Most of us are unaware that Celts once dominated the breadth of Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic—and for a long time. An early form of Welsh was spoken in Britain 1,500 years before Old English took root. The Celtic languages still spoken in Europe hark back to the Late Bronze Age (1200-800 b.c.) and a civilization of aristocratic warrior tribes. The word "Celtic" comes from the Greek Keltoi, first appearing in the sixth century b.c. to describe "barbarians" living inland from the Mediterranean Sea. Little suggests these people united or called themselves Celts. Yet there is no denying that these far-flung peoples spoke closely related languages and shared beliefs, styles of art and weaponry, and tribal societies. Trade, principally by water, connected them. Calling them Celts makes sense, if only to separate them from what they weren't: Roman or Greek.
All this categorizing might easily have become an arid academic debate about a lost people. Beginning in the second century b.c. Roman legions vanquished Celtic armies across Europe. Only the peoples of northern Britain and Ireland remained unconquered. In the fifth century a.d. the Anglo-Saxons invaded Celtic lands, followed by the Vikings, storming the coasts in their long warships, the Normans, who attacked from France, and finally the colonizing armies of the English and French crowns. From these wars of resistance came many Celtic heroes and martyrs such as the legendary King Arthur, the Irish High King Brian Boru, and Scotland's William Wallace, known as Braveheart.
By the end of the Middle Ages, Celtic culture was headed toward extinction, its remnants pushed to the very western edge of Europe. "No one else wanted to live where the Celts did," a Breton man said. "Those places were poor and remote, and no one spoke their languages."
Being ostracized to no-man's-land did not spare the Celts from further depredations. The English and French banned or restricted their languages, their instruments and music, their names, their right to own property, and in the case of the kilt-wearing Scottish Highland clans, even their clothing. It's a bit miraculous Celtic civilization survived in any form. By clinging to the fringes, geographically and culturally, Celts refused to vanish.
Now, in one of those delectable backward flips of history, Celts and all things Celtic suddenly seem omnipresent. "Europe's beautiful losers," as one British writer called them, are commanding attention as one of the new century's seductive identities: free-spirited, rebellious, poetic, nature-worshipping, magical, self-sufficient.
I first saw Fred Morrison onstage at the Festival Interceltique in Brittany, wearing a plaid kilt and a polka-dot tie, all sweaty and solemn as he played Breton and Irish tunes on his bagpipes. Morrison ("the Jimi Hendrix of pipers!" a fan raved) is from the island of South Uist in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. When we met in a café late one morning, he had traded his kilt for blue jeans and looked like an off-hours traveling salesman with two attaché-size cases in hand. Inside were bagpipes. He said he'd learned the pipes from his father and in 1972, at 18, had headed to Amsterdam to play in the streets. Soon he hooked up with some Irish musicians and freed his style. "I learned to become a rebel musically," Morrison said. He went on to play for pathbreaking Scottish bands like Capercaillie and Clan Alba, and worked on the soundtrack for the movie Rob Roy.