Canada, Modern

Revitalizing Gaelic in Nova Scotia

This blog entry introduces and gives some background about a video documentary that I completed in 2012 called Singing against the Silence (A’ Seinn an aghaidh na Balbhachd). It is my attempt to gather the insights and opinions of selected Nova Scotia Gaels and weave them into a larger narrative that connects Gaelic revitalization to larger concerns. But the documentary is my interpretation of the potential meaning of this movement and, like any other community, the voices reflect only one set of views. I have now uploaded a new edit of the documentary in high-definition to YouTube – you can watch it here.

A History of Marginalization

During the seven years I spent in Scotland, I often went to visit elderly Gaelic speakers that I heard about or sought out in various ways. Some of them had been in residential homes for years, occasionally forgetting the English they had learned as adults and reverting to their mother tongue. They were always happy to have visitors, especially if the visitors could speak Gaelic. I am very grateful to them for sharing their language, knowledge and experiences with me, as well as to my many other teachers.

One of many memories I have of such visits was with Domhnall Camshron, probably the last native speaker of Gaelic from Dalmally, Argyllshire, in about 1996. I waited in a common room for him to be brought in by one of the staff, a youngish Scottish woman. As she sat him down and left the room, she said in a dismissive tone, “OK, you can talk your ‘moon language’ now.”

I was unprepared for such a cold expression of bigotry. The retirement home was in area where Gaelic was the native language – and only language – since recorded history. The entire landscape was inscribed with Gaelic names. The residents of the home, even if not fluent Gaelic speakers themselves, were almost all from Gaelic families.

It was if the attendant was stating, “I don’t want have anything to do with that dirty foreign language; I disown any association with it; if you want to be soiled by that alien muck that doesn’t belong in my space, go ahead, but leave me out of it. It frightens me.”

And there are many other such anecdotes of prejudice and stigma that Gaelic speakers can tell of people expressing contempt for Gaelic in the very areas where it has been cradled since beyond living memory. In fact, this dehumanization of Gaelic and its speakers forms and reflects an ideology of contempt which has weakened it over centuries (McEwan-Fujita 2011).

Present-Day Nova Scotia

The last generation of native Gaelic speakers who were raised in Gaelic-speaking homes and communities is now dying in Nova Scotia. Although there is a small number of fluent learners, this sociolinguistic collapse is a frightening event to those who care about Scottish Gaelic culture and heritage. Scottish Gaelic has been spoken by communities in the Canadian Maritimes since the 1770s (Newton 2013), and given the amount of neglect and persecution it has experienced, perhaps its survival to the present is a minor miracle.

Still, for a language that was the third-most common European language in Canada at the time of Confederation (1867), and which had around 100,000 speakers in the Maritimes at its peak in the 19th century, its decline has been precipitous and relentless (Dembling 2006). Of course, Gaelic is not indigenous to North America but Scotland, and the survival of First Nations languages like Mi’kmaw perhaps deserves attention and support above all – but these need not be exclusionary. In fact, I would argue that improving the understanding and significance of culture and language in the province would improve the prospects for both.

Languages don’t “die” on their own. It is unnatural for people to give up such a central aspect of their lives and communities and adopt those of another people. Only vulnerable societies, whose cultural and economic well-being has been undermined, experience these impositions. A very wide-ranging study of indigenous languages and their relationship to native cultures and environments states this plainly:

The notion of language suicide of course puts the blame squarely on the victim. This view is not constructive and in any case, is ill-founded. People do not kill themselves on a whim. Suicide is indicative of mental and often physical illness brought about by undue stress. Likewise, people do not fling away their languages for no good reason. … many instances of language shift and death occur under duress and stressful social circumstances, where there is no realistic choice but to give in. Many people stop speaking their languages out of self-defense as a survival strategy. (Nettle and Romaine 2000: 6).

