Introduction to the Gaelic Song Education Project

Heather Sparling


We are pleased to present this collection of Scottish Gaelic language and culture lesson plans organized around songs. These lesson plans were developed by Gaelic language teachers — both licensed school teachers and community instructors — primarily from Nova Scotia but with representation from the US and Australia as well. They are freely available to use. We hope that teachers will adapt them to their own contexts and teaching styles. We are also hopeful that teachers of languages other than Gaelic will find them useful and inspiring. As these lessons get adapted in various ways, we look forward to seeing new ideas develop that will further inspire our pedagogical thinking, enrich our teaching toolboxes, and give impetus to language learning and revitalization efforts in a range of communities.

Project Overview

The Gaelic Song Education Project emerged at the intersection of several different projects and initiatives. To start, it is linked to the Language in Lyrics project. Among other goals, the Language in Lyrics project sought to document as many Gaelic songs known in Nova Scotia as possible, both those that came from Scotland and those that were newly composed. Far surpassing our expectations, the project team documented more than 6,000 songs in the Nova Scotia Gaelic Song Index, fully searchable and freely available online. More than 1,000 transcriptions are available through the Index itself, and whenever possible, records link to transcriptions or recordings available online. Transcriptions of hundreds of song texts will be uploaded to the corpus of the Digital Archive of Scottish Gaelic where anyone will be able to access them.

The Language in Lyrics project is, in turn, part of my broader research into the role music can play in language revitalization efforts. Language revitalization efforts benefit from the documentation of language resources such as the Nova Scotia Gaelic Song Index and song transcriptions. But they can only benefit efforts if people know that they exist and actually use them. We developed the Gaelic Song Education Project as a means of increasing awareness and use of the Gaelic songs indexed through the Language in Lyrics project and to empower community members to make use of them in meaningful ways.

At the same time, Colaisde na Gàidhlig | The Gaelic College had begun efforts to provide teacher training and professional development for community language and music teachers, who often lack access to such opportunities. I worked with Kenneth MacKenzie, Director of Education, to design the Gaelic song education project, an educational development opportunity for community Gaelic teachers.

We knew that community teachers typically spend a lot of time creating learning resources. But previous efforts to build shared repositories of learning materials hadn’t succeeded, in part because community teachers were understandably reluctant to provide their resources to others for free. The income from community teaching is neither great nor dependable. On the other hand, access to teaching resources would not simply reduce the workload for teachers, it could also inspire their teaching by exposing them to different ideas about learning and to different teaching methods. Our solution was to pay teachers to develop lesson plans that would then become openly accessible to anyone, thereby recognizing and rewarding the teachers’ labour and expertise, and to use Pressbooks, this open access book platform, to make those lesson plans easily and widely available.

Kenneth MacKenzie and I were grateful to receive financial support, acknowledged below under “Appreciation.” With this funding, we hired a project manager, Ed MacDonell, co-editor of this volume. Funding also enabled us to offer honoraria to teachers willing to develop lesson plans. We circulated a call for participants to the international Scottish Gaelic community and we held several professional development (PD) sessions free of charge to assist them. The first session introduced lesson planning and also solicited topic ideas for subsequent PD sessions. Two more PD sessions were organized on topics that emerged from this consultation: one on using songs in teaching when either the students or the teacher are uncomfortable singing; and one on digital Gaelic song resources.

We developed a lesson plan template and sample lesson plan and offered drop-in development sessions over the summer. The drop-in sessions allowed participants to get feedback from other participants and from me and Ed MacDonell on their lessons. We asked all participants to review two other lesson plans for every lesson plan they submitted. The peer review process had two complementary purposes: to improve the lessons under review, and to expose participants to other lesson plans with the expectation that this would inspire them to think about their own lesson plans differently. We hope that we will be able to run the Gaelic Song Education Project again in the future in order to expand the collection of lessons here.

