Gaelic is alive and piping

September 5, 1997

IT IS an odd experience to be met at the gates of an academic institution by a piper but then Cape Breton's Gaelic College is no ordinary limb of further education. As to why a windswept rock off the North American coast should be teaching the Scots language, Celtic step dance and the bagpipes, that is a story in itself.

The clue is that Cape Breton is an island off mainland Nova Scotia. Although James I called the province a new Scotland, there was a sizeable influx of Caledonians only after the 18th-century clearances in Scotland. Cabot, the French Arcadians and English loyalists were in New Scotland long before the Scots. Nevertheless on the northerly isle of Cape Breton these hardy immigrants have managed to keep their language and tradition alive.

In the early 1820s Reverend Norman McCleod arrived in Cape Breton. The firebrand McCleod was unable to get himself ordained in Britain so he took his congregation with him to Nova Scotia. Unhappy with life there, he then decamped to Australia, grew dissatisfied and finally ended up in New Zealand.

A century later McCleod's stubbornness and antagonism to the encroaching Anglo-American way of life was the inspiration for another cleric who decided to found a Gaelic college in Nova Scotia. The Rev A. W. R. McKenzie was not himself a Gaelic speaker but he was determined the language was to thrive and so in 1938 he left his church in Baddek (near Alexander Graham Bell's summer home) and moved to a log cabin that was to be the beginning of North America's only Gaelic College - and a stop gap move to preserve the language.

Although Mrs McKenzie was not happy about her husband's unorthodox career move, she threw herself into preserving traditional Scots weaving skills, which were beginning to die out on Cape Breton as manufactured clothing became available. Highland dance and drumming plus the ubiquitous pipes were soon added. Purists on the island were quick to note that what McKenzie was creating was not so much a institution that preserved Scots culture on Cape Breton but one that imported it.

The emphasis on clan tartan, for instance, was seen by many to be ersatz. The Scots settlers who had arrived 150 years earlier would not have been familiar with the codifying of highland dress, something that came with the 19th-century rehabilitation of all things Scottish.

The Gaelic College was seen more as an exercise in sentimentality than rescuing a culture.

In answer to some of these criticisms, the college introduced tuition in the Cape Breton fiddle in 1976 and step dancing in the 1980s, both of them indigenous activities that were in need of preservation. Christine Pettey, who teaches step dancing, began as a student at the college when she was only eight, progressing to highland dancing and piping before becoming assistant to the registrar and a step tutor.

These days the college gets the second largest cultural grant from Nova Scotia's provincial funding. But critics like Jim Watson, Gaelic heritage coordinator of the Highland village in Iona, feel that the fact that this grant ($100,000 a year) comes from funds earmarked for culture rather than further education undercuts the academic status to which the college ought to aspire.

This is a charge rebutted by Hector MacNeil, full-time director of Gaelic studies at the college. His family sailed over in 1802 and he is proud to be a sixth generation Nova Scotian Scot. He has preserved on video the last native Gaelic speakers, recording their memories and rejects the idea that more ought to be done to use these records not just as a language teaching aid but - in transcribed form - as a sociological and historical resource. With only one school left on Cape Breton that teaches through the medium of Gaelic, the language has become a big issue in the province.

Given the climate, most teaching is done over the summer with maximum residential facilities for 120 people. Among younger Nova Scotian students two weeks at the Gaelic College has become the cultural equivalent of going off to camp. A total of 40 instructors may work over the summer season with up to 500 students.

As with similar early ventures in Wales, it is usually those with an existing family link to the language who set out to reclaim their culture but Ms MacInnes says that the new duty piper, Stephanie Morze, is in fact Lebanese.

The existence of this piping factotum - and of the college shop with its lucrative line in tartan memorabilia - again raises the question of whether the college is primarily an academic institution.

Mr MacNeil says that what are thought of as schools and universities is coloured by very English ways of teaching. "The school as such is a non-Gaelic institution. The teaching in our community was never carried out in schools but in the ceilidh house where all ages might be present and where instruction and informal discussion happened simultaneously."

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