Cànan nan Gàidheal & the 'English Diaspora'


Thought folks here would like this:

It’s a song in Gaelic based on a poem written by Murdo MacFarlane, ‘Bard of Melbost’ (a small village on the Isle of Lewis). Here are the verses Karen Matheson sings in this version, including translations (from this page, which also has the full poem):

Cha b’ e sneachda ‘s an reòthadh bho thuath,
Cha b’ e ‘n crannadh geur fuar bho ‘n ear,
Cha b’ e ‘n t-uisge ‘s an gaillionn bho ‘n iar,
Ach an galair a bhlean bho ‘n deas
Blàth duilleach is stoc agus freumh
Cànan mo threubh ‘s mo shluaidh.

(It was not the snow and frost from the north,
nor the acute cold withering from the east,
it wasn’t the rain or the storms from the west,
but the sickness from the south
that has faded the bloom, foliage, stock and root
of the language of my race and my people.)

Thig thugainn, thig cò-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nam Féinn,
Thig thugainn, thig cò-rium gu siar
Gus an cluinn sinn ann cànan nan Gàidheal.

Come, come on, come with me westwards
until we hear the language of the Fein;
Come, come on, come with me westwards
until we hear the language of the Gaels.)

Uair chìte fear-féilidh ‘sa ghleann
Bu chinnteach gur gàidhlig a chainnt
Ach spion iad a fhreumh as an fhonn
‘N àite gàidhlig tha cànan a Ghoill
‘S a Ghàidhealtachd creadhal-nan-sonn
‘S tir-mhajors is cholonels ‘n diugh th’ innt’.

(Once, if a kilted man were seen in the valley
it would be certain that Gaelic was his language;
but they have torn his roots from the ground,
in the place of Gaelic is the foreigner’s language,
and the Gaeltachd, cradle of heroes,
today it is a land of majors and colonels.)

Far a nuas dhuinn na coinnleirean òir
‘S annt’ caraibh coinnlean geal céir
Lasaibh suas iad an seòmair bhròin
Tìgh-‘aire seann chànan a’ Ghàel
‘S sud o chionn fhad’ thuirt a nàmh
Ach fhathast tha beò cànan a’ Ghàel.

(Pass over to us the golden candlesticks
and put in them white waxen candles.
Light them up in a grief-filled room
in the wake-house of the Gael’s old language.
That’s what its enemy has long been saying
but the language of the Gael is alive yet.)

Ged theich i le beath’ as na glinn
Ged ‘s gann an diugh chluinntear i ni’s mó
O Dhùthaich MhicAoidh fada tuath
Gu ruig thu Druim-Uachdar nam bó
Gigheal, dhi ‘na h-Eileanan Siar
Bi na claimheamh ‘s na sgiath’n ud dhòirn.

(Although it has fled, along with life, from the valleys,
although it’s rare today that it’s heard any more
from Strathnaver in the far north
right down to Drumochter where the cattle are,
nevertheless, for it in its Western Isles
the swords and shields there are taken in hand.)

Anyway it got me thinking, and I strung together a few ideas over here:

Basically I’m looking at the overlap between diversity of language and the diversity, or health, of the wider ecosystem. Will the Gaelic revival put Scottish, Irish & Welsh people in a better position to rewild? Do Celtic peoples ‘count’ as Indigenous, even though they’re agricultural, iron age cultures through-and-through? Or are they just not as civilised as the English, for example? Speaking of which, there’s also the problem of how to relate to the English language if it’s your mother tongue, and how to deal with all the imperial baggage that comes with it. The contemporary folk singer Chris Wood explored this issue in a great article here:


An English diaspora

The reasons for England’s cultural uncertainty/reticence/ambiguity are many: empire, two world wars, a class structure which has survived both of those world wars, long American cultural shadows, perceived cultural confidence of European neighbours and ethnic minority groups. The list goes on and there is an article in each of them, but if we focus on one of the major contributing factors, that of the sustained enclosures acts which began in 1200, with the major phase taking place from 1760 onwards, perhaps we can argue the case for a cultural dispersal on a vast scale – an English diaspora.

