Thank you, in the first instance, for reading.
I am writing what will be a very personal exposé on the nature of both what I received in the way of cultural inheritance and also what I didn’t, to illustrate before we go any further the circumstances from which this new blog shall take shape. It will explain to those who know me – but perhaps not well – where some of my cultural predilections and where my sense of inner Gaeldom come from. For those of you with whom I am well acquaint, there may also be a thing or two of value in understanding your friend and what has formed Àdhamh, warts and all.
I was born in Glasgow in 1979 to James Joseph Byrne and Marjorie MacLeod Steven, both of whom had been brought up in the southside of that city. At the time, my parents were culturally speaking what you might refer to as “nominally British” due to a lack of awareness of their own indigenous traditions. By chance of fate I myself was brought up in Tighnabruaich, Cowal until I went to school, at which point my parents parted ways, my mother leaving with me to live in Glasgow once again, settling in Garnethill. I returned to what felt like home in Argyll to visit my dad (below) and worked half-days every school holiday as an apprentice labourer from the ages of nine until eighteen.
Although my father’s people to the last man were from Ireland, this was never discussed during my young life. Neither were the qualities or personalities of his Irish parents, about whom there were neither stories nor even reminiscences. I hadn’t a clue in fact that my dad was essentially Irish until informed of this as a teenager by his mother-in-law. It just wasn’t part of daily reality, my father seeming almost like an ancestral tabula rasa.
His paternal line had in fact come out of Wicklow in the wake of what some call the Irish Famine and others refer to as genocide – eventually ending up destitute in Dublin. My father’s paternal grandparents Jeremiah (below right) and Catherine met in a workhouse there and my own grandfather James Joseph Byrne (below left), my father’s namesake, was born into the confines of that very institution in 1886.
His wife’s people arrived out of similar circumstances into the cramped southside tenements of Glasgow where my grandmother Maggie Reid’s birth was bookended by the deaths of her two sisters from tuberculosis, one just a month before she was born, the other two months after. My great-grandmother Rose McHenry lasted only another two years before she too died of the self-same disease. Seven years later, almost inevitably, Maggie’s father John Reid also passed away, albeit of a different lung-related condition.
Tragedy in the old country, tragedy in the womb, tragedy in the home; my grandmother was an orphan by the age of nine. The only description I ever recall hearing of her from my dad was that she seemed “harrassed”. Maggie was emotionally distant, according to my emotionally distant father. She then married my emotionally distant grandfather, a WWI cavalryman with the Connaught Rangers who had been invalided out of battle twice only to be redeployed. He had been gassed, machine-gunned and kicked by a horse, eventually proving unfit to return to war. My father Jimmy, when questioned in the years leading up to his own death, described James Joseph Snr (below) as being somewhat “austere”. I imagine that holding all the horrors you’ve witnessed inside your head could do that to a person.
In August 1938, aged only 12, Jimmy sat alone by his father’s bedside in the poverty of their room and kitchen in the Gorbals and watched him die, ultimately of the war wounds sustained in the trenches of Belgium. Five and a half years later, my dad found himself called up during WWII and drove a tank through the last six months of the conflict. He was not shy about sharing the details of what he witnessed there and took it upon himself to do so at every opportunity in the hope of educating people on the tragedy of war and preventing its repetition. Jimmy used to say that his father died knowing full well that history was about to repeat itself and the idea of this pattern continuing on was simply unthinkable.
At no time during his life had my dad been gifted connection to his Irish identity, save for a lone trip back to the rural County Derry of his mother’s people in the wake of her husband’s death. During my early 40s, I took it upon myself to learn their Ulster Gaelic dialect in an attempt to repair some of the ancestral damage. With Jimmy however, there was no sense of pride in his heritage nor did he consider it a loss not to know the language. Looking back, the truth is that I can see the loss of that and the loss of every other thing in him and in his modus operandi. Throughout the hopeless, hamster-wheel struggle Jimmy maintained during his adult life due to what he called – quoting Burns – “man’s inhumanity to man”, I can see the PTSD of successive generations on both sides of his family etched in his Quixotesque tilts at each and every possible windmill. He strained against what had caused his People the pain he carried in his bones yet failed to recognise that the loss of belonging to that People was among the causes of what prevented him from reconciling any of it. He was in every sense of the term a “lone wolf” and shunned a good portion of the human contact that many of us these days take for granted as being essential to daily living and positive mental health.
Below is a photograph taken of my dad by Glasgow artist John Kraska in 1977.
