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 Ronald Black and Democratic Intellectualism

Raghnall MacilleDhuibh - an Appreciation


Published in the West Highland Free Press under the heading, Offering up a feast of the fruits of his refined scholarly skill, 21 October 2005, p. 19.



Raghnall MacilleDhuibh published his 500th contribution to The Quern-Dust Calandar last week.  Alastair McIntosh of the Centre for Human Ecology offers this appreciation.



By any standards, 500 contributions to The Quern-Dust Calendar in this newspaper is a monumental achievement. That is why I’d like to venture an appreciation, and I hope that it can be seen as being on behalf of many of his readers.


Raghnall MacilleDhuibh, also known as Ronald Black, is acknowledged in academia as one of the greatest living Scottish Gaelic scholars. But unlike many academics, he has never sold out to the ivory tower.


He has laboured down in the groves and we, his readers, have been feasted on the fruit of refined scholarly skill.


His achievement has been to awaken many of us to our own culture. He writes as a consummate educator. Not only will he relate some story from the past, but he’ll simultaneously teach the techniques of a trained ethnographer or folklorist, demonstrating how to receive, examine and decode evidence.


MacilleDhuibh’s methodology is like an armour-piercing missile. It takes a seemingly trivial tale or superstition, penetrates through deepening layers of meaning, and softly explodes in the reader’s own consciousness.


Parable has always sought to do this in religion. But his use of popular parable brings fresh shoots and blossom to remnant cultural stumps.


Do readers remember, for example, the job that Ronnie (as he likes to be known) undertook on the Loch Ness Monster back in 1999?


The starting point was a collection of far-fetched fables, fit only for trapping tourists. Ronnie, however, related them to a wider body of tradition about water horses, and from there, to the workings of the human unconscious.


He described how portents of disaster affecting the clan can, according to tradition, resonate in the psyches of sensitive individuals as visionary experience.


He then observed that the modern wave of Monster sightings was tied in with the build-up to the Second World War. Seen from within the cultural psyche, Nessie could convincingly be interpreted as a symptom of the impending war; a monstrous portent of monstrous events that left Highland villages decimated.


One comes away from reading such an article with, yes, a mindblowing sense of the Monster having been rationally “explained,” but equally, the Tradition stands vindicated.


These past few weeks he’s done the same again in decoding Lochaber stories about cats. But as a McIntosh, I’d better say no more on that sorry account!


Ronald Black is now retired from his position as Senior Lecturer in Celtic at Edinburgh University. It always dismayed me that he was never given a personal chair. The reality is that he belongs to a different educational tradition than the mainstream of our more anglicised universities.


That mainstream, resting on the Oxbridge and public school model, is one in which the function of education is to further refine and advance the specialised interests of an elite. It was this ethos that pushed Gandhi to say that his life’s greatest disappointment was “the hard-heartedness of the educated.”


Like in colonial India, Oxbridge has too often been aped in Scotland. Celtic studies were OK so long as they could be managed, like Macpherson’s Ossian, into classical mode, or buried in desiccating and under-funded anthropological archives.


Celtic studies could be paid lip service only where they did not emancipate a colonised cultural spirit. That spirit, as Jim Hunter points out in On the Other Side of Sorrow, had been successfully inferiorised through cultural invasion, thereby internalising its own supposed backwardness.


Little wonder, then, that people like Ronnie Black who have refused to collude with the myth of backwardness have, at least in the past, gone without honour.


The name given to the alternative approach that Ronnie stands within is “democratic intellectualism” – the idea that education should be “democratic” in the sense of speaking to and for the people.


This starts by facing the reality that education carries power, and so creates elites. That is not in question. What is in question is what the educated then do with their education.


Do they use it for service, or for mere self-service? Does it feed back into the community that once sent the young scholar off with the proverbial sack of oatmeal - on behalf of the whole village, and not just in order to “get on and get out”?


 “The distinctiveness of the Scots,” says George Davie in his seminal 1961 study, The Democratic Intellect (from Edinburgh University Press, I must concede!), “was due to their carrying over into the modern world some of those medieval values which had lapsed in the South … and on which depended the precarious stability of Scottish society [including] prolonged spiritual resistance against being completely assimilated to the South.”


Such sentiments have, of course, been shared by many from the South. As Thomas Hardy explores in Jude the Obscure, England’s own native values were undermined by the educational hard-heartedness of its own ruling classes. And today, the same colonising spirit re-invents itself through the managerialist educational regime that underpins globalisation – an ethos where neither people’s history nor the distinctiveness of place matters in a world conceived of as a homogenised global market surface.


This, then, is the wider context that makes the columns of Ronnie Black such a gift to readers of this newspaper. He bridges the modern with the pre-modern, bringing community and meaning back to otherwise disembedded individualistic lives.


His most recent major work is An Tuil: anthology of 20th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Polygon 1999), and a magisterial volume, The Gaelic Otherworld (Birlinn 2005). I have purchased multiple copies of both as gifts for native Gaels and incomers alike – incomers of the sort, let me add, who are here not just because they have an income and like the view, but because there is a quality in the people that they love and want to associate with.


It is this love of what it means to be “real people in a real place” that Ronnie’s work refines for incomer and local alike. And if there is any suspicion that I over-state my case, re-read, to give just one of many possible examples, his column on hospitality, The sacred duty of the Gael, of 19 June 1998.


The late James Shaw Grant said that a community newspaper should be a kind of ceilidh. Ronnie’s columns help this newspaper to attain that objective, and we look forward to its long continuation.


Were a paper’s readers able to confer honorary academic chairs, Ronnie Black, surely, would be one of our Professors - because he faithfully professes his vocation.


Through The Quern-Dust Calendar he has now offered 500 courses from that great, ancient, eternal University of Life – the Highland community.


These have each been courses in living. And so, on your quincentennial day, thank you most warmly, Raghnall MacilleDhuibh.





25 October 2005


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