The distance between Inverness County and the Isle of Skye can take many decades to navigate, in Robert Forsyth’s experience.
Forsyth was a New Waterford boy visiting his mother’s people in Inverness County when he first remembers being attracted to the lilting rhythms of the Gaelic language. By the time he made it to a Gaelic immersion program at Sabhal Mor Ostaig on the isolated Isle of Skye, he was the married father of three grown children, a retired Michelin employee and a recent university graduate.
“My parents were both of Scottish descent. My mother’s family had originally come from the highlands and my father’s from the lowlands but there was no Gaelic spoken in my home,” he said.
The Gaelic flowed freely, though, at family gatherings in Inverness County, intriguing Forsyth.
“I was interested in the language, definitely, but there were very few opportunities to learn it outside the family home in those days,” he said.
Forsyth savoured Gaelic words and phrases when and where he heard them and he enjoyed Cape Breton Celtic music, but like many a young Maritimer, the need to find work took him to Toronto.
“I’d been in Toronto for seven years when I heard about the Michelin plant opening in Pictou County. I saw it as an opportunity to get back to Nova Scotia and it worked out. I worked there almost 34 years,” he said.
Forsyth married a girl from the Sydney area and they settled in Blue Mountain where they still live.
“We both came from an agricultural background so we had no trouble fitting into a rural community. People were good to us, we’ve enjoyed it and found it a great place to raise a family. It is a safe place and we’ve always found lots to do,” he said.
At age 56, with retirement in the not-too-distant future, Forsyth decided to begin university. Initially, he was a part-time student but was able to add to his course load during retirement and a year ago he graduated from St. Francis Xavier University with a bachelor of arts degree, major in English and minor in Celtic studies.
“It was late in life before I got the opportunity to seriously learn Gaelic but it worked out pretty well for me,” he said.
He remembers being the oldest person in most of his classes, Gaelic included.
“Most people seemed to be 18 to 25 but the young people were very encouraging and when it came to technology they had lots of skills they did not mind sharing,” he said, adding he also had great encouragement and support from his own family.
Forsyth said the Gaelic required a lot of hard work and while there were discouraging moments, he stuck with it, gaining grammar, vocabulary and confidence.
He applied for a two-week immersion course at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, because he thought it would be a great opportunity to add to his proficiency.
“I didn’t really expect to be going but I was accepted and a bursary from the Scottish government and the Nova Scotia Department of Gaelic Affairs made it affordable. It was pretty exciting to think I’d be studying on the Isle of Skye,” he said.
Getting there was more challenging than expected.
“The Olympics were on in London so I had trouble getting a flight. I had to fly to Frankfurt and then to Edinburgh and get a bus from there to the island. Then I was dropped off and had to find a local bus to the college,” he said.
At the bus stop Forsyth met a man who was also on his way to Gaelic learning.
“He was from Sweden and his ancestors had moved there from Scotland in the seventeenth century. He told me that at least one person in every generation of his family since then had kept in touch with the family left behind in Scotland.”
Forsyth said he also met a Gaelic student from France who held Nova Scotians in high esteem because of the role Nova Scotia soldiers had played in the liberation of France in the Second World War.
“The instructors are all fluent Gaelic speakers, some of them native speakers. They are knowledgeable, patient, energetic and very helpful,” Forsyth said.
All day Monday to Friday was spent in the classroom where the emphasis was on conversation rather than grammar. Forsyth’s proficiency improved as he adapted to synonyms used in place of more familiar words from his St. FX classes.
“In the evenings there were conversation groups at the café on campus. I took advantage of this and traded broken Gaelic with many different people who were also there to learn,” he said.
The immersion program was an opportunity Forsyth encourages others to consider.
“It was a wonderful experience and I learned that Gaelic is not just spoken in isolated communities in Cape Breton or the highlands of Scotland. It is alive and valued and spoken by many people in Canada and in countries across Europe.”
Forsyth continues to practise his Gaelic with a local group, through private lessons in Gillisdale and as a member of the board of the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia. He was also a participant in the recent Gaelic service at the historic Loch Broom church.
- Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think should she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at email@example.com