An Attitude Problem (2008)

An Attitude Problem.


Murdo Macdonald




This is a slightly re-edited version of a piece that I originally wrote in about 2008.


An interesting example of British cultural imperialism occurred in 2007 when the Gaelic language film Seachd was not put forward by BAFTA for consideration for nomination for an Oscar in the best foreign language film category. I hadn’t seen the film at the time but when I did watch it I was stunned that there was even a question of not recommending it. It wasn’t a question of whether I personally liked the film or not. The point was that the film was just what one would expect to be recommended, not as a special case but as part of the routine of cultural advocacy which one has the right to expect of BAFTA as a representative body. What would Michael Powell and his Gaelic-speaking friend, Seton Gordon, have thought of this decision? I hate to think. Instead of contributing to the survival of Gaelic by giving contemporary Gaelic culture the opportunity to be shown on a world stage, BAFTA endorsed ignorance of that culture.


The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes of his own experience of the attempt to annihilate people’s belief in ‘their names, in their languages, in their environment, in their heritage of struggle, in their unity, in their capacities and ultimately in themselves.’[1] Ngugi writes that the past becomes seen only as a ‘wasteland of non-achievement’ that encourages identification ‘with that which is most removed … for instance, with other peoples’ languages rather than their own …. all those forces that would stop their own springs of life.’[2]


The supporting myth of any imperial project is that its effect is to improve the lot of those whose places it destroys. But the actuality is not just the plundering of resources but the destruction of identity. At the time that Ngugi’s contemporary, Aonghas MacNeacail, grew up in Skye that was very much the implied condition of the Gaidhealtachd. As MacNeacail writes in his poem Oideachadh Ceart / A Proper Schooling, ‘nuair a bha mi òg / cha b’eachdraidh ach cuimhne’ which he translates as ‘when i was young / it wasn’t history but memory’.[3] Efforts have been made to change things for the better. The Gaelic College of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig is flourishing; children are no longer beaten in those ‘proper schools’ for speaking Gaelic. But the proper school of BAFTA hasn’t caught up yet. Like so many others of a Highland background I speak little of the language that gives my name its cultural place and meaning. The message from BAFTA is don’t bother to speak the language, don’t bother to support the culture; or to put it another way, don’t bother to support your identity. The message from Ngugi is that if you heed that inferiorist message you trade in your identity for a stereotype.


The Seachd-BAFTA affair reminded me of a piece I wrote in 1992 for The Scotsman and which was later reprinted in Edinburgh Review. In it I described a certain kind of reaction to Scottish culture which had been manifest at the Edinburgh Festival of that year. I called the piece An Attitude Problem Based in London and it dealt to a substantial degree with the contempt with which a particular artist was treated because he was dealing with issues of the Gaidhealtachd in his work.The critics in question were from papers in which one would not expect to find such cultural contempt, namely The Observer and The Guardian. The artist was Will Maclean.


What I wrote then was that the Guardian critic, Tim Hilton:


‘shares his distaste for Maclean’s work with another London critic, William Feaver of The Observer and what’s interesting is that both seem to find the fact that Maclean engages with his own Highland and Gaelic background difficult to come to terms with. Feaver writes as though Maclean was referring to any old history, not one of which he is a constituent part, and perhaps that’s why Feaver sees nothing in Maclean’s work but a sort of fake antiquing process. Similarly, Hilton talks about Maclean’s ‘correct Gaelic references’, as though Maclean had just done a bit of research on Gaelic culture to impress a panel in a job interview or something.


‘Both critics don’t seem to be able to believe that Maclean’s art is based on his own experience and that those experiences are rooted in the past experiences of a people. Where Maclean makes objects which deal with loss of skills, all Feaver sees is ‘trinketry’. Where Maclean deals with loss of language and people from a land, all Hilton sees is ‘correctness’.


‘Their comments are revealing in the way they pinpoint the central element of Maclean’s work, his experience as a Highland Scot, but then trivialise it.


