Gaelic? In Australia?

Twice recently I have encountered people who are surprised at the amount of Gaelic there is in Australia. It isn’t something I’ve thought much about, since I was raised in the Australian school system being taught that the first hundred years or so of European settlers were from the British Isles – and after all, there are only a few hundred Gaelic-speakers for all that.

At a fiddle workshop weekend run by musicians from Scotland, one of the tutors was mulling over the rediculousness of using Italian words when English ones should suffice. In particular, he said, Why should we say ‘arco’ when we could say ‘with the bow’? And why couldn’t we use the Gaelic? “We should all learn the Gaelic terms,” he said, but he didn’t know how to speak it. “Does anyone know how to say ‘with the bow’ in Gaelic?”

I thought he was asking the room at large – I learnt later he was addressing it mostly to one of the workshop graduates who had learnt Gaelic at school – and after a few seconds of awkward silence, I said, “It would be ‘leis a’ bhogha’, wouldn’t it?”

“It could be. What does that mean?”

“Literally ‘with the bow’. I don’t know if that’s a fiddle bow or just a rain-bow…”

“Do you yourself have the Gaelic?”

“Yes,” I nodded, a little embarrassed by the whole thing, and we moved on with the workshop.

A little later, one of the facilitators was telling us about the organisation. “We’re based in Scotland,” she explained. “Have any of you been to Scotland?”

About half of us put up our hands, me a little timidly. After all, I was a few days shy of my second birthday last time I was in Scotland. I can’t remember anything of it. To all practical intents and purposes, I haven’t been to Scotland.

But she looked straight at me and asked, “You’ll have been to the Highlands, haven’t you?”

Again, technically, I have, and I said as much, before gabbling out some excuse about having been a toddler when we came back to Australia.

Later in the day, the same facilitator caught up with me over morning tea and asked how I came to speak Gaelic.

The truth is, I don’t really have a sensible answer – about how I came to speak it or why. I told her a story about how my grandmother, who grew up in New Zealand, probably spoke it. I told her about how, as a teenager, I started spending more time with the Gaelic-speaking community in Adelaide than I had previously, I learnt to hold a basic conversation with them. I explained that, because I had been exposed to Gaelic for the first few years of my life, learning it as a teenager felt more like remembering something I already knew than it did the hard task of learning German when I started at a German-medium school for high school. I told her about how excited I’d been to move to Melbourne, where there are more than half a dozen Gaelic-speakers, and how I’d joined the Gaelic choir. I mentioned that Australia, like Canada, used older spellings and had a few different words. And I commented how, when I was doing the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig course, you could guarantee that every written assignment would come back with the word “‘n-uair” highlighted and the correction “nuair”, even though the former is how it was spelt in Scotland 30 years ago.

“Oh, so you did spend time at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig?” she asked. She seemed relieved to finally have a reasonable explanation about how I spoke Gaelic. I’d been to the immersion language centre on Skye.

“No,” I told her, “It was a correspondence course I did when I was in Year 12.”

According to the 2011 census, there are around 720 household speakers of Gaelic in Australia. Most of the Gaelic-speakers I know are the only speaker in their households, and so wouldn’t answer Gaelic on the census. According to Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia, there are Gaelic classes in every capital city, and learners’ groups in a number of regional centres as well.

Just a few days ago, someone posted a question on the FaceBook group Luchd-ionnsachaidh na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Learners). Feeling curious, he asked,

“This may be a stupid question, but how come Gaelic is popular in Australia? I can understand having courses in Scotland (obviously) and Nova Scotia but if anyone ever asked me where they might be able to find a course, I would never have thought of Australia…”

There were a lot of responses. Ideas from non-Australian learners. Ideas from new Australian learners. Comparisons to other parts of the world with either lots of Scottish settlers or historic Gaelic where classes and groups no longer exist.

“Gàidhlig was briefl a major language in the early days of European invasion. There was even a newspaper called An Teachdaire Gaidhealach published in the 1850s which was 85% Gàidhlig.” – Prenna Ello.

“I suppose Scottish people have always had a presence in Australia, in numbers, and Gaelic has always been part of that – “Taladh ar Slanuighear” was written by a priest moving from Muideart to Australia in the 1850s, and he’s buried in Geelong. Recently I sang with Còisir Gàidhlig Bhioctòiria at the 150th anniversary of a church in outer Melbourne that was built by Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“My ancestors came from Skye to New South Wales in 1838. They could onl speak Gaelic and they attended the first foreign language church service in Sydney to offer thanks for their safe arrival. As the family historian I travel to Skye each year to immerse myself in Gaidhlig language and the wonderful culture of my forebears.” – Rachel Heath.

