on reclaiming and revitalizing Gaelic in Nova Scotia …
[Originally published 2016 June 10 by Michael Newton]
(1) Tell us a little about your family and background, and how Gaelic fits into that picture.
Shay: I was raised with a strong connection to my Gaelic culture, jigging tunes, step dancing, milling frolics, visits and visits and visits, square dancing and keeping up on family connections. My mother says, “The Gaelic, it’s in your blood, dear.”
Scottish on my father’s side, Scottish and Irish on my mother’s side. Tracing my paternal line, the MacMillans came from Buaile Dubh, Iochdar, Uibhist a Deas. My great-great-great grandfather Angus MacMillan came to Canada in 1841 with his family and settled in Upper Grand Mira.
On my maternal side, my Donovans came from County Cork and wound up in Ingonish. We’re still trying to figure out just where those MacDonalds came from in the Old Country.
Emily: I was raised and currently reside in Ainslie Glen, Cape Breton, an area that was settled primarily by Gaelic-Speaking Protestants from the Isle of Muck. My great, great, great grandfather Loddy MacKinnon came over as a teenager with his mother and siblings, and set up a log cabin alongside the property where my parents live today. My paternal grandfather had a bit of the language but he had passed on before I was born. My father’s mother was a MacInnis from Skye Glen. Her parents had the language, but didn’t pass it on to their children. Growing up, I heard very little Gaelic in the glen, although, we had many Gaelic words mixed into our English.
My mother was a MacLellan from Ottawa Brook, Cape Breton. Her MacLellan’s were originally from Morar, and first settled in Southwest Margaree. My maternal grandmother was a MacNeil of Barra descent, who was full of Gaelic and songs. She was a very strong woman, the matriarch of our family, and had a major influence on my interest in Gaelic culture when I was a child. My grandmother was the go-to person for genealogy in the area. Sunday visits to her house were very much centered on the visiting tradition, and often included a variety of drop in visitors, tea, card games and stories.
(2) How and why did you get an interest in learning Gaelic? What motivated you to get so engaged?
Shay: I can’t really remember when I became truly aware of the Gaelic language. There were words we had in Gàidhlig, yet thinking they were English words – like gad and lùb. In my teen years, I recall having a keen desire to learn the language. But, I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that. Eventually, while living in Dartmouth, I read an article about Gàidhlig aig Baile immersions classes being led by Kathleen Reddy in Halifax. Although the session of classes at the time was nearing an end, I couldn’t bear to wait until Fall for classes to resume and Kathy welcomed me in.
Attending those classes was a bit like coming home. Many Cape Bretoners, warm welcomes and a sense of belonging. I felt as though the Gàidhlig was my first language, yet I hadn’t gotten it first. And I was angry. And felt a sense of loss. Gaelic was Grampy’s first and only language when he headed off for school. He was punished, beaten and humiliated when he was unable to respond in English to the teacher during his first days and months at school. He was taught to be “civilized” and to leave the Gàidhlig behind him.
He was very proud of his language and had a great love for the Gàidhlig. Although he didn’t pass it on in his home to his children, he always spoke it with family, peers and elders. And sang – oh, the songs! There was a belief that in order for the children to “make a go of it,” English was the way forward. And he wanted to give them the best chances in life.
I was also in a big rush to acquire the language so that I could share it with my children. It really fuelled me.
After attending some classes and some immersions, my identity as a Gael solidified. I realized that claiming Scottish heritage was only part of my story. I am a Gael. With distinct cultural expressions, traditions, beliefs and a language that ties it all together. I was proud. And I was eager to marry my culture with my language once again. Shortly after that, I found myself teaching, volunteering and advocating for Gaelic whenever I could.
After doing weekly classes in the community for a stretch, I reached a plateau of sorts. It was then that I started the Bun ‘s Bàrr mentorship program with Seumas Watson. Sharing time doing daily activities in Gaelic, making céilidhs on elders and working on seanchas material and transcriptions – it was a truly rich experience. I imagine it would have been difficult for me to stay motivated without a program like that, and such a wonderful mentor. Some time after that, I did another mentorship program with Anna MacKinnon, a native speaker from Sight Point. This opportunity deepened my appreciation of Gaelic world view, dialect variances and stories. She is a treasured friend still.
