Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind…Part 1

We’re delighted to publish a post this week by Iain MacKinnon, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University.

In 1755 the Scottish Enlightenment historian and future rector of Edinburgh University, Reverend William Robertson, delivered a sermon on the role of ‘the divine wisdom, in the government of the world’.

Robertson was convinced that Christianity’s role in history was to redeem the vices and perfect the virtues of all human societies, and his sermon contained a historical argument that the progress of Western society and Europe’s rise to global domination had been inspired by God through Christian teaching.

Portrait painting of William Robertson (1721-93), seated at a desk
Contemporary portrait [Public domain]

The sermon was an exercise in propaganda, and he told his listeners that it would ‘suggest many useful reflections, with regard to the future and universal propagation of Christian knowledge’. These words fell on attentive ears. Robertson was preaching the annual sermon of the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK), an organisation formed in Edinburgh in 1709 in order to build and manage schools throughout the Gàidhealtachd. In these schools education had a ‘civilising’ as well as religious mission, with the aims of spreading the English language and maintaining and developing the dominant ecclesiastical and political order in Scotland and Britain.

As Robertson drew to the end of his sermon, he turned to address ‘the chief care’ of the SSPCK. ‘The Highlands and Islands of Scotland,’ he informed his listeners, ‘present to us a scene, which we would little expect in a nation where true religion and polished manners have long flourished’.

After detailing what he considered to be the failings of Gàidhlig society, he concluded: ‘Attached to their own customs, from ignorance and habit, they have hitherto continued a separate people’. In Robertson’s view, the work of the SSPCK was ‘to retrieve that part of the kingdom from ignorance and barbarism, and to introduce the same regular government and independence which are the blessings of other British subjects’. The annual report of the SSPCK which accompanied Robertson’s published sermon was more succinct: the organisation was engaged in ‘work of unwearied perseverance and attention …[to] change the manners of a whole people’.

The SSPCK’s 1755 report announced a new means of effecting that transformation. It was to begin giving financial support to linen-manufacturing colonies that were being established in different parts of the Gàidhealtachd. This would, the SSPCK hoped, ensure that schooling to redeem Gaels from their social barbarity would be accompanied by productive habits of industry. The organisation looked forward to further projects on the same lines throughout the Gàidhealtachd, and to a time when ‘the inhabitants…might at last become useful, industrious and valuable members of society’.

To paraphrase the words of Colonel Henry Pratt, one of the leading nineteenth-century advocates of the culturally devastating North American native residential school system, their views suggest that the SSPCK and William Robertson believed in the ‘killing the Gael to save the man’ model of education for indigenous peoples.

There’s no doubt that the education system imposed under centuries of British imperial rule has helped to take Scottish Gaels far and wide, and it has been commonplace to celebrate the achievements of educated Scottish Gaels such as John MacPherson, governor general of Bengal, or Lachlan MacQuarie, governor general of New South Wales, although the essentially detestable nature of many of these achievements is now being disclosed.

By chronicling colonial experiences from the other side, writers and scholars of colonised indigenous peoples have been at the heart of exposing the actions of Gael and other British imperialists. In relation to schooling, from the perspective of those being ‘educated’, these writers have observed, almost uniformly, that schools were sites of cultural oppression which sought to lead native children out of their native identities.

In this blog I would like to contribute to this process of disclosure, and look at the imperial education of Scottish Gaels from the other side, as it were; not at how it has contributed to ‘saving the man’ (sic), but at how it has ‘killed the Gael’.

To do this, I have first listened to what peoples subjugated by the British empire are telling us about their experiences of colonialism, and sought to learn from that; in this case I have drawn on the memories of the African novelist Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o on his colonial education in mid-twentieth century Kenya, and on the theory of ‘colonial alienation’ that he elaborated on the basis of those experiences. Then, through the lens of his ‘colonial alienation’ idea, I have compared Thiong’o’s experiences in education with those of some roughly contemporaneous Scottish Gaels. I need to acknowledge at the outset that almost all the accounts of colonial education that I have read so far, from Scotland, Kenya, North America and other contexts, have been written by men, and that this overwhelmingly male perspective is a deficiency in what I’ve written here. It seems likely to reflect male privilege in native or colonial societies, or in both. Part of that privilege is the universal use of the male pronoun which is found throughout their writing.


When recalling his early life in rural colonial Kenya, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’o described how Gĩkũyũ had been the language of his life and home before he went to school.

We spoke Gĩkũyũ as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gĩkũyũ in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of story-telling around the fireside.

We spoke Gĩkũyũ as we worked in the fields. We spoke Gĩkũyũ in and outside the home. I can vividly recall those evenings of story-telling around the fireside.

He recalled that in these communally shared stories – at what Gaels would call a ‘cèilidh’, a visiting and sharing between friends, relatives and neighbours – ‘co-operation as the ultimate good in a community was a constant theme’. The stories were rich in symbolism, whether telling the adventures of animals or humans, and the children would retell the stories they had heard from the adults. The children also came to inhabit the language through games involving ‘riddles, proverbs, transpositions of syllables or through non[-]sense but musically arranged words’ and, says Thiong’o, the young ones came to value words for their meaning and nuance, a ‘suggestive power well beyond the immediate and lexical meaning’.

