Published: March 2006
Celt Appeal
Outsider status has helped Celtic languages and culture endure.
By Tom O'Neill
National Geographic Senior Writer

Finding a Celt in 21st-century Europe isn't that difficult, though you may need a few ferry tickets, a good pair of boots, and a sharp set of ears before your search is done. Go as far west as you can, right up to the cliffs and coves of the Atlantic—it doesn't matter if it's France or England or Ireland or the outer islands of Scotland—and turn around. Odds are you'll see rocks, plenty of them, piled up in fences, shaped into houses, or lying like bare knuckles in scruffy fields. Probably it's raining. Your search is getting warm. To get warmer still, find a place like the Cross Inn on the windy, moor-covered Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. If you're lucky, you might hear a bagpipe or fiddle playing, and if you're luckier still, you might tune in to an unfamiliar sound: Celts talking.

The conversation might go:

The conversation might go:

"Hullo, Norman, how's your mother?"

"Great, she's visiting her grandchildren and planting flowers in the garden."

Except the speech is rhythmic and guttural, a back-of-the-throat performance, nothing like the rounded slip and slide of English. If there were sound balloons above their heads, they'd look like this:

"Hallo, a Thormoid. Ciamar a tha do mhàthair?"

"Gu dòigheil. Tha i a' coimhead air a h-ogh-aichean agus a' cur flùraichean anns a' ghàrradh."

The Sunday mates in the Cross Inn are speaking Scottish Gaelic. To them it's no big deal; it's the first language they learned at home. But to me, an American long intoxicated by Irish roots and curious whether an even wider and deeper kinship might exist, that of a Celtic identity, I felt as if I had stumbled upon a secret society. There was something thrilling, even subversive, about hearing an ancient Celtic language in the land of Shakespeare, where neither the Queen nor the Prime Minister would have the foggiest clue what these locals on Lewis were talking about.

When the men caught me listening, they switched to English. "It's rude, that's what we were taught, to speak our language in front of strangers," said Norman Campbell, a novelist and poet who publishes in Scottish Gaelic. I bought a round, and the men opened up, telling me how in their parents' time teachers would take a belt to students overheard speaking the native tongue. Now it's different, they said, and the government is promoting the language. More drinks, and Norman's brother Alasdair drops by and starts singing. The tune is "Gealach Abachaidh an Eòrna," or "The Moon that Ripens the Barley." It sounds sad, I remarked. "Well," Alasdair said, "that moon is huge, very yellow, and it breaks your heart."

Ah, the clues are adding up for identifying a Celt: the ancient language, an easily retrieved sense of historical grievance, a resort to song, and this bittersweet sentimentality. Less clear is how a fringe culture like the Celts managed to survive, even flourish, in a rapidly assimilating world. A brief detour into history begins to tell the tale.

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.

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.

Services in English are outdrawing the Gaelic sessions, the minister said afterward. Other islanders told me they were worried that the toll of emigration—everyone had tales of relatives past and present leaving—and the decline of crofting, the family practice of raising crops and livestock on small plots, would finally bury the language. But the most pressing problem, it seems, is that for the younger generation, a whiff of country bumpkin rises off the ancient words. While I was interviewing Christina Morrison, 83, in her home, her middle-aged daughter interrupted from the kitchen. "It's not cool to speak Gaelic. The fancy people in town look down on us." The old woman nodded and admitted that even her grandchildren are a tough sell. "I give them ten pence if they answer in Gaelic."

Learning Gaelic does have economic benefits. In a cafeteria in Stornoway, the only town on the island, I met a dozen college-age islanders who through Comunn na Gàidhlig, a government-funded agency promoting Gaelic, worked at summer jobs using their bilingual skills. They were interning at places like the BBC radio station, which broadcasts 65 hours of Gaelic programming a week, and the local arts council. Most hoped to make a career out of teaching Gaelic, and all vowed to raise Gaelic-speaking children. "But amongst ourselves, we mostly speak English," confessed one young woman, Jayne Macleod. "Anymore, Gaelic is the language of schools and old people."

