Education and the colonisation of the Gàidhlig mind… Part 2

We’re delighted to publish the second part of a post this week by Iain MacKinnon, Assistant Professor at the Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience at Coventry University. You can read Part 1 here.

In the nineteenth century fairly direct forms of oppressive violence and terror appear to have been used in efforts to frighten young Gaels into abandoning their language.

That physical force and forms of psychological terrorism[1] were used to wrest their language from generations of young Highland people is evident in the testimonies of older people I have spoken to, and from others available in the School of Scottish Studies and elsewhere.

In at least one school the ‘maidhe crochaidh’ – the ‘hanging’ or ‘punishment’ stick –was hung around the neck of any child overheard speaking Gàidhlig in school.

The idea was that the child heard speaking the language would have the stick placed around their neck and, when they heard another child speak the language, they would pass it on, and so on. At the end of the day the teacher called for the stick and began to systematically flog each child who had worn it during the day.

The correspondence with Thiongos experience is striking: although the actual terrorist device differs between Gĩkũyũ,and Gàidhlig –a button rather than a stick – the process and intent are identical. In Memories of Rannoch, an autobiographical account published in the Transactions of the Gaelic Society in 1981 but originally written in the 1920s, a man from Rannoch recounted a related form of psychological terror which had been used to try to destroy young Gaels’ connection to their language. He recalled an older neighbour telling him how children who spoke Gàidhlig in their school were treated by the schoolmaster.

It [the Gàidhlig language] seems to have been even more sternly discouraged in the early fifties [1850s], for an old man of eighty-eight, Duncan Cameron, now living next door to me here at Druimchruaidh, told me that when he was going to school at Camaghouran, any boy or girl caught speaking Gaelic during school hours was punished by having a human skull suspended round the head for the rest of the day.

In my own family, when my maternal grandmother went to school on Skye in the early twentieth century she spoke only Gàidhlig. Although her teacher was a Gàidhlig speaker, he belted her and others in the class if he caught them speaking the language. Violence engendered a brokenness in our family’s relationship to Gàidhlig which has fractured into the present day. It seems possible that stories such as these are fairly common in families, but have been repressed, as has been the case in other colonial contexts.


Alongside direct physical violence and the instilling of terror in the classroom, there also exists the more pervasive and insidious structural violence that is integral to imperial education’s assault on the mental universe of the colonised and their inner world of emotion and feeling.

In terms that are similar to Thiong’o’s, the Lewis poet and schoolteacher Iain Crichton Smith, observed the individual and collective mental dissociation and splitting engendered by education in a colonial language. His essay ‘Real People in a Real Place’ contains many important insights into the consequences of cultural invasion and I quote from it at length to show how parallels in the practice of colonialism in Africa and the cultural invasion of the Gàidhealtachd are matched by parallels in native responses:

…the imperialist language is imperiously and contemptuously degrading the native one. Because English is associated with so many of the important concerns of the world, including education, and because English is the language spoken by ‘important’ people such as doctors, many of them incomers, there rises a deep and subtle feeling that English must be superior to Gaelic…The Gaelic speaker feels himself to be inferior, and his language inferior. He begins to think, for instance, that English literature is more important than Gaelic, that as a cutting instrument for getting on in the ‘world’ English is more valuable than Gaelic, and that since English is the language of the upper classes it has a real relationship to status and promotion…to go from the colloquial world of the village to another where the school is the castle which by its language dominates the surrounding countryside, must be a blow to the psyche, an insult to the brain. To grow up inside a fixed language is a privilege which the islander has not had in recent centuries: he is in fact, and must be, the divided man in the very depths of his consciousness.

Crichton Smith’s account discloses that in addition to its role in inferiorising the native language as the narrative medium of the indigenous world, the school also becomes a primary site of colonisation of the narrative content – the stories and cultural meanings by which indigenous people come to understand their history and make sense of their place in the world.

In her book Decolonizing Methodologies the Maori scholar Linda Tuhiwai Smith argues that under colonial rule indigenous peoples have both struggled against the colonisers’ view of history, and yet also been complicit with that view.

