Keeping Canada's unique Gaelic culture alive

Image caption,
Some folk music forms still heard in Cape Breton, like at the Celtic Colours International Festival, have been lost in Scotland and reintroduced from Canada

Musicians, folk culture enthusiasts and teachers have been spearheading attempts to revitalize a unique Gaelic culture on an island off Canada's Atlantic coast. Brandy Yanchyk reports from the Celtic Colours International Festival on Cape Breton.

Several hundred years after Canada's Nova Scotia province was settled by refugees from the Scottish Highlands and islands, the Gaelic culture they brought with them survives, just.

On the island of Cape Breton, Gaelic has endured even as the language came under intense pressure from Canada's English-speaking majority.

The island's road signs are printed in Gaelic and English. Some Gaelic supporters say the people's Celtic roots are evident in their humour and story-telling traditions.

"In teaching the language here I find that they already have the blas, the sound of the Gaelic even in their English," says Margie Beaton, who was brought over from Scotland in 1976 to help revitalize the Gaelic language. "It's part of who they are, you can't just throw that away. It's in you."

For the past week and a half, fiddles, harps and Gaelic songs have delighted crowds at the 14th annual Celtic Colours International Festival, a key part of the island's efforts at cultural revival.

Image caption,
“We are just like the native peoples here," poet Lewis MacKinnon says of "indigenous" Gaelic culture

Local musicians and songwriters were joined by musicians from Scotland and Ireland, in a bid to celebrate Celtic song and keep the language alive.

Malcolm Munro, a singer from the Scottish band Meantime, said he had noticed a resurgence in Gaelic in Cape Breton since he first visited 17 years ago.

Younger generations have made learning the language a priority and have helped keep Scottish traditions like fiddle music, step-dancing and piping alive, Mr Munro says.

"I've seen fresh roots of recovery here in Cape Breton," he says.

Cape Breton residents and officials' desire to keep the Gaelic language alive goes beyond the festival.

In 1995, some Nova Scotia schools began offering Gaelic language as a core subject, after years in which the province lacked the funding to do so.

Adults keen to brush up on their Gaelic can take an immersion course called "Gaidhlig Aig Baile" (Gaelic in the community), in which groups meet weekly to practise speaking Gaelic and learn traditional Scottish pursuits like milling frolics, where Gaelic songs are sung in rhythm while beating a woven wool blanket across a table-top.

And Nova Scotia's Office of Gaelic Affairs hopes to develop an all-immersion Gaelic curriculum in some schools.

Scottish settlers

The efforts come after a long decline in Scottish Gaelic in Nova Scotia, as generations of Gaelic speakers have passed away, taking their knowledge of the culture with them.

Image caption,
Street signs on Cape Breton island are printed in both English and Gaelic

An estimated 2,000 people speak Gaelic across Nova Scotia now, officials estimate. Roughly 25,000 Gaelic speakers settled in Nova Scotia from Scotland in the 1770s.

Gaelic's decline coincided with the rise of formal English-language education in Nova Scotia in the mid-19th Century. Students were punished for speaking Gaelic in school, and by the 1930s many parents stopped passing down Celtic traditions, believing that to get ahead their children had to assimilate into English-speaking culture.

"We are just like the native peoples here, our culture is indigenous to this region," says Lewis MacKinnon, a musician and Gaelic poet from Cape Breton and head of the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs.

"We too have suffered injustices, we too have been excluded, we too have been forgotten and ridiculed for something that is simply part of who and what we are. It's part of our human expression and that story needs to be told."

Canadian Gaelic dialect

The community's isolation has helped preserve traditions that sailed across the Atlantic with the original settlers but have since declined in Scotland.

Image caption,
Gaelic language teacher Margie Beaton hears the "blas" of Gaelic in the island's vernacular English

"The dialect of Gaelic that I speak... doesn't exist anymore in Scotland," Mr MacKinnon says.

And Mr MacKinnon says styles of step dancing and fiddling found on Cape Breton have been lost in Scotland, with efforts underway to reintroduce them there.

Ms Beaton, the Gaelic language teacher, said Scots also feel the connection to their new world cousins.

"The motto they have for Nova Scotia is 'Ach an cuan' which translates as 'but for the ocean', meaning 'but for the ocean we'd actually be together.' There's only an ocean separating us," explains Mrs Beaton.

"We're like another island off the coast of Scotland but we have an ocean separating us instead of a strait or a channel."

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