Heather is a Gaelic speaker and is actively involved with both local and international Gaelic organizations. She first discovered Gaelic when she lived in Edinburgh, Scotland, and she subsequently studied the language in Toronto, Cape Breton, and at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. She has taught Gaelic in both Toronto and Sydney. She is a passionate advocate for Gaelic linguistic and cultural development and is excited about the role the Language in Lyrics project will play in contributing to Gaelic language growth and recognition within Canada.
Màiri Britton: project manager
Màiri is a Gaelic-speaker, teacher and musician based in Antigonish. Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, she moved to Nova Scotia in 2016 to take up the post of Gaelic language instructor at St. Francis Xavier University. She currently teaches at St. FX as well as running a number of local community classes and workshop programmes in the province.
Màiri’s interest in the Gaelic language was sparked at the age of five through the Fèis movement, and it was her love of Gaelic songs and singing which inspired her to learn the language to fluency as a teenager. She went on to gain a First Class undergraduate MA (Honours) and a postgraduate MSc, both in Celtic Studies, from the University of Edinburgh.
A talented singer, step dancer and harpist, Màiri performs regularly as a solo artist and with the four-piece Gaelic trad group Fàrsan. She loves getting together with others to learn, share and sing songs, and she is delighted to be involved in facilitating greater access to Gaelic songs and singing through the Language in Lyrics Project.
Mary Jane Lamond: Nova Scotia corpus assistant
Mary Jane is an internationally-renowned Gaelic singer with an extensive knowledge of the Nova Scotia Gaelic song repertoire. She has recorded six albums and worked in a number of different roles and projects focused on promoting and sharing the Gaelic language and culture of Nova Scotia.
It was through visiting her grandparents in Nova Scotia that Mary Jane fell in love with Gaelic tradition and song. While enrolled in St. Francis Xavier University’s Celtic Studies programme, she released her first album, and its reception launched a career of international touring and award-winning further recordings. Alongside numerous Juno awards and ECMA nominations, Mary Jane received the prestigious Portia White Prize in 2010 in recognition of her efforts to preserve Gaelic culture through song.
Having worked on cataloguing the Cape Breton Gaelic Folklore Collection while a student at St Francis Xavier University, and on the song content for the website An Drochaid Eadarainn, Mary Jane is in the perfect position to facilitate the cataloguing aims of the Language in Lyrics project. She brings invaluable knowledge of the Nova Scotia Gaelic community and its song corpus and looks forward to promoting further community involvement and enjoyment in Gaelic songs through this unique project.
As my time with Language in Lyrics is winding down I find myself reflecting on what a fulfilling experience this has been for me. I can still recall with great detail the evening that I first received the news that I would be joining the team for the summer. It was the last evening of my month long immersion course at Colaisde na Gàidhlig, after having applied and completed my interview from my room on campus. I was sitting on the floor in Taigh Céilidh already feeling somewhat overwhelmed with emotion. I was feeling so blessed in my life to be surrounded entirely by a community of Gaelic for what was the 25th consecutive day. I was feeling thankful to have received a small handful of thoughtful gifts from my dear friends, including the most beautiful green ukelele I had ever seen. At the same time, I was sad to be leaving these friends, Cape Breton, and the immersion experience behind the following afternoon to head back to my life in Halifax. As we all chatted, sang, and played music, my phone buzzed with the notification that a new email that had just come in.
“Fhuair mi an obair! [I got the job],” I exclaimed. “It really is like Christmas for Cailín,” echoed back.
When learning about the various different tasks that I would be doing while working on the project, my excitement only grew. Not only would I have the opportunity to work with different resources to collect and input song data, but I would also be collecting quotes and idioms to create graphics and keeping a blog about the topics that interested me. This would provide me with the opportunity to learn more about Gaelic song, the bards that composed them, the communities that kept them alive, the traditions behind them, and the language itself. I would then be able to utilize my passion for writing as a tool to share the passion that I have for Gaelic. As someone whose heart yearns for my language and culture every waking moment that it is not actively present in my life, this was a dream come true.
I was very fortunate in my work with the project to be able to spend time entering data for Gaelic song collections from areas of Cape Breton that I had not previously done a lot of research on myself. This gave me the opportunity to widen my scope of knowledge in regards to Gaelic song and specific local characters, stories, and traditions. I would often play the audio recordings that were included with Guthan Prìseil, a wonderful collection with many of the songs being sourced from the Iona and Christmas Island areas of Cape Breton, while I was reading the pages and collecting data. Sitting in my living room and hearing the voices of the Gaels who came before me ebb and flow throughout the room as I read about their lives was truly a magical experience.
