In 1773, the first ship carrying Gaelic settlers reached Nova Scotia. They were leaving behind cultural suppression and a change in economics and social order in Scotland that would come to be known as the Highland Clearances. In Gaelic it is called Fuadach nan Gàidheal; the eviction of the Gaels.They brought with them their language, songs, music and dance styles, stories and traditions.
Songs, music, dance and storytelling have long been important parts of Gaelic society. The word ceilidh, now often used to refer to a concert, actually is Gaelic in origin and truly means a visit but wherever a few Gaels gather, music and songs are sure to be shared.
Scottish Gaelic is a branch of the Celtic language family, which also includes Irish Gaelic, Manx Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Breton. As the central component of the Gaelic culture, the language’s influence is clear in traditional music and dance. The tunes played on the fiddle are a clear reflection of the sounds of the language, and the dance is performed in such a manner as to compliment the rhythms of the music and language. The first written traces of the language that would develop into Irish, Scottish and Manx Gaelic are found carved on stones in the ogham script. They date from the 4th to 6th centuries CE. In the 6th century, Gaelic speakers in Ireland began using the Latin script. They also formed Dál Riata, a kingdom that included parts of Ulster and the western coast of Scotland. The Gaelic language spread across much of the territory that would become Scotland, and began to diverge from its Irish counterpart. The modern Gaelic alphabet contains 18 letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, L, M, N, O, P, R, S and T. In Nova Scotia’s history, there had been continued efforts and social pressures to assimilate the Gaels, the Acadians, the Mi’kmaq and other minority groups into English culture. This led to a steep decline in the number of Gaelic speakers found in the province, with currently less than 500 native speakers left today. However, many in the province have felt called to learn the language, with classes underway in many communities, Gaelic taught in schools and universities, and a provincial government Office of Gaelic Affairs. Gaelic culture is still alive and well in Nova Scotia.
Gaelic songs were an import part of life in Nova Scotia, with working songs that accompanied the rhythms of various tasks: milking a cow, weaving, churning, rowing or preparing wool cloth for use, among others. Fast-paced milling songs (also known as waulking or fulling) remained popular even after the need for milling declined. Summer festivals often still include a milling frolic where people gather to sing songs and keep time by beating wool cloth on a table. Traditional Gaels shy away from praise, considering it bad luck, except when expressed in song. Many Gaelic songs lavish praise on a place, a friend, a sweetheart, a family member, a ship, a cow or something else. Other songs tell tales of humorous local events, tragic drownings, the beauty of nature or the difficulty of settling in a new land. Some songs still heard in Nova Scotia were brought from Scotland, while others were composed here.
Jigs, strathspeys, reels, marches and many other tune types can be performed on the fiddle, bagpipes and even by unaccompanied voices. The strong connection between the music and dance is evident in the rhythms of the tunes. Northeastern Nova Scotia is also home to Mi’kmaq and Acadian French communities. The musical traditions of these various cultural groups have all influenced one another. While many of the well-known players of Cape Breton fiddle music have names like Beaton, Cameron, Campbell, MacDonald, MacIsaac, MacMaster and Chisholm, greats have also been Deveauxs, LeBlancs, Cremos or Prospers, among others. They brought their own flavours to the fiddle tradition. As this traditional music has grown and evolved, we’ve seen the introduction of various instruments to provide accompaniment to the fiddle or bagpipes. Piano and guitar are the most common instruments to have as accompaniment, but at times percussion, mandolin, bass, banjo, and other instruments can also be found.
Step dancing is an important part of the Gaelic arts in Nova Scotia. A style that is humble by nature though meant to be shared and celebrated, dancers perform as soloists or with partners during social dances to strathspeys, reels, and jigs. Toted as being both “close to the floor” yet “light on the feet”, what is done today is reminiscent of the dance of old, another aspect of the culture that has kept different traditions alive for so many years. Most often set to the music of a fiddler, with the proper timing and drive provided, dancing also happens to pipe music or Puirt a’Beul, mouth music. Square dancing became popular in Gaelic communities in the early 20th century, though older dances such as the four-hand reel can still be seen. Square dances are still very popular in the Gaelic parts of Nova Scotia and in the summer a person can attend a dance nearly every night!
In the 19th century, most households in Nova Scotia contained a skilled weaver who was responsible for producing the family’s clothing and blankets. Wool and linen were the fabrics of choice. Overshot weaving, a technique found throughout Appalachia and used primarily for coverlets, is an important part of the weaving tradition here. Weaving is less vital to survival these days, but hobbyists interested in spinning, dyeing and weaving can still be found, creating beautiful works of art.