“My own family came out much more recently (I’m first generation, although there was some time spent in Dunedin/ NZ a few generations ago), but there’s always someone at Sgoil Nàiseanta who’s just started learning because he’s done some family history and discovered that his Gaelic-speaking family moved out in eighteen-whatever and continued using the language until his grandparents’ generation.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“My mother and her family moved to Australia from Scotland in the 60s. Part of my desire to learn Gaelic is because of my family’s connection.” – Kiah Bergman.

“The British Isles were always favoured for immigration, so there’s always been a constant flow of Scottish immigrants, presumably with an average representation of Gaelic-speakers.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“So Gaelic societies in Australia are not a new thing and are often 100+ years old, with recent immigrants from Gaelic-speaking parts of Scotland, and “Australian-as-they-come” people with Gaelic-speking heritage who are re-connecting to the language, and – the most confusing part for me – a lot of completely non-Scottish-heritage-whatsoever people who are learning it.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“According to the 2011 census around 8.3% of the Australian population claim Scottish ancestry, which is the fourth biggest ancestry group represented in the figures. Not sure how this compares to other countries but it might be a factor. My question is why isn’t Gàidhlig *more* popular?” – Prenna Ello.

“Interestingly enough, hubby did some online training at work and one of the questions at the end of completing it had a drop down for identifing all languages spoken at home. Scots Gaelic was on it! So he picked it. I have never seen this on anything in Scotland and here it was in Adelaide.” – Ash Kane.

“I’m told Gaelic used to be offered with the School of Languages into the 90s so maybe it was once more widespread in Adelaide than we think…” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Gaelic was one of the languages on the SBS radio service until 2003.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

It was great bouncing around all those fantastic ideas an anecdotes, but there was another side of the story represented:

“Because Australia has immigrants from around the world and, not all the Scottish went to New Zealand.” – Simon Hogan.

“But I’m sure there are Scottish immigrants all over and you don’t see so many courses.” – Tom Morrison.

“Maybe it’s like Nova Scotia and there was a dense population of speakers in one or more areas.” – Fo Gish.

“The 2011 census had around 720 primary-language-at-home speakers of Scottish Gaelic listed, which is only around half as many as Nova Scotia I think – it’s just that Australia (even if it’s just the eastern states) is a lot bigger than that, even bearing in mind that Australia and New Zealand did get a lot of refugees from the Clearances. Gaelic was more spread-out here to begin with, so it’s not as well-known about as Nova Scotia.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Lotta Scottish in Appalachia, US, no Gaelic.” – Gwyn Fae.

“Lots of Scottish in South Australia, not historic Gaelic (a few learners these days but mostly recent immigrants). Most of the Scottish “founding settlers” in SA were from the lowlands from what I vaguely recall from primary school history lessons. Might be a similar sort of thing? Eastern states were taking immigrants at the right time to get a lot of people from the highlands & islands.” – Raghnaid NicGaraidh.

“Until the early 1900’s, there was a Gaelic speaking community in North Carolina. Many Gaels settled in the mountains because they were reminded of the highlands of Scotland.” – John Grimaldi.

So what did Australia do differently?

We weren’t the only place to get Gaelic-speaking early settlement, but it wasn’t as dense as in Nova Scotia.

Gaelic stuck around in Australia for a while, like North Carolina, slowly dying until the early 1900s.

Australain-born Gael numbers have always been supplemented by newer immigrants from the UK – but they didn’t always come to the same places.

Gaelic societies were set up in Australia – but also in New Zealand, where many of them have ceased to be Gaelic societies and become generic “Caledonian” societies.

There are up to 1000 Gaelic-speakers in Australia today, with around 200 in Melbourne and many more in Sydney, where there is a native speakers social group, regular learners’ conversation groups, and it’s even taught at one of the universities.

All around Australia, there are Gaelic classes, Gaelic learners, and Gaelic speakers.

I suppose, reviewing the evidence, I can see why someone from Scotland or elsewhere would have such a hard time understanding that there are so many Gaelic-speakers in Australia. It doesn’t make sense for it to have stuck around so long. We shouldn’t have the numbers we do – even though they seem small to me – with two Gaelic choirs, an annual national live-in weekend, our own quirks of vocabulary and spelling, and courses and classes run every week of the year by locals to teach and preserve the language.

It probably shouldn’t be possible for a teenager to learn enough Gaelic for a conversation without ever leaving Australia.

Sgoil Nàiseanta 2017 Enrolment Form

/\ By the way – next month, 14th-16th, Brisbane.


Step Dancing Around the World

Yesterday, my mother showed me this clip, which pitched two tap-dancers and three Irish dancers against each other.

As I was watching it, I started thinking about step dancing. Now, I’m no brilliant step dancer. In fact, I know a grand total of three steps, which I can do much, much too slow to sound rhythmic at all. But I *am* familiar with Cape Breton step dancing, because there’s a session of it most years at Spring Fiddle camp. In fact, what the three Irish dancers do in the clip, once the tap dancers get them to loosen up and use their arms a bit, is basically step dancing. I’m sure an actual step dancer would tell me I’m wrong.

