Cape Breton native Stacey MacLean spent three weeks on Islay last summer on a Gaelic writer’s residency organised by Islay Book Festival and funded by a grant from the British Council. During her time on the island, Stacey visited local schools and community groups, and joined in with conversation classes at the Bowmore Gaelic college. She also took part in several events at the 2019 book festival, including a memorable bilingual evening of song and storytelling that was supported by funding from the Islay Energy Trust.
Here, Stacey talks to IBF’s Angus MacKinnon about how Scots emigrants carried Gaelic across the Atlantic, about her time on Islay, her own island home and the value of forging links between them to help transmit Gaelic language and culture to new generations.
Q: Stacey, Gaelic was widely spoken in Cape Breton up until the early 20th Century – why was that?
A: Sheer numbers! It’s estimated that between 50,000 and 100,000 Scots Gaelic speakers came to Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia between 1773 and the potato famine arriving in the 1840s, which put a stop to migration. Gaelic was the main language of communication. People didn’t need English. Schools were not provided for free by the province until the late 1800s and even then they were slow to establish. (And kinship ties were very important which helped to sustain the language).
People followed a pattern of chain migration — where people from Barra, for example, went, other Barra people followed. And after most of the good land had been taken up along the coast because that was the main means of travel, people started to settle the interior and once it was totally settled the authorities started to encourage people to move out west.
Q: People seeking better lives, did it work out for them?
A: Yes generally, because families were typically given 200 acres of land to cultivate – although initially it would have been a hard go because you had trees from the top of the hills down to the waterfront … not easy for people coming from places where there were no trees.
In their frustration they set fire to the forest … the potash left from burning wood was very good for growing potatoes in. They called it the black forest.
Q: Of course, Cape Breton was not an uninhabited colony at the time of Scottish emigration
A. Yes, there were other people present on the island. The Miꞌkmaq had been there for 10,000 years. They were considered a threat by the British and there were some horrible policies aimed at eradicating them, including giving them smallpox-laden blankets. It is estimated that there are around 2,000 people left on the island.
They did help the Gaels in some ways but (the history of that time) it is a question of multiple truths. There were some altercations. The Gaels were very grabby when it came to land because they never got to own their own land in Scotland.
To this day families are falling out over land and the Mi’kmaq don’t have that concept of land ownership, it is more custodianship.
You also had pockets on Cape Breton island of French settlers, but they did not mix much. It is not that the Gaels and the French did not get along it is just that the French people tended to be in areas connected to the fishing business that was connected to the Channel Islands.
Q: Why did Gaelic start to decline?
A: School was what really put the kibosh on the language. There were language acts which said you could only be educated in English. From the early 1900s right up into the 40s you had children who went to school without ‘the English’ and could be punished for speaking Gaelic.
English too was seen as the language of advancement. And in the early 1900s a lot of the Gaels were moving to places like Boston to try and earn money. The land that families had could only be divided up so many times!
You have to remember that although there were all these Gaels who arrived on Cape Breton, the numbers of their descendants moving further west from the 1880s onwards were far greater.
The first to move were the people who had bad land … so the people from Harris and Lewis, who arrived later than the others. There is a place called New Harris on Cape Breton and it is referred to, in Gaelic, as a ‘slice of porridge’, meaning you could not make anything of it. You can’t slice porridge!
Farming was hard and when the train came in and people figured they could go other places and earn money, a lot of people left.
Q: That process of onward migration had a big impact on the Gaelic culture of the island?
A: There was a thing with people going down to the eastern seaboard states of America. Plays were really big in Cape Breton in the early 1900s and one of the big tropes was someone who would go over to Boston and they would lose their Gaelic, then come back home putting on airs. They’d be in a fur coat, saying ‘I don’t speak Gaelic any more’.
It was about wanting to be something better, to show everybody up. In my father’s family they always told stories of a woman who came back with a big head and said “when we were growing up we spoke English in the house.”
To which somebody else replied, in Gaelic, “When you were growing up you couldn’t even put the dog out of the house in English.”
Q: How did you come to learn Gaelic and what made you want to?
My father was born in 1923 and his first language was Gaelic. You did not even think about passing it on. It was a secret language at that point. I had to learn myself, starting when I was 12.
I knew that there were a lot of people in my family that had Gaelic and then when my grandmother developed Alzheimers, she lost all her English and kind of reverted to the language of her childhood. It was then I got really interested.
Now on Cape Breton we have a population of around 150,000 people and there is a population of native speakers — people who grew up with the language — of maybe 100.
But at the same time, there is more going on in terms of Gaelic community initiatives than when I was younger. It is a core subject in schools. But there are far fewer native speakers.
Q: It was interesting what happened with your grandmother. You often hear of people reverting to Gaelic in the latter stages of their lives even though they may have spent most of their lives speaking English.
