A Scottish Gaelic Bard in Vancouver, Domhnall MacIlleathain

Later this week (June 21-25), the second World Congress of Scottish Literatures will be hosted in Vancouver, British Columbia. While the literature of the Scottish Lowlands has not received adequate academic attention, Scottish Gaelic has been marginalized to a much greater extent, so it is important to draw attention to the rich store of materials that originate in the same places where Scottish literature is supposed to be nurtured and cherished. This blog post will, therefore, provide a translation of a song-poem that evokes the life of the Scottish Gaelic community there.

As I’ve mentioned in two previous blog posts (here and here), there were loads of Scottish Gaels in the Pacific North-west, not least in Vancouver itself. There are correspondingly large numbers of Scottish Gaelic texts composed in and about the life of Gaels in the region. No one has yet done a systematic compilation and analysis of such materials (I have just two important sources from Vancouver in my recent anthology Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest), which I believe would add greatly to our understanding of Vancouver’s extended Gàidhealtachd.

In 2005, Comann Eachdraidh Tholstaidh bho Thuath (the North Tolsta Gaelic Society, on the Isle of Lewis) produced a wonderful volume of literature composed by the poets of town from the mid-nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth entitled Clachan Crìche. It includes several poets who ended up living in Canada. One of these was a man named Domhnall MacIlleathain, commonly known as Domhnall Dhiogan (1889-1962). He and his wife Anna NicLeòid (Anna Dhànaidh) moved to Vancouver before the First World War, but maintained their connection to Lewis through a broad Gaelic social network. They actively maintained such links especially by seeking out the sailors who came to port in Vancouver and providing them accommodation. Their house was clearly a céilidh house, where song and story, victuals and hospitality, were shared. Such sociality is the subject of song, but also the means by which news and oral tradition were transmitted and kept alive.

Amongst the songs composed by Domhnall Dhiogan is one depicting his invitation of Gaelic soldiers back to his home, with many sly bits of humour. It begins with a description of the downscale boat on which they were sailing, the “Induna,” but follows them as they come into this large and unfamiliar city: intimidating to some of the Lewis boys. It is a warm, kindly and vibrant depiction of the intersections of Gaels in the city with their seagoing relations and the exchange of culture between them.

As my time is short, I will not attempt to provide the Gaelic text, only my own translation into English.

  1. On the afternoon of the Sabbath, a boat came to the city, entering the harbour; she was ugly to look at, low around the back, with her high sails in tatters, and the covering of her shoulders was like the top of the soil – lacking paint.
  2. Smoke came out of her high mouth, she moved slowly, nothing was moving in her except a man or two in the prow; the little boss was giving a command: “O Duadan, hurry up! Take this rope, MacRuagan, and tie the boat immediately, before you are stolen!”
  3. Courage, hope and knowledge arose in their conversation: “I am Murchadh son of Seonaidh, this is Domhnall, my brother; this is Murchadh son of Ruagan, and Aonghas son of Murchadh son of Calum, his neighbour; this is Tormod son of Uilleam, his uncle is married to Màrlaid; if you remember.”
  4. “I am pleased to see you! I will be sorry to leave you. Come over to my home; my wife is Anna Dhànaidh.” Murchadh said in response, “You are married into my family! She is the daughter of the brother of my grandfather, the oldest daughter of Dànaidh of Cnoc!”
  5. “Come over, and you can have anything that is in our dwelling; your bellies will be over-stuffed with marag and potato; she will be happy to see you, and she will get news from the place [Lewis] where she was young, and where she left her relations, so far from here.”
  6. A carriage came to get us, and it was quickly filled; with an order to move, going down to the ferry; MacRuagain was praying, “Give my soul mercy; it was safer for me to be travelling the oceans than to be here!”
  7. We arrived at the place, on the edge of the forest; we shook hands, with a smile on every face: “How are you, my dear? Who is the mother of the boys? Come inside to our home, you are welcome,” said the woman of the house.
  8. “This is Bac; this is Duadan; and Aonghas son of Murchadh son of Calum; this is Cutsaidh son of Ruagan; this is Coididh, your relation; he was your neighbour, out on the side of the mountain; and you will get news of the place, nothing will be hidden from you by black-haired Duadan.”
  9. “Come over, friends! Our table is loaded; you can have skate [fish] and potatoes, your grandfathers’ favourite food; it is fresh, as it is best that way, and the smell won’t overwhelm you; you are far away from your children, whom you blessed as you left; down [your gullets] with the skate!”
  10. “Pass the potatoes, they are better unpeeled; take away the spoons, our hands will suffice for them; although it is the custom of this place, we much prefer our fingers as we learned when we were young, eating little fish at home.”
  11. [Prayer] “O, my brothers, we will be closing our eyes: we give thanks to you, o God, that this boat is in Vancouver; but if you were to do us justice, you will break the Induna, so that she will not leave this place as soon as she expected with the lovely lads.”