Gaelic has a long history of persecution at the hands of anglophones in Scotland. Prejudice against Gaels, portrayed as the inferior race, is certainly visible by the 13th century. Despite the takeover of the Scottish Lowlands by a form of English (now, ironically, known as “Scots”), Gaelic continued to thrive in other parts of the Scottish Highlands and Western Isles, largely due to a symbiotic relationship with Gaelic Ireland. Gaeldom was a fully developed European civilization, with its own professionally educated classes and systems of law, politics, literature and art, with proud roots in the pre-Christian Celtic past (Newton 2009).

Aggressively expansionist anglophone authorities created and implemented policies which turned ethnocentric prejudices to systemic domination and oppression. By the early 17th century, the government of Lowland Scotland used politics and education in an attempt to extirpate Gaelic and replace it with English. As Scotland entered into a Union of Crowns and then a Union of Parliaments with England, anglocentric ideologies of hegemony and superiority were entrenched.

By the late 18th century, when Highland communities were migrating en masse to colonies in North America, Gaelic society had endured crippling blows to its culture, social structures and self-confidence. Thus, Gaelic communities came to North America already in a weakened state and as a result of marginalization. Despite this, Gaelic communities, especially in the Maritimes, can justifiably recall many novel accomplishments with satisfaction, such as books and periodicals published in Gaelic and a flourishing of music and oral tradition (Newton 2013).

Highland emigrants for a time escaped some of the worst economic disparities by coming to North America, but anglocentric and anti-Celtic prejudices prevailed in all territories of the British Empire. Over time, infrastructures of state, church and school were constructed in the Maritimes that effectively disenfranchised Gaels culturally and linguistically (Kennedy 2002).

Despite this, Gaelic has survived, albeit tenuously, to the present, allowing a new generation to renew efforts to revitalize it. This is still a small-scale movement that is not well known beyond a relatively small circle, and after a few years of being involved in matters in Nova Scotia, I decided that a video documentary would be the most powerful medium for telling this story to a wider audience.

Challenges to Reviving Gaelic in Nova Scotia

I do hope that current efforts to revitalize Gaelic can bear fruit in Nova Scotia but I believe that there are many complex issues that must be acknowledged and addressed before the language can be restored to anywhere near the vitality it once enjoyed in the Maritimes.

In my opinion, a central issue is that of language ideology: how do people understand the role of language in society, culture, identity, and so on. In my opinion, public discourse and education in the region does not sufficiently explain and value the importance of the social and cultural roles of language. The other main minority languages in the community, Mi’kmaw and Acadian French, face a similar struggle and would benefit if they could critique the de facto privilege and dominance of English.

In a wide-ranging article examining these issues in Scotland and Nova Scotia, which incorporates the findings of research by Elizabeth Mertz in Nova Scotia (written in 1982), Emily McEwan-Fujita concurs that economic issues are not sufficient to explain the large-scale shift from Gaelic to English that occurred in the last several generations:

Although factors like migration to industrial centers, economic dominance of majority language speakers, state boundaries, political events and ecological and demographic factors have been significant in Cape Breton and other cases of language shift, simply identifying various external ‘factors’ and imputing a direct causal relationship does not fully explain the relatively sudden tip from Gaelic to English in Cape Breton. Instead, speakers who observe and experience these ‘external’ factors interpret them through an ‘internal’ filter of cultural conceptions about the social nature of language, which Mertz terms a ‘metapragmatic filer’.  The particular filter that Mertz describes for Cape Breton consists of two elements: (1) a view of Gaelic and English as incompatible and (2) a dichotomy between English and Gaelic such that English is seen as the language of the mainstream, the new and progress, and Gaelic is seen as the language of rural areas, the old and backwardness. (McEwan-Fujita 2010: 186-7).

Of the three minority languages of Nova Scotia, Gaelic has the weakest ideological foundations. Mi’kmaw can assert its status as the indigenous language of the region and its restoration an aspect of the recognition of the colonial damages inflicted on native peoples. Although Acadian French is distinctive from “standard” forms of French, French enjoys national protection and institutional support across Canada, as well as international prestige, even if most Nova Scotians simply treat it as a job skill to acquire which they expect will enhance employment prospects.

