Celtic Emigration Comes Home to Skye

Over a hundred academics, students, politicians and other interested parties travelled this June from all across the Celtic diaspora to Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic College at Skye in Scotland, to discuss the subject of emigration.

As well as from the Scottish Gaidhealtachd itself, they came from Wales and Ireland, Cornwall and the United States, New Zealand and Canada to take part in a prestigious three-day conference called to debate 'Celtic Cultures in the Emigrant Context'.

As many visitors - new and old - remarked, there could have been few better settings. The new Columba Campus at Sabhal Mòr - which was itself the first college of further education through the medium of Scottish Gaelic upon its inception in south Skye in 1983, and which now has 80 full-time students and hundreds of others taking shorter courses - is a magnificent complex. A tribute to Celtic and Gaelic resilience and revival, the glittering new campus, which was opened earlier this year, stands in a part of the Hebrides which has in the past been hard hit by emigration and clearance, but which is now enjoying a cultural and economic renaissance.

The conference itself, as befits this most vexing of subjects, was both provocative and inspiring. The historian and now head of the development board Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Dr James Hunter, launched proceedings with a paper on the intertwined fortunes of Highland fur traders and native Americans from the 18th century to the present day.

Dr Robert Owen Jones of Cardiff University looked at the Welsh colony in Patagonia, and at the less celebrated Highland Scottish exodus to the same part of South America. This latter theme had a curious postscript, for among the delegates was Mr Alex MacDonald , the convener of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, the Western Isles Council. Alex MacDonald was, he later told Dr Jones, born in Argentina - and the birth-certificate of this Gaelic-speaking Lewisman gives his Christian name as 'Alejandro'!

From Argentina the debate moved north, to New Orleans, whose disappeared Irish community was examined by Wilson MacLeod. And Dr Philip Payton of Exeter University looked at the 'Cousin Jacks' - the Cornish miners who travelled the world, taking with them a reputation as hard bargainers for industrial rights and a microcosmic Cornish community.

In Australia, Professor David Fitzpatrick of Trinity College Dublin argued that Irish immigrants had quickly and deliberately shrugged off their old identities. The conference organiser Dr Hugh Dan MacLennan suggested however that Highlanders had retained their culture under the Southern Cross for longer than had been suspected; Gaelic influences being evident in such activities as playing shinty, as well as in the evidence of the language and their religion.

And Dr Jenny Coleman of Otago University told the story of the celebrated sheepstealer, MacKenzie of South Island, New Zealand, indicating that Scottish Gaels left their mark in a variety of ways.

Mark Wringe and Ian MacPherson explored different areas of exported Gaelic culture in Canada, while Sabhal Mòr Ostaig's head of studies John Norman MacLeod brought everybody home with a look at emigration and clearance from the region in which they were meeting: the south of the Island of Skye.

A trio of distinguished historians, Professor Tom Devine and Andrew MacKillop of Aberdeen University, and Ewen Cameron of Edinburgh University sought to offer a broad perspective on the tumultuous events under discussion. Pointing out that many millions of people had left the whole of Europe for new worlds at the same points in time, Professor Devine argued that Celtic emigration should be put into a wider context of general discontent and sudden fresh opportunities.

And while paying tribute to the excellent Scottish Gaelic television series 'Na h-Eilthirich' ('The Emigrants') which was broadcast recently on the BBC, Messrs Cameron and MacKillop warned against the possible insularity of recent trends in local historiography; and counselled that it was not always sufficient to take the opinion of the "victims" as sole or major source.

The significance of this ground-breaking conference was highlighted by the appearance of two prominent Scottish government ministers. Alasdair Morrison MSP, Minister of Gaelic and the Highlands at the new Scottish Parliament was joined by Scotland Office Minister Brian Wilson MP, who as founder-editor of the West Highland Free Press has an established reputation as a friend of the land and the language - and who in his new responsibilities was largely responsible for the extension of Sabhal Mor Ostaig into its new campus, and in the creation of Iomairt Chaluim Chille, the Sabhal Mòr-based initiative to link the Gaelic cultures of Scotland and Ireland.

It was a memorable event. As more than one delegate remarked, the very implication of holding such a seminal conference in the Gaelic heartland itself was impressive and substantial. That such facilities exist is a tribute to the enduring strength of Celtic identity. That so many eminent people were happy to travel from such diverse parts of the diaspora was an indication of the power of those historical links. Old friendships were refreshed and new ones made, and the ceilidhs, both organised and impromptu, held testament to the very issues under discussion on that headland in south Skye, overlooking the barren hills of Knoydart and the sea which once carried its people far away.