What was slightly unexpected to me was just how much I would learn through gathering quotes and idioms to create graphics with. Spending quieter days reading excerpts pertaining to the history and customs of various time periods, despite not always being related to specific songs or communities, provided depth and context to the entirety of the work I had been doing. At the same time I was unintentionally gaining knowledge about my own personal interests. It was through this process that I was able to learn more about Òrain Leannachd (Courtship Songs) and the true (often humorous) character of how they functioned at the milling table in the North Shore, a concept that I had previously heard of only in passing. I also had the pleasure of happening upon many other anecdotes that revealed much about the history of my people and my home, including one involving a man who had composed songs about his experience staying in Sydney upon arrival from North Uist. This was something small yet so personally significant to me as someone with North Uist roots hailing from Glace Bay.
Perhaps the most fulfilling of all has been channeling the excitement of learning and growing into writing these blog posts. It is a blessing to learn indeed, but an even greater blessing to share. I am so grateful to all who have taken the time to follow my journey throughout the weeks. I have genuinely felt the love and support of my community as the time has so quickly passed by.
In conclusion, this experience is one that has enriched my life greatly and I will forever remember the gift that it has been for me to be able to contribute to a project so meaningful to my community and so important in preserving and creating access to our language, culture, and specifically our songs.
It seems quite harmonious that I have spent the final days of my work with Language in Lyrics in the same place that it had began. Colaisde na Gàidhlig has been a huge cornerstone of my journey over the last few years, both providing me with a wide range of knowledge and allowing for the formation of truly invaluable relationships with others in my community. As I sat in MacKenzie Hall each evening, the sweet fiddle tunes of other passionate students surrounding me as I quietly worked away, my heart felt so full and warm. The timing of this journey was no accident: this is where I was always meant to be.
On May 30th, 2016 I attended an event at one of my local libraries for what is known here in Nova Scotia as Mìos nan Gàidheil, or Gaelic Nova Scotia Month. The event was a talk given by Gaelic Affairs head, Lewis MacKinnon, in which he spoke about cultural stereotypes and the Gaels, providing a great deal of historical context and information. After listening to the presentation, as I was still processing everything that I had learned, I asked a question of Lewis that I couldn’t have truly understood at that time: What does it mean to be a Gael?
Subconsciously for me, I believe that this question was an attempt to understand my own identity. I had learned so much about the places that my family had come from and who they were at the core of their Gaelic identities, and it had left me wondering what that meant for my own. What words could I use to refer to someone in my situation, having grown up with vague cultural traditions in place but a lack of meaningful language to describe them? My father’s mother was certainly a Gael. A handful of my mother’s great grandparents were Gaels. But what was I? And what could I become if I were to channel this confusion and curiosity into breaking the chain of colonization and shame?
I asked one follow-up question that evening: where could I begin to learn Gaelic in Halifax?
My first class through Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile, the local Gaelic Society in Halifax, took place in January 2017 at the home of Laura Stirling, who has since become a dear friend and my greatest mentor. The class was quite small and it was done through total immersion in the language, involving lots of repetition and hands on learning. This was a stark contrast to the formal language learning that I had been used to. However, as I sat there with nine years of French education and yet not a word of French coming to mind, I decided to commit myself to the experience. At the end of the winter session I was feeling quite comfortable with what I had learned.
I was somewhat
dismayed, however, when it turned out I would not be able to take a beginner
class in the next session. Laura assured me that she had faith in my ability to
move forward and added that, should I feel uncomfortable during the first
couple of classes, I could always pull out until the Autumn session.
When I arrived to the first class of the following session, I immediately felt overwhelmed. There were quite a few people there and they appeared to already be quite familiar with one another. As Laura went around the circle asking each student how they were to start off the evening, I also noticed that each person seemed to be worlds ahead of where I was with my Gaelic at that time.
I had three major worries: Would I be accepted as a newcomer? Would my lack of Gaelic hold others back in their learning? And would I truly be able to succeed if I already felt so unprepared? Despite these questions, I didn’t want to give up so easily. It wasn’t long before I knew that I had made the right decision. One evening, during some friendly banter between students, one of the women placed her hand on my shoulder and exclaimed that, well, I was one of them now. I can distinctly remember the feelings that I had had upon hearing those words. I felt accepted, I felt supported, and I felt the roots of true community as they began to plant themselves firmly into my life.
