Siol nan Gaidheal

Seamus Mac Garaidh

Seamus Mac Garaidh - Portrait of A Patriot

Seamus Mac Garaidh was a Gaelic Nationalist who devoted his whole life to the ideal of a free and Gaelic speaking Scotland. He had been born James Carr MacDonald Hay in the ancient town of Arbroath in the county of Angus on 17th February 1885. His parents were poor working folk and his formal education by reason of this fact was short and sketchy. At an early age he had to leave school and was soon working crippling long hours for a meagre wage which was the usual lot of ordinary working people.

The Gaelic Language
Despite his lack of formal education he very early on in life obtained a tremendous love of the printed word. Through self-education he bypassed the Establishment's educational indoctrination and came upon his country's distorted history and persecuted language. From the age of sixteen years he started to learn Gaelic and by the age of twenty years he was fluent. For years he was virtually alone in his devotion to the cause of his country's freedom and to the restoration of its national language to the whole of Scotland. Lesser men would have given up the fight there and then and joined the crowd but it was not the Mac Garaidh way. In 1911 he managed to get a Gaelic evening class started in his home town and largely because of his transparent sincerity and strength of character soon built up around himself an enthusiastic band of young people keen to learn their country's national language and to absorb its attendant Celtic culture.

Scots National League
About this time he established a branch of the revolutionary nationalist Scots National League (Comunn na Albannach) in Arbroath. Led by Ruairidh Erskine of Marr and William Gillies, the League aimed at 'Scotland free, Scotland sovereign, Scotland a nation once again!' At the Dundee Mod in 1913, Mac Garaidh and his supporters staged a walkout during the singing of the anthem 'God Save the King'. Mac Garaidh pointed out that it had been written as an anti Scottish dirge and no self-respecting Scot should sing it. The fourth verse, which is, of course, never sung these days, goes:

God grant the Marshal Wade
May by thy mighty aid,
Victory bring,
May he sedition hush,
And like a torrent rush,
Rebellious Scots to crush,
God save the King!

Yet during the 1914-18 war, MacGaraidh put on khaki and fought in the British Army in the Middle East, in the belief that he was fighting for the rights of small nations to govern their own affairs. He often recounted the amusing incident when he "frightened" a fellow soldier by offering to loan him his copy of 'Sinn Fein' which he had regularly sent out to him from Ireland.

On his return from the war Mac Garaidh became involved with Clann na h-Alba and was a supporter of the Irish Republican struggle for freedom and self-determination. He had a deep love for the Irish people and was inspired by their history of resistance to English oppression. He thought of the Scots and the Irish as one race with identical objectives. Some members of his language class went to fight for the Republicans. One of his students may have been Ian McKenzie Kennedy who went to Ireland to continue Celtic studies there and to learn Irish. He played the pipes, sometimes wore the kilt, and was known to his Irish friends as Scottie. McKenzie Kennedy got caught up in the Irish struggle and fought against the British forces, holding the rank of Captain in the Irish Volunteers. After the Treaty of 1921 he continued fighting with the Republicans and was killed in action by Free State Forces in West Cork in August 1922. He was only 23. McKenzie Kennedy was always attired in the kilt and wore the tartan of his clan. He was fiercely anti-English, intensely Gaelic and clan proud.

San Francisco
Mac Garaidh's declared belief in the establishment of a Scottish Gaelic Republic labelled him a dangerous extremist by the authorities. Soon he was finding doors slammed in his face when he tried to find work. By 1923 Mac Garaidh felt that the only path open to him was emigration and in March of that year he crossed the Atlantic and reached San Francisco. To most other men such an exile would have spelled the end of all activities on behalf of their native country. With hardly a pause he forged ahead with his nationalist activities as he tried to encourage his fellow Scots to wake up to their country's shameful condition and to their lack of interest and concern about the future of their language and nationality.

