For our series on exile with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, Taqralik Partridge writes on Scotland, Canada, and language loss
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Across June, PEN Transmissions, in collaboration with the British Museum and Edmund de Waal, is publishing a series of essays on the theme of exile. This series speaks to Edmund de Waal’s library of exile, currently housed at the Museum. English PEN’s event series for the exhibition has been postponed due to COVID-19, and these essays – from writers in the events programme, or with books in the library – touch on issues that will be discussed at the rescheduled events.
I had hesitated about the expense for another night at a bed and breakfast. Assuming there would be something nearby, I put off booking; and when my last day in Lochinver arrived, I was disappointed. The closest place with any vacancy was two hours away in Gairloch.
Not that I mind driving. The North Coast 500 is as beautiful a route to travel as they say it is. And the roads, often single-track and veering precariously around steep slopes, demand a kind of alertness that carries a person through fatigue.
And I have been tired. This is generally not something to admit to, at least publicly – as a writer and artist always looking for more work, I want to be ready to say ‘yes’ to the next thing, and the next.
This tired is an accumulation of experiences, big and small, that came into fullness around the time my mother died. Among these is a sense of collective grief, held with some of my fellow Inuit and other Indigenous people about the state of a world that has allowed and still allows so much destruction. There is also anticipatory grief about where this destruction will end. And, of course, there is my personal grief for personal things. Others have written eloquently about these things. I will not list all here.
Here is one kind of accessory to my personal grief: the loss of Scottish Gaelic. It is an accessory because it feels so foreign that I cannot know its size, but it is a loss that my mother felt so keenly that she spent her life looking for its remedy.
In 2019, artist-producers Emilie Monnet and Patti Shaughnessy led the co-production of Indigenous Contemporary Scene. This was a summer of programming with various festivals and venues in Edinburgh that brought Indigenous artists from Canada to Scotland. The production commissioned research and works by some of these artists to explore histories and connections between Scotland and Indigenous communities in Canada. This brought me to Assynt, where my mother’s parents came from.
I went with the promise to myself that I would not be disappointed by whatever happened.
The Scotland of my childhood was postcard-sized pictures of my mother, in the sheen of her youth, sitting atop a low stone wall. It was memorising the colour-codes of tartans, and her highland dance paraphernalia, and all the trinkets she collected on tour with her Scottish dance Tattoo. It was the drone of bagpipes on her old records and a resolute scorn for all things English – paired with an insistence on British over American spellings. We’re Highland Scots, my mother would say, like that could mean anything to her children.
My grandparents were Gaelic-speaking. A story my mother liked to repeat was that my grandmother had come to Canada on a boat on which she was so sick that when a concerned woman asked her if she spoke English, her only reply was ‘sometimes’. I like to repeat this story, too. True or not, it brings out a low laugh every time I think about it.
Like many settlers, in Canada my grandparents only spoke their language with other newcomers of their generation. And so the story goes that my mother only knew a handful of Gaelic words. And so the story goes that her children, like so many other Canadians, are people with Scottish ancestry and no Scottish language. But reclaiming Gaelic has not been at the top of my list of things to do.
My mother’s narrative was that her family had endured the loss of place and language directly and indirectly at the hands of the English. Her mother was punished in school for speaking Gaelic, and left one kind of poverty in Assynt for another in Vancouver.
My own narrative is something more complicated. Canada is full of reference to Scottish heritage: street names, awards, libraries, arenas, universities, towns, counties – a whole province. From an Indigenous perspective, these references are no different from other colonial naming and erasure of Indigenous names for places and things. It is a hard proposition for me to think that I could claim any pride in Canada’s Scottish heritage, when I know that the racism prevalent in all corners of Canada goes hand-in-hand with a history that is very much tied up with Scotland and people of Scottish heritage.
There is this reality that Scots played a role in colonisation, and this other aspect that Scotland is very much a part of many Inuit communities. In my homeland, Nunavik, the Inuit region of northern Quebec, the ties with Scotland are old and recent, happy and unhappy, intended and coincidental. Family names in my home community ring out like a list of Scottish clans. Inuit know and love Scottish fiddle music (played on the accordion), country dancing, and wool tartans. A symbol of my childhood is a Peterhead boat. And today, there are well-loved Scots who have been part of Inuit communities for decades.
