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Dr. John Shaw was born 9 March 1944 in Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He developed an early interest in Gaelic culture, and in 1961 began his study of the language and culture with scholar John Lorne Campbell at Campbell's estate on the Isle of Canna, Scotland. Campbell, a pioneer in the recording of Scottish and Nova Scotia Gaelic, recognized there were many opportunities for research into Nova Scotia's rich Gaelic culture and encouraged Shaw to pursue his studies in this direction.
In 1962, Shaw began his formal education at Harvard University in Boston. He spent the summers during his undergraduate degree in Glendale, Cape Breton studying with Rev. John Angus Rankin at St. Mary of the Angels parish. Rankin was a fluent Gaelic-speaker and very active in the local Gaelic community. By working closely with him, Shaw also became fluent in the language and familiar with Cape Breton's Gaelic community.
Shaw graduated from Harvard in 1966 with a degree in Linguistics and German Languages. He spent the next year in France as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Paris before returning to Boston to enroll in the Harvard Graduate School in 1967. Shaw received his Master of Arts in Gaelic Language, Literature, and Linguistics and took a position as a teaching fellow in Scottish Gaelic at the Department of Celtic Language and Literature at Harvard.
In 1971, Shaw received a Harvard Traveling Fellowship to study in Ireland at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. He later returned to Nova Scotia and worked as a researcher at the University College of Cape Breton's Beaton Institute between 1975 and 1976. In 1977 Shaw was hired by St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia to conduct a five-year Gaelic folklore project. During this period, Shaw interviewed 168 individuals and collected 2000 items on reel-to-reel audio tape. In 1982, Shaw received his PhD from Harvard based on his extensive work with one informant, Joe Neil MacNeil of Middle Cape, Cape Breton. This later resulted in an award-winning book entitled Sgeul gu Latha (Tales Until Dawn): The World of a Cape Breton Gaelic Story-teller (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987).
In 1987, Shaw was commissioned by the Institute of Island Studies and the Celtic Studies Committee at the University of Prince Edward Island to carry out a Gaelic oral history project similar to that which he did at St. FX, but on a much smaller scale. During August and September of 1987, Shaw interviewed and recorded 20 individuals in both Gaelic and English on reel-to-reel audio tapes and videocassette. He also collected and recorded examples of traditional Island Gaelic violin playing. The project's final report was entitled Gaelic in Prince Edward Island: A Cultural Remnant.
Following his work on the PEI Gaelic project, Shaw worked as a Gaelic Development Officer in Scotland and as a lecturer in Celtic Studies at the University of Aberdeen. He recently published another book on the Cape Breton Gaelic culture entitled Brìgh an Òrain: The Tales and Songs of Lauchie MacLennan (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2000). In 2005, Shaw was a senior lecturer at the School of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh.