Reimagining Culture: Histories, Identities and the Gaelic Renaissance

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Reimagining Culture: Histories, Identities and the Gaelic Renaissance. SHARON MACDONALD. Oxford and New York: Berg, 1997; 258 pp.

Sharon Macdonald has written a timely and important book that deserves serious attention from anyone interested in the anthropology of Europe. The Gaelic Renaissance - the teaching, promoting, and studying of Scottish Gaelic - is part of an attempt to put Scotland's Celtic heritage to the fore in the public mind. Her work thus transcends narrow academic constituencies, whether of region or discipline. This book will interest historians, sociologists, linguists, and social psychologists, as well as anthropologists.

Macdonald takes as her central problem "modernist assumptions about identity as singular and unified" (p. 10). Her view is rather that identity is ambivalent and ambiguous, internally inconsistent and multivocal. People's experiences are touched by so many frameworks, dimensions, alterities, and fractures that it would be astonishing to find it otherwise. Thus it is essential to look at the recent attempts to revive Gaelic - which is spoken by less than two per cent of the Scottish population - in an equally multifaceted and historically informed way. The Gaelic Renaissance is not a simple question of language revival, but reflects concerns over rural ways of life, Highland Scottish distinctiveness, the environment, religion, community, gender, and the bourgeois commodification of culture, as well as nationalism.

On the surface Gaelic's revival might seem puzzling: its speakers are few and largely concentrated in the Western Isles. In contrast to Wales, where language has been a "hot button issue" for nationalists, the survival of a Celtic language in Scotland has played a relatively minor role in political drives towards either independence or devolution. Gaelic, however, holds a powerful place in the popular imagination, standing for an historically constituted idea of social difference, invoking for many the Highland experience of English colonial subjugation, of forced evictions, linguistic and cultural suppression, and the continual draining away of population.

Macdonald's treatment of Gaelic's significance is a sensitive and sophisticated one that uses local ethnography but does not stop there. The book is organized so as to take the reader from general theoretical debates about authenticity and culture, through historical considerations of language and identity in Scotland and the Highlands. In the second chapter, "Our Language, Our Heritage," for example, she addresses local, regional, and national responses to the idea of language revival, setting all of these within the contemporary context of the European Community, and its emphasis upon regional autonomy. I particularly like the way she addresses the ambiguous relationship among Gaelic, "Scottishness," and the Highlands as "a repository of 'real' Scottish identity" (p. 99). She notes that while some people today would proclaim Gaelic to be at Scotland's historical core, in fact the country has never been linguistically unified, and to characterize Scotland overall as a "Celtic" nation ignores huge stretches of history and cultural diversity. Only after the theoretical and historical background has been well laid does she move to consider what constitutes local identity and the idea of a "way of life." In the last section, entitled "Cultural Renaissance," she uses individual examples of people involved in the Gaelic revival movement to explore how the politicization of language is actually experienced. …