My efforts started small and continued with the help of Laura and many of my fellow students. I knew that I would be asked how I was at the beginning of class, so I would use that opportunity to practice a different phrase each evening. When I would leave class, I would go home and speak to my cats in Gaelic using the new words and phrases that I had learned that week (they hardly ever answered). I would spend the days in between classes attempting to narrate my life with my limited yet growing vocabulary and listening to milling songs and puirt-à-beul while doing housework, cooking, and traveling. I followed every resource for Gaelic in Nova Scotia on social media. This small, final step proved to be a true catalyst to my learning.
In November of 2017 I took a leap of faith and signed up for a weekend immersion at the Gaelic College. I arrived ‘Glace Bay early’, which is entirely the opposite of what I now know as ‘Gaelic Time’(!) I was nervous to be away from home and to try to build connections with so many new people in the community. All of the worries that I had experienced previously began to come back in this new environment. I once again continued on, though, having some lengthy conversations in English and a few scattered chats in Gaelic. It wasn’t until the second night that I had experienced my second ‘one of us’ moment. I was sitting in MacKenzie Hall with a handful of other young women, chatting exclusively in Gaelic and trying my best to keep up. They were all encouraging and supporting me as I fumbled through the conversation. I didn’t think I could really have an unscripted, colloquial conversation in Gaelic with only ten months of learning under my belt, and yet there I was. I wasn’t speaking perfectly, I couldn’t say everything that I would have been able to in English, but that was no longer a worry: I had some Gaelic, I was using it, and people were understanding me.
Shortly after arriving home, I was inspired to commit myself to doing more than just one class a week. I signed up for an intermediate class with Beth-Anne MacEachen during Sgoil Ghàidhlig’s Spring session while still continuing to do a weekly class with Laura. During this time I also participated in my second immersion weekend at the Gaelic College and attended the Gaels Summit in Mabou, which involved six hours of travel and spending most of two days alone (outside of the event) in a place that I had never been to before. I believe this is where I truly started to build my reputation as someone dedicated to, and passionate about, what I was starting to consider my language and my community.
In the last year or so, I have truly devoted myself to growth: attaining a higher level of fluency, gaining wider cultural knowledge, and building strong connections to others in the community. I have attended various sessions at the Gaelic College, social immersion weekends, a handful of one-day immersions, a variety of cultural events and workshops and two Gaels Jams. I have had the opportunity to participate in the creation of a Gaelic film, and most recently completed An Cùrsa Bogaidh, a month-long immersion course offered by The Gaelic College, living on campus for the entirety of the course. I realize that I am blessed to have had access to so many wonderful, enriching experiences. It is through these that I have discovered what I consider to have been the most integral part of my learning: the transmission of language and culture through community and the development of a meaningful connection to my people. Being able to read tha gaol agam oirbh feels little in comparison to having so many people that I could say it to, and hearing the songs that pour passionately out of the mouths of my friends at a céilidh will always surpass even the most pristine professional recording.
The roots that had begun to plant themselves into my life over two years ago are now steady and growing. I am ‘at home’ wherever I hear the sweet sounds of fiddle music accompanying a chorus of ‘’s fhada bhon uair sin!’ and ‘ciamar a tha thu?’. I am a Gael. And I am forever grateful to everyone that has played a role in leading me to this answer since that day on May 30th, 2016.
In the 1800s, Nova Scotia saw the arrival of thousands of families from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to Cape Breton, Antigonish, and Pictou County. Increasing rent costs, eviction and displacement by unsympathetic landlords, and a lack of religious freedom in regards to Catholicism are just some of the factors that caused so many Gaels to leave their homelands. The dangerous journey across the Atlantic was long and arduous and the majority of these families arrived with little to no money. Upon arrival in Nova Scotia, the hardships continued with harsh winters, crop failures, and many who had rarely ever seen a tree being required to clear forest land shortly after stepping foot on the soil.
Despite the many adversities faced by the Gaels of Nova Scotia, however, strong communities were formed that allowed the various unique dialects of Gaelic and specific cultural traditions of their homelands to endure outside of Scotland. The tradition of bàrdachd [poetry] and song endured so strongly on this side of the Atlantic that it allows us to really take a look at the emigrant experience as expressed by those living at the time, as well as their descendants.
Arguably the most well known piece of bàrdachd discussing the hardships that the Gaels faced upon arrival in Nova Scotia was written by Bard MacLean, or Am Bàrd Thighearna Chola (The Bard of the Laird of Coll). Born in Tiree in the year 1787, John MacLean emigrated to Barney’s River, Pictou County in 1819, shortly after his first works of poetry were published. It is here that he composed A’ Choille Ghruamach (The Gloomy Forest), also known as Òran do Dh’ America (A Song to America), a song that expresses his true feelings after leaving his homeland. MacLean speaks of the loneliness he feels being so far from where he was raised and the difficulties he faces in adjusting to the weather and the ways of life in Nova Scotia. He also warns of the deceit of the Emigration Officers, who were promising happiness and prosperity should the Gaels leave their homelands.
