“Memory-Keeper of the Forest”, edited by Michael Newton (CBU Press, $27.95) is an anthology of Gaelic prose and poetry, composed by Gaels in Canada.
A large book of 570 pages, including notes and bibliography, it’s a bilingual book, which accounts for its size.
Everyone of Highland Scottish descent — and there are many everywhere in this country — will be able to read this book and learn much more in the process. Those of different ancestry, who may be inclined to peruse it, will learn about a side of Canadian history which is little-known but essential for a proper understanding of Canada’s origin and development.
It also shows that the popular image of Highlanders — wearing kilts and sporrans, dancing, tossing cabres and speaking an unintelligible language or garbled English — is little more than a caricature.
The book is divided into several sections according to the following themes: the subjugation of Gaeldom; militarism and tartanism; migration; settlement; love and death; religion; language and literature; identity and associations and politics. Each section is introduced by a fairly long note, while each selection is prefaced by a short one.
With only a few words of Gaelic — not enough to form a sentence or a question — it’s not possible to judge the literary value of the selections or the quality of the translations. However, we judge the translations are at least accurate and give a glimpse of the beauty of Gaelic song. All of the poems are meant to be sung, not read, and most are very long. They are well worth reading because they are a window through which we can perceive an utterly different way of life and values much unlike our own.
A few examples: The Lament of the North; Glencalvie Clearances; Sailing to Prince Edward Island and In Praise of the Canadian Prairies (last two in prose). Other typical selections are Curses on the Mice, Ontario Love Song, The Farmer’s Thanksgiving Hymn and A Song about the General Election. To sum up, Gaels could make a song about anything.
Newton, the editor, has published four other scholarly books on Gaelic subjects, as well as the bestselling “The Naughty Little Book of Gaelic: All the Scottish Gaelic You Need to Curse, Swear, Drink, smoke and Fool Around”, which shows another side of the language and people.
At one time, Gaelic was the third most common language spoken in Canada. Efforts were made to have it given equal status with French.
Today, people are still speaking and learning Gaelic. At least one church in Ottawa holds a monthly service in Gaelic. The Gaels may never die. They just go underground.
Elizabeth Cran is a freelance writer who writes a book review column for The Guardian. To comment or to send her books to review, write her at her new address: 95 Orange St., Apt. 101, Saint John N.B., E2L 1M5, or call her