Singer/songwriter Mary Jane Lamond's formative years were spent moving between Quebec and Ontario, but she soaked up the Gaelic heritage over many summers visiting her grand-parents in Cape Breton. It was there that she first remembers hearing Gaelic songs. The power of that experience and the music that emanated captured Lamond's imagination. She returned to the east coast to study and now lives in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
Mary Jane writes...
Picture a small group of people gathered together in a kitchen. They are listening intently, almost spellbound, to a man telling a story in Scottish Gaelic. The rhythms of his words, the runs of adjectives, give the story a poetic meter. He is telling the tale of how the ancient Irish Fenian hero Oscar "got his wife."
The admiration of the listeners is obvious. They admire him in the same way one would admire a fine singer or instrumentalist, for the storyteller has a gift. His gift is an amazing memory, a love of language, and skill in the presentation of the tale.
Most people, if asked to guess where and when this scene took place would probably guess the Highlands of Scotland some time in the distant past. But, in truth, I was at such a gathering just down the road from my home on cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, only months ago.
The Scottish Gaels began to settle in Nova Scotia in the late 1790's. By the early 1800's tens of thousands of Gaelic speaking highlanders had landed in Nova Scotia, and by the turn of the century it is estimated that there were between eighty and ninety thousand Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia. Although they arrived with very little in the way of material wealth, or perhaps because of this, they continued their rich oral, literary and musical traditions in their new home.
The continued existence of Gaelic musical, poetic and storytelling traditions in Cape Breton today, albeit in a fragile and reduced state, is what, for me, embodies the "Celtic Spirit." Take the tale that I mentioned above. This tale belongs to the Old Irish Heroic cycle; which tells the tale of Finn McCool and his band of warriors called the Fenians.
These tales belong to pre-history; we first find them in written form in monastic manuscripts from the 11th and 12th centuries. They then traveled with the Gaels to Scotland where they survived the development from Irish Gaelic to Scottish Gaelic.
Several centuries later, they were brought to Nova Scotia where, despite the geographical distance, lack of contact and the passing of over two hundred years, they are still occasionally heard. The tenacity of this oral tradition is truly amazing.
So what is it about the culture of Gaels that allows these tales to survive? In my opinion, it boils down to two basic aspects: the love of language that the people hold dear; and a culture which treasures tradition.
During the time of Julius Caesar, the Celts had been described as having a profound love of words, poetry, and the oral tradition. From that time onwards, Celts have continued to believe that words have magical powers. In fact, they still believe that the Bardic poet can inflict physical injury through the composition of a satiric poem.
The history of the Gaels is written in their poetry; a true reflection of their lives and societal changes. Their oral traditions and music are important threads in the fabric of their lives. When I go and visit Gaelic tradition bearers, this is completely evident.
Many of these people may have little or no formal education, in fact many cannot read or write Gaelic. When you arrive at their homes they may be coming in from the barn, sitting down with their boots on, and within a few minutes, someone is singing a song, discussing a poem, or telling a story. In a situation like this you can truly understand that academic training does not necessarily make an intellectual.
Until I began to explore this culture, I don't think that I truly understood what the word "tradition" meant. In modern western society when we think of culture we think of the arts, and when we think of the arts we think of artists and creativity.
For the most part, we equate artists and creativity with innovation. It is the polar opposite that is treasured in Gaelic society. This is an atmosphere where you are considered to be talented if you can recite a tale exactly as you heard it from previous generations.
A good singer is not a person with a fine vocal quality, but one who has as many verses in the same order as they have been sung for generations. Even within the context of newly created stories and songs, those that are admired are the ones which are closest to the tradition.
So for me, the Celtic Spirit in the Gaelic tradition of Nova Scotia is really the fact that people gather together to entertain themselves with the singing of songs, playing of music and the telling of tales. The spirit of these gatherings is best summed up in the Gaelic expression:
A'chiad sgeul air fear an taighe agus sgeul gu latha air an aoidh.
(The first tale from the man of the house and tales until dawn from the visitor.)
(Reprinted with permission: Jones & Company,and Chapters, the Canadian bookstore.)
Singer/songwriter Mary Jane Lamond's formative years were spent moving between Quebec and Ontario, but she soaked up the Gaelic heritage over many summers visiting her grand-parents in Cape Breton.
It was there that she first remembers hearing Gaelic songs; her initiation took place at a "milling frolic" where a heavy woolen cloth is repeatedly beaten against a table and people gather to sing and rhythmically keep time.
The power of that experience and the music that emanated captured Lamond's imagination. Lamond returned to the east coast to attend Antigonish's Saint Francis Xavier University and graduated in Celtic Studies. Mary Jane Lamond continues to reside in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
For current information on Mary Jane Lamond, go to her website: www.maryjanelamond.com.