I was recently in Prince Edward County, wine-tasting and relaxing. It was lovely, but I was most intrigued by the many, weathered graveyards that I passed on the side roads. Who were these people and where did they and their culture go?
Prince Edward County is a vibrant hub of agriculture, overflowing with produce and home to acclaimed vineyards and cheesemakers. But there’s little evidence of the Scottish or Irish communities that must once have thrived there. Carleys, Bairds, Simmonds and Farrells once lived here, and likely still do, but I didn’t see any listings for Irish or Scottish ceilidhs or dances. Prince Edward County’s culture seems to have moved on, to emphasize different things. Perhaps its proximity to Ottawa and Toronto and Montreal, or its location along the St Lawrence Seaway and the CN train lines, contributed to its cultural assimilation.
Clearly, I need to do more research to reach any conclusion. But it does remind me that fostering Gaelic language and musical culture in cape Breton is as much about fostering community as it is about workshops and books. This is something that, Taing do Dhìa, promoters of Gaelic in Cape Breton already know, and it’s something that other minority cultural groups in Ontario must recognize.
I LOVE archives, and I’ve always used them to learn Gaelic songs and familiarize myself with the repertoire. But recently, I’ve been taking a critical look at the use of archival recordings as a cornerstone of today’s singing practice- in the way they represent, contextualize, and embody Gaelic song in Cape Breton.
In contemporary Cape Breton, Gaelic singers turn to recording archives as cultural storehouses, learning tools and representations of the Gaelic song canon. They invest archives with authoritative power and enter into active dialogue with their documents. But philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote that archives are repositories of traces, evidence of past individual experiences rather than monuments representing collective memory. Archives are indeed potentially static manifestations of cultural practices; they represent a body of tradition that appears cohesive to those outside the community but which might reflect a limited aspect of the more amorphous and dynamic living canon, for archives do not easily reveal the kaleidoscope of individual styles and repertoires one experiences firsthand.
As an ethnomusicologist who got into scholarship as a singer first, I’ve learned reluctantly to join my singing friends in Cape Breton in placing my trust in first-hand experience, turning to Archives as a mnemonic device or memory prompt, or a clue to a mystery I must keep working to solve.
(to be continued..)
These days Gaelic language in Nova Scotia is gaining strength again, and there are many exciting and encouraging developments in Gaelic language education and development. But for many decades during the early 20th century, Gaelic declined significantly.
Peter MacLean was born in 1913 and grew up in the Gaelic language, but also lived through many of its changes. Jeff MacDonald of my own generation has strong feelings about why it is important to keep Gaelic alive.
More info on this soon: I’ll be teaching a new course at University of Toronto’s Celtic Studies (St. Michael’s College)
SMC377H1F : The Scots in Cape Breton An examination of the ways in which Scottish immigrants shaped the culture of Cape Breton and by extension Canada, with particular reference to language, literature, music and folklore.
I can’t wait to share my passion for these people and their culture with a small group of interested students, and I’m itching to get started on planning the course.
I just received my copy of the Last Will and Testament of Peter MacLean. He left me books ― two of the ones we used to pore over together. I am touched by this last gesture from him, which seems in keeping with his sharing of personal artefacts and souvenirs on our many visits, but in receiving these physical objects that I will doubtless treasure I am also prompted to think about the role that nostalgia plays in the practice of Gaelic singing.
Svetlana Boym writes that nostalgic longing is “defined by loss of the original object of desire, and by its spatial and temporal displacement.” Nostalgia, however, is not sentimentality, or need not be, and how it inspires us to reflect and act is quite different. Boym writes that the exiled state which gives rise to nostalgia is intrinsically outward, and so the exiled “cannot be retroactive (i.e., merely nostalgic); he has to be reflective, flexible toward himself and others.” This attitude seems especially apt for Gaelic singers today (or any time, perhaps?). We cannot simply reproduce the practice of those who precede us, not only because it is impractical but also because it is unproductive.
Peter MacLean asked that we be ‘faithful to the song’ and its bard’s wishes, and to sing it in a way that is inspired by great singers we have heard. He left us his books, and he left behind recordings, and those of us who knew him will carry his words and uphold his standards. We must also, however, consider in which outward direction we will carry his legacy, and how his voice (and those of other friends and culture-bearers) might be best presented and shared with future singers and listeners.
 Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), 38.  Boym, 341