The Gaelic way of living in the world
It is largely acknowledged that the Gaelic speech by the Rev. Archibald Mackinnon secured the building of the Highland Village for Iona, Cape Breton. There above the Barramen’s Strait, the Village, which was received into the Nova Scotia Museum family in June, 2000, has evolved over the decades of the 20th century to emerge in the 21st as a strong standard-bearer for Gaelic language and culture.
Director Rodney Chaisson, in harness since 1993, believes in a future for Gaelic in the province. When he considers the core ingredients for a cultural museum, he thinks of the intangibles: stories, songs, music, language, folklore, and other folklife traditions. “Language is the hub”, he says, “with cultural expression and folklife traditions as the spokes”.
Manager of Collections since 1987, Pauline Maclean will tell you of her pride “when our visitors have that ‘Aha!’ moment and connect their lives with their Gaelic ancestors…” Her own Gaelic roots go back on her mother’s side to Angus, “an Saor Mór” (‘the big carpenter’) of North Uist who settled in C.B. County in 1826; and to Donald “Tailor” Macdonald, son of Norman who came from Lewis to Loch Lomond in 1802 or 3. She attributes much of the museum’s success to “moving to first person animation, having more Gaelic spoken on site, having handson experiences for visitors so they are part of the story, and using modern technology to share our stories with the wider world…”
Katherine Macleod has been the Learning and Media Specialist since 2008, combining skills acquired at St. FXU’S Celtic Studies department with those from her museum studies in Ottawa. Her work entails such things as interpretation, social media posts, program planning; and she delights in continually learning more of the life, songs and stories of Gaelic ancestors. I was privileged to know her grandparents, native speakers William and Sadie Macleod of Glace Bay; as Katherine acknowledges, “A little piece of me knows how proud my grandparents would have been”.
Born in the Boothbay Harbour region of Maine, as a boy Jim Watson knew his father’s parents were from the Maritimes. Later in life, visiting the Western Isles of Scotland, and Connemara, Ireland, he was attracted to the Gaelic way of life. Then, in the 1970s, working side by side with them in the woods of Cape Breton, he had the immense benefit of learning directly from Inverness County folk such as Collie Macintosh, Valley Mills, and Johnny Williams, Melford.
As Manager of Interpretation at the Village since 1984, he speaks with some pride of the Village’s programs: Stòras a’ Bhaile, the folklore school held there each summer altogether in Gaelic; An Drochaid Eadarainn, the website that shares Nova Scotia Gaelic tradition through the medium of Gaelic; and the village’s annual newsletter, An Rubha, from which the reader will learn much of the oral tradition of the Nova Scotia Gael.
In November 2016, in Scotland, Jim Watson was given the Best Contribution Award in the Bbc-sponsored ceremony that recognizes work to promote Gaelic culture around the world; in Jim’s case, “for his efforts to maintain, grow and preserve the Gaelic heritage”. He was nominated by Canadian Dr. Rob Dunbar, Chair of Celtic Languages, Literatures, History and Antiquities at Edinburgh University. For all his work on behalf of Gaelic, Jim was a worthy recipient. He and his colleagues at the “only living history museum for Gàidhlig language and heritage in North America” --right here in Victoria County--deserve our thankful praise.