Our Living Celtic Culture

By Hector MacNeil (Gaelic College – St. Ann’s, Cape Breton)

Gaelic Cape Breton has been described as “the most recent and far-flung outpost” of Gaelic Scotland. It is the only area in the world – outside of Scotland itself – where Gaelic continues as a living language and culture. Here the language, culture and traditions have been transmitted through five, six and even seven generations of separation from the Homeland. As such, Cape Breton holds a unique position within the larger Gaelic world.

During the period 1775 – 1850, some twenty-five thousand Gaelic-speaking Scots from every region of the Highlands and Islands established thriving pioneer communities throughout Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia.

The pattern of emigration followed by the initial settlers was an important factor in the successful transfer of the language and culture. This pattern has been called “chain migration” which in its simplest terms, means that emigrants tended to follow in the path of their neighbors who had gone to the New World before them.

Thus, the Barra people coming to Cape Breton settled mainly in the Christmas Island – Iona area; Lewis and Harris people in that area that we call the North Shore; Lochaber people in Mabou, and so on. This grouping of people according to their place of origin in Scotland allowed for the transfer, whole and intact, of localized dialects, of music, song and dance traditions, and of patterns of religious adherence.

Gaelic culture thrived in Cape Breton. From the arrival of the first settlers through to the present, Cape Breton Gaels, like their counterparts in Scotland, have continued the development of their linguistic and cultural heritage.

By the late 1800’s Gaelic communities were firmly established throughout rural Cape Breton. The immigration to Cape Breton from Scotland had all but ended by 1860. The Clearances were finished and the Famine was past. The vast bulk of those who wished to leave Scotland had left, and those who remained in Scotland were fighting to win justice in their own country.

In Cape Breton, Gaelic was alive and thriving. By 1880 the Gaelic speaking population of Cape Breton had swollen to 85,000. This population was comprised largely of first, second and third generation descendants of the original settlers and for the vast majority of these descendants, Gaelic was their first and only language.

The opening years of the twentieth century saw many changes coming into life in the rural and urban communities of Cape Breton. Some of these changes were subtle; some were more obvious.

For Cape Breton, the era of pioneer settlement was past. With the growing number of sawmills in the country, and the increased availability of iron and steel, timber-framed construction had all but replaced log construction as the main form of housing. Similarly, the brush-fence and the stake-fence were giving way to pole and even wire fencing. The single-lane tracks through the forest were developing into roads. And the closing years of the nineteenth century saw the opening of the railway as Cape Breton was connected to the rest of North America by an rathad iarainn “the iron road”. Also, by 1900, the number of Gaelic speakers had dropped form eighty-five thousand to around seventy-five thousand people.

There were other changes taking place as well. Beginning in the 1880’s, a new pattern of out-migration began to appear – this time from areas such as rural Cape Breton. The coal mines of Cape Breton had been in operation before the Gaels arrived and it was usual for some people to go to work in the mines from time to time. Because of its rich deposits of coal and iron, Sydney and the surrounding townships were emerging as a major industrial region within North America. The opening of the Sydney Steel Plant in 1901 created a demand for industrial workers never before seen in Cape Breton and Sydney was dubbed, “the New York of the North”.

Large numbers of people started leaving the small rural communities of Cape Breton to seek work in the industrial area – the Gaels among them.

Throughout North America, there were other cities and newly opened territories to draw rural inhabitants away from their homes. California was one such area. New England was another. Often referred to as “the Boston States”, it was a magnet that attracted many young Cape Breton Gaels looking for a new life away from the farm. This out-migration coupled with improvements in transportation and a growing identification with English as the language of success surely contributed to the decline in the number of Gaelic speakers. It was a pattern that was to continue throughout this century.

In addition, the First World War, the Great Depression, and the Second World War would carry thousands of young men and women off the battlefields of Europe and to the cities and harvest fields of North America. Some would return to Cape Breton; many would not.

By 1921, the number of Gaelic speakers had further dropped to around sixty-thousand and it is generally agreed that that number has declined by 50% every ten years since. Today there are as many as eight hundred Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton.

As daunting as these figures appear, Gaelic continued as an active language within the rural communities of Cape Breton throughout this period. And although the language has suffered such a steady erosion, there remains in most communities today, a significant number of speakers – enough to continued the language, the stories, and the songs that act as a touchstone for the culture as a whole.

And what of that culture? How does it express itself, and what are the social institutions that allow for its continuance in the face of the dominance of English North America?

Conservatism in the retention of older cultural and social institutions is a well documented feature of communities like Gaelic Cape Breton that lie far from the physical center of that culture. This fact, coupled with Cape Breton’s geographical isolation, allowed for the retention of a prodigious store of Gaelic oral and musical tradition within the Cape Breton Gaidhealtachd (Gaelic speaking area or region).

The “Ceilidh” was the main social institution that provided a venue for the transmission of tradition. In Gaelic – and with it the ceilidh-house – was a highly evolved institution throughout the Gaelic world.

A Ceilidh-house was a favored gathering place in a community and each ceilidh-house would be known locally for its particular form of entertainment. This would most often be determined by the talents of the occupants of the house. A man or woman known for their singing abilities would attract other singers and those who enjoyed songs to that particular house. Hence, singing would be the main entertainment with story-telling, music and dance mixed in. Another house might be known primarily for story-telling, and yet another for music and dance.

Whatever the favored entertainment, visitors would start arriving after the evening chores were finished. Each new arrival would be greeted in turn and invited to tell their news. The early hours were thus spent mainly in the discussion of the small and large events of the day. As the evening settled, the music, song and story-telling would commence and would continue through the evening and into the night.

Often performance was followed by discussion. The history behind a story or a song, the meaning and nuances of a particular word or line, bowing styles, fingering techniques – these and other topics might be discussed and even debated. In this way, people shared their collective knowledge, for a Gaelic audience at its best is an informed audience capable of truly appreciating the individual style and talents of the performer within the parameters of the wider tradition. Even the person who might never “perform” participates in a valuable and valued way through his or her knowledge of the tradition.

In this way, localized styles and repertoires of music, song, and story along with knowledge of tradition, history and genealogy were – and still are – maintained and developed within the “house ceilidh”.

The Clearances that precipitated the mass emigration from the highlands occurred at a time when the fiddle had reached its peak in popularity in Scotland. The bagpipes had replaced the harp as the instrument of preference during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Now the fiddle in turn was rivaling the pipes. The torrent of change that washed away the old order carried with it many of the masters of both those instruments along with poets, story-tellers, tradition bearers. Inevitably, some of those artists landed on the shores of Nova Scotia. They brought with them their instruments, their talents and their status as highly valued members of their communities.

A visitor to a ceilidh in rural Cape Breton of the 1800’s would have heard a faithful rendering of the stories, songs and music brought over from the Old Country. As years went by, however, they would be interspersed with new additions of the Gaelic repertoire: additions that reflected the experience of this new land of extreme heat and bitter cold, this land of “the forest primeval”, of lakes, rivers and an ocean teeming with fish. This land of freedom from the tyranny of landlords.

They would also have recognized in the speech of the descendants of the first settlers, the distinct dialects of the language that would identify their place of origin in Scotland. In all, there were well in excess of twenty dialects of Scottish Gaelic brought over to Cape Breton. These dialects are clearly identifiable today in the speech of Cape Breton Gaels.

The land area of Cape Breton is much smaller than that of Scotland, however, and its topography does not offer the impediments to travel encountered in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This fact, combined with the sheer number of dialects represented here has allowed for an overlapping of dialect features not found in Scotland. So it is that the dialect of the Gaels of Christmas Island – Iona is immediately recognizable as “Barra Gaelic”, but at the same time there are some obvious borrowings from the Gaelic of the Lochaber people of Mabou and area. This combination makes it distinctly Cape Breton.

This combination of conservatism and innovation is perhaps the over-riding feature of Cape Breton Gaelic culture in general.
The Gaelic music and dance that was brought over by the original settlers (what we call today, “Cape Breton fiddle” and “step-dance”) were allowed to develop in the rural communities, largely untouched by European models that so altered music and dance in Scotland. There have been two important innovations, however.

In the early 1900’s, a new musical instrument, the organ, and soon after it, the piano could be heard providing accompaniment to the music of the fiddle. Within the kitchens and parlors of rural Cape Breton, there were developed distinctive fingering techniques and chord progressions never imagined by the maestros of European classical music.

It was at about this time too that the square-dance began to develop as a Gaelic dance – incorporating step dancing into a four-couple set. Some say that it developed from older Gaelic dances such as the scotch four and the eight-hand reel. Others say that the form of the set was borrowed from the Acadians or introduced by French dance masters. Whatever its origins, the square dance has today all but replaced those older set-dances and is recognized as the distinctive dance of Cape Breton.

The song tradition in Cape Breton is in many ways a conservative one. Today, one can hear the songs of eighteenth and nineteenth century Scotland together with songs composed in that tradition on this side of the Atlantic being sung by young and old alike. The “Milling Frolic” is a favorite venue for singers and those who enjoy the songs. Originally, milling frolics were held in order to shrink and soften new-woven cloth by pounding it on a table in time to the singing. The innovation here comes in the continuation of that tradition in a new form. Today, there is no need for that work process, but the milling frolic continues in Cape Breton as a popular performance venue.

Recent years have seen people from many parts of the world come to Cape Breton in order to learn about and to learn from this unique community of people. Cape Breton is also recognized as a vital reference point for full understanding of Gaelic Scotland and as a vital and vibrant member of the Celtic communities of the world.

There are many, many aspects of Gaelic Cape Breton that are not recovered in this short sketch. To resort to an old adage, one could say that in order to truly experience the language, the culture, and the people who continue that tradition, “You have to be here”.

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