Domhnall Mac na Ceardaich’s Address to Canadian Gaels

One of the important Gaelic literati in early-twentieth-century Scotland was Barraman Domhnall Mac na Ceardaich. A very large volume containing a collection of his songs, poems, plays, and essays – 473 pages worth! – was released in 2014, entitled D.M.N.C. (his initials). Although I have not fully read it, I don’t think that the editors were aware that Domhnall was a contributor to the newspaper The Casket in Nova Scotia and wrote letters addressed to fellow Gaels in Canada.

Below is an extract from one of his letters (3 March 1927). In it, he addresses readers as Gaels of Canada – not Scots, or Catholics, or any such subgrouping – and exhorts them to stay true to their language. This demonstrates The Casket as one of several periodicals that connected Gaels across the Atlantic as well as Canada via print culture.

A mhuinntir mo ghaoil; a chlanna Ghàidheal Chanada, beannaicheam dhuibh an cànain bhlath, bhinn, bhuadhar ur sinnsir – cuiream failte, furan, agus fichead flath fialaidh oirbh an ainm mo dhùthcha, an ainm ur dearbh-mhuinntreach agus ur Gàidhealtachd fhéin; an ainm nam Beannachdan geala! […]

An là a chailleas gineal a’ Ghàidheil cuimhne air cànain bheannaichte Chaluim Chille, – an là a chailleas e an iuchair luachmhor seo, gun caill e am feasda aon seòl, aon chomas sonraichte, air a leas spioradail fhéin a dhèanamh gu h-iomchuidh. Oir ‘s a’ Ghàidhlig tha taisgte eòlas agus aithne spioradail sluagh a bha, agus a tha, air leth spioradail. […]

A mhuinntir mo ghaoil: Gàidheal gun eòlas air a chànain fhéin, gun ùidh gun aithne an cainnt uasail oileanta a shinnsir, chan eil ann ach leth-duine; duine easbhuidheach. Dh’fhaodainn a ràdh le fìrinne nach eil ann mar an ceudna ach duine aineolach ged an robh aige làn a chinn de theangannan choigreach, oir tha e a dh’easbhuidh eòlas air litreachas agus meanmna cinnich air na bhuilich Dia buadhan toirbheartach anma agus innsgin agus aignidh. Tha e, a dh’aon fhacal, a dh’easbhuidh na h-iuchrach ud – a fhreagras an glais dhìomhair doruis anma fhéin. […]

O my beloved people; o Gaels of Canada, let me bless you in the warm, melodious, virtuous language of your ancestors – I salute you, and send you noble, generous greetings in the name of my country, in the name of your people and your own Gaelic community; in the name of the fair blessings! […]

The day that the Gaelic generation loses its knowledge of the blessed language of St Columba, – the day that it loses this precious key, it will lose forever one means, one special capacity, for its own spiritual well-being to be properly tended. For it is in the Gaelic language that is embedded knowledge and insight of a people who were, and are, exceptionally spiritual. […]

O my beloved people: a Gael who has no knowledge of his own language, with no interest in or acquaintance of the noble, learned language of his ancestors, is only half a person; a person lacking. I can say truthfully [he is] likewise an ignorant person even if his head of full of the languages of strangers, for he lacks knowledge of the literature and imagination of the ethnic group on whom God has bestowed powerful virtues of the soul and mind. He is, in one word, lacking that key that opens the secret door to his own soul. […]

Gaelic Literacy in Nova Scotia and Gaelic Literary Networks

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.