The Nova Scotia Gaelic Context

This project is timely given ongoing and urgent efforts to sustain Gaels as an ethnocultural group in the province of Nova Scotia via the revitalization of their unique Gaelic language and cultural arts and expression. Because Nova Scotia’s Gaelic community is valued for having retained language and cultural arts and expressions once known in Scotland, Nova Scotia’s Gaelic assets are important not only for Nova Scotians, of whom a third can trace their roots to Gaelic-speaking settlers, but for Gaels  and Gaelic learners in Scotland, throughout North America, and beyond. Sustainability efforts will ensure that vibrant elements of Gaelic cultural expressions such as song, step-dancing, and musical styles will be maintained, fostering a sense of shared expression for Gaelic community members.

As language is foundational to both cultural heritage and identity, central to this project is the acknowledgement that Gaelic is an endangered language in its ancestral homeland, Scotland, as well as in historic Gaelic settlement areas like Nova Scotia. Sociolinguist Joshua Fishman developed a ground-breaking eight-stage scale to measure the extent to which a given language is threatened and to specify actions required to reverse decline (1991). Gaelic scholar Rob Dunbar suggests that Nova Scotia is somewhere between steps 8 and 7, stages at which a language is at major risk (2008). At stage 8, Fishman recommends that the focus be on collecting the spoken language and oral traditions, providing materials that can be used for teaching learners as well as for developing dictionaries and other language resources, to which this project contributes.

Canada received large numbers of Gaelic-speaking emigrants from Scotland, particularly during the 18th and 19th centuries. Gaelic-speaking communities were once found across Canada and, indeed, throughout North America (see, for example, Newton 2015; MacDonell 1982). In fact, at the time of Confederation in 1867, Scottish Gaelic was the third most spoken language in Canada after English and French. In 1901, the earliest year for which we have figures, there were approximately 90,000 speakers in Canada (Dembling 2006). The majority – about 50,000 – were located in PEI and Nova Scotia. While the language is no longer spoken in most areas of the continent, descendants of Gaelic-speaking immigrants still speak Gaelic in the eastern counties of the Nova Scotia mainland and Cape Breton Island, some having learned Gaelic as their first language.

Although the number of Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia today is small when contrasted with earlier figures (about 1,200 according to the 2011 census; the Office of Gaelic Affairs reports about 4,000 people involved in Gaelic language learning provincially), Gaelic is an important heritage language in Nova Scotia. The provincial government established the Office of Gaelic Affairs (OGA) in 2007, paralleling existing Offices of Acadian Affairs and the Francophonie and African Nova Scotian Affairs, in order to support, promote, and revitalize the Gaelic language and culture provincially. The provincial Department of Education and Early Childhood Development (DoEECD) has recognized Gaelic language and history as elementary and high school subjects off and on over the 20th and 21st centuries; both are currently offered in a small number of schools in the province. Gaelic studies and language curricula were updated in 2000 and updates to the Kindergarten-to-Grade 3 language curriculum are currently underway. The DoEECD stipulates that recognition of four key cultural groups in Nova Scotia — Mi’kmaq, Acadians, African Nova Scotians, and Gaels — be integrated throughout the curriculum. A number of institutions support the revitalization of the Gaelic language and culture provincially, including St Francis Xavier University and Cape Breton University, both of which offer Gaelic language courses and degree programs, Colaisde na Gàidhlig | the Gaelic College, Baile nan Gàidheal | the Highland Village Museum, the Gaelic Council of Nova Scotia, and Sgoil Ghàidhlig an Àrd-Bhaile | The Gaelic Language Society of Halifax, among others. In other words, the history and legacy of Gaelic language and culture are widely recognized in Nova Scotia; they are considered important to the province’s cultural heritage, identity, and future; and they are supported by an institutional infrastructure as well as by grassroots organizations and individuals.

