A sense of family
MacLeod turns to grandparents’ generation and Gaelic to tell story of Cape Breton
By Jeffrey Simpson
The Chronicle Herald (Halifax, N. S.)
(Reprinted with kind permission)
KEVIN MacLeod is proudly descended from the Highland Scots of Cape Breton but he has long believed his people have been misrepresented to the wider world by a focus on the region’s music.
MacLeod, who now lives in Ottawa, where he’s the chief of protocol for the Department of Canadian Heritage, believes people from other parts of the continent are getting an incomplete picture of the island’s culture through their exposure to musicians such as the Rankins, the Barra MacNeils and Natalaie MacMaster.
"One could not fault these individuals for believing that the Scots were ‘party animals’ who revelled in ceilidhs, milling frolics and any other festivity that came along," MacLeod, 56, said in a recent interview.
"While there was indeed frivolity, there is so much more that must be added to the mix."
In an effort to establish a more rounded picture of who his ancestors were, MacLeod has written A Stone on Their Cairn. It’s the story of his grandparents’ generation, as told through a series of vignettes spanning 1896 and 1914 with each chapter representing a year in the fictional community of Loch Dubh.
"A Stone on Their Cairn is an attempt to offer a better understanding of these people as they lived life day-by-day and to the best of their abilities in forging a new life for themselves and their families while, in the process, contributing to this fascinating wedge of Canada and Canadian identity," MacLeod said.
A strong sense of family and community and a powerful bond with the land, sea and sky are some of the aspects necessary to depict his ancestors more accurately, he said.
While growing up on Cape Breton’s Boularderie Island in the 1960s, Mac-Leod always felt his grandparents were from another era — they were the last people in the area to have been raised with Gaelic as a mother tongue. Over the years since his youth MacLeod has gained a greater appreciation of who they were and regrets failing to ask them more about their lives. His book is an attempt to delve into their pasts.
"I wanted to better understand who I am by taking my grandparents ‘back in time’ to a point when they would have been born — to observe them being nurtured and guided as they came forward in time, becoming the people they were destined to become as individuals, parents and grandparents," he said. "The objective of the book is to provide a realistic portrayal of a speci-fic people in a specific place and at a specific point in time.
"The intent was to offer this portrayal as a testament to lives lived and, of equal importance, heritage bequeathed as a legacy."
MacLeod said it was essential to the story that he write the dialogue in Gaelic, with the English translation following in parenthesis.
"The time period in which the book is set was a pivotal time for Gaelic in Cape Breton," he said. "The language was both denigrated by some of its very own speakers as a symbol of the past and still others who regarded it as an essential and valued aspect of their heritage, worthy of preservation.
"It would be patently dishonest to offer up a work purported to be a realistic account of a Highland Scots community without Gaelic. It was a cornerstone of society and, beyond the richness and beautiful cadence of the language, a living symbol of a connectedness to something much greater than simply the past."