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Susannah’s a Funniful Man

A public Facebook post by my daughter, Morag. I think I’ll just leave it here for a while…

What she had to say about it:

“I hope this might bring some light relief to my small corner of the internet as we try to make sense of the grave and muddled state of affairs we seem to be living in. On Saturday, following the funeral of my dear Great Uncle John, my Dad, Gordon, and his two brothers Stephen and Gerald presented a song, ‘Susannah’s a Funniful Man’, that has often been their party piece at large family occasions over the years. I know nothing about its origins, except that it comes from a rich heritage of silly songs and games of rural English vicars, but I think it basically speaks for itself…enjoy, if you will…”

I would only add that, while Dad (from whom we got the song) and Uncle John often took opposing political viewpoints, and might have taken differing views on this latest “Brexit” question too, they remained firm friends always, as well as brothers-in-law. Their religious calling certainly gave them both a profound respect for serious matters and considered debate. Truth, or the diligent search for it, was important to them, but they also shared a delight in silly absurdities. I can’t help feeling that gave them a wider perspective than our and younger generations can sometimes manage, despite (or perhaps because of?) our “always on” social media connectedness.

Of Islands and Identities

Here’s a question, prompted by witnessing yet more Facebook fractiousness – never in short supply when threads weave around “independence”, or “nationalism” (whether in the context of Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK, or the UK’s with the rest of Europe). Does the giddy whirlpool of identity politics ever stop swirling through the social media? I can do without it.

One of the things that made me a willing island-dweller is the enhanced sense of detachment from attention-seeking, loyalty-demanding “centres of power” – be they based in Brussels, London, Edinburgh, or even Stornoway. I may or may not agree that the various responsibilities the big towns claim for themselves are fairly distributed. The point is that, even if I do, I clearly don’t need to “identify” myself exclusively with the polity or jurisdiction over which each one exercises its “authority”. That’s fundamentally not sensible, in my view. The real world is mobile and multi-polar. Our loyalties and attention shift and divide – and properly so.

TeampullCrotalThis is not new. Take Gaelic, for example – an important part of my current cultural make-up (as I’ve mentioned once or twice elsewhere). One of the many highlights of a recent visit from Irish language enthusiasts was seeing how close we could get to Teampull Chaluim Chille in Balivanich (Baile a’ Mhanaich – The Monk’s Town). The name alone evokes a “pan-Gaelic” past that pre-dates notions of “Ireland” and “Scotland” as the separate “nations” we think of today. But history moved on, and while we may still feel the pull of cultural and linguistic affinity as Gaels, there probably aren’t many around today who will profess a loyalty to “Gaeldom” alone, wholly to the exclusion of other cultural constructs – such as “Scotland”, or “Ireland”, or even indeed “Britain”, or “Europe”.

As it turned out, the land around the Teampull is so boggy that most of us didn’t properly complete our mini-pilgrimage, with the noble exception of Mairtín. His perseverance paid off though, as he got some stunning shots there that sit very prettily alongside the rest of his Benbecula album. Surely we can all recognise and acknowledge the beauty to be found here, irrespective of IMG_0786autocorrecthow we each place ourselves “culturally” or “nationally”. We all have the capacity to appreciate others’ work and worth, and that seems to me like a better basis on which to construct healthy relationships, and so reasonable dialogue, than any over-emphasised or falsely attributed “cultural differences” that tend only to solidify as self-fulfilling prophecies. I wish folk would stop disrespecting other people’s integrity or intelligence on the basis of how they divide up their communal identities. It’s disturbing. I may be about to relieve my FB friends list of a few folk (none pictured here) who can’t seem to break out of a vicious-looking circle. Time to set course away from a “virtual Coire Bhreacain” being fed by dodgy-looking ethno-essentialist undercurrents…

(Disclaimer: These are my own musings. None of the gaisgich pictured above should be implicated in any political, constitutional, or other conclusions that readers may wish to draw from them. I think it’s fair to say the consensus was that we had a jolly good time…)

21st Century Brits: Young, Black – and Gifted?

“Cyber Nat!” “Brit Nat!” “Scot Nat!” “North Brit!”

Divisive name-calling in the blogosphere or “social media” does nothing to enhance what’s billed as the most important political and constitutional debate we’ve had in Scotland in hundreds of years. In a global context, how two of the larger parts of these smallish islands choose to structure their relationship is probably not very significant, but I do have some regard for Bill Clinton’s reported view that the way the debate is conducted is at least as important as the result of the vote itself. I think it may be more so. After all, as wiser people on both sides have said, once it’s over we will have to live with each other. And, without being too pious about it, that does mean minding our language, and treating each other with due respect.