Please understand these are the observations of a musician, not a history professor, but to paraphrase my dictionary, the common model for diaspora is the movement of a people away from the place where their culture was most concentrated. Putting the dictionary aside, my perception is that there is more often than not a bogey-man involved, real or otherwise, who will eventually play an important role. Upon arrival in new lands, the refugees congregate to reaffirm and reinvent their identity, and it seems to me that the oppressor plays a major role in this reunification and the cultural outpourings that follow. In many such cases diaspora becomes the catalyst to a great deal of positive cultural activity.

If, however, a people are not taken from their land and their way of life, but their land and their way of life are taken from them, we see the negatives of diaspora with few, if any, of the positives. Writing in the Journal of Music in Ireland I need hardly go into the details of enclosure and clearance, except perhaps to point out that these things took place in England too. The subtle but substantial difference is that we here in England are our own bogey-man.

Hugh Brody, writer, anthropologist and filmmaker, writes in The Other Side Of Eden on the enforced teaching of English as a replacement, not addition to, the native languages of North America.

‘It is possible to travel through the vast forests of the Pacific North West, look up at the wild beauty of the coastal mountains, stare into the clear fast waters of all those rivers, and hear a kind of silence. This is not the silence of wild empty wilderness, of remote mountains – these are extremes of geography, nature without culture. There is, rather, a silence that marks the loss of the words that give this place – and many such places – its fullest and richest expression. The loss of people’s own names for their hills, rivers, lakes, bays, peaks, slopes, islands, trails; and of their ways of evoking the origins, significance, humour and poignancy of the landscape.’

As a musician I have the opportunity to drive the length and breadth of England, but I carry with me that selfsame ‘wordlessness’ because England’s history, like every other nation’s history, is written by the ‘winners’. For example, Castle Howard is one of England’s flagship stately homes – probably on the ‘Icons Online’ list – but what of Hinderskelf, the village which was levelled to make way for it? There are many such examples – the English enclosures have taken place over seven centuries.

Where clearances were carried out in, for example, Scotland and Ireland, those atrocities have entered the cultural fabric of those countries. They are eloquently mourned in song, story, poetry, painting and dance, and carried in the heart of Anon. from generation to generation. But when your oppressor is writing your history for you, there will be a great many glaring omissions, and I do not believe it is an overstatement to say that ‘the English’ have not been allowed to mourn the loss of that which defined them.

Of course, recent immigrants are left with the further problem of where to direct their attentions - to the motherland(s) where their family originated or, wiping the slate clean, plunging headlong into the traditions of their adoptive land. Not easy, I can tell you!

Thoughts welcome.



Thank you, Ian.

Here, in NW Europe, having ancestors from many lands, feeling rather like a mangrove not knowing where exactly to call myself rooted, I find it difficult to even discuss any topics like (de)colonization with most people. Such concepts easily lead to what I call “marshy” discussions - discussions that suck without going anywhere except down.

Instead, I find that learning nature skills strongly connects me to land and people, while at the same time this offers plenty of good conversation topics and opportunities on many levels… so if I had to pack up and go, I would continue that path wherever I’d end up, and seek to learn from the species and lands there.


Thanks Anneke, unrooted mangrove describes it well. I suppose there are whole continents full of people with the same feeling nowadays, eg: the americas where european settlers only have a handful of generations in any particular place and are mostly engaged in supplanting the native ecology and people rather than seeking to make a permanent home there.

Your emphasis on nature skills as a way of putting down roots reminded me of this piece by Jason Godesky which emphasises the relationship side of ancestry, where you don’t just count the number of dead relatives you’ve got in the soil and trace them back to their origins, but look instead at the ways you interact in the present with your environment; how you relate to the ‘ancestors’ of rock, wind, sun, crow etc, and how well you’ve managed to nest yourself and live well within the same circle of influence:

Made sense to me. People don’t just ‘have’ roots; it’s a continual process of putting new ones down, letting old ones die etc.



