Suzanne Rent continues her series of profiles of women over 50 who, in their own often quiet ways, make significant contributions to our society outside of the corporate world.
Emily McEwan was 19 years old when she heard a song on the radio that would put her on a pathway to a future career. The song was Fliuch an Oidhche, which translates to “Wet is the Night,” a milling tune that was sung in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The version McEwan heard on the radio show The Thistle and Shamrock was sung by Catherine-Ann MacPhee, a Scottish Gaelic singer from Barra in the Hebrides.
That song starts like this:
Fliuch an oidhche
Hù ill oro
Nochd ’s gur fuar i
O hì a bhò
Man d’ thug Clann Nìll
Hù ill oro
Druim a’ chuain orr’
Boch ho rinn o.
McEwan still remembers the rhythm of the song, the tone of MacPhee’s voice, the sound of the language.
“I thought, ‘That’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. This is the most amazing sounding language. What is this? Scottish Gaelic?’” McEwan recalled in a recent interview with the Halifax Examiner. “I knew there was an Irish Gaelic, but I didn’t know there was a Scottish one. I just had to learn more about it. That just kicked it off.”
McEwan, 52, is the founder and publisher of Bradan Press, a small independent publishing company that according to its website, “carries on the 180-year tradition of Scottish Gaelic publishing in Nova Scotia.” McEwan started Bradan Press in 2016, several years after she moved to Nova Scotia.
The publishing company’s origins lie in a blog post titled “So you want a Scottish Gaelic tattoo” that McEwan wrote all about Scottish Gaelic tattoos gone wrong. How those tattoos go wrong usually is the result of people googling translations on the internet. McEwan’s blog post has tips on what to do to get the tattoo correct, which include hiring a translator.
McEwan published that post in 2015 and it quickly went viral. When she was struggling to find work in Nova Scotia, her mother told her to turn that blog post into something more.
“Write the damn book,” McEwan said her mother told her. “Okay, I guess I will do that.”
The result is The Scottish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook: Authentic words & phrases in the Celtic language of Scotland. The book, which she wrote in a month, offers photos of real-life Gaelic tattoo designs with incorrect translations. There’s also a Gaelic tattoo glossary with common words and phrases, plus sections on Scottish Gaelic writing, history, and culture.
“Somebody buys this almost every single day on Amazon, somewhere in the world,” McEwan said of her Scottish Gaelic tattoo book, which was published in 2016. “It’s doing great for a little indie book.”
Eventually, McEwan said people came to her with ideas for books, including books for children. One of the other first books was Fionn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge by Terri M. Roberts. A second edition of that title is now available.
To date, Bradan Press has published 31 books from 22 authors. Most of the authors are Nova Scotian or Canadian. Some are from the U.S. or Scotland, but Nova Scotia is at the company’s heart.
“This publishing company could not be run anywhere else,” McEwan said. “You can’t run a company like this from the US. It’s just not going to work, it’s not going to be rewarding, it’s not going to feed anybody … I don’t mean literally. You won’t be having the connections with the authors, your mission won’t be the same. It just has to be here. It makes sense here. It can only be here.”
‘I wanted to keep going’
Despite her Scottish surname, McEwan didn’t have any solid ties with Scottish Gaelic culture or the language. She knew her father had Scottish and Irish ancestry, but that was about it.
“There was nothing cultural beyond that,” McEwan said. “It was like a one off.”
McEwan grew up outside of Chicago and her path to living in Nova Scotia took her a few directors before she decided to live her for the long term.
She first studied anthropology at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. During those university years — and not long after she heard MacPhee singing Fliuch an Oidhche on the radio — McEwan got a chance to study abroad. It was a sweet deal; she only had to pay the tuition she’d pay at her home university, not larger sums of international fees. The list of schools she could choose from was short, and she chose the University of Aberdeen in Aberdeen, Scotland.
After she graduated, she tried to get a job in publishing, but didn’t have any luck. She spent just over a year teaching English in Japan. Eventually, she moved back to the U.S. and went to the University of Chicago where she earned a masters and then a PhD in anthropology with a focus on Gaelic languages.
“I was in the field of linguistic anthropology and talking about language learning motivations is definitely one of the things that people are interested in,” she said. “I wanted to keep going and it felt good.”
McEwan first visited Nova Scotia in 2008 when she visited St. FX for a Gaelic studies conference. At the time, she was an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh.
Sharing a common ancestor
McEwan said Irish Gaelic and Scottish Gaelic are considered sister or cousin languages. She said while the languages share a common ancestor — which is called Middle Irish, if you’re Irish, or classic Gaelic — the two languages diverged from there. There are differences in vocabulary and pronunciation, as well as “false friends,” words that look the same when written down, but have different meanings.
