The invention of the Celts

The ever-expanding fascination with the so-called Celtic peoples and their culture shows no signs of abating

The ever-expanding fascination with the so-called Celtic peoples and their culture shows no signs of abating. The notion that there is a special link between Scots and Irish Gaels, the Welsh, Manx, Cornish and Bretons is an old one and seems to have deep meaning for many people.

The Atlantic Celts by Prof Simon James of the British Museum gives a new perspective. Put simply he says that the very idea of Celts is a modern 18th century notion derived from the similarities in what are known as the Celtic languages - spoken extensively in Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Man, Cornwall and Brittany, in the past. He goes further and says the idea of the Celts developed from the need to come up with a sense of identity to counter " Britishness" - easily acceptable to many of us living in these so-called Celtic lands today. Factually he is dead right - the term wasn't used before the 18th century - the links to the earlier "Celtic" civilisations of Europe are arguable - and the tribal peoples of Ireland and Britain were always a mongrel lot influenced as much by neighbouring warrior tribal societies who were Germanic speaking, as by Celtic roots.

However the idea of the mystical and admirable Celtic past will not go away and Leslie Ellen Jones's book, druid, shaman, priest, published last year by Hisarlik was an example of the response to this ongoing fascination with shadowy figures of the past. She told us that the idea of shamanism had recently come to the fore amongst the more mystical, some might say gullible, followers of the Celtic Way. It seems likely that just some of the prophetic and healing functions of ancient priests were akin to those of modern shamans. The odd thing about this fascination with what the ancient religion might have been, is that, like most history and philosophy, it is still dominated by a masculine turn of mind.

Here in Scotland we have had a recent example of someone claiming to be a Pictish shaman - a process that happened through a vision - so who could doubt it?. The Picts were the Celtic-speaking people, called Caledonians at the time, who caused the Romans to rewrite Caesar - veni, vidi, vanished. They eventually merged with the Scots of the West to form Scotland before England was even thought of, but sadly, have left us with few written records. Their carved symbol stones though are one of the world's greatest under-appreciated treasures though the past 10 years have seen a phenomenal upsurge of books, annual conferences and lectures series on the Picts and their art. Some of us even think we can begin to decipher some of the meanings of the symbols themselves which, due to the lack of written resources our historians have always said are indecipherable. Luckily the realisation that the oral traditions of these islands in their various languages have something to offer, is beginning to be realised. Just as Prof James says, we (Irish, Scots and Welsh), needed an identity to counteract the notion of Britishness. Much of what has happened around the Picts is undoubtedly due to a need for a stronger Scottish identity as the United Kingdom begins to weaken. The Westminster Parliament has a habit of forgetting that the UK is only 300 years old which leads to a bit of resentment in Scotland, and thus a desire for change.


Another aspect to the interest in the Picts in Scotland and the Celts in Ireland, Wales and so on is the need we all have to do something to preserve our identities in the face of the economic and philosophical onslaught of the burger and coke driven society of instant gratification and its obsession with that oddest of icons - money. People need a sense of who they are and where they come from in these times of constant change. So our interest in all things "Celtic" is understandable. The retelling of the old tales is a perennial event - Peter Berresford Ellis's recent book Chronicles of the Celts is an example of this. People who originally told these tales could never have imagined it but the book will still find a ready market.

There are no historically attested Celts, they never were a people, just tribes who intermingled and mixed with people who spoke other tongues - but the idea of people living in harmony with nature, driven by a sense of honour and mutual respect in a society that valued poetry, art and craftsmanship above all is attractive to many people. As we discover more and more about the so-called Dark Ages we find the differences between the tribes could vary tremendously, that religious practice and artistic creativity could be localised or spread over wide areas. But most of all what we find in looking at these, our ancestors, is that they were much like us and have much to teach us. After all in an ever-changing and dangerous world if you want to see where you are going it is a good idea to know where you have been.

Stuart McHardy is a writer and broadcaster and lectures on Scottish and Celtic history and folklore. He is currently president of the Pictish Arts Society