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Canadian Gaelic (Gaelic: , locally just Gaelic or The Gaelic) is the dialect of Scots Gaelic that has been spoken continuously for more than 200 years on Cape Breton Islandmarker and in isolated enclaves on the Nova Scotiamarker mainland. To a lesser extent the language is also spoken on nearby Prince Edward Islandmarker, Glengarry Countymarker in present-day Ontariomarker and by emigrant Gaels living in major Canadianmarker cities such as Torontomarker. At its peak in the mid-19th century, Gaelic, considered together with the closely-related Irish language, was the third most spoken language in Canadamarker after English and French. The language has sharply declined since that period, however, and is now nearly extinct. Recently, efforts have been made to revitalise the language.


Early speakers

In 1621 King James VI of Scotland allowed privateer William Alexander to establish the first Scottish colony overseas. The group of Highlanders — all of whom were Gaelic-speaking — settled at what is presently known as Port Royalmarker, on the western shore of Nova Scotia. Within a year the colony had failed. Subsequent attempts to relaunch it were cancelled when in 1631 the Treaty of Saint-Germain-en-Laye returned Nova Scotia to Frenchmarker rule.

Almost a half-century later, in 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company was given exclusive trading rights to all North American lands draining into Hudson Baymarker — about 3.9 million km2 (an area larger than India). Many of the traders were Orcadiansmarker and Scottish Highlanders, the latter of whom brought Gaelic to the interior. Those who intermarried with the local First Nations people passed on their language, with the effect that by the mid-1700s there existed a sizeable population of Métis traders with Scottish and aboriginal ancestry, and command of spoken Gaelic.


Cape Breton remained the property of Francemarker until 1758 (although mainland Nova Scotia had belonged to Britain since 1711) when Fortress Louisbourgmarker fell to the British, followed by the rest of New France in the ensuing Battle at the Plaines d’Abrahammarker. As a result of the conflict Highland regiments who fought for the Britishmarker secured a reputation for tenacity and combat prowess. In turn the countryside itself secured a reputation among the Highlanders for its size, beauty, and wealth of natural resources.

They would remember Canadamarker when in 1762 the earliest of the Fuadaich nan Gàidheal (Scottish Highland Clearances) forced many Gaelic families off their ancestral lands. The first ship loaded with Hebrideanmarker colonists arrived on “St.-John’s Island” (Prince Edward Islandmarker) in 1770, with later ships following in 1772, and 1774. In 1773 a ship named “The Hector” landed in Pictoumarker, Nova Scotia, with 169 settlers mostly originating from the Isle of Skyemarker. In 1784 the last barrier to Scottish settlement — a law restricting land-ownership on Cape Breton Islandmarker — was repealed, and soon both PEI and Nova Scotia were predominantly Gaelic-speaking. It is estimated more than 50,000 Gaelic settlers immigrated to Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island between 1815 and 1870.

With the end of the American War of Independence, immigrants newly arrived from Scotland would soon be joined by Loyalist emigrants escaping persecution from Americanmarker Partisans. These settlers arrived on a mass scale at the arable lands of British North America, with large numbers settling in Glengarry Countymarker in present-day Ontariomarker, and in the Eastern Townships of Quebecmarker.

Red River colony

In 1812 Lord Selkirk of Scotland obtained 300,000 km2 to build a colony at the forks of the Red Rivermarker, in what would become Manitobamarker. With the help of his employee and friend, Archibald McDonald, Selkirk sent over 70 Scottish settlers, many of whom spoke only Gaelic, and had them establish a small farming colony there. The settlement soon attracted local First Nations groups, resulting in an unprecedented interaction of Scottish (Lowland, Highland, and Orkneymarker), English, Cree, French, Ojibwe, Saulteaux, and Métis traditions all in close contact.

In the 1840s Toronto Reverend Dr John Black was sent to preach to the settlement, but "his lack of the Gaelic was at first a grievous disappointment" to parishioners. With continuing immigration the population of Scots colonists grew to more than 300, but by the 1860s the French-Métis outnumbered the Scots, and tensions between the two groups would prove a major factor in the ensuing Red River Rebellion.

The continuing association between the Selkirk colonists and surrounding First Nations groups evolved into a unique contact dialect. Used primarily by the Anglo- and Scots-Métis traders, the “Red River Dialect” or Bungee was a mixture of Gaelic and English with many terms borrowed from the local native languages. Whether the dialect was a trade pidgin or a fully developed mixed language is unknown. Today the Scots-Métis have largely been absorbed by the more dominant French-Métis culture, and the Bungee dialect is most likely extinct.

Rt Hon.
Dr Tòmas Raibeart Mac Aonghais.

