In 1845, Jacob D. Kuhn, editor of the Sydney newspaper Spirit of the Times, petitioned the Nova Scotia House of Assembly for financial assistance to publish an agricultural manual in Gaelic. He stated then that the language was spoken by no less than 100,000 people in the colony.
One hundred thousand Nova Scotians may have been Gaelic-speakers in 1845, but this was an age when literacy rates were low, regardless of the mother tongue; as a result, very few perhaps only remnant elders from the immigrant generation could claim fluency in reading the language. The response coming from government to Kuhn's petition was, perhaps understandably, less than encouraging: "however desirable it might be that a large portion of our population might be enabled to read such Works in their native language, yet the [Agriculture] Committee cannot recommend the publishing of such work should be borne upon the general funds of the province."
Sixty-five years later, the Dominion Census of 1911 enumerated 492,338 Nova Scotians of whom 145,535 listed Scottish as their ethnic origin; some 50,000 of them were still native Gaelic-speakers. In 1920, an enormous petition was submitted to Premier G.H. Murray, noting that 29.8% of Nova Scotians were of Scottish descent and claiming that "The great majority of Nova Scotians belonging to the Scottish race still preserve the Gaelic language and are deeply attached to the traditions embodied in its literature." The petitioners asked that Gaelic be included in the course of study for secondary schoolsbut it was already obvious to government that despite public interest in linguistic preservation, the number of Gaelic-speakers in Nova Scotia was on the decline; providing Gaelic-language education services was not a priority.
By 1931, the number of Gaelic-speakers in the province had declined to approximately 30,000. Nina Turner, writing in The Canadian Mosaic in 1957, noted that by 1951 the number had dropped again, this time dramatically, to a mere 6789. With continued emigration from the province and the ever-increasing general assimilation of Nova Scotians into North American culture, further erosion was inevitable.
A half-century later, a community-based initiative partnered with the Nova Scotia Department of Tourism, Culture and Heritage carried out both a survey and a series of public consultations to address issues around Gaelic culture and heritage. Their estimate for current Gaelic-speakers in the province? Less than 500, many of them senior citizens.
Despite the decline of the spoken language in Nova Scotia, it was obvious that traditions and culture rooted in the Gaelic connection have survived everywhere alive, vibrant, and enduring. One of the most significant findings was the depth of community interest in linguistic preservation. The result of these consultations was a blueprint cultural document entitled "Developing and Preserving Gaelic in Nova Scotia: Strategy for Community-Based Initiatives" (2004). A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) recently signed between the Province of Nova Scotia and the Highland Council, Scotland, takes the initiative a step further by providing "a mechanism to facilitate sharing of resources, ideas, skills and experience for the benefit of both areas."
Over the years, Nova Scotia Archives and Records Management has been a quiet leader in preserving, for future generations, a body of archival records that document the province's rich Gaelic roots and the continuing culture, heritage and traditions. The premier collection and most significant research source held at NSARM is the Maclean, Sinclair family fonds, acquired in 1953 from the estate of George Maclean Sinclair, Hopewell, Nova Scotia, and described then as "the finest collection of original Gaelic material in Canada" (PANS Annual Report, 1954).
Other major sources for Gaelic research at NSARM include the Helen Creighton fonds, with its emphasis on folk heritage and over 4000 songs and ancient ballads sung or narrated by Creighton's informants, many of them Gaelic; and the Cape Breton's Magazine fonds, a rich late-twentieth-century collection of documents, folklore, music and oral history.
The material presented on this Website is a doorway in to the Gaelic resources available at NSARM. The Dalhousie Review, Sun Life Review and Canadian Mosaic articles provide introductions to Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia. The selections of photographs, documentary art, music sheets and textual documents display various aspects of the province's Gaelic heritage, focusing on communities, talented musicians and singers, and associations with the famous Gaelic bard John Maclean. Additional published sources and textual records give examples of the Gaelic language and the struggle to preserve it in Nova Scotia through education, poetry, and the press.
The section focusing on the Maclean, Sinclair family fonds introduces Internet visitors to this rich source of archival material, and provides information to encourage further research. Michael Linkletter's article on the collection is complementary, developing cultural themes, trends and international linkages evident in the collection.
If you've enjoyed the contents of this Website, you'll also want to visit the following Internet locations that focus on the preservation of Gaelic cultural heritage in Nova Scotia:
Gael Steam / Sruth nan Gaidheal
Sponsored by St. Francis Xavier University (Antigonish, NS), Gael Stream "strives to build a comprehensive digital resource of material relating predominantly to Nova Scotia's living Gaelic tradition."
Cape Breton Ceilidh / Ceilidh air Cheap Breatunn
"A virtual ceilidh experience celebrating Cape Breton Gaelic culture," developed by the Nova Scotia Highland Village (Iona, NS).
Office of Gaelic Affairs / Oifis Iomairtean na Gàidhlig
The mission of the OGA is to work with Nova Scotians in the renewal of Gaelic language and culture in the Province.