I fell in love with Scotland all over again, and was proud as punch of this country, which is both an adopted and ancestral homeland for me. My connection to this patch of earth and its people runs deep in my blood and bones, and it teaches me about how to approach other places and peoples with appropriate respect and openness.
So, yeah. Proud as punch. Except for one moment of embarrassment. Deep embarrassment.
We encountered a spot on the third day of the 95 mile walk, in Strath Fillan, between Crianlarich and Tyndrum, which is rich in Scotland’s indigenous spiritual history. There is the ruin of a monastery originally built by St. Fillan, patron of the mentally ill, that was rebuilt by Robert the Bruce in the 1300s, and, nearby, an ancient holy well used in St. Fillan’s name for healing, that no doubt goes back to pre-Christian times.
A bit of information is provided to passers-by, but otherwise these two sites are mercifully free of touristy baggage or intervention. You are free to meditate on our past and present utilising whatever spiritual or intellectual tradition you prefer. The only information I could find online was on Wikipedia (skip this bit if you’re not into ancient history, abbots, holy relics and the like; go straight to the ARGHHHH section):
“St. Fillan of Munster, the son of Feriach, grandson of Cellach Cualann, King of Leinster, received the monastic habit in the Abbey of Saint Fintan Munnu and came to Scotland from Ireland in 717AD as a hermit along with his Irish princess-mother St. Kentigerna, his Irish prince-uncle St. Comgan, and his siblings. They settled at Loch Duich. Fillan later moved south and is said to have been a monk at Taghmon in Wexford before eventually settling in Pittenweem (‘the Place of the Cave’), Fife, in the east of Scotland later in the 8th century.
“St. Fillan was the abbot of a monastery in Fife before retiring to Glen Dochart and Strathfillan near Tyndrum in Perthshire. At an Augustinian priory at Kirkton Farm along to the West Highland Way, the priory’s lay abbot, who was its superior in the reign of William the Lion, held high rank in the Scottish kingdom. This monastery was restored in the reign of Robert I of Scotland (Robert the Bruce), and became a cell of the abbey of canons regular at Inchaffray Abbey. The new foundation received a grant from King Robert, in gratitude for the aid which he was supposed to have obtained from a relic of the saint (an arm-bone) on the eve of the great victory over King Edward II’s English soldiers at the Battle of Bannockburn. The saint’s original chapel was up river, slightly northwest of the abbey and adjacent to a deep body of water which became known as St. Fillan’s Pool.
“St. Fillan was credited with powers such as the healing of the sick and also possessed a luminous glow from his left arm which he used to study and write Sacred Scriptures in the dark.
“St. Fillan is the patron saint of the mentally ill. As late as the 19th century, such people were dunked in St. Fillan’s Pool, bound and left overnight tied to the font, or possibly to a pew, in the ruined chapel. If the bonds were loosed by morning it was taken as a sign that a cure had taken place.
“A story is told that while St. Fillan was ploughing the fields near Killin, a wolf took the life of the ox and thus Fillan could not continue. A geis was put on the ox, which meant the wolf had to take the place of the ox and do the its work. The story may be considered more of a parable than historical truth, but the connection with the origins of Fillan’s name remains obvious.
“The Mayne was an arm bone, now lost, enclosed in a silver reliquary or casket. Legend has it that King Robert the Bruce requested the bone be brought to the Bannockburn battle site. The deoir, or hereditary keeper of the relic, and the Abbot of Inchaffray Abbey left the bone behind and brought only the reliquary because they didn’t want the relic to fall into English possession. Deoir became Anglecized to the name Dewar, the phonetic pronunciation of the Gaidhlig. On the eve of the Bannockburn battle, as the deoir, the abbot and Robert knelt in prayer, a noise came from the reliquary. They looked at the reliquary as the door opened and the bone fell to the floor. The Bruce won the battle the next day and he established a monastery to thank St. Fillan for the victory.” — Wikipedia.
In this place of beauty and contemplation, there is also this. And, finding that link is the first time I’ve seen their website: OH MY EYES! It’s even worse than I thought. Previous to Googling for that link, I thought it was just the hideous, tacky, appropriative “Native American” tat in the shop, and the fact that they’ve called their cooking and ablutions block the “Apache Cookhouse”.
But no, they have to compound the offence with, with… oh just go look and ask yourself if you would feel happy sending this link to an actual Native American friend planning to visit Scotland. Or anyone with a semblance of understanding of the historical plight and current status of indigenous peoples around the world.
OK, I need to take a breath.
Where I’m coming from on this
I’ve been involved for my whole adult life in earth-based shamanic traditions. And I have been damn political about that from day one; hell, I got my first anarchist tattoo at the age of 18, and I’m 46 now. I’ve spent a lot of time in the past arguing with White “shamans” who claim to hold the Peace Pipe, or whatever other excuse they have for appropriating traditions not their own. Dig deep into your own ancestry and history first, I say. That’s what the Maori of Aotearoa taught us when I was young.