’S tha mise ’m ònar ’s a’ choille ghruamach,
Tha m’ inntinn luaineach, cha tog mi fonn.
Am meadhon fàsach an Abhainn Bhàrnaidh,
Gun dad as fheàrr leam na buntàta lom.
Mun dèan mi àit’ ann ’s mun cur mi bàrr ann,
’S choille ghàbhaidh chuir far à bonn,
Le neart mo ghàirdean gum bi mi sàraicht’,
Is treis a fàilig mu fàs a chlann.
’S nuair thig na dròbhairean ’nis gan iarraidh,
’S ann leis na breugan a nì iad feum.
Gun focal fìrinn aca ’ga ìnnse
Ach cruithidh dìteadh mar their am beul.
Dè ’s fheàrrd’ bhi ’g innse gu bheil ’s an tìr seo
Gach nì as prìseil a tha fo’n ghrèin
Nuair chì sibh ’n t-àite sin gun dad a chì sibh
Ach coille dhìreach toirt dhibh nan speur.
I’m here alone in the gloomy forest,
My mind wanders, I cannot raise a tune.
Everything is barren in Barney’s River,
With nothing better than the bare potato.
Before I build a place here, and I plant a crop,
And fell the dense forest,
With the strength of my shoulder, I shall be tired
And my strength failing before the children grow.
When the drovers come to entice them,
It’s with lies they succeed
Without a word of truth,
But the case stated as they voice it.
What is the use of saying that in this land
There is everything that is precious under the sun
When you came to the place you cannot see anything
Another powerful song that discusses the plight of the emigrant comes out of the North Shore of Cape Breton. Composed by a man who was originally from the Isle of Harris, Cha Mhòr Nach Cho Math Dhuinn Sguir a Bhi Strì (It’s Just as Well That We Stop Striving) expresses his frustration with being unable to grow his crops in the harsh climate of the North Shore. He laments that were he back in his homeland of Harris, things would be much easier.
’Nuair chuir mi an t-eòrna ’s bu chor dha bhi fàs
’S ann na laighe gu h-iosal na shineadh air lar
’S ged a dh’èireadh a’ ghrian air chan èireadh e’n àird
’S ann a thòisich e crìonadh ’s cha b’fhiach e dhuinn strac.
Ach nam bithinn ’s na Hearadh far na chleadh mi bhi òg
Chan fhaicinn de’n ghaillionn ach frasagan reòdht’
Is tonnan na mara gan sadadh mar cheò
’Dol suas feadh an fhearainn ’s bu mhath leinn bhi fòp’
When I planted the barley, it should have grown
It lay flattened to the ground
And though the sun shone, it did not revive it
It started to wither and was of no use.
But if I were in Harris, where I was brought up
The stormiest weather was just showers of hail
The waves of the ocean blew them like mist
Spreading over the land and it was good to be out then.
The entirety of the words to this song as well as a snippet of the tune can be found on the website for the MacEdward Leach Collection.
Though various accounts such as these tell us of the difficulties that had initially faced Gaels in Nova Scotia, there have also been a number of compositions that highlight the resilience of the people, the strength of community, and the beauty of hearing Gaelic endure within these newly formed settlements. Interestingly enough, one of these compositions was written by none other than Bard MacLean, the composer of A’ Choille Ghruamach.
Bithibh Aotrom ’s Togaibh Fonn is a stark contrast to A’ Choille Ghruamach, using much of the same language to paint quite a different picture of Gaelic life in Nova Scotia. Now living in Antigonish County and just after having been invited to a Spring Ball exclusive to Gaelic speakers in the area, Bard MacLean praises the strength and vigour of the Gaels.
Bithibh aotrom ’s togaibh fonn,
Cridheil, sùnndach gun bhi trom,
’G òl deoch-slàinte na bheil thall,
Ann an Tìr nam Beann ’s nan Gleannaibh
Fhuair mi sgeul a tha leam binn,
Dh’ ùraich gleus air teud mo chinn,
’S bidh mi nis a’ dol ’g a sheinn,
Ged tha mi ’s a choill am falach.
’S raoir a fhuair mi sgeul air àigh
Dhùisg e m’ìnntinn suas gu dàn
Bhi ’gam iarraidh dh’ionnsaidh bhàil
Aig na Gàidheil thùs an Earraich
’S òlaibh air na Gàidheil threun
Rachadh aigeanach air ghleus
’S a bha fuasgailteach gu feum
Sealgairean na fèidh ’s nam beanntan.