Nineteenth century

By 1850 Gaelic was the third most-common mother tongue in British North America after English and French, and is believed to have been spoken by more than 200,000 British North Americans at that time. A large population who spoke the related Irish Gaelic immigrated to Scots Gaelic communities and to Irish settlements in Newfoundland. In PEI and Cape Bretonmarker there were large areas of Gaelic monolingualism, and communities of Gaelic-speakers had established themselves in northeastern Nova Scotiamarker (around Pictou and Antigonishmarker); in Glengarry, Stormontmarker, Greymarker, and Bruce Countiesmarker in Ontariomarker; in the Codroy Valley of Newfoundlandmarker; in Winnipegmarker, Manitobamarker; and Eastern Quebec.

At the time of Confederation in 1867 the most common mother-tongue among the Fathers of Confederation was Gaelic. In 1890, Tòmas Raibeart Mac Aonghais, an independent Senator from British Columbiamarker (born Lake Ainsliemarker, Cape Breton Islandmarker) tabled a bill entitled “An Act to Provide for the Use of Gaelic in Official Proceedings.” He cited the ten Scottishmarker and eight Irishmarker senators who spoke Gaelic, and thirty-two members of the House of Commons who spoke either Scots- or Irish Gaelic. The bill was defeated 42–7. Despite the widespread disregard by government on Gaelic issues, records exist of at least one criminal trial conducted entirely in Gaelic, c.1880–1900 in Baddeckmarker, and presided over by Chief Justice Seumas Mac Dhòmhnaill.

Linguistic features

The pronunciation of Canadian Gaelic has diverged in several ways from the standard Gaelic spoken in Scotland. Gaelic terms unique to Canada exist, though research on the exact number is deficient. The language has also had a considerable and well-known effect on Cape Breton English.


  • → 
The most common Canadian Gaelic shibboleth, where broad “ l ” is pronounced as “ w.” This form was well-known in Western Scotland where it was called the “glug Eigeach” (“Eigg cluck”), for its putative use among speakers from the Isle of Eiggmarker.

  • → 
When “ n ” occurs after a rounded vowel, speakers tend to pronounce it as “ m”.

  • → 
This form is limited mostly to the plural ending “-annan”, wherein the first ” n's ” are pronounced as ” w”.

  • → 
This change occurs frequently in many Scotland dialects when “ r ” is realised next to specific consonants; however such conditions are not necessary in Canadian Gaelic, where ” r ” is pronounced regardless of surrounding sounds.


  • feirmeireachd verb  to farm.

  • lodannoun  a velvet offering pouch for church.

  • mogannoun  moccassins.

  • pàirc-coillidh (or pàirce-choilleadh)  noun  a wooded clearing burnt for planting crops, literally "forest park".

  • sgeatadh verb to skate (on ice).

  • seant (pl. seantaichean) noun a cent.

  • smuglair noun a smuggler.

  • ponndadh verb beating (someone).
  • trì sgillinn phrasal noun a nickel. (literally “three pence”).

  • sia sgillinn phrasal noun a dime. (literally “six pence”).

  • tastan phrasal noun twenty cents. (literally “a shilling”).

  • dà thastan agus sia sgillinn phrasal noun fifty cents. (literally “two shillings and six pence”).

  • còig tastan phrasal noun a dollar. (literally “five shillings”).

  • stòr noun a shop (store).

  • taigh-obrach noun workhouse (penitentiary).

  • bangaid noun a banquet.

Gaelic in Nova Scotia English

  • boomalernoun  a boor, oaf, bungler.

  • sgudalnoun  garbage (sgudal).

  • skiffnoun  a deep blanket of snow covering the ground. (from sguabach or sgiobhag ).

Arts and culture

Bilingual sign, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

A.W.R. MacKenzie founded the Nova Scotia Gaelic College at St Ann’smarker in 1939. St Francis Xavier Universitymarker in Antigonish, Nova Scotiamarker has a Celtic Studies department with Gaelic-speaking faculty members, and is the only such department outside Scotlandmarker to offer four full years of Scottish Gaelic instruction. Eòin Baoideach of Antigonish published the monthly Gaelic magazine An Cuairtear Òg Gaelach (“The Gaelic Tourist”) around 1851. The world's longest-running Gaelic periodical Mac Talla (Echo), was printed by Eòin G. Mac Fhionghain for eleven years between 1892 and 1904, in Sydneymarker, NSmarker. Eòin and Seòras Mac Shuail, believed to be the world’s only black goidelophones (a person whose mother-tongue is Gaelic), were born in Cape Breton and in adulthood became friends with Rudyard Kipling, who in 1896 wrote Captains Courageous, which featured an isolated Gaelic-speaking African-Canadian cook originally from Cape Breton.

