Celtic Quest 

One academic’s fight to dispel the myths of Celtic culture.

Since arriving in Richmond last year by way of numerous speaking engagements and a job at Harvard’s library, Newton has taught two courses in Gaelic history and culture as part of the university’s school of continuing studies. Determined to set the story straight concerning Celtic influence on American culture, Newton’s classes explore the exodus from Celtic Scotland and Ireland, Gaelic texts, music and folklore, and political and racial aspects of the old country and their impact on our lives today.

“Most academics consider Gaelic to be flaky, New-Agey — which is ridiculous,” Newton says. “I think you can make a case it’s been hijacked by special-interest groups.” By this he means the pop culture derivatives that have come to define an entire people: “Braveheart,” bagpipes, calf-high socks and the Highland games, and many other cultural symbols, all of which, Newton says, are historically inaccurate or misleading.

Newton instead prefers to dwell on the headier issues, such as the history of racism in America, which he says stems directly from the English and their attempt to eradicate the Gaels in the 18th century. “The stereotypes of savage people, the institution of slavery and racism,” he says, can be learned by studying the oppression of Gaelic people.

Newton is fluent in Gaelic, a trait that often has the BBC hiring him as a correspondent to Scotland to cover local and regional events. His latest report described Hurricane Isabel to listeners abroad on the network. When discussing his work, however, Newton is often surprised to find that many people have no idea that Gaelic is still the first language of thousands of Europeans. “Sometimes it’s hard to talk to people about Scottish culture,” he says, “because people think they already know what it’s all about.”

As a means of promoting more interest in what he hopes will become the country’s only curriculum for studying Celtic culture, Newton has organized the Highland Settler’s Conference, a three-day event which will be cosponsored by the University of Richmond and the Virginia Historical Society on Nov. 6-8. In addition to his own presentations, Newton has assembled a panel of 12 scholars from around the world to discuss a wide variety of topics relating to the cause.

Topics will include the history of Highlanders and Scots in Virginia, historic attitudes towards the Gaels in Nova Scotia, and religious traditions of the Cape Fear Highlanders, who settled the Cape Fear Valley of the Carolinas, one of the largest Gaelic settlements in the United States. In addition to workshops and presentations, the festival will include a celebration of the musical heritage and folklore of the Scottish Highlands at the Modlin Center on Friday night. The evening will be a chronological concert of music, story, song and dance, presenting life in the Highlands in olden days, the migration overseas and life in America.

Newton is excited about the prospects, but he can’t help but wonder why this movement didn’t happen a long time ago. Listening to him speak, one imagines that at least part of his scholarship includes a constant battle for legitimacy. “This is not just a quaint, nostalgic view of the past,” he says, furthering the idea that Celtic studies are anything but sentimental or kitchy. “This is not just about guys dressing up like druids under the oak tree.” S

The Highland Settlers Conference takes place at the Virginia Historical Society and the University of Richmond, Nov. 6-8. Tickets are $85 for the three-day conference, $35 for students. Tickets for the concert will be available Sept. 8 through the Modlin Center box office, 289-8980. www.richmond.edu/~mnewton/highlandsettlers.


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