Be merry and raise a song
Light-hearted, happy, not at all gloomy
Drink the health of those far away
In the land of the glens and mountains.
Last night I heard sweet news
That tuned the strings of my mind
And I will now begin to sing
Since I am hidden in the woods
Last night I found happiness
That awakened my mind to verse
To be asked to the dance
That the Gaels hold in the beginning of Spring.
Drink to the hardy Gaels
Who tackled anything with vigour
Who were ready to give a helping hand
Hunters of the deer on the hills”
The above text is from the MacEdward Leach Collection. An audio recording of Peter Jack MacLean of Rear Christmas Island singing Bithibh Aotrom ’s Togaibh Fonn can be found on An Drochaid Eadarainn. There is also a video of Peter Jack singing this tune available on Cainnt Mo Mhàthar. This song is still quite commonly heard around Nova Scotia.
Another well known tune that praises the beauty of Gaelic Nova Scotia was composed by Malcolm Gillis of South-West Margaree, born in 1856 to a family with roots in Morar. In Na Cnuic ’s na Glinn, also known simply as Am Bràighe, Malcolm speaks of the love and admiration that he holds for Margaree, the people living there, and for his language.
Na cnuic ’s na glinn bu bhòidhche leinn
’S iad cnuic is glinn a’ Bhràighigh
Mu’n tric bha sinn ri mànran binn
’S e chomunn ghrinn a b’fheàrr leinn
Chan ’eil àite ’n diugh fo’n ghrèin
’S am b’fheàrr leam fhein bhi tàmhachd
Na Bràigh na h-Aibhneadh measg nan sonn
O’m faighte fuinn na Gàidhlig.
The hills and glens that to us are most beautiful
Are the hills and glens of the uplands
Where we often sang sweet melodies
In the company we liked best.
There is no place under the sun today
Where I would rather stay
Than the hills of Margaree, among the heroes,
Where the melodies of Gaelic can be heard.
An audio recording of Am Bràighe can be found on Sruth nan Gàidheal, while the above text is taken from the MacEdward Leach Collection. Another version of this song was composed about the Isle of Skye by Rev. Norman MacDonald upon hearing Malcolm Gillis’ own composition, which is available for streaming on Tobar an Dualchais.
Through examining the varying experiences expressed within these songs we can see not only how resilient the Gaels have had to be in order to keep their spirits, communities, culture, and language alive despite exile and emigration to a foreign land, but also just how vital the impact of having these strong communities was to creating space where this resilience could truly flourish. The same could be said of the importance of community to the Gaels in Nova Scotia today, where we are fortunate enough to be able to come together and sing these songs of the people who came before us proudly as a way to keep their words and experiences alive.
The North Shore of Cape Breton is a stretch of small communities located along the shoreline in Victoria County, running from St. Ann’s Bay to Wreck Cove. With the majority of the people who settled in the area coming from the isles of Lewis and Harris, the North Shore is home to many of its own unique traditions and a beautiful, distinct dialect of Gaelic. The North Shore is known for its high energy and often comedic songs, the local bards that would compose them, and the talented singers who kept them alive. The most well known were The North Shore Gaelic Singers, a group of men from the area who would often sing together, who famously performed on a stage that would later feature Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. They also made many appearances at local events and milling frolics, where I have heard that it was often a requirement to nail the tables to the floor to prevent them from jumping around with just how passionately the cloth would be beaten.
I can vividly recall the first time that I had the joy of experiencing a true North Shore song at the milling table. Though this experience took place quite far along into my Gaelic journey and was hardly the first time that I had sat in on a milling, it felt as though I was sitting at the table and beating the cloth for the very first time. It was as if I had no control over my hands as the cloth moved, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of wonder and amazement. This is a feeling that has stayed with me to this day. Perhaps the love for these songs is something I inherited, as my great grandmother Margaret MacLean was born and raised in Goose Cove by a family proud of their Gaelic and of their strong Harris roots. Perhaps it was simply the catchy tune and the undeniable pull of the rhythm. Regardless, the heart, the liveliness, and the spirit of the North Shore radiated through the song as it was sung and inspired a phrase that still follows me to this day: he was just so unable to not give ‘er, you know?
The song that had initially sparked my interest in the songs of the North Shore is one that many others are also likely quite fond of: An t-Each Ruadh aig Roland Steele. This humorous song was composed by Hector Carmichael of Munro’s Point and Garrett MacDonald of Meadows Road. Utilizing the power of exaggeration, the song discusses the state of Roland Steele’s horse, specifically who is responsible for the poor craftsmanship of his shoes, while also commenting on the general condition of the horse who appears to have not been properly cared for during the winter – though Roland himself claims differently.
