Gaelic Roots: John Howieson’s Semester Abroad at CBU

Far from the shores of Nova Scotia, John Howieson, known as Iain in Gaelic, travelled a long way from Scotland to study abroad at Cape Breton University (CBU) for one semester in 2016. His decision to attend CBU was shaped by his deep-rooted love for Scottish culture and heritage.

Originally from Dumfries, John spent 28 years in Edinburgh and another 24 on the Isle of Skye, during which he returned to school following his retirement from secondary education. He pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in Gaelic Language and Culture, followed by a PhD focusing on nineteenth-century Gaelic poetry at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Skye campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands. During his time there, he participated in an exchange program at CBU for one semester. “Before doing these degrees, I knew very little about the Gaels who emigrated to Canada,” he shares. “And the more I learned, the more I wanted to visit their Canadian descendants.”

Although having spent such a short amount of time in Cape Breton, John was involved in many activities and events around the Island. He attended the Celtic Colours International Festival and numerous fiddle sessions, for which he gave credit to Mario and Carol Colosimo for their support in connecting international music students with Cape Breton’s vibrant music scene. “Another highlight for me was finding out that a good number of my fellow students wanted to participate in the weekly sessions of Gaelic singing which I set up,” John recalls.

“A particular thrill was discovering a manuscript collection of Gaelic songs in the fantastic Beaton Institute and finding out that it had been made by one Angus Stephen Beaton, from the 1920s onwards,” he shares. “With the help of the Beaton Institute staff and John Gillies of the Chestico Museum and Historical Society, I was able to trace Angus Stephen’s son, Gerrard, and he and his wife Anne welcomed me into their home in Port Hood one September afternoon. The information I gathered that day helped to shape my dissertation for my BA degree, and also fed into my subsequent PhD.”

John also spent two weekends at the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s and met native speakers of Canadian Gaelic, a unique experience he would have never had in Scotland. Currently enjoying his retirement, John continues to teach Gaelic to adults. He says his time at CBU and Cape Breton deepened his understanding of Gaelic culture and enhanced his post-doctoral work on Gaelic poetry.

When reflecting on his time at CBU, John was struck by the kindness of everyone he encountered, from fellow students to the staff in Meal Hall. “Everything was fabulous, notably the staff, the other students, most of whom were more than 40 years younger than myself, and the social life, both on-campus and in the community,” he shares. During their time together, John and his classmates also ventured out to explore some amazing spots in Halifax, Prince Edward Island and the scenic routes of Cabot Trail.

John encourages students considering a similar journey to seize the opportunity with an open heart and mind. “CBU brings together students from all over the world in a range of disciplines, and their very presence broadens the outlook of the Canadian students who mix with them,” he says.

Founded upon the trust the Unama’ki – Cape Breton community placed in the University to provide higher education on the Island, CBU has reached significant milestones on our journey to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2024. The story of CBU continues to be written and shaped by our students and those who come to see us, just like John. Whether you studied for one semester or returned year after year, your story is part of CBU’s 50-year legacy.

To stay up to date on the 50th celebration, visit