Anyone who has spent time among Gaels knows how we love to sing, and songs are an incredibly important aspect of the Gaelic culture. The most fundamental form of Gaelic literature is bàrdachd, or poetry. Historically, all Gaelic poetry was meant to be sung. Extensive collections of Gaelic poetry and song from across all Gaelic-speaking areas of Scotland and Nova Scotia, from several centuries, and of various genres, can be found in manuscript, published, and recorded form.[1] At one time, bards formed an elite and powerful class in Scottish Gaelic society, receiving extensive and rigorous training on a range of bardic forms and metres (see, for example, Newton 2009). Each clan chief patronized an official bard who served as genealogist and historian. Despite a diminishing need over time for official bards, poetry continued to be composed by itinerant bards. Vernacular poetry and song became an important channel through which to articulate community issues and debates as well as to honour respected community members, to verbalize a relationship to land and place, and to express humour. New Gaelic songs continue to be created up to the present, albeit in reduced numbers. In fact, Gaelic songwriting workshops and projects are working to rebuild songwriting skills and capacity among Gaelic learners. Poetry and song’s important roles in Gaelic culture helps to explain why thousands of Gaelic songs were sung and documented in Nova Scotia.[2] 

Music, Gaelic Cultural Revitalization, and Language Acquisition

A long history of Gaelic song creation means that there are many reasons to centre song in language revitalization, including language learning. First, because songs serve as one of the most fundamental forms of literature in Gaelic culture, there are literally thousands of songs in existence and they continue to be composed today. Songs are widely respected among Gaelic speakers and are already regularly integrated into language classes. They are a plentiful and accessible resource.

Second, a long history of Gaelic song means that song texts exist from many historical periods. Regional songs represent a range of dialects. And there are many song genres that encompass elite as well as vernacular language. The use of Gaelic songs for social commentary (see, for example, McKean 1992, 1997) means that they encompass a broad range of vocabulary relating to a variety of domains and topics from religion to politics, and from relationships to economics.

Third, there is a particularly strong and distinct connection between language and music in Gaelic culture (see, for example, Sparling 2000, 2003, 2007, 2014). For example, a number of Gaelic speakers believe that the distinctive Nova Scotia fiddle and piping style is linked to linguistic “flavour” or “accent” (Gaelic blàs) brought to instrumental playing by the musician’s awareness of a tune’s associated mouth music lyrics. This connection between language and music in Gaelic culture inspired me, together with colleagues in psycholinguistics, to publish on the ways in which traditional music can motivate people to learn Gaelic (MacIntyre et al, 2017; Sparling et al, 2022).

Language revitalization involves more than language for language is only meaningful when it is part of a broader cultural ecology. Language activist and scholar Teresa L. McCarty notes that “language planning is community planning” and that “language issues [are] always people issues” (2018: 31). Language, people, and community are inextricably linked. Revitalization has to centre on people and the community, not simply on a disembodied language. Song is so effective in revitalization because it builds and reinforces community not just through group singing, but through the recollection of Gaelic history and Gaelic ancestors in stories told through song and about song. Songs are meaningful and authentic cultural expressions rooted in language. Songs make language meaningful.

To undertake language revitalization is to make ​​“deliberate efforts to influence the behavior of others with respect to the acquisition, structure, or functional allocation of their language codes” (Cooper 1989: 45). Scholars typically speak of language revitalization in terms of three broad areas: status planning (elevating the status of a language both among speakers and non-speakers); corpus planning (documenting the language and developing new vocabulary for new circumstances); and acquisition planning (teaching and learning the language). Each area supports the others. As a collection of lesson plans, this book contributes most directly to acquisition planning.

Because Gaelic songs are so fundamental to Gaelic culture, because they showcase language and grammar in a culturally relevant way, and because we are fortunate to have so many of them, it makes sense to give some dedicated thought to how they might be used in language learning.

There are many, many studies on the value of using songs in language learning. I have found Dwayne Engh’s review of the literature on using music for English language learning to be particularly helpful (2013). Engh groups the literature into five categories, addressing: 1) sociological considerations; 2) cognitive science; 3) first language acquisition; 4) second language acquisition; and practical pedagogical resources. These are summarized in the sections that follow.

Sociological Considerations

Singing is beneficial in the classroom because it enhances social harmony, develops a safe space for learning collectively, and helps to build a cohesive community, something that many teachers strive to create.

