Scottish Gaelic in Canada

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Canadian Gaelic
A' Ghàidhlig Chanadach
Pronunciation əˈɣaːlɪkʲ ˈxanət̪əx
Native to Canada
Region Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
Native speakers
2,320 (2011 census)[1][2][3]
Latin (Gaelic alphabet)
Language codes
ISO 639-3
Glottolog None
Linguasphere 50-AAA-acp
Distribution throughout the Maritimes c.1850
This article contains IPA phonetic symbols. Without proper rendering support, you may see question marks, boxes, or other symbols instead of Unicode characters.

Canadian Gaelic or Cape Breton Gaelic (Scottish Gaelic: Gàidhlig Chanada, A' Ghàidhlig Chanèideanach or Gàidhlig Cheap Bhreatainn), known in English as often simply Gaelic, refers to the dialects of Scottish Gaelic spoken by Gaels in Atlantic Canada who have their origins in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Gaels settled in Nova Scotia commencing in 1773 with the arrival of the Ship Hector and continued on a large scale until the mid 20th Century. Gaelic has been spoken for 243 years in Nova Scotia: on Cape Breton Island and on the northeastern Nova Scotia mainland.

The Gaelic cultural identity community is a vibrant part of Nova Scotia's diverse peoples and communities. Thousands of Nova Scotians attend Gaelic-related activities and events annually including: language workshops and immersions, milling frolics, square dances, fiddle and piping sessions, concerts and festivals. Up until about the turn of the 20th century, Gaelic was widely spoken on eastern Prince Edward Island (PEI). In the 2011 Canadian Census, 10 individuals in PEI cited that their mother tongue was a Gaelic language, with over 90 claiming to speak a Gaelic language.

Gaels, their language and culture have influenced the heritage of Glengarry County and other regions in present-day Ontario, where many Highland Scots settled commencing in the 18th century, and to a much lesser extent the provinces of New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador (especially the Codroy Valley), Manitoba and Alberta.

Having its origins in Scotland, the Scottish Gaelic language is similar to, but should not be confused with, the Irish language, also referred to as Irish Gaelic, which was formerly spoken in Newfoundland and was known as Newfoundland Irish.

At its peak in the mid-19th century, Scottish Gaelic, considered together with the closely related Irish Gaelic spoken in Newfoundland, was the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French.[4]

In the Atlantic Provinces today, there are approximately 2,000 speakers, mainly in Nova Scotia.[1][2][5] In terms of the total number of speakers in the 2011 census, there were 7,195 total speakers of "Gaelic languages" in Canada, with 1,365 in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island where the responses mainly refer to Scottish Gaelic.[6] The 2011 census also reported that 300 residents of Nova Scotia considered a Gaelic language to be their "mother tongue".[7]

Through its Office of Gaelic Affairs [2], a Division of the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage, the Government of Nova Scotia supports and promotes the language and culture of the Gaels of Nova Scotia. Gaelic Affairs' vision is that Nova Scotians reclaim their Gaelic language and identity as a basis for cultural, community, spiritual and economic renewal.

To achieve this vision, Gaelic Affairs supports Nova Scotians in reclaiming Gaelic language and identity by creating awareness, working with partners and providing tools and opportunities to learn, share and experience Gaelic language and culture. Gaelic Affairs works in partnership with institutions and community organizations that pertain to Gaelic language and culture to establish programs and initiatives that provide opportunities for Nova Scotians to learn and use Gaelic and better appreciate and understand Gaelic cultural identity in Nova Scotia.

There 24 organizations and six institutions with whom Gaelic Affairs works to promote and develop Gaelic language and culture in Nova Scotia. At the international level, there are 12 international organizations located in Scotland and Ireland with whom Gaelic Affairs is in regular communication. There are partnerships between the Scottish Government, Bòrd na Gàidhlig and the Highland Council (Scotland) and Gaelic Affairs, Nova Scotia. Gaelic Affairs works to strengthen and heighten the links between the Gaelic Triad – Ireland, Scotland and Nova Scotia.

Since its creation, Gaelic Affairs' executive director has been Cape Breton-born and Antigonish county-raised Gaelic language and cultural advocate, poet and musician, Lewis MacKinnon. In 2011 MacKinnon became the first non-Scot to be crowned Bard (the Gaelic version of a national poet laureate) in the history of the Royal National Mòd.[8]


Arrival of earliest Gaels

In 1621, King James VI of Scotland allowed privateer William Alexander to establish the first Scottish colony overseas. The group of Highlanders – all of whom were Gaelic-speaking – settled at what is presently known as Port Royal, on the western shore of Nova Scotia.

