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An Interview with Margaret Bennett

Posted by liam on September 2nd, 2006

By Liam Ó Caiside, Gaelcast

Many visitors to Gaelcast will be familiar with the history of Gaelic Cape Breton. But the story of Scottish Gaelic tradition in Newfoundland has received comparatively little attention.

The Gaelic community of the Codroy Valley might have disappeared without notice but for the efforts of Scottish folklorist Margaret Bennett, who began to visit the valley and record its Gaelic traditions more than twenty years ago. There she spent many nights “céilidhing” with one of the valley’s great tradition-bearers, Ailein MacArtair (Allen MacArthur), his wife Mary, and their Gaelic-speaking neighbors.

The fruit of her labor is The Last Stronghold: The Scottish Gaelic Traditions of Newfoundland, first published in 1989 by Breakwater Books of Canada and now available from Canongate Publishing Ltd. of Edinburgh, Scotland. The book introduces a little-known corner of the Celtic world, akin to the Gaelic community of Cape Breton but distinct. The award-winning book is a valuable contribution to Celtic scholarship in North America, as well as Europe, and to a better appreciation of Scottish Gaelic and Celtic communities in the “New World.”

A native Gaelic speaker, Bennett has been singing Gaelic songs since her childhood on the isles of Skye and Lewis. I interviewed Bennett after a concert performance in New York City in the early 1990s, shortly after The Last Stronghold was published.

Ó Caiside: How did you get your start as a Gaelic singer? Did you learn many songs from your family?

Bennett: My mother’s family has been on Skye for generations. When I was a young girl my family lived in Portree, but my grandparents lived Uig, and we spent all the time we could there with them. As a young girl then, I was surrounded by Gaelic, and I learned Gaelic songs from that area. There have been songs in my family for no one knows how long. My mother’s grandfather, Peter Stewart, was one of the singers Marjory Kennedy-Fraser collected songs from at the turn of the century. My mother was a singer, as well, and I learned many Gaelic songs from her. Our family moved to Lewis when I was in my teens. We lived in Braigh, near Stornoway. I have three sisters, and we four girls used to sing together all the time. We were often asked to sing at ceilidhs. All our family and friends sang. We couldn’t imagine having friends who didn’t sing. Eventually, myself and my three sisters began to receive invitations to sing further afield. But we never recorded, and I went to Newfoundland when I was 19.

Ó Caiside: What brought you to Newfoundland?

Bennett: My father, who was an engineer, went there to live, and I went there to visit him. While I was there, I found that Memorial University of Newfoundland had a folklore department. That struck me, because I hadn’t realized it was a subject you could actually study and get a degree in. I decided I would go back to Newfoundland then, when I had finished with school in Scotland, to study folklore. Singing was in part a way to put myself through college when I came to Newfoundland. Eventually, I sang at a few folk festivals, traveling as far as Milwaukee.

Ó Caiside: How did you first find out about the Gaelic community in Newfoundland?

Bennett: I had no idea when I went to Newfoundland that there were any Gaelic speakers there at all. I knew all about the Gaelic community in Cape Breton – everyone has heard of that – but I had never heard anything about Gaelic speakers in Newfoundland. Then, when I was visiting my father, I found there was a Gaelic speaker from the Codroy Valley staying at the same motel that we were in. I found that there was still a Gaelic-speaking community in the Codroy Valley, and I eventually wrote my dissertation on the community and its traditions. Initially, I wanted to do my dissertation on the Gaelic songs of the valley, but I found that my work had to embrace all its cultural traditions. The book The Last Stronghold is based on that dissertation.

Ó Caiside: How did the Scots first come to the Codroy Valley?

tBennett: The people from Scotland didn’t go directly to Newfoundland, they first went to Cape Breton. But they were the tag end of a great wave of emigration that climaxed in the 1840s and 1850s, and when they found they couldn’t get land in Cape Breton they were bitterly discouraged. Many had emigrated hoping to find land to farm.

The Catholic Church then encouraged them to go to Newfoundland, to the Codroy Valley, where there was very fertile land available. These Scottish settlers of the late 1840s, then, were among the first European settlers to go to Newfoundland expressly to farm. Newfoundland, as everyone knows, was primarily settled for the cod fishery, but these settlers wanted to farm, not fish.

From about 1840 to at least 1960 they maintained their language, songs and stories. The Gaelic language lived much longer there than in some comparable parts of Scotland. The strongest traditions maintained were fiddling and stepdancing, which flourished there after they had died in parts of Scotland.

Ó Caiside: Your book includes a chapter on the song tradition of the Codroy Valley. Did many local and topical songs in Gaelic originate there?

Bennett: Yes indeed. There were many people there who “made” songs. They weren’t considered “bards” in the same sense that they would have been in Scotland. They didn’t use that word for them. They would say “Rinn e an t-òran seo – he made this song.”

The songs were often composed orally, since many of the songmakers couldn’t write in Gaelic. Waulking or milling songs, the work songs, were popular. There were many macaronic (dual-language) songs in Gaelic and English and English and French, so that the French, English and Irish people who came to the milling could join in a chorus or verse. They would all sit at the milling table and sing the macaronic portions of the song.

Ó Caiside: What led to the decline of the Gaelic community there in the 1960s?

Bennett: The Trans-Canada Highway came through the valley in 1966, and electricity came in the early 1960s. That completely changed the way of life there. Access to the Codroy Valley became much easier, and tourism increased. Also, television changed the way of life. Most of the native Gaelic speakers there now are in their sixties and seventies, though the youngest is in his forties.

Ó Caiside: How long did you stay in Newfoundland?

Bennett: I lived there for eight years. I also lived in Quebec, in the Eastern Townships near the Vermont-New Hampshire border, which were Scottish settlements. I worked for a time for the National Museum in Ottawa. I had one of the finest collecting experiences I had in Canada while working there. I had the opportunity to interview a 105-year-old woman from Harris who remembered coming across the Atlantic in the hold of a wooden ship when she was a child.

Ó Caiside: Have you traveled back to Newfoundland?

Bennett: I was back in the Codroy Valley to record many of the songs that I included in The Last Stronghold. The songs were released on a cassette called “A Ceilidh with the MacArthurs, Codroy Valley, Newfoundland.” The cassette also includes fiddle, bagpipe and accordion music from the Codroy Valley and notes to the songs.

This interview first appeared in Keltoi; A Pan-Celtic Review, a biannual journal published by the Celtic League American Branch in New York, in 1991. I was managing editor of the journal at the time. Margaret Bennett has since left the School of Scottish Studies, but has continued her work, publishing Scottish Customs from the Cradle to the Grave and Oatmeal and the Catechism: Scottish Gaelic Settlers in Quebec.