"An rud a nithear gu math, chithear a bhuil."
Gaelic and St FX
Scottish Gaelic emigrants and their descendents were settled throughout parts of the seven counties of north-eastern Nova Scotia which constituted the Roman Catholic Diocese of Antigonish. Gaelic was the majority language in this area during most of the nineteenth century; of a population of nearly 105,000 in 1871, some 67% were Gaelic-speakers.
Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon founded Saint Francis Xavier in 1853. Although MacKinnon was the son of two Gaelic-speaking immigrants, he made no place for Gaelic at the institution: such were the stigmas and disadvantages working against Gaelic that assimilation into English-speaking society was typically seen as the priority. It took some time for Gaels to formulate a response to the neglect of their language and culture in the institutions of higher learning in both Scotland and abroad, but efforts gained strength in the late 1800s, especially after the establishment of the first Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh in 1882.
Despite the lack of support for Gaelic in the early decades of St FX, many Nova Scotians who came to the university to study or work spoke Gaelic as their mother tongue. As late as 1937, John Lorne Campbell observed that nearly half of the staff were Gaelic speakers. It was a matter of mustering the will to do something with it.
See James Cameron, 'The University Contribution to Canadian Multiculturalism: A Case Study of St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia', RNSHS Journal.
Development of Celtic Studies at St FX
Gaelic was first taught at St FX in 1891 by Father D. A. MacAdam, a major advocate of Gaelic, who was a contributor to the Scottish periodical Guth na Bliadhna and later to the Nova Scotia-based Mosgladh. Besides teaching a Gaelic class, he organised the student Celtic society from 1893 to 1900.
In the first decade of the 20th century courses in Gaelic language and literature were taught by Rev. Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair, a presbyterian minister and renowned Gaelic scholar. Sinclair was a native of Glen Bard, Antigonish County, and grandson of the poet John MacLean (am Bàrd MacIlleathain). Sinclair did more to advance Gaelic studies in North America than anyone else in his lifetime (he is the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation of faculty member Dr. Michael Linkletter). In later decades Gaelic was taught by Fr. MacPherson and A.T. MacDonald.
Rev. Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair
Angus L. Macdonald was a graduate of St. FX who had studied with Alexander Maclean Sinclair. During his time as premier of Nova Scotia from 1945 to 1954, he sought to provide increased visibility and support for Gaelic in Nova Scotia, including advocating for a Celtic Studies department at St FX. In 1958 Major C.I.N. MacLeod, a Gaelic-speaking native of Lewis (Scotland), was hired to establish the Department of Celtic Studies.
Major C. I. N. MacLeod - 1st Chair of Department (Courtesy: St FX Archives)
Upon the death of Major MacLeod, Sister Margaret MacDonell (below) became Chair of the department. Sr. MacDonell was responsible for establishing the Cape Breton Gaelic Folklore Project in which Dr. John Shaw collected on tape examples of folklore from Gaelic speakers throughout Cape Breton. This collection is probably the largest archive of spoken Gaelic in North America. A copy of this collection is now housed at St FX in the Angus L. Macdonald Library where it may be consulted by the public. It has also been digitized and made available online at the Struth nan Gàidheal / Gael Stream website: http://gaelstream.stfx.ca/
MSP (Member Scottish Parliament) Alastair Allan speaking to Sister Margaret MacDonell in the Celtic Collection at St FX, November 2008
In 1983 with the aid of a grant from the Multiculturalism Directorate of the federal government, the Sister Saint Veronica Chair of Gaelic Studies was established at St FX. Dr. Kenneth E. Nilsen became its first holder in September 1984.
Gov't of Canada endows Chair in Gaelic Studies at St FX
Chair in Gaelic Studies is named in honour of Sister Saint Veronica
Ken Nilsen - 1st holder of the Sr. St. Veronica Chair in Gaelic Studies (1984-2012)
From 1993 to 2008, Catriona NicIomhair Parsons, a native of the Isle of Lewis, joined the department, significantly augmenting the Gaelic program. In 2001, the Celtic Department expanded to having three, full-time professors for the first time in the history of St FX with the endowment of another chair, i.e. the Ben Alder Chair in Celtic Studies, with Michael Linkletter as its first holder. Through the invaluable assistance of Fr. Vern Boutilier, this new chair was established via the generosity of Swiss industrialist, Urs Schwarzenbach, who named it after his estate in Scotland called "Ben Alder" (Beinn Eallair in Gaelic). This has enabled the department to offer an expanded number of courses and a full honours program in Celtic.
Gaelic on the St FX campus
In May 1992, St FX became the first university in Canada to host the annual conference of the Celtic Studies Association of North America. The department has twice hosted the annual conference of the North American Association of Celtic Language Teachers (1997 & 2002). In July 2008, the biennial Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Studies) conference was hosted for the first time outside of Scotland at St FX. The department also hosted a symposium on Gaelic scholar Alexander Maclean Sinclair in May 2009, and in the summer of 2011, a conference on the Celts in the Americas.