HALIFAX – A recent decision to alter the name of Cape Breton’s Gaelic College has ripped open centuries-old wounds among the many descendents of Scottish immigrants who first landed in Nova Scotia more than 200 years ago.
The controversy erupted earlier this month when the college’s board of directors decided to add the word “royal” to the school’s name, a special designation from the Queen herself.
However, a growing chorus of complaints has emerged from those who say the addition is offensive because it ignores the fact that most of the Gaelic-speaking migrants who sailed to Nova Scotia in the late 1700s were forced out of the Highlands in the years following a decisive battle with the English.
Allan MacMaster, the member of the legislature who represents the Cape Breton district of Inverness, says the name change was inappropriate and insulting.
“The people who sought the royal designation didn’t stop to think about all of the Gaels out there who would find the term offensive and hurtful given the history of the Crown trying to eradicate the Gaelic language and Gaelic culture,” he said in an interview Friday.
“There was a concerted effort to break the Gaelic peoples of Scotland. … It was a plan to ethnically cleanse the people.”
MacMaster, whose Gaelic-speaking ancestors settled in Nova Scotia in 1802, said it’s important to understand that the Gaelic culture, language and dress of the Highlanders was distinct from that of Lowland Scots.
“I’ve become careful to reference the fact that I’m a Gael,” says MacMaster, who taught himself how to speak Gaelic while he was at university.
Those who know the history of the Gaels are keenly aware of the Battle of Culoden in 1746, when an English army crushed the Highland clans.
Then came the Highland Clearances, from 1780 to 1860, when farmers were evicted to make way for sheep. Thousands of Gaels disappeared into urban slums or emigrated, mostly to Canada, the United States and Australia.
About 1,200 people in Nova Scotia still speak Gaelic, most of them in Cape Breton. Language courses are offered at the college and the provincial government has an Office of Gaelic Affairs, set up by Rodney MacDonald when he was premier in 2006.
Tonya Lundrigan-Fry, vice-president of the Nova Scotia Gaelic Council, says most of the group’s members are opposed to linking royalty with the Gaelic College.
“It was almost like someone digging up the past and throwing it in your face,” she said in an interview. “It was really insulting and offensive to many people.”
MacDonald, now the CEO at the college, declined to comment. Alex Morrison, the college’s volunteer chairman, stepped down earlier this week, saying more discussion was needed to resolve the issue.
One of the college’s board members, Ernie MacAulay, posted a message on the college’s Facebook site saying the royal addition was a bad decision that should be reversed.
“We made a blunder,” he wrote. “I hang my head with a modicum of shame for my part in this debacle, and I hope I become wiser for it.”
Daniel MacInnes, a sociology professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S, says not all Nova Scotians of Scottish descent are opposed to the royal dedication.
However, MacInnes says the history of what happened in the Highlands should not be forgotten.
“There’s a lack of sensitivity around what it means to be Scottish in Nova Scotia, or what it means to be Highland,” he says, noting that the story of the Clearances is not well known.
“There are so many aspects and layers to this … (but) the 35,000 who came here (to Nova Scotia) really are victims of history.”