About This Gaelic Language Project
Shamus Y. MacDonald
Several years ago, Finlay MacLeod, a Gaelic language advocate from Scotland, visited Nova Scotia at the invitation of the Highland Village Museum. Here he found a ready audience for his newly developed teaching techniques based on language immersion. Buoyed by the promise of language renewal, community groups throughout the province quickly organized courses based on these principals. Comhairle na Gàidhlig (The Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia) a non-profit society dedicated to Gaelic language maintenance in the province, quickly recognized the need for locally developed learning resources on which these immersion programs could be based.
During the winter of 2005, board members outlined a plan for an ambitious, long-term project that would supply instructors and students with an unparalleled learning resource based on video recordings of fluent speakers using everyday, idiomatic Gaelic. Partnering with the Gaelic Council, the Highland Village Museum then offered complimentary office space for the project. The museum's location in central Cape Breton, and the expertise of its staff, would provide an ideal location for Cainnt mo Mhàthar.
Since immigration and settlement in Nova Scotia tended to occur in community and family groups, dialects from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland continue to be spoken in Nova Scotia. Cainnt mo Mhàthar would give language learners the opportunity of deepening their language skills while acquiring the blas, or flavor, of the language in different communities. Completed in three phases, the project would also represent an opportunity to create a language learning resource reflective of the culture and heritage of Gaelic Nova Scotia. Most importantly, unlike previous fieldwork within the Gaelic community, which had largely focused on recording aspects of oral culture for archival purposes, the focus of Cainnt mo Mhàthar would be language renewal.
With initial funding secured from the Gaelic Activities Program, I was hired as Project Coordinator in October 2005. Over the next four months, scores of academic researchers were consulted, prototypes of other collection projects were explored and an eight-member Advisory Group composed of local tradition-bearers and professionals was established. Besides being an important source of ideas, encouragement and debate, this group formed a vital link with local residents and helped ensure Cainnt mo Mhàthar remained a community-based initiative.
A key component of the first phase was the development of a comprehensive conversation guide on which interviews would be based. Produced with the needs of language learners in mind, the guide was designed to prompt natural idiomatic speech and ensure consistency in collection procedures and results. At the same time, Gaelic-speakers representing dialects throughout the province were sought and a list of potential contributors compiled. Shortly before the completion of the first phase of the project in January 2006, three pilot interviews were conducted. Besides being generous and knowledgeable tradition-bearers, the enthusiasm shown by our first contributors, Willie Fraser, Peter MacLean and Allan MacLeod was inspiring. A plan for the next phase of Cainnt mo Mhàthar was prepared and a funding application submitted.
After receiving additional funding from the Gaelic Activities Program, the second phase of work began in August 2006 with an early interview conducted by Jeff MacDonald, a well-known language promoter and early supporter of Cainnt mo Mhàthar. When no applications were received for the specialized position of fieldworker, Gaelic educator and language advocate Jim Watson volunteered his services on behalf of the Highland Village Museum. Few people would have been more qualified. Because of this generous contribution, the project was able to be extended by several weeks.
As a result of the groundwork laid months earlier, Jim and I were then able to concentrateon the exciting task of fieldwork with contributors from all four Cape Breton counties. In order to ensure they understood the goals of our work and were comfortable being recorded, each contributor was visited beforehand. Working under the constraints of a modest budget, recording equipment was borrowed from the Highland Village Museum so that the largest number of tradition-bearers could be included in the collection. In order to encourage casual conversation and allow the personality and language strengths of tradition-bearers to surface, Jim struck a balance between topics identified in the conversation guide and subjects raised by contributors. In the end, the collection reveals a lively mix of both. At the completion of the second phase in January 2007, the twenty contributors were given a copy of their interview and an honorarium.
Because of the large number of instructors and language learners with whom we wanted to share this material, a website was planned where recordings could be accessed free of charge. Once again, an application to the Gaelic Activities Program was submitted. At the same time, it was clear that the quality and value of the material collected warranted additional attention and investment. Consequently, in March 2007 a proposal for the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Gateway Fund was prepared. Submitted jointly by the Gaelic Council and the Highland Village Museum, it called for the expansion of the Cainnt mo Mhàthar initiative, with professional-grade recording equipment, and the inclusion of two important recording collections completed at the Highland Village; Nòs is Fonn (Style and Melody) a collection of nearly one-hundred Gaelic songs recorded in 2005 and Mar bu Nòs bho Shean (The Traditional Way) a project that filmed Gaelic tradition-bearers discussing non-literate forms of cultural transmission. The aim would be to present an authentic perspective of Gaelic Nova Scotia, as related by contemporary tradition-bearers, on a website aimed at language learners but accessible the general public.
After several months of discussions, Comhairle na Gàidhlig and the Highland Village were very pleased to learn that both applications had been successful. This provided the project's third phase with a budget nearly twice that of the first two phases combined. In January 2008, Shannon MacDonald, an enthusiastic Gaelic-learner from the North Shore, was appointed Project Coordinator. As the Gaelic Council’s Administrative Officer, I was pleased to be able to supervise the final phase of the project and help lead its progress after Shannon's departure.
Shannon began the third phase of Cainnt mo Mhàthar by contacting tradition-bearers in several areas of Cape Breton and inviting them to participate in the final phase of the project. Over the ensuing months, she and fieldworkers, Jim Watson, Hector MacNeil and Ronald MacKenzie made six high-quality recordings with professional videographer Frank King - adding considerably to the usability and interest of the collection as a whole. Then began the laborious task of editing the nearly forty hours of video in the collection. In this work, Shannon was assisted by those at the Centre for Cape Breton Studies at Cape Breton University. Partnering with Comhairle na Gàidhlig and the Highland Village, the Centre provided staff and state of the art facilities to aid in the editing process. This contribution enabled the project to be expanded once again and a professional photographer hired. Traveling from Framboise to French River and Port Hawkesbury to Port Hood, Ryan MacDonald produced the majority of the wonderful photographs the website boasts today.
Throughout the final phase of the project, Shannon and I worked with ICON Communications to develop the website; ensuring it was user-friendly, attractive and informative. We also worked with Jim Watson, Catriona Parsons, Paul Geddes, Màiri Sìne Parr, Hector MacNeil and others in the preparation of the transcriptions and translations. As in earlier phases, media attention for was sought for the project as an important and appropriate way of recognizing the contributions of tradition-bearers and raising the profile and status of Gaelic language and culture in Nova Scotia.
From the beginning, Cainnt mo Mhàthar has aimed to be a community-based initiative with international vision. Since its launch, the project has grown and benefitted from the wisdom, experience and support of many individuals and organizations. Most importantly however, we are indebted to the generosity and talent of our contributions. Though often humble and self-effacing, they have shared a linguistic and cultural legacy of local, national and international significance. Taing dhuibh uile.