“If I had done a whole Celtic studies degree as opposed to just one year, I would have studied Irish, too,” she said.
Beyond being fluent in Scottish Gaelic, McEwan knows about the history of Gaels, including in Nova Scotia. The language and culture was suppressed, she said, first on the mainland in the the 19th century. Later, the suppression would happen in Cape Breton in the 20th century.
Some of the authors of the books published by Bradan mention that history, including the educational children’s book, G is for Gael: An Alphabet of Nova Scotia’s Gaelic Culture by Shelayne Hanson. Under the letter P is the word punishment with this text:
Many years ago, children who spoke Gaelic in school were punished. They were only allowed to speak and study English. One punishment was wearing a rough board around your neck. After being punished, many children stopped speaking Gaelic and only spoke English for the rest of their lives.
The illustration by Etta Moffatt that goes with that section is a drawing of a young girl, crying, with a rough board around her neck while she stands in front of a blackboard in a classroom.
But she said there are difference between Scottish Gaelic culture in Scotland and Scottish Gaelic culture in Nova Scotia. That includes the process of how the language shifted and who spoke it and still speaks it.
“What that means is here, every third person you talk to — more than every third person to me because I’m involved with this stuff — every third person you talk with had Gaelic-speaking grandparents, or a Gaelic-speaking parent, or a Gaelic-speaking parent, or a Gaelic-speaking grandparent,” McEwan said.
“So, it’s still really close in time. It’s within living memory for a lot of people, even if they can’t speak it themselves. Whereas in Scotland, it’s still really close, but for a lot of people it’s, “I speak Gaelic or my parents speak Gaelic.'”
‘It’s a national matter there’
As a publisher, McEwan said there’s more support for Scottish Gaelic work now in Scotland than there is Nova Scotia.
“It’s a national matter there. There are national organizations that have grants and there are Gaelic organizations that are national,” she said. “Here, the highest level of government we can go is provincial. And it’s amazing we even have that right now, given the history of here, where it was constantly swatted away, denied, ignored, and laughed at.”
In Nova Scotia, there is Gaelic Affairs, which falls under the Department of Communities, Culture, Tourism and Heritage. The department is also responsible for Acadian Affairs and Francophonie and African Nova Scotia Affairs. McEwan said while Gaelic Affairs helps, it can only do so much. She said under former premier Stephen McNeil’s tenure, two of the five positions under Gaelic Affairs were cut.
It was Roberts, the author of Fionn MacCool and the Salmon of Knowledge, who suggested the Examiner profile McEwan and her work.
“She’s the only person who publishes Gaelic (and other Celtic language) materials in the area,” Roberts wrote in a message. “She’s the main person doing the heavy lifting of saving the language from extinction.”
While McEwan was flattered by Roberts’ compliment, she said there are other across the province working to preserve Scottish Gaelic language and culture, too.
“It’s a group effort. It has to be a group effort,” McEwan said. “Language is fundamentally social. My training as a linguistic anthropologist is all about language and culture as opposed to language structure, which is one person in a room analyzing. It’s about conversation … and it’s about use. No one person is going to save anything. It has to be a group effort. There has to be a lot of voices. There will be disagreements, there will be differences of opinion, and everybody has their own different experience. I think that’s the wild thing about language shift and revitalization. It’s so variable. It’s so amazingly variable.”
McEwan knows about these efforts happening across the province. Citadel High School offers its students a Gaelic program, the only school in the Halifax Regional Centre for Education to do so.
“There are a lot of students from Halifax who have taken that and from all different backgrounds,” McEwan said. “They take it as an elective. Either they want to connect with their family roots or they thought it was an interesting thing to do.”
Colaisde na Gàidhlig (The Gaelic College) in St. Ann’s, Cape Breton offers a mentorship program called Young Heroes that partners young people with Gaelic-speaking mentors.
And in 2019 in Mabou, Cape Breton, a group of parents started working to create a Gaelic medium school, Taigh Sgoile na Drochaide.
McEwan said she’d like to see more such schools across the province, plus Scottish Gaelic preschools for younger students.
“What’s so great is finally, in one place at the same time, there were enough of them that had enough kids to make this viable,” McEwan said about Colaisde na Gàidhlig. “It’s great that was able to happen there. I have high hopes for that.”
And she’d like to see more diversity in interest in Scottish Gaelic language and culture. Many of Bradan Press’s books already reflect the diversity in Nova Scotia’s Scottish Gaelic culture. She said that diversity has to include the LGBTQ+ community.
