Alexander Fraser’s Efforts to Establish Celtic Studies in Ontario

I’ve written two previous blog posts about aspects of the legacy of Alexander Fraser (Kiltarlity / Toronto, 1860-1936), a Scottish Gaelic scholar about whom I’ll be speaking at the Second World Congress of Scottish Literatures in Vancouver this June. Fraser is an interesting and complex subject, not least because of his identity as a Gael and his involvement in Gaelic affairs (something largely neglected by previous biographical studies). In this particular blog post I’ll be bringing together the material that I have regarding his educational efforts to organize and establish the field of Celtic Studies in Ontario universities.

A little background may be useful. As a set of subordinated ethnic groups subsumed within an anglocentric empire, the languages and cultures of Celtic peoples have been marginalized within the institutions of higher learning in the British Isles since their foundations. A degree of the resurgence of self-confidence is evident in the 1880s in Scotland, and in 1882 the first Chair of Celtic Studies was established in Edinburgh. Such accomplishments emboldened Gaels to strive for further recognition in formal institutions, not least in universities. Such efforts seem to have yielded much less success in the North American diaspora than in native lands.

The current Celtic Studies Program at the University of Toronto was established in 1981 after Robert O’Driscoll had been working on it for thirteen years. As we’ll see here, Fraser began his efforts at creating a centre in Ontario no later than 1903. And as a relevant comparison, Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair began teaching a Celtic Studies course at both Dalhousie University (Halifax) and St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish) in 1907.

According to a biographical sketch which appeared in the Celtic Monthly 1.20 (1912), Fraser had a long involvement in educational circles in Ontario:

“His interest in educational and historical affairs has been long and active. For twelve years he was a Trustee of the Collegiate Institute of Toronto, the educational link between the public schools and the University. He was in turn Chairman of all of the standing committees, and of the Board, rendering enduring service in the organization of studies … For three years he taught Gaelic to the students of Knox College.”

My plan for this blog entry – which is intended to help me organize materials and share a few thoughts – is to simply present the primary sources I have, with bits of commentary around them.

Setting a Course

The Toronto Mail newspaper reported on November 25, 1903 that Fraser addressed the Canadian Catholic Union to argue for support of Celtic Studies. In regards to the Irish language in particular, he said

“there had been very little indeed done in Canada, although the Celtic element was particularly strong in the country. Toronto University ought to have at least a Celtic lectureship, and if the Celts of Canada or of Ontario – the Irish, Scotch, Welsh — were to unite in demand for such it would have to be granted. Money ought to be subscribed apart from this by the wealthy Celts of Canada to establish an institute for research in the Celtic field and for stimulating a love for the history of their united race. …”

Of course, such “stimulation” was necessary, as educational authorities held Celtic languages and cultures in contempt and as beneath the notice of “true civilization,” which was supposedly the exclusive claim of English society.

The January 1904 issue of the Scottish Canadian (printed in Toronto) reprinted a report from the Evening Telegram, covering Fraser’s campaign:

“The proposal made the other day to have a Celtic lectureship in connection with the University, is not one that should be put aside without some consideration. In this quarter of Ontario, containing as it does a large proportion of people of Celtic origin, there is bound to be no small constituency of students interested in Celtic history and literature. As it is, there is no opportunity afforded these by the University of acquiring any knowledge of those subjects. … Another argument, however, in favor of a Celtic lectureship being established is the fact that it is impossible to understand fully English history and literature without intimately the extent to which the Celts have influenced English life and thought. And how can that be gained without an exhaustive study of Celtic works in the original?”

Lectures at MacMaster University

I have not yet determined the extent of Fraser’s engagement with Ontario universities and the courses that he was able to offer, but amongst his papers in the Archives of Ontario is a notice of his “Introductory Course of Lectures in Keltic History and Literature” offered at McMaster University, “held under the auspices of the McMaster University Literary Society at 8 o’clock in Castle Memorial Hall.”