Take the word “Brit”, for example. I dislike the dismissive and scornful way it’s being used by some. OK, in part it’s personal. After all, I myself am an English-speaking, Gaelic-speaking, Hindi-speaking “Brit”. While the first three elements of that package are accomplishments in which I take a lot of pleasure, the fourth is a simple matter of mixed parental (English and Uibhisteach) fact, a badge of neither honour nor disgrace, and certainly not deserving of knee-jerk animosity from those claiming to be on the progressive side of political history.

But there’s more to it than my own personal sensitivities. I am far from alone. In fact, it appears that “Brit-bashers” are quite simply behind the curve on basic demographic trends. According to 2011 census data, as reported by Mark Easton, it’s younger people living in ethnically diverse neighbourhoods who are the most likely to identify as British – and plainly not because of some sentimental hankering after the days of the openly racist Raj, gone long before they were even born. Far from it. “British” is now owned and used as a handy catch-all label that embraces a wide range of heritage ethnicities or nationalities on these islands. (The BBC report deals mainly with more detailed figures for England and Wales, but a quick check of the Scottish census site suggests similarly higher proportions of British identification amongst the same ethnic groups.)

Twisting a lyric from my own youthful exposure to Bob and Marcia, it appears 21st Century Brits are increasingly Young and Black – and dare I say Gifted with a contemporary identity that has moved on from either glory or shame in past imperial history. I’m now pretty old, evidently white, and of questionable talent, but this kind of inclusive and multicultural Britishness seems rather positive to me. To knock it for no good reason looks strangely out of touch in this day and age.

Could it be among the reasons why the youth vote may not pan out as first predicted?

Rionnagan Reggae

“From another island, from another time”… I’ve enjoyed putting together a wee Gaelic “series” for our nascent community radio station here in Uist, featuring favourite tracks out of Kingston, Jamaica, from the sixties and seventies. I’ve nicked a short extract here to put on SoundCloud – just as a wee taster.

It features Clancy Eccles with “Fattie Fattie”. Other tracks in the series are “Red, Red Wine” (Tony Tribe), “Monkey Man” (Toots and the Maytals), “Sweet Sensation” (The Melodians), and “Johnny Too Bad” (The Slickers). Younger readers may remember the UB40 covers of some of these, if not the originals…

It’s a bit of a trip down memory lane for me – mixed memories to be honest. The music was great, in starkly disciplined and danceable contrast to the self-indulgent and seemingly stoned “oeuvres” of the likes of Jefferson Airplane or The Grateful Dead, the preferred listening of many of my would-be hippy schoolmates. But like them I wore the “grammar school uniform” of the times (shoulder-length hair and a greatcoat) – and so was an obvious target for the other new counter-culture, the “hippy-bashing” skinheads. I remember a few high-tension stand-offs on the meaner streets of outwardly douce Didcot and Wallingford…

How incongruous looking back, when the skinhead image is now so firmly established as a badge of identity for many violent and white-supremacist groupings across Europe and North America, to clock that the founding members took their musical inspiration from Kingston, Jamaica…

The soundcloud clip offers a short taste of the featured song. Here’s a YouTube recording of the full track. Check it out…

And you can listen to An Radio here. (Click on An Radio Player.)

Music of the Muezzin

I’m just back from a short visit to Istanbul. With over 15 million people and over 3,000 mosques the contrast with Benbecula, with its 1500 people and 2 churches, could scarcely be starker – you might think. But there again, the waterfronts and ferry traffic, while on a completely different scale, provided at least one familiar point of reference.