Tap dancing and Irish dancing are related arts. The whole genre of dance form seems to have started somewhere in the British Isles and just spread from there. Here’s a quick overview of some of the different forms of step dancing around today.

First, I’m going to mention soft-shoe step dancing, and then ignore it for the rest of the post. Competitive Irish dancing includes both soft-shoe and hard-shoe; in the more Scotland-based traditions, soft-shoe became Highland dance, and hard-shoe became step dancing. Soft-shoe Irish dancing and Highland dancing is slower and more ornamental, as opposed to step-dancing, which is very much about the rhythms.

So, I’m talking about Irish hard-shoe dance at the moment, because I think that’s probably the sort of step dance people are most familiar with. Maybe not. Maybe it’s tap-dancing. Either way, here are a few clips of Irish hard-shoe dancing.

That’s not as exciting as when they go a capella, though.

Modern Irish dance came out of an older tradition called damhsa sean-nós. I should mention that saying “sean-nós” by itself usually means the old style of singing. Here’s a video of someone dancing sean-nós in the 70s.

As far as I can tell, from watching probably far too many Irish documentaries, sean-nós dancing is fading in popularity in the face of both modern Irish dance and popular culture. Nevertheless, here’s a modern clip of a girl from the Conamara.

Step-dancing mostly died out in Scotland, aside from Highland dance which I’ve mentioned earlier, but has recently been re-introduced mostly by Canadians, because the style lives on in Cape Breton.

Just out of interest, that’s where Catherine Fraser learnt it, more or less, before she started teaching it at Spring Fiddle. I’m not quite sure how they stopped step-dancing in Scotland (aside from them all being exported to Canada), because it’s very much a part of the music. Just check out Natalie McMaster’s feet going as she fiddles away in the background of this clip.

Although Wikipedia tells me that step-dancing was also practiced in East Anglia and Dartmoor, I can’t find much to back that up. I was interested, however, to read about clogging, a southern US variant.

It seems to be mostly practiced in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Appalachia, which is no real surprise since the local style of folk music there, bluegrass, still shares a lot of similarities with Irish and Scottish fiddle styles (a lot of the common tunes are the same, too). Here are some kids going freestyle in North Caroline.

Clogging, apparently, is the predecessor of tap dance. I don’t know any more about tap dancing than the next person, but here’s a clip that seems to be pretty typical. Their arms and upper bodies are a lot more choreographed than the other step-dancing styles.

I’m not sure what happened to Australia in all of that. As I’ve mentioned before, our local folk music style is still pretty close to the Scottish/Irish styles, so it seems odd that we didn’t inherit the step-dancing as well. If anyone knows about any sort of Australian step-dancing, do let me know.





3 Tunes You Thought Were Australian

(1) The Drover’s Dream

… and the Killaloe March.

(the tune starts at about 30 seconds).

(2) Old Man Emu

… and the Hills of Connemara.

(the first tune here is John Ryan’s Polka, aka The Dit-Dit Diddle-Dee Song. The Hills of Connemara starts around 1 minute).

(3) Waltzing Matilda

… and the Bonnie Woods of Craigielea.


Australian traditional/folk music is much closer to the Scottish and Irish traditions from which it came than comparable folk traditions in the Americas – to the point that the Australian traditional style, aside from a few key songs, isn’t recognisable or different at all.

Folk music traditions are usually aural, meaning that tunes are learnt by ear and passed on like a game of Chinese whispers. Within a single community, the tune doesn’t change much because it’s in a pool, but if a tune is being passed on like a chain, with vast distances between the people learning and teaching and the tune’s origin, then differences crop up inevitably. Even within Adelaide, there are some tunes – Blackthorn Stick – for example, that are played just slightly differently in the Hills, in the Scottish Fiddlers, and in the Irish Club – a few different notes here, a slightly different rhythm there, but nothing insurmountable.

But give the tune two hundred years, different words, half the globe in distance, and perhaps a slightly shonky memorisation at some point, and it gets a different name and is considered its own tune.

Dealbhan Ùr as an Sgoil Nàiseanta

Group Photo

Tha fìos agaibh gu dearbh gun deach mi dhan Sgoil Nàiseanta a-rithist am bliadhna. Seo cùplan dealbhan às an Sgoil.

Dh’ionnsaich sinn puirt-a-beul (“Brochan Lom”) airson an cèilidh:
Learning Brochan Lom

Agus aig a’ chèilidh…

… chluich mi fìdheal…

… agus sheinn mi òran.

Tha dealbhan eile ann an-seo agus faod sibh mòran leughadh asam an-seo agus as Comunn Gàidhlig Astràilia an-seo.

