Tag Archives: Scotland

Lindisfarne

An Island in the North

First off, Lindisfarne isn’t very good at being an island; at low tides it reaches out to Britain, such that one can drive across a slightly anxious, regularly submerged road. This makes it an ideal location for a monastery, both removed from, yet still in contact with, the world. Layers of meaning in that one. Or, perhaps it was just a convenient place for the monks of Iona to set up shop within sight of Bamburgh, where the king was.

The Irish in the North

The monastery was founded around 635 by Aidan, a monk of Iona, which was a very important Irish monastic centre off the west coast of Scotland, founded by the redoubtable Columba (Colum Cille).  It is no mere coincidence that someone from arguably the most important ecclesiastical site north of Kildare was involved in the evangelisation of the north of Britain; the king who gave the island to Aidan, Oswald, lived in exile and was baptised among the Irish, even fought for them and married and Irish princess, and won his father’s kingdom back with the aid of Irish warriors. It’s safe to say he was rather fond of the Irish.  Lindisfarne was home to Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and many Northumbrian kings retired and were buried there. They also produced some really beautiful manuscripts, such as the eponymous gospel-book. It was also the first place in Britain that the vikings attacked, in 793, beginning the ‘Viking Age’ (though this is, of course, debatable). In any case, the monks upped sticks and left, taking the bones of their saints with them, eventually settling at Durham, though some were returned to the island.

Not my Lindisfarne

Sadly, the ruins of the abbey of Lindisfarne are not the ruins of Aidan’s abbey. They are much newer, dating from the 11th century, and there is a new castle, and a new church.  All still very interesting, but it is not the Lindisfarne that I read about, that I see in my mind, an island full of monks speaking Irish, Northumbrian, and Latin, preparing calf-skins and inks for the production of manuscripts, building libraries, educating. Yet it was fun to think that there where I stood, once too, perhaps, did Aidan, Adomnán, Cuthbert, and Oswald, and listen to the North Sea tumble onto shore. It’s a beautiful place, reaching back into the earliest periods of British and Irish history, when Angles and Irish did great things together.

Leave the Celts Alone.

Fictional Characters.

After a brief search on Google, or even here on the gamut of blogs and articles provided by WordPress, of the words ‘Celt’ or ‘Celtic’, the casual internet patron might be left with thoughts of a deeply mystical people, ancient and arcane spirituality and wisdom, or of gruesome barbarian warriors shrouding their mind. They would also most likely come across links to Irish, neo-pagan, or alternative Christian sites promoting the peculiar enlightenment of the Celts. One may find Celtic litanies, Celtic incantations, pagan prayers to be uttered at Celtic festivals (particularly popular at Halloween), Celtic jewelery, books on Celtic spiritualism, wistful Irish music, or even, if you are lucky, a bizarre reconstruction of a fight between a Celt and a Persian Immortal to discover who is ‘deadliest’. I admit, the immediate hits on Google for ‘the Celts’ provides the user with a list of useful and reasonable sources, but the myth of the Celt persists.

Who were the Celts?

Therein lies the rub, the task. It’s rather hard to say exactly, but one thing that should be taken for granted, but isn’t, is that the Irish, the Welsh, and the Scots aren’t. Of the many populations which have inhabited Britain and Ireland in the last few millennia none of them were, to use a modern term, ethnic Celts. Consequently, anyone who tries to sell you anything with ‘Celtic’ and ‘Ireland’ in the title is inherently wrong, unless it’s an academic work, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

And that Moment is Now.

Bust of Julius Caesar from the British Museum

Image via Wikipedia

The confusion relating to the term ‘Celt’ is down to 17th/18th century linguists, helped by modern willful ignorance. There were a people whom the Greeks and Romans called the Celts inhabiting Spain, France, and Central Europe back in the days when Greek education was the envy of the world. Whether or not these people were Celts is even up for debate; it’s one thing when Herodotus in the 5th century BCE refers to Celts, it’s a whole other thing when Caesar talks about them four hundred and fifty odd years later. Of course Caesar tells us that the people he’s conquering for their own good call themselves Celts, but we really only have his word for that, and he had an agenda, but some of them at least were probably the same people Herodotus was also writing about. But did they call themselves Celts?

