My Big Fat Gaelic Wedding
So-called “Celtic” weddings in English are very popular these days. Actually getting married in a Celtic language is rare, however. Wedding planning in English is complicated enough, but incorporating Gaelic language revitalization into your nuptials when Gaelic is no longer so widely spoken in an area makes it doubly challenging. I love a challenge and I love Gaelic, though… so let me tell you the story of My Big Fat Gaelic Wedding (A’ Bhanais Mhór Ghàidhealach Dha-Rìribh Agam).
My husband and I met through Gaelic. It was love at first sight, at a salt codfish supper at the Highland Village Museum, An Clachan Gàidhealach, in Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. We were there on a bus trip from Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig, the Scottish Gaelic studies conference which was being held at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. I was presenting a paper on adults learning Gaelic, and my husband was there because of his voluntary work with Gaelic in the province.
So when it came time to plan our wedding, we wanted to have the entire thing in Gaelic. We both speak the language and advocate for it, it’s been a big part of our relationship, and we are always looking for more ways to use it meaningfully in our lives.
We agreed that the best place to have our wedding would be at the Highland Village Museum where we met, because we’re romantics and the museum contains a decommissioned church building. The relocated Malagawatch Church was originally built in 1874 on the shore of the River Denys Basin, replacing the first one constructed there in 1829. The congregation and ministers were Gaelic speaking for over a century. Malagawatch remained a Presbyterian church until 1925, when it joined the newly formed United Church of Canada. With population declining in the area, the church was eventually closed, and in 2003 the structure was relocated to the Highland Village Museum by loading it on a barge and floating it down the Bras d’Or Lake. It now serves as a beautiful beacon of Cape Breton’s Gaelic heritage on the hill overlooking the water.
After securing the historic location, we faced another problem: finding someone who could perform the ceremony in Gaelic. I assumed it would be our minister, Reverend Ivan Gregan of Port Wallis United Church in Dartmouth, who grew up in a Gaelic-speaking family in the Miramichi area of New Brunswick. But no: Ivan was booked to lead a church trip to Ireland on our wedding date.
We found only one other minister in the province who could speak Gaelic, and very sadly he was unwell (and has since passed away). People mentioned that there were still several Catholic priests who spoke Gaelic, but we needed a Protestant minister.
Gaelic-speaking ministers have been tending to Nova Scotians’ spiritual needs since the first minister came from Scotland to Nova Scotia in 1786. Significant numbers of Gaelic-speaking clergy worked in Cape Breton throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th to serve Gaelic-speaking congregations. Fortunately, in the past two years there has been a turnaround, and there are five new Presbyterian and United Church ministers learning Gaelic in Cape Breton. (See this blog post for the story.)
Having exhausted every option, I started to pray. I said, “OK, God, if you want this wedding to happen in Gaelic, please send me someone who can officiate it!”
Soon after, I was driving down Oxford Street in Halifax, when I noticed that the car in front of me had a Gaelic bumper sticker. That doesn’t happen very often. I didn’t recognize the car, and wondered if it could possibly be a Gaelic speaker who I hadn’t met yet. I decided to “follow that car,” as long as it didn’t get on the highway heading out of town. Eventually, it turned down a side street and into a parking lot. I pulled in a few spaces away, rolled down my window and yelled, “Hello! I have to ask you a question! A bheil Gàidhlig agad?” (Do you speak Gaelic?) He indicated, “Tha” (Yes) and I asked, “Có às a tha thu?” (Where are you from?) We had a brief chat and exchanged e-mail addresses. Afterward I learned that my new acquaintance was The Honourable Judge Jamie Campbell of the Provincial Court of Nova Scotia. “Nice one,” a friend congratulated me. “You stalked a judge!”
Judge Jamie said he was surprised when I approached him: “I normally would just default to English but the whole thing seemed surreal and I was content to have it remain that way. I told her in Gaelic that I was from Cape Breton but because she’d asked in Gaelic I also told her that all of my people were from North Uist.
“Three of my grandparents were Gaelic speakers,” Jamie continued. “My father’s father and my mother’s parents were each from North Uist families who arrived in the same part of Cape Breton in the 1830s. My grandmother was particularly proud of her Uist Gaelic. I would occasionally hear the language at family gatherings and recall one party in Mira where Gaelic was used in the kitchen and English in the good room.”
I was delighted to meet Jamie. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I realized: Judges can perform weddings! Jamie agreed, but says now that he was nervous about taking it on: “It appealed to me on one level but I was fully conscious of my lack of comfort in Gaelic,” he said. “Wondering what my grandmother would have thought of the whole thing made me committed to doing it. I’m quite sure she would have corrected my pronunciation but the whole process was almost symbolic to me. It was someone else’s wedding I know, and it’s not about me, but at the time I felt an amazing connection with my own family.”
