I visited the Barra MacNeils once. Well, not exactly. But I felt as if I was in their family home as I watched them perform one afternoon in 2011. “Growing up, if we were at our grandmother’s, there was always a fiddler, a piano player and songs,” said Lucy MacNeil, backstage after the show. “And at home in Sydney Mines, there were many different visitors who were musicians. When they would come, the music would start.”
The Barra MacNeils have been called Canada’s Celtic ambassadors and represent an important symbol of Nova Scotia’s cultural identity. To be sure, as the band says on their website, “The family group is deeply rooted in Celtic music, culture, dance, language and history.” The band is not alone in that regard. There are any number of Nova Scotia musicians, authors, politicians, and others who make this province what it is as much as the province has made them. The story of Nova Scotia is the story of its people.
Nova Scotia is the Latin for New Scotland, a name William Alexander bestowed in 1621 to a land that was destined for Scottish immigrants to start a new life. It was not until the next century that the first Scottish settlers made the Atlantic Canadian province their permanent home. In 1773, the ship Hector arrived in Pictou Harbour with 170 or more Scottish Highlanders, beginning a wave of Scottish Gaels settling in Cape Breton and eastern Nova Scotia. Today, Scottish makes up the largest ethnicity in Nova Scotia, with more than 30 per cent claiming heritage.
The Scottish weren’t the only Gaelic speakers to settle in Nova Scotia.
“You can find the Irish among the first settlers in almost any community in this province,” wrote Lauren Oostveen for NovaScotia.com, adding that the majority arrived in the “mid-1700s or between 1815 and 1845.” Irish Gaels made homes in Halifax, Sydney, Dartmouth, pockets of Cape Breton and places along the Old Annapolis Road. Ulster Scots also laid roots in Truro and other parts of Colchester and surrounding counties.
It’s believed the Acadians have Celtic connections too. Before Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Du Gua de Monts built the Habitation at Port Royal in 1605, fishermen from Brittany, Normandy and Basques had already frequented the waters around Atlantic Canada.
While at times, the Celtic language and stories, music and dance, sport and craft have been isolated, even repressed, they never disappeared from Nova Scotia. Today, signs of the past permeating the present are clearer than ever.
On New Year’s Eve, a group of teenage boys would wrap one of their friends in a cowhide. Walking from house to house they’d beat the hide with alder or shinty sticks. Around each house they’d walk three times, all the while beating the walls with their sticks. At the front door, they’d recite a poem before being invited in for food and drink.
“I’ve done re-enactments of that and I do it with my boys,” laughs Lewis MacKinnon, explaining that the idea was to beat the evil spirits away. This is one of many customs inherited from the Gaels and carried on in Nova Scotia.
Growing up in Antigonish County, Scottish-Gaelic culture was a way of life for MacKinnon. He began learning Gaelic as a teenager from his great-uncle. Today he is fluent in the language and speaks it regularly with his father, his children and, as Executive Director of Gaelic Affairs, many of his colleagues. “In the late 1800s, there may have been as many as 100,000 speakers in Nova Scotia,” says MacKinnon. “In the 1901 census, 50,000 people cited Gaelic as their mother tongue, and that spanned a broad area, from Cumberland County through to Colchester, Pictou, Antigonish and northern Guysborough Counties and throughout Cape Breton.”
It was in the 1930s, says MacKinnon, when parents generally stopped speaking Gaelic to their kids. But a core group, albeit small, preserved the language. The establishment of the provincial government’s Office of Gaelic Affairs in 2007, under the leadership of then Premier Rodney MacDonald, helped facilitate Gaelic resurgence and pride. MacKinnon points out that the number of Nova Scotians who said they could speak Gaelic rose from 890 in 2006 to 1,275 in 2011, representing a 43 per cent increase.
Growing up in Inverness Cape Breton, author Frank MacDonald was engrossed by the stories he heard from people who had gone away to work in big cities. He too left to work and returned with his own stories. He always knew that he would come back to Inverness for good.