Jimmy’s sister died young, his three brothers scattered to the four winds, and only in later years, having survived cancer, did he properly reconcile with both myself and my brother Chris. It was as if there was nothing holding his family together, no sense of shared identity or purpose that comes with belonging to Place and People, leaving it to fragment indefinitely. I have only touched upon what is appropriate to share in a public context – there is in truth much, much more that made life with my father very difficult and at times genuinely grim.
In getting back to the thrust of this blog, it would be fair to say that despite the desperate fatalism, Jimmy also provided the perfect foil to the other half of my early experience, the cultural upbringing delivered to me by my grandmother about which more shortly. If it’s true that I got culture from my maternal folk, I got autodidactism from my paternal side. James Joseph Snr had been a self-educated man. He, like his father and grandfather James before him, was adept with horses, a trait that ran through to my dad (below) who spent hours helping at local stables as a child during the era of the horse and cart as well as two years ploughing and labouring on Ayrshire farms in his early twenties.
The autodidactism passed straight through to Jimmy and from him to me. I was gifted a rigorous sense of discernment, brought up on thinkers like Bertrand Russell, Ivan Ilich and Joseph Campbell. We sat at the wood stove and read out obscure entries from the Elizabethan English dictionary, testing one another’s knowledge of what they might mean and composed poetry to read aloud to one another round the fire, in both English and Lowland Scots. My father came home from three years in Germany after the war able to speak the language of that place with reasonable fluency. Having voluntarily stayed on after he was demobbed, Jimmy passed an interest and passion for German language to me as a child which I have retained ever since, gifting the same to my daughter Caoimhe, now 17. I think of this as a rich legacy of my father’s desire for peace and one of the most positive things I have been bequeathed.
Emotional he may not have been; “I love you dad” may have been answered with “that’s nice son” but in other ways my dad cared more for the manner in which I should enter the world than many a parent I’ve met since. I was at times quite brutally schooled in intellectual rigour – my father never missing a chance to question what came out of my mouth – but it left me with a tried and tested breadth of knowledge and respect for learning and literature that I could hardly have come upon elsewhere for the grand sum of zero pounds, zero pence!
James Joseph Byrne Jnr passed away on the 20th of June, 2012, aged 86.
My mother Marjorie (above) was brought up on the other side of tracks, as the Americans say, from my Irish Catholic father. Quite literally in fact; Pollockshields and the Gorbals being on either side of the train line that runs into Central Station from the south side of Glasgow. Although my mum’s own dad had walked to school in Caithness with no shoes on his feet, he made it into the ministry of the Church of Scotland, ending up with a grand manse in Pollockshields when my mother was only four, having come hither from none too shabby another manse in Dunfermline!
My mum was an exceedingly warm and kind person who did her absolute utmost as a single parent, but was unfortunately brought up in the belief that she belonged to the middle class. Her affected English speech was ready testament to this! Not only was my father’s Irishness thrown off and cast into touch before he was even born, but he too seemed to have been steered away from the natural Glaswegian vernacular during his upbringing. I was subsequently raised in the same sense of nominal Britishness that my parents had been and it quite frankly left me utterly empty and at odds with how I felt on the inside about the world at large. Like my parents before me I was an “other” to everyday Glaswegians, neither able to fit in through speaking the local dialect nor being able to return to the network of relations in Argyll that comes with ancestral belonging to place. I was in complete cultural limbo, the child of immigrants who had neither kept up their own culture nor assimilated to their new environment.
Luckily, my only living grandparent Laura MacLeod was on hand to provide a lifeline. She had grown up in Morningside in comfortable circumstances due to her father’s rise through the ranks of the Edinburgh Police. Although in a sense the family were probably “nominally British” too, John MacLeod – somewhat unlike his brother David – had clung tenaciously to his Latheron, Highland roots. Because of this and despite Laura’s mother being English, my gran seemed to gravitate towards her Gaelic People in later life and this passed seemlessly to me – to a certain extent leapfrogging my mother and her brother Keith – and formed the bedrock of the cultural identity I have been investigating and deepening ever since.
My mum’s father, the Reverand William Steven (above), had leaned more towards his own father’s people and home district, which had been the Scots – as opposed to Gaelic – parishes of Watten and Bower in central Caithness. However Willie’s mother Christina belonged to almost exactly the same Highland locale as John MacLeod, their people being near neighbours across the Strath of Latheronwheel. With my father never having spoken of or passed on his Irishness, his parents being long dead and my Caithness low-country grandfather Willie having likewise passed away before I could meet him, I had nothing but my grandmother’s insistance on carrying the MacLeod name, our Highland culture and our Gaelic language to go on. This was to establish itself strongly in me as I entered my teens.