Alexander Fraser as Ethnographer in Gaelic Ontario

I’ve written several previous blog posts about the accomplished Gaelic Canadian Alasdair Friseal (“Alexander Fraser”) and his engagement in Scottish Gaelic literature and scholarship. In this entry, I’ll be focusing on his activities as an ethnographer/folklorist, doing fieldwork amongst the Gaelic speaking communities of Ontario to collect texts floating in oral tradition and commit them to writing.

Fraser was in an ideal position to do such work, given that he was not only literate in Gaelic but also an editor for a number of newspapers in Toronto. This allowed him to solicit further material, share what he had collected himself, and argue for its value. His enduring contribution was given further status when he became Ontario’s first provincial archivist.

I’m not yet sure when he started to do fieldwork and transcribe texts, but the notes he wrote as secretary of the Gaelic Society of Toronto on 13 February 1888 are suggestive:

[the Society] has helped to draw attention to and to develop some of the best traits of the Highland character; and in no small measure to have awakened an interest in Gaelic matters generally throughout the Province. That this is so many evidences are at hand, of which may be mentioned the number of honorary members from distant parts and the impetus given to Gaelic literature. In this latter respect, outside the work done by the Society, the services of the Toronto Daily Mail may be acknowledged. Under the heading “Gaelic Notes” a column of Gaelic matter has been published weekly for about a year, and as a rule interesting topics have been dealt with.

Fraser expanded greatly upon such textual efforts as editor of The Scottish Canadian newspaper (Toronto), which carried a frequent Gaelic column.

Fraser was a co-founder of Comunn Gàidhlig Chanada (The Gaelic Society of Canada). Notes in his papers (F1015-MU1091 in the provincial archives of Ontario) indicate that plans to form the group (initially called “The Gaelic Federation of Canada”) date from 1896. The second article of the organization’s official Constitution states that

The objects of the Society shall be as follows: … (c) To take steps whereby a knowledge of the Gaelic language, Celtic Antiquities, History, Music and Traditions may be disseminated; and Historical, Literary and Scientific Research in the Celtic field encouraged.

Fraser delivered a talk to the Royal Society of Canada on 20 May 1903 entitled, “The Gaelic Folksongs of Canada.” He mentions some of the fieldwork he had done in the course of this paper and includes a short excerpt of material he had collected:

When the Scottish Gael found a lodgement in Canada, the songs of his race were not forgotten. … Here in Canada, therefore, Gaelic poems and songs were composed in the style of the older minstrelsy. … While known, they [the religious lays of Rev. James MacGregor of Pictou] were not widely used in Upper Canada, at least, I have not been able to trace them much beyond the manse of the Gaelic speaking clergymen of Ontario … But the settlers themselves and their descendants to the present time composed love songs which obtained popular recognition, many of which have seen the light of day on pages of books or periodicals, but many, very many, still remain to be collected and preserved as interesting specimens of the Gaelic muse in Canada. … Quite recently, while on a visit in the county of Bruce, I came across a number of Gaelic songs composed by Mr. J. B. Macdonald, a respected citizen of Tiverton …

Fraser printed an extensive Gaelic article containing a transcription of an autobiographical account of migration from Kilmartin to Ontario in the Scottish Canadian in July 1903. He indicates in the article that he had collected the text the previous month from Seumas MacCaluim in Tiverton (see full text and translation in Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 154-61).

Fraser’s papers in the Ontario Archives contains a few other Gaelic texts that he collected in fieldwork, especially his notebook in F1015-MU1089 envelope 2. Much of this was from informants in Glengarry, where Fraser resided at times, although he also has material composed in Ottawa and Toronto in other parts of his archival remains.