So we learnt the music of the language on top of the content. The language, through images and symbols, gave us a view of the world, but it had a beauty of its own.

However, by the simple fact of going to school, recalls Thiong’o, ‘this harmony was broken. The language of my education was no longer the language of my culture’.

The role of education in relation to language was twofold, he argues. Firstly, it was to destroy the connection to the indigenous language. Thiong’o said that one of the most humiliating experiences in school was to be caught speaking Gĩkũyũ, ‘the culprit’ being punished by ‘three to five strokes of the cane on bare buttocks’. Others were forced to wear metal plates round their neck on which was written inscriptions such as ‘I AM STUPID’ or ‘I AM A DONKEY’. Others were fined – ‘money they could hardly afford’.

And how did the teachers catch the culprits? A button was initially given to one pupil who was supposed to hand it over to whoever was caught speaking his mother tongue. Whoever had the button at the end of the day would sing who had given it to him and the ensuing process would bring out all the culprits of the day. Thus children were turned into witch-hunters and in the process were being taught the lucrative value of being a traitor to one’s immediate community.

The second role of education in relation to language was to extol the coloniser’s language. English was presented as the means to civilisation, with any achievement by the pupils being rewarded in ‘prizes, prestige, applause’.

English became the measure of intelligence and ability in the arts, the sciences, and all the other branches of learning. English became the main determinant of a child’s progress up the ladder of formal education.

Thiong’o then asks ‘what the colonialist imposition of a foreign language was doing to us children’? With this question he begins to broaden his outlook beyond his own experiences to offer a perspective on colonial education that might fit with the experiences of others among his own people, and among other peoples whose educational experiences have been similar.

Thiong’o argues that ‘the real aim of colonialism was to control the peoples’ wealth’. Colonialism sought domination and control of what the colonised produced, how they produced it and how it was distributed.

But its most important area of domination was the mental universe of the colonised, the control, through culture, of how people perceived themselves and their relationship to the world. Economic and political control can never be complete without mental control. To control a people’s culture is to control their tools of self-definition in relationship to others.

On the one hand this domination involved undermining or destroying every aspect of indigenous culture and elevating the colonial language instead. Establishing the dominion of the English language over the indigenous tongue was crucial to achieving dominion over the mental universe of the colonised.

Thiong’o argues that education in the colonising language robs the child of ‘the real language of life’ as they had experienced life. ‘Learning, for a colonial child, became a cerebral activity and not an emotionally felt experience’.

The content of the learning was also foreign, robbing the child of any sense of connection between ‘the world of his immediate environment in the family and community’ and the world they were being schooled into, which contained a completely different set of ‘images’ about the world.

The child was being exposed exclusively to a culture that was a product of a world that was external to himself. He was being made to stand out of himself to look at himself…Since culture does not just reflect the world but actually, through those very images, conditions a child to see that world in a certain way, the colonial child was made to see the world and where he stands in it as seen and defined by or reflected in the culture of the language of imposition…This resulted in a dissociation of sensibility of that child from his natural and social environment, what we might call colonial alienation.

Thiong’o’s theory of colonisation and its effects on the colonised proposes:

  1. Colonisation seeks to control the indigenous peoples’ material and non-material wealth through domination of what they produce, how they produce it and how it is distributed
  2. Colonisation undermines or destroys key aspects of indigenous culture
  3. Colonisation elevates the colonisers’ language
  4. Colonisation attacks the mental universe of the colonised and their inner world of emotion and feeling
  5. Colonisation seeks to alienate indigenous children from their natural and social environment through colonial education practices.

Thiong’o specifically used these ideas to launch an attack on generations of African writers whose colonially alienated education had led them to write in and extol their oppressors’ languages over their native languages. However, it is also possible to read his work in conjunction with other anti-colonial scholars who have made more general arguments about colonialism’s effects on native identity and psychology.

Albert Memmi, for instance, believed that ‘The first ambition of the colonized is to become equal to that splendid model [the colonizer] and to resemble him to the point of disappearing in him’. Disappearances of this sort are not uncommon. However, even when the colonized revolt successfully against their vanishing psyche, in Memmi’s view they still remain living in a psyche defined by the colonizer, defined by what they are not: ‘So goes the drama of the man who is a product and victim of colonialism. He almost never succeeds in corresponding to himself’.

The anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, in her work on post-colonial elites in India, argues that Frantz Fanon’s analysis of colonial psychodynamics in mid-twentieth-century North Africa came to a similar conclusion:

The terrible cost of colonialism, in Fanon’s eyes, is that in yearning to be like the white coloniser, the black colonised man comes to accept the white man’s vision of the black man and so to lose himself. He is alienated from himself when he feels most white, and humiliated when he feels most black. And so, perpetually, the black man is torn, rejecting himself to be white, only then to grasp a more terrible vision of his never-to-be-scrubbed-clean skin. ‘A Negro is forever in combat with his own image’. (Luhrmann 2000: 178, 179)

Imperial relationships in the twentieth century Gàidhealtachd unfolded in very different ways to those in British Kenya or French Algeria. However, the second part of this blog will disclose regimes of schooling in the area which resonate with those imposed on externally colonized peoples.

Part 2 of Iain MacKinnon’s blog post will appear next week

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