By Liam Ó Caiside, Gaelcast
Perhaps you first met Catrìona Parsons, as I did, when she was adjudicating one of the annual Mòds run by An Comunn Gaidhealach America. Or when she was leading an immersion program at the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts in Cape Breton. Or when she was teaching Gaelic at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia.
Whatever the circumstances, it quickly becomes clear that Catrìona brings gale-force energy to the promotion of her native language, Scottish Gaelic. A native of the isle of Lewis in Scotland, Catrìona has been one of the most active exponents of Gaelic in North America for more than a decade.
She is the author of a three-volume Gaelic course, Gàidhlig Troimh Còmhradh (“Scottish Gaelic through Conversation”), published by the Gaelic College in Cape Breton. In 1994 she won the Flora Macdonald Award presented by the Scottish Heritage Center, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College, Laurinburg, N.C., for her contribution to education. Catrìona also is a poet, and her work has been published in Gairm, for many years the formative Scottish Gaelic quarterly magazine. As a singer, she has won awards at Gaelic Mòds in Scotland and Canada.
She is co-founder of the U.S. National Mòd, which she has adjudicated eight times. This interview was conducted after the Eighth Annual ACGA Mòd, in September 1995.
Ó Caiside: Tell us about your early days on Lewis — where were you born, and where were your people from? What was the state of Gaelic at the time in your community?
Catrìona: I was born in the village of Aignish, in the Point district, on the Eye peninsula. Aignish is about four miles east of Stornoway. The word “Eye” derives from “Aoidh,” the Gaelic word for peninsula. My people were all from Lewis — my mother’s people from Lochs, in the south part of the island, and my father’s from Point. When I was growing up, Gaelic was very strong in all communities, although the tendency was to use English in business transactions, especially when one went to “town.” i.e. Stornoway.
Ó Caiside: What was life like for you as a young person growing up in the Gàidhealtachd? How does it differ from life there today?
Catrìona: Life was pretty uncomplicated and free in those days. There was no sense yet that Gaelic was endangered and we accepted it the way we accepted the air we breathed. As a small child, I spent a great deal of time with my paternal grandparents in Aignish. My grandmother had very little English an it was natural for us to speak all the time in Gaelic. Nowadays, even native speakers are as likely to begin conversations in English as in Gaelic, such is the pervasive influence of everything English. So much has changed — what with all that “progress” has brought.
Ó Caiside: What led you toward the teaching profession? Was a role in Gaelic education always your goal?
Catrìona: I always knew I was going to be a teacher. But I didn’t know I would ever teach Gaelic! In those days, teachers stressed the necessity of English as a prerequisite for “getting ahead.” And it was English — and later Linguistics — that I taught when I first began teaching.
Ó Caiside: Where did you finish your schooling? What role did Gaelic play in your life during your college days and your time on the mainland?
Catrìona: I did both my undergraduate and graduate work at Edinburgh University. Gaelic played very little part in my life as an undergraduate, although I fondly remember Gaelic classes with Willie Matheson. What I mostly remember, however, is the wonderful time I had with fellow Gaels at the Highland Society dances, and the Highland Annual, when Gaelic students converged on Edinburgh from Glasgow and Aberdeen.
Ó Caiside: What brought you to North America? Where have you taught in the U.S. and Canada?
Catrìona: Marriage to a Divinity student from Virginia brought me to North America! I first taught English at Columbia High School in Columbia, S.C., while my husband was finishing his Theological training at Southern Seminary. My most recent teaching in the U.S. was at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I taught English and Linguistics. Since 1978, I’ve been teaching at the Gaelic College Summer School in Cape Breton and since September, 1993, in the Celtic Department at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
Ó Caiside: What types of courses do you teach at St. Francis Xavier in Antigonish? Can you give us a brief description of the Celtic Studies program there?
Catrìona: At St. F.X., I teach first and second-year Gaelic. The first two years I also taught a history course: “The Gael — Old World and New.” This year I’m teaching Celtic literature instead. Currently, Dr. Nilsen, the department chair, is teaching Folklore, first-year Irish, and third-year Gaelic. St. F.X. is the only institution in North America teaching three levels of Scottish Gaelic. On a rotation basis, other courses are also taught, such as Bàrdachd Gàidhlig (Gaelic poetry).