Many English-speaking artists of Canadian Gaelic heritage have featured Canadian Gaelic in their works, among them Alistair MacLeod (No Great Mischief ), Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on your Knees ), and D.R. MacDonald (Cape Breton Road ). Gaelic singer Mary Jane Lamond has released several albums in the language, including the 1997 hit “Horo Ghoid thu Nighean”, (“Jenny Dang the Weaver”). Cape Breton fiddling is a unique tradition of gaelic and acadian styles, known in fiddling circles worldwide.

Several Canadian schools use the 'Gael' as a mascot, the most prominent being Queen's Universitymarker in Kingstonmarker, Ontariomarker. The school cheer of Queen's Universitymarker is “Oilthigh na Banrighinn a' Bhanrighinn gu bràth!” (“The College of the Queen forever!”), and is traditionally sung after scoring a touchdown in football matches. The university’s team is nicknamed the Golden Gaels.

The Gaelic character of Nova Scotia has influenced that province’s industry and traditions. “Glen Breton Rare” is the world’s only single malt whisky made outside of Scotland, in Cape Breton. Gaelic settlers in Windsor, Nova Scotiamarker adapted the popular Gaelic sport shinty (shinny) to be played on ice wearing skates, the precursor to modern ice hockey .

The first Gaelic language film to be made in North America, Faire Chaluim Mhic Leòid (“The Wake of Calum MacLeod”) is a six-minute short filmed in Cape Breton.

Reasons for decline

Despite the long history of Gaelic in Canada, the fluent population started to decline after 1850. This drop was a result of prejudice (both from outside, and from within the Gaelic community itself), aggressive dissuasion in school and government, and the perceived prestige of English.

Gaelic has faced widespread prejudice in Great Britainmarker for generations, and those feelings were easily transposed to British North America. In 1868 the Scottish-American Journal mockingly reported that "...the preliminary indispensables for acquiring Gaelic are: swallowing a neat assortment of nutmeal-graters, catching a chronic bronchitis, having one nostril hermetically sealed up, and submitting to a dislocation of the jaw."

That Gaelic had not received official status in its homelandmarker made it easier for Canadian legislators to disregard the concerns of domestic speakers. Legislators questioned why "privileges should be asked for Highland Scotchmen in [the Canadian Parliament] that are not asked for in their own country?”.  Politicians who themselves spoke the language held opinions that would today be considered misinformed; Lunenburgmarker Senator Henry A.N. Kaulbach, in response to Tòmas Mac Aonghais's Gaelic bill, described the language as only “well suited to poetry and fairy tales.” The belief that certain languages had inherent strengths and weaknesses was typical in the 19th century, but has been wholly refuted by modern linguistics.

Around 1880 Am Bàrd Mac Dhiarmaid from The North Shoremarker, wrote An Té a Chaill a' Ghàidhlig ( The Woman who Lost her Gaelic ), a humorous song recounting the growing phenomenon of Gaels shunning their mother-tongue.

Chuir mi fàilte orr’ gu càirdeil:

“Dé mar a tha thu, seann leannan?”

Gun do shìn mi mo làmh dhith,

‘s thug mi dha dhe na crathadh.


Fhreagar ise gu nàimdheil:

“You're a Scotchman I reckon.

I don't know your Gaelic,

Perhaps you are from Cape Breton”.

I welcomed her with affection:

”How are you old sweetheart?”

I held out my hand,

But she ignored it.


She answered haughtily:

“You’re a Scotchman I reckon.

I don't know your Gaelic,

Perhaps you are from Cape Breton”.

With the outbreak of World War II the Canadian government attempted to prevent the use of Gaelic on public telecommunications systems. In Prince Edward Islandmarker and Cape Bretonmarker where the Gaelic language was strongest, it was actively discouraged in schools with corporal punishment. Children were beaten with the maide-crochaidh (hanging stick) if caught speaking Gaelic.

Job opportunities for monolingual Gaels were few and restricted to the dwindling Gaelic-communities, compelling most into the mines or the fishery. Many saw English fluency as the key to success, and for the first time in Canadian history Gaelic-speaking parents were teaching their children to speak English en masse. The sudden stop of the Gaelic tradition-bearing bho ghlùin gu glùin ("from knee to knee"), caused by shame and prejudice, was the immediate cause of the drastic decline in Gaelic fluency in the Twentieth century.

Ultimately the population dropped from a peak of 200,000 in 1850, to 80,000 in 1900, to 30,000 in 1930 and 500–1,000 today. There are no longer entire communities of Canadian Gaelic-speakers, although traces of the language and pockets of speakers are relatively commonplace on Cape Bretonmarker, and especially in traditional strongholds like Christmas Island, The North Shoremarker, and Baddeckmarker.

