12 An Dùbhlachd 2011
A luchd-stiùraidh na Còlaisde Gàidhlige, is a chairdean còire,
Ged a bhithinn deònach an litir uile seo a sgrìobhadh anns a’ Ghàidhlig, tha fhios nach tuig móran a tha an sàs anns an deasbad seo a’ chànain a tha aig teas-meadhan a’ ghnothaich, agus is mór am beud.
For several days now, I have heard and seen impassioned discussions, in person and “virtually” (on the internet), about Kelly MacArthur’s grievances that “Highland Dance”, the Great Highland Bagpipe, and Pipeband Drumming will be discontinued at the Gaelic College in preference to Gaelic-centred curriculum. I note that many of these comments are coming from people who seem to have little knowledge about Scottish Highland tradition and Gaelic culture, and an imperfect understanding of the historical context and cultural background on these matters. I wish that I could respond to an official comment from the College’s directors, rather than Ms MacArthur’s allegations, but I do not wish to remain silent as the debate rages. As premature as my comments may be, then, I would like to weigh in on what I can infer about the matter as a Gaelic speaker, activist, and scholar of Gaelic Studies, and as a participant in several different folk traditions, not least Gaelic. I will not delve into too much detail on the scholarship, but simply refer to the books and articles written by myself and others which can be obtained by the interested reader.
I feel that the way in which these decisions are framed and explained is extremely important: claims of “authenticity” and “tradition” are extremely contentious and divisive; different people have invested themselves in various kinds of traditions for different reasons and can easily feel betrayed or belittled when their investments are downplayed by others. Performers and participants do not always have an informed understanding of the historical development of music and dance traditions and the relationships between the different agents in such developments, and are seldom provided with reliable information and opportunities to learn about their formation. This debate provides such an opportunity. Few people outside the Gaelic-speaking community now seem aware of the long, problematic relationship between its founder (Reverend A.W.R. MacKenzie) and the local community (although this story is well told in the unpublished 1997 Master’s thesis by Jonathan Dembling, Joe Jimmy Alec Visits the Mod and Escapes Unscathed: The Nova Scotia Gaelic Revivals.). Jonathan MacKinnon was employed from the start to maintain some degree of Gaelic in its initial phases, but it is easily demonstrable that many of the art forms introduced and promoted by the College were alien to the local Gaelic community and not quickly embraced by them. The College soon abandoned its commitment to Gaelic (until its recent revival). “Highland dancing” and bagpipe bands were imported from 20th-century Scotland, having evolved in urban, anglophone environments during the second half of the nineteenth century, well after most of the Gaelic immigrants had left. So, it is incontrovertible that the music and dance forms promoted by the College did not, on the whole, resemble the traditions brought by the original Highland immigrants and practiced in the local communities.
And yet, all tradition was invented, or introduced, by someone at sometime – the key questions, I think, are: How does the community respond to the innovation? How do they adapt and transform it to suit their own aesthetic parameters and cultural needs? How does the innovation interact with other aspects of tradition, weakening or reinforcing them? Does the innovation get embraced and integrated because it genuinely enriches the rest of tradition, or because the society is so compromised and desperate for external validation that it accepts whatever is expected of it?
I have recently been developing research on the history of Scottish Gaelic music and dance,
expanding upon the dance scholarship of the Fletts and George Emmerson by utilizing previously ignored Gaelic sources. Much of this work can be found in my recent book Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlands, although I have many new sources in a forthcoming article entitled “‘Dannsair air ùrlar-déile thu’: Gaelic evidence about dance from the mid-17th to late-18th century Highlands.” I would be glad to present any of my findings for any interested audience(s).
The interesting thing is that most of the elements now considered “traditional” in Gaelic
tradition – the fiddle, step-dancing, and the dance music – were fairly late introductions which
were initially resisted by some of the Highland élite. The fiddle, for example, only entered
Highland Scotland from continental Europe in the second half of the seventeenth century; stepdance derives from the high-dances introduced by French, or French-trained, dancing masters in the second half of the eighteenth century – so, in other words, these “essential” aspects of tradition were still fairly new when Highland immigrants came to Nova Scotia.
As is also well known (and explained by the Fletts and Emmerson), these formally choreographed high-dances took two different lines of evolution: in Scotland, they were developed by formal institutions, especially Scottish regiments and Highland Games, into “Highland Dance”; in Atlantic Canada (and not just Cape Breton!), the formal choreography was eventually broken down into basic footwork which became an individual and improvisational art form, which we generally now refer to as “Step-dance.”
