Interview with Dr A. R. MacKinnon about Gaelic in Bruce County

The Charles William Dunn Collection of Scottish Gaelic Fieldwork Recordings from Gaelic Canada contains an extensive and invaluable set of audio recordings from the mid-twentieth century. Although most of the fieldwork was conducted by Prof Dunn himself, one set of materials – recorded in Bruce County, Ontario, between 1958 and 1964 – was done by Dr. A. R. (“Archie”) MacKinnon, formerly at Simon Fraser University.

A few years ago, when I was working on the Gaelic-Canadian literature anthology Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest, I was delighted to find Archie (left), alive and well, in British Columbia. The work he did is an unique window into the Gaelic communities of the Bruce. Although he made comments on this material and his experiences in the region in an article he wrote (“Gaelic in the Bruce,” Bruce County Historical Society Yearbook 13 [1967]), and in the booklet Gaelic in a Bruce County Tiree Settlement: Some Recollections of Archie MacKinnon, these sources are not well known outside the local area.

As I would not like Dr. MacKinnon’s contributions to the history of Gaelic fieldwork in North America to be overlooked or forgotten, I contacted him again at the beginning of 2018 and found him once again, a delightful person with full memories. I asked him for an email interview and these are his responses to my questions.

1. Can you please tell us about your background: Where and when were you born?  What was your personal sense of identity when you were growing up?  How did your family and community seem to perceive and represent its heritage and identity? 

I was born at home on the farm in 1927. The farm was on Concession 11, Kincardine Township, where the Gaelic of the Isle of Tiree could still be heard. The community was established in the 1850s and had migrants predominantly from England, Ireland, Scotland, the Scandinavian countries and Germany.

Persons who had Gaelic as a first language purchased land in relationship to their specific culture. I was introduced to Gaelic for the simple reason that my grandmother lived with us and found difficulty in speaking English. What we had was ‘grandma talk’ as we entered into Gaelic. The density of Gaelic speakers in the area meant that Gaelic was the language of work, commerce, and the feeling of identity.

The demands of the various cultures moved towards a common language, which was English. Gaelic was essentially reserved for special social occasions as the community moved increasingly to a Canadian language.

2. Did you hear Gaelic growing up? Who spoke Gaelic and in what contexts? What was the common attitude regarding the language?

Gaelic was the language of my family for the period of time that Grandma MacDonald lived with us. When Grandma left the farm to live in Kincardine with her daughter, Eva, the move towards English increased rapidly.

Gaelic was essentially the social language of the community.

3. Tell us about what motivated you to record Gaelic speakers, and their songs, in Bruce County.  Did anyone give you any advice about how to go about doing recording and fieldwork?  How did you know who to ask to speak and sing for you?  How long did you spend doing it?  Did this make people feel shy, embarrassed, proud, nostalgic … ? What are some of your fondest memories of that experience?  Was there anything that particularly surprised, shocked or pleased you about doing this work?

I was very aware that the life of Gaelic in the area was shortening rapidly. I had been doing some work recording various stories on tape and sharing these with the Bruce County Historical Society.

My focus on Gaelic was a direct result of association with Charles Dunn at the University of Toronto during his field work in Bruce County, and our contacts in Edinburgh and Harvard. I learned much from Charles on the process of recording oral culture.

Most of my informants were initially embarrassed and very shy about their Gaelic. By playing the recordings of others, however, the floodgates soon opened. The recording sessions were normally quite spontaneous with frequent requests to ‘play back’.

There was great joy in the activities including repeated songs sung several times over. The process was primarily for my own delight. It was only with the urging of several members of the Bruce County Historical Society that I moved the story into print form and the audio onto tape.

4. What would you ideally like to see happen in Bruce County regarding its Gaelic heritage? What would the best means be of commemorating and celebrating the history and culture?  How might the recordings you made support such efforts?

The Bruce County Historical Society and the Bruce County Museum have been active in building a Sound Archive. The initial items at the museum prompted other cultural groups to participate so that the Archives now have folk culture for England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany. There are even some small collections growing out of the Swedish settlements.

There are special occasions at the museum which highlight collections, and the recordings which I made, and those of Margaret MacKay, have been featured in some of these special exhibitions.

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