When visiting my grandmother, who spoke with a pronounced Morningside accent, the fare was homemade porridge, scones, soup, lashings of tea and Gaelic tunes played on the piano. “You just can’t beat the Highland melodies, Adam!” she would say, stroking out an air on the upright. My grandmother was capable of being quite prejudiced, at times sanctimonious and decidedly irritating – especially for her children – and had definitely spent her life playing the role of the minister’s wife, but truth be told I never experienced very much of that. I got instead the gran who played whist with my mum and I round the little gaming table in her tartan skirt and woolen jumper, laughed out loud until she was crying with mirth and recited the barely credible stories of the Old Testament to me from memory when I stayed the night on her old brown sofa.
Laura was an avid attender of the National Mod, sitting listening to people speaking Gaelic at the breaks with the most pronounced envy, having inherited but a smattering from her less than fluent father. I recall a phone conversation in later years with her friend Peggy Connors from North Uist: “Oh she was always terrible envious that we were native speakers” said Peggy, “she wished so badly that she could speak Gaelic!”
When lying in a hospital bed during a brief stay in her 99th year and having heard that I was on my way to fluency, Laura responded with a determined shake of her fist and the words: “you must bring it back, Adam – bring it BACK!” When my wife Lisa and I visited her in the wake of her 100th birthday and nearing the very end of her span in this world, she listened to my daughter Caoimhe speaking naturally to me in Gaelic, the language of our home life together, and could only shake her head saying: “that’s marvellous… that’s just marvellous”.
And so my grandmother passed on at the age of 100, leaving me the mass of mostly worthless but incredibly precious family heirlooms which included three handwritten diaries by her uncle David. “You must read them” she would say. “They’re fascinating Adam, but oh so sad.” And she wasn’t wrong. David MacLeod (below, bottom right, with siblings) tried everything he could to throw off his Highland identity. His brother John (below, bottom left) nursed a lifelong resentment at having been denied fluency in his mother tongue and the passion for Gaelic was passed on to his niece Laura who maintained the cultural carrying stream within the family. Despite the language falling entirely dead with my mother’s generation, Gaelic is now revived in the family and spoken fluently by David’s great-great-grand-nephews and nieces.
My grandmother also gave me the second of the two names “Adam” and “MacLeod” that were intentionally passed to me to carry. Although I mostly work under my father’s surname, as you might imagine he himself hadn’t the slightest interest or pride in where it came from. The fact that I have reverted to the Gaelic spelling of it and conducted my professional life as Àdhamh Ó Broin /AAgiv oh BRIN/ is due to an insistence upon honouring my Irish Gaelic People in a way that my dad never could. MacLeòid (/maKLODGE/ – the correct Caithness Gaelic form of the corrupted “MacLeod”) has always resonated much more deeply with me because of my grandmother’s intentional gifting of it along with all the family trees, lore and heirlooms. It is because of this that I often introduce myself – especially in Caithness circles – as Adam or Addie MacLeod gifting people an instant sense of who I am and where I’m from. Despite the name being quite uncommon in the southern Highlands, there has been many an Adam up the Strath of Latheronwheel over the years, not least in my own family with another of David’s younger brothers also an Àdhamh MacLeòid (1858-1904)!
When push comes to shove, my own life has been spent in the throes of cultural dislocation. The diligence of my gran has been the only thing that kept up any sense of belonging to place, but even then, because of my parent’s uptake of a guesthouse in Argyll, I became the first generation of MacLeods not to return to the Latheron homeland and bed back in, even if just on holiday, returning instead at every available juncture to work with my dad. My grandmother holidayed with her father and mother (below) every year until she was in her mid teens, and so kept up the connection. In later life, she continued to return, tracking down relations in glens and cottages and old people’s homes, asking them questions and taking notes, building family trees on the backs of old sale-of-work posters and writing letters to people she thought might be able to give her information. She and husband Willie – who was of course born and brought up in the county – took my mother and her brother back each year to spend a month in Caithness during the summer, ensuring that their sense of homeland was also maintained.
I received all of my gran’s lore and knowledge, but despite her petitions to my mum to introduce me to Caithness, I never touched ground where my people had lived, loved and died until I was 27 years of age! Because of this experience of dislocation, I have always conversed easily with settler folk from the far side of the Pond; despite not leaving Scotland, I understand only too well the displacement and the chaos which can exist in lieu of a sense of culture and a sense of tribe. The more I have gained this feeling back through returning to a knowledge of my ancestors’ language, lore, mindset, medicine, diet and ethics, the more I have found myself in communion with that other People of the West, those who were there before Gaelic emmigrants like my great-grandparents were forced from their homes and in turn forced others from theirs. This friendship and that of many other indigenous comrades has been a great source of solidarity, comfort and inspiration to me as I quest.