It was perhaps the storytelling aspect of Gaelic culture that has resonated most throughout MacDonald’s life. It certainly inspired him to write famously humorous columns, short stories and poems as well two International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-nominated novels, A Forest for Calum and A Possible Madness. He has a third novel, Tinker and Blue, coming out this fall.
“I like to create characters who reflect the kind of storytelling that goes on here and that I heard growing up,” declares MacDonald. “We’re a culture that’s exposed to the digital realities like anywhere else, but there’s still a strong element of the Gaelic culture in Western Cape Breton that counts on face-to-face stories, and not Facebook stories.”
“You are standing in the middle of an area that was once known as Irishtown,” reads a panel found on downtown Halifax’s Lower Water Street. The interpretive Irishtown street signs were erected in 2012, after much campaigning from An Cumann (The Irish Association of Nova Scotia) to officially commemorate the area’s Irish roots. The neighbourhood was known as Irishtown in the 1750s and again a century later. By the 1870s, around 40 per cent of Halifax’s population was Irish.
Perhaps it is Halifax’s Irish connection that drew Zeph Caissie to the city. Originally from Vancouver, with Greek, Irish and Acadian roots, Caissie moved to Halifax and opened Diaga Irish Dance in 2010. “I had performed in Halifax with Riverdance – The Show a few years previously and felt at home in the city and with the people,” says Caissie. “I saw potential in the Maritimes as Celtic culture was already an intrinsic part of society.”
At Diaga, Caissie teaches traditional Irish dance to students between the ages of four and 21, who perform and/or compete, representing a range of levels and backgrounds. His dancers have been featured at the Celtic Colours International Festival, The Royal Nova Scotia International Tattoo and tattoos abroad. The school also hosts a number of ceili and feis events throughout the year. “Irish dance is alive and well in Nova Scotia,” Caissie contends. “There are four schools of traditional Irish dancing in the Maritimes, three in Nova Scotia, one in New Brunswick, as well as a brilliant teacher named Elizabeth MacDonald who teaches set dancing and Sean-nós dancing.”
“To me, being Celtic means being a warrior, strong in faith and belief, respectful of the history of the people and welcoming to all you meet on your journey,” continues Caissie, who encourages his students to support one another while they build their self-confidence through Irish dance.
Colin MacDonald and Anna MacKinnon enjoyed driving up to Sight Point on the west coast of Cape Breton. Anna liked to go there to fill her water jugs from the brook. On the drives the two pointed out neat things they saw along the way, speaking only in Gaelic.
MacDonald has fond memories from when he completed Bun is Bàrr in 2011-2012. “Bun is Bàrr roughly translates to the root and the branch,” he explains. “It was a master apprentice program where I paired up with Anna, a native Gaelic speaker. So she would be the root and I would be the branch.”
Now a fluent Gaelic speaker, as well as a dancer and a musician, MacDonald first started learning the language in high school. “A big motivator for me in taking that Gaelic class was my mother’s encouragement,” says MacDonald. “She would tell me stories about Katie Florence Kennedy, and Hughie Dan MacDonnell and Archie Kennedy and I felt, taking the class, that I was connecting with them in some sort of way, even though I never got the chance to meet them. They’re the last of the native Gaelic speakers in my family.”
MacDonald’s great-grandfather Hughie Dan was a legendary storyteller. “He was well-known for his sgeulachdan, the longer tales,” recalls MacDonald. “These would have been told in parts. You couldn’t tell a sgeulachdan in one night. My goal is to learn some stories that Hughie Dan would have told.”
MacDonald was recently promoted to Director of Gaelic at The Gaelic College in St. Ann’s. The college offers a range of Gaelic programming for students of all ages from storytelling, drama and dance to fiddle, weaving, piping and language. “We have an amazing youth immersion program, run in partnership with the Office of Gaelic Affairs, called Na Gaisgich Òga, which means The Young Heroes,” says MacDonald. “They are on the brink of fluency. It’s really exciting!”