How do I reconcile these irreconcilable things? For me, as a person from two very different cultures that have experienced language-loss or the threat of it, it is curious to consider that people like my mother – who were affected directly or indirectly by the imposition of English – have also been involved in the imposition of English on Indigenous people; including my father’s people – my people.
Inuit kinship terminologies and understanding of relations are vast networks that keep one grounded in a sense of belonging to family and community – even if there are family or community members with whom we want no relation; there are always others who claim us. Inuktitut terminology for kinship relations is complex, but logical and specific. This way of relating to other Inuit is linked with oral histories about where our parents and ancestors were born and lived; how we relate to others through birth, customary adoption, marriage and naming; and, importantly, how we relate to the land. To be Inuk is not simply to be of an ethnicity, but to be from or to come from people who come from a specific community or region. Even where Inuit are working to reclaim language from the beginning, people still maintain these family and community ties.
An Inuit sense of family is one that runs through all the rivulets of possibility to discover connections. An everyday occurrence for young Inuit visiting new communities is to have older people they have never met tell them in great detail how they are related. Some would say this was all so that Inuit of the past could maintain genetic diversity in small groups of people, by ensuring that close relatives did not marry. However, this way of thinking about family is about proximity, not distance.
I might say that the loss of Gaelic in my mother’s family created an irreparable rift that disintegrated the family structure. This is not to say that there was not love or connection. I have known and love(d) several of my mother’s siblings. But in their lifetimes, some cut relations off with others in ways that read like a typical drama of Anglo-Canadian literature. When these breaks occur in Inuit families, other relations fill in the spaces. But in an English-speaking world of individuals, it is possible to have no relatives whatsoever.
I wrote a performance piece for Indigenous Contemporary Scene, a part of which reads:
and if she could not give Gaelic to her children
she could give her resentment of everything English
so they despised their own tongues
and refused to speak to one another
for days, or years, or forever
In Assynt, I was surprised to find that there is a sense of loss of language and culture, and historical trauma around people being severed from their ancestral homes. Treatments of this Scottish subject-matter abound in film and other media, but I was taken aback by how it seemed to weigh on some people’s minds as relatively recent family history. This weight of loss felt something like the one I know from people from my own community.
This experience underscored for me that the project of colonisation is to divide people from their connection to the land and to each other. Indigenous languages that have grown up around specific places roll out in names, descriptions, and modes of communication that reflect ways of living with care and respect for the land and waters. This is not a mystical, ‘native’ connection, but a practical knowing of the earth as a living entity with which we all – as human beings – are in relation.
I do not have a nuanced understanding of Scottish Gaelic and Scottish history. I do however know what role language loss and reclamation play in the life of a community. If people are deprived of their ability to speak, dream, rant, mourn and rejoice in the language of their ancestors, this can be a wound that runs very deep, through many generations. My mother sought to reclaim her language because she wanted a connection with her relations – past and present.
Assynt is one breathtaking sight after another. In places, the coast looks much like Inuit Nunangat (Inuit homelands including arctic Canada). In others, it is as other-worldly as Iceland. On my last night in the highlands, I stayed in a hotel in Gairloch, right on the blowing sea. I arrived to a large front atrium full of Americans having a good time and being vocal about it.
The day after, on the road back to Inverness, I popped a tire and, and as luck would have it, the driver of the tow truck volunteered to drive me the whole seventy miles back to the car rental. This meant more than an hour of conversation about Inuit and Inuit art, and Scotland, and Gaelic, and what kind of fish we catch in northern Canada. When I volunteered that I was visiting for research because some of my family was from a small village near Lochinver, he made a point of stopping so I could take pictures.
Take a look around, he said. This is your heritage. If he was joking, I couldn’t have guessed.
Taqralik Partridge is a writer and artist originally from Kuujjuaq, Nunavik (Quebec) and now based in Kautokeino, Sápmi (Norway) and Ottawa, Ontario. She was recently appointed director of the Nordic Lab at SAW Gallery in Ottawa. Some of Taqralik’s work is currently on exhibition as part of NIRIN the Biennale of Sydney.
Created as a ‘space to sit and read and be’, library of exile is an installation at the British Museum by British artist and writer, Edmund de Waal, housing more than 2,000 books in translation, written by exiled authors.