Serving Cape Breton Regional Municipality and Victoria County since 1950

Gaelic in Cape Breton: A History

While working on this project, LeughSeo: Gaelic Books in Eastern Cape Breton Libraries, questions of the origin and present and future states of the Gaelic language in Cape Breton emerged. For centuries the Gaelic language has been heard among many people in Cape Breton Island. Having originated in Scotland, it was at one time the mother tongue of most of the Island’s settlers. However, throughout the years, changes have taken place leaving the Gaelic language’s fate a topic of much discussion. What is the state of the Gaelic language today? What are its prospects for the future? These are the questions people interested in the language are trying to answer today.


In the eighteenth century many changes occurred which affected the fate of the Scots living in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. The 1745 Rebellion and its aftermath caused great disruption and hardship for many. Religious issues prevailed between Protestants and Catholics. Furthermore, landlords were raising rents to clear the land to allow sheep raising. In Fear a’Mhuinntir Mheinne’s song, We Shall Go to America,1 one can sense that the attitude of the emigrating Scots was one of both new found hope and distaste toward their present state:

We shall go to America It is our destiny to go there; A plague on the landlords, with their greed for money; they prefer flocks of sheep to their own armed hosts.

Theid sinn a dh’America ‘S gur h-e ar deireadh falbh ann; Marbhphaisg air na tighearnan, An ruith th’ac’ air an airgiod; ‘S fheàrr leò baidein chaorach No’n cuid dhaoine ‘s iad fo àrmachd.

Thus, many Scots sought to escape to a new land of promise. They wanted land that they could call their own and develop as they wished; a land with religious freedom and political rest. All these reasons led to the mass emigration of Scots to Cape Breton Island beginning in the late 1700s, and continuing until the late nineteenth century.

Between 1817 and 1838 alone, the population in Cape Breton grew from approximately 7000 people to 38,000 people. Almost all these people were Gaelic-speaking Scots from the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland.2 They came from Barra, Lewis, North and South Uist and settled in groups together. Those from Barra settled around the Iona area; those from Lewis, around the St. Ann’s Bay; North Uist, around Mira Ferry; and South Uist, around Grand Mira. Within each of these settlements, the Gaelic-speaking people usually preserved the particular dialect of Gaelic that they brought from the old country3, such that whenever they would move away from their own locality they would hear a different dialect of Gaelic. Sometimes the dialect would be so different from their own that they would have difficulty in understanding it correctly.4

Regardless of location however, many events took place regularly that used the medium of the Gaelic language. Church services were held in Gaelic. “Ceilidhs”, a term receiving widespread use in today’s media, were held weekly. These ceilidhs included Gaelic songs, music and the like, but the highlight of the evening would be the appearance of a seanchaidh or story-teller. The story-teller to the delight of audiences would recite various folktales. Most of these stories had been passed on from generation to generation through the medium of the Gaelic language. Gaelic songs were also popular at weddings and milling frolics. Furthermore, Gaelic societies were established in many Gaelic speaking areas to promote the use of the language.

Present Day

Having interviewed a number of both native and non-native Gaelic speakers in Cape Breton (native being those who learned the language in childhood; non-native, those who began learning the language later in life) it is apparent that the presence of the Gaelic language in Cape Breton today is less defined than it was in the past. No concrete number of Gaelic speakers on the Island is available; some people say about three to five hundred people while others say upward to one thousand people. What is known, however, is that there is a significant number of native Gaelic speakers still resident on the Island. Furthermore, there is a resurgence of interest in the language among non-native speakers.

Native and non-native Gaelic speakers alike offer various reasons why there has been such an upsurge of interest in the Gaelic language in recent years. The growing popularity of “Celtic” music is one reason given for the newfound interest in Celtic and Gaelic cultures. Musicians such as The Rankin Family and Mary Jane Lamond have brought the Gaelic language to the focus of the world through their songs. For some learners, hearing these beautiful Gaelic songs leads them to want to decipher what is being sung. On a broader note, entertainers such as Ashley MacIsaac and Natalie MacMaster are bringing part of their traditional culture to the rest of the world. Many people are seeking to “get back to their roots”. They are realizing the importance of their ancestral roots and are seeking to learn more about their heritage.

The result of all this interest has been more people trying to learn the Gaelic language. As one Gaelic enthusiast said, “more people will want to learn Gaelic as our older, native speaking population diminishes.”5 This presents a problem for those interested in learning the language, as the genuine resources, the native speakers, are passing on. The older generation of Gaelic speakers holds the wealth of the traditional heritage. They have the idioms, the songs, the stories, all that have been passed down through generations and hold the heart of the language – its true social essence. Although parts of these traditions are recorded and documented, the authenticity of the language is its spoken word.

Presently, classes in language and song are offered in several communities. Gaelic is presently taught to school aged children in Mabou, Inverness County. Gaelic Cultural courses are also offered in high schools in Sydney and Iona. However, they do not teach Gaelic in the earliest years to children in the lower elementary grades, when language acquisition is at its optimum. But, in communities such as Christmas Island, Mabou, and Glendale various Feisean (or festivals) are organized which allow children and adults alike to be exposed to the Gaelic language and culture. Furthermore, institutions such as the University College of Cape Breton and St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, offer courses in the language and culture for post-secondary education. The World Wide Web and computers have also helped bring Gaelic enthusiasts from around the world closer to each other. Thus, it is easy to see that there are many opportunities to learn the Gaelic language. What we cannot ignore, however, is the fact that the older native speakers are dying, and are taking with them the essence of the Scottish / Cape Breton culture – the language.


In order for the Gaelic language to survive in Cape Breton, a number of changes must take place. First, all speakers, native and non-native, agree that the Gaelic language must be available to the children. They believe that the language should be taught in the schools, at least in the Gaelic speaking communities on the island. If the children can learn the language and also able to use the language within their communities, the language will have a better chance of maintaining itself.

Second, more government funding is needed to support and promote the language. Through initiatives in tourism and education, the Gaelic language can be made more accessible for those who already speak or are learning the language and for those who wish to learn it. These initiatives must take place in the immediate future, while native speakers are remaining. Learners need to come in contact with this wealth of information.

Will Gaelic survive in the future? Some say Gaelic will never really die, as long as there remains Gaelic materials in the libraries and archives of various institutions in Cape Breton, such as the Cape Breton Regional Library and Cape Breton University. The overall hope for Gaelic in the future is that it will thrive as a spoken language among people in Cape Breton; that children can be exposed to and speak the language of their ancestors; and that people around the world will come to know Cape Breton as a prolific Gaelic-speaking area of North America. Suas leis a Ghàidhlig!


1. MacDonell, Margaret. The Emigrant Experience : Songs of the Highland Emigrants in North America. University of Toronto Press : Toronto, 1982, p. 62-63.

2. MacMillan, A.J. To the Hill of Boisdale. City Printers Limited : Sydney, NS, 1986, p. 24.

3. Dunn, Charles. Highland Settler : A Portrait of the Scottish Gaelic in Cape Breton and Eastern Nova Scotia. Breton Books : Wreck Cove, Cape Breton Island, 1991, p. 141.

4. Dunn. p. 142.

5. From an interview with Frances MacEachern, Editor of Am Braighe Magazine, a Gaelic Publication in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. July 25, 1999.