“There’s been a reawakening of the culture that’s got nothing to do with tartans and the other Scottish stereotypes,” said Mabou native Kenneth MacKenzie, 30.
Last week, proof of Gaelic’s reflowering was on full display on the grounds of the provincial legislature.
There, youthful members of the Gaelic College’s Young Heroes immersion program sang old Gaelic tunes and helped raise the flag marking Gaelic Awareness Month across Nova Scotia.
If he were a little younger, MacKenzie — whose mother comes from a well-known Mabou bag-piping clan and whose father is a Gaelic speaker and teacher from South Uist, Scotland — could have been right there with them.
Like his two brothers, the acclaimed fiddler and piper also speaks fluent Gaelic.
Increasingly, he’s got company.
The 2011 Canadian census showed that 1,275 Nova Scotians — the bulk in Cape Breton — identified themselves as Gaelic speakers.
On one hand, that’s a thin sliver of the 24,303 Gaelic speakers identified in the 1931 census.
On the other hand, it’s nearly triple the level of a decade ago.
What’s more, that number doesn’t include all 2,000 folks enrolled in Gaelic language programs around the province.
Or the thousands more people who may only speak a few words of the language but share a deepening connection to the Gaelic culture and ethos.
“The numbers are clearly moving in the right direction,” said Lewis MacKinnon, executive director of the provincial Office of Gaelic Affairs.
Precisely why is a complex question.
It may be decades since Allan MacMaster’s father, Buddy, and other local musical giants such as his cousin, Natalie MacMaster, and the Rankin family of Mabou kicked off the island’s Celtic music revival.
But pride in the island’s old-country music and dance traditions is strong as it’s ever been.
Furthermore, according to MacKinnon, the same desire to reconnect to a place, people and culture that has spawned everything from the folk music movement to the genealogy boom is rekindling an interest in Gaelic culture.
It wasn’t always this way, said Colin MacDonald, 26, a Gaelic cultural interpreter at the Gaelic College.
During the peak of the diaspora from the Scottish Highlands and outer islands — during the 1820s and ’30s — more highlanders landed in Cape Breton than anywhere in North America.
By the late 1900s, fully two-thirds of Cape Breton’s 75,000 people were Scottish — many of them speaking exclusively Gaelic — leading one historian to call Cape Breton essentially “a Scottish island.”
Yet when MacDonald’s Gaelic-speaking ancestors left Scotland for Inverness County, they found themselves in a world where Gaelic was viewed as a backward language that was openly discouraged by the schools and the Roman Catholic Church.
“Luckily, we didn’t have to move through those tough times,” said MacDonald, a traditional Scottish-style pianist and guitar player who has been speaking Gaelic since he was 15.
Instead, the number of Scottish Gaelic speakers has swelled during the last decade. Having, for a time, a fiddle-playing, Gaelic-speaking premier — Rodney MacDonald — helped.
So did a new way of teaching the ancient tongue.
Known as Gaidhlig aig Baile (which loosely translated means “Gaelic in the community”), the immersion-based teaching program focuses on learning through normal, everyday activities rather than just sitting in a classroom.
Colin MacDonald said that this new system leads to more fluency in a year or two than students once achieved in decades.
No wonder, the Gaels of today are so optimistic about tomorrow.
“For us, it’s a time of great home and optimism and self-affirmation,” said MacKenzie. Even if someone does have the temerity to mention Culloden.