Outlook and development

The last fluent Gaelic-speaker in Ontario, descended from the original settlers of Glengarry Countymarker, died in 2001.

In 2006 the second annual Halifax Celtic Fèis was cancelled due to the organisers’ inability to “provide the attending public with a first rate festival,” though plans are underway for future events. In 2005 the homepage for the popular Canadian Gaelic magazine "Am Braighe" went offline, and the magazine itself has ceased publication.

The oft-quoted statistic that "Scots Gaelic is spoken by more people in Cape Breton than in Scotland" is false. As of 2001 the official UK estimation is 58,652 Gaelic speakers; a figure possibly fifty times larger than the most optimistic Canadian statistic. Despite this, in the past fifteen years interest in the language has grown considerably, in parallel to a similar build on the opposite side of the Atlanticmarker. Although not on the scale of the Scotlandmarker revival (for example there are no Canadian Gaelic-language immersion schools), several government initiatives have been undertaken to assess the current state of the language and language-community.

A Gaelic Economic-impact Study, completed in 2002, estimates that Gaelic generates over $23.5 million annually in direct revenue in the Province with nearly 380,000 people attending, an estimated 2,070 Gaelic events annually. This study, referred to the Kennedy Report and the Gaelic Preservation Strategy, adopted by Comhairle na Gàidhlig, are the two most significant documents on the subject produced thus far. They were commissioned via a cooperative effort involving the Government of Nova Scotia and the Nova Scotia Gaelic Community and call for developing the community, strengthening education, legislating road signs and publications, and building ties between the Gaelic community and other Nova Scotia “heritage language” communities (Mi'kmaq and Acadian French). Increased ties were called for between Nova Scotia and Scotlandmarker, and the first such agreement, the Memorandum of Understanding, was signed in 2002.

In response to organised community efforts of recent years, the Government of Nova Scotia created the Oifis Iomairtean na Gàidhlig (Office of Gaelic Affairs) Established in December 2006, the mission of the Office of Gaelic Affairs is to work with Nova Scotians in the renewal of Gaelic language and culture in the Province.

Sponsored by dozens of Gaelic organizations and societies, since fall 2004, ongoing Gaelic language adult immersion classes involving hundreds of individuals are held in over a dozen communities in the province. These immersion programs focus on learning language through activity, props and repetition. Reading, writing and grammar are introduced after the student has had a minimum amount of exposure to hearing and speaking Gaelic through everyday contextualized activities. A recently established organization, FIOS (Forfhais, Innleachd, Oideachas agus Seirbhisean) focuses on the criteria and development of language learning programs at the community level using immersion methodologies. The grouping of immersion methodologies and the Gaelic arts in the immersion environment is referred to in Nova Scotia as Gàidhlig aig Baile.

In the spring of 2007, The Office of Gaelic Affairs in conjunction with Highland Council recruited a fluent Gaelic-speaker from the Scottish Gàidhealtachd to live and work in Cape Breton and assist with ongoing language learning activities.

In 2006, the Atlantic Gaelic Academy,, was established, and it uses new proven teaching methods and new technology to teach the Gaelic language. The Academy conducts in-person classes at various locations, and live distance learning classes, throughout North America. Classes are conducted at Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels by qualified instructors, and the program utilizes texts and materials with CDs and sound files by fluent Gaelic speakers. The Academy now has the largest number of Gaelic students of any organization in North America.

Today over a dozen public schools offer Gaelic courses, in addition to advanced programmes conducted at Cape Bretonmarker, St Francis Xavier and Saint Mary's Universities. Gaelic courses at public schools are increasingly popular. The Nova Scotia Highland Village offers a bilingual interpretation site, presenting bi-lingual interpretation for visitors and offers programs for the local community members. The Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Craftsmarker in St. Ann’s program offering includes Gaelic summer classes.

Microsoft has recently announced that Windows Vista will be available in Scottish Gaelic, a development partially funded by the Scottish Bòrd na Gàidhlig and planned for release in September 2007.

Scottish Gaelic place names in Canada

Names in Cape Breton Island (Eilean Cheap Breatainn)

Names in mainland Nova Scotia (Tìr Mór na h-Albann Nuaidh)

Elsewhere in Canada

See also

Links for Learners
  1. Introductory Lessons - BBC - Beag air Bheag
  2. Pronunciation & Grammar - A Bit of Grammar
  3. Complete Lessons - Gàidhlig Learner's Resource
  4. Dictionary - Stòr-dàta Briathrachais Gàidhlig
  5. Advanced Exercises - Litir do Luchd-Ionnsachaidh

Notes and references



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