We have often allowed our ‘histories’ to be told and have then become outsiders as we heard them being retold. Schooling is directly implicated in this process. Through the curriculum and its underlying theory of knowledge, early schools redefined the world and where indigenous people were positioned in the world.

She added that maps of the world reinforced the sense of being in the periphery of the world, while still being considered part of the empire.

Other symbols of our loyalty, such as the flag, were also an integral part of the imperial curriculum. Our orientation to the world was already being redefined…

John Nicolson, who grew up on the island of Raasay in the 1930s, has written about his schooldays there. Of the schoolroom, he said:

A large map of the world with the British Empire highlighted in pink, maps of the British Isles and the continents, a calendar, a chart showing the flags in colour that make up the Union Jack and a Union Jack flag, adorned the walls.

Although he can remember fragments of works composed by Raasay bards of his youth which he would have heard in houses on the island, Nicolson does not mention learning the works of any Gàidhlig bards during his schooldays, other than just two Gàidhlig songs. Although Gàidhlig was the native language of the island, it was not the language of the school. There were two Gàidhlig lessons each week. (Other than the two songs and a number of other Christian paraphrases and hymns, only ‘the inspired word of God’ from the Bible was permitted. Students spent time ‘committing to memory most of the psalms in metre’ and learning by rote ‘the Shorter Catechism – all 107 questions and answers’ and other works of Christian doctrine). However, secular verse in English was part of the curriculum. Among others, Wordsworth, Milton, Longfellow (‘Hiawatha’) and Shakespeare were all taught – and the title of Nicolson’s book of reminiscences, I Remember, is a line from a poem by the English poet Thomas Hood. In the Raasay children’s detailed lessons on the seventeenth-century civil wars in Britain ‘Cromwell was placed on a pedestal of near sainthood’. Cromwell was the English military leader and dictator who invaded the Gàidhealtachd in the early 1650s following the defeat and execution of the Duke of Montrose. Montrose had led the Royalist Army that had supported Charles I during the civil wars. Many Highland clans had fought with the Royalists. Cromwell established garrisons throughout the Gàidhealtachd and his troops ‘undertook systematic pillaging and burning from Lochaber to Wester Ross’ and regarded Gaels as ‘cruel’, ‘covetous’, ‘wild’, ‘base’, and ‘beggarly’. In Ireland Cromwell was responsible for military atrocities in Drogheda and Wexford where his troops indiscriminately killed women and children whilst taking the towns’ garrisons.

John Nicolson and his classmates were never taught Cromwell’s atrocities as part of ‘their’ history. However, Nicolson, sitting in a primary school on an island off the north-west coast of Scotland, was belted for not knowing how many spans there are on the Forth Rail Bridge on the south-east coast of Scotland, and for mixing up the names of stations on railway lines running between the south of Scotland and England. Such experiences ironically bring to mind the title of poetry collection of the contemporary Gàidhlig bard, Aonghas MacNeacail, called ‘a proper schooling’. John Nicolson left Raasay almost as soon as he left school and joined the merchant navy, travelling to many of the places painted red on his school map. He lived and ended his days in London.

Another Nicolson, the twentieth-century Skye bard, Calum Ruadh (Calum Nicolson), was interviewed extensively by the Danish ethnologist Thorkild Knudsen in the late 1960s. Calum responded with eloquence, insight and defiance to the Dane’s deep searching questions. Only once, to my ears, did he falter. It was when he spoke about education.

But I – I think the greatest thing that ever came here – uh – Thorkild – I think I call – I may call you Thorkild – is education, even take the country as a whole, we were – the last here, to-to-to- get the benefit of that, they were – first the Romans came across: they were savages in the south of England. The Romans were – and they educated them, they came as far up here as Perth, but I’m damned if they could – conquer the boys up here, never. And that’s why we were so late in receiving – the education, that the rest – of civilised Europe had given them…We would never have been – we – would have been still – but th – the Romans nor – nor the rest cou – could never get here.