“A lot of people kind of question that initially: the Acadian Dutchman who serves as Minister of Gaelic Affairs…”
Minister Randy Delorey makes a joke about his heritage and what may seem like an ironic governmental title. He was appointed Minister of Gaelic Affairs after being elected MLA for Antigonish in 2013. “But if you actually take the time to think about the historical context of the plight of the Gaels and that of the Acadians, there really are a lot of parallels there,” says Delorey. “So while I’m not coming into the position with the full cultural and historical understanding of the Gaelic community, I do have an appreciation for the type of challenges that the community has faced, and why retaining and reclaiming their cultural identity is so important.”
Delorey says every time he attends an event, he learns more Gaelic from community members who are keen to share. He’s also found it enlightening to observe how distinctive Nova Scotia’s Gaelic culture is, and how it has evolved over time and through its migration to the New World. The progress that the Office of Gaelic Affairs has made since 2007 impresses Delorey. He sees advances not only in the traditional Gaelic communities of Cape Breton and Pictou and Antigonish counties, but also across the province.
“One of my colleagues, who has at least three campaigns under her belt, said that during her most recent time campaigning here in Metro Halifax, she knocked on four or five doors where people asked what her position was on Gaelic in the province of Nova Scotia,” Delorey beams. “She had never experienced that before.”
Gillian Boucher’s fiery fiddling talent has been her passport to the world. She’s travelled to New York’s Catskills to fiddle alongside Buddy MacMaster and Wendy MacIsaac, toured New Zealand, performed in the Philippines and Turkey, collaborated with Irish musicians in Washington DC and progressive players in Edinburgh…
“It’s a funny thing, travelling and living in different countries in search of inspiration. It brought me right back to the start,” says Boucher. “Travelling has made me reflect and appreciate my own heritage more. I’m finding great enjoyment in studying my grandfather Lauchie MacLellan’s songs, and I’ve been doing research on Acadian and Métis music.”
Growing up in Broad Cove, Boucher remembers Celtic music always being played at home. At five years old, she was step dancing and playing the piano. At 10 she picked up the fiddle. “I’m a Celtic fiddler and I always will be,” she says. “I’ve collaborated with musicians from all over the world, but not as someone trying to learn different cultural styles, but rather how to find a place where such different styles can meet and work together.”
In 2012, Boucher founded The Celtic Ensemble, a musical group consisting of herself, Cassie & Maggie MacDonald and Mary Beth Carty. The quartet plays music that explores various Celtic realms, like Cape Breton, Irish, Scottish, Acadian and Québécois music.
Boucher notes, “When I listen to the young players today, I hear strength in their music and a sense of pride in their tradition and in keeping that alive.”
The sound of Uilleann pipes, piano and fiddle lure me inside the Red Shoe Pub in Mabou. I squeeze through a crowd of people and find Angie Smith, the manager, who greets me with a smile.
Smith tells me they are hosting one of their weekly jam sessions. “It is fabulous to see the artists of all ages show off their skills,” she says. “This tells me and our guests that Celtic Culture is very much a part of daily living here in Mabou and the surrounding area.”
During the Red Shoe Pub’s season, they host live music seven nights a week. Many of the performers are local and a lot of talent exists to choose from, Smith says.
I search for a seat so I can sit down and enjoy a nice meal; the aromas from the kitchen are too good to pass up. A couple sees me searching for an empty space and invites me to join them. I feel immediately at home. Having grown up in Halifax with no distinctive Celtic roots, I have still felt consistently welcomed. Here at the Red Shoe my feet and hands instinctively clap and tap in time.
I suddenly remember Lee Cremo (1938-1999), a famous Mi’kmaq fiddler who lived most of his life in Eskasoni, Cape Breton. In a 1977 interview clip he says, “…The fiddle is just a voice, my father used to say anyway, the tongue itself…it could speak almost any language, like Gaelic, French…”