Songs also help to break boundaries down and close gaps. It helps to reduce boundaries between the classroom and “real life” by bringing something pervasive from “the real world” into the classroom. Songs are also easily transferred outside of the classroom, into the home and elsewhere. They help to reduce the gaps between formal and informal learning, and between teachers and students. Youth are empowered when their music, language, and culture — often embodied in pop songs or contemporary arrangements — are used in a learning context.

Cognitive Science

Cognitive science analyzes the anatomic structure of the brain and its neural functions. It tells us that music and language appear to have significant overlap and points of convergence in the brain, which in turn suggests that strengthening musical processing will benefit linguistic processing and vice versa. However, it is still unclear whether musical and linguistic elements are dissociated in the brain (processed in different areas) but work together or whether aspects of language and music are managed by overlapping parts of the brain. For example, neuroimaging data shows that musical structure is processed in language areas of the brain, with the assumption being that other aspects of music and language may also be processed in this same area. It is possible that musical and linguistic syntax share common processes in one area of the brain and also share common structural representations processed elsewhere in the brain.

First Language Acquisition

A number of studies have investigated “baby babble” and “baby talk,” recognizing their musical characteristics. If in no other way, an infant’s babbling is similar to music in that it’s a form of communication using sound but without syntax and it precedes language acquisition. Meanwhile, adults use a sing-songy form of speech when speaking to babies and also sing to them, simultaneously impacting a child’s musical and linguistic development. Because musical sounds are fundamental to the ways in which we learn our first language, it makes sense to use music and song when learning a second (or subsequent) language.

Second Language Acquisition

Reviewing the literature, Engh identifies a number of ways in which song can support second language acquisition including: reducing affective barriers; increasing motivation; developing learning intelligences; improving learning and recall; and developing skills beneficial to language learning.

Research shows that the best learning happens in a context of low anxiety, strong self-confidence, and high motivation. Learners with a low affective filter are more confident, seek and receive more input, and respond more constructively to feedback.

Motivation pertains to affective states and attitudes that affect the amount of effort a learner expends in learning a language. Because music is an “authentic,” real-world activity — one that is practised by native speakers — it is generally motivating for learners. It is often possible to work with short, accessible songs rich in interpretable content.

Good learning will strengthen diverse intelligences such as verbal, spatial, numeric, musical, kinaesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal intelligences, all of which can be learned with music. Music improves cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies, increases affective exploration, and makes students more receptive to learning.

A number of studies demonstrate that music helps with vocabulary recall, pronunciation, and oral proficiency. Lexical patterns are stored in long-term musical memory and can be easily retrieved later. Lyrics aren’t simply good for recalling individual words, but also for recalling longer phrases and linguistic formulae. Rhythm, melody, and rhyme all help with retention.

Finally, music supports the development of language-specific skills, such as aural comprehension. The repetitive nature of songs helps learners to understand supra-segmental features of language in context (patterns of sounds in words, the divisions between words). Songs can help with vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation.

Practical Pedagogical Resources

Engh observes that there is limited literature on how teachers are actually using music in the classroom. Most of the existing literature focuses on primary education, largely overlooking how music is used in adult and teen language classes. There are even fewer resources available for teachers to support any interest they may have in using music in language classes.

I am glad that this book is helping to reduce that gap.

Engh concludes that,

Overall, the results are clear in suggesting use of music and song in the language-learning classroom is both supported theoretically by practicing teachers and grounded in the empirical literature as a benefit to increase linguistic, sociocultural and communicative competencies. From an educational standpoint, music and language not only can, but should be studied together. (2013: 121)


My intention for this short introduction is to convincingly support a claim that language lesson plans organized around songs are a good idea. As an endangered language not just in Nova Scotia but globally, Gaelic needs creative and innovative approaches to its revitalization. Songs offer a rich means of developing language skills, not only in their infinitely varied lyrics but in their relevance as cultural expressions that articulate Gaelic values, beliefs, knowledge, and history. They build community inside the classroom as well as in the broader community. Not only does research demonstrate that music assists with vocabulary recall, grammar comprehension, and oral proficiency, music motivates language learners, builds their self-confidence, and encourages them to try using the language for themselves. It is not really a surprise that a significant number of Gaelic language learners trace their initial motivation to learn the language to a favourite Gaelic song.