At this point, the shift from Gaelic to English has happened almost completely in Nova Scotia. People need to be very motivated to ally themselves with a minoritized language. What rationale is being presented? What can it offer them? What is the vision of the future? What would a successful Gaelic-speaking community look like? Who are or could be successful role models for young people? Young people aren’t going to commit themselves to a language and culture which doesn’t look bright and offer the possibility of happiness and success, and Gaelic will only become a self-regenerating language if young people become fluent before they start having children.

It is problematic that Gaels have, to a large degree, internalized the stigmas and negative stereotypes about their language and culture produced as a result of its marginalization by an anglocentric empire, as reflected in the work by Mertz and McEwan-Fujita quoted above. It is not unusual for people to absorb unconsciously the views of the dominant culture, but it is imperative for those who are disenfranchised by them to be able to critique and resist them if they are not to be impaired by them. This should be the role of a successful education but again, these issues of dominance and subjugation in cultural and linguistic domains do not seem to be well addressed in educational institutions in the region and Gaelic does not have many allies in academia who would contribute intellectually to such efforts.

I know numerous North Americans who do not belong to a Gaelic community but who learned the language fluently, are energetic, imaginative and altruistic, and who could make positive contributions to its revitalization, yet there is no way to integrate them into a Gaelic community or for them to find gainful employment in doing this work. This is tragic, in my view, and a waste of individual and communal potential.

Many native Gaels have become constrained in their beliefs and imaginations by the circumstances under which Gaelic was marginalized, and restrict themselves too often to these limitations. Gaelic has survived in Nova Scotia in part through isolation and by being cherished by a subsistence-level rural community. These people who have kept Gaelic alive deserve respect and honour for doing so, but it is easily forgotten that a much wider range of social classes spoke Gaelic in the past, using it in a much wider range of tasks and domains, including a full range of intellectual tasks.

If members of Gaelic communities are serious about keeping Gaelic alive, I think that they should be open to anyone who wants to learn and use it, in all contexts, and for all sorts of purposes. There has never been just one Gaelic identity, or way to be a Gael, or to use Gaelic. Gaelic culture has never been static and its shrinkage in social and linguistic terms is an accident of history. A prominent and influential member of the Nova Scotian Gaelic community is reported to have asserted, “If it’s not fishing, farming, fighting or f**king, it’s not Gaelic.” I don’t think that this is a positive vision for the future or for attracting capable, ambitious and talented people to the language.

In both Scotland and Ireland, much of the progress and initiative in recent decades has come from urban communities in places like Belfast, Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh, where schools have been established and initiatives to modernize Gaelic have made headway. Urban centers as a general rule have the highest concentrations of wealth, learning, and innovation, and thus tend to initiate the trends that rural areas follow. Gaelic needs linguistic loyalties that transcend the narrow bonds of kinship which prevail in rural communities. Might schools and centers in Halifax and Sydney help to normalize and modernize Gaelic for the young?

I bring up these issues (for which there is not time or space to elaborate in full) not as an enemy but as an ally in Gaelic revitalization, and because I believe that these are obstacles on the road to Gaelic’s recovery and to improve the condition of other marginalized groups in the region.

Select Bibliography

David Crystal. Language Death. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Jonathan Dembling. “Gaelic in Canada: new evidence from an old census.” In Cànan & Cultar/Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 3, edited by Wilson McLeod, James Fraser and Anja Gunderloch, 203-14. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press, 2006.

Kennedy, Michael. Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study. Halifax: Nova Scotia Museum, 2002.

Emily McEwan-Fujita. “Sociolinguistic Ethnography of Gaelic Communities.” In The Edinburgh Companion to the Gaelic Language, edited by Moray Watson and Michelle Macleod, 172-217. Edinburgh University Press, 2010.

