction between actual Gaels and those we hope to propagate in Kentucky, I second the use of the term proposed by the non-ethnically-Gaelic Scottish Gaelic language revitalists, Fañch Bihan Gallig and Viktor MacÀrdghall: ‘Gall-Gael’ – or in its original Gaelic, Gall-Ghàidheal (Foreigner-Gael) – in lieu of the ethnonym ‘Gael’. The historical Gall-Gaels were a hybrid Norse-Gaelic ethnic group that lived in the Scottish Hebrides and Scottish West Coast during the cultural re-Gaelicization of these regions at the close of the Viking Age (which spanned, roughly, 700 AD to 900 AD). The Lordship of the Isles (in Gaelic, Rìgheachd nan Eilean) – a semi-independent kingdom centered in the Scottish Hebrides and mostly peopled by Gall-Gaels – served as the last political bastion of Gaelic culture in Scotland after the rejection of Gaelic by the Scottish monarchy in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.  Eventually, the Gall-Gaels of the Lordship of the Isles fully re-Gaelicized, and served as arguably the most important tradition bearers of Gaelic culture in Scotland until the invasion and destruction of their kingdom by the Scottish monarchy in 1493. By taking on the ethnonym of the Gall-Gaels, the Kentucky Gaelic Revivalists will be able to advertise their admiration for Gaelic culture while respecting their own cultural distance from it; and simultaneously signal their intent to fully self-re-Gaelicize (to the extent possible without neglecting or endangering their cultural heritage as Kentuckians) in the course of the generations to come.

What does the process of re-Gaelicization entail?

The process of becoming, at least partially, culturally and linguistically Gaelic in the coming decades – not only as individuals, but as a people – is the ultimate goal of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival. This process will entail not only some Kentuckians’ acquisition of the Gaelic language, and their transmission of that language from generation to generation in the domains of family and neighborhood, but, ideally, their absorption and transmission – or at least their access to resources  that would facilitate their acquisition – of other Gaelic cultural traditions not necessarily fully encoded in the language itself. These traditions will hopefully include the learning and re-sharing of Gaelic songs, stories, and dances; the exploration of historical Gaelic literature, such as the texts that compose the Finn Cycle and Ulster Cycle; and engagement with Scottish Gaelic spiritual and cosmological traditions, such as the continuation of Gaelic psalm singing, the observation of the quarter-day festivals, the orientation of maps toward the east rather than the north, and the recognition of the sanctity of Southerly or clockwise motion. It is important to note that the learning of the cultural traditions mentioned above should be undertaken to the exclusion of hegemonic white culture, but while embracing – never replacing! – the extant artistic and folkloric traditions that already make Kentucky unique.

Obviously, some traditions historically observed by Scottish Gaels won’t translate well to the Kentuckian context. The fact that Kentucky is landlocked, for instance, greatly reduces the opportunity to authentically engage in Gaelic maritime traditions. This is no great difficulty, however, as our object as Gall-Gaels is not the complete transplantation of Gaelic traditions into Kentucky and Gaelic identity onto Kentuckians, but the restoration of Kentuckian’s forgotten Gaelicness, and its synthesis with traditions that Kentuckians have originated themselves – the syncretism and mutual glorification of Kentuckians’ regional and ancestral streams of heritage at the expense of those traditions foisted upon Kentuckians to our detriment by the white Anglophone mainstream. Essentially, re-Gaelicization entails the creation of Gall-Gaels as a new ethnic group in Kentucky, one which hybridizes the arts, beliefs, and folkways of Kentuckians and Gaels in opposition to the cultural traditions of the white and English-language dominance which have tried for the last three centuries to destroy them by assimilation. Whereas the ‘Gall’ in the original Gall-Ghàidheal ethnonym signified the Norse, in its Kentuckian formulation, it will stand in for ‘Kentuckian’; thus, the Gall-Gaels of Kentucky will be Kentuckian Gaels – distinct from the Scottish Gaels, and unique to Kentucky, but nonetheless recognizable tradition bearers of both Scottish Gaelic and Kentuckian culture.  

How to become Gall-Gaels

As many in my audience will already have surmised, it will not be possible to create the Gall-Gael identity overnight. The process of identity formation will be an incremental one, forged through shared experience over the course of decades. Language shift – and, by extension, cultural shift – tends to take three generations to reach its full fruition; so it likely was with the erasure of the Gaelic language and culture from Kentuckian life, and so it will likely be with its restoration. The pre-requisite to the successful re-Gaelicization of Kentuckians – and, therefore, the benchmark for the initial success of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival – will be the creation of a community of Kentuckians and other interested people willing to study and disavow the cultural attributes of whiteness, and  equally willing to study and embody the cultural attributes of Kentuckians and Scottish Gaels. As earlier stated, it is essential that some of these participants be Kentuckians of color.

