The Good Gaelic, The Old Gaelic She Loves – Anna MacDonald MacKinnon

Seldom does one come across a newspaper article that so poignantly touches as many of the critical elements related to the struggle of the Celtic tongue. The past, present and future of Nova Scotia Scots Gaelic are in sharp focus in an article by Francis Campbell in the Halifax “Chronicle Herald” under the headline “Inverness Area Elder Prefers ‘Taste’ of a Chat in Gaelic”.

Eighty years ago, Anna MacDonald was born into a family of Scots Gaelic speakers residing in the village of Sight Point on Cape Breton’s west coast in the Gaelic language heartland.  In her life time she has seen the approaching demise of the only language she knew as a child.  Because of the remote location and sparse population of this rugged ocean side hilltop, the oppressive presence of the Nova Scotia Provincial policies against Gaelic medium education were not a factor in the one room school where she received her primary education. “There was nothing in Sight Point but Gaelic.  That’s all you heard. You could talk all the Gaelic you wanted at the Sight Point School.  The teachers had it.”

Mackinnon has been an observer to the gradual erosian of Gaelic due to demographic change and the failure of senior Gaelic speaking family members to transfer the tongue to the children in a changing world increasingly dominated by English speakers.  From the article we have the following:  “I could kick everyone’s ass”, Mackinnon said of the multitudes who squandered the opportunity to learn Gaelic from their parents and grandparents. “You had to learn it or you didn’t know  what was going on in your life.” she said, alluding to the penchant of bilingual parents in the past for carrying on  English conversations, but switching to Gaelic  when they came to off colour story punch lines or difficult subject matter they didn’t want to share with children.

I near wept reading this, I know this from my own family, farther south and it was the Gaelic dialect of Donegal in question, but it was the same. I heard Gaelic as an infant, but it is my mother who gazes into the distance as she remembers kitchen talk in Gaelic amongst the elderly immigrants who spoke to the children in English. She puzzling over what was being said about a family member when a name would come up.  They wanted her to be American, speak American and leave Gaelic behind. I could kick their asses, God rest them all.  They meant well, but they squandered a treasure.

Mrs. MacKinnon now finds herself in demand as a Gaelic speaking Icon, a Sage, a Teacher who is increasingly called upon to transfer her Gaelic riches to the growing number of young Nova Scotian’s determined to keep their culture alive. Again, from the article: MacKinnon recognises the effort to revamp Gaelic but says the language taught in schools and espoused by the younger speakers falls well short of the old Gaelic she loves. “The pronunciation of a lot of words is cut short”, she said.  “And a lot of the double negatives and nuances of the old Gaelic have been altered in some kind of effort to sanitize the language.  MacKinnon said she’s been to Gaelic classes where she’s been asked for proper pronunciations.  “Then, they’d pronounce it different.  What the hell did you ask me for? ”

 It is widely accepted that at the high point of Nova Scotia’s Gaelic culture that there were approximately 100,000 Gaelic speakers (some estimates approach twice this number),  residing in the Canadian Maritime with Cape Breton Island as the linguistic stronghold.  Cape Breton Island is today home to world’s only Gaelic speaking population outside of Europe. The 2011 Canadian census reported 1,300 Gaelic speakers, with an additional 2,000 enrolled in Gaelic language programs around the province. The Celtic tongue of Nova Scotia is experiencing a remarkable comeback and the credit in large part can be attributed to the role being played by people like Anna MacDonald MacKinnon.

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