Beinn Mhàbu opens doors, looks to become economic catalyst

March 24, 2024

As Beinn Mhàbu enters the second half of its first year in operation, Gaelic College president Rodney MacDonald recalls a plan he envisioned 25 years ago to someday establish a school in Mabou.

“When I was teaching at Mabou Consolidated in the late 90s, I was taking a master’s course at StFX and I did a paper on putting a school in St. Joseph’s convent. I looked at the costs associated with it,” MacDonald remembers. “At the time I was thinking more of a traditional high school, but with the ability to also house international students.

“It wasn’t the same as what we’re doing now, for sure,” he laughs, noting that the money involved in getting the Mabou campus up and running went well beyond his original estimates as well.

“Little did I know at that time that a couple of years later I’d be in government, and that 20 years after that I’d be at the Gaelic College,” says MacDonald, who served as Nova Scotia’s 26th premier from 2006 to 2009 before taking the helm of the college.

Beinn Mhàbu officially opened its doors in September to 11 first-year students who are enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts in Community Studies program in partnership with Cape Breton University (CBU). The Gaelic Foundations and Living Cultures students, who are registered with both CBU and Beinn Mhàbu, come from Maine, Alberta, Manitoba, the regional municipalities of Halifax and Cape Breton, and from Inverness, Victoria and Antigonish counties.

“I’ve always had a belief in this building, and it’s potential,” MacDonald recalls, noting that virtually everyone in the community and surrounding areas had some sort of relationship with the Sisters of Notre Dame, who occupied the convent since it was erected in 1952.

When the sisters decided to sell the building in 2018, MacDonald approached the board of the Gaelic College as well as CBU with what he had in mind for the building.

“My understanding is that there were more than 25 groups interested in purchasing the building,” MacDonald says. “We were one of them and put forward a proposal, so we weren’t just putting forward a bid to buy the building.”

“And the sisters, to their credit, took an interest in the proposals,” he adds. “So the educational and cultural aspects for us were a nice alignment with their mandate over the years, and what they did in the village for education and culture.”

The sale to the Gaelic College was finalized in December 2019, with funding support from ACOA, the Municipality of Inverness County, and East Coast Credit Union. And then, in the spring of 2021, the Province of Nova Scotia announced $1.9 million in funding to support the renovations required at the former convent.

The new school received yet another boost in May of this year, when Port Hawkesbury businessman Joe Shannon and his family announced a gift of $1 million, which was to be used for the benefit of students at the campus.

“I’m certain that Beinn Mhàbu can be a catalyst for not only Mabou, but central Inverness County.”

“It’s all geared towards students – bursaries, the artist-in-residence program, and enhancements for the classrooms, like technology,” MacDonald says of the gift. “They were very clear on that. They wanted it to be for students and to grow the opportunity for the local students as well. So, the bursaries gave us a good starting point.”

He says all the students currently enrolled were supported by bursaries, noting that another bursary was established in the name of Fr. Angus Morris, who grew up in the Port Hood area, and also served as parish priest in Mabou.

“Following his passing in 2018, there was a generous donation made to the college,” he notes. “That’s a $5,000 bursary over the next 10 years.”

The Gaelic College’s partnership with CBU is not new, MacDonald points out.

“We also offer a Gaelic immersion opportunity for second and third year students at CBU at the college in St. Ann’s each May, so students can come to the school and live for a month, and they take a full six credits, in just four weeks,” he explains, adding that same opportunity will be available to Beinn Mhàbu’s current students.

“When they’re finished in April, they can come for the month of May and get a full course in St. Ann’s.”

MacDonald says the students’ departure in April will provide Beinn Mhàbu with another opportunity to help the local community, as it’s planned to offer lodging for seasonal workers, noting he’d like to see all 28 rooms full from May through August, before students return for classes in September.

“There are 28 rooms with their own washroom,” he says. “We hope to fill all the rooms, and we’re working on that now. We’ve been working on this since we purchased the building, in talking to some different operators who are quite interested in the facilities.”

He says he’s already talking with CBU about how to grow the school beyond this term.

“The initial focus is on growing this program in the second year, and then beyond that adding additional programs,” MacDonald explains.

“This year is almost like a pilot year, getting things started,” he says. “Next year, we want to fill our rooms, so we’d want to have 25 or 30 students. Within five years, we could grow it quite substantially. Twenty-five students could quite quickly turn into 100 students.”

“I’m certain that Beinn Mhàbu can be a catalyst for not only Mabou, but central Inverness County,” MacDonald notes. “We have a challenge. September rolls around and our young people leave. This will bring the young people to the region during that September to April time period, which is really important.”

He says the school can accommodate a growth in programs but can’t grow the student population without the support of the local community.

“We’re going to have people who are going need rooves over their heads, no different than in Antigonish and communities like that,” he explains. “It might be boarders. It might be people renting out houses. It could be local accommodations. It could be many things.”

“This will be part of the discussion with the community,” MacDonald adds. “In the next couple of years, we’ll be wanting to sit down with the leadership in the community to talk about that.”

“We’re planning to grow. Our plans have started. That will include ourselves, but also involve
the community.”

Kenneth MacKenzie teaches a class at Beinn Mhàbu

An t-ionnasachadh ionadail, an t-ionnsachadh bòidheach

While the opening of Beinn Mhàbu as the first university level institution here in Inverness County is a major stride for Nova Scotia Gaelic culture and language, it’s a reflection of the numerous grass- roots initiatives that help local people, and those from further afield, to reconnect with their Gaelic roots.

One such initiative is Bidh sinn a’ seanachas, (pronounced roughly: bee shin a shennahas | translation: we’ll be telling stories) a weekly series of workshops that took place this summer. Bidh sinn a’ seanachas focused on exploring the wealth of Gaelic cultural resources available locally, and on allowing participants to connect with local tradition-bearers through songs, stories, folklore and remembering.

At one time it’s estimated that the number of Gaelic speakers in Nova Scotia would have been as high as 100,000. And in the days when many people lived their lives within walking distance of home, local variations in language remained strong. It’s said that Gaelic speakers visiting from Scotland in the 1970s were able to identify, just by the accents and dialects of Cape Bretoners’ Gaelic speaking, the precise places in the old country where their people would have emigrated from, generations before.

As so many Gaelic speakers were living, until quite recently, in the an Cùl (or ‘rear’) area of Chestico/ Port Hood, Bidh sinn a’ seanachas, hosted by Chestico Museum and Historical Society, encouraged a connection with Gaelic language and culture locally in the Port Hood region.

Tuesday* night cèilidhs were a part of the series, and on any given Tuesday they saw up to 65 folks filling the museum, which houses an extensive collection of artifacts evoking the area’s rich and varied recent past. Visitors had the chance to interact with local historians, elders, singers, dancers and language reclaimers as the weeks went by.

Monday** workshops, by contrast, developed a safe space where primarily local people came together to explore their memories of the Gaelic language and culture which they knew in youth or childhood, a period when those ways of being were sadly being suppressed.

Local Gaels, children of fluent Gaelic speakers, were among those who gathered with a particular focus on local language, recalling and sharing what they used to hear in and around the home.

Participants were fascinated week by week to find subtle differences in the way they remembered certain expressions. Together, they discovered the meaning of individual words that made up an expression they remembered the sounds of. They enjoyed the realization that they were children of fully bilingual parents.

For some, the workshops were the first time that they had publicly attempted to reclaim their Gaelic knowledge once again. It was a powerful experience to feel a living connection with the vibrant culture and language that has shaped so many of today’s Inverness County residents.

Activities such as Bidh sinn a’ seanachas are often supported by funding from the Nova Scotia Office of Gaelic Affairs, and frequently rely on behind- the-scenes organization work from local volunteers. Locals and visitors are grateful to all who contribute to initiatives like these which keep a living link with such a rich past, and provide fertile ground for new generations to reclaim the language and culture that has shaped them.

For those wishing to know about activities near to them, the FIOS newsletter from Comhairle na Gàidhlig (NS Gaelic Council) is a good resource. Email and ask to be included on the email distribution list.

*Tuesday – di-màirt – Mars day (compare with mardi in French)

**Monday – di-luain – moon day (compare with Monday in English)