The Last Stronghold: Gaelic Traditions of Newfoundland

Back again! Just like the rest of us, can’t stay away, b’y!
But what in the world made you come here in the first place?
Angus McNeill,
Codroy Valley, July 1986

I first became interested in the Scots of the Codroy Valley just one week after arriving in Newfoundland in August 1968. At the time, I was staying with my father in a motel about a hundred miles from St. John’s. As a new immigrant to Canada from the Scottish Hebrides, I was surprised to hear from my father, also a Scottish immigrant, that a native Newfoundlander who spoke Gaelic and had a background very similar to my own was staying in the same motel. About sixty years old, the late Hector MacIsaac was at the time working as a water engineer some five hundred miles from his home in St. Andrews, which is in the Codroy Valley on the west coast of Newfoundland. He and my father had become acquaintances and had discovered that they had common roots, my father having been born and raised in Scotland and MacIsaac’s people coming from Scotland three generations back.

The meeting with Hector MacIsaac was a memorable one. There were no formal introductions; he was simply pointed out to me across a room. Unobserved, I went up to him and greeted him in Gaelic. He responded with great delight, shaking my hand all the time he spoke, scarcely believing that there was any young person left with a knowledge of his mother tongue. He said that all the younger generation of the Codroy Valley learned English as their first language, and now even the old people who had spoken nothing but Gaelic in their youth had very little opportunity of speaking the language. Little did I realise that this first meeting would lead me to these ‘old people’, especially to an outstanding tradition-bearer whose wealth of knowledge was to hold my interest and affection for many years to come.

Hector MacIsaac described to me his home community; his Gaelic-speaking family, and the Scottish Gaels who inhabited his native part of Newfoundland. The Valley, as he called the area, seemed unique in Newfoundland in terms of language and culture, as it is in fact the only area of its kind in the province where many of the earlier settlers were Gaelic-speaking Cape Breton Scots.

My initial interest in the Codroy Valley was revived about a year later when I saw in the TV section of a newspaper the photograph of a piper with the caption “Cameras visit Codroy Valley.” I watched the programme, a half-hour documentary film illustrating features of the traditional way of life of the English, French and Scots who settled there, along with camera shots of the picturesque scenery; What I saw and heard, and particularly the pipe music and Gaelic songs, made such an impression upon me that I took a clipping from the newspaper and, for the only time in my life, I determined that I would go and visit someone I had seen on television, namely the Codroy Valley Scottish piper, Allan MacArthur.

I was then very much encouraged by two events. Firstly, my parents moved out to the west coast of Newfoundland to a place only eighty miles from the Codroy Valley; and secondly, I approached Professor Herbert Halpert, head of the Folklore Department at Memorial University of Newfoundland, to discuss a possible project. He advised me to enrol in the graduate studies programme in Folklore where I could pursue my interest in greater depth and with all the facilities of that department. Then, in a manner which I soon learned was characteristic of the man, Professor Halpert reached toward his enormous book collection and introduced me to the most up-to-date reference which cited the Codroy Valley. His “I’m sure you’ll have read it already” was enough of a hint for me to make certain that I would comb the shelves of the University library for all available dues to the Scottish Newfoundlanders.

The newly-published book was Newfoundland by the well- known naturalist and writer Harold Horwood, whose family has been in Newfoundland for over three centuries. It was in reading Horwood’s words that I understood Halpert’s urgency; for this definitive (and indeed excellent) guide to the Province of Newfoundland had already, in 1969, pronounced one of its native languages dead:

“When I was a young boy growing up beside this river,” the old man said as we gazed out over the wide, meandering channels of the Codroy, “we were almost completely cut off from the world, but we lived very comfortably. It was a simple life, of course. We wove everything that we wore out of homespun from our own sheep, except for skin boots that we made ourselves, for the winter. There was plenty of good food: fresh salmon and smoked salmon and game, and we raised so many vegetables that we could trade or sell a lot of them to the ships that came to the Gulf to fish in the summer.

“We were a mixed-up lot, too. As you walked to church on Sunday morning you would hear people on the road speaking four languages: French, English, Mi’kmaq , and Gaelic, with French the commonest of all. But we got along well enough together. I don’t remember a single feud or serious quarrel between people of different races, in my whole lifetime.”

These languages have died out now. Gaelic is no longer spoken at all, French by only a few families on the most isolated part of Newfoundland’s west coast, and Mi’kmaq by even fewer, in a cranny of Bay d’Espoir far off to the east.

