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In the early days, in Nova Scotia as well as Scotland, formal schools were not plentiful in the countryside. Although schools were scarce, many Gaels were educated in spite of the lack of formal institutions. The Gaels received plenty of education in the taigh céilidh – the ceilidh house – the traditional school for the Gaels. It is here that they learned about the history, genealogy, literature, and culture of their people. Celtic culture was traditionally an oral culture, and the Scottish Gaelic culture was no exception. Celtic history, laws, and folklore was all passed down by word of mouth. There were some individuals in the Highlands who could recite long novels, almost word for word, by heart. The Gaels also had knowledge of their history going back hundreds of years – without anything being written down.

Schools run by the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) began to appear in the eighteenth century. There were a few Gaels fortunate enough to live close to one of these privately run schools, but these schools were few and far between. But unfortunately, the SSPCK used English in their schools in the beginning. Even when they began to use some Gaelic in the nineteenth century, the goal of the teachers was to bring their students to fluency in English.

When the Gaels first arrived in Nova Scotia, provisions for education in the New World were much like what they were in Scotland, especially in Cape Breton. There were a few teachers in New Scotland, but they were usually only teaching small groups of students in private houses. Once again, formal educational settings were thin on the ground. From time to time, however, formal educational institutions were established by the immigrants. There was an excellent school established in Pictou in 1816, but instruction was through the medium of English.

Although they were scarce, there were a few schools that taught through the medium of Gaelic. The most famous of these is the school established by the Presbyterian minister Norman MacLeod in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton. The majority of the Gaels in Nova Scotia were without formal education until 1841, when schools were established for everyone with the Education Act. Unfortunately, this new public education system spelled death for the Gaelic language. Although schools were set up throughout Nova Scotia, English was almost always the language of instruction. When students learned English in school, they eventually taught the language to their children at home. English became the language of the hearth, and Gaelic was not used in the home unless the parents wanted to conceal from the children what they were talking about. Although Gaelic speakers can still be found in Nova Scotia, it is very rare to find a child who can speak the language.


Campbell, Douglas F. and R. A. MacLean. Beyond the Atlantic Roar: A Study of the Nova Scotia Scots. Toronto: McClellan and Stewart, 1974.

Dunn, Charles. Highland Settler. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1953.

Foster, Gilbert. Language and poverty : the persistence of Scottish Gaelic in Eastern Canada. St. John's, Nfld.: Institute of Social and Economic Research, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1988.

Kennedy, Michael. Gaelic Nova Scotia: an economic, cultural, and social impact study. Halifax, NS: Nova Scotia Museum, 2002.

The picture used in the Education / Foghlam icon is of the Big Pond School, Cape Breton County, circa 1920 (photo from collection of Paul MacLellan)

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