Nova Scotians Breathe Life Into a Dying Language

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jul 15 18:01:00 UTC 2002

New York Times,

July 15, 2002

Nova Scotians Breathe Life Into a Dying Language


    CHRISTMAS ISLAND, Nova Scotia, July 8 A driving rain and a fog as
thick as chowder could not keep the 75 people away from a Friday night of
knee-slapping fiddle music and some cold local ale. Some of the best
fiddlers on Cape Breton Island had gathered to perform their lilting tunes
at the local firehouse in this farm village, and audience members were
stomping their feet to breakneck fiddle fingering once heard only in the
Scottish highlands.

"Tha am bar fosgailte," proclaimed Hector MacNeil, the emcee and a local
Gaelic teacher. "That's how you say `'he bar is open,' " a translation
that brought the house down. "I wish you were all in my Gaelic class," he
said. "We'd all do great!"

Mr. MacNeil is an earnest sort with a love for Celtic tales, and he could
not resist an opening to go on and on in the mother tongue of his Scottish
ancestors. Some of the older people in the audience could follow his
words, but to the rest he might as well have been speaking to the mist
outside. There were shrugs and fidgeting, then giggling and loud talking,
until Mr. MacNeil finally switched back to English to recover his
audience's attention.

About 500 people still speak fluent Scottish Gaelic on Cape Breton, making
this brooding island of wind-swept beaches and craggy hills the largest
community of such Gaelic speakers outside the British Isles. But many here
fear that the language is slowly dying out, despite the efforts of a
hundred or so Gaelic advocates who dedicate themselves to fiddling,
bagpipe playing, step and highland dancing and teaching Gaelic songs and

"The number of Gaelic speakers is shrinking drastically and most are
aged," said Jim Watson, the Gaelic programs coordinator at Highland
Village, a nearby museum that depicts the life of 18th-century Highland
Scots and the early Scottish settlers in Cape Breton. "What is left is a
certain social ambience that is Gaelic in feeling with music and dance the
most obvious and observable traits." Tens of thousands of Highland Scot
tenant farmers immigrated to Canada from 1770 to 1850, fleeing famine and
poverty. They became so numerous and influential across the British colony
that John A. MacDonald, a Scot born in Glasgow, became the first prime

But nowhere did their culture find as nurturing an environment as wild and
rainy Cape Breton Island. In the isolation of Cape Breton, fiddling, dance
and weaving techniques that were long ago lost in Scotland have been
preserved to this day. They are only now coming back in Scotland thanks to
Cape Breton artists who have traveled back to the homeland in recent

Gaelic was spoken as the first language of most Scottish Canadians here
until around World War I. Through the first half of the 20th century,
military service and a mass emigration from the island of men looking for
work connected Cape Breton more firmly with the rest of Canada. Slowly
English became dominant, as the language viewed as a vehicle for economic
and social advancement.

Nevertheless, people still gather for frequent fiddling concerts and
traditional folk dancing in towns across the island. A bilingual
English-Gaelic newspaper is published four times a year. Gaelic studies
are offered at local colleges, and a number of exhibitions and museums
dedicated to promoting Gaelic culture receive local and federal government
grants, helping to attract tourists. But the Gaelic advocates worry that
the other aspects of their culture may wane with time without the anchor
of a distinct language.

"You can't really keep the music and dance going without the language
because they are intertwined," said Sam MacPhee, the executive director of
the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts, a center dedicated to the
preservation of Scottish culture and a major Cape Breton tourist
attraction. "The language is the struggle." There are a few signs of hope,
although the public school system, reflecting government policy, has long
given Gaelic language little support, if any. The Gaelic College in Skye,
Scotland, is beginning a student exchange program with University College
of Cape Breton that should produce some urgently need Gaelic teachers. The
Nova Scotia provincial government recently commissioned a report on the
state of Gaelic culture in the area with an eye to developing a program to
preserve it.

Here in Christmas Island, a village of 200 people that includes some
retirees and some potato and blueberry farmers, street signs are still in
Gaelic and people frequently greet each other in their old native tongue.
(The town is not actually on an island, and there are several versions of
how it got its name, one being that is was named after a local Mic-Mac
Indian chief called Christmas.)

But adults rarely converse in the language beyond simple niceties except
when they do not want their children to understand a conversation.
Nevertheless, local Gaelic promoters say the young people are increasingly
expressing an interest in learning about Gaelic culture, and a class in
Gaelic songs is popular during the summer months.

"We want to know our ancestors better," said Mark MacNeil, 12, after
attending a class in which he heard a Gaelic ghost story and learned songs
about heroic sailors surviving gales at sea and hunters pursuing fleet
deer in wild forests. "It's just cool to know."

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