Nuair a ràinig e an stòir,
Bha ’n t-each na lon a falluis aig’,
‘S ann thuirt Bessie às an stòr
‘Lord, how that horse was travelling’
Gur e Hector bha gu cruideadh,
Sid a mhill na casan aig’,
G’an cuir air le tairnean bàta
Gur h-ann a b’fheàrr a dh’fhannadh iad
Sid far an robh am beathach lively,
Falbh a dhriveadh sgoilearan,
Nuair a ràinig e an Cobh,
Cha mhòr bhitheadh ann air tòiseach air.
When he raced up to the store,
The horse was in a pool of sweat,
Said Bessie in the store,
‘Lord, how that horse was travelling’
It was Hector that used to shoe him,
He’s the one who spoiled his feet,
For he shod the horse with boat nails,
So that they’d last a longer time.
And he was a lively horse once,
Driving children to the school,
When he came into the Cove,
There’s none would be ahead of him.
An t-Each Geal, also known as An Oidhche Bha Luadh Ann, is another North Shore song that I fell in love with recently during my stay at The Gaelic College for An Cùrsa Bogaidh 2019, where instructor Emily MacDonald played a recording of a version sung by Malcolm Angus MacLeod of Skir Dhu that can be found on An Drochaid Eadarainn. Composed by Norman ‘Lazuras’ MacDonald of the North Shore, this song describes a night where some young men in the community had borrowed a white horse from their neighbour to pull their sleigh and take them to the local milling frolic. The song also touches on how the milling frolics often served as a place for young people to meet and court, with the different versions calling out some of these matches by name.
’S an oidhche bha luadh ann
A rinn na balaich gluasad;
Gun n’ chum iad chun an tuath i,
Mo thruaigh mar a dh’éirich.
’S ann shuas aig àite Tharmaid
Siod far na thachair garbh riuth’;
Thuirt Beileag Mhór, “Gu dearbha
Tha ’n fhearg air a’ bhéist ud.”
’S ann an uair sin dheònaich ’ad
Gun dhéidheadh Aingidh còmhla riuth’;
’S ann aig Niall Beag bha spòrs orra,
’S na boys air na reins.
The night of the milling
Was when the boys got moving
And then they headed northward
A pity how it happened.
’Twas down at Norman’s farm that
They ran into trouble
Then Morag said, ‘Indeed now,
That beast is surely crazy.’
And ’twas then that they agreed
That Angus should accompany them,
And little Neil had lots of fun
With those who were driving.
[These lyrics are from the An Drochaid website]
Listen to an alternative version on Sruth nan Gàidheal.
Other lively tunes commonly sung around the North Shore that I believe are deserving of mentioning and that I find myself singing quite often are:
My hope is that this post might inspire others to explore and learn more about the wonderful world of North Shore Gaelic and the songs and traditions of the area. More information about the North Shore and these traditions can be found on the An Drochaid Eadarainn website, including more songs, music, proverbs, and stories. With Gael Stream now partially restored, many other audio recordings from the area are once more accessible online. For Apple Music and Spotify users, Cape Breton Music Volume One: Gaelic Tradition in Cape Breton is available for streaming. This album includes a variety of high quality audio recordings of the North Shore Gaelic Singers themselves. To learn more about the men of The North Shore Gaelic Singers and the milling traditions of the area, a lovely article was published in Cape Breton Magazine on December 12, 1978 and is available to view in full on their website. Cainnt mo Mhàthar, a website featuring audio and video recordings of interviews with native Gaelic speakers from throughout the province, also provides an opportunity to hear more examples of the North Shore dialect.
To keep the conversation going and the list of songs growing, I would love to hear from all of you: what is YOUR favourite North Shore Gaelic song? Or, if this post was your introduction to the North Shore, which of the songs featured did you enjoy the most?
It has been wonderful to be able to call in the energy and expertise of some additional members of the Language in Lyrics team recently. Working mostly on shorter-term projects, their input has been invaluable as we progress with song cataloguing, database management and developing plans to take the project further in the coming years… Here is an introduction to some of the team (the first of two posts).
Cailín Laing / Colleen Lynk: Project Assistant
Colleen is a Gaelic speaker living in Halifax, but with strong roots in Glace Bay and Victoria County. She has been participating in a wide range of classes and events around the province since 2017 and has had the opportunity to learn from various teachers. Recently, she has enjoyed teaching Gaelic Song during Mìos nan Gàidheal, acting in a Gaelic short film, and sitting on the board of her local Gaelic organization, Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile.