Fraser expounded in detail on the need to gather local history and ethnographic information in an address to the Caledonian Society of Montreal on December 5, 1902 (in the booklet The Mission of the Scot in Canada):

The pioneer settlers made history; volumes of it have been lost through the neglect of sons whose fathers deserved better at their hands. … The Scottish societies should lose no time in undertaking a statistical account of every Scottish settlement in Canada, with the experience of those who left us our land as a marvellous legacy, experiences in many cases still reclaimable, but which soon will pass into the limbo of oblivion unless the public spirit and patriotism of the Scot in Canada should come to their speedy rescue.

Amongst other books, Fraser wrote a short Gaelic volume about the life of George Ross (Sir Seòras Uilleam Ros, 1915). Fortunately, a copy sent by Fraser to the Gaelic book collector Hew Morrison was digitized by the National Library of Scotland not long ago and contains a hand-written note by Fraser himself which states:

I enlarge rather on the conditions under wh[ich] the Highland pioneers settled in Canada, in order to put the facts I had collected on record.

Indeed, the book contains copious ethnographic details about the lives of the early Highland settlers in Middlesex County, Ontario, and the material conditions of their lives.

Fraser’s efforts did inspire at least a few others to follow his lead in capturing material from human memory and oral tradition. Hugh McColl’s Sketches of the Early Highland Pioneers of the County of Middlesex (1910) and John C. McMillan’s “The First Settlers in Glengarry” in The Scottish Canadian 8 (1903) were produced under Fraser’s influence, and likely others yet to come to my attention …

Vancouver’s Gaelic Eden

There were significant settlements of Scottish Gaels in the region around Vancouver, British Columbia, from the mid-19th century into the later 20th century. The strength of the Gaelic language in diasporic settings is a common theme in travel writings, reflecting both an inferiority complex about the weakness of the Gaelic infrastructure in Scotland and a form of wish-fulfillment that it find some paradise where it can be magically kept alive without the struggles for survival and validation that Highlanders faced in their native land. While there are still native Gaelic speakers, and learners, around the area, the state of the language has declined greatly since its peak in the early 20th century.

The following notes are from the annual dinner of the Gaelic Society of Inverness on 22 April 1938 (as reported on pages 274-5 of the Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness vol. 38).

Sir Alfred N. Macaulay, Golspie, acknowledged the toast, and said that when he visited Canada and British Columbia some years ago he had spoken more Gaelic in the Vancouver Club in one week than he would do at home in a year. At Vancouver he had met the Chief Justice of British Columbia, Mr. Morrison, a man one would have thought had just come over from the Island of Lewis, so pure was his Gaelic. But he had never been in the Island of Lewis, as his grandfather had emigrated to Nova Scotia a hundred years ago. The family had gone to British Columbia afterwards, but had always maintained the Gaelic tongue — (applause). In Canada, Nova Scotia and British Columbia Gaelic would live — (applause).

If you’re interested in Gaelic cultural and literary activity around Vancouver, see the texts in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille // Memory-Keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, pp. 26, 353, 381, 426-7, 429, 456-62.  I’ve also discussed Scottish Gaels in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest in this previous blog post.

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.

A Paean to the Bagpipe in Nova Scotia, 1816

The “Great Highland” bagpipe is now an iconic symbol of Scottishness in Scotland and abroad, but inadequate attention has been paid to how Highlanders themselves perceived, described and discussed their musical traditions and instruments amongst themselves. The following poem is, as far as I know, the earliest surviving commentary in Gaelic – thus composed by Gaels about their own tradition, for “internal” discussion, as it were – about the bagpipe and its role in Gaelic tradition that survives from the North American diaspora.

I transcribed the text several years ago from the newspaper The Casket and Barry Shears recently asked me to provide a usable edition and translation for a new book project on which he is currently working. It is an interesting poem that provides us with important insight not just about the bagpipes but about self-perceptions at this very transitional point in time, as the Gaelic community was re-establishing itself in a new geographical and socio-political context.

