The Last of the Celts / Edition 1

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Travelling throughout the remote Celtic world, award-winning author Marcus Tanner describes the relentless pressure on Celtic communities to assimilate and warns that a distinct Celtic identity may not survive for another generation—a sobering loss that would impoverish us all.
"Tanner has concluded we must resign ourselves to the fact that Celticism is done, over, finis. He proves it in a very good and special book that every prodigal and true Celt should read and try to prove wrong."—Malachy McCourt, Washington Post Book World
"Lively. . . . [A] thoughtful book."—Publishers Weekly
"An exceptional journey into the remarkable cultural history of the Celtic people. . . . [Tanner’s] experience reads like a travelogue and an insightful history with an emphasis on cultural heritage."—Raymond L. Flynn, Boston Sunday Herald
"[An] angry, elegiac and meticulously researched book."—Christian Century
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Editorial Reviews

Malachy McCourt
Despite "Riverdance," Seamus Heaney (Irish), Richard Burton (Welsh), Dylan Thomas (Welsh), Sean Connery (Scots), Robert Burns, "Auld Lang Syne," bagpipes, kilts, whiskey and soda bread, Tanner has concluded we must resign ourselves to the fact that Celticism is done, over, finis. He proves it in a very good and special book that every prodigal and true Celt should read and try to prove wrong.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
"[T]here is nothing that the British or the French love more than a good old Celtic revival," writes Tanner. But the recent renaissance of interest in all things Celtic is "vacuous," he continues, a mere mask for the rapid disappearance of genuine Celtic culture in the British Isles and Brittany. In this lively book, which is part travelogue and part social history, independent historian Tanner (Ireland's Holy Wars) records the results of his world travels in search of the remaining vestiges of Celtic culture. As he moves from Scotland and Belfast to Wales, Cornwall and Cape Breton, he discovers that English has replaced Celtic languages and that modernization has erased many of the remaining Celtic rituals and practices. He provides not only a portrait of modern society in flux in these regions but also a picture of each society's rich history. Tanner finds that Celtic music has become the vehicle for preserving the distinctive features of the Celtic past, although some musical spectacles that purport to preserve the culture, such as Riverdance, are more faux Celtic than the real thing. Tanner particularly laments the disappearance of such languages as Welsh, for without a living language, proverbs and other sayings that preserve a people's folkways are lost forever. This thoughtful book provides a very different, less optimistic perspective on today's Celtic revival. Agent, Natasha Fairweather at A.P. Watt. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Drawn to pursue his roots, Tanner (Ireland's Holy War) learned Welsh to read gravestones while hunting his ancestors, an exercise that blossomed into a cause. Dismissing popular music and Riverdance as poor substitutes for true Celtic culture, as reflected in the language, he tracked each dialect's history by traveling throughout Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Normandy, and more isolated pockets where versions of the original Celtic tongue linger and occasionally thrive. Alas for Tanner, he found few people using Celtic as their primary language-over the centuries, church and state have combined to suppress what was seen as a barbarous dialect. Even in Ireland, where Gaelic is taught, it isn't well retained. Most ironic is the situation in Protestant Ulster, whose Celtic roots could bind it to the rest of the island had so much history not ruined things. Though he concedes that culture can survive in some form without its native tongue, he wonders how much culture is lost as a language dies out. At once personal and well researched, this book is worthy of consideration for academic and public collections.-Robert Moore, Bristol-Myers Squibb Medical Imaging, N. Billerica, MA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher

“In this lively book, which is part travelogue and part social history, independent historian Tanner records the results of his world travels in search of the remaining vestiges of Celtic culture. . . . He provides not only a portrait of modern society in flux in these regions but also a picture of each society’s rich history. . . . [A] thoughtful book.”—Publishers Weekly

“[A] lively and thought-provoking exploration of [the Celtic languages] status today.”—Michael Kenney, Boston Globe

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300115352
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 3/30/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,434,351
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Marcus Tanner is a freelance writer and journalist.

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Read an Excerpt

The Last of the Celts

By Marcus Tanner

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2004 Marcus Tanner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10464-6

Chapter One

The Scottish Highlands 'The Ald Scottis toung'

We are dealing with a people who love their own tongue and feel its power and pathos.

(Free Church statement to the Royal Inquiry into the Crofters, 1884)

Some flyers I found in the Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the Gaelic college on the island of Skye, announced that on 14 July a Gaelic service would be held in the old cemetery just outside Broadford village. And so, on the day, I joined a small column of tourists and language enthusiasts trussed up in wind-cheaters walking across a boggy moor, past trees bent almost double by the wind, towards the sea.