Within a year the colony had failed. Subsequent attempts to relaunch it were cancelled when in 1631 the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye returned Nova Scotia to French rule.[9]

Almost a half-century later, in 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company was given exclusive trading rights to all North American lands draining into Hudson Bay – about 3.9 million km² (1.5 million sq mi – an area larger than India). Many of the traders were Orcadians and Gaels from Highlands of Scotland, the latter of whom brought Gaelic to the interior.

Those who intermarried with the local First Nations people passed on their language, with the effect that by the mid-18th century there existed a sizeable population of Métis traders with Scottish and aboriginal ancestry, and command of spoken Gaelic.[10]

Gaels in 18th- and 19th-century settlements

Cape Breton remained the property of France until 1758 (although mainland Nova Scotia had belonged to Britain since 1713) when Fortress Louisbourg fell to the British, followed by the rest of New France in the ensuing Battle at the Plaines d'Abraham. As a result of the conflict Highland regiments who fought for the British secured a reputation for tenacity and combat prowess.[4] In turn the countryside itself secured a reputation among the Highlanders for its size, beauty, and wealth of natural resources.[11]

They would remember Canada when in 1762 the earliest of the Fuadach nan Gàidheal (Scottish Highland Clearances) forced many Gaelic families off their ancestral lands. The first ship loaded with Hebridean colonists arrived on "St.-John's Island" (Prince Edward Island) in 1770, with later ships following in 1772, and 1774.[4]

In 1773 a ship named "The Hector" landed in Pictou, Nova Scotia, with 169 settlers mostly originating from the Isle of Skye.[12]

In 1784 the last barrier to Scottish settlement – a law restricting land-ownership on Cape Breton Island – was repealed, and soon both PEI and Nova Scotia were predominantly Gaelic-speaking.[13]

It is estimated more than 50,000 Gaelic settlers immigrated to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island between 1815 and 1870.[4]

With the end of the American War of Independence, immigrants newly arrived from Scotland would soon be joined by Loyalist emigrants escaping persecution from American Partisans.

These settlers arrived on a mass scale at the arable lands of British North America, with large numbers settling in Glengarry County in present-day Ontario, and in the Eastern Townships of Quebec.[4]

Red River colony

In 1812, Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk obtained 300,000 square kilometres (120,000 sq mi) to build a colony at the forks of the Red River, in what would become Manitoba. With the help of his employee and friend, Archibald McDonald, Selkirk sent over 70 Scottish settlers, many of whom spoke only Gaelic, and had them establish a small farming colony there. The settlement soon attracted local First Nations groups, resulting in an unprecedented interaction of Scottish (Lowland, Highland, and Orcadian), English, Cree, French, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, and Métis traditions all in close contact.[14]

In the 1840s, Toronto Anglican priest Dr John Black was sent to preach to the settlement, but "his lack of the Gaelic was at first a grievous disappointment" to parishioners.[15] With continuing immigration the population of Scots colonists grew to more than 300, but by the 1860s the French-Métis outnumbered the Scots, and tensions between the two groups would prove a major factor in the ensuing Red River Rebellion.[10]

The continuing association between the Selkirk colonists and surrounding First Nations groups evolved into a unique contact language. Used primarily by the Anglo- and Scots-Métis traders, the "Red River Dialect" or Bungee was a mixture of Gaelic and English with many terms borrowed from the local native languages. Whether the dialect was a trade pidgin or a fully developed mixed language is unknown. Today the Scots-Métis have largely been absorbed by the more dominant French-Métis culture, and the Bungee dialect is most likely extinct.

Thomas Robert McInnes (In Canadian Gaelic: Tòmas Raibeart Mac Aonghais)

Status in the 19th century

By 1850, Gaelic was the third most-common mother tongue in British North America after English and French, and is believed to have been spoken by more than 200,000 British North Americans at that time.[13] A large population who spoke the related Irish Gaelic immigrated to Scots Gaelic communities and to Irish settlements in Newfoundland.