Tha mi nam Fhidhealair

Seo an topaic a bh’ ann an seachdain: “A bheil thu fhèin nad bhàrd, nad sheinneadair, nad sgeulaiche, no nad phìobair? An can daoine eile gu bheil?”

Seo m’ òraid:

Tha mise nam fhidhealair. Tha mise a’ smaoineachadh gun can daoine eile gur e fidhealair annam cuideachd. Uill, chan eil mi nam “violinist” gu dearbh!

Aig deireadh na seachdaine, chaidh mi dhan “Champa Fidheal Earraich comhla ri Caitrìona Fhriseal” anns an t-Srath na h-Albainn. Bha mu dhà fhichead daoine eile ann an-sin às h-uile na h-Astràilia, agus bha ceithir tìdsearan ann cuideachd. Tha Caitrìona na fidhealair Albannach, agus ‘s e fidhealair Eireannach a th’ ann Tim agus ‘s e fidhealair bluegrass a th’ ann Trev. Bha Donnchadh na accompanist cuideachd.

‘S e mu ceithir làithean a fuirich sinn aig a’ champa anns an t-Srath na h-Albainn agus dh’ionnsaich sinn mòran òrain ùr. Feasgar di-Sathuirne chaidh sinn dhan bhaile agus ghabh sinn cuirm-ciùil aig an eaglais. Bha mòran daoine às Srath na h-Albainn aig a’ chuirm-ciùil agus bha toil leotha e. Tha Caitrìona às Srath na h-Albainn, ach ‘s e baile gu math beag a th’ ann. Tha mise a’ fuirich faisg air Strath cuideachd agus ‘s toil leam a’ champa fidheal earraich gu dearbh!!!!


This week’s topic was: “Are you a poet, a singer, a story-teller, or a piper? Do others say so?”

This was my monologue:

I’m a fiddler. I think other people would say I’m a fiddler, too. Well, I’m not a violinist, anyway!

On the weekend, I went to Cathy Fraiser’s Spring Fiddle Camp in Strathalbyn. There were about forty others there from all over Australia, and there were four teachers. Cathy is a Scottish fiddler, Tim is an Irish fiddler, and Trev was a bluegrass fiddler. Duncan is an accompanist, as well.

We were at the camp in Strathalbyn for about four days and we learnt many new songs. On Saturday evening, we went into town and gave a concert in the church hall. There were lots of Strathablynites at the concert and they enjoyed it. Catherine is from Strathalbyn, but it’s a reasonably small town. I live near Strath, too, and I love Spring Fiddle Camp!!!


Di-Daoine madainn bha an t-sìde glè fhuar. ‘N uair a chaidh mise a-mach air an doras madainn di-daoine, chunnaic mi air a’ fheur. Bha an feur geal – bha reòthadh ann. Chunnaic mi air na cearcan agus na tunnagan cuideachd agus thug mi biadh orra.

Dh’ithe mi breacaist agus thug mi mo leabharachan ann mo mhalaid. An uair sin, bha seachd uairean ‘is dà-fichead mionaidean ann. Chluiche mi bheagan fidheal. Bidh Latha Saoghal na Fidheal* ann aig direadh na seachdaine agus cluichidh mi fidheal anns an Sruighlea le Comunn Fidheal Albainn Adelaide**.

Aig ochd uairean air a’ mhadainn, dh’fhalbh mise a-steach air a’ chàr le m’ athair. Chaidh sinn le càr mu deich mionaidean ‘s dà-fichead agus thàinig mi dhan oilthigh mu naoi uairean air a’ mhadainn.

Bha leasan gramair ann air a’ mhadainn agus thuirt am maighstear-sgoile rinn mu dheidhinn independent agus dependant clauses, agus bha sinn a’ diagramachadh* an leabhar Peadar a h-Aon às a’ bhìoball. Bha ceithir uairean ann anns an leasan agus dh’fhalbh mi dhachaidh aig aon uair feasgar, ach dh’òl sinn taì agus cafaidh aig aon uair deag air a’ mhadainn.

Bu toil leam a’ dèanamh diagram le Greugais, a’ chiadh chànan an Tiomnadh Nuadh. Tha bìoball Ameireaganach againn aig an oilthigh – uill, tha bìoball Ameireaganach aig mo thidsear, ‘s e Ameireaganach a th’ ann – agus cha toil leam e.

*World Fiddle Day

**Adelaide Scottish Fiddle Club

***diagramming. Aig an Sgoil-Nàiseanta, thuirt iad rinn, “‘N uair a nach fìos sibh verb anns a’ Ghàidhlig, canaibh -achadh. Mar eisempleir, ‘n uair a tha sibh a’ lorg air Google, tha sibh a’ googlachadh.”