Emily McEwan-Fujita. “Language revitalization discourses as metaculture: Gaelic in Scotland from the 18th to 20th centuries.”  Language & Communication 31.1 (2011):48-62.

Emily McEwan-Fujita. “Gaelic Revitalization Efforts in Nova Scotia: Reversing Language Shift in the 21st Century.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 160-86. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Michael Newton. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Birlinn, 2009.

Michael Newton. “Bards of the Forests, Prairies and Skyscrapers: Scottish Gaels in the Americas.” In Celts in the Americas, edited by Michael Newton, 76-93. Cape Breton University Press, 2013.

Daniel Nettle and Suzanne Romaine. Vanishing Voices: The Extinction of the World’s Languages. Oxford University Press, 2000.


8 thoughts on “Revitalizing Gaelic in Nova Scotia”

  1. Dear Michael,
    I think you made a fantastic point in regards to the need for openess in present day Nova Scotia Gaelic culture. I have been seriously commited to Scottish Highland history and Gaelic culture since I was a boy in California without the benefit of having a community to draw upon. I earned a degree in Celtic Studies from St. F. X. as well. I am suprised how hard it is to connect with Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia. Despite my efforts to reach out, the welcome or feeling of support just does not seem to be there. I hope this attitude changes at some point because I believe that exclusion ( if that is what it is) is not a postive way of keeping the language and culture alive. At the moment, it feels like a rather solitary puruit.

    1. There are some areas in mainland Nova Scotia which (more academically than not) teach and converse in Gaelic, but in Cape Breton, especially here Inverness County, there are literally coffee (or tea) klatsches where you meet in someone’s house or kitchen, and talk in Gaelic. Perhaps the subject will be cooking, or woodworking, but they are open for conversation in Gaelic. And you can take informal lessons as well, in manageable and affordable segments. There is a serious, community-led effort to revitalise the language in these parts. I’m sorry you felt an exclusionary attitude among the Gaelic speakers. The ones I know would love to talk with you.

  2. Really enjoyed this, and agree with all your points about Gaelic.

    Mind you, I think it’s a bit unfair on the poor old Scots language to mention “the takeover of the Scottish Lowlands by a form of English (now, ironically, known as “Scots”)…”

    Surely Scots could be described, less pejoratively, as “an indigenous language which developed in the South and East of the country in parallel with, but distinct and independent from, the language of England”?

    Is there really evidence of prejudice against Gaels in the 13th Century? I thought that all started much later (16th C?)

  3. I think another worry for Gaelic is the presence of hobbiests. I partially include myself in this category. I recently read an editorial in a local Scottish paper in which the writer goes on a rant about the disproportionate amount of money and visibility given to Gaelic in his particular area and in the country more generally. Interestingly, the editorial is prefaced by a disclaimer saying that the writer sometimes sings Gaelic songs and has participated in a play about The Clearances.
    This to me this illustrates a problem for Gaelic be it in Scotland, Nova Scotia or wherever. Gaelic doesn’t need more hobbiests. Gaelic needs more people who will support and endure the inconvenience of living in a largely disfavored language community.

  4. “Gaelic will only become a self-regenerating language if young people become fluent before they start having children.”
    Agus seo agaibh teis-meadhan na cùise. Don’t disparage the ‘hobbists’ as you call them, or the academics for that matter (who are simply hobbists who get paid — LOL) for they can keep a language ticking over indefinitely even in the absence, or near-absence, of natural communities of speakers. However it’s a half-dead, half-alive state. The people who come to language classes or who study by themselves tend to be middle-aged or retired, making it very difficult to re-start intergenerational transmission. Worse still it may simply reinforce the image of an ‘old-people’s language/culture’. OTOH you can only work with what you have.
    One paradox is that the stigma attached to a minority language may die with the generation that includes its last ‘traditional’ speakers. (I’ll add a link if I can find it)

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