GAELIC SPEAKERS IN CAPE BRETON

July 9, 2009

Book – by C.W. Vernon: Cape Breton, Canada
In a chapter of this book, MacKinnon, at the beginning of the Twentieth Century describes how widespread the Gaelic language was in Cape Breton.

“Areas of the island are as Gaelic in speech as anywhere in Gaelic Scotland. . . To illustrate the extent to which Cape Breton is Gaelic speaking, reference can be brought to the quantity of places where Gaelic is used and preached as an expression of religious faith. The Gaels, almost without exception, adhere to two denominations: the Presbyterian Church and the Catholic Church. Of 39 Presbyterian churches and places of worship, Gaelic is preached in all but six. As this is written, there are 35 ministers in charge, 29 of whom deliver sermons in Gaelic. Out of 37 Catholic parishes, only six are without Gaelic and of 41 priests there are only 10 who do not speak Gaelic. If we take parliamentary representation we find that four out of five representatives in federal politics are Gaelic speakers and five out of eight in the provincial parliament of Nova Scotia. And among our councillors, of which there are 78 in the four counties – despite complaints there are not enough of them- 58 are Gaels who speak Gaelic. And it should not be forgotten that in Cape Breton’s capital city, Sydney, is the one Gaelic newspaper in the world.

GAELIC SPEAKERS IN CB

Nearly twenty-five thousand Gaelic-speaking Scots immigrated to Cape Breton and the Eastern part of Nova Scotia between the years 1775 – 1850

The early settlers following family and friends to the New World settled in the same areas as those who went before them. Those from the Lochaber settled in Mabou. Those from the Isle of Harris as well as those from Lewis settled in the North Shore area of Cape Breton and the people from Barra settled in Iona and Christmas Island. This structure of settlement helped the settlers maintain their dialects, dance, music and song traditions. That is why since the earliest immigration Scots have been successful in maintained the old traditions and customs some of which have been lost in Scotland.

By 1880 the Gaelic speaking population had grown to 85,000. Most being descendants from the first settlers. By the late 1800’s there were many strong Gaelic communities established on the Island.

It is a general consensus that the number of Gaelic speakers decline on an average of 50% every ten years as the older generation dies. The number of Gaelic speakers had dropped to sixty-thousand by the year 1921.

I’m not sure how many Gaelic speakers there are now on the Island but some figures read as low as eight hundred. Nonetheless, the language seems to be alive and well in the form of Gaelic song.

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