Glasgow: the great city of the Gaels

The view from Queen’s Park where at one time many Highlanders played shinty and is referred to in Màiri Mhòr nan Òran’s song ‘Camanachd Ghlaschu’

Friseal MacRaibeirt looks at the social history of Gaels in Glasgow, as found on the Tobar an Dualchais website.

Is treasa tuath na tighearna.  The People are mightier than a Lord.

A rallying cry for the Highland Land League during the battle for secure croft tenancies in the 19th century, this Gaelic proverb continues to be relevant to this day, especially so following the scenes in Kenmure Street in Glasgow early last month when the Pollokshields community came together to defend their neighbours from a dawn raid by Home Office Immigration Enforcement.

This direct, collective action by a united community in the face of the unmitigated power of authority has already established itself as an historic event in the long radical tradition of Scotland’s biggest city.

Kenmure Street in Pollokshields also happens to be home to the Gaelic primary school Bun-sgoil Ghàidhlig Ghleann Dàil – somewhat appropriately a namesake of the location of one of the most important Crofters’ Rebellions of the late 19th century – the Battle of Glendale, which was a pivotal moment in the battle for land rights.

The relevance of this may seem at first rather unclear, bui it made me think about the diverse community which makes Glasgow what it is today, and about the role the Gaels play and have played in this diversity as a migrant community since the beginning of the Industrial revolution.

At Tobar an Dualchais, barely a day passes without coming across a story or song about the movement of people. Whether it be a song about cianalas – homesickness and nostalgia for the homeland, or a song about the inhospitability of a Manitoban winter – migration and displacement are an intrinisic part of the history of the Gaels.

Most often, we think about the far-flung shores of the British Empire when we think of the Gaelic diaspora, but a considerable amount of the migration of Gaels was – and continues to be – to the large towns and cities of Scotland.

Glasgow, historically an important industrial centre, and now an important hub for education and services, has always been an important destination for migrant Gaels, whether it be due to the clearances and economic hardship of the 19th century, or for those seeking education or work in the 21st century.

Of all the migrant communities in Glasgow, Gaels have long been among one of the oldest and most established, and have played an integral role in many of the city’s most well-known industries and professions  – from shipbuilding and mining to steelworks and domestic service.

Paisley Road West and Rutland Crescent, where the well-known highland drinking haunt ‘Bùth Dhòmhnaill MhicLeòid’ once stood

This stream of migration has, since the Industrial Revolution, been ever-flowing, but was particularly strong in the mid to late nineteenth century, when a combination of economic crisis and clearance forced Gaels to leave the Highlands in vast numbers, with few choices other than emigration to the colonies of the Empire, or migration to the industrial centres of Britain.  

This migration was not always permanent, but the constant flow of Gaels established Glasgow as an intrinsic part of the Global Gàidhealtachd – a diaspora of Gaels which at the turn of the 20th century spanned from the the prairies of Canada, to the plains of Patagonia and the sheep stations of Australia.

On the Tobar an Dualchais website, we are privileged to have a rich collection of material which brings to life the long history of the Gaels in Glasgow and their experiences in the city – from the Industrial Revolution to the early 21st century.  The historical size and diversity of the Gaelic community in Glasgow has given us a diverse collection of songs, stories and experiences – a Gael’s eye view of life in the Second City of the Empire.

Naturally, moving to the city was, and still is a shock to the system for those more accustomed to life in the Highlands and Islands, and much of our material from Glasgow describes this in detail.

In the song Gur e bhith a’ Falbh air Bàrr nan Tonn [Track ID: 42363], recorded from Peggy MacRae of Glendale, South Uist in 1948, the bard expresses his feelings about the pollution in the city.  Having travelled far and wide as a sailor, he says that Glasgow is just not right – when you wake up early in the morning, you can hardly see for the smog.

He would much prefer to be with his sweetheart in the island where he grew up.  