The process of re-Gaelicization will entail learning and abiding by the principles of social justice activism, including feminism, anti-racism, anti-classism, anti-homophobia, and anti-regionalism; researching the history of both Kentucky and Scotland, particularly the Scottish Highlands and Islands; and actively participating in cultural traditions unique to Kentucky and the Scottish Gàidhealtachd – that is, the traditionally Gaelic speaking-region of Scotland (often translated as the Highlands, but also often thought of as including the Scottish Hebrides).

In order to further these aims, I intend to launch a number of Gaelic cultural promotion activities in Kentucky, such as Gaelic-language classes, Gaelic-language conversation circles, cèilidh dances (that is, social Scottish dance evenings of a style originating in Gaelic culture but now popular throughout Scotland); traditional cèilidhs (that is, intimate gatherings with Gaelic singing, music, and storytelling); a Comann nam Fèilltean (that is, ‘Feast Society’) for the celebration of traditional observances of the Gaelic quarter-days of Oidhche Shamhna (Samhain/Halloween), Latha Fèille Brìghde (Imbolc/Candlemas), Latha Buidhe Bealltainne (Beltane/May Day), and Aonach Thaillteann or Lùnastal (Lughnasadh/Lamas); and Gaelic psalm-singing workshops.

Additionally, I would like to inaugurate a series of periodic lectures or conferences on the subjects of anti-racism, Kentucky heritage, and Scottish Gaelic studies, at which experts in each of these disciplines would share their knowledge with the aspiring Gall-Gael community; as well as, eventually, an annual retreat, at which members of the community would bond through the sharing and melding of the Gaelic and Kentuckian cultural traditions learned throughout the year. It is hoped that by attending these events, aspiring Gall-Gaels will become more confident in their cultural knowledge of both Kentucky and Scottish Gaeldom, and develop a distinct collective cultural identity.

Domestic Intergenerational Transition, and Kentucky’s Baile nan Gàidheal

It is my hope that, by as early as 2030 and by no later than 2060, the Kentucky Gaelic Revival will have produced fluent native speakers of Gaelic who learned the language on ghlùin – that is, from the knee – in the Commonwealth. This process of language learning from birth in the home – domestic intergenerational transmission – works best when reinforced by target-language use in the local neighborhood. To that end, I would like at some point before 2050 to have created a Gàidheal-Phoball or Baile nan Gàidheal– that is, a Gaelic village or Town of the Gaels – in Kentucky: a commune, neighborhood or even grander community of at least a dozen people, and ideally many more, populated entirely by Gaelic-speaking families, wherein Gaelic would be the main language of communication within and between all households. I recognize that this is a lofty goal, and time will tell whether it will ultimately be achievable. Even if not, it is an aim well worth espousing: as the old and somewhat astronomically dubious saying goes, ‘if you shoot for the moon, you may land among the stars’. By striving to create a Gaelic-speaking village of some description in Kentucky by 2050, the revival is sure to accomplish great things, even if it should fall short of this ultimate goal.

The Role of the Scots Language in the Gaelic Revival

Some of members of the audience, in light of my earlier mention of the Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish as forebears of modern Kentuckians, may wonder what role their principal language – the Scots language – might play in the Kentucky Gaelic Revival. For various reasons, which I will enumerate below, while I don’t advocate the exclusion of the Scots language, I think that the main linguistic focus of the Revival should definitely be the Scottish Gaelic language.

Scots already finds a great deal of representation in the traditional English dialects of Appalachian and Trans-Appalachian Kentucky. In most regional Kentucky dialects outwith the more German-influenced Northern Kentucky (essentially a cultural province of Cincinnati, Ohio) and the assimilationist urban centers of Louisville and Lexington, words like ‘rarin’ (‘fussing’; ‘yelling’ – derived from the Scots word for ‘roaring’) and ‘wee’ (the Scots word for ‘little’) are not uncommon; and neither are Scots-derived grammatical constructions such as the use of what in English would be the singular conjugation of verbs for agreement with plural nouns, or the use of the particle ‘a-’ to precede verbal nouns in forms of the continuous tense: compare, for evidence, the Kentuckian sentence ‘them colts was a-runnin’ and the Scots sentence ‘ma een wis a-shuttin’ to the standard English sentences ‘those colts were running’ and ‘my eyes were shutting’. As far as Anglic (that is, English-related) languages go, I would sooner promote the Scots-influenced Kentuckian dialects of English (which, if not in Kentucky, would exist nowhere else on Earth) than the Scots language itself – which already has official recognition in Northern Ireland, and which will hopefully one day be similarly recognized in Scotland (where it boasts more than one-million speakers compared to Gaelic’s fewer than 60,000).

Even so, I see no reason to discourage Kentucky Gaelic revivalists from the study of Scots, and I welcome the involvement of Scots speakers in the movement.

What is meant by Kentuckian Culture?

