Anne McAlpine journeys across Canada to find deep-rooted Gaelic connections

BBC presenter Anne McAlpine is setting out on a 2,000km journey across the eastern coast of Canada to explore connections across the Atlantic to Scotland.

In her latest seven-part series, Immigration Tracks – Canada, Anne takes a road trip from Nova Scotia to Toronto, covering hundreds of miles to find Canada’s Gaelic roots.

Along the way Anne discovers the ties that bind Canadians to Scotland run deep, and meets up with the Montreal Gaelic choir.

Listening to the lilt of Gaelic songs with a Canadian twang, home did not seem that far away for Anne. 

In the city, Anne met up with Neil MacKay, arguably the oldest Gael in Canada, who left Scotland in 1952, but kept the home fire burning. 

Aged 97, Neil was full of stories about growing up in Achmore on a croft just next door to the family home of the series director, Calum Angus Mackay.

His memories were of fishing and shooting and scything grass in the long summers but as an adult in the Royal Navy he sailed the world, visiting the Far East.  

He recalled: ‘I was two years in the Navy, across Sri Lanka, China and Japan. I was in Hiroshima just a year after the atom bomb was dropped on the city.’

Afterwards, Neil returned to the Highlands but kept on travelling, cutting a dashing figure as he rode around Skye and South Uist for the Prudential Insurance company on a 350cc BSA motorcycle. 

But the desire to go further had taken a hold.

He told Anne: ‘One day in Stornoway I noticed an advert in the Glasgow Herald, a prestigious firm of insurance brokers in Montreal were looking for a young Scot to join them.  

‘I put my name in, and they took me to Glasgow for an interview and then to Dundee to see a psychiatrist.’

Before long Neil was on passage to New York: ‘I could only take £10 with me,’ he said. 

‘Three days out of Southampton I had spent all my money.  I reached New York with one case and no money.

‘Luckily, I had an uncle who put me on the train to Montreal and he gave me an envelope with 60 dollars in it to set me up. My pay when I arrived was a fortune, $3,000 dollars.’

Neil had a very successful career in Canada, working his own insurance business with his wife and family. 

His daughter, also called Anne, took the presenter on a tour around Montreal to show her the Royal Bank of Canada head office where her father first worked when he came to Canada.  

From the golden mailbox to the inlaid floor and corniced ceiling, the building is a staggering symbol of the wealth of the country and the British commonwealth in the early 20th century. 

Back then, business in this French-speaking city was dominated by English.

Neil explained: ‘In these big companies mostly the employees were Scots, or Irish or English, and the French people couldn’t get any higher than a clerk.  

‘Now in Montreal you must speak French to get on in work.’

He said he regretted not picking up French after all these years in the city, but even more he regretted that there was no one left he could converse with in his own native language.

‘Now there is no one I can speak to in Gaelic,’ he said. 

Despite that his fluency and memory was incredible, and he recited in full a beautiful Gaelic poem he wrote on his last visit to Achmore, his home village on Lewis.   

Neil sadly passed away a few weeks after filming, taking the title of the oldest Gaelic speaker in Canada with him.  

But his poetry remains and, as Anne reflected: ‘The songs of the choir and the pride Canadians have in keeping the Gaelic language and culture alive on the other side of the Atlantic shows that home is never that far away.’

In Quebec City, in the shadow of St Andrew’s church, Anne learns from a kilted, French-speaking Patrice MacLeod, how the connections to Scotland run across languages.

Dressed in his own design of tartan, Patrice captured how many Canadians feel about Scotland. 

It’s a very emotional, very deep feeling,’ said Patrice. ‘When I went to Scotland in 2013, it felt like I was coming home. Like a salmon returning to the river, to the same source.’

Scots started settling in Quebec and the Eastern Townships of Canada as early as 1760, but the biggest push came with the mass migration from Scotland in the early 20th century.

Immigration Tracks – Canada, will be on BBC ALBA and iPlayer each Tuesday (from 21 November) at 8.30pm.

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