Ó Caiside:You just published the third book in your series “Gàidhlig Troimh Chòmhradh.” What reaction have you had to the course?
Catrìona My course has been well received. It recently got favorably reviewed in Gairm and has gone out to Japan, Australia and New Zealand, as well as to Scotland and England, and, of course, the U.S. and Canada.
Ó Caiside: How did you come to develop the course? What goals do you have for it? How does your course differ in style or content from others?
Catrìona: After I had been teaching several summers at the Gaelic College, the material for volume one naturally evolved as I struggled to achieve clearer ways of introducing the language to adult beginners. The goal from the beginning has been to bring learners closer and closer to fluency so the emphasis has been on speaking the language, but without neglecting structure. The course depends on understanding the grammatical structures without being a grammar per se. Also the idioms are something I believe in stressing.
In addition, I was determined from the beginning that all the Gaelic — vocabulary, text, drills, songs — would be on tape so that the learner could hear the spoken word. Yes, mine is a dialect of the Isle of Lewis but one student of mine, who now has a Ph.D. in Celtic, fell in love with a girl from the Isle of Skye and has decided to sound like a Sgiathanach instead of a Leòdhasach! More power to him.
Ó Caiside: You have been an adjudicator at Mòd America for many years. How did you first become involved with that?
Catrìona: When I was singing at the Scottish National Mòd in 1984, held that year in Inverness, I still hadn’t left the platform when a gentleman came up to speak to me. He introduced himself as Donald MacDonald from North Carolina, brother-in-law of Kitty Macleod, the wonderful Gaelic singer from Lewis whom I had admired since I was very small. He poured out his dream of a Gaelic Mòd in the U.S. and I promised to support the venture. I became involved with ACGA when I adjudicated at the first Mòd.
Ó Caiside: What is your outlook for Gaelic, in Scotland and North America?
Catrìona: When I was at the Celtic Conference in July (1995), I asked Derick Thomson this question. He responded that he was not optimistic about the fate of the language as a natural, native, indigenous language (“cànan dùthchasach”). This question was also addressed at the conference itself, and the verdict for Scotland was “guardedly optimistic.” The language is changing fast in Scotland, showing the immense influence of English vocabulary and structures. The former was inevitable, given the vast influx of terms from the technological revolution. The teaching of Gaelic in North America is generally more conservative, I think, with emphasis still on traditional Gaelic structures. Coming back to the question, I’m with the optimists.
Ó Caiside: What trends do you see in Canada and the U.S.? Is interest in the language growing? Is the nature of that interest changing in any way?
Catrìona: This year , I have 31 students in first-year Gaelic, the highest number ever. Most of them are from Cape Breton, some from mainland Nova Scotia, and the remainder from places as diverse as Saskatchewan and Texas. From these, however, only a few will go on to attain a good measure of fluency, although I have great hopes of this class. Although interest has grown, that interest would take a greater leap forward if Gaelic could be seen to be more economically viable.
Ó Caiside: What about the Gaelic-speaking community in Cape Breton — can it survive? What needs to be done to assist it?
Catrìona: The native Gaelic-speaking community in Cape Breton — by that I mean those people who spoke it and heard it spoken naturally in the home when they were growing up — is fast disappearing. We lose more every year. It’s this realization that has spurred on so many young people to work towards preserving and propagating language and culture: Fèisean, workshops, immersions, Gaelic days and so on are increasing in number. Comhairle na Gàidhlig, Alba Nuadh (the Nova Scotia Gaelic Council), is striving to be an umbrella agency for all the diverse groups.
We need, I think, to learn political savvy, to learn how to lobby the government into awareness that the economic climate of the province would only improve with recognition of and support of small Gaelic-based businesses an enterprises. We also need Gaelic offered in schools located in traditionally Gaelic communities. Nurturing the use of Gaelic in those communities, by the oldest to the youngest, is the most important task of all.
This interview first appeared in Naidheachd, Vol. XII, No. 4, Winter 1995. Naidheachd is the quarterly journal of An Comunn Gaidhealach America.