Gaels on the Chesapeake Interview with Scott Morrison
Scott was born in 1969 in Nashville, Tennessee. The family moved to Silver Spring, Maryland in 1982. Music and teaching form the core of Scott’s life. He graduated from Frostburg State University in 1994 with a B.S. in Music, double concentrating in K-12 Music Ed and Percussion Performance. He expects to graduate from Sabhal Mòr Ostaig Gaelic College, Skye, Scotland in December 2018 with a B.A. in Scottish Gàidhlig Language and Culture. He studied through the college’s distance learning program.
Scott started teaching Gaelic in 2010, and is a former president of An Comunn Gàidhealach Aimeireaganach (Scottish Gaelic Society of America). In addition to teaching, he is a freelance Celtic musician in the Baltimore/D.C. area. Scott has been teaching classical and folk music lessons since 1993, and as the owner of Rimshots Percussion Studio since 1997. He lives in Howard County with his wife and four children.
RG: What brought you to the study of Gaelic? Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey into Scottish Gaelic. How does it fit into the story of your family and your personal experience and identity?
Morrison: After my father died in 2002, I realized that I had very little insight into his and my Scottish heritage. I had always wanted to be bilingual. And when my wife and I started having kids, I wanted to raise them bilingual. So I commenced studying Scottish Gaelic via private lessons and individual study. I was possessed by an intense drive to achieve fluency as quickly as possible so that I could effectively supplant English as the primary language I’d be speaking to my kids.
As my studies progressed, I became ‘’hooked,’’ so to speak, on all of the aspects of the Gaelic culture which lead me to pursue a degree to ‘’legitimize’’ my studies. It has become woven into my own personal identity, and is a gift that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
RG: Have your perceptions of the world and outlook changed as you walked down the Gaelic path?
Morrison: Most definitely. Being bilingual provides one with an alternative viewpoint on the world. Being bilingual in any language does this! I am also now studying Spanish and discovering the similarities and differences between the Celtic and Latino cultures. Speaking more than one language allows for a flexible mind and offers insights into many areas that monoglots do not enjoy, see, nor sometimes understand (let alone appreciate!).
I love to teach others what I have learned through bilinguality and familiarity with my ancestral background. It greatly influences my opinions, choices, and observations of my own life, family, and my general environment around me everyday. (For instance, before choosing to study Gaelic and become bilingual, I though that preserving English as the national language was very important to our national identity in the United States. My opinion on that completely changed after my experience as a bilingual person.)
Like all things of this world, it can also cause some friction. For instance, my wife is not interested, nor fully understands why I have this drive to be bilingual. I often have to choose whether or not to speak in Gaelic in a particular setting. However, the sacrifices have all been worth it. And even casual acquaintances now recognize this aspect of my character.
RG: What has the study of Gaelic done for you? What has changed in your life?
Morrison: Well, it has helped me to discover a latent talent that I did not know I possessed. By that, I mean that I found I had linguistic and interpretative abilities I never knew I had, and found myself communicating better. It has helped to cement my self-identity as a person in the arts and humanities field. It has helped to give me a sense of belonging and confidence that I did not possess earlier in my young adult life. And now that my kids are older, it has given me a special link with them that we get to share because I took the time to teach them and use it on a daily basis.
I am hopeful that it will give them a sense of stability in their lives and that I will get the honor and joy of helping them to pass it on to their children one day. It has also brought many interesting people into my life with many similar character traits that I probably would not have had the pleasure of meeting without it!
RG: How might a knowledge of the language for a person of Scottish or Irish descent inform their understanding of their heritage and ancestors? Why should that matter to them?
Morrison: This is a difficult and complicated question and is not easy to answer in brief. Personally, as an American, I believe that it is essential to be familiar with one’s own personal ancestry. That being said, nearly all of us as Americans have quite a mixed bag. I, myself, am 100% Italian on my mother’s side, and Scottish, English, German, and Cherokee (in that order of degree) on my father’s.
I spent all of my childhood and most of my young adult life being surrounded by my mother’s very Italian family, though none of them spoke any Italian… ever! That very important absent element, I think, is what prevented me from fully ‘’buying in’’ to my Italian side.
Although I hardly speak to or interact with any of my father’s relatives (except his only sister and their son in Australia), having learned Gàidhlig has given me a much stronger root into this side of my heritage. I like to say, ‘’When I am in the kitchen (which is often), I am Italian. Everywhere else, I’m Scottish!”
