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Gaelic: a first step. Why should unique varieties of Gaelic in Maritimes not be regarded as a valuable resource? (Part 1)

By Dr. John W. Shaw,

Guest Editorial, The Guardian, Charlottetown, 15 July 2016

The Sir Andrew Macphail Homestead Foundation’s inaugural Gaelic Festival, Orwell, July 31–August 1 2015, was the first of its kind to take place on the Island, and has set the stage for a timely initiative to promote and develop regional Gaelic culture and language as a resource accessible to all. The festival was organized to bring home and promote the value of this important part of the region’s contemporary culture and transmitted legacy.

It opened with the 2nd Annual Sir Andrew Macphail Memorial Lecture, sponsored by the Institute of Island Studies and delivered by Dr. John Shaw, describing the results of field recording carried out in the Island’s Scottish communities during the 1980s, and how such archival materials can be put to use to secure the future of the Island’s local forms of Gaelic culture and language.

The support of both the Institute of Island Studies and the Robertson Library, UPEI, in making available archival recordings in their holdings, has demonstrated the integral role such institutions can play in re-accessing endangered and marginalized forms of local knowledge which historically formed an ethnolinguistic majority in many of our Island’s communities.

The activities of the following day were devoted to illustrating the present reality and future potential of the Island’s Gaelic legacy. Following a truly Gaelic style, this was done through a format of informality, sociability and entertainment, and featured local traditions from the Island and neighbouring Gaelic regions.

A major activity was the singing of traditional Gaelic songs, facilitated by James Watson of the Highland Village (Baile nan Gàidheal) in Iona, Cape Breton. Many of these songs encourage group participation, with everyone joining in with the lead singer on choruses.

Participants were taught Gaelic choruses as they sat around a long table in the old style, with a blanket used in ‘thickening’ or ‘milling’ frolics for the preparation of the homemade tweed. The songs, brought over by settlers in the 19th century, are a vibrant legacy that has been shared among all Gaelic regions of the Maritimes, and can extend to some 20 verses.

Featured also were Gaelic songs composed in P.E.I., sung here until a few generations ago and now well placed to be brought back into the Island’s active singing repertoire. Gaelic song is about more than vocal showmanship: it is there to tell a story. One of the singers present at the table performed a Gaelic song from the Island, made at the time of settlement, telling of the promise that the new home held for pioneers from Scotland’s Western Isles.

The singing and other activities formed a part of the Gàidhlig aig Baile ‘Gaelic at Home’ language immersion program, based on learning socially through group participation in traditional activities that has been met with wide success throughout Nova Scotia. As was the custom in many Gaelic-speaking households, stories and humorous anecdotes were exchanged over tea and traditional dishes, leading to a passing on of regional traditions in a relaxed setting.

The day concluded with an evening concert featuring songs in Gaelic and English and Scottish traditional music.

Exposure to the richness and variety of Gaelic community culture at home is bound to raise the same fundamental questions regarding intangible cultural heritage (outlined by the 2003 UNESCO Convention to broadly include various forms of communally maintained knowledge, from oral traditions to traditional craftsmanship), that are now being asked worldwide:

What are the long-term consequences for the quality of social life, communal cohesion and shared optimism when our regional traditions no longer inform them? Are living traditions that have existed reliably for centuries, growing and changing with communities, easily replaced by those imported from the outside? What does it mean to a community or an entire people when through language change, or from imposition of culture from the outside, they are deprived of the narratives that serve as their mental archive and explain to each of them who they are?

What happens to communities of people who no longer have access to the songs that have furnished an internal account, past and present, of each locale, or in some cases of each family? To whose advantage are such forms of imposed cultural amnesia? Why should the unique varieties of Gaelic in the Maritimes not be regarded as a valuable resource and treated as such?


In Part 2, Dr. Shaw discusses “What is the future for Gaelic on the Island?”