My professional career has taken me from one end of the Gaelic World to the other. From the exciting but often frustrating realm of Hollywood film consultancy (below as MC at Outlander gala dinner) to the cosy living rooms of our Gaelic Elders, I have sought to honour my ancestral legacy at all times, even if that meant placing my livelihood at risk. If Gaelic has provided a meal-ticket, it has been by pure happy accident. When not with family, I am at my most contented in the company of the tradition-bearers of our People, those who – like David MacLeod – are regularly overlooked by the “powers-that-be”.
My first port of call after reclaiming the Gaelic language through learning the standard tongue was the Cowal of my upbringing – finding, recording and learning the words and stories of the very last of the area’s conscious Gaels. I was supported by the older folk I met in everything I tried to do and yet somehow, despite everything, I have never felt entirely at home. People quite naturally wanted to know who I was and how I was connected. A half-Irish, half-Caithness Gael who happened to grow up in the area is not the same as a MacLachlan from Cowal or a Campbell from Mid-Argyll. I spent ten years knocking my pan in travelling the roads between Glasgow and Lochgilphead, sometimes twice a week, but as much as the land recognised and accepted me implicitly, I remained an unfamiliar quantity to local folk, kind, welcoming and happy to help as they were.
I breathed life back into the moribund Gaelic dialect of Central Argyll with the generous donations of private backers, brought my children up (below) to cherish it with the unfailing support of my wife Lisa and have spoken it every day since as the language of love, of family and stability. My current job has me working in and for the area and I still retain an immensely strong and emotional connection to a place I first witnessed with the eyes of a newborn baby. The older I become however, having paid this homage of dedication and adoration to the beautiful land of my upbringing and her People, I find myself drawn back to the Latheron Parish of my forebears and to the legacy of my grandmother. It is this feeling that has seen me redirect my recent attention “home” to the Strath of Latheronwheel, to the elders still in situ there, to the story contained within David MacLeod’s diaries and to the lives of the people therein – our late relations, neighbours and friends.
It would be fair to say that David’s story is one of displacement in action. To read the diaries is to witness the passage of events that brought about the severing of ancestral ties, that ultimately led to culturally fractured situations like mine. Throughout the course of the diary entries, David is in a state of ever-worsening dislocation, vascillating between home and away, between the promise of work and everything and everyone with whom he had been familiar since childhood. The story is one of history unfolding before our eyes; it’s the knock-on effects of the Jacobite Risings, the Clearances, the hunger of the mid 19th century and of the Education Act (1872) which treated Gaelic language as if it didn’t exist and came into force in the years just before the diaries were begun. It’s the true story of British internal colonialism and of a Gael – whose trajectory is analogous to that of thousands of others like him – labouring under the yoke of forced assimilation to foreign cultural norms.
It is of course also the story of one man as he mournfully ranged the British Isles looking for work, often failing dismally and walking for days with nothing to eat in the cold shadow of poor mental health. It is the personal story of my blood, my great-grand-uncle who failed to find love and who was so afraid of his natural state of being – that of a Gael, a member of a recently tribal people with a lingering non-Abrahamic element to their indigenous cosmology – that he wrote nothing of that nor did he write a word in his own language. This has left David’s great-grand-nephew to fill in the blanks, rightly or wrongly, accurately or not, in the absence of the brave truth of an ordinary Highlander who instead felt forced to live in the image of an uncaring imperial society.
To a certain extent and with the beauty of hindsight, I most likely seem critical of David, but the truth is that I mourn his battered Gaelic soul and the traumatised soul of our People and only hope that I can adequately carry their legacy and push it to the fore of what I endeavour to do with this new project and in the attendant macrocosm of everyday life. David MacLeod did not choose the fate of his People any more than I have – the difference is that I have it within my gift to speak up on the subject of our indigenous culture and in our indigenous language without fear of being written off as a backward peasant in my own community.
And so on the verge of the 150th anniversary of the commencement of David’s diary and in his honour and that of my grandmother and her father John who so carefully kept the volumes safe that they might be passed to me, we begin this new blog in today’s world, providing a window into one now long past and almost forgotten.
I do hope you enjoy.
Gach beannachd air an àm,
St Andrew’s Day, 2023