400 years on, Nova Scotia seeks a Scots settler to keep Gaelic alive

NOVA Scotia, the only place outside Scotland where Gaelic is still in use, is looking to recruit a Scot to help it keep the language alive.

A century ago, up to 100,000 people in the Canadian province spoke Gaelic, but by the early 20th century teachers were punishing pupils to stop them speaking the tongue of their forefathers in class and the playground.

Today, the number of native speakers totals about 500 in a population of just under one million, although about 2,000 more have some knowledge of Gaelic.

Now, Novs Scotia has set up an Office for Gaelic Affairs in an attempt to save the language and help it to thrive once more. It hopes to have 25,000 fluent speakers by 2027.

It will be helped by a Gaelic speaker from Scotland who will be recruited shortly and will live and work in Cape Breton for six months.

Angus MacIsaac, the minister responsible for Gaelic affairs, set up the office because of the intense efforts of the Gaelic-speaking community, descended from exiles from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and the wider Nova Scotia community, who value the language as an important part of their heritage.

The links to Scotland stretch back centuries and remain strong today. New Scotland, or Nova Scotia, was founded by Sir William Alexander in the late 1620s with a band of Scots settlers.

In 1773, nearly 200 Highlanders who left home due to high rents and famine arrived in Nova Scotia aboard the ship Hector, attracted by the offer of free passage and a free farm. They named the communities they founded after places back home, such as Gairloch, Glengarry and Arisaig.

About 9,000 Scots arrived in Nova Scotia between 1815 and 1825, some 2,000 of them settling in Cape Breton, most of them Gaelic-speaking.

Between 1817 and 1838, the population of Cape Breton rose by 30,000 people, most of them Highlanders,

and many Nova Scotians identify themselves along linguistic or ethnic lines - Gael, Scottish Gael, Highland Scot, or Scottish Nova Scotian.

Lewis MacKinnon, the acting chief executive officer for the Office of Gaelic Affairs, said: "In 1871, at perhaps its pinnacle, Gaelic speakers in the province numbered some 85,000-100,000. But beginning with early settlement, the Gaelic community of Nova Scotia suffered marginalisation, hostility, misrepresentation and an ambiguous inclusion in the public life of the province.

"By the turn of the 20th century, teachers scolded and spanked their students to prevent them from speaking Gaelic in the schools, or even in the schoolyard. It is no wonder that there was a tendency for the language of the school to displace the language of the home."

The new office wants to reverse the trend. Mr MacKinnon said the official estimates is that there is enough interest to hit the target of 25,000 speakers. Later this year, a Gaelic survey will be carried out, bilingual road signs will start appearing, and it is planned to increase the number of Gaelic medium units in schools. Adult learners will also be helped with the use of a total immersion system introduced from Scotland.

Highland Council is helping the Nova Scotia government recruit the Gaelic speaker. Interviews will start shortly.

The successful candidate will be based in Mabou, Cape Breton, until June, helping with pre-school and after-school Gaelic classes.

The council signed an agreement with the provincial government of Nova Scotia in 2002. Since then, delegates from the Highlands, including nursery school teachers, have gone to Canada to share teaching skills and methods.

The region's historic connection to Nova Scotia will also be marked at the Royal National Mod in Lochaber, which this year will be held under the Highland Year of Culture banner.

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