Americans are in the unique position to choose which of their often many cultural lines of ancestors with which to identify. This is a luxury that we don’t always recognize, but it also doesn’t require us to be immersed in a culture. I don’t think it matters much how deeply one delves into their ancestry. It can still just be scratching the surface. Just look at all the people who wear kilts and claim to be ‘’Scottish’, but are not attached to the language or life in Scotland. However, as long as one feels connected to their cultural ancestry, a sense of ‘’belonging’’ or ‘’cultural identity’’ or even ‘’stability’’ can be had.
I was like this myself at one time. I felt an emotional attachment. I wore a kilt and played the music. I like my mother’s Italian food. But it was still just superficial. Studying the actual language of one’s ancestors provides a far deeper connection.
All of the primary and rudimentary elements of a people’s culture and identity are wrapped up in their language: their arts, their unique views on the world, their manner of thinking, their opinions, their belief system(s). It’s all there. Physical cultural markers are great ie: kilts, kimonos, sombreros, hot dogs etc.. However, they only provide a surface element of contact. The language holds all the keys to fully understanding the culture.
RG: Do you think that it’s important for students of Gaelic in North America to contribute to the efforts to sustain Scottish Gaelic in Scotland, and to support causes that contribute to aspects of life in Scotland, such as land reform and conservation?
Morrison: Yes indeed I do. The heartland of the language must survive if its fringes are to continue to grow and develop. I am speaking of minority languages that do not have a ‘’secondary base’’ in other regions, ie: Spanish in Central and South America, French in Canada, etc. However, there are many ways to provide support.
First and foremost: Learn the language! Nothing provides more support to the Scottish Gaels in Scotland and Cape Breton than learning and propagating support for the Gaelic language.
Providing monetary support, cultural exchange opportunities, education funding and the like is great and important but the Gaels’ identity is completely wrapped up in their tounge. Learning and speaking Gaelic to them, and them knowing that it is actively happening over here, is the best form of emotional and culture assistance that we can offer as Americans.
RG: Has interest in Gaelic in the Chesapeake grown in recent years?
Morrison: Yes I believe that it has! I have run into far more potential students in the past couple of years than I have in the previous 10! Look at the growth of the Scottish and Celtic festival circuit here and abroad. Look at the number of movies or shows that have come out with a Gàidhlig mention or even a direct link, such as Brave, Outlander, or The Eagle.
Then there’s the Scottish Referendum and all the publicity over Brexit and the disjointed ways that the Scots and the Brits voted on these subjects. All of this makes for a good opportunity to ‘’recruit’’ more new Gaels!
RG: What do you see as important in fostering growth in the Gaelic learning community in the Chesapeake area?
Morrison: First, of course, there must be opportunities to learn the language. We need more teachers and more students.
Second, the presence of a group, like ours, that fosters that growth and provides a chance for students, teachers, and interested parties to intermingle.
Third would be financial backing. Teaching and taking lessons costs money. But money should not be a barrier to learning! Teachers should be paid (even if it’s a modest sum), and organizers should not have to fork out their own dough to hold an event. There are plenty of local Scottish/Celtic organizations that can help.
Outreach and advertising is also an essential element (would that be the fourth?) in fostering growth. Unfortunately, all of these responsibilities often fall on one or two individuals (usually the teacher), thus creating an unbalanced community where the life or death of the entire group rests on one or two key figures. Volunteerism is not the answer in today’s society. National studies have shown that this aspect of American society is quickly dwindling. People have less free time to volunteer. The old adage, ‘’Many hands make for light work’’ directly applies here, I think.
RG: Share with us some of your projects and interests.
Morrison: I am still working on my B.A. fro Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, which is my primary project right now. (I’m almost done, only two classes remaining!) I am also heavily involved with several Celtic bands in the area, but especially with the uniquely Scottish band called The Devil’s Tailors. I was once active in the organization called An Comunn Gàidhealach Aimeireaganach (Scottish Gaelic Society of America). I was even president, but I had to put that on hold until I finish my degree. I plan on returning to that organization in early 2019.
I am a tin whistle player and I am now learning the Irish Flute as an extension of that. And I take regular kung fu lessons at the US Jow Ga Martial Arts Academy.
I play weekly in the Spanish Choir of St. John the Evangelist’s Catholic church, and I am actively learning Spanish. Truth be told, I have little choice as the mass is in Spanish, the choir sings in Spanish, and the rehearsals are all held in Spanish!