Colaisde Na Gàidhlig

Situated in the heart of one of the earliest Scottish settlements in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, The Gaelic College was founded in 1938 by Rev. A.W.R. MacKenzie as a school devoted to the study and preservation of the Gaelic language and Celtic arts and culture. Recently we spoke with Gaelic Director Emily MacKinnon about the world-renowned institution and its mandate.

What are your own roots?
Gaelic ancestry on both sides, my father’s people were MacKinnons from the Isle of Muck and MacInnises from the Isle of Skye, my mother’s people were MacNeils from Barra and MacLellans from Morar.

What is your role and responsibilities with the college?
I am the Gaelic Director, which primarily involves Gaelic instruction. I am responsible for all aspects of Gaelic language on site including signage, staff training, translation, marketing materials and most importantly educational programming.

Is the school’s mandate the same today as it was when established?

How has the facility evolved in recent years?
The college has seen many changes over the years. Most recently, many positive initiatives have been implemented in regards to staffing and programming. The focus at the college has always been on education and preservation of the Gaelic culture and we have experienced a renewed enthusiasm for the college’s mandate in recent years. Also, the campus is undergoing major renovations this spring, with upgrades to all dorm rooms and classrooms. The grounds are being rejuvenated, through the hard work of our recently hired landscaper and forestry staff. We are hoping to make better use of the beautiful 350-acre property located in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton by clearing access to the water and making outdoor classrooms and trails.

How many students do you welcome every year?
We welcome approximately 300 students for the summer school each year and offer year-round Gaelic programming, including seasonal evening classes, themed weekends for youth and adults and other special events.

Where are they from?
The majority of our students come from all over North America. We have also welcomed students from other countries around the world.

Why do they choose to study there?
Colaisde Na Gàidhlig offers a completely unique learning experience. We offer authentic Gaelic programming, with world-class instructors, along with fun recreational activities on our beautiful campus.

Why is it important to preserve and protect Gaelic culture?
Naturally, many people have a desire to learn about who they are and where they come from; that is how I became interested in Gaelic culture. I would spend time with my grandmother, a native Gaelic speaker from Ottawa Brook, Nova Scotia, and I had a desire to learn the language, the genealogy, the songs, etc. Specifically, 1/3 of Nova Scotians are descended from Gaelic speaking settlers, making it one of the largest cultural groups in the province. With this rich cultural history, we want to share the Gaelic experience with visitors to Colaisde Na Gàidhlig and help them make connections with their own personal identity, regardless of cultural background. My journey learning the Gaelic language and about its attendant culture has been nothing but fulfilling and rewarding and I want to share my enthusiasm with youth and adults who come on site. At Colaisde Na Gàidhlig we hope to perpetuate the culture and preserve it for future generations.

In your estimation, are we doing enough to do that?
I think Nova Scotia is definitely on the right track. With the establishment of the Office of Gaelic Affairs (OGA) we have a section of government allotted for Gaelic initiatives. Many great projects and endeavors have come about with this development. Gàidhlig aig Baile style instruction has also been created as a means to pass on the language and has shown great success with increasing fluency in the language. This method is modeled off of the “Total Immersion Plus” style, which comes from Scotland. Little by little, with the dedication of small communities around the province, Gaelic cultural awareness and interest has been growing. We are also seeing musicians and artists taking an interest in learning the language, and learners of the language taking an interest in the other aspects of the culture. This is helping people better understand and appreciate the interconnectedness of all parts of Gaelic culture. So, it’s a very exciting time for Gaels in Nova Scotia!

What could we be doing better?
With all these positive initiatives going on around the province, it is our time to get excited and take ownership of the Gaelic culture. Specifically, we are seeing a need for more youth programming, i.e. Gaelic preschools, an increase of learning opportunities for school-age children, as well as educational opportunities focused on teenagers. At Colaisde Na Gàidhlig, we are committed to providing a one-of-a-kind learning experience for all ages and we aspire to continually grow our programming.

What is on tap for the school, and yourself, in the months and years ahead?
As I mentioned, we are always evolving and growing as a school committed to the Gaelic culture. Our mandate has always been focused on education, in the culture, music, language, arts, crafts, customs and traditions of the Gaelic settlers. We have a great summer lined up with exciting programming and first-class instructors. This year we are offering extensive Gàidhlig aig Baile programming, for both youth and adults, and are highlighting the connections between all aspects of the culture. Longer-term, with our newly hired staff-members, we have lots of great ideas and enthusiasm for the months and years to come. Keep an eye on Colaisde Na Gàidhlig for all the exciting things coming up!