Approaching Gaelic Scotland from a Four Nations Perspective: Clan Campbell and the Matter of Britain, 1559-1565

Approaching Gaelic Scotland from a Four Nations Perspective: Clan Campbell and the Matter of Britain, 1559-1565

PhD student Jamie Kelly (Glasgow University) explores the history of Gaels in early-modern Scotland and Ireland, Protestantism and definitions of ‘Britishness’.

The Gaels of early-modern Scotland and Ireland are frequently cast together as Britain’s domestic ‘Other’. Painted with the same broad brush, they were labelled barbarous, insular, indolent, superstitious and – worst of all – Catholic (even in Scotland where in most cases after 1600 they were not). Colonial perspectives present them collectively as benighted inhabitants of an aboriginal ‘Gaelic world’ whose values were incompatible with Anglocentric notions of ‘Britishness’. It was this world upon which the nascent British imperium cut its teeth as an overture to overseas colonial expansion. Accordingly, events and personalities stemming from the Gaelic-speaking regions are often presented as peripheral, having little bearing on high-politics in London and Edinburgh, and invariably obstructive to the growth of British fellow-feeling. In sum, Gaelic society has been offered as the antithesis to Britishness: the Highland line and the Irish Sea as the original frontiers of the embryonic imperial project. How did this perception come into being? At what point did the Gael come to represent the ‘anti-Briton’? The story of the Campbells of Argyll — a quintessentially Gaelic kindred with Scottish, Irish and British links — provides some explanation for this development in a sixteenth-century context. They played a prominent role in securing, for good or ill, an unavoidably ’British’ future for Scotland, England and Ireland, yet their ambitions were tempered by circumstance.

The Campbells have been referred to as Scottish history’s ultimate chameleons: convincingly donning Gaelic, Scottish and British masks as audience and circumstance demanded. From their heartland on the Western seaboard of Scotland, they were crucial in negotiating the frontiers between Highland and Lowland, Gaelic Scotland and Ireland and, following the Reformation, Scotland and England in the British dimension. Alongside the MacDonalds, they were quick to adopt neologisms such as ‘North-Briton’ and ‘Brit-Gael’. The fourth and fifth earls of Argyll were among the most important early supporters of Protestantism and ‘Anglophile’ policies, lending more than their fair share of resources during the Reformation crisis of 1559-60. The Campbells’ rebirth as a devout, Calvinist clan would have profound implications for the British Isles. At first, naturally aligned with the English court and Protestant magistrates south of the border, the fifth earl worked closely with Elizabeth I’s advisor, Sir William Cecil, in formulating a coherent ‘British’ solution to the problems facing the three kingdoms. This plan was partly political and partly religious, involving Anglo-Scottish partnership, a strong Campbell presence in the Tudor subjugation of Ulster and the spread of Protestantism among its inhabitants.

While English reservations regarding the presence of Gaelic Scots in Ireland prevented this vision from bearing fruit at this point, the religious blueprint for Argyll’s plan is manifest in John Carswell’s Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh. Published in 1567 under the patronage of Argyll, the Foirm is a Gaelic translation — or adaptation — of Knox’s Book of Common Order. It was the first book, Irish or Scottish, to be printed in Gaelic, using the literary script of Classical Common Gaelic. In an unmistakably Calvinist tone, Carswell lays out practical guidelines for worship and building Protestant communities, reserving a prominent role for the institutions of Gaelic society. He justifies his project, citing the disadvantage suffered by ‘Gaels of Scotland and Ireland […] in that our Gaelic language has never been printed’, pledging with this work to unify the Gaelic world through a shared faith. As well as addressing fellow Gaels, Carswell approaches the matter of Britain:

After that, travel each district

throughout Scotland, gently, slowly,

but, since they have no need of thee

do not take one step into Saxons’ fields.

After that, travel over each wave

to the land of Ireland of liberal bounds

though the friars care little for thee,

move westwards within their sight.