Colleen’s passion for the Gaelic language and culture was born out of the admiration she holds for her late grandmother, Sadie Lynk of Glace Bay, originally a native speaker of Gaelic. She also fondly remembers growing up listening to her father, Kevin, sing with his guitar and tell stories in a way that was very reminiscent of what she now knows to be Gaelic tradition. She carries a strong desire to uncover the names and stories of the many passionate Gaels that came before her throughout her family’s history, a project that she has been working on since 2015.
Colleen joins the team this summer 2019 through the Young Canada Works programme and we are delighted to have her. She will be assisting us with entering and cleaning in the song database, as well as text digitization and social media content. She will also be writing a fortnightly blog exploring local history and the Nova Scotian song tradition, as well as her own relationship to her Gaelic roots and the learning process of working on the Language in Lyrics project.
Tealsaidh Nic a’ Phearsain / Chelsey MacPherson: Database Assistant
Chelsey MacPherson is a Gaelic speaker and student at St Francis Xavier University where she is working towards an Honours Degree in Celtic Studies.
As a child, she recalls listening to the Rankins from the backseat of her Grandmother’s car and later began learning Gaelic songs from Sìne MacKenna of Maxville, Ontario. After attending Féis an Eilein in Christmas Island, Cape Breton, she was inspired to pursue learning the language.
Her main area of research is the folklore and Gaelic of her home county of Glengarry, Ontario. This summer 2019 she was awarded a student research grant to comb the Gaelic newspaper Mac-Talla for references to Glengarry County. Alongside this research, Chelsey has completed the substantial and extremely useful task of ensuring that the songs from all 12 volumes of Mac-Talla are entered into the Language in Lyrics database. Taing mhòr a Thealsaidh!
Trueman Matheson started learning Gaelic in 1991 and quickly fell in love with the language. He has served on several boards including the Gaelic Cultural Association – Comunn Gaidhlig an Ard-Bhaile (1992-97, President 1993-95), Comhairle na Gaidhlig 1998-2008 and the Gaelic Development Steering Committee 2002-2004.
In 1998 Trueman established Sìol Cultural Enterprises, a company which he would run for the next seventeen years. Initially Sìol distributed Gaelic materials from publishers such as Gairm Publications, Cànan, and Acair, as well as many other companies. Later, he got into publishing Gaelic books starting with a new edition of An t-Òranaiche (with CD) in 2002. By the time the business closed in 2015 Sìol Cultural Enterprises had published 20 books, many original or expanded editions of older works, as well as a CD and several other products.
Trueman has been assisting the Language in Lyrics project by entering songs into our database from several of the collections published under Sìol Cultural Enterprises. These include many songs composed in Nova Scotia, such as those by the ‘Keppoch Bàrd’ Alasdair Ailein Mhór, published in the book ‘O Cheapaich nan Craobh’.
Trueman currently lives in St. Andrews with his wife of 25 years, Laurinda (MacGillivray), whom he met while learning Gaelic, and who is co-editor of many of the books published under Sìol.
Aleen Leigh Stanton: Digital Heritage Specialist
Aleen Leigh Stanton is an historian, heritage conservationist, and Gaelic language learner living on Big Island, Pictou County. After completing her undergraduate studies at Acadia University, she traveled to the UK to earn an MA in Cultural Heritage Management from the University of York, where she specialized in music heritage.
Family stories about her ancestors who emigrated from Mull, Coll, and Perthshire and their ties to the land have deeply influenced her research interests. As a Research Associate with the Nova Scotia Museum, she is leading a cultural landscape and oral history study on Big Island about place attachment, ‘islandness,’ and the Scottish diaspora.
Aleen recently joined the Language in Lyrics team to assist us in sourcing and developing an online database platform. We will use this to collate the numerous spreadsheets we have been filling with song data, and share this with the wider community. Since it has been proving to be a challenging task, we are delighted to be benefiting from Aleen’s experience as we strive to come up with the most accessible and sustainable option.