The three lectures were as follows:

First Lecture (January 17th, 1913) – The Kelt: Identity, Geographical Distribution, History.
Second Lecture (January 31st, 1913) – Keltic Literature: Brythonic.
Third Lecture (February 14th,, 1913) – Keltic Literature: Gadelic [sic].

I do not know Fraser’s influences for the organization of this material, but it is interesting that it appears very similar to notes written by Rev. Alexander Maclean Sinclair about the topic as early as 1879. It may well be that they are both drawing from common framework dominant in contemporary scholarship.

Honorary Doctorate From St. Francis Xavier University

An issue of the Scottish Canadian (I do not have the date) reported gleefully about the meeting of the Gaelic Society of Canada in Toronto on 17 May, 1913 that one particular initiative had succeeded:

“That the Gaelic Society of Canada, whose main object is to encourage the study of the Gaelic language and literature, and scholarly research in the Keltic field, has learned with satisfaction and appreciation, of the worthy bestowal of the Degree of Doctor of Literature, honoris causa, on Alexander Fraser, LL.D., F.S.A. Scot. (Edin.), by the University of St. Francis Xavier, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in recognition of his scholarly attainments, especially in Keltic Literature and History, and his long and valuable services … The Society congratulates the University at Antigonish, on being the first University in Canada to thus recognize Keltic scholarship academically – as has been done for many years in Germany and Great Britain, and hopes other Universities in this great Dominion, that owe so much to the Keltic people, may appreciate this welcome example.”

St. Francis Xavier University was a symbolically important and relevant institution to bestow this recognition upon Fraser, given that it was established by Gaelic speakers in a large and dense settlement of Gaelic communities, and because the most celebrated Gaelic scholar on the continent – Alexander Maclean Sinclair – had been resident there attempting to lay the same sort of foundation. Fraser’s honorary degree could have the effect of validating the efforts of both men – who were, incidentally, Protestant in religious affiliation, being honored by a Catholic institution.

Fraser’s address to the audience at St. FX was printed in the local newspaper The Casket on May 22, 1913, a portion of which I give below. Several things are notable about what he says:

  1. He begins by sketching an outline of the early history of Christianity and the introduction of associated scholarship into the Gaelic world, drawing an implicit parallel between the “civilizing” of pagan Europe and colonial North America (a topic I’ve discussed in Seanchaidh na Coille).
  2. Like many other Gaels of his time (e.g., Maclean Sinclair), Fraser’s identification with Gaelic culture allowed him to transcend denominational differences and work easily with both Catholic and Protestant communities.
  3. His course of study of the Celts extends the narrative into the North American diaspora.
  4. He seems to downplay any strong antagonisms or innate incompatibilities between “Kelt” and Saxon, thus reflecting a deference to the dominant anglophone hegemony of his time in Canada and the wider empire.
  5. He accordingly does not argue for the intrinsic value of Gaelic as a living language worthy of equal recognition with English, but rather as an intellectual resource for studying the past.
  6. He nonetheless argues for the place of Celtic Studies in Canadian higher education, pointing to the vacuum left by its absence.
  7. He concludes with a brief Gaelic slogan, calling “the troops” to defend their birthright.

Here is the extract from his address that I’ve transcribed:

I desire to assure your Lordship and the Faculty that I esteem very highly the association I have been permitted to form with this University, having regard, in an especial manner, to what it represents as an institution of learning …

Antigonish reflects the genius of the Scottish race from which her organization sprang and her activities have been largely maintained. As the historic mists rise off ancient Scotland, we find St. Ninian completing Candida Casa, the monastery he dedicated to St. Martin of Tours, at Whithorn, in A.D. 402. A prince’s son, he dedicated his learning to God and preached the Gospel from Galloway to the Grampians, founding churches and civilizing the people. …

[more medieval history] … light and learning were held aloft by by the church, until, the time being ripe, the zeal of a few scholars who lectured on Philosophy, Logic and Canon Law at St. Andrews, was [sic] rewarded by Bishop Warlaw by obtaining from the Pope in 1411 the Charter of Scotland’s oldest university, that of St Andrews, which, next to Iona, is Scotland’s sacred shrine. The new born institution was nourished by church benefactions, contributions from the church tiends, and some crown grants. …