The partnership of Archibald Campbell, fifth earl of Argyll, and John Carswell, Bishop of the Isles, facilitated the swift conversion of large swathes of the Highlands and Islands by adapting the Protestant message to a Gaelic context. In many cases, the pace of change matched that of the English-speaking Lowlands. Argyll — a man who stood at the intersection of English, Scottish and Gaelic worlds — viewed Protestantism as the long-awaited unifying force that would secure a peaceful future for the British Isles, with a Reformed Gaeldom, spearheaded by ‘Godly chiefs’, at its core. Protestantism was a potential leveller and catalyst of pan-British cultural cohesion. However, English enmity towards Gaelic Scots in Ulster presaged the recurring issue of Anglo-Scottish disagreement over the definition of ‘Britishness’, and the role that the over-mighty England were willing to afford to Scots and Irish who wished to participate in the British project. MacGregor states that Argyll was ‘perhaps the first, but not the last Scottish politician to discover that God was an Englishman’, who, failing in his initial approach, adapted himself to the prevailing English view. This presented Britishness in terms of its compatibility with English interests. Far from the heart of Britain, Gaelic Scotland and Ireland became hostile, yet conquerable peripheries, while the rejection of Protestantism across the Irish Sea created an irreparable rift in the Gaelic world that had hitherto acted as a key theatre in the making of Britain.

Jamie Kelly is a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, funded by the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities. His research focuses on the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, an Edinburgh-based charity organisation founded in 1709 with the expressed aim of setting up schools for ’promoting christian knowledge in the Highlands and Islands and the popish and infidel parts of the world’.


3 thoughts on “Approaching Gaelic Scotland from a Four Nations Perspective: Clan Campbell and the Matter of Britain, 1559-1565

  1. Great analysis. I wonder if another aspect is that the Campbell’s reflected a wider truth of Scotland itself. The Protestant and Calvinist enthusiasm gripped much of the lowlands, the southwest in particular, and is witnessed by the almost complete acceptance of the national covenants. This broad national movement united the Gaeltacht with the lowlanders like never before in history. The first multi-national experiment in Britishness was infact a cross-cultural accord forged within Scotland’s borders and brought together ancient enemies in a united cause – that of reforming The Kirk. As much as it may be unfashionable to admit today, the almost comprehensive Calvinist character of Scots (if not actually theologically. But certainly culturally) defined Scotland and the Scottish character for centuries – and in some respects still does in the popular imagination of foreigners towards us.

  2. @David, thank you for your response! I would add the qualification that, once matters of ecclesiology became involved, large parts of the Gàidhealtchd became estranged from the more “godly” ultra-Calvinist sect. Much of the Highlands adhered to the Episcopalian Church, which was undoubtedly protestant, but fervently opposed to the encroachments of the radical Presbyterian sect that came to power during the Covenanting and post-1689 periods. This was mostly due to the Presbyterian Kirk’s centralising tendencies, which found little room for Gaelic institutions and customs. This is evidence that the Gaelic Reformation that Carswell and Argyll originally envisaged would not materialise. Episcopalianism, for example, was a central factor in determining Jacobite allegiance against the Presbyterians and the Union. This would eventually give rise to the organisation that is the focus of my thesis: the SSPCK. They sought to win over the Highlands and Islands for the Presbyterian Kirk and the Hanoverians.

    The obvious exception, of course, is the Campbells who were consistent in their support of Covenants and their opposition to ‘Stewart tyranny’. Of course, many of the prominent clans fought at Sherrifmuir and Culloden with an eye to striking down the mighty Argyll, whose acquisitive family had made short work of expanding their territories at the expense of others. Allegiance to the Stewart monarch was seen as the only possible means of righting the wrongs that had been perpetrated by the unholy alliance of Argyll, the Presbyterians and the British establishment. Absenteeism, repression and clearance eventually broke the clan spirit and cleared the ground for Presbyterianism in the Highlands – a legacy that continues to this day with Lewis churchmen still critical of the ferries departing Stornoway on the Sabbath.

    So I would hazard to argue that, regardless of the potential for unification, Scotland remained splintered and caught between two (or more) incompatible visions for the future of the nation. This expanded into issues of church governance, definitions of Scottish culture and the Union debate. Some more speculative historians would argue that, in some guise, this fundamental disagreement over Scotland’s future persists to this very day.

    • Thank you Jamie. Excellent insights. I guess my view of a Presbyterian highlands is far too modern. As you say, it is a result of the SSPCK, not a precursor. The strange Puritan bedfellows of lowland Whigs and Highland crofters united against a modernising force of 19th century higher criticism and liberal theology did not exist. I wonder however, at the seismic clash of old world loyalties to chief and clan being ultimately supplanted by the personal accountability of a Calvinist context. I look forward to reading more of your work on the SSPCK. Best wishes.

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