Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination: Anglophone Writing from 1600 to 1900.
The number of questions posed by Silke Stroh in the introduction to Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination leaves the reader in no doubt of the complexity of her chosen subject: 'Can Scotland and the "Celtic fringe" be considered as English colonies? Is their experience and literature comparable to that of overseas postcolonial countries? Can international postcolonial theory help us to understand the Scottish predicament? Is Scottish political and cultural nationalism similar to anticolonial resistance overseas? Or are such comparisons no more than Scottish patriotic victimology?'
At the present time, when the examination of identity, whether self-assumed or imposed from the 'outside', is inherent in Scotland, the UK and beyond, and issues relating to Scottish independence and Brexit continue apace, Stroh's book is timely. It may be a truism to state that we must understand our history if we are to be able to interpret our present and future, but this is, nevertheless, one positive result of the literary and historical criticism conducted by Stroh in relation to Gaelic Scotland. There has been an interesting vein of Gaelic and Celtic scholarship in recent years, exhibiting engagement with the issues surrounding colonialism and post-colonialism. Stroh has been part of that vanguard with her earlier publication Uneasy Subjects: Postcolonialism and Scottish Gaelic Poetry (Rodopi, 2011), while Murray Pittock first raised his head above the figurative colonial parapet in Celtic Identity and the British Image (Manchester University Press) in 1999. Two multi-authored essay collections followed in 2011 and 2013 respectively (Scottish Literature and Postcolonial Literature and Within and Without Empire: Scotland across the (Post) Colonial Borderline). In relation to this subject in a slightly different context, Michael Newton has been a significant voice, particularly as critic of various books which have attempted to co-opt Celticity for specific regions in the United States. He has also spoken out against the dangers of the so-called 'alt-right', raising the issue of white supremacists who commonly invoke Celtic heritage in their messaging, thus appropriating Gaelic for their own ends.
With Gaelic culture a seemingly ripe area of (mis-)appropriation in the twenty-first century, Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination is a much-needed addition to the academic field, filling the gap in a time period which has been more heavily studied from the Irish perspective, and showing the influence of two simultaneous developments from 1600: the emergence of the modern nation-state and the rise of overseas colonialism on Scotland's Gaelic margins. This is certainly the most comprehensive study yet of a neglected but significant period of Gaelic cultural history to be conducted through the lens of postcolonial discourse. From the outset, Stroh is keen to tackle any detractors who may be skeptical that 'the ever-expanding field of postcolonial studies undermines its own credibility by declaring its theories applicable to more and more different contexts'. She rightly points out that any comparative approach could be accused of the same thing and she calls for a balance between generalisation/comparison and specificity/difference in order that postcolonial Scottish studies can gain insights into 'international parallels and local specificities'.
The chapters are set out in chronological order, dealing with texts which demonstrate how Anglophone writers have dealt with their Gaelic subjects in a variety of ways, including civilising missions, assimilation, Romanticisation, stereotyping and, perhaps most discomforting for readers with the benefit of twenty-first-century hindsight, biologistic racial typologising. Stroh's discussion of colonial discourse works particularly well in the sections which concentrate on the close reading of specific texts, e.g. Martin Martin's A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, and A Late Voyage to St Kilda, Walter Scott's Waverley, Robert Knox's The Races of Men, Fiona Macleod's (William Sharp) Green Fire, J. MacGregor's essay 'Celts and Teutons', and L. MacBean's essay 'The Mission of the Celt'. The success of close reading in the context of a book such as Gaelic Scotland in the Colonial Imagination is that it allows the postcolonial theory room to breathe and provides the most suitable platform for showing in excellent detail the extent to which these texts and cultural contexts are well-suited to the application of this theory.
The final two main chapters--'Of Celts and Teutons: Racial Biology and Anti-Gaelic Discourse, ca. 1780-1860' and 'Racist Reversals: Appropriating Racial Typology in Late Nineteenth-Century Pro-Gaelic Discourse' are inextricably connected, and are, for this reviewer at least, the most disquieting yet enlightening sections of the book. While in the late eighteenth century, openly racist intellectuals such as John Pinkerton viewed the Celts as an inferior race--the home-soil equivalent of indigenous populations of overseas colonies--it is significant that racist attitudes can work the other way also. Sharp's description of Celtic characters in Green Fire--'She was of that small clan, the true daughters of the sun [...] the sun-life was even in that shadowy hair of hers, which had a sheen of living light'--shows how dangerous Romanticism can become when it intermingles with racial biology discourse and, by extension, proves the importance of Stroh's book in the present time when we are still witnessing beliefs of this sort, albeit in newer contexts.
In Stroh's conclusion, more radically anticolonial/postcolonial voices in Scotland are highlighted; this trend has its roots in the nineteenth century and manifests from this period onwards because of the colonial discourses to which Gaelic Scotland had previously been subjected. Of particular note in this section is R. B. Cunninghame Graham's 'Bloody Niggers' (1897), a satirical essay on 'Celto-Saxon pretensions to being the global master race'; after the two preceding chapters, it is quite reassuring to note that by the late nineteenth century there are writers such as Cunninghame Graham who are keen to assert that race is a social construct rather than biological reality.
Stroh has not only delivered an important postcolonial reading of cultural history but has also provided, through her careful study of a selection of texts, a blueprint to assist scholars of Gaelic culture and literature in taking this theory forward and employing it successfully in varied contexts. Furthermore, Stroh's research has ensured that Gaelic/Scottish postcolonial studies has a deserved place in international postcolonial dialogues.
Emma Dymock University of Edinburgh
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|Publication:||Scottish Literary Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2017|
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