Notes and Analysis

The text is essentially a panegyric – the dominant rhetorical mode of Gaelic poetry – to the bagpipe in which the instrument is addressed directly and, to a degree, personified. This is not an uncommon literary convention, but there are not many other Gaelic poems that work quite in the same way (Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair’s “Moladh Mòraig” is another). The poet’s social role as panegyrist and a warning to the subject of praise to maintain standards is particularly explicit in lines 79-81. The sound of the bagpipe is compared to a frightening shriek (lines 17, 38 and 54), although it is also (as in many other Gaelic sources) compared to the sound of a bird (line 15) and a Gaelic choral song (line 31).

The poet alludes to the human bagpiper but he remains un-nnamed, a secondary figure in comparison to the instrument itself. I am unsure of the identity of this bagpiper, although Barry may know who is intended. Regardless, the agility of his fingers and hands is noted by the poet (lines 10 and 74).

Also central to the piece is the militaristic role of the instrument and the musical tradition. It is absolutely crucial to take into account the Gaelic community’s desperate and servile need for external validation via military employment (as I have discussed at length in my recent volume Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-Keeper of the Forest, pp. 68-120, 507-14). Highlanders were experiencing severe social trauma and physical dislocation at this time and attempting to push against the dominant anglocentric narrative of the inferiority and deficiency of Gaelic culture and society. Militarism provided a means for Highlanders to assert their value to an empire expanding through the use of force and violence, imagery which is striking in this text (lines 19-48).

As has been noted by previous scholars, conflict against the French (see lines 31-45) was instrumental in cementing a sense of Britishness in this period, and warfare between the two empires extended into battles in North America. The poet shares a marked note of self-congratulary reassurance that the people of England grew to appreciate Highlanders’ martial skills (lines 55-57). There is only a muted reference to the Jacobite Cause (lines 58-60).

It should be noted that the original text contained a number of errors and irregular spellings, so some emendations have been necessary. I am relatively certain about the text as it now stands in this edition.

Edition and Translation

Rann do’n phìob mhóir Ghàidhealaich a rinneadh ’s a’ bhliadhna 1816 le neach àraid air dha a bhràthair (a thàinig ’s an àm sin da’n dùthaich seo mach á Albainn) a chluinntinn a’ cluich ro thaitneach air a’ phìob, thuirt e na focail seo a leanas.

1 A chorr-fheadanach,
  Nan dos mór-fhuaim:
Thig ceòl leadarra
5 Gun obadh,
  Ás do sgòrnan.

’S e dian ruith-leumach,
Fìor mhireagach,
Gun bhith sgòdach,
10 Le meur mhìn-bhuilleach,
Nan cliath bhinn-fhuaimneach,
Gun dìth eòlais,

Lìonte, sgoinneil thu,
’S fhiach do cheileireadh,
15   ’S gach big chomhnard;
Bu mhiann loinneil leinn,
Do sgiamh eireachdail,
  ’Thighinn ’nar comhdhail.

’S neo-ghann spiorad bhuat,
20 An àm tionalaidh
  Do dh’fhir òga;
Cha teann giorag riuth’,
Ach sannt mire-chath
  An strìth comhraig.

25 Gach pong chuireadach,
Toirt fonn iomairt dhoibh
  Le sunnd mòrail,
Gach sonn bunailteach,
Bu throm buillean bhuath’
30  An camp fòirneirt.

Nuair chluinnte luinneag bhuat,
Ged b’ aingidh Bonapart,
  Rinn fann-bhuilleach e;
’S a mheall a phròis air,
35 Tighinn teann bu duilich leis
  Air rang do chomhlain.

Rinn’ call fuileach air,
Le’n ceannsgal ’s t’ iollagaich,
  A ghléidh buaidh-làraich,
40 Air Frangaich ghuineadach,
Nach mall air gunnaireachd,
  A threut gu bàs i.

Fhuair cliù mar thoilleadh iad,
Bho Dhiùc Wellington,
45  Le’n sgoinn ’s an àraich:
Fuil dhlùth ’g imeachd leò,
’S lùbadh mhuineachan,
  Air ruinn na stàilinn.