In PEI, Cape Breton and Glengarry there were large areas of Gaelic monolingualism,[13] and communities of Gaelic-speakers had established themselves in northeastern Nova Scotia (around Pictou and Antigonish); in Glengarry, Stormont, Grey, and Bruce Counties in Ontario; in the Codroy Valley of Newfoundland; in Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Eastern Quebec.[4]

At the time of Confederation in 1867 the most common mother tongue among the Fathers of Confederation was Gaelic.[16]

In 1890, Thomas Robert McInnes, an independent Senator from British Columbia (born Lake Ainslie, Cape Breton Island) tabled a bill entitled "An Act to Provide for the Use of Gaelic in Official Proceedings."[13] He cited the ten Scottish and eight Irish senators who spoke Gaelic, and 32 members of the House of Commons who spoke either Scottish or Irish Gaelic. The bill was defeated 42–7.[4]

Despite the widespread disregard by government on Gaelic issues, records exist of at least one criminal trial conducted entirely in Gaelic, c.1880.

Reasons for decline

Despite the long history of Gaels and their language and culture in Canada, the Gaelic speech population started to decline after 1850. This drop was a result of prejudice (both from outside, and from within the Gaelic community itself), aggressive dissuasion in school and government, and the perceived prestige of English.

Gaelic has faced widespread prejudice in Great Britain for generations, and those feelings were easily transposed to British North America.[17] In 1868, the Scottish-American Journal mockingly reported that "...the preliminary indispensables for acquiring Gaelic are: swallowing a neat assortment of nutmeal-graters, catching a chronic bronchitis, having one nostril hermetically sealed up, and submitting to a dislocation of the jaw."[17]

That Gaelic had not received official status in its homeland made it easier for Canadian legislators to disregard the concerns of domestic speakers. Legislators questioned why "privileges should be asked for Highland Scotchmen in [the Canadian Parliament] that are not asked for in their own country?".[13] Politicians who themselves spoke the language held opinions that would today be considered misinformed; Lunenburg Senator Henry A. N. Kaulbach, in response to Thomas Robert McInnes's Gaelic bill, described the language as only "well suited to poetry and fairy tales."[13] The belief that certain languages had inherent strengths and weaknesses was typical in the 19th century, but has been rejected by modern linguistics.

Around 1880, Am Bàrd Mac Dhiarmaid from The North Shore, wrote An Té a Chaill a' Ghàidhlig (The Woman who Lost her Gaelic), a humorous song recounting the growing phenomenon of Gaels shunning their mother-tongue.[18]

Chuir mi fàilte oirr' gu càirdeil:
"Dé mar a tha thu, seann leannan?"
Gun do shìn mi mo làmh dhi,
's thug mi dha dhe na crathadh.
Fhreagair ise gu nàimhdeil:
"You're a Scotchman I reckon.
I don't know your Gaelic,
Perhaps you are from Cape Breton."

I welcomed her with affection:
"How are you old sweetheart?"
I held out my hand,
But she ignored it.
She answered haughtily:
"You're a Scotchman I reckon.
I don't know your Gaelic,
Perhaps you are from Cape Breton."

With the outbreak of World War II the Canadian government attempted to prevent the use of Gaelic on public telecommunications systems. The government believed Gaelic was used by subversives affiliated with Ireland, a neutral country perceived to be tolerant of the Nazis.[4] In Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton where the Gaelic language was strongest, it was actively discouraged in schools with corporal punishment. Children were beaten with the maide-crochaidh (en: hanging stick) if caught speaking Gaelic.[13]

Job opportunities for monolingual Gaels were few and restricted to the dwindling Gaelic-communities, compelling most into the mines or the fishery. Many saw English fluency as the key to success, and for the first time in Canadian history Gaelic-speaking parents were teaching their children to speak English en masse. The sudden stop of Gaelic intergenerational transmission, caused by shame and prejudice, was the immediate cause of the drastic decline in Gaelic fluency in the 20th century.[13]

Ultimately the population dropped from a peak of 200,000 in 1850, to 80,000 in 1900, to 30,000 in 1930 and 500–1,000 today.[4] There are no longer entire communities of Canadian Gaelic-speakers, although traces of the language and pockets of speakers are relatively commonplace on Cape Breton, and especially in traditional strongholds like Christmas Island, The North Shore, and Baddeck.