For all these reasons, we want to encourage greater use of song and singing in Gaelic learning contexts. We are so fortunate that Gaelic culture has an abundance of songs, creating countless opportunities to use them in language teaching and learning. And that is why we were excited to provide an opportunity for teachers to produce lesson plans organized around Gaelic songs, and why we are excited to share the results with you here.


I so appreciate the funders who made this project possible: the Change Lab Action Research Initiative, the Gaelic Council, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

I am grateful to Kenneth MacKenzie, who helped bring this project into being from the start, and to Ed MacDonell, who managed all of the logistics. Ed also worked tirelessly with the lesson creators to support them, ensure consistency across the lesson plans, and edit the PressBooks manuscript.

It was an honour to work with all of the teachers who attended our professional development activities. It was powerful and moving to see how much knowledge was already available within the community, and to find ways to mobilize individual experiences to solve teaching and learning challenges.

Finally, my deepest gratitude to the lesson creators, who were willing to take a chance on this project and who gave their precious, often over-extended time to workshops, brainstorming, peer reviewing, and lesson planning. I am inspired by their depth of thinking and by the variety of innovative lesson plans that they produced.

This book is truly a co-creation by community, for community. Thank you so much to all who participated.



Campbell, John Lorne, and Francis Collinson. 1969-1981. Hebridean Folksongs. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cooper, Robert L. 1989. Language Planning and Social Change. Cambridge University Press.

Creighton, Helen, and Calum MacLeod. 1964. Gaelic Songs in Nova Scotia. Ottawa: National Museum of Canada.

Dembling, Jonathan. 2006. “Gaelic in Canada: New Evidence from an Old Census”. In Cànan & Cultar / Language & Culture: Rannsachadh na Gàidhlig 3, edited by W. McLeod, J. E. Fraser and A. Gunderloch, 203-14. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press. Available online.

Dunbar, Robert. 2008. Minority Language Renewal: Gaelic in Nova Scotia, and Lessons from Abroad. Report: FIOS. Available online.

Engh, Dwayne. 2013. Why Use Music in English Language Learning? A Survey of the Literature. English Language Teaching 6(2):113-127.

Fergusson, Donald A. 1977. Fad Air Falbh As Innse Gall: Leis Comh-Chruinneachadh Cheap Breatuinn – Beyond the Hebrides: Including the Cape Breton Collection. Halifax: D.A. Fergusson.

Fishman, Joshua A. 1991. Reversing Language Shift: Theoretical and Empirical Foundations of Assistance to Threatened Languages. Clevedon, UK: Multilingual Matters.

Gillis, Bernard, P. J. Nicholson, and Rannie Gillis, eds. 2004. Smeorach nan Cnoc ‘s nan Gleann / The Songster of the Hlll and the Glens: The Collected Works of Malcolm H. Gillis. North Sydney, NS: Northside Printers.

MacDonald, Norman. 1863. Sar-obair nam Bàrd Gaelach, or The Beauties of Gaelic Poetry and Lives of the Highland Bards. Halifax: James Bowes & Sons.

MacDonell, Margaret. 1982. The Emigrant Experience: Songs of Highland Emigrants in North America. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

MacIntyre, Peter, Susan Baker, and Heather Sparling. 2017. Heritage Passions, Cognitions and the Rooted L2 Self: Music and Gaelic Language Learning in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Modern Language Journal 101(3):501-16.

McCarty, Teresa L. 2018. “Community-Based Language Planning: Perspectives from Indigenous Language Revitalization”. In The Routledge Handbook of Language Revitalization, edited by L. Hinton, L. Huss and G. Roche, 22-35. Routledge. Available online.