The windswept cemetery, overlooking the isle of Raasay, birthplace of the great twentieth-century Gaelic poet Sorley Maclean, adjoined a large, overhanging rock. The preacher who took the service said that the apostle of Skye, Mulruabh, the 'bald, red-headed one' in Gaelic, might well have preached from that same rock after landing from Ireland in the sixth century. Today people think of Skye today as quintessentially Scottish. It has something to do with the mountains, thepresence of golden eagles, and the fact that many older people speak Gaelic and are, or were, famous for their Presbyterian piety. Then again, the landscape bears many marks of the terrible land war known as the Highland Clearances. Dr Johnson came here on his Highland journey and encountered the Jacobite heroine Flora Macdonald, saviour of the doomed Bonnie Prince Charlie. Skye seems as Scottish as they come.

But Scotland belonged to the future when Mulruabh lived here. In his time, the north of the country was inhabited by the Celtic people known as Picti, or Picts, while the south-west was held by Celtic Britons, related to the modern Welsh. The Irish tribe known as Scoti was only beginning to fashion the lordship of Dalriada in what is now Argyllshire, from which Scotland emerged.

On my way up to Skye I stopped off at the hill fort of Dunadd, the crag that rises out of a great bog, encircled by the River Add near Kilmartin. The numerous cairns, rock carvings and standing stones that dot the landscape come as a forceful reminder that this land was inhabited long before the Scoti came from Ireland, for they were several thousand years old by the time this hill fort was built.

Dunadd is believed to have been the capital of Dalriada, a place of coronations, assemblies and other great ceremonies. When the seventh-century abbot of Iona Adamnan described his great predecessor, Columba, or Colum Cille, addressing people in the 570s from the 'caput regionis', the capital of the region, Dunadd may well have been what he referred to. The first written inscriptions around here recall the fact that the Scoti were linguistically and culturally part of Ireland. A seventh- or eighth-century cross at Barnakil, about a mile from Dunadd, reads 'XRI Reiton', or 'In the name of Christ, Reiton'. A stone inscribed at Poltalloch reads 'Cronan', a common Irish name from the ninth century, and is written in ogham script, the early Irish system of writing.

The Scoti absorbed and subsumed the Picti in the 840s under Kenneth mac Alpin. Possibly the two peoples came together to better resist the incursions of the Vikings, who were harassing them both with increasing frequency. But the memory of saints like Mulruabh in Skye outlived and overcame these political and cultural conflicts. The people of Skye held on to the cult of the bald, red-headed Irishman long after the Picts had vanished and as those who had become the Scots spread their Irish speech across the whole of modern Scotland, outside the south-east.

By the ninth century, Viking raiders posed the greatest challenge to the Scots. They overran the north-west and ransacked Columba's foundation on Iona, an ecclesiastical centre for the Gaels on both sides of the water. The Norse left a strong imprint on north-west Scotland, especially on Na Hearadh and Leodhas (Harris and Lewis in English), where place names such as Horgabost and Roghadal are of Norse origin. The islands' most famous cultural artefacts, the twelfth-century chess pieces found on Lewis in the nineteenth century, are of Norse design.

But although the Norse influence in the islands of north-west Scotland lasted until the 1260s, theirs was not the last word. The language and culture of the Gaels was clearly evangelistic, confident and outward looking, for it overcame and absorbed that of the Norse. Norse culture posed no long-term threat to the Celtic, Gaelic culture of Scotland. The real danger would come from the south, from the Northumbrian Angles who settled the Lower Tweed and the Teviot in the seventh and eighth centuries, and from the English and Anglo-Normans who penetrated the whole of lowland Scotland between the eleventh and the thirteenth century. It was the 'Inglis' speech and culture, not that of the north, which would overwhelm the Gaels.

The cult of Mulruabh went on. It was unaffected by the spread of the 'Inglis' vine through lowland Scotland in the early Middle Ages and its slow penetration of the north-east over the next two centuries. It survived the rise of the Lordship of the Isles, as the semi-independent half-Gaelic, half-Norse kingdom centred on Iona was known, and the suppression of the lordship by the centralising Scottish king in 1493. It survived the religious cataclysm of the Reformation that swept lowland Scotland in 1560, when the kingdom formally accepted a church reformed on Calvinist lines under the firebrand preacher John Knox

