Charles MacQuarrie

Charles MacQuarrie is a Professor of English at California State University, Bakersfield. He holds a BA in literature from the University of California at Santa Cruz, an M.Litt in Celtic Studies from the University of Edinburgh, and a PhD in Medieval English and Celtic Language and Literature from the University of Washington. He is a former Washington Fellow at Pembroke College Cambridge, and a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic at the University of Cambridge. He was a Fulbright Scholar at the American Academy in Rome in 2002, and he is a long time Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to which he was elected in 1998. Dr. MacQuarrie has published various articles on medieval language, literature, and culture, including studies of the Isle of Man in medieval literature with the University of Liverpool Press and representations of Celtic tattooing in Classical and Medieval literature with Études Celtiques and Princeton University Press. He is the editor of the Celtic Studies Association of North America Newsletter. His book The Biography of the Irish God of the Sea was published by Mellen press in 2004. He directed the National Endowment for the Humanities summer seminars, based in Scotland and the Isle of Man, on Medieval Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Norse, and English languages and literatures in 2006 and 2009.

Q: From Holyroodhouse along the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle – in all the long and complicated history of these places, what would you consider the one or two most consequential events that took place here?
A: The Royal Mile is terribly rich in history, and there is so much to see and talk about while walking down from the Castle to Holyrood Palace. My daughter’s interest was sparked on our last visit, as is that of many tourists, by the tradition of spitting on the Heart of Midlothian. She found it to be so peculiar that quite respectable looking gentlemen would spit at the heart as they walked by. (There is a novel by Sir Walter Scott titled the Heart of Midlothian, which is, in part, about the Tollbooth).

The heart is on the site of the old Tollbooth at the entry door to the place of execution for prisoners. Though the resentment isn’t as deep or as immediate as the repulsion some Dubliner’s feel for Dublin Castle, which they imagine as a kind of Minas Morgul from which the British Empire controlled the Irish and dispatched Irish patriots, the resentment relating to the fomer Tollbooth is similar in some respects – the spitting is also a general indication of a Scottish disdain for authority and especially for unjust imposition of punishment on the disenfranchised, which for me connects the Heart of Midlothian to the Gaeldtachd and the Highland Clearances. It is a fanciful connection on my part, but when I spit on the heart, I do so as a sign of resistance to unjust authority.

It is a beautiful thing that on Hogmanay, at midnight the Square in front of the Tron Church is a place of general affection and celebration. On Hogmanay night at midnight, just as the Tron bells toll midnight, people who have gathered there en masse, engage in a kissing fest. When I was in my early twenties, it was a real eye-opener. I was too busy studying Gaelic to do much kissing during the year, so I tried to make up for it on Hogmanay eve.

The adjacent Tron Church itself is very beautiful and historically important. It was dedicated as “Christ’s Kirk” by the citizens of Edinburgh in the early 1640’s, and it is said that Bonnie Prince Charlie visited in 1745 on his way to battle. The story is that Prince Charlie asked the ministers not to mention the English royal family by name in their services on Sunday. But the minister of the Tron, a McVicar, prayed for King George by name, and said that he hoped Prince Charlie would attain a heavenly crown rather than a secular one. The Prince is said to have laughed, at this clever audacity from McVicar.
Q: One of the highlights of this trip will be a scenic drive along the fabled Loch Ness lake perhaps most famous for its legendary inhabitant. As a specialist in the mythology of the region, and having lectured on famous sea gods of the world, can you please shed light on the historical and cultural context surrounding the legend of the Loch Ness monster?
A: Well there is a great old Celtic Myth about Fergus mac Leti who was king of the Northern half of Ulster while Lugaid Luaigne was High King of Ireland. According to the Saga of Fergus mac Leti, Fergus both was the first man to capture leprechauns, and he had a run in with a sea monster named Muirdris. When he encounters Muirdris, Fergus is so terrified, his face twists up in terror and is permanently contorted. No one tells him about it for seven years, because such a blemish would make him unfit for kingship. When someone does let the cat out of the bag, Fergus is furious and rushes into the water to take revenge on the serpent that spoiled his good looks. He does kill the serpent, but he dies himself of wounds and weariness, and so the story ends.

Nessy’s reputation is better than Muirdris’s but I wonder if they don’t come from the same story telling tradition. Manannan mac Lir, the god of the Irish Sea, also appears as “sometimes sweet and sometimes sour.” He can be both benevolent and malevolent, depending on his mood. I think his mood reflects the sea and calm and the sea in storm – and sometimes the swift changes back and forth. Nessy seems to be Manannan’s good dog, and Muirdris his bad one.

The Scots, btw, are at least in part descendents from the Dalriadians who came to found Scottish Dalriada in he 5th century. I suspect that Nessy is a story which means for us to think about the numinous. The Celtic other-world, as a kind of alternate reality, which is both underground, and underwater, and all around us is her provenance, I think.