It is the depth of this friendships and connections with mentors, learners, teachers and speakers and community that continues to fuel my motivation and engagement.
Emily: My mother was very encouraging when I was young to pursue learning the language. She never learned the language herself, but was always my biggest supporter over the years, getting me out to classes, workshops, and Gaelic events. My first introduction to the language, besides hearing it in my grandmother’s kitchen, was at a children’s Gaelic camp organized by Bernadette Campbell in the `90s. It was a social learning program that focused on local seanchas material. We visited native speakers, acted out traditional stories, made bonnach, learned songs – it was really appealing to me at the time, and left me wanting more. The instructors, Jim Watson, Jeff MacDonald, Bernie Cameron, Frances MacEachen, were very welcoming and really made an effort in the years following to greet me in a Gaelic and have a little conversation.
As I became more involved in the Gaelic community myself and learned more of the language, I began to develop an understanding of myself as a Gael and that felt really right to me. I found a sense of belonging in the community and a strong sense of place, which is one of the primary reasons I am living in Cape Breton today. Over the years, the Gaelic community has offered me support and encouraged me to learn, teach and make a go of it here. I feel very fortunate to live and raise my son in an area where family members are within walking distance, Gaelic speakers are a short drive away and Gaelic is in the school in our community.
(3) You’ve been very involved in Gaelic in Nova Scotia over the last few years. What’s special about the province where Gaelic is concerned? How do you think efforts to revitalize Gaelic have changed over the last decade?
Shay: It’s the people. The people are special. Their way of life, the way they see the world, the way the behave in the world, and what gives them joy – music, dance, family connections, bàrdachd, food, songs, gathering. And the way that many of these people, despite terrific efforts to eradicate Gaelic here in the province (and for generations before that), have maintained their language with deep pride and love, sharing it happily and freely.
I notice that the conversation in Nova Scotia tends to focus on “saving the language.” I’d love to see a shift toward saving a people. Naming and acknowledging a people. With a distinct culture, and also a language. There are many Gaels here who can’t still/yet speak their language; they are Gaels none the less. I want to name them and acknowledge them.
May they have real opportunities to reclaim their language and speak the language of their hearts.
Emily: In recent years, we have had a movement of young adults become very fluent in the language thanks to social learning programs like Gàidhlig aig Baile and Bun is Bàrr. These programs have consciously and warmly welcomed our native Gaelic speakers, creating a bridge from youth to elder. Our native speakers are so gracious and generous with their time.
I don’t know of many twenty-somethings outside the Gaelic community who have 82 year olds as friends, but it is a common occurrence in our community. With these relationships growing and developing, we have a good group of young people who, I believe, are very culturally grounded and who are developing their own sense of Gaelic world view in 2016. Many participants in these social learning programs continue to work and spend time with native speakers independently, teach in the community, and share Gaelic in their families, so a movement of sorts is taking place right now.
(4) You have just finished running a month-long Gaelic immersion program. Can you describe what your goals were, why you took this approach, what kind of participants you had, and what you think they got out of the experience? How might this support the work of Gaelic revitalization in a larger sense?
Shay: I was fortunate enough to learn to speak Gaelic through immersion methods. And I followed up with reading and writing later on. I picked up sounds, words and phrases just like a child does at home when acquiring their first language. Through my own experiences as a Gaelic learner, and as an instructor, I believe immersion methodology is the best and quickest way to fluency. It’s where my experience, training and passion lies.
Through my work in community and at Highland Village Museum, I encounter many folks with a keen interest in the culture and language. I’m often asked, where would a person go if they wanted to learn to speak Gaelic. There are many efforts to be celebrated in the province, including Na Gaisgich Òga (immersion and mentorship for youth), Bun ‘s Bàrr (language and cultural mentorship), weekend immersions at the Gaelic College and community immersions classes (weekly and more lengthy immersions). Wonderful programs and opportunities.
However, there are gaps. Immersion opportunities are not always plentiful, accessible or lengthy. Limited learning opportunities can cause great frustration for those eager to learn. In 2007, I organized a 6-week GAB immersion in the Halifax area. It was a great success. Since then, I’ve been advocating for more of the same.
It struck me that if we are wanting to recreate a home learning environment, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could live together, rather than “classes” running 9-5. I was keen to mentor those with a serious commitment to the language and culture. And I was confident that if we spent a month together, in the language, celebrating culture, and connecting with community, only good things would come of it.
