The Gaelic College at St. Ann's

by Tom Doran

In 1773, the first ship carrying Gaelic settlers reached Nova Scotia. They were leaving behind cultural suppression and a change in economics and social order in Scotland that would come to be known as the Highland Clearances. In Gaelic it is called Fuadach nan Gàidheal; the eviction of the Gaels.

While the Highland Clearances is most certainly an important subject, this article can not hope to cover that subject here (nor is it meant to). In short however, the changing economic and cultural climate of the Highlands of Scotland, forever changed by the outcome of the rebellion now known as the '45, put the changes that were occurring naturally in Scotland on a very fast track, culminating in the tragic events we know as the Clearances. Tartan material and Highland clothing was banned - the English language was fostered and promoted over Gaelic; the Clan system broken forever in any realistic day-to-day way, and the people were adrift. Many clan chiefs and other land owners soon found that the export of wool to British overseas possessions brought a very pretty penny. The only "problem" - people. They were in the way. Too many people, too much poverty, and not enough land for sheep. So, the people were evicted from their homes wholesale - sometimes burned out, often threatened. While villages and communities were destroyed to make way for sheep. Some chose to leave "of their own accord", led on by some well-meaning folks to help bring them out of their misery and indeed out of Scotland altogether.

Many of the disposed peoples travelled to the new world, where Highland Scots settled in Canada in large numbers (already a magnet for them), with many settling on Nova Scotia. They brought with them their language, songs, music and dance styles, stories and traditions - all of which have long been important parts of Gaelic society.

In Nova Scotia’s history, there had been continued efforts and social pressures to assimilate the Scottish-Gaels, the Acadians, the Mi’kmaq and other minority groups into English culture. This led to a steep decline in the number of Gaelic speakers found in the province, with currently less than 500 native speakers left today. However, many in the province have felt called to learn the language, with classes underway in many communities, Gaelic taught in schools and universities, and a provincial government Office of Gaelic Affairs.

Gaelic culture is still alive and well in Nova Scotia, and is most famously and perhaps most importantly kept alive at Colaisde na Gàidhlig. The Gaelic College was founded in St. Ann’s, Nova Scotia, in 1938, by people from the local community who wanted to create a memorial for the Gaelic speaking pioneers of Cape Breton. Efforts were spearheaded by Angus William Rugg MacKenzie, the minister at the Knox Presbyterian Church in nearby Baddeck. That year, the Cape Breton Island Gaelic Foundation began the work of raising funds to establish the Gaelic College. A committee toured the United States and Canada, raising money through $5 subscriptions.

 The first building at the site on the Bay of St. Ann’s was a log cabin raised in 1939. Classes in the early years included Gaelic language, Gaelic grammar, Gaelic song, bag-piping, the history of the Gaelic in Scotland, Nova Scotia and in the rest of North America, as well as social economics. Classes in weaving, folklore and highland dancing were soon added.

 From its humble beginnings, this unique institution has expanded and gained an international reputation for its contribution to the maintenance and preservation of the language and culture. The only institution of its kind in North America, students of all ages and ability travel there from around the world to study.

To this day, Colaisde na Gàidhlig is first and foremost an educational institution, now offering year-round programming in the culture, music, language, crafts, customs, and traditions of the immigrants from the Highlands of Scotland. Some of the courses today include Cape Breton fiddle, piano, guitar, step-dancing, and piping, highland dancing, weaving - and of course the Scots-Gaelic language.

In short, Scottish Gaelic is a branch of the Celtic language family, which also includes Irish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. As the central component of the Gaelic culture, the language’s influence is clear in traditional music and dance. The tunes played on the fiddle are a clear reflection of the sounds of the language, and the dance is performed in such a manner as to compliment the rhythms of the music and language.

The first written traces of the language that would develop into Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic are found carved on stones in the ogham script. They date from the 4th to 6th centuries CE. In the 6th century, Gaelic speakers in Ireland began using the Latin script. They also formed Dál Riata, a kingdom that included parts of Ulster and the western coast of Scotland. The Gaelic language spread across much of the territory that would become Scotland, and began to diverge from its Irish counterpart - and is now considered a separate language.

And though there have been many concerted efforts to destroy the culture and language, coupled with the natural changes and developments that occur over time, up from the past and into the modern world, there are still places and people who hold on to the ancient things that made them what they were and have now become.

So, in effect the disposed of Highland Scotland have formed an enclave outside of their homeland - and in Nova Scotia that enclave exists to our present day - preserving, expanding and promoting a culture that at one point seemed surely doomed.

Much thanks to the fine folks at the Gaelic College for the suggestion for, and allowing us to use portions of their printed and promotional material for use in this article.



Highland Regiments - Pamphlet

In this pamphlet the author traces the Gael's military story, with some of it's highlights and tragedies, to the ultimate decline of the Regiments as uniquely Highland units.

The pamphlet “Highland Regiments” was written by Iain Cameron Taylor with cover and illustrations by Gordon Harvey © 1971. It was printed by John G. Eccles, Inverness, and was published by An Comunn Gàidhealach with whose kind permission we publish it here.

These pamphlets have been scanned and therefore are large image files.

Click each link to read one page at a time


A List of Resources for Highland Regiments

This is a short list of information about the Highland Regiments for your edification and amusement.

Quick Guide to the Scottish Regiments

The Black Watch Castle & Museum

The heritage and tradition of Scottish Regiments

The Scottish Highland Regiments

Regimental Tartans

The Highland Regiments -

Highland Regiment in Mesopotamia - Project Gutenberg

Highland Regiments in American Revolution