What does future hold? Island communities, institutions must develop most suitable, unique approaches (Part 2)

By Dr. John W. Shaw,

Guest Editorial, The Guardian, Charlottetown, 18 July 2016


As a cultural event, by any standard, the Macphail Homestead’s inaugural Gaelic festival has enjoyed an undoubted success in raising the perceived value of the language and culture; yet we may well ask whether such benefits can be realized here in the future, and by what means. Some answers may be found by looking to our neighbours in Gaelic Cape Breton, and even further away in Scotland.

Traditionally, language and cultural maintenance have been regarded as the responsibility of educational institutions, but increasingly over the past two decades there has been an emphasis on the resources offered by communities. Such resources, though understandably simple, have proven to be effective when combined with the skills that educational and government institutions have to offer.

Foremost among our community-generated resources are recorded archives of Gaelic tradition whose potential for cultural continuity has only partially been tapped. As a result of recording carried out in the 1970s and ’80s, often from the last living Gaelic speakers, P.E.I. has a significant resource of fieldwork collections waiting to be deployed. In Cape Breton and mainland Nova Scotia, the extensive Gaelic sound and Dr. John W. Shaw sings along with participants around the waulking table at last year’s inaugural “Eilean an Àigh: Gaelic Folkways Festival and Summer Institute.” video collections, a legacy for us all, have formed the basis for community projects that encourage and bring about language and cultural continuity. Such initiatives using locally developed materials in Nova Scotia include An Drochaid Eadarainn ‘The Bridge Uniting Us’, an interactive ‘social-media’ website designed to emulate the social transmission of Gaelic language and culture.

The knowledge of living Gaelic-speaking elders in Cape Breton as well as online archives are essential to cultural and linguistic renewal. This includes Sruth nan Gàidheal (Gael Stream), an online archive hosting nearly 2000 Gaelic field recordings made on Cape Breton in the 1970s and ’80s. Furthermore, these resources have been successfully employed in cooperation with mentoring programs with older Gaels, and intensive summer workshops offered in Gaelic only and featuring regional song, storytelling, and music.

The implementation of programming that combines traditional skills with digital technology has resulted in a growing group of young people, many of whose grandparents were Gaelic speakers, who now use Gaelic with each other.

Furthermore, they are fluent in their own local dialects, and have developed the song and story repertoires and cultural skills that were once the pride of their grandparents’ generation. Young men and women who show this level of focus and dedication are unlikely to relinquish their Gaelic world easily. Both government and educational institutions have looked favourably on projects of this kind, not least because the costs are so low compared to many similar initiatives.

How do small initiatives such as Gaelic in the Maritimes fit into the big picture of billions of people and dollars, and the mega-forces that (we are assured) determine our future? The parallels between the issues raised concerning global biodiversity with the extinction of entire species, and those emerging around endangered cultures are becoming ever more apparent; we have begun to understand that the casual eradication of human cultures (ethnocide) and biological species, far from being trivial, is irreversible and for keeps.

A major issue for marginalized communities and their cultures is the concept of choice, and its power in ‘peripheral’ regions to become a positive representation of control over our lives. For many, such face-to-face occasions as traditional céilidhs serve to debunk the idea of ‘impersonal’ disembodied economic forces that drive mass entertainment and run our worlds in so many other ways.

What, then, are the most constructive and practical ways to handle and develop local and regional cultural resources? Experience has taught us that the most effective approach, socially and politically, is on a developmental model, with growing emphasis on developing long-term partnerships (working agreements involving substantial funding and resource commitment) with existing agencies. The strategy for success has been not to mount a direct opposition to mainstream or state culture, but to offer an alternative supported by documented and straightforward cultural information of the sort that in the past has not been routinely made available through the educational system.

These and further suggestions from other Gaelic areas will prove to be useful, but communities and institutions on the Island will have to develop the unique approaches that best suit them. It should be an interesting and memorable journey.

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