A: It is really funny that. I have heard of different instances in which that happens. We had a parish priest, Father John Angus Rankin, and he had a head injury from a terrible car accident and he forgot all his English for a good couple of months.
My grandmother kind of reverted to her childhood and all the older people in the community had Gaelic but there was this chasm between them and the younger people
Q: A chasm you wanted to bridge?
A: Yes, I didn’t learn my Gaelic in school, I did it in the community through visiting native speakers and I took evening courses. I was fortunate in the 1970s there were a lot of folklorists who were right into the Gaelic, and doing a lot of recording and collecting for archives. So when people saw I was interested they were very good to me and they would take me out to visit native speakers.
Q: What is the situation with Gaelic learning in schools today?
A: It is taught in the school system in Cape Breton as a core subject, so maybe for three hours of lessons a week. It is not enough to bring people to fluency but it is more or less about addressing past wrongs because it was suppressed for so long.
They kids have to take either Gaelic or French and they often opt for Gaelic because they think it is more relevant to their own situation. It is terrible that they can’t do both but that is the jam-packed curriculum.
So there is an awful lot going on with Gaelic in Cape Breton now. Even though we have fewer native speakers, especially among the youth, it is hip. Trad music hip, the dances are hip.
When I was a teenager the Gaelic college was big into the Highland dancing and piping and I was the one oddball who was with the old people doing Gaelic.
Nowadays you go there and it is all younger people.
People are not interested in ‘saving’ the language so much as ensuring there will be some transmission, a knowledge and some awareness. It is a very lofty goal, saving Gaelic in Cape Breton. If there is an ongoing awareness of the language and the culture, that is very important.
We have a lot of social learning initiatives where people get together and it is an immersive environment. The language scene it seems to me is very different in Scotland. It is very top down whereas we are very grass roots. we have had a lot of success with bringing people to fluency that way. And culture is very important in the whole process. You can’t learn the language in isolation, without learning the stories, songs and traditions and the whole world view of Gaelic whereas, and I could be wrong, over here it seems more like it is just language, language, language.
Q: How did you find speaking with Islay Gaelic speakers?
A: It was great. I studied in Scotland so I’m used to hearing all different dialects – we understood each other fine and had fun saying ‘Oh you say this, and we say that’.
It is different for my partner, who is a rare young Canadian native speaker.
Because he is used to hearing one particular Gaelic around where he lives he can’t make head nor tail of, say, somebody from Lewis.
Q: And your impressions of Islay in general?
A: It reminds me a lot of Cape Breton. At the book festival song and storytelling event in Portnahaven- it was just like being a village hall in Cape Breton. It’s been wonderful making so many connections: I was so busy every day. Hopefully we will be able to set up Skype connections between school students learning Gaelic here and in Cape Breton so some of those connections will be maintained.
The lack of trees (on Islay) is obviously a big difference. I love the fact that when you have trees they are ornamental, these beautiful woods that are planted to just grow a certain way. When we have a wood it’s like ‘Good God, where’s my chainsaw, I need to hack my way through this!’
Prior to European settlement we had what was called the old Acadian forest, great big ancient trees of huge diameter that would grow so tall there would be a forest canopy you could walk through and it made it a little bit better when people settled on the island. When that was cleared it disrupted in that natural environment – Cape Breton looked like Ireland in the late 1800s and now that a lot of the land is not cultivated because people have moved away, everything that has regrown is just brush. I was out recently near where my father was born, which is a very remote spot, and I feared I might have to be choppered out of there.
Q: This was our first writer’s residency – what is the added value of projects like this?
A: Personally, it was great to get the chance of doing it. I always bemoaned the fact that I wasn’t a musician because the musicians on Cape Breton, especially the fiddlers, they get to go everywhere. I work with them and they’re like ’Oh I have to go to France next week and it’s just awful …’.
I thought, ‘Nobody is going to ever fly me over to Scotland to work with Gaelic, that’d be coals to Newcastle right’.
But I saw the ad and thought I’ll apply for that. I really enjoyed meeting lots of Islay Gaelic speakers and making connections, that has been wonderful.
I think we have a lot of shared experiences and a lot to learn from each other, especially with language revitalisation issues. We have a lot of learn and we can only stand to learn by sharing experiences. It is always nice to look outside of the box and see what other people are doing.
Islay has a unique dialect and a unique tradition. I hear a lot of native speakers saying how different it is from the Gaelic you will maybe hear on the radio, which is often people from Lewis and other places. There seems to be a bit of a rivalry maybe with Lewis?
In Cape Breton we are also very concerned about dialects and having this unique identity and having it passed on.
In schools here they are making great effort to pass on Islay Gaelic . and that’s wonderful because it makes it really relevant to the children’s experience as Ilich rather than just Scots.
Stacey’s residency was funded by the British Council as part of the international year of indigenous languages and her participation in the book festival was supported by a grant from Islay Energy Trust.