It was a pleasure to cross the Bosphorus between Asia and Europe (for 2 Turkish Lira..) and wander down streets, through bazaars, and past mosques and museums. And what a tram service! (Also 2 Turkish Lira, flat rate.) Edinburgh, eat your heart out…

I snapped away with the iPhone, but the strongest impression made was not visual but auditory. Given there are over 3,000 of them in the city it seems like you’re never far from a mosque when the call to prayer goes out, and I made a few recordings. This one was at 4.30 in the morning on my last day – no need to worry if I’d set the alarm properly to get me to the airport on time…

Back home and googling “muezzin” I found some interesting links. While I had no complaints, the BBC reported some time ago that the musicality of some in Istanbul had been called into question, leading to extra training being delivered. And Sun Myung Moon’s Wikipedia-style “New World Encyclopedia” makes a link between Muslim Muezzin, Jewish Hazzan, and Christian Precentor. Being an adherent of none of these faiths, I’m happy to leave comparative theology in others’ hands – but a possible musical link does interest me. And I’m evidently not alone, judging from the comments section on this YouTube video showing some fine examples of the precentor’s melismatic role in leading traditional Gaelic psalmody. (I’m indebted to The Croft for bringing this clip to my attention, where further discussion of the local singing tradition can be found.)

So, perhaps the link from Byzantium to Benbecula, while attenuated in space and time, may not be as thin as first appearances may suggest…


Abair spors a bh’ againn a-nochd le Carrageen agus “Gille an Fheadain Duibh” – sgeulachd le Pàdruig Moireasdan a tha ri fhaighinn san leabhar “Thugam agus Bhuam”. Chaidh a cur ann an cruth ùr dà-chànanach airson an àrd-ùrlair le Màiri Mhoireasdan agus Eairdsidh Caimbeul. Agus is iad a rinn dsioba math dheth!

Ach bha gu leòr eile an sàs sa phìos obrach seo – na sgoilearan ann an Loch nam Madadh agus Càirinis, a’ choisir aig Fèis Tir an Eòrna, Chris Spears – an neach-ealain a rinn obair ionmhalta a’ toirt beatha uamhasach dhan fhuamhaire agus dhan dràgon, Loriana Pauli – “Ban-rìgh na h-Eilbheis” – a thug puirt ùra dhuinn, gun ghuth air an obair bhidio is audio a chaidh a chur ris….  Tha liosta fhada ann.

Cha robh mi fhèin ach nam “second farmer” – ach tha fhios gur e promotion a tha sineach bho “third spear-carrier”, an triob mu dheireadh a bha mi air an àrd-ùrlar leis na Sinodun Players ann an Camelot air ais ann an 1973 – mas math mo chuimhne…

Abair na th’ ann de thàlant ann an coimhearsnachd bheag dhùthchail. Tha rudeigin sònraichte againn an seo. Agus  ’s e a’ Ghàidhlig as coireach, tha mi cinnteach. No, ga chur ann an dòigh eile, leis gu bheil dà chànan againn sa choimhearsnachd seo, tha beairteas culturach a bharrachd againn. Agus tha sin a’ tarraing dhaoine ealanta eile ann, a tha ag iarraidh a bhith a’ fuireach ann an àrainneachd a tha taiceil dha na tàlantan aca fhèin.

Cò na h-àiteachan eile ann am Breatainn far am faiceadh tu an leithid?

The Anglovision Song Contest and La Diversité

So, the annual camp-fest is over. The Grumpy Old Man retired to his favourite darkened room for most of it but emerged in time for the voting. Actually, I do – just – remember a time when I enjoyed it in a “serious” way, back when Abba were a novelty for not singing in their own language… Apparently “about 99%” of last night’s entries were in English. Ok, maybe some slight exaggeration there, but the trend seems inexorable.

Regular trips around Western Europe in recent years have left me underwhelmed by the seeming ubiquity of Anglo-American pop music, but a trip to Cyprus last year lifted my spirits. I don’t think I heard one English song on bus or car radio all the time I was there. So, as the votes began to pile up for Azerbaijan last night I won’t say the night was filled with Eastern promise, but, having not yet heard the song, I did allow myself some optimism that the winner was going to offer something a little bit different. Oh oh!

My own vote? Well, I didn’t hear the songs, so can only comment on the voting presentation. Fantastic! Marvellous!! Stupendous night!!! What a great show!!!! Shall I go on? Well, only to say top marks to the forlorn Frenchman who manfully delivered the tally of his country’s votes – entirely in the language of that country. Amazing!!! C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la guerre…

But here’s the rub. The anglophone craze actually does the UK no “favours” at all. The Blue effort was evidently indistinguishable in the monocultural monotone. So what’s the solution for those who would seek a return to the glory days of Sandie Shaw or (Sir) Cliff Richard? Well, it’s obvious isn’t it? We’ve got plenty other languages here. How about making 2012 the year when the UK shows some linguistic and cultural invention and enters a song in a language other than English? What is there to lose?

