on Gaelic Nova Scotia, the power of song, reclaiming heritage, and more …
Lewis MacKinnon (Lodaidh MacFhionghain) is the Executive Director of Gaelic Affairs for the Province of Nova Scotia. In 2006 he released an all Gaelic recording titled, A’ Seo (“Here”) which earned him an ECMA nomination in the Roots/Traditional category. In 2011, the Royal National Mod, held annually in Scotland as a celebration of Gaelic tradition, awarded him the distinguished Bardic Crown, which was the first time that it was given to someone not born in Scotland. May is Gaelic Awareness Month in Nova Scotia and Lodaidh has been busy going to events all over the province, so we’re very toilichte (pleased) that he’s cleared a space for this interview.
[Originally published 2016 May 25 by Michael Newton]
(1) What is your family background? Where did you grow up?
My cultural backgrounds originate with Gaels who came from Scotland to Nova Scotia starting in the 1790s and French Acadians who arrived in 1660. Born in Inverness, Cape Breton, I grew up on Dunmore Road, Lower South River, Antigonish County, Mainland Nova Scotia and now live with my family in Middle Sackville, Halifax Regional Municipality, Nova Scotia.
(2) When did you first become conscious of Gaelic as a language and culture? What were your early assumptions about Gaelic culture and history? How do they contrast with what you know now?
When I was quite young, relatives and friends from Cape Breton would come to visit our home in Antigonish County. My father’s relatives would greet my father and granduncle in Gaelic as they entered the house. I also recall my father speaking Gaelic to his siblings over the phone. Conversations would be conducted in English but Gaelic was always used when greeting and words and phrases would frequently be used throughout conversations.
Though in severe decline in my youth, there was also an Antigonish County Gàidhealtachd. I would frequently hear Gaelic phrases and words from older county residents during this period.
I learned most of my early understanding of Scottish history from my granduncle, Dougald MacDougall. He would talk about how the MacDougalls in Scotland fought against King Robert the Bruce and were militarily diminished as a result. He spoke of William Wallace, Culloden and it seems to me Rob Roy as well. This was all through the medium of English and looking back I believe I had a romantic view of Scottish/Highland culture.
Having learned Gaelic and come to a much greater appreciation, understanding and awareness of Gaels in the Nova Scotia context, the romantic notions of my early years seem so remote.
(3) How did you start to learn Gaelic and why?
I don’t exactly recall how it occurred, but somehow Dougald and I started using Gaelic. I believe that I asked him to speak to me so that I could learn the language. He was a great man: loyal, generous, caring, devout and wise. He could be firm too but somehow I knew that there was an identity that he had that couldn’t be properly expressed or shared in the society within which he lived. My recollections are of simple phrases like “Có tha siod?”, “Dùin an dorust.”, “Fosgail an uinneag”, “Dé thuirt thu?”, “Tha mi sgìth”. I have a profound emotional connection to Gaelic through Dougald and this connection moves me to this day.
I recall bringing short humorous anecdotes home to read aloud from first year Gaelic class at St. Francis Xavier University and reading these to my granduncle and my father, Joe MacKinnon. They would question me if they didn’t understand something I was mispronouncing and gently correct; they would always get a kick out of the punchline of the story.
After Dougald’s death in 1990, I kept trying to speak Gaelic with my father and now it is the only language we use. I also only speak Gaelic to my two sons.
(4) What is the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs and what is your role there?
Gaelic Affairs is a division of Communities, Culture and Heritage, Government of Nova Scotia. Established in 2006, Gaelic Affairs’ vision is that Gaelic language, culture and identity are acknowledged, valued and contribute to community, spiritual and economic renewal in Nova Scotia.
My role is to work with Gaelic Affairs’ team members and government and community partners to provide tools and opportunities to Nova Scotians to learn, share and experience Gaelic language, culture and identity.
(5) What is the situation/condition of Gaelic in Nova Scotia now in comparison with the last couple of generations? What do you think has changed the situation during that time?
More recently, Gaelic in Nova Scotia has gone through a blossoming period. Many challenges remain including more effective planning, strategic alignment of resources and greater awareness and understanding; however, the situation is drastically different than it was when I first got engaged in Gaelic development in the early 1990s.