Died out? That was enough inspiration to set me off on the five hundred and twenty mile drive from St. John’s to the Codroy Valley to visit these people who had already made such an impression upon me. On the way there I stopped at Stephenville to invite my mother to accompany me to the one place where she would be able to speak in her much-loved mother tongue. Fortunately, she accepted, in spite of her “You can’t just walk up to their doors, can you?”

A sight-seeing drive through the Codroy Valley showed it to consist of a number of closely knit settlements, rather like the houses that are strung out along the country roadsides in rural Scotland, with one village merging into the next. On making this comparison I concluded that, “just like at home,” people probably knew exactly who lived in every house of their community. Our first stop was the Grand Codroy Provincial Park, where the park attendant the late Con Gabriel, looked at the newspaper clipping and listened to my quest. He said he would be more than pleased to have the opportunity of bringing some of Allan MacArthur’s fellow Scots to visit the old man.

As Con predicted, Allan MacArthur was delighted to meet anyone from Scotland and particularly from one of the Gaelic- speaking areas of the Highlands and Islands that his mother and grandmother had so often told him about A very alert man in his eighties, Allan talked spontaneously about his Scottish background. It was obvious at once that he was extremely proud of his ancestors and enjoyed having an audience with whom he could share his interest. He asked what Scotland was like now and referred to the things his people had told him about the country they left in the 1800s “when they sailed to America.” In spite of the fact that he had never seen Scotland, he could tell me that “just about this time of year the hills of Scotland will be turning purple with heather – but there’s no heather here.” A hundred and forty years stood between Allan MacArthur and his grandmother’s last sight of her beloved land, yet the picture in his mind was as sharply focused as my own year-old image.

If the television portrayal of Allan MacArthur impressed me, the man himself more than lived up to my expectations. Before long our ceilidh (visit) revealed that we had a common love for Gaelic songs and Scottish music, and that Allan MacArthur’s musical background was very similar to my own. His mother had taught him many Gaelic songs, and he had learned to play the bagpipes from his uncle and other relatives. For my own part, I had been brought up on the Isle of Skye surrounded by music in a household where we, like the MacArthurs, made our own entertainment. My mother taught me many of her Gaelic songs and my father, a keen piper, influenced my great love for the bagpipes. Of equal influence were my maternal grandparents, John and flora Stewart, in whose croft I spent every available week-end and holiday. There they fed my insatiable appetite for Gaelic tradition, an interest that not only remained after they had died but was to become foremost in my life. Little wonder, then, that I felt so much at home in the company of Allan MacArthur and his wife Mary, whose forebears were MacDonalds from Glengarry.

From that first visit it was quite dear that Allan MacArthur was more than the “farmer and piper” that the newspaper article had mentioned. He was a singer, accordionist, story-teller, historian, and craftsman into the bargain. We parted company, neither of us in any doubt that I would take the man at his word and come back again soon.

Well, I would like to see you coming every week. I could keep
you up all night telling you stories and singing you songs.

If the long, snowy Newfoundland winter permitted only one return visit to the MacArthurs, it nevertheless left ample time to read and to plan. The main intention was to compile a collection of Scottish Newfoundland folklore and oral history The latter could be set beside the written history to make a composite picture of the settlement of the Scots in the Codroy Valley, for the standard textbooks give only sketchy descriptions. Fortunately, the University’s Centre for Newfoundland Studies had the invaluable expertise of its head, Miss Agnes O’Dea, who was always ready to explain the subtleties of historical researching, and with her helpful advice a thorough search of the “Newfoundland Room” proved fruitful. Substantial relevant material turned up in the records kept by travellers, surveyors, geologists and clergy. Prominent among these were William Epps Cormack, who journeyed across Newfoundland in 1822; Archdeacon Wix, who kept a journal from his missionary visit to Newfoundland in 1835; geologist J.B. Jukes, who kept a record of his travels in Newfoundland in 1839 and 1840; and Bishop Feild, who came to the coastal Newfoundland settlements in 1849. Also dating back to the earliest years of settlement were newspapers, magazines and government documents, all containing occasional references to the Codroy Valley. In the Valley itself, the parish records kept by the local priest, Father R. White, were useful for details of certain dates.

Large as this body of material might be, I am convinced that this particular account would be meagre and lacking in vitality if I had depended upon these written sources alone. The historian Philip D. Jordan affirms that unless the historian is willing to look further than printed documents, he does not have the complete account of the history of a society. He suggests that traditional oral material can make a valuable contribution to the historian’s understanding of the society he studies. The folklorist too, “can come to the aid of the historian, whose analysis of statistical data and historical documents seldom permits conclusions regarding the ways of life on a local level.”

