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Gaelic Nova Scotia

Scottish Gaelic was once the language of hearth and home in communities extending through much of Canada. In fact, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba were each noted for their Gaelic-speaking communities at one time or another. As a result, the number of Canadians who have an ancestral connection to the language is immense. However, it was only in Nova Scotia that the language and culture of Gaelic Scotland were able to establish firm roots, grow for generations and survive to the present day. The province has been now home to a Gaelic speaking community for well over two-hundred years.

Scottish Gaelic is a Celtic language, like Welsh and Breton, which is closely related to Irish. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tens of thousands of Scottish Gaelic Highlanders emigrated to Nova Scotia as a result of massive social and economic unrest at home. Though largely lacking in material wealth they brought with them a robust musical tradition and one of the richest oral heritages in all of Western Europe. Anchored by the language, their culture took root in Nova Scotia and flourished.

A hundred years ago, nearly half the population in the north of the province claimed Gaelic as their mother tongue. Since emigration and settlement tended to occur in community and family groups, many regions of the province are still characterized by residents of similar ancestral, geographic and religious origins. As a result, dialects from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland continue to be spoken here generations after large-scale immigration ended.

For centuries, informal gatherings between friends, neighbors and family formed the cornerstone of Gaelic culture; reinforcing social norms and perpetuating cultural traditions. At the end of the day, and especially during the long, dark winter nights, people would visit each other; stories would be told, songs would be sung, pipes and fiddles played. In much the same way, Gaelic cultural traditions were adapted, reaffirmed and passed on in the wooded valleys and snowy hills of Nova Scotia.

Though the last century witnessed a drastic decline in the number of Gaelic speakers here, largely as a result of social, economic and institutional pressures, other aspects of Gaelic culture, like music and dance, remain strong. In recent years, the number of language learners has also expanded rapidly and public demand has prompted a number of progressive initiatives aimed at language renewal; including the establishment of an Office of Gaelic Affairs within the provincial government.

For generations, the culture and language of Gaelic Scotland have been maintained and adapted in Canada. The rich cultural and linguistic legacy they represent helps define who we are and contributes to the diversity our nation's cultural mosaic. Today the Gaelic community of Nova Scotia continues to maintain that heritage and share it with the world.

Shamus Y. MacDonald

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