“There is diversity already among people who are already interested in Gaelic. What we have to increase is the comfort level for everyone,” McEwan said. “So, everyone feels the same comfort level and everyone feels comfortable and doesn’t have to hide any part of who they are to learn Gaelic, use Gaelic, and being a Gaelic speaker.”
In Nova Scotia, teaching people about Scottish Gaelic culture has to be more than what people might already about its culture and history, for example, the promotion of tartans and fiddle music.
“That was deliberately constructed. They stomped on the real Gaelic, the real treasure, the real ancient stuff, the real community sustaining things,” McEwan said.
“Some of the folks in our Gaelic community are really not that keen on kilts and tartan because what has that ever done for them except actually run over their parents’ and grandparents’ culture and made them feel less than when it should have been elevating it, as something that everybody can enjoy and share and keep going like the actual culture of people here. It’s dicey nowadays because things have gone around and people do relate to the tartan stuff that way, too. I don’t want to diss any of it.”
McEwan knows too that there were Gael settlers and their descendants who committed genocide against the Mi’kmaw people. That includes John A. Macdonald, who authorized the creation of the residential school system. She said reconciliation is part of the the teaching of Scottish Gaelic now; that’s mentioned on Bradan Press’s website. McEwan said there are Gaelic and Mi’kmaw groups in Cape Breton that do cultural exchanges.
“We need to encourage as many young people as we can to get engaged with Gaelic and make it something interesting to them, appealing to them,” she said. “You can do traditional things through Gaelic and you can do new things through Gaelic. And reconciliation is important, too, with Mi’kmaw people, Indigenous people.”
McEwan said the province saw a resurgence in interest in Scottish Gaelic in the 1990s, inspired in part by the music of artists like Ashley MacIsaac and Mary Jane Lamond.
“Gaelic revitalization, sometimes it’s like the scene at the end of The Commitments where Wilson Pickett shows up in the limo but it’s too late because everyone has given up and gone home,” McEwan said. “And sometimes the limo never shows up with Wilson Pickett. But we’re always waiting for that limo. Not just waiting for the limo, but jumping out in traffic going, ‘Hey, stop! Help!’ and doing whatever we can.”
“The problem is we’re too reliant on individuals of goodwill and the patronage concept rather than it being institutionalized and protected. We’re trying to struggle from one to get to the other. You really have to depend on certain people in certain positions being positively disposed toward the language. And if they’re not, you will get nowhere.”
‘I’ve been able to get even better at speaking Gaelic’
About five years ago, McEwan’s discovery of Scottish Gaelic came full circle when she learned that MacPhee, who she heard singing Fliuch an Oidhche on the radio, moved to Canada. In fact, MacPhee lives in Dartmouth. When McEwan learned MacPhee lived in town, she contacted her. Now the two often meet for coffee. McEwan said they’ve become Scottish Gaelic conversation partners. McEwan is even learning some Scottish Gaelic songs, which she said is a “dream come true.”
“I’ve been able to get even better at speaking Gaelic, spending more time talking with her,” McEwan said. “It started off when I was 19 and came all the way around the circle, and here we are in Dartmouth.”
As for Bradan Press, McEwan is still working on more titles, including one on Celtic symbols. She’d like to hire a sales and marketing person to help promote the books. And she’d like to see more Scottish Gaelic books, including those published by Bradan Press, in Nova Scotia schools. She admits it can be tough getting those books into classrooms, though; McEwan said she connects with teachers at craft fairs where Bradan Press has a booth.
“I don’t look down on craft fairs. I love them,” McEwan said. “Why do we have to find our educators by accident through a craft fair? If it’s in your curriculum, why aren’t you bulk buying resources for it?”
She credits the Atlantic Publishers Marketing Association and its Atlantic Books in Classrooms (ABC) Project for helping to get the word out to teachers about local books. McEwan sits on the committee for that project, which has a database of titles, to help promote Atlantic Canadian books to teachers.
May is Mìos nan Gàidheal in Nova Scotia or Gaelic Nova Scotia month, which celebrates the history, language, and culture of Gaels in the province. This year’s theme is “Dualchas na Gàidhlig,” which means, “Saying yes to Gaelic.”
That’s what McEwan tries to do, getting people to say yes, even if starts with a chat about a Scottish Gaelic tattoo gone wrong.
“I think the biggest lesson is people want to engage with the language, so that’s a good thing,” she said. “With my philosophy, I try to catch them at that level. So, you’re interested in Gaelic? Here’s a guide for how to be interested in Gaelic in a way that supports the community and doesn’t undercut it. And how to support and protect the language.”
“I think we’re making some progress, little by little. It’s really just individual people, individual actions, and building up something one stone at a time, one brick at a time.”