From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Scots/J.m. Bumsted

The Case of Gaelic

There have been two revivals of Gaelic since the Protestant Reformation. The first disseminated a Gaelic Bible translated in Ireland in the early part of the seventeenth century, thus producing a standard of literacy and language that was brought to British North America by the bulk of the Roman Catholic Highlanders. A second revival occurred in the western Highlands and offshore islands around the turn of the nineteenth century. It spread a Scottish Gaelic version of the classic Bible and was to be associated with the daoine, a movement of Presbyterian evangelists. The British authorities in church and state were generally opposed to the Gaelic Bible and to the teaching of Gaelic in schools, on the grounds that both perpetuated distinctions between Highlands and Lowlands. When Gaelic was taught, the rationale for so doing was to make it possible for the students to be assimilated into the larger society.

The Gaelic language and culture that was brought to British North America around the beginning of the nineteenth century was still an oral one relying heavily on the tradition of the bards, whose poems/songs celebrated their society’s triumphs and vicissitudes and were often performed at assemblages of various kinds. The work of the bards in verse and music helps document the aesthetic concerns of the Gaelic people. A number of noted bards immigrated with their people to North America, and a surprising number ended up in those provinces that would become part of Canada, from where they composed, perpetuated, and occasionally even published their work. Much of their total production has not survived, and some is known only from oral accounts written down years later.

Perhaps the greatest of these bards was John Maclean (1787–1848), a native of Tiree who departed for Pictou, Nova Scotia, in 1819, the year after he had published his first volume of poetry in Scotland. His “Song to America” concluded, “A hidden grief has overfilled me since I’ve been doomed to stagnate here for the rest of my life with little amusement in this gnarled forest and without anyone to ask me if I’d sing a song.” One of the few female bards was Anna Gillis of Morar, who settled in 1786 in what was to become Stormont County, Ontario, and to whom several song-poems in the Cape Breton oral tradition have been attributed.

The bards devoted much attention in their North American work to the travails of emigration and the problems of readjustment to North American conditions, usually seen in terms of unhappy exile. Certainly they helped perpetuate the memories of the Highlands and hatred of the landlords who had forced their people to depart. Many of these memories were subsequently collected by Donald MacLeod, a Strathnaver stonemason who bitterly attacked the lairds from his Upper Canadian exile in two key books: History of the Destitution in Sutherlandshire (1841) and Gloomy Memories in the Highlands of Scotland: A Faithful Picture of the Extirpation of the Celtic Race from the Highlands of Scotland (1857). These works have served as one basis for generations of writing on the Highlands.

Gaelic as a language and culture was transplanted to more districts of British North America than is often recognized. Gaelic-speaking Highlanders came in sufficient numbers to establish initially their language and traditions in northeastern Nova Scotia (around Pictou and Antigonish), on Cape Breton Island, on Prince Edward Island, in Glengarry, Stormont, and Bruce counties (Ontario), and in present-day Winnipeg. A later immigration established a number of Gaelic-speaking communities in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. A migration from Cape Breton also established a Gaelic-speaking community in the Codroy valley of Newfoundland in the nineteenth century.

By 1850 Gaelic was the third most commonly spoken European language in British North America. It was spoken by as many as 200,000 British North Americans of both Scottish and Irish origin as either a first or a second language. Precise figures are impossible to obtain, since language was not an item on any census of the colonial period, but Gaelic was probably spoken by one out of every ten inhabitants of British North America at the middle of the nineteenth century. How many of these Gaelic speakers spoke only Gaelic or Gaelic as a first language is not clear, although there were substantial pockets of Gaelic unilingualism on both Cape Breton and Prince Edward islands. Scots and Irish Gaelic were not quite identical, but speakers of each version could communicate with one another. Perhaps more profound differences between Scots and Irish Gaelic speakers were in terms of whether their Gaelic was truly functional, that is, whether they were able to speak it in daily life. A far greater proportion of Scots immigrants than Irish could do so.

