I would like to be absolutely clear about this. I had no background in any Celtic language – in any language other than my native English for that matter – until I decided to go back to college and study ‘what I really loved’.
See, I used to teach horse-back riding in Virginia. I was trained as an artist, but a few hard years of catastrophic personal relationships saw me trying to make a living interacting with as few people as possible. Horses and dogs are very close to my heart, not to mention my way of thinking, and I was comforted by their simplicity. It could not be a permanent situation and before two years were gone I decided to try and reboot my self. I thought about the great minds and souls to whom I looked for inspiration, attempting to understand what it was that made them so successful. It seemed apparent to me that they simply did what they always did and over time came to create something marvellous. I looked toward what I had ‘always’ done and decided that I had always naturally inclined toward medieval studies. The Middle Ages are enormous, even just looking at Europe, with more than a thousand years from start to finish, and I suppose that it was the thought of some sort of Gaelic Golden Age – Linn an Àigh, nach robh – that drew me in.
My love for Gaelic culture had actually started years earlier in High School. On reflection, I suppose the first time I ever heard Irish spoken was when my mother took me to see Darby O’Gill and the Little People. I couldn’t have been older than six and certainly was not aware of the Irish in it until I saw it again thirty years later. I was first aware of the Goedelic languages in High School, listening to ‘The Movie’ off of Aerosmith’s album Permanent Vacation. Obsessed with the strange language recited in the middle of the song, I learned that one of our school coaches was from the Western Islands and spoke fluent Gaelic. Hearing him was like being struck by lightening – an experience echoed later when I would hear my graduate advisor recite court poetry.
I myself was from darkest South Carolina. He might as well have been speaking Kazakh for all I knew. It wasn’t like we were taught that the first state to secede from the union was originally colonised by disenfranchised clansmen in the years preceding the Jacobite Uprising of 1745. It would take James Boyd’s Drums, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth of course, to set that bell to ringing. It’s not like anyone remembers the Gaelic publishing house that stood in Fayetteville, N.C., until the economic apocalypse that followed the American Civil War shattered the large Gaelic speaking population there. A similar fate would befall the Welsh speaking mining community in Chattanooga during the Great Depression. Until then, their eisteddfodau (bardic competitions) and newspaper were as regular as clockwork. Hell, we didn’t even learn about Canada, so why would we have learned anything about how, after confederation in 1867, it was a close call between having Gaelic or French as a second official language for the entire country? Gaelic had so thoroughly been erased from official historical memory that ignorance of it was practically institutionalised – as if it almost had been completely assimilated into ‘normal’ American life. Names like Maclean, Drummond and Aiken were as All-American as Apple Pie, the Continental Congress and English Class.
My point is that I’m an outsider. For them’s as care, yes, I have Scottish ancestry – more than a little in fact. It turns out that my name is actually an early permutation of Eachan (not Aiken, which comes from èiginn as in Beinn Èiginn), and my paternal ancestry came over from Scotland to New Jersey in 1751. The centuries in North America added a heap of German, Irish, French and English names to the pile, so it’s not like I can claim any sort of nominal right to being Scottish or Irish, but I have a deep love for and loyalty to Gaelachas and the dualchas of Gaelic culture, whatever the hell that is. Whatever my emotions about it though, the fact remains that I am an American who has come to this as an adult. As I am often reminded by others in one way or another, book-learning does not provide a connection to reality; only a deeply personal connection born of nativity or long years of immersion can bring that.
Gu dearbhfhior? Gu dìreach?
What is book-learning for if not to shed light on the practical realities of every-day life? Why bother to study anything or embark on any kind of scholarly endeavour if it is not to inform how we see the world, or if our only trusted reality is rooted indelibly and non-transferably in the immediate experience of the subjective individual? Co dhiù, I am not sure exactly what the alternative would mean, but everything that I have learned must mean something – must have some use beyond the bolstering of a career, the self-promotion, the only purpose of which is to better one’s name and income. As a lecturer at an academic institution whose purpose is to promote the local culture of the Highlands and Islands – and of course this includes Gaelic in most places – I am placed closer to the centre than I’ve ever been before, but if my birth, background and book-learning always and already removes me from the centralised perspective of the native what else am I to do but reflect both on my origins and implicit nature even as I reflect back on the centre?
I guess this blog is then the journal of an inside-outsider, spanning continents and cultures, sites and centres. Abandoned and abandoning with abandon, I look to this most public of hidden media to comment and reflect on Gaelachas and wherever it might be going or come from.