Contemporary language, culture and arts initiatives

Bilingual sign, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

A. W. R. MacKenzie founded the Nova Scotia Gaelic College at St Ann's in 1939. St Francis Xavier University in Antigonish has a Celtic Studies department with Gaelic-speaking faculty members, and is the only such university department outside Scotland to offer four full years of Scottish Gaelic instruction.[13] The Atlantic Gaelic Academy in Nova Scotia offers a four-year program as well.

Eòin Boidhdeach of Antigonish published the monthly Gaelic magazine An Cuairtear Òg Gaelach ("The Gaelic Tourist") around 1851.[4] The world's longest-running Gaelic periodical Mac Talla (Echo), was printed by Eòin G. MacFhionghain for eleven years between 1892 and 1904, in Sydney.[13] Eòin and Seòras MacShuail, believed to be the only black speakers of Goidelic languages in Canada, were born in Cape Breton and in adulthood became friends with Rudyard Kipling, who in 1896 wrote Captains Courageous, which featured an isolated Gaelic-speaking African-Canadian cook originally from Cape Breton.[19]

Many English-speaking artists of Canadian Gaelic heritage have featured Canadian Gaelic in their works, among them Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees), and D.R. MacDonald (Cape Breton Road ). Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond has released several albums in the language, including the 1997 hit Hòro Ghoid thu Nighean, ("Jenny Dang the Weaver"). Cape Breton fiddling is a unique tradition of Gaelic and Acadian styles, known in fiddling circles worldwide.

Several Canadian schools use the "Gael" as a mascot, the most prominent being Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. The school cheer of Queen's University is "Oilthigh na Bànrighinn a' Bhànrighinn gu bràth!" ("The College of the Queen forever!"), and is traditionally sung after scoring a touchdown in football matches. The university's team is nicknamed the Golden Gaels.

The Gaelic character of Nova Scotia has influenced that province's industry and traditions. Glen Breton Rare, produced in Cape Breton, is one of the very few single malt whiskies to be made outside Scotland. Gaelic settlers in Windsor adapted the popular Gaelic sport shinty (shinny) to be played on ice wearing skates, the precursor to modern ice hockey[citation needed].

The first Gaelic language film to be made in North America, Faire Chaluim MhicLeòid ("The Wake of Calum MacLeod") is a six-minute short filmed in Cape Breton.[20]

Outlook and development

Efforts to address the decline specifically of Gaelic language in Nova Scotia began in the late 1980s. Two conferences on the status of Gaelic language and culture held on Cape Breton Island set the stage. Starting in the late 1990s, the Nova Scotia government began studying ways it might enhance Gaelic in the province.

In December 2006 the Office of Gaelic Affairs was established.

In Prince Edward Island, the Colonel Gray High School now offers both an introductory and an advanced course in Gaelic; both language and history are taught in these classes. This is the first recorded time that Gaelic has ever been taught as an official course on Prince Edward Island.

Maxville Public School in Maxville, Glengarry, Ontario, Canada offers Scottish Gaelic lessons weekly. The last "fluent" Gaelic-speaker in Ontario, descended from the original settlers of Glengarry County, died in 2001.[21]

The province of British Columbia is host to the 'Comunn Gàidhlig Bhancoubhair' (The Gaelic Society of Vancouver), the Vancouver Gaelic Choir, the Victoria Gaelic Choir, as well as the annual Gaelic festival 'Mòd Vancouver'. The city of Vancouver's Scottish Cultural Centre also holds seasonal Scottish Gaelic evening classes.


A Gaelic Economic-impact Study completed by the Nova Scotia government in 2002 estimates that Gaelic generates over $23.5 million annually, with nearly 380,000 people attending approximately 2,070 Gaelic events annually. This study inspired a subsequent report, The Gaelic Preservation Strategy, which polled the community's desire to preserve Gaelic while seeking consensus on adequate reparative measures.

These two documents are watersheds in the timeline of Canadian Gaelic, representing the first concrete steps taken by a provincial government to recognize the language's decline and engage local speakers in reversing this trend. The documents recommend Community development, strengthening education, legislating road signs and publications, and building ties between the Gaelic community and other Nova Scotia "heritage language" communities Mi'kmaq, Acadian French and African Nova Scotian.

