email a friend iconprinter friendly iconThe Celtic Realm
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For Morrison, like most modern-day Celts, the past became liberating; it was not some sacred, hands-off heirloom but a scuffed-up plaything, the more loved the more it's used. "I would never turn my back on tradition," Morrison said. "But I came to see that tradition can come with this straight face, allowing almost no freedom for improvisation. I decided it was cooler to break the rules." At that he set off to rehearse with a "killer bouzouki player," that being someone extremely handy with a mandolin-like instrument from the Balkans—sure to sound Celtic when Morrison is done accompanying it.

A similar sleight of hand is happening through- out the Celtic realm, from Scotland to Galicia in northern Spain, where anything goes and the definition of a Celt is as elusive and shifting as the coastal weather. There are "blood Celts," the several million people who were raised and still live in the surviving Celtic language territories. Then there is the growing tribe of "Celts of the spirit," who feel touched by the history, myths, and artistic expressions of beautiful losers. "Celtic of any sort," observed J. R. R. Tolkien, is "a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come."

Out of that magic bag drips water, the element that linked the Celtic lands in the past and now most often serves to separate them, for better or worse. Chugging across the Little Minch, the ferry remains the most practical way to reach Lewis and Harris, the northernmost of the Outer Hebrides. One Saturday night I caught the weekend's last sailing from the Island of Skye, the waves seemingly in sync with the churning vowels and consonants of the Gaelic onboard announcements. Ferries don't run on Sundays, a stone-quiet day when an austere form of Presbyterianism keeps shops shuttered and people inside their homes.

Driving down Lewis's empty roads, past stretches of gloomy bogland, through villages lined with houses the color of wet sand, I discovered a forgiven bustle of activity in the parking lot of the Free Church of Scotland in Barvas. A service in Scottish Gaelic was about to begin.

Lewis attracted me because of its isolation and because of its sounds. Many of its 18,500 inhabitants still speak Gaelic as an everyday language, a rare pocket considering that less than one percent of Scotland's population, or only about 30,000 people, are believed to be fluent in the language. An even rarer phenomenon awaited inside the bare-walled church: the singing of psalms in the local language, a musical form as unique and starkly sensual as the chanting of Tibetan monks.

Several dozen parishioners, mostly older folks, took their places on the hard pews, the gents in dark suits, the ladies a bit more daring in summer hats sprouting ribbons and bows. A well-freckled woman on my right shyly passed me a sweet. In a tradition going back to preliterate days, a precentor stood up and began singing solo, to imprint melody and words with the congregation. Soon everyone joined in. The voices didn't lift in ecstatic joy but keened and moaned. The singing conjured up worlds of lament and forbearance, a requiem for an island drifting away from its roots.

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