Hellene? It’s all Greek to me…

The Romans called the Greeks ‘Greek’, a mistake that we’ve inherited,  but that’s not what the Greeks called themselves; in their minds there were Hellenes. The first group of Hellenes the Romans met were a tribe called the Graecians, and so they baptised an entire people with the name of one small contingent. So the people who Herodotus and Caesar called ‘Celts’ may only have been a small tribe of people, they might not have thought of themselves as Celts, they may have had no ethnic unity or consciousness whatsoever, unlike the Greeks and the Romans, aside from knowing that they were not Greek or Roman. These ‘Celts’ did share a common culture and language group (the individual languages may not have been readily intelligible to one-another, just as a modern Irish speaker would not immediately grasp modern Welsh), but they were not a nation as we now understand the term. This culture and language was shared by the peoples in the archipelago just off the north coast of Gaul, but they were not Celts.

Confused yet?

From the Ireland to Germany, Spain to Turkey, lived a people who spoke languages with a common ancestor. When this common ancestor was proposed it made sense, to the 17th/18th century mind steeped in Classical learning, to call this ancient language ‘Celtic’. It was hardly the best term to choose, but we’re stuck with it. And that is how, very simply, the Irish, Welsh, and Scots became Celtic. It’s just a term, a very specific term in linguistics.  Latin and its descendants (French, Spanish, Romanian, etc.) are Italic languages, but that doesn’t mean that the people of Chile, Madagascar, Macau, or Vietnam are Italian. The term ‘Celtic’ is used in a very specific fashion in an academic context, there are books and articles on Celtic Theology, Celtic Sources, etc., on the bookshelves of many a university library, but in the shops on the high-street the term is almost ritually abused for the sake of money. You can buy Celtic Wisdom for £5, learn Celtic Secrets for less than a tenner, or get your own Celtic Spiritual Guide half price! There is nothing Celtic in these wastes of ink. Similarly there is very little about neo-paganism which is Celtic, mostly because the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe didn’t write much down, so these neo-druids and wiccans are literally making stuff up, which is no different from any other religion in all fairness. And there never was a Celtic Christianity, and the Celts did not save Britain.

Celtic Fluff.

The term ‘Celt’ has become a fluffy word that spiritualists, and cunning marketing, frequently slap on a product to make it sell, from trinkets to soap. This seems to be a consequence of the increasing lack of faith in established religions, and the belief that the older, ‘more spiritual’ ideas were somehow better, in tune with nature, or some other vague allusion. The Gauls dug massive mines all over France in search of precious metals, which made them vastly wealthy, and ultimately financed Caesar’s coup. The peoples of Ireland and Britain traded with anyone and everyone they could, such that, for example,  rare lapis lazuli from Afghanistan found its way to Ireland where it was made into ink for the illustration of religious texts. These people were just like us, consumers, but without the benefit of an alternative paradigm to faith. And, if the ancient Irish are anything to judge by, they were deeply practical, legalistic, and wonderfully secular for their time. This is not the ‘Celt’ that is promoted nowadays; we are confronted with a delusion invented by the 18th century Romantic Movement, an ephemeral fantasy cobbled together by misguided nationalism and often beautiful, but not necessarily true, literature and poetry.

Be wary of Greeks bearing gifts, and be suspicious of anyone who uses the term ‘Celt’, unless they offer the immediate qualification of ‘linguistically speaking’. And stop calling the Irish, Welsh, and Scots ‘Celts’, or start calling the English and Americans ‘Germans’. Either way, leave the Celts alone.

What’s in a Name?

