The Gaels and Glasgow
Much is written of those from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland who were forced from their lands and resorted, whether voluntarily or by compulsion, to emigration to countries overseas. Much. has been written of the hardships endured in transit, the dangers that faced them in their new adopted countries and the subsequent establishment of new Highland communities.
There was also however a significant movement from the communities of the Highlands and Islands to the lowlands of Scotland for much the same reason. They too suffered much privation moving into cities where housing was often squalid, where disease was rife and where they often faced destitution if they could not find employment. The dispossessed Highlander was often forced to work at the lower end of the employment market and faced a real struggle to survive and progress. Despite the extreme hardship they endured, little is written of this major social upheaval that had such a profound effect on so many people.
There had been movements from the Highlands to urban areas of Scotland from the 17th century. In some cases the people came as aresult of cattle droves but they were usually itinerant visitors. There were those who came south to work in lowland farms but returned to their homes when they had earned sufficient to see them through their temporary difficulties. There were also those who came~ when times of famine or disease affected their native areas. These were fairly minor movements of population. However, the times of major social upheaval in the Highlands and Islands in the late 18th century through to the late 19th century and early 20th century resulted in significant numbers moving into the major urban areas, and in particular to Glasgow.
Life for the Highlander in Glasgow was hard. Between 1818 and 1852 Glasgow had experienced five outbreaks of typhus and in 1832 and 1849 two major outbreaks of cholera. Although disease is no respector of persons, the newly arrived Highlanders would have little or no immunity to the diseases which owed their spread and effect to the slum housing conditions and poor and defective supplies of water.
Because of their language difference and their tendency to stay close to their own kind they were looked upon with some suspicion and indeed hostility. In 1846 "The Scotsman" newspaper stated: "It is a fact that morally and intellectually the Highlanders are an inferior race to the Lowland Saxon."
The prejudices against the Highlander were revealed in jokes about their accent and that they were stupid and slow. The "Baillie", a weekly magazine published in Glasgow, used the Highlander as a butt for many of their cruel jokes and cartoons, one "Auchtray McTavish X7 l The Heilan Polisman" was a regular example of their ignorant comment. Despite all this antagonism and prejudice they still came south to the main centres of population.
They were however not ignorant nor were they morally inferior to their lowland counterpart. In fact they were a proud people with a great sense of family bred into them through the centuries of living in a kin-based society. They were keen to succeed in the world and instilled into their children a fierce motivation for learning and the scholar in their society held pride of place.
There are diverse accounts of the numbers of Gaels in Glasgow prior to the more accurate census results of 1881. The census of 1881 calculates the Gaelic speaking community of the city at over 11,000 people rising to a peak of around 18,500 in1901.
It is true that they tended to stick together for protection and companionship and this is illustrated in some interesting features of their social behaviour in the city.
Like those emigrating to America where some kinsman would sponsor and help the new emigrant, so it was in Glasgow. A family member or friend from the native area would help and sponsor the new incomer to the city. He or she was helped with accommodation and with the task of finding employment. When they were established with their own home and employment they, in turn, extended the helping hand to someone else. It therefore became natural to stay in the area where friends already resided. Often the men worked in the same areas of employment, having been introduced by friends already working there.
In Glasgow the great Highland area was Partick and indeed to this day one can hear Gaelic spoken frequently when on Dumbarton Road and buy Marag Dhubh from Stornoway in the butchers or delicatessen shops.
Many areas of Govan and Kingston also had large populations of Highland families living in close proximity to each other. In nearby Paisley and Clydebank many Highland families were established and their progeny to this day consider themselves to be Highland.
When it came to employment a very similar pattern to housing was evident. On the basis of speaking for your friends and relations some Glasgow institutions became very decidedly 'Gaidhealach' in their employment practices. The famous Clyde Trust who, in Glasgow and the Clyde, operated many of the maritime related operations, such as docks, the movement of ships, ferry services etc strongly favoured men from the Highlands and Islands. The ferry services which operated on the Clyde were often referred to as the 'Skye Navy'.
The Glasgow police also attracted many Highland recruits and they in turn contributed a great deal to the police service with many of them reaching the highest ranks in the force. Men from the islands were naturally attracted to the sea and sailed in the merchant navy both in the coastal trade and deep sea but always using Glasgow as their home port. The Highlanders also made a contribution to the shipyards and engineering industries on the Clyde with many taking apprenticeships and eventually going to sea as engineers. Girls from the highlands and islands and those of Glasgow highland parentage went into the nursing profession and others got a start in domestic service until they were able to move onto other jobs.
Socially the Gaels met in halls and rooms and although the Ceilidh became more formalised with platforms and piano accompaniment they still served their original purpose. Friends came together, news of home was swapped, songs were sung and stories told. Pipes and fiddles were played and for a magic hour or two the audience were oblivious to the noise and bustle of the city as they were returned in spirit to their own Tir nan Og.
The upsurge in ceilidhing gave rise to an upsurge in the writing of Gaelic songs and short stories. Henry White wrote the 'Celtic Garland' and 'Leabhar Nan Ceilidh'. His brother James wrote 'Soraidh Leibh", which is still the song that ends all Highland gatherings and ceilidhs. Ian MacFadyen, originally from Mull, wrote 'An-t-Eileannach'. All this contributed to giving the Gaelic language a popular boost.
From the mid-nineteenth century organisations were established in the city based on their native districts. The Glasgow Islay Association, established in 1862, was one of many such organisations in the city which still exist today. These organisations did not only organise social events but had benevolent funds that were used to help the people from their own districts to get established in Glasgow, if they were in need.
The strong Highland communities of Partick and Govan have scattered to the suburbs as they progressed to more affluent circumstances. They were once a tight knit community often working together, socialising together and their offspring intermarrying, keeping the community still tight knit. Only in the past 50 years or so did they become part of the greater Glasgow community. This could be one reason of the drop in the number of Gaelic speakers in Glasgow. They don't meet under the Central Station Bridge, affectionately known as 'The Heilanman's Umberella', any more on a Sunday evening, where many marriages were initiated. They may not pack the halls on a Saturday night for the Ceilidh - TV has killed that. But the fact that in a Gaelic speaking population in Scotland of some 65,000 people, 6500 of them reside in Glasgow shows that the roots have not entirely withered away.
They owe much to Glasgow who took them in when they were dispossessed. However, over the years, they have repaid this debt in no small measure.