Gaelic’s usage – and the accompanying Gaelic culture – would decline after 1850. Nevertheless, there was far more language retention than assimilative models often suggest. In 1890 Senator Thomas Innis introduced a bill into the Canadian Senate entitled “An Act to provide for the use of Gaelic in official proceedings.” He claimed that there were ten Scots senators and eight Irish ones who spoke Gaelic, and thirty-two members of the House of Commons who spoke either Gaelic or Erse (the Irish variety). Local accents from the Highlands were passed down from generation to generation, and one scholar as late as 1953 could report that in Cape Breton “the offspring of these settlers still speak Gaelic with a Lewis or a Barra or a North Uist or a South Uist accent, depending on the locality in which they were reared.” Awareness of the existence of Gaelic outside Nova Scotia had reached such a point of ignorance by World War II that the Canadian authorities attempted to prescribe its use – on public telecommunications systems – as a “foreign language.” Local government units in Cape Breton protested that 35,000 people in Cape Breton resented the government “treating their mother tongue as a foreign language or as one that is the vehicle of subversive or disloyal expression.” The government associated Gaelic with Ireland and Ireland with clandestine support for Nazi Germany.

Free public education, typically after 1850 in English rather than Gaelic, probably was the major initial factor in the decline of the importance of the language outside Cape Breton. Since separate schools in British North America, which provided the main alternative to the anglicizing public schools, tended to be founded on confessional rather than linguistic lines, few Gaelic-speaking schools were ever established. In 1857 a number of Gaelic-speaking inhabitants of Prince Edward Island complained to their House of Assembly that “in many Districts the Gaelic speaking people feel the great disadvantage of Teachers being unable to give a lesson in Gaelic reading to the children, or in some cases to speak to the children in that language – a matter so necessary, at the outset, to all who understand nothing else.” Gaelic was not aided by the fact that it was, at the time of the introduction of the public school, an oral more than a written language. Nova Scotia did not admit the Gaelic language as a curriculum option in its schools until 1921, by which time teachers were almost impossible to find outside the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton. By 1994 Gaelic was being taught as an official part of the curriculum to eleven students in one secondary school in Inverness County.

The dispersal to the cities of the Gaelic-speaking rural communities of the Maritimes and the pressures of anglophone commercialization have virtually completed the destruction of the Gaelic language, which in 1991 was spoken by less than 30,000 people, almost entirely in Cape Breton. Because of the extreme poverty of the Gaelic-speaking regions of Cape Breton, the language has come to be associated with rural deprivation and backwardness.

As has often been the case with the Celtic languages of the British Isles, a serious effort at producing a written Gaelic literature in British North America came only after the main battle for its usage had been lost. There were scattered publications in Gaelic in the first half of the nineteenth century, including John Mackenzie’s Sar Obar nam Bard Gaeloch (Masterpieces of the Gaelic Bards, 1841), published in Glasgow. John Boyd of Antigonish published the monthly Gaelic magazine An Cuaintear Og Gaelach (The Gaelic Tourist; Antigonish, N.S., 1851–?), and he launched a bilingual newspaper, the Casket (Antigonish, 1856–?). Boyd himself confessed: “We’re sorry that we must admit that Gaelic is drawing back every day and English strengthening her foundations more and more at every turn; so that there is every appearance that she will put the poor Gaelic into a tight corner unless it gets more support than it is getting.” Angus Nicholson published An Gaidheal (The Gael; Toronto, 1871–77), which was printed in Edinburgh. In the last years of the nineteenth century, Dr Alexander Sinclair, a Presbyterian clergyman of Prince Edward Island, produced several anthologies of Gaelic songs and poetry, and Jonathan G. MacKinnon between 1892 and 1904 published in Sydney, Nova Scotia, a weekly newspaper entirely in Gaelic. But both Sinclair and MacKinnon admitted that their audience was small and diminishing. MacKinnon made one more attempt at perpetuating the Gaelic tradition, helping to found a Gaelic college at St Anns, Nova Scotia, in 1939, which still survives today. Another recent effort at maintaining (or perhaps restoring) Gaelic has been that sponsored by St Francis Xavier University, which has a department of Gaelic and a number of Gaelic-speaking faculty members.

Although most scholars would agree that language is the key to the perpetuation of a culture, the Gaelic culture consisted of far more than language and literature. Most fundamentally, there was a reciprocal relationship between the Gaelic culture and religion, either Roman Catholic or Protestant. In the latter tradition particularly, the expression of secular joy was often discouraged. But everywhere in the Gaelic community, especially among the Catholics, music and dance flourished. The great institution was the ceilidh, a semi-private assembling for song, story, and conversation. Scottish reels and jigs, often played by self-taught fiddlers, have entered the regional cultures of the Maritimes and even of Quebec, and there are several distinctive Scots styles of fiddling and country dancing.