Listicle: Gaelic Books for Gaelic Month

Celebrate Gaelic Month in Nova Scotia with Atlantic Gaelic-themed books
The Nova Scotia Gaelic Flag, designed in 2008, depicts the “salmon of knowledge” from Celtic mythology in the shape of the letter “G.”

Celebrate Gaelic Month in Nova Scotia with Atlantic Gaelic-themed books

A bheil Gàidhlig agaibh? Since the Ship Hector brought the first wave of Highland Scots to the shores of Nova Scotia in 1773, Scottish Gaelic has been a living language in the province, with many other small Gaelic-speaking communities all across Canada.

After having survived centuries of institutional suppression in Scotland and North America, Gaelic language and culture are currently experiencing a renaissance thanks to initiatives like Gaelic Nova Scotia Month. For the last 23 years, the month of May has been an occasion for Nova Scotians to celebrate the language and rich cultural contributions of the Gaels. Storytelling has always played a key role in Gaelic culture, so what better way to recognize the culture to which so many in the province claim heritage than with a book written in or about the Celtic language? We’re sharing some great reads in recognition of Gaelic Nova Scotia Month.

Lus na Tùise Lavender – Marcas Mac an Tuairneir, Bradan Press, 2016

British writer and singer Marcas Mac an Tuairneir’s second poetry collection deals with the role of an openly gay Gaelic poet in modern and historical Scottish society. Mac an Tuairneir’s 56 poems—printed in Scottish Gaelic with English translations—cover many aspects of life and relationships, but one particular highlight is an eight-part series called “Gun Ainm” (Unnamed), written from the perspective of a Hebridean man sending letters to his lover who is serving in the First World War.

Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest – Michael Newton, Cape Breton University Press, 2015

Michael Newton takes on the herculean task of compiling and contextualizing the many works to have emerged from Canada’s Scottish Gaelic-speaking communities in the first anthology of Canadian Scottish-Gaelic literature.

Newton organizes the collection of poetry and prose by common themes like “The Subjugation of the Gael,” “Migration,” and “Love and Death.” Each text is accompanied by an introduction by Newton that anchors the work in time and place. The works in Seanchaidh na Coille are not limited to Atlantic Canada, where Scottish Gaelic remains the most prevalent; writings from Gaelic communities in Ontario, Quebec and Western Canada are also featured, highlighting the vast reach of the Scottish Gaelic diaspora in the country.

The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook – Emily McEwan, Bradan Press, 2016

McEwan’s guide to the world of Scottish Gaelic-themed tattooing is equal parts manual and cautionary tale. The book compiles a list of common Gaelic tattoo phrases like “My heart is in Nova Scotia” and “Made in Cape Breton,” and addresses common errors made when people attempt to get Scottish Gaelic tattoos without doing their research first. The Gaelic translations are edited by accomplished Scottish Gaelic poet Marcas Mac an Tuairneir and veteran Gaelic instructor Angus MacLeod to ensure accuracy.

Fionn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge Terri M. Roberts, Bradan Press, 2017

In the grand Gaelic storytelling tradition, Roberts’ book adapts the ancient tale of Irish culture hero Fionn mac Cumhaill (anglicized here as Fionn MacCool) into a short children’s story that’s meant to be told aloud. First, the legendary story of Fionn gaining wisdom from the Salmon of Knowledge is presented in English, with actions for young listeners to act out on certain words. Then, the story is retold with the action-words replaced with their Scottish Gaelic equivalents, teaching vocabulary as well as folklore.

The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic: All the Scottish Gaelic You Need to Curse, Swear, Drink, Smoke and Fool Around – Michael Newton, illustrated by Arden Powell, Cape Breton University Press, 2014

In this one-stop guide, Michael Newton tours readers through the comical, crude and occasionally downright harsh glossary of all the colourful Gaelic words and expressions you wouldn’t get away with saying on daytime television. The book is separated into five straightforward categories: Cursing, Swearing, Snuff and Tobacco, Drinking, and Sex. One interesting takeaway is the startling intensity of Gaelic curses compared to English ones, such as “Manadh do chrochaidh ort!” or, “May you have the premonition of your hanging!”

Piper – Jacqueline Halsey , Nimbus Publishing, 2018

In her 2018 children’s novel, Halsey recounts the story of the first wave of Gaelic speakers to settle in Nova Scotia, the passengers of the Ship Hector. The story centres on a young passenger named Dougal Cameron, who must balance his dream of becoming a bagpiper (an act then outlawed in the Scottish Highlands) with surviving the transatlantic voyage along with his mother and younger siblings. Though a work of fiction, Halsey shows a great depth of research into the voyage of the Hector from Loch Broom, Scotland to Brown’s Point, Nova Scotia in 1773, which spanned over nine weeks. Any Ship Hector passenger descendant or Nova Scotian history enthusiast will appreciate Halsey’s rich and, at times, harrowing account of Gaelic immigration to New Scotland.

A Stone on Their Cairn (Clach air an càirn): A Cape Breton Saga – Kevin S. MacLeod, Four East Publications, 2007

Former Canadian Secretary to the Queen Kevin S. MacLeod’s years-spanning tale set in a fictional Cape Breton community could be described as a uniquely Atlantic take on the writings of Gabriel García Márquez. The sprawling novel follows the inhabitants of Loch Dubh over an eighteen-year period, culminating with the beginning of the First World War. A Stone on Their Cairn opens with a series of family trees detailing the genealogy of the families of Loch Dubh, followed by a glossary of the many Gaelic words and place names that fill the text. Whenever Gaelic is spoken by a character, the italicized sentence is written out in full, followed by an English translation in parentheses. At the very end of the book is a fold-out illustrated map of the fictional community, further immersing readers in MacLeod’s bygone world.


Written By

Sam Fraser studied Journalism at the University of King’s College and French at Cape Breton University. He enjoys writing about language, culture, history and film.

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