‘There is, of course, always room for critical disagreement about an artist’s work. But that’s not the point here. The point is that Maclean’s work is rejected in large measure because of his commitment to a place, a language and a people, as though these elements of cultural normality were so unlikely in Scotland that they had to be treated with scepticism.’[4]


Rereading these words 16 years after writing them, I find it depressing that the Seachd-BAFTA affair shows them to be still so applicable. In an interview Will Maclean said ‘any art an artist creates can only be a reflection of his experience. My experience has been my involvement in life in the Highlands, and involvement with the sea.’[5] It was that experience that was denied as legitimate. Fanon writes of ‘inferiorism’ that is to say the process by which the oppressed adopt the values and culture of the oppressor and consider their own values and culture as old fashioned and without merit in the ‘modern’ world. Will Maclean’s exhibition was a point of resistance to that inferiorism, even though he had suffered mightily from it himself. In particular, his schooling in Inverness gave him no opportunity to speak the language of his father.


A phrase I coined then was ‘metroparochialism’.  It seems apposite here. It refers to the tendency of those in some small cultural parish of London – and those who take their guidance from that small cultural parish – to show contempt for those outside their immediate circle. Paradoxically many such people think of themselves as internationally aware, but there is more to internationalism than air-miles. I should stress that this is not an anti-English (or indeed an anti-London) point, indeed, the essence of Fanon’s idea of inferiorism, is that among the most effective perpetrators of cultural destruction are one’s own people who have rejected their own culture.


With respect to the Seachd decision BAFTA’s metroparochialism was impressive. Insight into this comes from the Canadian land-rights negotiator Patrick Scott. He writes: ‘Having the right to speak is one thing, being heard is entirely different.’[6] How often are we told that everyone has the right to speak. But the point is that being heard is another matter. Scott gives us a sense of what it means to be up against a culture that encourages actively maintained ignorance. The wider resonance is the internally colonised state of a ‘globalized’ world. Everyone has the right to speak but it is axiomatic that no one is heard. Patrick Scott quotes Georges Erasmus as follows: ‘Evidence of the experience of the Dene being colonized was that life and history was being defined for us. It was being imposed on us and we were not anymore the actors. We were being acted upon even to the point that we were being named.’[7] For the experience of the Dene read the experience of the Gaels: ‘even to the point that we were being named’. Sgaire became Zachary; Pàdraig became Peter. Tormaid became Norman. A seafarer named Murchadh Dòmhnullach became Murdo MacDonald, my great grandfather. We still have the right to speak our names but are we heard even by ourselves? The process of colonialism is now internalised not just in the Gaidhealtachd but throughout the world. And that of course is the point. The more we insist on being ignorant of so called ‘indigenous’ cultures, the more we are ignorant of ourselves. That applies to all of us, the ‘colonist’and the ‘colonised’ alike for – as Gaels well know – one may find oneself in either role.


But what are any of us if we are not indigenous to our world? But the risks of behaving as though we were not indigenous are evident on a daily basis. So many of the difficult issues we face globally  – ecological, societal or military – have their origin in our non-indigenous view of ourselves, our idea that we are colonists of our planet rather than native participants.


How can one explain such attitudes? They depend not on ignorance as such, but on the willingness to actively maintain that ignorance.[8]




[1] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 1986, Decolonising the Mind, London: James Currey; 3.

[2] Ibid.

[3] MacNeacail, A., 1996, A Proper Schooling and other poems / Oideachadh Ceart agus dàin eile, Edinburgh: Polygon.

[4] Macdonald, M., 1992, ‘An Attitude Problem Based In London’, Edinburgh Review, Issue 91, 116-118; 118.

[5] Payne, J., 1994, ‘Will Maclean’, Edinburgh Review, Issue 91; 98-115; 98.

[6] Scott, P., 2007, Stories Told: Stories and Images of the Berger Inquiry, Yellowknife: The Edzo Institute; 8.

[7] Ibid., 51.

[8] For more on this active maintaining of ignorance see Macdonald, M., 2002, ‘Finding Scottish Art’ in G. Norquay & G. Smyth, eds., Across the Margins: Cultural Identity and Change in the Atlantic Archipelago, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 171-184.