McKean, Thomas A. 1992. A Gaelic Songmaker’s Response to an English-Speaking Nation. Oral Tradition 7(1):3-27.

———. 1997. Hebridean Song-Maker: Iain MacNeacail of the Isle of Skye. Edinburgh: Polygon.

McLellan, Vincent A. 1891. Failte Cheap Breatuinn: A Collection of Gaelic poetry. Sydney, NS: published privately by Island Reporter.

Meek, Donald E. 1977. Mairi Mhor nan Oran: Taghadh d’a h-Òrain le Eachdraidh a Beatha is Notaichean. Glasgow: Gairm.

Newton, Michael. 2009. Warriors of the Word: The World of the Scottish Highlanders. Edinburgh: Birlinn.

———. 2015. Seanchaidh na Coille / The Memory-Keeper of the Forest : Anthology of the Scottish-Gaelic Literature of Canada. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press.

Rankin, Effie. 2004. As a’ Bhràighe/Beyond the Braes: The Gaelic Songs of Allan the Ridge MacDonald, 1794-1868. Sydney, NS: University College of Cape Breton Press.

Shaw, Margaret Fay. 1977 [1955]. Folksongs and Folklore of South Uist. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sinclair, Archibald. 1879. The Gaelic Songster: An T-Òranaiche: No, Co-Thional Taghte Do Òrain Ùr Agus Shean, A’ Chuid Mhòr Dhiubh Nach Robh Riamh Roimhe Ann an Clò. Glasgow: A. Sinclair.

Sparling, Heather. 2000. “Puirt-a-Beul: An Ethnographic Study of Mouth Music in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.” MA Thesis, York University.

———. 2003. “Music is Language and Language is Music”: Language Attitudes and Musical Choices in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Ethnologies 25(2):145-171.

———. 2007. One Foot on Either Side of the Chasm: Mary Jane Lamond’s Gaelic Language Choice. Shima: The International Journal of Research into Island Cultures 1(1):28-42.

———. 2014. Reeling Roosters & Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music. Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press.

Sparling, Heather, Peter MacIntyre, and Susan Baker. 2022. Motivating Traditional Musicians to Learn a Heritage Language in Gaelic Nova Scotia. Ethnomusicology 66(1):157-81.

Watson, William J. 1918. Bàrdachd Ghàidhlig: Specimens of Gaelic Poetry, 1550-1900. Glasgow: An Comunn Gaidhealach.


  1. A small sampling of published song collections from both Scotland and Nova Scotia includes MacDonald (1863); Sinclair (1879); McLellan (1891); Watson (1918); Shaw (1977 [1955]); Creighton and MacLeod (1964); Campbell and Collinson (1969-1981); Fergusson (1977); Meek (1977); Campbell (1990); Thomson (1993); Black (1999, 2001); Shaw (2000); Meek (2003); Gillis, Nicholson, and Gillis (2004); and Rankin (2004). For a sampling of recorded collections, see the following websites: MacEdward Leach and the Songs of Atlantic Canada; Sruth nan Gael / Gael Stream; and, in Scotland, Tobar an Dualchais / Kist o Riches.
  2. Although the co-editors of this volume and the lesson plan creators have tried to be careful about citing all relevant sources of information, song sources are not often cited formally. That's because, as a living, oral culture whose songs exist in and for community, it is often neither possible nor appropriate to cite a published or internet source. Gaelic speakers typically learn songs informally through interactions with others, in song workshops, or in language classes. For all these reasons, song sources are typically not cited formally.

About the Author

Heather Sparling is the Canada Research Chair in Musical Traditions and a Professor of Ethnomusicology at Cape Breton University. She researches Gaelic song in Nova Scotia, as well as vernacular dance in Cape Breton and Atlantic Canadian disaster songs. She is the author of Reeling Roosters and Dancing Ducks: Celtic Mouth Music (2014). She is also the director of the SSHRC-funded project, Language in Lyrics, through which Transcription Frolics were developed.


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Cànan tro Òrain by Heather Sparling is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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