Seòl-sìdhe Chlann Anndra | Little Effort, Big Results
By Colleen Lynk
Known simply as Clann Anndra in North Uist, the Laings of Uist were known for being clever people with strong memories. They were also renowned for being able to accomplish easily what may have been difficult for others. I have heard an old tale that this may have been due to an encounter with na sìthichean, the fairies, in which a Laing woman was able to earn back her freedom and was thus granted one wish: for her people to be forever twice as hardworking as any others on earth. Others attribute these talents to the first Laing to arrive in Uist in 1712, Maighstir Seon, a renowned schoolmaster and catechist. Either way, it is a reputation that has remained prevalent throughout history. These skills, coupled with an effortless talent for the art of sloinneadh (genealogy), came together to create a rich history of storytelling and bàrdachd (poetry). This can be seen in more recent history through the works of Andrew Laing (1900-1969), Bàrd Hòrasairigh, a talented storyteller and composer of Gaelic song, and the Reverend Malcolm Laing (1888-1968), a writer of stories and bàrdachd in both Gaelic and English.
This history first made its way to Cape Breton in 1827 when, at the age of 19, Angus Laing (Aonghas mac Dhòmhnuill ’ic Iain ’ic Anndra ’ic Maighstir Seon) made the journey from Knockintorran, North Uist to Leitches Creek, Cape Breton (it is also at this time that the family name here in Nova Scotia became Lynk due to what is believed to have been a simple transcription error). Whether Angus himself brought with him the aptitude for storytelling and composing of Clann Anndra, I will never know. However, it is something that I often see in his descendants – namely in my own father, a great-great grandson of Angus. Though my father never did inherit Gaelic from his mother, Sadie Lynk (Sadie ni’n Dan Dhòmhnuill Aonghais), something that was sadly quite common within his generation, he certainly inherited the memory and talents of the Uist Laings.
As a child growing up, I was often fascinated with my father’s ability to recall the names of what seemed like an endless amount of people from his community in Glace Bay. He often had stories attached to these people, accompanied by which street they lived on, who they may have been connected to and how. These stories were not limited to his own experiences, as he also had numerous stories that he had heard from others and stored in his memory. He was and is what I consider to be a true seanchaidh (tradition bearer) in his own right.
Not only was I enthralled by his stories, I often thought quite longingly of the guitar case sitting quietly in my parents’ room. I knew that on special occasions it would make its way out into the living room. The ol’ acoustic that had been tucked away inside was held snug in the hands of my father as he gently strummed and sang familiar tunes. Though the communal aspect of this was something I held dear, however, I would hardly say that his guitar was necessary for a tune to take place. I often heard him singing as he did the dishes or as he sat, sometimes putting together fun little versions of the songs that he loved by changing the lyrics or adding the names of our cats or family members. This was something that seemed so effortless for him, and something that I still have the habit of doing myself.
In a way, though I have only recently obtained the language and the understanding to name this, I feel I have learned so much about the ways of Clann Anndra and about the traditions of the Gaels through my father. I began my own journey with Gaelic and with discovering the long and rich family history of my Gaelic speaking grandmother, Sadie, as way to honour her memory.
This has allowed for me to feel connected to her in such a meaningful way that I had always felt was missing, as I was born nearly a decade after her passing and never had the opportunity to connect with her in childhood. What I didn’t expect was that this journey would also gift me with a closer connection to my father. I have been blessed to re-experience the gift of his stories and songs over the last couple of years. They have been instrumental in my understanding of where I stand in my Gaelic identity.
I hope that I am able to carry what I have learned so far into my work here with Language in Lyrics. I also hope to come out of this experience with an even better understanding of these traditions and their profound significance to our culture, language, and our people. I feel both immense passion and burning excitement as I continue to discover the history and recordings of the many, many songs that have endured within our Gaelic communities. I also feel purpose in doing my part to preserve them. I will do my best to maintain my family’s legacy both in the context of this project and beyond, and I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts and discoveries through this blog.
Tuilleadh fiosrachaidh / Further information:
Andrew Laing (1900-1969), or Anndra mac Alasdair ’ic Anndra ’ic Raghnaill ’ic Iain ’ic Anndra ’ic Mgr Seon, was born in Baile Mòr, Paibil, North Uist. Known as Bàrd Hòrasairigh, the songs he composed, such as ‘An t-Eilean Beag Lurach mu Thuath’, are still sung in the communities of North Uist. Naomi Harvey, Ceòlas researcher during the European Oral Song Tradition (EOST) project in 2013-14, has adeptly collected Andrew’s songs and set them within their community context. The book ‘An t-Eilean Beag Lurach mu Thuath: Òrain Anndra Laing’ is available from the Gaelic Books Council and Ceòlas.
The online archive Tobar an Dualchais also contains 42 recordings of Andrew Laing, including songs, stories and toasts.
The Reverend Malcolm Laing’s book, ‘Tha Cuimhn’ Agam: Gaelic and English Writings’ is available on Amazon.ca
Colleen will be publishing a fortnightly blog every second Thursday from June to August 2019 – keep an eye out for future instalments!