Increased ties were called for between Nova Scotia and Scotland, and the first such agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding, was signed in 2002.[22]


Today over a dozen public institutions offer Gaelic courses, (such as a Canadian History course in Gaelic at North Nova Education Centre, Nova Scotia) in addition to advanced programmes conducted at Cape Breton, St Francis Xavier, and Saint Mary's Universities, and the Atlantic Gaelic Academy.

The Atlantic Gaelic Academy offers a Gaelic program, with levels from Beginner to Advanced Plus, through in-person classes at various locations, and "live" distance-learning classes. Gaelic courses at public schools are increasingly popular.

The Nova Scotia Highland Village offers a bilingual interpretation site, presenting Gaelic and English interpretation for visitors and offering programmes for the local community members and the general public.

The Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in St. Ann's offers Gaelic immersion weekends, weeks and summer programs.

Sponsored by local Gaelic organizations and societies, ongoing Gaelic language adult immersion classes involving hundreds of individuals are held in over a dozen communities in the province. These immersion programs focus on learning language through activity, props and repetition. Reading, writing and grammar are introduced after the student has had a minimum amount of exposure to hearing and speaking Gaelic through everyday contextualized activities. The grouping of immersion methodologies and exposure to Gaelic cultural expression in immersion settings is referred to in Nova Scotia as Gàidhlig aig Baile.

Linguistic features

The phonology of some Canadian Gaelic dialects have diverged in several ways from the standard Gaelic spoken in Scotland, while others have remained the same.[23] Gaelic terms unique to Canada exist, though research on the exact number is deficient. The language has also had a considerable effect on Cape Breton English.


  • l̪ˠw
The most common Canadian Gaelic shibboleth, where broad /l̪ˠ/ is pronounced as [w]. This form was well-known in Western Scotland where it was called the glug Eigeach ("Eigg cluck"), for its putative use among speakers from the Isle of Eigg.[23]
  • n̪ˠm
When /n̪ˠ/ occurs after a rounded vowel, speakers tend to pronounce it as [m].[23]
  • n̪ˠw
This form is limited mostly to the plural ending -annan, where the -nn- sequence is pronounced as [w].[23]
  • rʃ
This change occurs frequently in many Scotland dialects when "r" is realized next to specific consonants; however such conditions are not necessary in Canadian Gaelic, where "r" is pronounced [ʃ] regardless of surrounding sounds.[23]


  • feirmeireachd verb  to farm.[24]
  • lodannoun  a velvet offering pouch for church.[24]
  • mogannoun  a term which refers to a heavy ankle sock sold with a rubberized sole that was worn in Cape Breton for decades ago. The term also refers to a pull-on leg warmer for use when wearing the kilt in cold climates.[25]
  • pàirc-coillidh (or pàirce-choilleadh)  noun  a wooded clearing burnt for planting crops, literally "forest park".[24]
  • seant (pl. seantaichean) noun a Gaelicisation of the English noun "cent".[26] The term "dolair" is used in Canada and the U.S. instead of the word "nota", which refers to a British pound. "Sgillinn" is used both in Canada, the US, and Scotland to refer to coins.
  • smuglair noun a Gaelicisation of the English word smuggler.[26]
  • ponndadh verb a Gaelicisation of the English verb "to pound". That this may have been used in Cape Breton instead of "bualadh" is evidence of the heavy reliance on English loan words.[26]
  • trì sgillinn phrasal noun a nickel. (literally "three pence").[26]
  • sia sgillinn phrasal noun a dime. (literally "six pence").[26]
  • tastan phrasal noun twenty cents. (literally "a shilling").[26]
  • dà thastan agus sia sgillinn phrasal noun fifty cents. (literally "two shillings and six pence").[26]
  • còig tastan phrasal noun a dollar. (literally "five shillings").[26]
  • stòr noun a Gaelicisation of the English noun "store". Although the word stòr does refer to a storage building as well as wealth, the Gaelic term "bùth" is sometimes used amongst Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia today.[26]
  • taigh-obrach noun workhouse (penitentiary).[26]
  • bangaid noun a banquet.[26]
  • Na Machraichean Mòra noun The Canadian Prairies.[26]

Gaelic in Nova Scotia English

  • boomalernoun  a boor, oaf, bungler.
  • sgudalnoun  garbage (sgudal).
  • skiffnoun  a deep blanket of snow covering the ground. (from sguabach or sgiobhag).[23]

List of Scottish Gaelic place names in Canada

See also