His journalism and letters were prodigious. In 1940 he published a stirring collection of his poetry in Gaelic and English entitled 'The Bracken Ablaze'. He contributed ninety percent of the material in the Scots American Year Book. The literature of Scotland has lost a great deal by the inability of this true Scotsman to obtain publishers for his writing. It is indeed a tragedy that that such works of his as Edgar Allan Poe's poem The Raven, put into Gaelic and his own version of MacBeth, also in the national language, has never appeared in print and is now probably lost.

An Sgoil Gaidhlig
Of all his many activities the establishment of An Sgoil Gaidhlig, a Sunday afternoon Gaelic class held at the University of San Francisco, was perhaps his greatest achievement. An Sgoil Gaidhlig was a veritable powerhouse of Gaelic and Scottish national thought and Seamus Mac Garaidh, its honourable teacher (he was never paid for all his efforts on behalf of the language) kept a very strong rein on proceedings there. This was visually epitomised by his refusal to allow the Union Jack to be shown within the walls of his classroom.

It was the general practice at all gatherings in the USA of such foreign groups as An Ghaidhlig to display along with the Stars and Stripes the flag appropriate to the foreign country concerned. Some of the Scots who attended the class to learn more about their mother tongue were far from being Scottish nationalists. Along with others in the San Francisco Scottish and English community, they were very much against Mac Garaidh for his refusal to allow the Union Jack into his classroom, especially as World War Two was being fought at the time. He never backed down and no other flag ever shared the room with Old Glory except the Saltire. Seoinin Scots had very good reason to fear this truly Scottish educational establishment. Week after week its honorary teacher Seamus Mac Garaidh, dispensed Gaelic instruction closely linked with undiluted Scottish nationalism of the Republican separatist variety. A highly explosive mixture gu dearbh.

Pan Celticism
He even went further and gave full support to the creed of Pan Celticism and threw open his classroom to all Celts from the other Celtic countries. Quite naturally in these circumstances the unbought Irish thronged to his class and he became an intimate friend with many a veteran Irish freedom fighter including Tomas O Lochrain, from whose coffin the tricolour was removed by the RUC in Armagh City.

San Francisco Mod
From out of the An Sgoil Ghaidhlig grew the annual San Francisco Mod, in which there were competitions not only for Scottish song and prose but for song and story from all Celtic countries. Such was the power of Mac Garaidh Mor, the Gaidhlig dynamo, that pupils of his were moved to do something concrete themselves for their language and nationality. An Sgoil Ghaidhlig pupils opened up similar classes in Pasedena, Oakland and Los Angeles, and one husband and wife were even inspired to publish a duplicated magazine in America to propagate Gaelic nationalist views they had learned under Mac Garaidh's tutelage.

In the end An Sgoil Ghaidhlig had to close down because of a campaign of vilification directed against its honorary teacher by ultra-Anglicised elements in the San Francisco Scottish community. This cruel blow did not deter this fior Ghaidheal Albannach from his life's task and he continued his campaign in the Press and in private correspondence right up to a few weeks before his death on the 9th of January 1966 at the age of 81.

Seamus Mac Garaidh could probably be best described as a lone torchbearer of true Scottish nationality in a materialistic and uncaring age. Mac Garaidh, Gaelic speaker, singer, piper, bard, teacher and nationalist agitator never fired a shot or struck a physical blow against his country's only real foe. But for all that he could quite properly be described as a Scottish national hero.

He laboured in a good cause not just for a short while but every day for over sixty years. His was the heroism of the unspectacular sort, of the unnoticed kind. The fight he waged was in many ways far more arduous than the battle that most national heroes have to wage. Not for him was the support of the great majority of his fellow countrymen. In fact it was too often the reverse. He trod a hard bitter road. To the materialistic men of "common sense" his life was a completely wasted one.

Their opinion, of course, is of little real value. The materialists, the ones of no vision, have been proved wrong too often for really thinking people to give their views too much credence. Granted, Scotland is still unfree, and there seems little hope of her national language surviving at all, far less returning to all the land of Scotland again. But yet is it not possible that a spark from the torch that this Albannach mor carried so bravely and for so long, might set the "bracken ablaze" once more?

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