So Judge Jamie would officiate, but we still needed a ceremony. Rev. Ivan dug up a copy of the Church of Scotland’s official Gaelic wedding service for me. I modified it slightly to fit our situation, incorporating a new section based on part of the United Church of Canada’s contemporary wedding service for blended families. I translated and rewrote this Promise to the Child section, adapting the language and structure to match the Gaelic service. During this part of the ceremony we took turns promising to love and care for my daughter and presented her with a silver pendant with a triquetra knot inside a heart, to symbolize both the Trinity and our new family.
I made a few other changes to the Gaelic ceremony. I added a congregational response element to a prayer that was already part of the service, because our in congregation Rev. Ivan often incorporates these kinds of prayers, and I wanted to involve our guests in speaking a bit of Gaelic during the service, even those who would not otherwise. I also substituted a new benediction, which another Gaelic-learning friend who was a student minister delivered.
Meanwhile, Judge Jamie’s own minister in the Presbyterian church where he is an elder reassured him that using this form for the marriage wouldn’t be a problem for a layperson, and Rev. Ivan and I coached him on the pronunciation of the liturgical Gaelic.
I selected a scripture reading (Romanach/Romans 12:1-21), and the 23rd Psalm and two hymns to sing. We sang the 23rd Psalm in Gaelic, but in the English style, not in the Gaelic precenting style, because we could not find a precentor and neither we nor most of our wedding guests would have been able to follow the precenting anyway, unfortunately. We did sing the psalm to the tune Martyrdom, which in the past was the preferred tune for the 23rd Psalm (Crimond is now the most popular tune for it).
So you can get a sense of what I’m talking about with the psalm singing, here is an example of Psalm 130 sung in English to the same tune, Martyrdom, by a Gaelic congregation in Scotland. And here is a very short Gaelic precenting example of the 23rd Psalm to Martyrdom from Cape Breton. Finally, here is the 23rd Psalm sung in English to the current tune of Crimond.
As mentioned, we incorporated not only a Psalm, but also hymns, because hymns are sung in Canadian Presbyterian churches and also in the United Church of Canada which was originally an amalgam of the Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregationalist churches. We were lucky to be able to use hymns written or translated by friends: “Bitheamaid Bàidheil ri Chèile” (a translation of “Let There Be Love Shared among Us”) by my friend Marion Nic Ghille Mhoire (Marion F. Morrison) and “Laoidh Sliochd nan Gàidheal” (Hymn of the Descendants of the Gael) by Catrìona NicÌomhair Parsons to the tune of the Skye Boat Song.
Our friend Joe Murphy painted a gorgeous watercolour of the Malagawatch Church and did the calligraphy for our wedding invitations. Our wedding service program included the entire text in parallel, in both Gaelic and English, so that our guests could follow along even if they did not speak Gaelic.
On our wedding day, we were blessed with gorgeous Cape Breton summer skies. The photos say it all. We poured most of our linguistic efforts into the ceremony, but our reception also featured Gaelic touches. We picked blueberries and made jars of home-made jam for favours, decorated with a bilingual label.
I made a banner for our reception with the second half of a well-known Gaelic proverb: “Thig crìoch air an t-saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is ceòl” – The world will come to an end, but love and music will last.
If you want to incorporate Scottish Gaelic into your own wedding, but don’t speak the language, then a Gaelic psalm or hymn would be suitable because singing is at the heart of Gaelic culture.
If you prefer a secular song, though, be careful – many Gaelic ballads feature pining and jilted lovers. I remember a well-meaning friend suggesting “Gràdh Geal Mo Chridhe” for our own ceremony (the original “Eriskay Love Lilt”), but it ends with: “You left my eye tearful… my heart broken… You left me with a sickly pallor… and thinning hair.” Not terribly romantic.
You’ll also need to find someone who can sing in Gaelic, who speaks or has at least studied the language. It’s best *not* to ask someone to sing a song or recite a prayer in Gaelic if they’ve never studied the language before – at least if you still want to be friends after the wedding. The pronunciation should not be attempted without previous experience, just for the sake of having Gaelic.
Having said that, it’s never too late to start learning Gaelic for your own future wedding or renewal of vows, or someone else’s, or for the future of the language itself!
P.S. Piping is also an essential part of a Gaelic wedding. But as for the piping at our own wedding, I’ll just say that it taught me the hard way that you should always, always, always ask for an audition or sample recording before you hire a musician. More info on Gaelic bagpiping and weddings to come in a future blog post!