From then on, the cult of saints was suppressed in Scotland. The purge was far more vigorous than it was in England, for while saints lingered on in bowdlerised form in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, Knox's First Book of Discipline roundly pronounced all feasts of Christ, saints and apostles as popish inventions. As the Kirk Assembly complained in 1595, people did not always live up to these exacting standards, and there was frequent 'keeping of festival days and bonfires, pilgrimages, singing of carols at Yule', which shows that traces of Catholicism survived the religious earthquake in the Lowlands for decades. Nevertheless, the rigour of the Scottish Reformation was proverbial, drawing both contempt and admiration south of the border. As Margaret Todd wrote in The Culture of Protestantism in Early Modern Scotland, the reformed Kirk wrought a 'profound cultural change that has given us a Scotland characterised (and caricatured) by abstemious self-restraint, sober but affective piety, unrelenting sabbatarianism, highly rigorous and visible social discipline, and a militant conviction of the rightness of the Calvinist cause'. Furthermore, 'It has given us a people determined to claim their own ground as an elect nation distinct from a pitiably half-reformed neighbour infected by popish ceremony and corrupted by sin undisciplined.'

But Knox's religious revolution in the anglophone Lowlands had little immediate impact in the north-west. There, the collapse of the Catholic Church did not lead to its replacement by an efficient successor. The Reformation was an anglophone, indeed an anglophile, affair that exacerbated an existing divide between the English-speaking south and the Gaelic-speaking north and west. In the Highlands, the cult of saints did not cease but decayed into an amiable muddle. With no priests to provide reminders of what these ceremonies were about, saints' days lost their meaning and even the very names of the saints became blurred.

By the time the reformed Church of Scotland began to evangelise the north-west Highlands and the islands, an unchurched people was performing a mass of corrupted rituals, known mainly to us through the condemnations they inspired from the church authorities. We have only a tantalising description of the parishioners of Craignish, near the old hill fort of Dunadd, who were described by the disapproving Synod of Argyll in 1650 as 'goeing sun-gates about the church before they go into the kirk for divyne service'.

A century after the Reformation claimed urban Scotland, the Gaelic north was still - in Protestant eyes - in the dark in matters of faith. John Carswell, the 'father of the printed literature of the Scottish Gael' who translated the reformed church service in 1567, said that the people of Argyll and the isles remained infatuated with the heroes of the old Irish mythological cycles to the detriment of religion. In 1655 fires were regularly lit on hillsides at midsummer on the old feast day of St John, drawing a complaint from the presbytery of Dingwall that people were routinely 'burneing torches ... and fyres in thair townes' on the day. Not long before, the presbytery of Inverness was still discovering images of old Celtic saints concealed in the town, ordering the public burning of 'one idolatrous Image called St Finane' at the market cross in December 1643.

The memory of Mulruabh, which now boiled down to 'Mourie', continued to haunt the imagination of the people of Applecross parish on the mainland opposite Skye, for in 1656 the Dingwall presbytery charged them with enacting 'abominable and heathenish practizes', including the sacrifice of bulls, and the only marginally less objectionable custom of ritually sticking their heads through a round stone 'at a certain tyme uppon the 25 of August'. Besides this, they were guilty of making 'frequent approaches to some ruinous chappells and circulateing of them ... and withall their adorning of wells, and other superstitious monuments and stones'.

Semi-Catholic, and even semi-pagan, cult practices lingered in northern Scotland until the end of the seventeenth century; in 1678 Robert Mackenzie, minister of Gairloch, complained that bulls were still being sacrificed there on 25 August in 'ane heathenish manner', while Martin Martin found the people of Lewis in 1695 still celebrating an obscure cult of a god or saint, now called 'Shony', at Hallowtide, marked by hurling a cup of ale into the sea after which there was dancing and singing. On the distant island of Hiort, or St Kilda, the reformed religion was virtually unknown. Martin found that the islanders still treasured a cross in their church and invoked the old saints in their oaths and prayers.

In the eighteenth century we hear no more of Mulruabh. After the failed Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, the British government tamed the Highlands once and for all. The clan system was dismantled and the removal of the more obstructive Jacobite gentry opened the way for the reformed Church to convert the Highlands. With the placement of a more numerous and settled ministry, such obviously un-Protestant practices as the sacrifice of bulls, the lighting of holy fires and pilgrimages to wells succumbed to ministerial denunciations. But it was a long time before all the old cults, let alone such practices as wakes and wedding dances, were rooted out. Popular culture in eighteenth-century Skye still differed markedly from that of the Calvinist Lowlands and was still as much Irish as Scottish. People still built 'healing stones' into their houses to ward off evil, while witches remained feared and the gifts of prophecy and 'seeing' were prized. Dr Johnson found these beliefs on the wane when he visited Skye, though he said it had not been long since people had stopped believing in a local sprite, or 'sturdy fairy' named 'Browny, who if he was fed and kindly treated would, as they said, also do a great deal of work'. Only thirty years previously, Johnson said, people had put out milk every Saturday for another being from the spirit world, 'the old man with the long beard'; the practice had been stamped out by a minister who was still living in Johnson's time.

