Gaelic Awareness Month Reception
The month of May in Nova Scotia is Gaelic Awareness Month, or Mìos na Gàidhlig. For me, every day is Gaelic day, but if you speak Gaelic and live in Halifax, let me tell you that May is still one heck of a busy month! “Tha sinn cho busy,” as they say in Lewis, with Gaelic events practically every weekend and many weekdays as well. This year we added a new event to the calendar — this invitation arrived in the mail at the beginning of the month:
The Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia held a reception in honour of Mìos na Gàidhlig at his official residence, Government House in Halifax. Of course we had to attend! My first lesson was that Government House is not to be confused with the equally impressive Province House, which is the home of the Nova Scotia Legislature.
Government House is a historic Georgian-style house built almost entirely out of materials from Nova Scotia (and topped with a Scottish slate roof):
The Lieutenant Governor (pronounced “leftenant”) is the viceregal representative in Nova Scotia of Queen Elizabeth II, The Queen of Canada. Government House is a historic site with a great deal of British-style tradition and protocol. It is a tangible reminder of the fact that Canada is a Dominion of the British Commonwealth, and its head of state is Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II:
A bust of HM kept somber watch over us all:
The furnishings were elegant and it was delightful to see them in use (rather than with velvet ropes strung across them):
There were also a number of significant works of art, including my personal favourite painting:
As for the event itself, wine and hot and cold hors d’oeuvres were served, and then at the podium pictured above, with the queen keeping watch, His Honour Brigadier-General The Honourable J. J. Grant, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, gave a short speech, followed by another short speech by The Honourable Maurice Smith, MLA for Antigonish and Minister for Gaelic. In the photo below they are pictured (from left to right) with Lewis MacKinnon, the CEO of Gaelic Affairs, a Division of the Nova Scotia Department of Communities, Culture, and Heritage, on the right.
Following his speech, The Honourable Maurice Smith presented a Gaelic flag to the Lieutenant Governor. Lewis MacKinnon urged him to open it up and unfold it. The design features a salmon in the shape of a “G” for Gaelic, but the flag is still relatively new and the design is not yet widely known. It was initially a bit of a challenge to get it facing the right way:
The speeches were very nice and supportive, and I was only surprised that we didn’t have to sing “God Save the Queen” (to the same tune as that seditious little American ditty “My Country ’Tis of Thee”) when the Lieutenant Governor entered the room, as was the case when I attended an event with the previous Lieutenant Governor.
I did feel a little strange to be in such posh surroundings trying to speak Gaelic to my friends, since we normally spend our time together in someone’s living room, or at a local event held in a school or church hall, and we are more likely to be having tea and oatcakes rather than bacon-wrapped scallops and smoked salmon on miniature potato pancakes. We clean up real good when we need to, of course, but it just drove home for me the separation that is found for the most part between the informal contexts where we most often speak Gaelic, and the formal institutional contexts generally characterized by the use of English language and culture.
Someone suggested we sing a Gaelic song to cap off the event, agus ghabh sinn òran, with Lewis singing the verses and everyone joining the chorus of ’Se Ceap Breatainn Tìr Mo Ghràidh. This made it feel more like a Gaelic occasion:
The song also gave a brief Gaelic cultural experience to the Lieutenant Governor and his household. This was an important thing to do. Gaelic is still “underground” in so many ways, because of the years of stigma suffered by Gaelic speakers. We have to constantly remind and encourage ourselves to put our language out there for people, or they will not even realize we are here. I always try to incorporate as much spoken Gaelic as I can when I’m explaining or demonstrating something Gaelic in English. I’ve found that when I incorporate Gaelic, people often give me feedback afterward saying “I’ve never heard Gaelic spoken before, I’m so glad you did that!” or “I’ve never heard that much Gaelic before in my life!” Many people here do want to hear it and see it more.
You might notice in the photo above that the Gaelic folks were not wearing kilts, although some wore bits of tartan (my husband wore a Nova Scotia tartan tie and the new president of Comhairle na Gàidhlig, the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia, wore a Maple Leaf tartan sash, for example). However, in the photo below, the only two men wearing kilts were the Lieutenant Governor and his private secretary.
This is because the kilt was not a part of the linguistic and cultural tradition that Gaels brought over from Scotland to Nova Scotia. The kilt was a much later import, as were Highland Games. Unfortunately, most of the well-meaning people who popularized these customs in Nova Scotia looked down upon Gaelic speakers, and refused to recognize their language and culture as the very origin of these traditions.
Nowadays, some Nova Scotia Gaels avoid the kilt altogether, because for them it is a symbol of a romanticized Scottish image, appropriated or stolen from its original context. For them, the kilt and Nova Scotia’s tartanism have virtually nothing to do with Gaelic.
On the other hand, the Canadian Highland Regiments of the 19th and 20th centuries, who were part of the British Empire and followed British Army dress traditions, wore the kilt proudly. So do many Nova Scotians, including more recent Scottish immigrants to the province, both Gaelic and non-Gaelic-speaking.
Along with the clan tartans imported from Scotland, newer geographically-based tartans have become very popular. Starting in the mid-1950s, these tartans were designed and then officially registered, and they have become widely used in the province. Above all, tartans have been successfully incorporated into Nova Scotia’s tourism industry.
Speaking of the public display of Gaelic, as the Lieutenant Governor pointed out in his speech, Government House has a few multilingual signs with Gaelic, which are very rare in Halifax. A quadrilingual plaque in the entryway, announcing the rededication of Government House, was unveiled in June 2010 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (of England and I of Scotland, some would say). I’ve annotated the photo to point out where the plaque is in Gaelic, English, French, and Mi’kmaw (sorry for the camera distortion; both the plaque and the sword display case are of course perfectly rectangular):
The washrooms in the basement were among the nicest I’ve ever seen; the ladies’ room is bigger than my kitchen, with antique prints and décor worthy of a magazine. But more to the point, the washrooms have trilingual brass signs in English, French, and Gaelic:
Mòran taing to Shauna Schiel for taking many of these photos, including a memorable series of family portraits that she took in front of one of the sentry boxes at the entrance:
Sin e, a chàirdean…