The Way It Is

Have you ever wondered why these islands are called British?British Isles 1877 Sometimes, in this age of extreme political correctness, they are referred to as ‘the Western Isles’, or simply ‘the Isles’. People think that they are called ‘British’ because one of the islands was home to a people who were very, very good at conquering almost everywhere. They also had a flag. Oddly enough these conquerors weren’t ‘British’ in a certain sense, but were in another. History, terminology and politics confuse the issue terrifically. As it stands the ‘British Isles’ are occupied by two sovereign nations, the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The latter contains four countries; three which make up ‘Great Britain’, England, Scotland, and Wales, and Northern Ireland. Great Britain only appeared in 1707 when the kingdoms of England and Scotland were united for the first time in a situation which may seem odd to modern eyes; Queen Anne passed a law that said so. Even more oddly, they had been united somewhat half-officially before that since 1603 when King James IV of Scotland inherited the crowns of England and Ireland (and, in theory, France) from Elizabeth I, making him a triple monarch. None of these peoples called themselves ‘British’, they were English, Scots, Welsh and Irish. ‘Great Britain’ was a political fabrication called after a very ancient name. As you can see, the whole situation is rather confusing. So, let’s go back to the beginning, like Vizzini said to do…

Blame it on the Greeks

A very long time ago, before the Romans became so obsessed with building things that they had to invade places in which to build more things, the Greeks were sailing around the Mediterranean looking for places to settle in and trade with. Eventually one Greek explorer made his way out of the great sea and sailed up the Atlantic coast of Spain towards places no Greek had ever heard of. He eventually arrived at two big islands, and on these islands he met people. Clearly being the curious sort, he asked the first people he met “what are you called?” Except he would have said it in Greek. When he got back to Greece he told his mates that he had met the Celtic-speaking “Pretanike” on one island and the “Irene” on the other. What these names mean is up for debate. In any event, when the Romans went and borrowed everything worth knowing from the Greeks they also took their maps and such other things that would be useful when one sets about conquering everywhere. Not being very good at speaking or reading Greek the names of these two islands became “Britannia” and “Hibernia” in Latin. When it came time to conquer and build things in this part of the world the Romans decided to call the whole place “the British Isles”. Sadly the Romans were very bad at naming things, they spent too much time building roads through them and killing everyone before someone thought to ask where exactly it was that they were and who they were killing. They didn’t bother conquering the whole of the islands however. They said it was because they were tired of building roads and aqueducts everywhere, and you can’t grow decent wine north of Bordeaux, but it was really because of bees. They heard the Irish distrained bees and knew that they must have had a highly developed society. Or that they were all as mad as badgers and not worth the trouble. Either way, Ireland and Scotland were left alone and the Romans hid behind a wall. They named the Roman province ‘Britannia’, made up of ‘Cambria’ (Wales) and ‘Albion’ (England). The bits they left were Scotland, calling it ‘Caledonia’ and ‘Scotia’, and Ireland, calling it ‘Hibernia’ and ‘Scotia’. Notice that they called Ireland and Scotland the same name, but more on that later. But most importantly, it was the Greeks after meeting a Celtic tribe, followed promptly be the over-achieving Romans, who first called these isles ‘British’, not king, nor queen, nor act of parliament.

‘I am not the Dread Pirate Roberts, my name is Ryan’

“But what,” you may cry, “did they call themselves?” It is very hard to know. Cultural identity is a very complex issue which I will now thoroughly abuse.

Ireland

The Irish, called Hibernians or Scots by the Romans, called themselves ‘the Gaels’ which may have meant something like ‘wild-persons’ or ‘raiders’. They may not have know what that meant, but when you go somewhere and everyone runs away screaming “oh crap, it’s the Gaels” you might start to think “we must be the Gaels they keep yelling about.” They also called themselves the ‘Féni’, which means ‘us, ourselves’. The Irish called all of Britain ‘Alba’, and they called the Romans a lot of unpleasant words. These names refer to the people, not the places, which is why after the Anglo-Saxons started conquering Britain ‘Alba’ became the name of the part they didn’t conquer, Scotland.

Scotland

The people who lived in Caledonia were called the Picts, but then a bunch of Irish folk (who were called Scots by the Romans, remember?) decided that they wanted to live somewhere wetter, colder and more miserable, moving in to where the Picts were. The Irish-Scots either killed or married the Picts and eventually made a new kingdom, Scotland. Except they called it Alba.