The highland Scots, like the Irish, were a dancing people, for in 1759 Lewis presbytery ordered the demolition of a house in Shawbost given over to 'fooling, dancing and other sports' that was 'frequented by a vast number of people of both sexes and a fiddler [who] resort to the same on the Saturday nights, where there is music, dancing, drinking of spirituous liquors, loose carriage, cursing and swearing'.

The reformed Church struggled for several more generations against wakes, wailers at funerals, pipers' laments and dancing and drinking for several days at weddings. The reformed Church had long opposed funeral wailing. In 1642 the Synod of Argyll inveighed against the habit of 'poore women to howle their dead unto the graves ... a thing unseemly to be used in any Christian kirk'. Ministers were ordered to preach on how 'offensive to God and scandalouse to others the lyke practice and carriage must be' and punish offenders. The Church also greatly disliked 'penny weddings' - weddings of the poor, so named for the subscription paid by attenders towards the costs of the revelry. In 1675 the church authorities in Moray ordered 'that all piping, fiddling and dancing without doors ... be restrained and discharged' along with all 'obscene, lascivious and promiscuous dancing within doors'. The campaign against wakes included a ban on the attendance of all who were not immediate relatives of the deceased, and a plea to those who did attend to avoid 'all light and lascivious exercises, sports ... fiddling and dancing, and that any present at such occasions behave themselves gravely, christianly, civilly ... spending the time in reading the scriptures'. Duller Presbyterian weddings gradually replaced the old frolics but it proved a drawn-out war, for although dancing at weddings disappeared from Duirnish by 1840, a report noted that it was not that many years since 'from 80 to 100 persons used to assemble and to pass at least two days in feasting and dancing'.

In 1797 a Presbyterian minister touring the Highlands shortly before the evangelical revival described the land in the same terms as Anglican clerics used for rural Ireland. He was profoundly shocked by the 'popish mode of blessing' still common in the Highlands, such as 'By my soul, by my faith, by Mary it is so, and the like'. When admonished, 'some of them told me such expressions were very common, even with their ministers ... I begged of the Low Country people who then heard me that they would embrace every opportunity of pointing out [to] the natives the great impropriety of such expressions.'

Within a generation the minister's hopes were realised and such impropriety was indeed on the way out. As the reformed Church faltered in the urban and increasingly industrial Lowlands, Presbyterianism made its great breakthrough among the Gaelic Highlanders, virtually snapping cultural bonds that had linked them to Ireland since the era of lordship of Dalriada. The Highlands, outside tiny Catholic enclaves in South Uist and Barra, took on the contours they have since preserved - a region marked by a strong tradition of sabbatarianism and a puritanical distaste for instrumental music and dancing, which have only recently regained popular acceptance.

Presbyterianism conquered the highland Gaels using the same tools as the Methodists employed in Wales. It took up the language. Unlike the Anglican Church in Ireland, the Church of Scotland had never entirely neglected the need to teach and preach in Gaelic. But for two centuries after the Reformation, the Protestant Church failed to convert the Highlands. Carswell's Gaelic translation of the Reformed Church's book of worship, the Book of Common Order, was never distributed. As a result his 'vision of a Protestant church spanning the Gaelic people of the two countries' on either side of the Irish Sea remained unrealised. There was not a single Gaelic book printed in Scotland after Carswell until 1631, when a Geneva catechism was published. However, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw fitful initiatives to convert the Highlanders using bursaries to plant Gaelic-speaking ministers in Highland parishes.


Excerpted from The Last of the Celts by Marcus Tanner Copyright © 2004 by Marcus Tanner. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The Scottish Highlands : 'the ald Scottis toung' 29
Ch. 2 Connemara : 'a vague reverence for the Gaelic' 69
Ch. 3 Belfast : 'the liveliest Gaeltacht in Ireland' 112
Ch. 4 The Isle of Man : 'an iceberg floating into southern latitudes' 129
Ch. 5 North Wales : 'the dear old language of the country' 153
Ch. 6 South Wales : 'a rich culture, long departed' 186
Ch. 7 Cornwall : 'almost an island' 219
Ch. 8 Brittany : 'Plutot comme une liberation' 250
Ch. 9 Cape Breton : 'truly highland in their ways' 285
Ch. 10 Patagonia : 'the survival of our race' 312
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