Having linguistically delineated the Revival so as to deemphasize – but not exclude – the Scots language, it might be prudent at this stage to similarly lay out what I see as the parameters of Kentuckian culture such as it should be celebrated within the Gaelic Revival movement. In answer to this question, I feel that Kentuckian culture, as promoted by the Revival, should consist of all those cultural traditions which both 1) are practiced within communities that exist wholly within or which are centered in the geographical bounds of Kentucky; and 2) originate in communities that have been marginalized by the Anglo-American cultural mainstream and have not been instrumental in expanding its hegemony. Thus, the cultural commodities of Northern Kentucky, which region belongs to a cultural complex centered in Cincinnati, Ohio rather than in Kentucky itself, which has a heavier German influence than a Scots Irish and Gaelic one as in the rest of the Commonwealth, and which exists largely in a state of cultural disconnection from other Kentuckian regions; and the cultural commodities of Kentucky’s major urban centers (that is, Louisville and Lexington) which have often exhibited similar cultural disconnection from the rest of the Commonwealth to that of Northern Kentucky, and whose inhabitants have often minoritized the cultural traditions of other parts of Kentuckian regions, ought to have a secondary status in the Revival movement by comparison to cultural commodities from Eastern Kentucky, South-Central Kentucky, Western Kentucky, and the Bluegrass region outwith the Lexington city-limits. That having been said, any distinctly Kentuckian cultural commodities of minoritized communities, even from within Louisville, Lexington, and Northern Kentucky – such as the cultural assets of Louisville’s historically Black West End – ought to be highly valorized, in order to compensate for their historical marginalization within the Kentuckian gestalt. To summarize, the least-appreciated aspects of Kentuckian culture in the eyes of the white Anglophone mainstream are to be found – as Leftist Kentucky politician, Charles Booker, might say – ‘from the hood to the holler’. It is these cultural elements – those of Appalachia, Trans-Appalachia, and Kentucky’s urban poor, rather than those associated with Kentucky’s urban elite – which, as a matter of social justice, ought to take precedence within the Kentuckian aspect of Kentucky’s Gaelic Revival.

The relationship between the Kentucky Gaelic Revival and Indigenous Language Revitalization

At this point, some readers might wonder how an avowedly anti-racist movement can unironically promote an Indo-European language in North America, asking themselves whether the promotion  of one European language can really be more ethical than the promotion of another in the aftermath of the genocide and mass displacement of America’s first nations by European settler-colonists. Indeed, the Gall-Gaels would run the risk of a terrible hypocrisy if they claimed to be anti-racist while promoting an autochthonous language at the expense of local indigenous languages – but, fortunately, that is not the intended modus operandi of the Kentucky Gaelic Revival.

The historical indigenous languages of what is today Kentucky are Cherokee, as was once spoken on the Eastern slope of the Appalachian mountain range of Eastern Kentucky; Yuchi, as once spoken on the Western slope of that mountain range; Shawnee, as once spoken from the Appalachian foothills North beyond the Ohio River and West to the Land-Between-The-Lakes; and Chickasaw, which was spoken in the flood plain of the Mississippi River. At present, none of these languages are yet extinct, although all of them are highly endangered. As part of their investigations into Kentucky’s history, and their efforts to further social justice, Kentucky Gaelic Revivalists will be encouraged to be in contact with the modern cultural heirs to the Shawnees, Cherokees, Yuchis, and Chickasaws who once lived in what is now Kentucky; and all participants in the Revival will be expected, as part of the movement, to at least occasionally contribute to the support of these communities in whatever way their members deem acceptable and desirable.  

The Role of Scottish Gaels and Gaelic Learners from Scotland and Nova Scotia

As a final point, I wish to make it known that the Kentucky Gaelic Revival will fully embrace input from Scottish Gaels and Gaelic learners from existing Gaelic-speaking communities throughout the world. Their help will be invaluable in guiding aspiring Gaelic speakers to fluency, and helping provide the Revivalists insight into Gaelic cultural traditions. Of particular value to the movement will be those Gaels and Gaelic speakers already residing in Kentucky, and whose life experiences might mean that their identities already represent a cultural synthesis of Kentuckian and Scottish Gaelic elements, as is ultimately hoped for all Kentucky Gall-Gaels. It is hoped that Gaels already in Kentucky will become members of the revivalist community, in which they can expect – if they freely contribute their cultural knowledge and linguistic skill to the revival, while comporting themselves in accord with its ideals – to be looked up to as revered elders. By helping to educate the next generation of Kentucky Gaelic speakers, they will confer a cultural legitimacy and authenticity on the emerging movement and its linguistic practices which it would otherwise wholly lack.

How to Get in Touch

If, after having considered the contents of this document, you would like to learn Gaelic, or otherwise participate in the Kentucky Gaelic revival, please contact me at I would be happy to supply you with further information, answer any of your questions, and keep you updated concerning the progress of the Revival. I thank you for the time you devoted to reading this document, and I hope to interact with you in the near future. Mo bheannachd leibh, leis an dòchas gum faic mi a dh’aithghearr sibh! (I give you my blessing, in the hope that I’ll see you soon!)

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