Wales

‘Wales’ comes form the Germanic (Anglo-Saxon) word for ‘foreign’, that is to say, ‘not us’. The Welsh called their own land ‘Cymru’ which means something like ‘us’. So the names of Wales are ‘us’ and ‘not us’. The people who lived in Britain before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons were the Britons, the only surviving element of whom were the Welsh. So, the Welsh are Britons because they were from Britain, and the Anglo-Saxons are Brit-ish because they moved into Britain.

England

This part of the island was first full of Celts called Britons, who were conquered by the Romans, becoming the Romano-British. Then the Anglo-Saxons came and killed everyone. The Angles made a deal about names with the Saxons; all the kingdoms would be named after the Saxons but the whole place would be called after the Angles. Which is why we have places like Wessex, Sussex, Essex and Middlesex after West, South, East and Middle Saxons (very imaginative), which are all part of England. Then the Normans came. The Normans are very good at two things; conquering and ruling. They took the whole place over from top to bottom, which no-one else had never managed, but never named it after themselves. The Normans were led by a man who was “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and established himself as king of England against the consent of the natives.” (- Thomas Paine) The Normans ruled over the various people of Britain, the Anlgo-Saxons and Welsh, and later the Irish and Scots, while being very French for a long time. Eventually they gave up being French and pretended to be Irish, English or Welsh.

So, to surmise, there were basically three people on the two islands first, the Picts, Gaels and Britons. A bunch of Gaels made the Picts disappear, took their land and became Scots. The Britons were driven to Wales, thus becoming Welsh, by the Anglo-Saxons who became English. And they were all conquered by the Normans. Except the Scots, they just inherited everything. James IV of Scotland became James I of England and called this union of the Scottish and Anglo-Normans ‘British’. Which is what it was called to begin with. Then these newly renamed-with-the-old-name-that-they-already-had ‘British’ went and conquered for themselves the biggest empire ever.

A Note on the Naming of Places

You might be saying to yourself “how on earth could they have all made such a mess of name these places and peoples, surely they could’ve asked someone.” Well, they did, but that doesn’t always work. When explorers first landed in what is now called Canada they found a village and asked the natives their “What is this place called?” The natives looked around to what the foreigners were pointing at and replied “kanada.” The Europeans went home all very proud of themselves and drew maps of ‘Canada’. One day someone thought to ask a native what ‘kanada’ meant. He replied, now that they had known each other for some time and learned the lingo, that ‘kanada’ was their word for village. The name of the second biggest country in the world is Village. Canadians are thus the Village People.

Of Saints and Scholars

Saint Patrick

Almost everything commonly known about this man is a lie. Saint PatrickHis legend is possibly one of the most successful fabrications of all time, up there with Santa Claus and the paper-clip. The only real evidence for his existence are two documents which he wrote; a letter to a man who had captured some of Patrick’s flock, and his Confession. He did not drive the snakes out of Ireland, do battle with druids or decree that we celebrate his holy day by staggering around trying to find a parade at 3am. He wasn’t even Irish. He was in fact two men; Patrick and Palladius. The latter was subsumed into the myth of the former and forgotten over time, even though he was the first bishop of the Irish. The Church of Armagh decided that they needed a superhero and chose Patrick as the man for them and used his legends to enhance their own position in Ireland above that of all the other rival churches, such as Iona and Kildare. All in the name of fortune and glory. Patrick went from being a monk with no real authority to a clerical Dirty Harry, beating non-believers senseless. At a time when Ireland had several contenders for patron saint Patrick won because he kicked druid arse, had a pointy hat, and the best propaganda machine in the country, and so was way cooler than Brigit, Brendan, or Columba.

Saint Brigit

Performed some strange miracles, and at least one immaculate abortion. And probably never made a cross out of reeds as she probably wasn’t real. Probably.