Certainly, it is difficult not to feel a sense of the sublime when visiting Loch Ness – it is preternaturally beautiful.
Q: It seems that medieval Scotland is represented in the ruins of castles and crofts in the Highlands, and industrial era Scotland in the cities of the Lowlands. Is there a further evolution today?
A: Scotland today is a very rich and diverse country. It seems to me that many of the simple linguistic and cultural identifications are no longer as appealing to Scots. Scotland is today an ethnically and linguistically varied country, but the truth is that it always was. Even medieval Scotland was diverse, and many people must have known three or four languages. Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Latin, Middle English, Early French. There was a lot going on.

Glasgow, though once a rather dirty, rough and tumble city, is astonishingly beautiful and welcoming. In the last decade especially, I have found it to be one of my favorite cities. It, along with the other major Scottish cities, has evolved along with the new technologies. There is a coffee shop culture in the cities, and not only Edinburgh but other Scottish cities as well, seem like they are Athens’s of the north.

Technology has led to a new world in the highlands as well. Samhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye continues to do great things in face-to-face instruction and via online sources – the newest University, the University of the Highlands and Islands also uses a blended approach. On my last trip to Mull, I was delighted to be in a beautiful cottage overlooking Ulva Ferry, and yet be able to keep in daily contact with my graduate students who are working on various projects with me.

It seems like Scotland feels less constrained, more modern, more innovative. My students in California are more likely to think of rock bands like “We Were Promised Jet-Packs” and “Glasvegas” than they are of crofts or Castles, and actors such as Gerard Butler or Even McGregor rather than Sean Connery.
Q: This program is a most scenic journey, featuring dramatic landscapes and spectacular vistas. What in your opinion is the most scenic destination on this journey?
A: I am a MacQuarrie, of island stock, and my favorite landscapes are in the Hebrides. It sounds corny I suppose, but the beauty there resonates especially with me. Ulva is my favorite place, partly because in stark contrast to my native city, Los Angeles, there are no cars or paved roads on the island of Ulva. I love to take my daughter for walks there and look over the sound of Mull. That said, I have to admit that the Isle of Skye is one of the most beautiful places in the world, and is more striking in its beauty than either Mull or Ulva. And then there are the glens. Ah, there is too much to choose from! Glen Coe is astonishingly beautiful, and it resonates with connections to Prince Charlie and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped.
Q: A' Ghàidhealtachd, “the place of the Gaels” or the Highlands, comprises at least half the land, and island, area of the country. Its stark physical beauty provides an unparalleled setting for a romanticized history of Scotland, in literature and in the hearts of those of Scots descent. But the continued emigrations over several centuries to far-flung places on the globe seem a contradiction. Can you shed some light here?
A: This is not an easy question to answer. I think the complexity and overlapping cultures and languages made the Scots particularly adaptable and both able when forced, and willing at other times, to emigrate. My MacQuarrie ancestors came to California via Canada from Ulva shortly before the Highland Clearances. Others were evicted from the Highlands and Islands by lairds who wanted to maximize profit and run sheep rather than have clansmen farmers. Still others, like Major General Lachlan MacQuarrie, joined the military; he went on to be called the “father of Australia.” Some returned home, but others lost not only their Gaelic but also any other connection with Scotland. The General returned home to the Island of Mull after making his fortune and reputation in the world, but others never returned. Dr. Livingston, though from Ulva, (there is a cave on the Island where his family once lived) died on the shores of Lake Bangweulu in Tanzania (my step-mother sent me an email from the very place just yesterday and is heading now for Lake Victoria in the wake of Speke and Livingston).

I think that many of the Scots who emigrated, explored, and colonized, whether they did so willingly or were cleared off of their lands, were driven to achieve. Three famous Scottish literary men took rather different courses. James MacPherson, one of the instigators of the Romantic movement and the Celtic Revival, made his fortune by being a famous author in Britain, Europe, and America and moved to London to live in luxury (Thomas Jefferson once said that the language he wanted most to learn was Scottish Gaelic so that he could read MacPherson’s Ossian in the “original”). Sir Walter Scott made his fortune and built Abbotsford on the borders, while Robert Louis Stevenson made his fortune and spent his last years in Somoa.

It is nice to have the option to return to live or to visit, but I do understand why living in a damp smokey croft on a small Hebridean island might not have seemed altogether wonderful. When I was doing field work while a graduate student at the Univeristy of Edinburgh, I travelled to the outer Hebrides to interview teens about Gaelic. Many of them indicated that they liked their home well enough, be it on Bara or one of the Uists, or Tyree, but that they wanted to live in a city and they wanted to take part in the English speaking world. They didn’t want to sacrifice their own dreams in order to save a language or a culture. Some of them, as it has been since at least the eighteenth century, went out to live their lives in the wider world, and some return to visit, others return to live, and some never return at all. It seems right to me. I like feeling at home in Los Angeles and in Edinburgh and on Ulva, and I think many other members of the Scottish diaspora must feel the same sort of thing.
Q: The “Scottish Enlightenment” which flourished in the 18th century and influenced the world is probably best known for groundbreaking philosophical and scientific advances (e.g., medicine at the University of Edinburgh). What was its impact on literature?
A: When I think of the Scottish Enlightenment, I think of the foundation of the United States. Our ideas of rule of law, our constitution, our system of education, etc… The common sense realism that flowed from the Scottish Enlightenment is fundamental to my intellectual life still. I teach my daughter, and my undergraduate and graduate students about the importance of reason. Our civilization is based on the very idea of reasoned argument, of being able to make a case using logos, and not taking anything for granted based on tradition or superstition.