People avoid doing that because it HURTS. It hurts not only to sift through the agonies of what happened to your own ancestors and how that affects your family and society today; but also it hurts to find out about all the perpetration of abuse your ancestors did. If you’re the descendant of rape victims you’re the descendant of rapists. It’s possible that you are related to slavers and colonisers and people who ambushed whole tribes and slaughtered them. This is true whatever the colour of your skin.
But digging deeply into your own ancestral traditions is also educational, and intellectually, emotionally, spiritually nourishing. Confronting these legacies is the least White people can do. And I do mean THE LEAST: it’s only a starting point, and it should inform our actions in the world.
Yo, is Wigwam Holidays Racist?
Anyway, back to that website, with its racist cartoon of a Native American in a feather headdress. Yeah, I said it. I’ve been enjoying and taking inspiration lately from the brilliant Tumblr blog Yo Is This Racist? If something is racist, just say it. Believe me, I’m going to send the Wigwam Holidays website to be blogged on another excellent Tumblr: Native American Tag Hall of Shame.
And it’s not just the website: the shop there sells, as noted above, tacky “dreamcatchers” and other “Native American” tat. All of it racist. Using the name Apache in naming their facilities ain’t cool either.
I grew up in a former colony of Great Britain where folk of my age group had many opportunities to learn about Maori culture and about the colonisation of Aotearoa and the subsequent oppression of the Maori. And as previously mentioned, I’ve also spent a fair amount of my adult life in and around spiritual groups, some of whom take cultural appopriation to embarrassing, dangerous and offensive extremes. So I had to do a lot of research to be able to argue with them, natch.
From Wanting to be Indian: When Spiritual Searching Turns into Cultural Theft, a wonderful paper written by Myke Johnson, a feminist, raised White in Canada, with some Innu ancestry:
“We live in a colonialist society. It was built upon the European theft of land. It was built by conquering and destroying the nations of people already here, and it continues its assault on Native lands and culture. This isn’t something we chose, but something we inherited, and thus have to reckon with.
“It is in this context that Native Americans identify the use of Native symbols and ceremonies as cultural appropriation. Cultural appropriation is a form of racism. Cultural appropriation is a weapon in the process of colonization. Cultural appropriation is when a dominating or colonizing people take over the cultural and religious ceremonies and articles of a people experiencing domination or colonization. When Euro-Americans take Native American symbols and ceremonies and use them for our own purposes, we are participating in the process of colonization and the destruction of Native culture.”
Then there’s this (ibid.):
“When we put Indians into the stereotype of spiritual gurus, or “utopic other”, we use them like spiritual surrogates. When we use someone as a surrogate, we occupy them in a way which prevents them from bearing their own children. Native spiritualities have a purpose in the communities in which they originate. They are fundamental for the Native cultural struggle against genocide. They are not empty symbols into which we can put our struggles, use them, for example, for the empowerment of women, or an affirmation of male bonding.”
Angles on my anger
Firstly, I don’t even think they are trying to use any kind of indigenous spirituality for anything other than making money from the tourist trade. So there’s no point lecturing them with such beautifully written and erudite prose.
Secondly, the irony of how closely they are located to two sites of genuine historical and spiritual (if that’s your bag) significance to the indigenous peoples of Scotland (see above). They’d dumped their surrogacy right on top of our baby.
And, I have a mixed bag of emotion, mostly anger, due to with Scotland’s very mixed relationship with colonialsim and racism. We should know better but we very often don’t. Scots have travelled the world for centuries as part of the British Emprie, doing much of the dirty work of colonialism. Within that shameful history there are also examples of Scots identifying with, becoming allies to, marrying, and assisting the colonised.
We are the recipients of long standing colonisation ourselves with all its attendant ills: loss of language and indigenous culture; loss of traditional homelands; self-loathing, drug and alcohol abuse, loss of confidence; mental ill health, violence, and premature death from numurous causes. Yet still we colonise within our own borders (ask the people of the Gàidhealtachd), and we take part in illegal foreign wars at the behest of Westminster governments we didn’t vote for.
I’m not sure which strand this Wigwam Holidays is an example of. Because I don’t know if someone from outwith Scotland came in and plonked this on top of one of our own sacred sites with nary a thought, or whether it’s a purely Scottish initiative borne out of our own racism, or a combination. There do appear to be outlets all over the UK.
Doesn’t matter. It needs to go. By all means keep the cute pointy-shaped holiday huts and the rest, I’m sure it’s a nice place to take a break, and they do make something of how environmentally friendly they are (although I always take that with a grain of salt until someone more knowledgeable than I breaks it down for me: anyone?). But lose the racist, colonialist, embarrassing as shit, faux native American overlay. Please. I beg of you.