Department History

"An rud a nithear gu math, chithear a bhuil."  

Gaelic and StFX 

Scottish Gaelic emigrants and their descendants were settled throughout parts of the seven counties of north-eastern Nova Scotia which constituted the Roman Catholic Diocese of Antigonish. Gaelic was the majority language in this area during most of the nineteenth century; of a population of nearly 105,000 in 1871, some 67% were Gaelic-speakers.

Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon founded Saint Francis Xavier College in 1853. Although MacKinnon was the son of two Gaelic-speaking immigrants, he made no place for Gaelic at the institution: such were the stigmas and disadvantages working against Gaelic that assimilation into English-speaking society was typically seen as the priority.

Bronze Statue of Bishop Colin F. MacKinnon

Bishop MacKinnon Statue on the St FX Campus

It took some time for Gaels to formulate a response to the neglect of their language and culture in the institutions of higher learning in both Scotland and abroad, but efforts gained strength in the late 1800s, especially after the establishment of the first Chair of Celtic at the University of Edinburgh in 1882.

Despite the lack of support for Gaelic in the early decades of StFX, many Nova Scotians who came to the university to study or work spoke Gaelic as their mother tongue. As late as 1937, John Lorne Campbell observed that nearly half of the staff were Gaelic speakers. It was a matter of mustering the will to do something with it.

The Development of Celtic Studies at StFX 

Gaelic was first taught at StFX in the 1890-91 academic year by Father D. A. MacAdam, a major advocate of Gaelic, who was a contributor to the Scottish periodical Guth na Bliadhna and later to the Nova Scotia-based Mosgladh. Besides teaching a Gaelic class, he organized the student Celtic society from 1893 to 1900.

In the first decade of the 20th century, courses in Gaelic language and literature were taught by Rev. Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair (Alasdair MacIlleathain Sinclair), a presbyterian minister and renowned Gaelic scholar. Sinclair was a native of Glen Bard, Antigonish County, and grandson of the poet John MacLean (am Bàrd MacIlleathain). Sinclair did more to advance Gaelic studies in North America than anyone else in his lifetime (he is the subject of the Ph.D. dissertation of faculty member Dr. Michael Linkletter). In later decades, Gaelic was taught by Fr. MacPherson and A.T. MacDonald.

Picture of Rev. Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair

Rev. Dr. Alexander Maclean Sinclair

Angus L. Macdonald was a graduate of StFX who had studied under Alexander Maclean Sinclair. During his time as premier of Nova Scotia from 1945 to 1954, he sought to provide increased visibility and support for Gaelic in Nova Scotia, including advocating for a Celtic Studies department at StFX. In 1958, Major C.I.N. MacLeod, a Gaelic-speaking native of the Isle of Lewis (Scotland), was hired to establish the Department of Celtic Studies.

Picture of Major C. I. N. MacLeod

Major C. I. N. MacLeod - 1st Chair of Department (Courtesy: St FX Archives)

Upon the death of Major MacLeod, Sister Margaret MacDonell (below) became Chair of the department. Sister MacDonell was responsible for establishing the Cape Breton Gaelic Folklore Project in which Dr. John Shaw collected on tape examples of folklore from Gaelic speakers throughout Cape Breton. This collection is probably the largest archive of spoken Gaelic in North America. A copy of this collection is now housed at StFX in the Angus L. Macdonald Library where it may be consulted by the public. It has also been digitized and made available online at the Struth nan Gàidheal / Gael Stream website:

MSP (Member Scottish Parliament) Alastair Allan speaking to Sister Margaret MacDonell in the Celtic Collection at St FX, November 2008

MSP (Member Scottish Parliament) Alastair Allan speaking to Sister Margaret MacDonell in the Celtic Collection at St FX, November 2008

The Endowment of Chairs in Gaelic and Celtic at StFX

The Sister Saint Veronica Chair in Gaelic Studies / Cathair na Peathar Naomh Veronica ann an Gàidhlig 

In 1983, through the efforts of then Celtic Department chair, Sister Margaret MacDonell with help from Senator Allan MacEachen and the Antigonish Highland Society, StFX was successful in obtaining a grant from the Multiculturalism Directorate of the federal government for the establishment of a chair in Gaelic Studies. It was decided to name the chair in honour of Sister Saint Veronica (Mary Macdonald) who was a Gaelic speaker and beloved professor of History (1937-1970) and the first woman to be appointed to the StFX faculty. In September 1984, Dr. Kenneth E. Nilsen became the first holder of the chair until his death in 2012. 

Document in Which the Government of Canada Endows Gaelic Studies at St. FX

Gov't of Canada endows Chair in Gaelic Studies at St FX 

Stone Memorial to the Legacy of Sister Saint Veronica, from Which the Chair of Gaelic Studies Received it's Name

 Chair in Gaelic Studies is named in honour of Sister Saint Veronica

Picture of Young Ken Nielse Speaking Through a Microphone

Dr. Kenneth E. Nilsen - 1st holder of the Sr. St. Veronica Chair in Gaelic Studies (1984-2012)

The Ben Alder Chair in Celtic Studies / Cathair na Beinne Eallair ann an Ceiltis

From 1993 to 2008, Catriona NicIomhair Parsons, a native of the Isle of Lewis, joined the department, significantly augmenting the Gaelic program. In 2001, the Celtic Department expanded to having three, full-time professors for the first time in the history of StFX with the endowment of another chair, i.e., the Ben Alder Chair in Celtic Studies. Through the invaluable assistance of Fr. Vern Boutilier, this new chair was established via the generosity of Swiss financier, Urs Schwarzenbach, who named it after his estate in Scotland called "Ben Alder" (Beinn Eallair in Gaelic). This has enabled the department to offer an expanded number of courses and a full honours program in Celtic.  

Picture of a Memorial of The Ben Adler Chair in Celtic Studies

Gaelic on the St FX Campus


In May 1992, StFX became the first university in Canada to host the annual conference of the Celtic Studies Association of North America. The department has twice hosted the annual conference of the North American Association of Celtic Language Teachers (1997 & 2002). In July 2008, the biennial Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic Studies) conference was hosted for the first time outside of Scotland at StFX. The department also hosted a symposium on Gaelic scholar Alexander Maclean Sinclair in May 2009, and in the summer of 2011, a conference on the Celts in the Americas. The annual conference of the Celtic Studies Association of North America returned to StFX in May 2016, see