Cultural Ties Strengthen Between Scotland and Cape Breton in Wake of Gaelic Summit – Boost to Canada’s Maritime Gaelic

At the time of Canadian Confederation, in 1867, Gaelic was the third most spoken language in Canada. As many as one hundred thousand Nova Scotians spoke Gaelic as their mother tongue in 1900. Today, estimates claim there are between 1000 and 2000 Gaelic speakers and learners in the province. The decline in Gaelic language is, in large part, due to educational policies…. In the early 1900’s many students began school as Gaelic speakers but were forced to learn English as that was the only language spoken in school. Many of our contemporary Gaelic speakers maintained their language at home and are now able to help pass on this beautiful and musical language. - The Baile nan Gàidheal | Highland Village (linked below)

The stark facts above that describe the “attempted murder” of Maritime Gaelic by British colonial administrators lends a certain irony to the help now being given by Scotland to promote the revitalization of Scots Gaelic in the Cape Breton region of Nova Scotia. Children were forced to speak English in the classroom whereas Gaelic medium edcuation was nonexistant.  An example of the fate of Gaelic is illustrated in a 2013 Transceltic interview with Natalie MacMaster, the famed Cape Breton Fiddler. We asked MacMaster about her relationship with the Gaelic language: " Unfortunately I did not grow up with the Gaelic language. My parents did not speak it and I did not hear the language at home.  It is my understanding that as children my father and uncle were forced to speak English in the classroom.  Although I did not hear the language at home I believe the language influences the music, there is Gaelic in the music."  The experience of the MacMaster family shows two things; the importance of Gaelic medium education and that Gaelic culture survives in Cape Breton.  

In July of this year after the “International Gaelic Summit” held at Cape Breton’s Gaelic College, Colaisde na Gàidhlig,  jointly sponsored by Scotland’s Gaelic College, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig (Isle of Skye College) in Scotland, an historic agreement was reached. A “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) between Colaisde na Gàidhlig and Sabhal Mòr Ostaig was signed on July 6, the last day of the conference. The MOU targets collaboration between the two Gaelic Colleges to “ foster opportunities for the Gaelic language, culture and heritage.”

Cape Breton Gaelic College CEO, Rodney MacDonald, described the agreement: “It’s certainly inclusive, but not limited to the educational programming that’s offered by both institutions. We’ll be supporting visits and exchanges between students, staff and alumni, (and) the promotion of Gaelic cultural events. Also, the knowledge exchange is very important in the areas of Gaelic language, music, dance and craft.”

Such an exchange can only help to strengthen Maritime Gaelic as the Gaelic community of Nova Scotia continue the steady advance of revitalization of the Tongue. The Scottish hands of the Bòrd na Gàidhlig have been behind the revival in recent years. The Bòrd na Gàidhlig was established as a public body under the Scottish Parliament's " Gaelic Language Scotland Act 2005". The Bòrd ‘s mission under the 2005 legislation is summarized as follows from the organization’s web site: "The Bòrd na Gàidhlig, works to promote Gaelic in Scotland in partnership with the Scottish Government, the people of Scotland and Gaelic organizations to improve the status of the Gaelic tongue throughout Scotland."   Interestingly the 2005 law extends the Bòrd’s brief beyond Scotland giving the Bòrd stewardship for Scots Gaelic beyond the borders of Scotland and has been increasingly showing its support for Maritime Gaelic in recent years.

In 2011 Alasdair Allan, then Scottish Government Minister for Learning, Science and Scotland's Languages visited Cape Breton to announce the start of a scholarship program funding Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton to visit Scotland and study Gaelic at the expense of Edinburgh. Now in its 5th year, there were 20 participants in 2015 alone.  Through a partnership of the Scottish Government, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig and the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs each participant travels to Scotland to study at the prestigious Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. With the continuation of the partnership between Scotland and Nova Scotia every year graduates of the program join the growing cadre of fluent Gaelic speakers who return to Nova Scotia to further strengthen the revival of Maritime Gaelic.

"This scheme stands as one of the many strong links between Scotland and Nova Scotia," said Dr. Alasdair Allan when making the announcement in 2011, "I encourage Nova Scotians to apply and to contribute to strengthening both the Gaelic language and the links between both our communities."


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