New Scotland is sounding a lot like, well, old Scotland in Mairi Parr's Grade 12 classroom.

On the last day before exams, she runs over some vocabulary with her students. What's the difference between a leine t and a leine? (The first is a T-shirt, the second a regular shirt.)

The class shouts out their answers in chorus. No sweat for them: they've been studying Scottish Gaelic since Grade 6.

It was once the first language of thousands of Nova Scotians, brought with them from Scotland.

Now Gaelic is making a comeback.

The Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School students are part of a growing trend in the Strait Regional School Board as more and more students jump for the chance to study Gaelic in the classroom. 

'I wanted to surprise [my great-grandmother]. I got a surprise too: the only Gaelic she knew were curse words' - Allie Stewart

Seven years ago Parr saw a posting online and leapt at the chance to teach her mother's first language in Antigonish, which has a population just over 5,000.  

What started as 15 students in a class has grown to include more than 300 students at seven schools in the district, including:

  • St. Andrews Consolidated School, a primary to Grade 6 school in St. Andrews
  • Bayview Education Centre, a primary to Grade 8 school in Port Hood
  • St. Andrew Junior School, a grade 5 to 8 school in Antigonish
  • Dr. John Hugh Gillis Regional High School, a grade 9 to 12 school in Antigonish
  • Antigonish Education Centre, a primary to Grade 4 school in Antigonish
  • Whycocomagh Education Centre, a primary to Grade 8 school in Whycocomagh
  • Dalbrae Academy, a grade 9 to 12 school in Mabou.

The Strait Regional School Board says it's seeing an increase in student enrolment at the Gaelic 4, Gaelic 9, Gaelic 11, and Gaelic 12 levels.

Scottish pride isn't hard to find in Antigonish. Here, even the street signs welcome you in Gaelic.

"The children, they've been surrounded by the culture for so long. It's inevitable the language is going to come back to play a part. It's almost like it was like the missing link that brings in their spirit, their family, their history, the culture. All of it goes hand in hand with the language," said Parr.

"It's almost like it's inherent in them."

Tapping into Scottish roots

For most students, the core class is a chance to dig into their roots.

"I really wanted to connect to my family's background because they do come from Scotland. Also I had heard my great-grandmother knew how to speak Gaelic, so I wanted to surprise her," said Allie Stewart. "I got kind of a surprise, too: the only Gaelic she knew were curse words."

Stewart and most of her classmates started learning Gaelic in Grade 6. The program now starts as early as Grade 4.

Many of the students have Scottish heritage, and at least one even speaks the language at home.

Still, Parr says the class has attracted people with diverse backgrounds to study the language.

"To understand many cultures and live well in a global community it's important to appreciate different kinds. Gaelic lends itself perfectly to any kind of cultural understanding. We've got a very, very mixed community in the class, but they all come under the Gaelic umbrella," she said.

"They've really built their own modern youth culture within the system."