I call Gaelic my heart language, though I am not as good at it as I once was (use to be able to hear and translate), though I was born into a house that spoke English, from age 8 I started learning on my own. For me it was roots, as I only had knowledge of being a Irish/Scottish Celt at that point due to being adopted, which added even more rootlessness then most. Old Celtic became my home… when I married into an Appalachian mountain (Kentucky mountain) family, I almost at once began to see where different cultural traditions that Rob’s family still practice came from the Celts though the reasons had long been forgotten. So from there, we are using that to recreate our own clan, here in the “Blakened Forest or Foraoise Dubhaigh” giving new meaning to older gaelic ideas and words.
Celts were before agricaulture like others nomdic, and it was still celibrated in later legends, and embracing new lands and mixing traditions were encouraged, so I find much Celtic that works where I live.


Thanks for that LFF, yours sounds like a v. interesting life story! A weird situation if Celtic traditions survive via refugees in the US differently to how they do in the British Isles & Ireland. Makes sense in a way, because new immigrants to a place will feel a stronger desire to maintain and pass on the old traditions than back in the home country where they might be taken more for granted, not give off such a sense of fragility and need-for-protection in a strange, unfamiliar land. I’ve heard it said that the ‘Quebecois’ are more French than the French themselves! On the musical side of things there are quite a few examples of songs written in the US that were assumed to be old traditional songs from Ireland or Scotland, even by those who should have known better. For example, the song ‘Aragon Mill’, about which the songwriter Si Kahn writes:

This is a true song about Aragon, Georgia, a small town near the Alabama border, in 1971. The red brick chimney with the white brick letters “Aragon” is real. So is the line “It’s so quiet I can’t sleep,” spoken by a loom fixer whose front porch overlooked the now silent weave room.

I’m real proud of what’s happened with this song. It’s taken on a life of its own, and traveled around the world and back. My oldest son Simon Kahn was in Dublin, Ireland, a few years back, and heard it coming out of a music store. They told him it was a traditional mill song from North Ireland called “Belfast Mill.” Maybe by now it is. - http://www.sikahn.com/songbook/page13.html

Not sure where you got your information from on Celtic agriculture. This article makes it pretty clear that the British Celts were subsisting for the most part on grains and animal domesticates (mainly cows, but also sheep and pigs):


Pytheas of Massalia visited the Southern coast of Britain around Kent and the Thames in about 322BC. Unfortunately there are no surviving copies of his journal ‘Peritou Okeanou’ (About the Ocean) but later classical writers have quoted his work and they provide us with the earliest written account of Britain:
‘He saw plenty of corn in the fields in the south-east but also noted the gradual disappearance of various kinds of grain as one advanced towards the north’
Strabo also repeated what Pytheas reported from Thule which he said was bordering on the frozen zone (perhaps the Shetlands):
‘…and he noticed that the farmers gathered the sheaves into large granaries, in which the threashing was done.’ Threshing floors being useless on account of the rain and want of sun.
Thule was also described as being:
‘… destitute of the cultivated fruits, and almost deprived of the domestic animals; and the food of the inhabitants consisted of millet, herbs, fruits, and roots. When they had corn and honey they made drink of them.’

Nomadism seems to be restricted to the movement of animals to and from special summer grazing areas:

Undefended settlements have been found in a few upland areas and these are thought to have been summer settlements. The movement with the pastoral herds in the summer continued with the hafody in Wales until relatively recent times. However, most farming communities were settled in lowland areas during the Iron Age. In many areas hill forts had an associated second enclosure with birch fencing for coralling their cattle and other livestock. In the case of multivalate hillforts the livestock may have been herded in between the inner and outer defences to protect them from warring parties and cattle rustlers. Julius Caesar informs us that when he attacked Cassivellaunus at Bigbury Hill that they found great quantities of cattle there.

In my opinion (for what it’s worth) reliance on domesticated plants and animals for the majority of your subsistence undermines claims to indigeneity because of the war footing this inevitably puts you on against all the other creatures trying to inhabit the land you’ve ringfenced as exclusively yours. If indigeneity means being ‘of the land’, ie: indivisible from it as with any other species, then can you really say that of yourself when your subsistence practices require such a dramatic transformation of the spontaneous ecology? In Britain that means either woodland or wetland, except in extreme (usually highland) conditions - NOT grassland, either in the form of pasture or arable fields, both of which now dominate thanks to farmers and herders since the Neolithic Revolution around 6,000 years ago.

Just sayin’…