Saint Columba, a.k.a. Colum Cille

Descending as he did from Niall of the Nine Hostages, Columbathe man who nicked Patrick from his homeland, Columba seems to have been destined to be a holy troublemaker. And he was. He copied a book. … … Which caused a huge battle in which many men died, and so he went to exile (by choice or by order is not entirely clear). The Irish clearly took their books really seriously. Anyway, Columba ended up on Iona, and then found himself embroiled in the politics, and the conversion, of the lands which were to become Scotland (at this point the ‘Scots’ were still Irish). His federation of monasteries was hugely successful, and produced such amazing works like the Book Of Kells. What is possibly cooler is that his foundation gave rise to a man known as Adomnán, who wrote a law banning violence against women, children, and clerics during times of conflict. This was essentially a medieval Geneva Convention signed by Irish, Pictish, and Dál Riada kings, and other such important folk. Whether or not it worked, Adomnán was the Man; saints often run around preaching peace, he actually went and did something about it.

Saint Columbanus

This man is possibly the pinnacle of medieval Irish religiosity. Not content with preaching in Ireland, having become adept at such things as Latin and computus (don’t ask, trust me, it’s really hard), he set off to preach and educate the people of the most backward and ignorant place he could think of; France. When he got there his piety and scholarly-ness impressed everyone, and his monasteries were so popular they were opening faster than Starbucks franchises. Pretty soon however he was annoying the local bishops, since he didn’t recognise their authority, and thought that they were pretty bad at their jobs. So he sent a letter to the Pope saying so. And told the Pope that he was wrong about the date of Easter. Nobody tells the Pope that he’s wrong about anything. Ever. Especially not some braggart from the edge of the known world. And in better Latin too! By this time Columbanus had moved on, indeed he moved around a lot, setting up monasteries like there was no tomorrow, because there may not have been for him since he had a unique talent for annoying powerful people who had a fondness for running pointy bits of steel through troublesome clerics. The monasteries he founded became some of the most influential and celebrated centres of learning in medieval Europe, playing a key role in the Carolingian renevatio, themselves spawning an endless tide of missionaries and scholars inspired by their founding father. An Irishman abroad, headstrong, confident and never asking for directions, nothing but death could stop him. Which it did.

Medieval Ireland in 5 words

The medieval Irish were brilliant.

Medieval Ireland in 500 words

I imagine you’d want to know why they were brilliant. Well, for a start theyRound tower had a unique legal system. Where Europeans were ruled by the whims of their lords and kings who could proclaim laws whenever they so wished, the Irish were governed by a fixed legal code which kings themselves had to abide by. It took Europe ages to catch up with this great idea. They had lawyers but no prisons. The guilty had to pay fines to or work for the plaintiff, or were exiled if the crime was really harsh. No hanging from a jib or quartering. It was thoroughly civilised. Mostly. The medieval Irish were very fond of fighting, but no more so than their continental counterparts. Cattle raids, land disputes, and dynastic rivalries led to frequent battles where alliances could shift rapidly. But every king abided by the same laws, and spoke the same language, and worshipped the Catholic Church. Of course, since they were Irish, they couldn’t worship the same exact church as the Europeans did, that would be too easy. They came up with their own version of Catholicism which differed not on faith, but on strange things like how to cut your hair, and the date of Easter. Easter had to be calculated with a bunch of strange sums, and the medieval Irish thought their sums were way better than anyone else’s. And so was their Latin. While European bishops fought, often physically, over the claims of their diocese, Irish abbots and monastic foundations, who also fought a lot, managed to encourage a level of learning unknown to Europe. The medieval Irish had better Latin and Greek, and were more deeply versed in the Bible than their European equivalents and so were revered as missionaries and scholars. Their version of Catholicism was largely dominant in Ireland, Scotland and England until the synod of Whitby, when the king decided to change to the Roman Church because his son was going to rebel against him. And he wanted to have sex with his wife. No really, that may have been an issue. She followed the Roman Easter and he adhered to the Irish one. That’s two Lents! And they didn’t give up sweets for Lent, they gave up everything. And they probably didn’t get a break in the middle for St Patrick’s Day! So he switched, and eventually so did everyone else because it was much easier in the long run. Except for a bunch of English monks who settled in Mayo. Irish culture was admired greatly in Scotland and Northern England, so much so that they learned how to write from the Irish, copied their style and wore their clothes. Their kings had Irish advisors, as did the kings of the Franks, because they were the smartest guys around. And then the Vikings came and made life rather difficult for a while, and just when things got better the Normans came. And later again, the English. And we all know how that turned out.