Thus we see that upholding the national tradition of our Fatherland, the three oldest universities were founded and supported by the Church as part of her work, and that secular – arts – as well as theological studies were provided for. …

It is obvious that such things as I have been referring to place every patriotic Scot, familiar with the early history of his country, under a deep obligation, and I have this in view when I say that I highly appreciate the honor just conferred on me by a University like yours which in Canada is a link with our great historic past, and seeks, as it does, to exemplify and uphold the Scottish ideal of true education.

You have been kind enough to refer to my interest in Keltic History and Literature. I reciprocate the sentiment, and congratulate this University on what, in this represent, it has done and is doing. The Rev. Mr. Maclean Sinclair, your lecturer in Keltic, is known as a Master of varied accomplishments in the Gaelic field. The chain that binds students in Gaelic together gains in strength what it may lack in length, and many lovers of our literature and lore are deeply grateful to him for ever ready help in their researches. It is not too much, moreover, to say, that when the tale of Gaelic in these Maritime Provinces in Canada is told in the future days, the feature of the narrative will be the extensive collection of Gaelic poetry he has, with infinite pains and devotion, gathered together, preserved, and given in permanent form to the public.

Whatever you are doing here we are beginning to try to do in Ontario. True, the Gaelic Society has, since its organization some twenty-fine years or so ago, some excellent work to its credit. Under its auspices classes in elementary Gaelic grammar have been conducted; Gaelic song and music and Gaelic preaching have been encouraged in a practical manner. Statistics of the Highland Settlements of Ontario, with pioneer reminiscences have been collected and collated which will prove valuable to future investigations of local history.

As an encouragement for the study of Gaelic literature, a Gaelic Fellowship was established a few years ago, under the provisions of the Society’s charter and a few gentlemen have been recipients of this honor. For some time a Gaelic class for advanced students was held at Knox College, drawing from Toronto University and affiliated colleges. Blackboard methods, alternating with critical lectures were followed, and the work was both interesting and fruitful. Out of this arose the desire to found a University lectureship in Keltic History and Literature on a permanent financial basis. A Committee was formed, the University authorities were sympathetic, and I had the grateful privilege this winter of inaugurating the course, as Honorary Lecturer. We have every reason to believe the project will succeed. …

I do not advocate the teaching of the Gaelic language in our universities except in so far as that may lead to competent instruction in Keltic philosophy; but I take this ground, that the content of Keltic History and Literature ought to be made known to students in Canadian universities,— not exactly on the same basis as philosophy, science and moderns (in these days of rampant pragmatism), but on the same basis as the higher classics, English Literature and History.

The content of the Keltic field is not unknown to most of you, nor to me would this be an opportune time to venture to describe it. It may be interesting to the uninitiated, however, to give an outline of the ground I tried to cover this winter at Toronto. My scheme was one of twelve lectures, each one introductory to its subject, and each prepared for non-Gaelic speaking students.

I. The family connection connection with the Teutons: (a) prehistoric Kelt and Teuton in Central Europe, and the history of the Keltic wars in Greece, Asia Minor, Illyria, and Italy; (b) Keltic and Germanic tongues,– the original common stock, especially home words,— father, mother, brother, etc.

II. Keltic and Latin, (especially Goidelic); Historical neighbors,– evidently in agricultural age,– bos, taurus, equus, ovis (Oisg).

III. Gaulish and British; Historical connections; Relics of Gaulish language.

IV. Early Christian Britain; a golden age; afterglow of legend and romance.

V. Early Irish legends and ballads; the Tuatha de Dannan, Cuchullin Cycle, Ossianic.

VI.— Early Keltic Art: Sculpture, scroll patterns, illuminated books, Literary exertions, tales, etc., Christian poetry, Latin hymns.