While the loss of Gaelic-speaking elders continues and is a stark reminder of the tenuousness of the situation, I believe that there three things that we possess as a province that are fundamental to Gaelic language, culture and identity renewal and regeneration:
- remaining Gaelic speaking elders: the elders that able bodied and are engaged in community and school based Gaelic programming bring a wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge, including an encouraging spirit, wisdom and humour;
- a large archive of Gaelic language and cultural materials including Gael Stream, Cainnt Mo Mhàthar and An Drochaid Eadarainn – these online resources provide the basis from which learners can develop a greater appreciation, understanding and awareness of Gaelic language and culture in Nova Scotia in their regional variations;
- a dedicated and growing community of learners both young and old and expanded inclusion specific to Gaelic language and culture in the province’s public schools.
I think the Gaelic community has been persistent over many generations in the province. Before the most recent activities spanning from the late 1980s up to the present, there have been language and cultural preservation efforst in the 1920s, 1950s and 1970-80s.
Seeds planted in public school system the 1970s influenced Rodney MacDonald who was supportive of Gaelic language, culture and identity and wanted to see tangible support for these and who also was elected Premier of the Province. More recent initiatives have benefitted from community planning, multiculturalism and diversity.
(6) Why is Gaelic important to Nova Scotia, to Canada and to the world? What can North Americans with Scottish Gaelic ancestry gain from engaging in the language and culture? What does Nova Scotia have to offer North American Gaelic learners in contrast (or complement) to Scotland?
Gaelic language, culture and identity are the legitimate manifestations of the expression of a people, the Gaels who have been part of Nova Scotia society for at least 250 years.
Gaelic language, culture and identity are components of Nova Scotia and broader Canadian society and therefore are shared resources and ought to be viewed as sources of pride for Nova Scotians and Canadians.
Research shows that:
- fostering manifestations of expression supports healthy sense of self and, by extension, community and helps nurture pride of and connection to place, and;
- acknowledging, legitimizing and supporting language, culture and identity leads to socio-economic health and growth.
I believe that North Americans and those of Scottish Gaelic ancestry, even if they are removed in many instances from a traditional Gaelic community, have the opportunity to reconnect with Gaelic language, culture and identity and benefit by way of acquiring new language and cultural skills, a greater connection to place (Gaels have an oral literature that connects to many areas in North America) and having a sense of a pan-North American / International Gàidhealtachd connection.
Nova Scotia is the remaining Gàidhealtachd outside of Gaelic Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man where a Gaelic language, culture and identity has been passed down from generation to generation from the time of the early settlers to the present. As a result there are some regional aspects of Gaelic language, in particular dialects and cultural expression, that both differentiate and complement Gaelic Nova Scotia and Gaelic Scotland. There is a very lively céilidh (visiting) culture in Nova Scotia as well that makes the language and cultural sharing and learning experience a vibrant one.
Gàidhlig aig Baile (Gaelic in Community) language learning method sessions are succeeding in creating new Gaelic speakers. Through the medium of Gaelic language only, this method focusses on daily activities, body language, i.e. hand gestures, focus on the senses, props, role playing, skits, etc. Language learning is complemented by inviting Gaelic speaking community members to visit and share language and cultural knowledge. In these settings, Gaelic-speaking elders make significant contributions to the language learning experience. Some of the initial results from Gàidhlig aig Baile sessions point to participants emerging not only with Gaelic speaking ability but an emerging sense of Gaelic identity.
(7) Besides being a CEO, you’re also a poet and singer. How do those other talents and roles contribute to the revitalization of Gaelic in Nova Scotia?
Composing poetry and singing Gaelic songs connects me to the rich corpus of Gaelic material composed in Nova Scotia, Scotland and Ireland. These have enriched my understanding of Gaels as a people and the diversity and richness of Gaelic language, culture and identity. This understanding helps to inform the work that I do and enrich the information that I share about Gaelic with government and Gaelic community partners.
(8) What would you like to see happen with Gaelic in Nova Scotia over the next couple of decades? How could an organization like GaelicUSA support that vision?
I would like to see:
- greater immersion opportunities for Nova Scotians to learn Gaelic and increase their awareness, appreciation and understanding of Gaelic cultural expression.
- enhancement and greater alignment of government, Gaelic-related institution and community-based resources to strength support for Gaelic development
- more opportunities created for Nova Scotians to live and work in Gaelic
- increase in Gaelic language and cultural learning opportunities as part of Nova Scotia’s Creative Economy
GaelicUSA could support Gaelic development in Nova Scotia by:
- sharing any best practices, research, knowledge that may inform Gaelic development in Nova Scotia
- encouraging Americans to travel to Nova Scotia to enroll in Gaelic immersions and cultural expression activities
- advocating for special designation for Nova Scotia, i.e. a unique cultural heritage zone, based upon its Gaelic language, culture and identity in the Canadian and North American context