I don’t believe the transcription (which was made by a scholar at the School of Scottish Studies) fully conveys the sounds and senses of vacillation and conflictedness that I heard in Calum Ruadh’s voice as he said the last tortured sentence that is represented in the paragraph above.[2] His pride that the unconquerable ‘boys up here’ resisted the imperial legions mixes with the belief that the south of England was peopled by ‘savages’ and that the Romans civilised them, and produces the confused idea, unexpressed, that ‘the boys up here’ might ourselves have been ‘savages’ until ‘so late’ n time because the civilisers ‘could never get here’.

John Nicolson’s account of his schooldays suggests that the same education system that Calum Ruadh extolled may also have served to engender these confused internalised prejudices, a penetrating ‘deep and subtle feeling’ of inferiority, as Crichton Smith had put it, and a creeping suggestion that there is something not quite right about how we have lived.

Although Calum Ruadh himself did not doubt our ‘lovely language’ our ‘beautiful’ literature and our history ‘as good as any history in Europe’ it seems that, as for other traditions bearers of his time, he sought a refuge in alcohol, which in his case nearly killed him.

In his study written in the early 1980s for the United Nations looking at discrimination against indigenous populations, Jose R. Martinez Cobo, who was Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, wrote that states often failed to recognise indigenous ways of learning and sought to replace them with ‘formal, alien and alienating educational processes’. He added:

Although there has been a significant improvement in the effective access of indigenous persons to public education of all kinds and at all levels, such education continues to be characterized to a greater or lesser extent by a marked tendency to deprive indigenous pupils of everything indigenous.

In such circumstances, as Fanon and the native American scholar Glenn Coulthard in his book Red Skin, White Masks have made clear, physical attributes such as skin colour act as a reminder of distinction for many indigenous peoples.

What, then, of the colonized white person? To paraphrase the work of Luhrmann quoted earlier in this blog:

The terrible cost of colonialism…is that in yearning to be like the British coloniser, the colonised Gael comes to accept the British man’s vision of the Gael and so to lose herself. She is alienated from herself when she feels most British, and humiliated when she feels most like a Gael. And so, perpetually, the Gael is torn, rejecting herself to be British…only then to grasp a more terrible vision of her now-scrubbed-clean skin. Here, then, is the terrible difference: because of the colour of her skin, the Gael can allow herself to disappear into the colonial body completely, and become a Highlander …A Gael is forever in combat to remember her own image

The deprivations of the state education system throughout the twentieth century have been a major cause of systematic confusion and inner conflict that many Gaels hold towards our language, culture and sense of identity, causing some of us to express negative attitudes and opinions towards our own culture, or to lose ourselves, as Gaels, completely. These deprivations have been integral to the ‘work of unwearied perseverance and attention’ that over two-and-a-half centuries has been led by the British imperial state to ‘change the manners of a whole people’, as the SSPCK described its project in 1755. The products of this work include our colonised minds.

[1] In 1974 the British Government defined ‘terrorism’ as ‘the use of violence for political ends, and includes any use of violence for the purpose of putting the public or any section of the public in fear’.

[2] The recording can be heard on-line at: and the section begins five minutes and 37 seconds into the recording.

One comment

  1. The recollections in 1881 of the Gaelic poet Eoghann MacColla, who lived in the late 1800s in Toronto, agrees with these descriptions of terrorising children and alienating them from their language:

    “Another barbarous mode of forcing us to make English our sole vehicle of speech at school was to make all trespassers on that rule carry on their breasts, suspended by a gad made to go round the neck, the skull of some dead horse! and which he was by no means to get rid of until some other luckless fellow might be overheard whispering a word in the prohibited tongue. How Highland parents, with the least common sense, could approve of all this is to me inexplicable. Little wonder if, under such circumstances, we could often devoutly wish that the Saxon and his tongue had never existed! It is to be hoped that no such foul, short-sighted means of killing off my good mother-tongue are still allowed to exist in any part of the Highlands. If it must die — though I see no good reason why it should — let it have at least a little fair play in the fight for its life.”

    I quote the poet in the article “Becoming Cold-hearted like the Gentiles Around Them”: Scottish Gaelic in the United States 1872-1912” at


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s