VII. The Keltic war of Britain and Ireland, 450 to 1000 A.D. The welding of races.

VIII. The Scottish Gael in the Middle Ages. Poetry and legends, imitations of the Ossianic: Keltic element in Scottish nationality; Wars of Scottish Independence.

IX. Kelt and Saxon in Ireland; the plantations; Kelticizing the Saxon; Literary activity.

X. The Scottish Gaels in the 18th century; The Jacobites; Macdonald and the Bards; Macpherson’s Ossian.

XI. The Modern Keltic Movement; the Eisteddfod; The Irish Gaelic League; the Scottish Gaelic Societies.

XII. The Keltic Element To-day:– in shaping the British Empire; in English Literature; in Canada and the United States. …

Why should Canadian universities lag behind in this field? If there [sic] objects and functions be to awaken a true love for learning, Keltic in its widest sense cannot justly be ignored. The Kelt belongs to a race whose history spreads over Europe and the British Isles, a race whose ancient remains offer to the anthropologist and archaeologist alike most valuable material for the elucidation of the obscure history of men … Without a knowledge of the Kelt the history of Europe is incomplete, that of Great Britain and Ireland, hopelessly confused. And, having such a heritage should not we, the offspring of the Gael in Canada, insist that due place and credit be accorded to it in our halls of learning?

Canada owes much to the Kelt – the Kelt of France, of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. It were a small return, educationally, were the history of a people that has entered into the warp and woof of our population – into the very making of Canada to such an extent as has the Kelt should be revealed to the students in our universities. You, young gentlemen, can do much in such a sacred cause. The field was never better tilled, nor the harvest more promising than at present.

Will you, and all of us, accept the legacy, and assume, for the still virile remnant of our race, the obligation that, it would seem, destiny itself has called upon us to discharge? For the name and fame of our fathers will you as was wont of old raise the Gaelic bratach, le cath-ghairm nan laochraidh, – clanna nan Gàidheal ann an guaillibh a chéile!

The Future of the Campaign

The last I know of this effort are the minutes of the meeting held at No.294 Avenue Road Toronto on the 23rd August, 1913 (also in Fraser’s papers in the Archive of Ontario). Present at the meeting were Neil Robertson, chairman. Hugh MacDonald, secretary; Hugh Ray, Donald Fraser, John M. Robertson and Alexander Fraser.

It was resolved to start collecting funds immediately to endow the lectureship; to convey formal thanks to McMaster University for hosting the inaugural lectures; and that lectureship be named after Fraser.

Did they raise any funds? What became of them? Those are open questions to me at present … Regardless, I consider the apparent failure of this initiative to be a real tragedy, not just because of the loss of an early opportunity to develop the field in North America in a major centre of learning, but also because of the default direction of all of the human capital represented by the sizable Celtic diaspora in Ontario.

In other words, the very large number of people in Ontario, and indeed Canada, who came from families who spoke Breton, Gaelic, Irish, Manx and Welsh, saw little opportunity for honoring or enshrining their own languages, histories and cultures in the formal institutions of their nation, but had instead to invest their life energies into upholding and enriching the language and culture and values of an anglocentric empire. The modern myth of a homogenous “English Canada” bloc is built by ignoring such history and this pattern of deference to anglocentric norms has certainly not been to the benefit of the native peoples of this continent.


Michael Linkletter (2006). “Bu Dual Dha Sin (That was His Birthright): Gaelic Scholar Alexander Maclean Sinclair (1840-1924).” Unpublished PhD thesis, Harvard University.

Michael Linkletter (2009). “The Early Establishment of Celtic Studies in North American Universities.” Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium (29): 138-53.

Michael Newton (2003). “ ‘Becoming Cold-hearted like the Gentiles Around Them’: Scottish Gaelic in the United States 1872-1912.” eKeltoi 2: 63-131.

Michael Newton (2013). Ed. Celts in the Americas.

Michael Newton (2015). Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada.

Michael Newton (2016). “Gaelic Organizations in Nineteenth- and Early-Twentieth-Century Ontario.” International Review of Scottish Studies 41: 37-71.


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