This bard was certainly not alone in his dislike of the Dear Green Place.  Neil Beaton of Herishader in Flodigarry curses the city in his song Mo Mhallachd aig a’ Cheàrnaidh Seo [Track ID: 77777] which he composed in the 1950s.

He laments the dirt, the smog, and the poverty among other things, and tells us that he would much rather be back home in Trotternish, where there is peat aplenty, and where he can listen uninterrupted to the song thrushes singing. 

Neil Beaton does, however, concede that there are some attractions in the city, such as theatres, cinemas, and shops, and he is not the only one in the archives to concede that there are some good things about Glasgow too.

Social gatherings were an integral part of Gaelic community life in Glasgow, and for men this more often than not involved frequenting the local drinking houses.  Bùth Dhòmhnaill MhicLeòid (Donald MacLeod’s Shop) on Paisley Road West in Kinning Park was one of the most popular haunts for Gaels in the first half of the 20th century – so popular that the Paisley Bard Donald MacIntyre (Dòmhnall Ruadh) composed a song about it, sang by his daughter Catriona in 1956 [Track ID: 1501] in which he praises the pub, where – in his words – there is never a shortage of songs. 

The drinking culture evident in the Gaelic community in Glasgow also led to some interesting tales about the goings on both in the pubs and immediately after closing time.

Donald Mackay (Dòmhnall Thormoid Bhàin) of Ardivachair, South Uist was recorded in 1966 telling a story about a tailor from Skye who went to Glasgow, and returned with a rather unforgettable story [Track ID: 107547] .

Having spent an evening in the pub with his friends the Sgitheanach was rather worse for wear.  Abandoned by his friends at the end of the night, he left the pub alone and lost. After some wandering he found himself in Maryhill, where he decided to sleep beside a tree.  He was discovered by a fellow Sgitheanach who – with a friend – decided to take him down one of the mines in Maryhill, where they proceeded to convince him he was in hell.

Having set him to work making a pair of trousers, they brought him a large dram and got him drunk again, and finally brought him out of the mine.  Having eventually sobered up and returned to Skye, the tailor attended church on the Sunday, and when the minister was preaching about Hell and how to avoid it, the tailor intervened, proclaiming that he had been to Hell, and it wasn’t all that bad – he even got food and drink while he was there! 

The stories and songs about the Gaels’ experience about Glasgow are, however, not all so lighthearted.

In one of the few stories from a woman’s point of view [Track ID: 36498], Catherine Dix (Ceit an Tàilleir), tells us of a destitute family from Harris who – having no money and little food – had to send their daughter to Glasgow for work when she left school.  Having reached the city, she struggled to find work, and ended up working as a prostitute in a brothel to make ends meet. 

In a song recorded from Marion Campbell (Mòr nighean Aonghais) [Track ID: 47041], the bard tells a story about an unfortunate trip to Glasgow where he ended up being robbed.  Angus MacDonald (Aonghas mac Dhòmhnaill Bhàin) of Stoneybridge, South Uist, sings a similar song [Track ID: 47509], in which the composer tells the tale of what happened to him when he came ashore on the Broomielaw.

He met a woman who gave him a warm welcome, and – having overindulged and drank too much – he woke up on a pavement without a penny in his pocket.    

These recordings are only a small sample of the hundreds of recordings available on Tobar an Dualchais related to Glasgow.  Songs and stories about shipbuilding, and about the Gaelic societies in the city are plentiful, and give us a fascinating insight into the lived experience of Gaels in Glasgow over the past two centuries.

These recordings show us a community of migrants trying to establish themselves in an unfamiliar environment, coming to terms with a new identity which was most definitely Gaelic, but without a doubt Glaswegian as well.

The parallels to be made with immigrant communities in Glasgow today are more apparent than at first sight, and can help us to understand and celebrate the unique cultural diversity in the city.

In the words of the Refuweegee charity in Glasgow – ‘We’re aw fae somewhere.’

More information about Gaels in Glasgow can be found on the website – a project led by Glasgow Live / Glaschu Beò, which aims to map the history and culture of the Gaels across the city.