Contrasting Gaelic Identities

by Sep 14, 2017

I gave a presentation about Nova Scotia Gaelic identities five years ago at the Atlantic Canada Studies conference at UNB in Saint John. That paper was intended to be a jumping-off point for a research project. Unfortunately neither research funding nor an institutional base could be found, and so I had to set these plans aside.

The 19th Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, 2012

The 19th Atlantic Canada Studies Conference, 2012


Recently it occurred to me that rather than keeping this conference paper locked up on my hard drive, it would be good to put it out there for scholars outside of Nova Scotia who might eventually be in a position to do research on the issue. Therefore, I’m publishing this paper as a dual release, here on the Gaelic Revitalization blog and on from whence academics can cite it as a conference paper.

This paper is not a report of formal research results, but a hypothesis based on a collection of observations from my personal (and anthropological) perspective about what I’ve seen during several years of participation in Nova Scotia Gaelic revitalization activities.


Contrasting Regional Orientations in the Construction of Nova Scotia Gaelic Identities

Scottish Gaelic, a Celtic language spoken natively in Nova Scotia since Gaelic-speaking emigrants started arriving from Scotland in the last quarter of the 18th century, is undergoing a revitalization in the province. The provincial Office of Gaelic Affairs, established in 2006, promotes the language as does the voluntary Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia which has been active since the 1970s.

A sense of attachment to place has been recognized as a fundamental orientation in traditional Gaelic culture. This sense of place has been maintained and carried forward into the 21st century by Gaelic users in eastern Nova Scotia.

This paper takes a preliminary look at the multiple and sometimes conflicting ways that Nova Scotia Gaelic speakers and learners orient to place, specifically with reference to regional identities. I sketch the contours of regional identity construction and orientation in order to lay the groundwork for future sociolinguistic field research on the topic.


History of Gaelic in Nova Scotia

I’ll start with just a bit of background. Gaelic has been spoken in Nova Scotia since the 1770s. The most detailed account of this history and cultural background is still found in the Kennedy report, an outstanding research report by Dr. Mike Kennedy published by the Nova Scotia Museum in 2002 which is available free online.

Map of Gaelic settlement of Nova Scotia and PEI from Kennedy 2002

From Michael Kennedy (2002), Gaelic Nova Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study, p. 27


Gaelic speakers settled in Prince Edward Island and in eastern Nova Scotia: Cumberland, Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish, and Guysborough Counties, and the counties of Cape Breton. As Kennedy details, it was a chain migration of entire families and communities, who adapted to the New World while maintaining and developing their Gaelic language, culture, and oral traditions through to the 20th century (Kennedy 2002, pp. 18-19).

Intergenerational transmission of Gaelic on a community-wide basis ceased in the 1930s and 1940s in Cape Breton, although speakers continued to use the language.

In the 20th and 21st centuries, a few families and individuals have re-started intergenerational transmission, including a few fluent speakers from Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland who settled in Cape Breton, and younger speakers who achieved fluency in Nova Scotia and in some cases by studying in Scotland. Other language revitalization activities, including adult education, community cultural events, and publishing, were initiated before the cessation of intergenerational transmission and are ongoing.


A Diverse Bunch of Gaelic Users

Although in some ways we all want the same thing (MOAR GAELIC!), adult Gaelic users in Nova Scotia are not all the same. We differ on dimensions of ideology, culture, and linguistic proficiency. The things we do have in common are that we love the language and culture, and the future of Gaelic in Nova Scotia depends on us and how we socialize younger people.

MOAR Gàidhlig! (moar cat meme)

MOAR Gàidhlig!


Something else that I think Nova Scotia Gaelic users have in common is a tendency to orient to place in a culturally Gaelic way, by constructing meaningful relationships between place, kinship, music and song, and other cultural practices in and through our Gaelic language use. It’s my sense that this is the case whether folks learned to do this while growing up in a Nova Scotia community, or were socialized into it as adults.

Having said that, I still see differences in which places Gaelic users orient to, and which practices Gaelic users employ to orient to place.

The main contrast that I see is between Gaelic speakers who orient towards Cape Breton Island as the main or ultimate source of Gaelic linguistic and cultural practices and authenticity, and Gaelic speakers who orient toward Scotland as that source. (Other cross-cutting orientations to place also exist, and could be further explored through research.)