Rarely does an individual informant know all there is to be learned about specific historical occurrences. It is necessary to query several people and collate their traditions before the complete picture can be seen.

Summer arrived in the Codroy Valley, and so did I. Home was a thirty-foot trailer, situated across the river from the MacArthurs, an ideal place from which to conduct fieldwork.

In a nucleus of settlements such as the Codroy Valley where people are naturally friendly, and some have obviously Scottish names, it was easy to find Scots settlers. By strange coincidence my own name, Bennett, a very common west coast of Newfoundland and Codroy Valley name, elicited its own local curiosity. Several Bennetts who had intermarried with Scots were mentioned, as were a few Gaelic speakers whose families had retained the original French form of Benoit rather than adopting the Anglicised version. Such changes were not generally made by choice, but were more often imposed by the early priests who had the curious habit of ‘correcting’ the spellings of French names: for example, a name like Au Coin must surely have been O’Quinn to the Irish priests. Today, many of the O’Quinns can, with pride (and a little indignation!) tell of their distinctly French background. Carried along by conversation topics such as these, and the unfailing helpfulness of local people, I found myself introduced to innumerable residents who were quick to learn of my background and my reason for coming to live in the Valley. With informants galore, it was indeed a folklorist’s paradise!

Systematically I visited and enquired, placing emphasis upon the Gaelic traditions I wished to hear about. There was a definite awareness of the important place the Scots had in the Valley, and regardless of background, everyone seemed to know an occasional word of the old language. When asked for specific details, however, almost everyone interviewed responded by directing me to Allan MacArthur, whom they considered to be an authority on the Codroy Valley Scots. Not only was he considered the best source of information on the history of the Valley, but was also the recognised authority on the legends, songs, and general traditions of the area. I was soon to find out that he was unique: the last survivor to have such a wealth of knowledge about his cultural heritage. Over the years Allan MacArthur had come to earn great respect and admiration for his remarkable memory and his lively personality. Realizing that I had the good fortune of meeting with the last real Stronghold of the Scottish Gaelic traditions of the Codroy Valley, I saw the urgency of trying to preserve as much as possible of Allan’s recollections of early days of settlement in the Valley, along with his repertoire of songs and his memory of the old-time stories, cures and crafts that were all part of the way of life of the first Scottish settlers.

In his closing years, Allan knew all too well that the language he had grown up with and loved, along with the lore that had been handed down for centuries through Gaelic, were likely to disappear from the Valley with the passing of his own generation. It was perhaps not surprising, then, that Allan MacArthur welcomed the opportunity of having someone whom he could regard as another link in the chain of tradition-bearing, and having the advantage of a similar Highland background in a Gaelic-speaking area I became the repository he was looking for. He regarded the tape recorder that I brought to his house as a wonderful tool which could be used in this eleventh-hour effort to preserve some of his traditions and memories. There were many times in those pre-video days when I wished there could be some way of capturing Allan MacArthur’s reactions as he listened to his own singing or pipe-playing played back on the tape recorder. At first he was amazed and somewhat amused at being able to listen to his own music; later, as he became more accustomed to the idea, he seemed quite convinced that this was a wonderful way of preserving all his songs which, at one time, he feared might have been lost forever.

His attitude to the recording of conversation was somewhat similar, and he firmly defended my use of it. Once, for example, when Mrs. MacArthur, slightly hesitant that the reminiscences of an old man should be recorded, reminded her husband of the presence of the tape recorder, he sat back and gently said that he was “only telling the truth.” He said that they knew how things were in the Valley many years before because they had been born and brought up there; what happened before that was told to them by their parents and grandparents, so that also could be nothing other than the truth. On no occasion throughout my many visits did Allan lose any of his enthusiasm or willingness to tell the story of the Scottish Newfoundlanders.

To preserve the accuracy of his account I transcribed Allan MacArthur’s own words from the tapes. These transcriptions, however, can give only a pale reflection of the man himself. While the words convey the information to the reader, they cannot convey the slow, deliberate articulation of his soft-spoken Newfoundland Scots accent nor the warmth of the character of the man who spoke them. Not only is the printed page devoid of a means of indicating his vocal expression, there is also a total absence of his wonderful facial expressions – the wistfulness and nostalgia of the exile; the glint of excitement of the adventurer; the sparkle of the entertainer; and the twinkle in the eye of the man who knew exactly how to hold the attention and fascination of the audience. Such are the drawbacks of transcription. To those who knew him the print will automatically remind them of all these characteristics; to readers who did not have that privilege, however, it is my hope that they will gradually get to know this memorable tradition-bearer and enjoy his acquaintance

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