Someone should be getting on the phone to Julie Fowlis now.

Is Gaelic an Indigenous Language?

“Stupid question.” That’s the short answer, tinged perhaps with weariness, perhaps indignation. “Of course it is. Next question.”

Well, there is a next question – indigenous to where? And so what? We need deeper reflection in a British/UK context, where indigenous or aboriginal status may be most loudly proclaimed by sometimes closet, sometimes open, racists of a self-styled “British nationalist” perspective affecting to speak on behalf of the “original” (read white) English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish peoples.

The Gaelic I speak is definitely Scottish – hopefully as Uibhisteach as I can get it – but I’m aware (though no historian) that in earlier times the language in Scotland was referred to in some quarters as “Erse”, perhaps pejoratively, but clearly as a marker of its Irish (and therefore not Scottish) origins or links. So how far back do you go in order to establish your indigenous/non-indigenous origins? How long is a piece of string? That really depends on who’s doing the measuring, and for what reason.

Which raises the more interesting question – why is any of this important? What’s the significance of an indigenous claim?

On her study visit to Scotland in 2008 Dr Makere Stewart-Harawira, Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Alberta (and Maori speaker), quizzed me on my apparent reluctance to use the “indigenous” label when talking about Gaelic. We had a long and interesting (to us, at least) conversation – edited “highlights” collected here: Indigenous Language Conversations across the Globe.*

My first difficulty is our local British one, referred to above. Speaking for myself, I would really want to put oceans of clear water between a Gaelic identity and the seriously wrong-headed and delusional thinking (putting it most generously) of the sort of “British nationalist” that consorts with the Ku Klux Klan. Lining up alongside them under an indigenous label could make for very unpleasant company.

But that begs another question: why should cranks or worse be allowed a free run when claiming the indigenous title? In other parts of the world, for example Canada and New Zealand, as Makere explained, the values for which many indigenous peoples speak would be very far removed indeed from the lingering white supremacist ideology behind those that are active in far right British nationalism.

Is there a sense in which Gaelic culture and Gaelic speakers hold onto an alternative set of values from the British mainstream – perhaps, for example, more respectful of the natural environment, and with a stronger sense of community and interdependence? Well, it would be nice to think so. And I can see elements of truth in such an assertion. Here in the Hebrides we no longer really live it, but we’re still not that far removed from the days of a subsistence agriculture lifestyle with communal sharing of labour, and are very conscious of the rhythm of the seasons. (The climate ensures that!) We are, almost perforce, very aware of the environment. At a cultural level the language is also under extreme pressure in the face of rising English monolingualism, which some are trying to actively resist. So yes, Gaels might well seek solidarity with the Maori and the Cree in the name of standing up for indigenous languages and cultures.

But that stands to gloss over an inconvenient historical fact – namely that plenty Gaelic-speaking Highland soldiers and other adventurers were up to their necks in the very same British (albeit Anglocentric and predominantly Anglophone) imperial venture that brought many indigenous languages and cultures across the globe to ruination. You could argue that many in the “lower ranks” were co-opted or coerced, citing for example the forced evictions of the Highland Clearances, but let’s not kid ourselves that Gaels were immune to the pervasive racial ideologies of earlier times, or universally eschewed the opportunity to play their own skin colour for what it was then worth. There were Gaelic-speaking slave owners in the American colonies.

That’s the elephant in the room when we talk about Gaelic, Maori, and Cree all in the same breath as indigenous languages, particularly if we go on to say that together they stand for distinctive cultural values. I believe there has been attitudinal change in British, including Scottish, society over my lifetime to date. I don’t think the kind of racial language that went frequently unchallenged in my own nearly all-white grammar school when I was growing up would get much of a hearing in my children’s (also nearly all-white) comprehensive school today. In terms of core cultural values, our society is the better for that, and in no small measure we have migration (and indeed the “global village”) to thank for it, by confronting the ill-informed or lazy racial stereotyping of once remote peoples through simple everyday presence and contact. That’s cause for some celebration, but not for complacency or too much self-congratulation. There are still ugly undercurrents which break surface from time to time, as recent media events have demonstrated.

So, is Gaelic an indigenous language? Not such a simple question after all, and liable to be emotive. But probably worth asking if it does make us think about fundamental human values, and who we might share them with across the globe.

*Makere has informed me (29/09/11) that Indigenous Language Conversations has moved and is under reconstruction:

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