When I say that Gaelic users orient to one of these places, I see that orientation (or stance if you like) as being operationalized in practices involving kinship, history and the past, travel, music and song, and Gaelic dialects. Here’s what that can mean in everyday terms:


Orienting to Cape Breton

Orienting to Cape Breton as the main or ultimate source of Gaelic can be accomplished through a variety of everyday practices. Briefly, these include the following:

Kinship: working out kinship and community connections in conversation (e.g., “Who’s your father?”), having a sloinneadh, constructing a new sloinneadh if there was not one in their family’s oral history, and asking their students to construct a faux sloinneadh if they teach Gaelic language classes.

History and the past: putting an emphasis on oral history and a sense of history as living memory, seeing the Gaelic culture and practices of 19th century Cape Breton as most worthy of reconstruction and emulation, listening to and telling naidheachdan (stories).

Travel: If not already living in Cape Breton, then traveling there as often as possible and staying as long as possible for Gaelic learning activities.

Dialect: Preference to learn a Cape Breton dialect and to utilize the [w] sound for broad L, now a shibboleth for a generalized “Cape Breton Gaelic.” (See this blog post for more.)

Music and song: Expressing a preference for milling songs and using song performances documented in folklore collections as sources; preferences for Cape Breton-style instrumental music and dance traditions and dispreference for Scottish ones


Orienting to Scotland

Orienting to Scotland as the main or ultimate Gaelic source can be accomplished through a variety of everyday practices such as these:

Kinship: A deep interest in genealogy, focus on family history and Scottish ancestors who emigrated to Canada in general or Nova Scotia in particular, but no sloinneadh; sometimes more recent (20th century) emigration from Scotland to Canada; can’t participate in stretches of conversation based on local knowledge of Gaelic families in Cape Breton

History and the past: A deep interest in Gaelic history both in Nova Scotia and Scotland, expressed through reading (and writing) books and through travel (see below)

Travel: Preference for traveling to Scotland for immersion-based Gaelic language training

Dialects: Preference to learn Gaelic dialects from Scotland, rejection of [w] for broad L

Music and song: Greater consumption of professionally-recorded music, possible preference for certain song types, possible preferences for Scottish instrumental music styles and dance styles


Different Ways of Being Culturally Gaelic

These differing orientations are socially constructed in ongoing fashion. An individual’s orientation is not necessarily connected to their birthplace, upbringing, or residence. There are geographical constraints on participants, however, imposed by the financial and time cost of car travel and the differing needs of Gaelic users in urban and town areas versus rural areas.

These orientations are painted with a broad brush here, perhaps overly broad. Research could help paint a more nuanced picture. These contrasting orientations and practices do sometimes conflict, resulting in deliberate and inadvertent exclusion, animosity, and lost opportunities for cooperation and synergy to grow a stronger Gaelic community. However, not every individual orients exclusively to a Cape Breton-oriented or a Scottish-oriented approach, and significant overlap is possible.

In fact it can be argued that each of these orientations is actually vital to the health of the other.

The Gaelic cultural practices of Cape Breton Island’s local communities, “nativized” in the 19th century with important linguistic and cultural retentions and innovations documented by folklorists, are the anchor and charter for maintaining a unique province-wide Nova Scotia Gaelic community that is now supported by some government funding and limited provision of Gaelic language and culture education in our public schools.

At the same time, speakers and institutions in “mainland” Nova Scotia are also building and maintaining local Gaelic communities that are respectful of but not dependent on Cape Breton. These speakers often turn to well-established Gaelic institutions in Scotland as a source of language education and cultural input.

Moreover, periodic Gaelic input from Scotland to both Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia – in the forms of permanent and short-term immigration, and training for Nova Scotians in Scotland – has helped to sustain, transform, and extend the Nova Scotian Gaelic community.

Contributions from all across eastern Nova Scotia and Scotland have gone into making “Nova Scotia Gael” a viable ethnolinguistic way of being in the world in the 21st century. The broad outlines of differing orientations to Gaelic here are important to grasp because it could help to improve the planning and effectiveness of Gaelic language revitalization efforts. I propose that Nova Scotia Gaelic institutions openly acknowledge these differences and bring them together in a non-hierarchical relationship in language policies and institutions.

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