Gaelic In The Bruce

I was passing some time in the quiet room of a local medical facility recently when a small book on a little-used bookshelf caught my eye. It was a copy of the Bruce County Historical Society’s Centennial Book, published in 1967. 

I open it to an article that bore the title Gaelic In The Bruce, about the extent to which the Gaelic language and Scottish Highland Gaelic culture was an outstanding feature of life in early Bruce County. The article was written by A.R. (Archie) MacKinnon. At the time of writing, was Dean Of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He now lives in Guelph. His ancestral roots are in the Isle of Tiree in the Scottish Hebrides and Bruce County which he still visits on a regular basis. The article was based on material he collected and impressions he got while on an extended visit to during the summer of 1964.

“During the early pioneer period, Gaelic would appear to have been a dominant language in Bruce County,” MacKinnon wrote. “In certain areas, for example Ripley and Tiverton, services in the churches were conducted in Gaelic first and English secondly up until the early 1930s. Gaelic was also a common language of commerce and certainly it was a dominant medium for preserving the traditions of Scotland. A wide range of Gaelic songs, stories, piping tunes, recipes and folk sayings which had their origins in Scotland, flourished in Bruce County in the pioneer period and continued almost up to the present day. The Gaelic traditions were also changed and modified to fit the new environment in which the immigrants found themselves and this in turn produced new forms of the language, new songs, stories, music and folk sayings which were unique in the county.”

“Scottish Highland immigrants during the pioneer period gave the County an immediate concentration of the Gaelic language. From 1850 on, there were many areas of the County which were populated almost completely by Gaelic speakers.”

But MacKinnon was alarmed by the few people left by 1964 who could still speak the language. “It would seem important that attempts should be made soon to record the heritage before time obscures forever the many priceless aspects of Gaelic culture in Bruce County,” he wrote. “The mere pressing of a button on a tape recorder” could ensure “a permanent representation” of Bruce County’s Gaelic heritage for future generations, he said.

Was it done? Not as much as it should have been, and as a result many traces of that precious and unique heritage and history have been lost – voices that will never be heard again, songs and stories about the bittersweet experiences and spirit of a nation that will never be sung or heard in quite the same authentic way, if at all.

I contacted the Bruce County Museum and Archives. Its collection of materials related to the county’s Gaelic heritage consists of one copy of the Bible in that language. There’s nothing else, no local school board minutes, no other written records, no tape recordings or transcriptions. I was told the Museum would like to put together a Gaelic heritage exhibit, using space that’s now available in the recently reconstructed facility.

Clearly, gathering the necessary exhibit materials to do justice to the subject would be a challenging task, possibly even hopeless, I found myself thinking. That is, until I talked to MacKinnon, now 78, and still itching to make Bruce County more aware of its Gaelic heritage.

“In part, yes,” it’s true a lot of it has been lost,” he said in a phone interview from his home in Guelph. By the time he was able to get around the county in search of Gaelic speakers with his tape recorder in 1973 there weren’t many left, he said.

But he also found out that Margaret MacKay of the School of Scottish Studies in Scotland had visited Bruce County several times in the 1970s and made a lot of recordings, some in Gaelic, some in English. She came in search of information in particular about the impoverished, Gaelic-speaking immigrants who were shipped to Canada from the Isle of Tiree in the early 1850s, and the community they established in the Kincardine Township area.

MacKinnon, himself a descendant of a “cleared” family from Tiree, said his interest in tracing his Gaelic heritage started in the mid-1950s when he visited Tiree and also made contact with the School of Scottish Studies. The school has done extensive research on the fate of the people from that one relatively small island during the long-neglected, shameful period of British history known as “the Clearances.”

I can’t do justice to the subject in this short space. Suffice it to say that Great Britain, aided and abetted by some members of the Anglicized Scottish aristocracy and major landowners conducted a brutal form of what is now referred to as “ethnic cleansing.” From the mid 18th Century to the end of the 19th thousands of Gaelic-speaking small tenant-farmers, known as crofters, were forced from the land, sometimes burned out of their homes and left to fend for themselves in the most abominable conditions. Many died of disease and starvation, and broken hearts. Consider just this one eyewitness account from Scottish Reminiscences (Glasgow, 1906) by a man named Archibald Geikie who lived on the Isle of Skye, which was “cleared” in 1854. Among those forced onto ships bound for Canada were members of the McNichol clan:

“One afternoon as I was returning from my ramble a strange wailing sound reached my ears at intervals on the breeze from the west. On gaining the top of one of the hills on the south side of the valley I could see a long and motley procession winding along the road that lead north from Suishnish. It halted at the point of the road opposite Kilbride, and there the lamentations became long and loud. As I drew nearer, I could see that the minister with his wife and daughters had come out to meet the people and bid them all farewell. It was a miscellaneous gathering of at least three generations of crofters. There were old men and women, too feeble to walk, who were placed on carts; the younger members of the community on foot were carrying their bundles of clothes and household effects, while the children, with looks of alarm, walked alongside…

Everyone was in tears, each wished to clasp the hands that had often befriended them, and it seemed as if they could not tear themselves away. When they set forth once more a cry of grief went up to heaven, the long plaintive wail, like a funeral coronach, was resumed, and after the last of the emigrants had disappeared behind the hill, the sound seemed to re-echo through the whole valley in one prolonged note of desolation. The people were on their way to be shipped to Canada.”

I don’t recall ever hearing anything about the Clearances in public school or high school British history courses, including when I was a Grade 7 student at a one-room sectional school in Egremont Township where almost all the families were descended from poor Scottish pioneers.

What’s true of Bruce is also true of Grey. Many Highland Scottish refugees from the Clearances found refuge here. But, sadly, few of their descendants seem to be aware of the hardship and sufferings their ancestors endured before they arrived in Grey-Bruce.

I personally find a remarkable similarity between what the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders and the aboriginal people who once occupied this land suffered: Both were forced from their homeland, both were proud people treated as second-class citizens, their language and culture despised and discouraged.

The Gaelic history and heritage of Grey-Bruce needs to be gathered and told as completely and truthfully as possible. It’s not too late.

“The situation is far from hopeless,” said MacKinnon who’s still trying to organize the recordings and other materials he’s accumulated over the past 50 years into a format the Bruce museum can use for an exhibit.

He’s encouraged by the growing interest he sees among young people in the Kincardine area in their Gaelic heritage. He’s also heartened by the work of people like Angus McLeod, the Ripley musician and writer who has devoted his life to exploring and publicly celebrating his Gaelic heritage and telling the story of that area’s Lewis Settlement. Immigrants cleared from the Isle of Lewis in 1851 established it.

The interest “is there and I think we have to recognize and encourage that,” said MacKinnon.

I couldn’t agree more.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2005.

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