celtic myths

roots of a culture

When you think of the Celtic people, you probably think of ancient folk in Ireland and Scotland who wear kilts, play the bagpipes, and spend most of their time communing with nature. Maybe you think of the claddagh ring, or those maze-like patterns with the intertwined circles. If you have some knowledge of ancient history, you’re likely to conjure up the stereotype of a barbaric and primitive people living on the edges of civilized society. These are all true portrayals of the Celtic people, in the sense that popular culture and mainstream perception have adopted these beliefs as truth.

Last semester I was abroad in Scotland, studying at the University of Edinburgh. I decided to take a class called Celtic Civilization because I knew virtually nothing of the Celtic people (other than that they wore kilts and played the bagpipes). I’m not going to pretend that the class was always interesting, or that it changed my life. What did stick with me, long after I’d forgotten mostly everything that happened in that class, is one fascinating story.

The Celtic tradition claims over 2,000 years of cultural heritage, dating to before the height of Ancient Greece. The areas considered Celtic (in that Celtics languages are or once were spoken there) are Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany, and the Isle of Man. I’m going to talk about Scottish Celts in particular, because they best illustrate how a few outsiders essentially fabricated the culture and traditions of an entire people.

For some historical background, in the 1700s there were three large linguistic groups living in Scotland: the English-speaking immigrants, the Scots-speaking inhabitants of the Lowlands (who were gradually Anglicized), and the Gaelic-speaking Celts of the Highlands. The Highlanders were considered primitive and backwards, largely due to their remote location and stubbornness against adopting English as their language. Today, the Highlands have been popularized as a Celtic region, both for possessing a high degree of cultural integrity and for having narrowly avoided complete cultural suppression during the Age of Industrialization. However, this view is inherently flawed due to the fact that many of the Highland traditions are based on invention and fabrication.

The invention of Highland traditions began with a man named James Macpherson. In 1761, he published a translation of a poem written by the third-century bard Ossian. His goal was to establish the greatness of the Scottish Celts (though he himself was not Gaelic), but he sabotaged the honesty of this effort in that much of his work was a complete fabrication. Ossian had written a ballad, and Macpherson did translate it, but he added much to his own version that was not in the original. In addition, he revived the old myth that Highlanders were descended from the Romans (as opposed to Irish invaders, which was actually the case). He created “indigenous” Highland folklore, which was actually a mix of Irish folklore and his own invention. Despite the resulting academic dispute over his legitimacy, popular culture caught onto the main theme of his translation: the romantic concept of a “noble savage” whose culture was threatened by rapid industrialization

Macpherson’s main legacy was establishing Gaelic-speaking Scotland as a Celtic “cultural motherland” with distinct heritage and traditions. In reality, the line between Scottish and Irish Celts is blurred. The two linguistically different groups did share similar ancestors, myths, and religious practices that would suggest they were more alike than different. Despite Macpherson’s false portrayal of the Highlands, it was adopted as gospel, and to this day many popular conceptions of Celtic mythology can be traced back to his work.

One of the most well-known Highland traditions is that each clan wears kilts of a different tartan pattern. This common misconception is so fundamentally rooted in invention and misattribution that when you consider its widespread popularity among both Celtic and non-Celtic peoples alike, it becomes a bit absurd.

The Scottish kilt, as we know it today, was invented by an Englishman named Thomas Rawlinson sometime in the early 18th century. Before Rawlinson, Highland men wore the belted plaid, which consisted of a large tartan blanket wrapped around the bottom half of the body. Rawlinson reinvented this garment into a shorter skirt, for the sole reason that it made manual labor easier for his Highland factory workers. Due to a photograph taken just after its popularization, the new garment was mistakenly connected with an old Highland family. This idea was not challenged for 40 years, during which the kilt became widely regarded as traditional Highland dress.

In 1707, the Act of Union brought together England and Scotland under one crown. Highlanders were still considered a backwards society, but they also came to be viewed as a threat to civilization following the Jacobite Risings, the last of which occurred in 1746. That same year, in order to bring the warrior clans under government control, the king in London issued the Dress Act. This forbid “traditional Highland dress” and was punishable by imprisonment and deportation. The only reason that the kilt did not disappear completely was that the Highland regiments of the royal army were exempt from this rule.

The issue of differentiated clan tartans crosses the line from absurd misattribution into intentional subterfuge. This anecdote centers on two brothers who invented themselves as the Sobieski Stuarts but were in fact the brothers Allen. Born in Wales to an English naval officer, they changed their names and moved to Scotland, claiming to be descendants of Charles Edward Stuart (also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie).

In the Highlands, they enjoyed the patronage of nobles such as Sir Walter Scott and the Earl of Moray. They held court and indulged in aristocratic pastimes such as deer hunting, living in a delusion of revitalized Highland civilization. In their possession was a certain document of great importance, which they insisted was a 15th century authority of Highland clan tartan patterns. Despite the fact that few of their patrons believed its authenticity, they published it anyway in a work called Vestarium Scoticum (1842). A few years later, an anonymous attack on their reputation was published, revealing them to be impostors, and insinuating that Vestarium Scoticum was likely a forgery.

Today, it is recognized that neither the Sobieski Stuarts, nor their clan tartans, were what they claimed to be. The problem was that, directly following Vestarium Scoticum, several other authorities on the clan tartans were released. These works were accepted as legitimate, but what no one realized was that they drew both directly and indirectly from the Sobieski Stuarts. In the end, the Sobieski Stuarts added significantly to the tradition of a culture that they could not even claim heritage to.

Also, as an aside, the original Celts did not play the bagpipes. In ancient times, during the era of the bards, they played the harp. The bagpipes existed long before its adoption as the instrument of the Celts, though they had long considered them barbaric. They were eventually taken up as an act of protest against the Union of England and Scotland and then popularized as traditionally Celtic.

How is it possible for mainstream conceptions to be so wrong? Arguably the most recognizable Scottish Celtic traditions, the kilt and the bagpipe, do not boast any roots in ancient Celtic traditions. Moreover, the fundamental prerequisite for having a distinct cultural tradition is having a distinct culture at all. In the case of the Highlands, this too is refuted, thanks to Macpherson’s forgery. It remains fascinating to me that history could have been twisted and manipulated in such drastic ways as to produce a culture whose most prominent traditions are not genuine.