Nova Scotia

‘This language belongs to us. I want it back’: Scottish Gaelic revival spans North America

Ciamar a tha thu? 

A common Scottish Gaelic phrase simply asks, “How are you?”

It’s a phrase often uttered by those learning and teaching a language considered endangered. 

Although the language is often associated with Scotland and Nova Scotia, it is being celebrated in other parts of North America, including Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver, and U.S. states like Washington, New York, Texas and North Carolina. 

Various Gaelic organizations in these parts of the continent are trying to keep the language alive. 

“This language belongs to us. I want it back. And I don’t think I’m alone in that,” said Trish MacNeil, a member of The Gaelic Society of Toronto

Decline in Gaelic speakers 

The language native to Scotland was widely used in various parts of Canada due to the influx of Scottish immigrants from the late 1700s to the mid-1800s. At the time of Canadian Confederation in 1867, it was the third-most-spoken European language in the country. 

The Canadian government deterred the use of Gaelic and school-aged children were prevented from using or learning the language, sometimes by way of corporal punishment. 

Eventually, the language declined in Canada. Where it was once estimated that Canada had 250,000 Gaelic speakers, there are 2,170 speakers left according to the 2021 Canadian Census

Because of the steep decline, a new urgency has emerged to protect the language from extinction. Familial connections and fierce loyalty to Scottish heritage have ushered in a wave of people across North America who are eager to learn and teach the language. 

Attempts to revive the language 

“My family, they’re all Highlanders and they’re all proud of being Highlanders,” said Jamie MacDonald, a retired professor in the Celtic Studies department at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. 

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MacDonald is originally from North Carolina, which was home to significant Scottish migration beginning in the 1700s. He described wanting to learn Gaelic after hearing his aunt by marriage sing traditional songs. 

“I listened to her Gaelic songs on the records, and I was interested in finding out what she was saying,” MacDonald said. 

Now fluent in the language, MacDonald translates English books into Gaelic and hosts a Gaelic language and song week and the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games every summer in North Carolina. 

Catriona Parsons’ Gaelic class at the Grandfather Mountain Gaelic Song & Language Week in 2023 at the Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, N.C. (John Grimaldi)

These events are attended by people worldwide, including Texas native and Gaelic teacher John David Gressett. 

Gressett discovered he descended from the first king of Scotland. He learned the language of his ancestors from visiting native speakers at Scottish events and festivals in the state.

He eventually took it upon himself to teach Gaelic. He is now one of the few Gaelic speakers in Texas and the only Gaelic teacher travelling from festival to festival to promote the use of the language. At 73 years old, he is looking for someone to take over his role. 

“I am going to try to recruit a successor. I’m not going to be here 30 years from now,” Gressett said. “But I am going to try to make sure that there is somebody to follow me.” 

Concerted efforts to promote the endangered language 

A concerted effort to promote the learning and use of Gaelic is underway in Nova Scotia, led by volunteers, teachers like Gressett and the provincial government. 

The government has helped fund over a dozen Gaelic-based projects and in 2021 invested $1.9 million to create a satellite campus of the Royal Cape Breton Gaelic College in Mabou, N.S. 

“We need all partners to help with reclamation, renewal, healing, all of these pieces,” said Lewis MacKinnon, executive director of the provincial Gaelic Affairs office. “Government in my view is central as part of that work.” 

A group of people attend a flag raising outside the Gaelic college.
The Gaelic College in Cape Breton invites people from all over the world to celebrate the language, including during this flag-raising event in May 2024. (The Royal Cape Breton Gaelic College )

Community organizations and Gaelic classes outside of Nova Scotia have also played an imperative role in revitalizing the language. 

The Gaelic Society of Vancouver was founded in the early 1900s and still facilitates Gaelic learning classes. Only three hours away, the Seattle-based Gaelic organization Slighe Nan Gaidheal offers classes and celebrates Scottish history and culture with the Vancouver members. 

In New York City, a Scottish organization called the Caledonian Club offers beginner and intermediate Gaelic classes. 

The members of these North American organizations often have friendly or familial connections to Nova Scotia and its Gaelic College. 

For Gaelic students like MacNeil in Toronto, learning the language means reconnecting with her Cape Breton heritage. 

“I realized that having all that culture around me growing up created a very short bridge to the language,” MacNeil said.

“From there I’ve been given this super foundation and the language was just there waiting for me and I have been with it ever since.… It just completed things for me.” 

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