But the names that come to mind are Adam Smith, David Hume, Adam Ferguson rather than literary artists. The missing step, I think is Romanticism. It is true that the openness of the Scottish Enlightenment, the questioning of authority (the spitting on the Heart of Midlothian attitude) did sow the seed for the birth of British Romanticism. The previous generation of poets, Dryden, Pope, etc… looked to classical models, while the Romantic poets, beginning with Wordsworth and his focus on the sublime Gaelic speaking maid in his early poetry, and Coleridge, and then to Robert Burns and the later Romantics like Keats, Byron, and Shelley, were enabled to some extent, even encouraged, to explore new models, and to search for the sublime via James Macpherson, in the not-so-far away, and yet relatively unknown West of Scotland.

The relationship between British Romanticism and the Scottish Enlightenment is an uneasy one, however. Belles Lettres, and the first professor of Rhetoric, Hugh Blair at the University of Edinburgh are as much about beauty as they are about truth. I think though that the Romantics were emboldened, by the intellectual courage of the Scottish Enlightenment, and that even when their art led to the sublime rather than to the reasonable, they were at least exploring new ground because they had been unbound by philosophers like Hume.
Q: How does Scots Gaelic differ from Irish (and other) Gaelic, and are linguistic differences reflected in the respective literature? Does Scots Gaelic inform contemporary speech and literature?
A: Do you know the story of someone traveling from Paris and walking village to to village and ending up in Berlin. The idea is that they would experience small incremental changes and the French would slowly change and become more and more German until it became more German than French as some stage. We could try the same experiment by boat moving from Hebridean island to Island, perhaps starting out in Scalpay and working our way via various isles and the Isle of Man all the way around to the Blasket Islands on the West Coast of Ireland. I think that we would find it difficult to tell when our Scottish Gaelic started to become more Irish than Scottish.

The truth is that the Irish, and even more so the Welsh, have done a better job of preserving their Celtic languages than has Scotland. But this is in part because Scotland itself has such a complicated linguistic history. It was never a Scottish Gaelic speaking country. I had a professor who was very keen to show the underestimated influence of Scottish Gaelic on the English language, and some of his examples are quite good, for example “smashing” from Scottish Gaelic “s’math sinn/ that’s great” but others like “strontium 90” from Scottish Gaelic “beside the stream” left me a bit flat.

When I teach Scottish Gaelic, I use the television series Can Seo, and much of the setting and spirit of that show is Hebridean. It gives students a good feel for the setting, and the music, and the culture of the place. It even includes a score by the once very popular Scottish Gaelic rock band Runrig. One thing the series encourages is for learners to start speaking half-Gaelic. Using Gaelic phrases and syntax and filling in with English when one can’t find the proper Gaelic word. I have Scottish Gaelic teas with my daughter sometimes, and we try to speak only Gaelic, but it is rather difficult, and it seems odd to use Gaelic for “computer” or “television” or “Macintosh”, but the latter at least is really Gaelic any way, as are phrased like “don’t you twig what is going on” or the now rather dated “can you dig it?”. But I think that influence of Gaelic, as with Celtic languages in general, is, always has been, and always will be minimal.

But perhaps your question isn’t about the influence on English language, literature, and culture, but rather on the literature written in Scottish Gaelic? There was a collection published about a decade ago titled An Leabhar Mor, which includes Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and English poetry from the 17th century to today, and there are working Scottish Gaelic poets and novelists, such as Angus Peter Campbell, but I wonder if the more influential purveyors of Gaelic culture might not be writers like Liz Lockhead. I suppose I think the choice may be between writers like Chinua Achebe who wrote about his culture via English and James N’gugi who decided to only write in his tribal language. Or think of the choice James Joyce made – he wanted to be unconstrained rather than culture bound, but he wrote about his culture. Or think of Robert Louis Stevenson:

“Then he stood up in the boat and addressed me a long while, speaking fast and with many wavings of the hand. I told him I had no Gaelic; and at this he became very angry, and I began to suspect he thought he was talking English. Listening very close, I caught the word ‘whateffer’ several times; but all the rest was Gaelic, and might have been Greek and Hebrew for me. ‘Whatever,” said I, to show him I had caught a word. ‘Yes, yes – yes, yes,’ says he, and then he looked at the other men, as much as to say, ‘I told you I spoke English,’ and began again as hard as ever in the Gaelic.” (From near the end of chapter 14 of Kidnapped.)

We will never know whether the man who was talking to Davey was speaking Gaelic or a dialect/idiolect of English that he just could not understand, I suspect the latter. Stevenson’s work is full of Scottishisms, “guddling for fish,” “gomeral,” “byke of wasps,” “neuk,” “saw guide,” “burstal,” “thole,” “cruachan,” some of the words and phrases are Gaelic in origin, some are Scots, some are from Old and Middle English, but the strength in it, what makes it Scottish is that contains all these influences and more.