The Nova Scotia Gaels Jam is a five-day gathering for Gaels of all ages to build community, plans and a vision for a future of a stronger language and culture. Following my experience as a facilitator and participant at three consecutive Gaels’ Jams, I felt the timing was right, the community was ready and that I could organize/deliver an extended residential immersion. When I approached Emily MacDonald to partner with me to deliver a month-long immersion, she didn’t hesitate! And, so we began.
Our goals were many. We wanted to provide a live-in, round-the-clock immersion opportunity for participants helping them build a solid foundation in their Gaelic language skills. This foundation will enable students to make the most of Gaelic learning opportunities (weekly classes, mentorships, etc.) in their home communities.
We wanted to create a space and an experience where culture was a part of the every day. Elders were honoured, appreciated and welcomed to share their knowledge. Visits of all varieties were frequent and enjoyed – our door was always open. We cooked traditional foods; learned, made & sang songs; made music and danced; visited the graveyard discussing chain migration and genealogy; created art and handcrafts; listened, told & learned stories; played games; went to music sessions, square dances & Arts Centre; fished, hiked & some of us even swam! And so much more! All Gaelic, all the time.
We were truly fortunate to attract a terrific group of young participants deeply committed to Gaelic language and culture in Nova Scotia. They left jobs, homes, families, school and paid tuition to attend. They are musicians, artists, adventurers, dancers, singers, learners, teachers and an all-round terrific crew! We quickly grew close, lived like family, and shared a tremendous experience.
As the program wrapped up, participants reflected on their time in the Gaelic house in Aberdeen. Many commented on the sense of community they now feel. They enjoyed the company of our elders, other learners, speakers and teachers. They feel connected to many parts of the island that we visited and to the people who call those places home. Many expressed a greater understanding and appreciation of Gaelic identity.
Nearly every single person would recommend this type of learning opportunity, would attend another month-long immersion, and plan to continue their study and involvement with Gaelic language and culture in Nova Scotia.
Videos taken on day 1 and day 28 illustrate the tremendous progress each individual made with their language goals and their connection to Gaelic.
I hope this immersion will be the first of many – for Gaelic and for other communities and and languages striving to strengthen the connection between language and culture. We’ve had many letters from around the world offering support, being inspired and wondering how this can be done elsewhere.
Sharing Gaelic language and culture holistically in this way connects learners to Gaelic in a deeper way, inspires them to continue, and builds community. The effects ripple and grow. I believe this type of programming will have an immense impact on Gaelic Nova Scotia.
Building community and fostering social spaces where we can all use Gaelic is essential to any serious revitalization efforts.
(5) Does Gaelic culture offer something special to North Americans outside of Nova Scotia? Do you see interest coming from elsewhere? What do you think the relationship might be between Nova Scotia and other parts of the continents where people with Gaelic heritage live? How would you like to see these developments evolving in the future?
Emily: For sure. The music and songs are very attractive to people and are such a great way to connect with others. You don’t have to have the language to enjoy a good song or tune, and many people find their way to the language through these means. Our most attractive and successful programs have been grounded in social interaction. The connections that are made in these programs continue long after the programs end. It’s the social aspect that really grabs people.
We are fortunate to have online resources like An Drochaid Eadarainn that house video and audio recordings of stories, songs recipes and remedies from the Nova Scotia Gaelic tradition. These resources are accessible around the globe and can be used in both classroom and home. Facebook is also a great way to connect with other Gaels, see what is happening in the community, and a means to share videos and resources.
When Shay and I organized the Total Immersion Plus Tutor Training in Baddeck with Finlay MacLeod back in February, we had one participant from British Columbia and one from Washington State, the rest were from Nova Scotia. It was really heartening to meet two fluent individuals who are part of Gaelic movements in other areas and who plan on teaching and sharing the language. During tea breaks and after class, we had a chance to talk about similar struggles and triumphs in our communities, and to encourage each other.
In future programming, I would certainly welcome Gaels from other communities across the continent. It would be very inspiring to see an event like the Nova Scotia Gaels Jam down the road as a North American Gaels Jam or even a World Gaels Jam, to provide opportunities to connect, plan and create with others as a support for those who are working with Gaelic in their communities.
Here are few further links to web resources which may be of interest: