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21 Jul 2023

Shining a light on the Canna archives – Italian-style!

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna Archivist
A collection of wooden chalet-style houses on a grassy mountainous slope. Very tall mountains rise in the background.
The village of Ostana in the Piedmont region of Italy
Scottish Gaelic is one of many European minority languages. Canna archivist Fiona Mackenzie was recently invited to profile the Canna Gaelic archives to a whole new audience, in the Italian Piedmont alpine region.

Monviso is the largest mountain of the Cottian Alps, situated in the Piedmont region of Italy, close to the French border. Almost three times the height of Ben Nevis, Monviso has a classic mountain peak shape. It is widely suggested that it was the mountain that inspired the Paramount film company logo.

However, it is not an image that generally comes to mind when thinking about minority languages in general nor Scottish Gaelic in particular! When I received an email to say that I had been awarded a major international academic prize for the work I had done in raising the profile of the language through the Canna Gaelic archives, I was very surprised. The Premio Ostana prize is a great honour to receive.

The event was first established in 2008 and takes place every year in the village of Ostana. It aims to bring together ‘mother tongue authors’ from all over the world for a festival and conference of linguistic biodiversity.

Ostana is a classic Alpine village, about 2½ hours from Turin. It is in this area that the main tranche of Occitan (or langue d’oc) speakers still use the language on a daily basis. Other languages at the conference included Franco-Provençal, Corsican and Asturian. The entire village is taken over every year by the event – the village and surrounding area work together to organise and deliver the festival, which attracts speakers and practitioners from across the world. The main event takes place in the purpose-built conference and catering building in the village. Other events take place in open-air places throughout the area, which resonate with the theme of the event.

Each year is themed, and this year the theme was ‘Whoever keeps the language, keeps the key’. Eight prizes were awarded to people who work and use their mother-tongue language, promoting their culture. I was selected to receive the prize for musical contribution to culture, due to my work with the archives in using ‘the old to make the new’. Over the past eight years on Canna, I have delivered many projects and events for all ages, all centred around the incredible folklore archives collected over the space of six decades by John and Margaret Campbell.

I was invited to deliver a lecture about the archives and the contribution they can make to our indigenous language and culture in Scotland. My lecture title was ‘Solas – Shedding Light on a Scottish Gaelic Archive’. I also used excerpts from the film Solas, produced on DVD a few years ago with support from the National Trust for Scotland USA Foundation, about the life and work of Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell.

Naturally, I also performed several of the songs from the archive! Working with a live, simultaneous translator was an interesting experience, going from Gaelic to English to Italian to Occitan!

All of the audiences over the course of the weekend were most interested to hear about the work of the National Trust for Scotland, especially in relation to Canna House. In my lecture, I described the work of previous Canna archivist Magda Sagarzazu and the contribution she made to the legacy of the Campbells. A moving moment occurred when I was mid-lecture, playing a clip of a recording made by John Lorne Campbell in 1962, in Canna House, of Magda as an 11-year-old child, newly come to the island. She was singing an old Basque Christmas hymn. I gradually became aware that the recipient of the International award, the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, was singing along with Magda’s voice. Later, I found out that Bernardo had actually met Magda many years ago when she was speaking at a conference in London. He remembered her. It is a small world.

The Ostana committee were so impressed with the message of ‘Conservation – the Keeper of the Flame’ that they have decided to use that as the theme for Premio Ostana 2024.

It is good to know that the work of the National Trust for Scotland, and the part it plays in the conservation of our own cultures, spreads far and wide, deep into the Italian Alps.

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