Nova Scotia Gaelic Culture

So yeah. That’s a pretty daunting title for a blog post, eh?  I mean, that could very easily be the title of a dissertation, or two, or five.  And I’m about to tackle it in a more digestable blog format, so… eep!  Also, keep in mind that I’m kind of an outsider, but that means I’m familiar with what outsiders think of Gaelic culture (this is very valuable knowledge to be aware of).  And maybe I haven’t spent a lot of time on the inside yet, but I’m going to go out on a flimsy limb and try to describe my own personal observations and instincts.  You are, of course, most welcome, and even encouraged, to selectively agree and/or disagree at your leisure.  Here goes:

First, a few assertions:

1. Gaelic culture is not the same thing as Celtic culture.
I think there is a tendency to use the words Gaelic and Celtic interchangeably, and yes, there is definitely overlap between the two, but they’re not identical.  To me, Celtic culture is kind of an umbrella for many different cultures, including Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Gaelic, and cetera.  You see what I did there, listing Gaelic as it’s own culture? (so sneaky…)  Well, that’s because:

2. Gaelic culture is not the same thing as Scottish culture.
Again, I have heard people use the terms Gaelic and Scottish interchangeably.  For one thing, Scottish culture itself is made up of at least a couple of different groups (highlanders and lowlanders, for example).  In my experience, a lot of people seem to think that Scottish culture is all about kilts and bagpipes and highland games, but that’s really probably no more true than Canadian culture being about hockey and beer and mounted police who ride moose and have maple syrup flowing in their veins (okay, I will admit to slight exaggeration there).  I’m also under the impression that most of the stereotypical Scottish “culture” of today became popular in Scotland after the Gaelic people came to Nova Scotia, but history has never been my strongest area.  Anyway, the point is that there are aspects to Gaelic culture that aren’t present in Scottish culture, and aspects of Scottish culture that aren’t found in Gaelic culture. Therefore:

3. Gaelic has it’s own unique culture, and I’m going to go just a little bit further and say:

3.14* The Gaelic cultures of Nova Scotia, Scotland, Ireland, and indeed any other Gaelic regions of the world, each have their own unique culture. 
Of course, all the Gaelic cultures will have a lot of overlap, and they are very much connected with each other (obviously), but I think it’s fair to distinguish them from each other at least a little bit, because they *are* different, even though they may be built on the same foundation.  I can’t speak much for the other Gaelic cultures, but here’s the question I want to attempt to answer for you: 

What is Nova Scotia Gaelic culture? 

It seems to me that Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia is a culture of community, family, and the home. (As opposed to, say, a culture based on careers, money, status, power, wealth, or commerce – but I’m sure that doesn’t sound familiar to anyone, hmm?)  And at the heart of Nova Scotia Gaelic culture are a few key elements that contribute to the sense of community:

> Language: For me, this is where it all starts. Language is the common thread that brings together the community; the foundation upon which other cultural activities and traditions are built.  Language is essentially the community’s identity, and all the other aspects and activities of the culture add to that identity.  The wonderful thing about adopting language as a marker of identity is that it goes above any geographical or political boundaries; the community isn’t limited to a particular town or region. 

> Stories: By which I don’t mean the kind of popular fictional fairy tale stories that everyone knows in every language.  The stories in Nova Scotia Gaelic culture are stories of local history and people, stories of the community that get passed down from generation to generation, and most of them are not written down in books.  These stories hold the collective wisdom and knowledge of the community going back several generations, while also usually being humourous or otherwise entertaining.  The entertaining stories are the ones that stick around longest.

> Poetry & Song:  Gaelic is a language that lends itself very well to poetry and song.  The rhythms and melodies, along with the different styles of songs are truly unique to the language.  Something that amazes me is that Gaelic songs often need no instruments to accompany them.  The songs aren’t just a form of entertainment and art – they were pretty much used as tools to help with work, at least back when work was centred in the home.  Imagine what work would be like now if you could bring your friends and neighbours in and sing through your eight hour shift!

> Music & Dance:  Music is HUGE in Gaelic culture.  I don’t even know how to describe it.  In the Gaelic culture, the soundtrack to your life is live music, pretty much whenever you want it.  Seriously.  Music is probably the most enduring aspect of the culture, since it can be enjoyed by anyone, regardless of whether they know the language.  And where there is music, there is usually dance as well.  But as important and universal as music and dance are, I don’t think anyone wants to see the vast depth and variety of the Gaelic culture represented by only those elements.  They are a huge part of the culture, but there are so many other aspects that go along with the music too.

> Community:  All of these elements – language, stories, poetry, song, music, dance – they all come together to create a fundamental sense of community.  People come together to share their stories, enjoy their music, and dance the night away.  Sharing those experiences keeps the community spirit going, and makes it stronger – much stronger than other communities I’ve been a part of.   The history continues to be passed on to young generations, as well as being documented and preserved in print and archives.  And keeping that sense of community going is creating even more history for the Gaelic culture of Nova Scotia.


So, how was that? Pretty general, and not much detail, I know, but I hope it gives a basic impression of things… and that it’s easier to read than several volumes of a thesis…


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Filed under Culture, Gaelic

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