It is well established in modern scholarship that nineteenth-century Scotland was rife with the “invention of tradition”, from “ancient” clan tartans to Highland Games. Highland Games were
invented by the British élite in the early nineteenth century to promote a narrow, romanticized role for Gaels as loyal soldiers of the Empire. As a central spectacle in this invented tradition, “Highland Dance” became increasingly co-opted by Highland Games as an athletic competition dissociated from Gaelic culture; it was entirely divested from Gaeldom by the 1920s, when a specific institution with formal rules was devised to allow it to become an international competitive sport. Choreographies were standardized and fossilized, in the name of international competitions, and the dance style came to have little or no place as a vernacular form of communal Gaelic folklife (a problem which continues into the present). It is now dominated by young girls who perform primarily at competitions or occasional formal events. Step-dance, on the other hand, was performed by people of all ages to the songs and music played by and for their own Gaelic-speaking communities. It would be naive to think that a competitive spirit could not also accompany such performances of agility and skill (Smàladh na Coinnle was one such competition), but they were not unduly impacted by excessive external forces.
It can easily be surmised, however, that they were influenced by the music and dance trends
around them – I am certain, for example, that some moves were incorporated into step-dance from the international dance craze known as “The Charleston”. And I expect that Gaels were influenced to a greater or lesser degree by the dance styles of their Francophone and First Nations neighbours.
The point I wish to make here is that step-dance is not somehow inherently “more Gaelic” in its
essence than “Highland Dance” – it simply went through a phase of being embraced and performed by a Gaelic-speaking community. There is no inherent reason why that did not or could not happen to “Highland Dance” as well, given the right conditions. In fact, we could say that about any other expressive art forms: hip-hop, tango, Bulgarian round dances, etc. It is merely by their being adopted by and integrated within the wider body of Gaelic tradition that they become Gaelic art forms.
One of the real issues as I see it is that Gaelic tradition has been mortally compromised by the dominant anglophone culture and that there is a desperate lack of formal institutions to aid in sustaining and developing Gaelic traditions from the inside, and educating people about them. The best example to date of which I am aware is the Traditional Music degree at the RSAMD [Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Dance, known now as Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – ed.], just over a decade old now. It is a shame that nothing equivalent exists in Canada, given the wealth of tradition which existed a short while back, although it seems as though CBU is making strides towards that.
If it is the aim of the Gaelic College to refocus its efforts by prioritizing the core of Highland tradition – the Gaelic language and song tradition – then I applaud the courage and foresight of such a decision. Other aspects of tradition can be added as the extensions to that core, which is what actually happened in historical and cultural terms. There is no other institution doing so in North America, and this is a time when such efforts are desperately needed to turn the tide in Gaelic’s favour. If instruments and dance are to be added, then they should be vernacular forms that are compatible with and integrated into that core – whatever they are.
There is no inherent reason why Highland Dance could not be included in a full program, and I have long wondered what the dance form might look like if it were readopted by Gaels as a vernacular expression of the entire community. There are two complexities that I can foresee in allowing Highland Dance to continue in a re-Gaelicized Gaelic College, however: first, terminology would need to be found in Gaelic and, a check that dances were matched to tunes with Gaelic words; second, and more serious a challenge, Highland Dance has become dominated by people and ideas from outside the Gaelic community with many basic misunderstandings of Gaelic music and dance traditions, especially the contested nature of Highland Dance itself, and may be difficult to educate them from the myths and misrepresentations that have long surrounded the Games in general.
In the end, there are many different places all around the world where the standardized, institutionalized aspects of what is now commonly known as “Highland” music and dance traditions are taught and learnt; there are workshops for these things from California to PEI. There is only one last remaining vestige of a Gaelic-speaking community in North America and it has its own vernacular forms of music and dance which have evolved and endured over the last several generations. They should be valued enough to have their own place in the Scottish Gaelic repertoire, without being squeezed out by artificial pressures antithetical to the cultural standards of the local community.
Tha mi a’ guidhe gach soirbheas agus beannachd dhuibh anns an t-suidheachadh achrannach
seo, agus tha mi an dùil gun toir seo uile fàs air dìleib phrìseil na Gàidhlig.
Is mise le meas
Dr Michael Newton
Roinn na Ceiltis / Department of Celtic Studies
Oilthigh Naoimh Fransaidh Xavier / St Francis Xavier University