One of the most persistent misrepresentations regarding the Gaelic language is that it was a purely oral one, with no written form or literary tradition until the modern period. This misguided notion is not just erroneous, it’s a distortion and insult, given that Gaels (like their Brittonic peers) were reading and writing their own native language generations before the Anglo-Saxons and were certainly instrumental in the creation of literacy in English itself.
In any case, although I’ve provided some discussion about literacy and the practice of Scottish Gaelic literary tradition in Canada in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of the Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, there is certainly plenty more information waiting to be gathered to help us gain a more accurate picture of the prevalence of literacy amongst Gaels (breaking it down further according to religion, gender, age, etc), the attitudes surrounding it, methods by which Gaels gained literacy, and so on.
Here is the first two further pieces of evidence, a letter in the Gaelic column of The Casket newspaper dated March 18, 1920. The author discusses people he knows offhand to have been literate in just one community of mainland Nova Scotia. The letter was signed with the name of the community “Muileann nan Frisealach” (Frasers’ Mills – plural in English, but singular in Gaelic, perhaps capturing an earlier era of the community).
Tha móran dhaoine mu chuairt air feadh seo a leughas a’ Ghàidhlig, agus tha mi cinnteach na[m] feuchadh iad gu[n] sgriobhadh iad i cuideachd. ’S ann diubh seo, Aonghas Alasdair an Ridge (Domhnallach) a leughas agus a nì òrain Ghàidhlig, agus ’s glé mhath a sheinneas e iad; Iain B. mac Aonghais ’ic Eóbhain ’ic Ruairidh ’ic Iain ’ic Dhùghaill (Mac a’ Phearsain) agus a mhàthair a tha glé fhiosrach mu ar sinnsearachd; Bean Dhomhnaill ’ic Iain ’ic Ùistein (Domhnallach) a tha faighinn pàipear naidheachd ás an t-Seann Dùthaich; Aonghas MacAonghais Bhoid a leughas Gàidhlig cho luath ’s a leughas e Beurla ged a tha e ’na mhaighstir-sgoile! — agus e làn òran; Alasdair mac Gilleasbuig ’is Aonghais Mhóir (MacGillÌosa) a tha ’na sgrìobhadair cho math ’s a tha an-seo; Domhnall mac Dhomhnaill ’ic Eóbhain (MacGilleBhràth) a tha ’na dhuine fiosrach agus ’s glé mhath a sheinneas e “An Gleann ’s an robh mi òg”; Aonghas Ailein (Mac a’ Phearsain) a tha math air naidheachdan agus cuid dhiubh ait; Iain mac Iain ’ic Ìosaig á Springfield; agus Iain mac Dhùghaill ’ic a’ Phearsain ás an àite cheudna :— dà sheann mhaighstir sgoil (sgrìobhaidh MacÌosaig a’ Ghàidhlig ach chan eil mi cinnteach mu Mac a’ Phearsain; gheibh mi a-mach fhathast); Iain Dhomhnaill Ailein ’ic Ghilleasbuig a leughas i; mar a i móran eile a chuireas mi sìos fhathast. Tha iad seo far na h-Aibhne Deas agus bho Springfield.
There are many people throughout this area who read Gaelic, and I am sure that if they were to try, that they could write it as well. Amongst these are Angus the Ridge MacDonald, who reads it and composes Gaelic songs, and he sings them well; John B. MacPherson, and his mother who is very knowledgable about our ancestry; the wife of Donald MacDonald, who subscribes to a newspaper in the Old Country; Angus Boyd, who reads Gaelic as quickly as he reads English even though he is a school-master! – and he is full of songs; Alexander Gillies who is as good of a writer as can be found here; Donald MacGillivray who is a learned man and is very good at singing “The Glen in Which I was Born”; Angus MacPherson who is good at reciting stories, some of them humourous; John MacIsaac from Springfield; and John MacPherson from the same place :– two school-masters (MacIsaac writes Gaelic but I’m not sure about MacPherson; I’ll find out yet); John MacGilles who reads it; as do many others who I will record eventually. These are those from South River and Springfield. (N.B.: I have not provided the entire patrilineal lineage of people given in the Gaelic text)
There are some interesting aspects to the eleven people named in this list: two of them are women; one of the women reads a newspaper printed in Scotland and sent across the ocean; one of the men is noted as singing a song which was composed in Scotland well after the original emigrants left, suggesting that it may have been learnt through print media; the list includes three school masters, a profession not generally noted for the support of Gaelic and usually credited with teaching English to the detriment of Gaelic.
The contributor was probably emphasizing the prevalence of Gaelic literacy at this time, and the engagement of people in formal education with it, because there was a popular petition circulating in Nova Scotia in 1920 for the formal recognition and support of Gaelic in the school curriculum. It is further worth noting that the area is predominantly Catholic (which people generally assume to have a weaker tradition of literacy than Protestant communities.)
On to a second source of evidence. A few months ago, a man in Massachusetts contacted me out the blue, asking if I would be interested in the Gaelic texts left by his father. I believe that his name was Gilleasbuig Tormod MacGillFhaolain (Archibald N. MacLellan), although this may have been his grandfather’s name – I’m a little unsure. In any case, he was a native Gaelic speaker originally from Cape Breton. This generous gift consisted of about a dozen books, over a dozen periodicals, and hand-written notes in Gaelic. These materials demonstrate a passionate attachment to his Gaelic heritage and ongoing engagement with it over a considerable period.
The periodicals included a copy of An Gàidheal (1876), several copies of Mac-Talla (1890s), a copy of Guth na Bliadhna (1920s?), The Canadian-American Gael (1944) and 8 copies of Gairm (1950s and ’60s). Almost all of the content of these volumes is in Gaelic only.
Most of the books were printed in Scotland and include Aig Taigh na Beinne (1911), Is Leam Fhìn An Gleann (1935), Òrain Ghaidhlig le Seonaidh Caimbeul (1936), and Rosg Gàidhlig (1929). A couple of the books were printed in Nova Scotia, however: Iùl a’ Chrìostaidh (Antigonish, 1901) and Gaelic Lessons for Beginners (Sydney, 1939).
These texts may have been accumulated from numerous people who owned them previously over a long period of time. What’s interesting, however, is that a few of them bear a mark showing that they were purchased at The MacDonald Music Store in Antigonish, demonstrating that there was some demand for Gaelic materials in the area and that at least one local retailer was attempting to accommodate it.
The hand-written pages include the expected notes on genealogy, but also a transcription of verses of a popular Gaelic song (“Se mo leannan am fear ùr”) as well as an original Gaelic song (with the chorus “Hi o, mise tha fo mhì-ghean / ’s mi leam fhéin an-seo ’s an àthaidh / Hi o, mise tha fo mhì-ghean”). The typewritten copy has the date 1960 on the bottom and is attributed to Gilleasbuig, but whether this is the date of composition or of transcription is not clear. In either case, these texts attest to the tenacity of Gaelic literary tradition amongst members of the Highland immigrant community and to the materials that may still be lingering in attics, waiting to be discovered.