“Cùm Gàidhlig Beò”- Keep Gaelic alive

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.

I put this video together for a class of non-specialists.

The Scots in Cape Breton

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.


Legacy and nostalgia

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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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.

[1] Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia (2001), 38. [2] Boym, 341

Personal archives


Peter MacLean, Maxie MacNeil and Rod. C. MacNeil sing songs for me at the Grand Narrows B&B, 2004.

As I mentioned, I’m writing an article about my late friend Peter MacLean‘s tape collection.  Although his collection certainly is special, all of my musical friends in Cape Breton have their own pile of audio treasures, and I’ve been musing on their significance.

I, too, have a personal archive of Gaelic singing, with over seventy tapes amassed since 1995 when I began to first began to visit Cape Breton.  These came to me in various ways: in some cases, I sought out a recording of a song I wanted to sing, either from archives or from the equally voluminous tape collection of my fellow Gaelic enthusiasts. In other cases, a friend gave me a tape thinking I might like to learn one of the songs on it. In 1998 I began to record at milling frolics and Gaelic song workshops, and then, as I got to know Gaelic singers, I began to visit them at home and ask them to sing specific songs for me, or songs of their choosing. In 2003, the year in which I lived in Cape Breton for seven months, I recorded with the most intensity, filming video interviews and performances for a future documentary. Like Peter’s collection, these tapes now provide me with a sort of virtual Gaelic community during the months between visits to Cape Breton, and support my memory of millings, ceilidhs and visits.

In his essay, “Unpacking my Library”, Walter Benjamin writes of the “spring tide of memories which surges toward any collector as he contemplates his possessions. Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories”.[1] He is referring to private book collections, but his observations on their embedded meaning resonates with my experience of the collections shown to me by my friends in Cape Breton. These collections include printed volumes and recordings but also scrapbooks and notebooks, photographs, and other souvenirs. There are several public archives in the province, which are increasingly important as the number of Gaelic native speakers declines.[2] The collections I have seen in private homes, however, are perhaps even more vital. In this essay, Benjamin suggests why this might be so. He writes,

One thing should be noted: the phenomenon of collecting loses its meaning as it loses its personal owner. Even though public collections may be less objectionable socially and more useful academically than private collections, the objects get their due only in the latter.[3]

As Benjamin indicates, collected objects are most meaningful when viewed as part of a social process; his books are meaningful not just for their content, but also because of the act of their collection. Why did they choose to keep these tapes? Which ones are most beloved, most played, and which are shoved to the back of the shelf?

[1] Walter Benjamin: “Unpacking my Library: A Talk about Book Collecting”, in Illuminations, ed., Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 60.[2] This is discussed in greater detail in my dissertation, Chapter 4, Song and the Archive.  [3] Benjamin, 67.