Crùnludh faramach,
50 Toirt dùsgadh caithreamach
  Do shuinn shàr-bheum;
Le sùrd casgairt orr’,
Smùid ’s spealtaireachd,
  Chluinnte an rànail.

55 Bu lìonor batail leò,
’S miadhail Sasann orra
  Gu gnìomh gàbhaidh;
Nam b’ fhiach acainean
Gach triath air gaisgichean,
60  Cha strìochdadh Teàrlach.

Tha t’ fhuaim neo-airtnealach,
Bheir cruadal sgairtealach,
  Do dhùthchas Ghàidheal;
Deagh bhuaidh a thachairt riuth’
65 Bheir nuallan taitneach ort:
  ’S ann diubh mo bhràthair.

Gach coigreach ’chlisgidh tu,
Gun chorr fiosraich ort,
  Na eòlas nàduir,
70 An comhraig sgrios-bhuilleach,
Bheir leòn dha, misneach ann
  Do cheòl, toirt tàth ast’.

Tha uaislean measail
Air do chuairtean clis-mheurach
75  A cluichear làn-mhath
Le fuaim dheas-làmhach,
Bheir buaidh theas-ghràdhach,
  A chluinntear àghmhor.

Thuirt mi ’n urrad ud,
80 Toirt cliù ’s urram dhuit:
  ’S cùm gun tàir e;
’S a’ phuing, chan urra’ mi,
Chionn sin, sguiridh mi,
  ’S gum bu slàn leat.


A poem to the Great Highland bagpipe that was composed in the year 1816 by a particular person after he heard his brother (who had immigrated at that time to this country from Scotland) playing very melodiously on the bagpipe: he uttered these following words.

1-6: O pointy chantered-one, (who is) long beaked, and has drones that make great sound: melodious music comes abundantly out of your throat.

7-12: It is vigorous, quick-leaping, truly animated, without any deficiency; with a precisely striking finger of a melodious run of notes, with no lack of skill.

13-18: You are perfected and efficacious, every smooth chirp is worthy of celebration; we sincerely wish for your elegant shriek to meet up with us.

19-24: You do not lack spirit when it is time to gather up the young men; dread will not visit them, but rather a lust for fighting in the strife of combat.

25-30: Every enticing (musical) note provides an impetus to them with majestic energy; every steadfast warrior pounds out heavy blows in the war camp.

31-36: Even though Bonapart is bellicose, he would become faint-hearted when he would hear a song from you; his arrogance failed him, he was sorry to come close to a column of the battalion.

37-42: Their power and your shriek, that won the battle, caused him a bloody loss, and a loss to the fierce French; swift in their use of guns, continuing until they died (?).

43-48: They received the honour they were due from the Duke of Wellington from their efficacy in the battle-field: shedding copious amounts of (enemy) blood and breaking necks on the points of steel-blades.

49-54: A booming “crowning movement” [section of pìobaireachd] giving a triumphant awakening to hard-pummeling heroes; with the excitement of combat in them, gunpowder-smoke and melee, the roar (of the pipe) could be heard.

55-60: They fought many battles and England esteemed them for dangerous deeds; if the concerns of all chieftains for warriors had been heeded, [Prince] Charles would not have lost.

61-66: Your high-spirited sound gives fierce resilience to Gaelic heritage; it is good luck to encounter those who give a pleasant report of you: my brother is one of those (who do).

67-72: Every stranger, who knows nothing of you beyond the obvious, who you would startle in death-dealing combat that will wound him, there is inspiration in your music that weakens (the enemy’s) cohesion.

73-78: Nobles are fond of your quick-fingered cycles that are expertly played with fine-handed sound, that has a passionate effect, that is heard gloriously.

79-84: What I have just said gives you praise and honour: do not bring it reproach; I cannot add to that, and so I will stop; farewell to you.


Thanks to Hugh Cheape for suggesting an emendation on the Gaelic text and feedback about it.