When I rode the ferry back to Skye, I noticed that the shipboard announcements were only in English. Christina should have been aboard with her change purse.

During the Celtic glory days of old, water routes converged on Ireland. From its shores came merchants, missionaries, soldiers of fortune, musicians, and in 1607, the last of the Gaelic aristocracy, including my ancestors, the Uí (Gaelic for "descendant of") Néill, who were fleeing English troops. Befitting this busy, water-coursed past, the ferry I took to Ireland was no slow boat to a rustic past but a high-speed catamaran rushing to a cosmopolitan future. For most of the passengers, crossing the North Channel from Stranraer, Scotland, to Belfast, capital of Northern Ireland, Celtic no doubt meant Celtic Tiger, a brand name of success given to the booming economy of the Republic of Ireland. Irish in both the north and south are gloating that—finally—they've caught up with England and the rest of Western Europe, embracing the one-size-fits-all notion of modern prosperity.

Poet Gearóid Mac Lochlainn, like a true Celt, resists the homogenizing forces of the time. He speaks and writes in the Irish language, which in parts of his native Belfast still comes across as fighting words. "Here the language itself is viewed as a taunt just by the fact that it's still spoken, that it's survived," said Mac Lochlainn, a thin, jeans-and-T-shirt guy with close-cropped hair.

Mac Lochlainn talked to me on safe ground, inside the Cultúrlann, a steepled red-brick church converted to an Irish-language center in the working-class Catholic neighborhood of Falls Road. He did not learn Irish from the cradle. He picked up threads of it from a Christian Brothers school and from family friends and visitors from the Gaeltacht, the areas in the republic, mostly on the western fringe, where Irish hangs on as a community language. His poems often marvel at the dissonance of sounds between the majority and minority languages, as when he flirts with an Irish-speaking woman whose "puckety-pocking words" show up his "sluppity-slip-slapping" drunken talk in English.

As Mac Lochlainn spun his past, people kept stopping by our table to say hello. He had caused a sensation with his book Stream of Tongues (Sruth Teangacha)—Irish poems side-by-side with their English translations. One called "Poet's Choice" laid out his fever dream: "I want to speak, rant, rave / untie tongue till it blooms and bleeds / in seven shades of street rhythms." But it wasn't the printed page that caused the stir; tucked into the back of the book was a CD of Mac Lochlainn rapping his poetry to music. It was a mesmerizing performance. Admirers who turn out for his appearances probably think he shares turf with Eminem, but Mac Lochlainn points to a deeper influence, that of the Celtic bards. He likens his poems to sean nós, the traditional style of unaccompanied singing. "When I read my work, it's like a séance," he said. "I feel like I'm a vessel for past voices."

Soon he was off, a busy man, writing and recording a new book and preparing for performances in Liverpool, Slovenia, the Czech Republic. "It seems like everyone wants to be a Celt," he said. I dropped the bard off near his flat, somewhere in a tough-looking neighborhood of brick apartment blocks, a Celtic tiger on the loose.

Voyagers long knew the Celtic lands by their native names: Scotland was Alba; the Isle of Man, Ellan Vannin; Ireland, Éireann; Cornwall, Kernow; and Wales, Cymru. "kum-ree, kum-ree," I softly chanted aboard the Jonathan Swift, a ferry across the Irish Sea to the island of Anglesey in northern Wales.

As a nod toward their native languages, most modern Celtic lands put up bilingual town names. And as a nod toward independence, Celtic vandals just as regularly scratch out the English and French names, creating the sight of tourists standing befuddled beside their cars in places like northwestern Ireland and the western tip of Cornwall, a useless English-language map hanging from their hands. Memorizing a few pronunciation rules is almost mandatory in Wales. Try asking for directions to Machynlleth and Llanfairfechan.

Except for a few regions in Ireland, the Welsh stand apart in retaining their old unaccompanied, un-anglicized place-names, particularly in the north and west. Here is the best defended outpost of Celtic speech: Nearly 600,000 people, roughly a fifth of the population, can speak Welsh, the beneficiaries of a nationalist movement that has used language as a rallying cry since the 1960s. The old language bubbles up in schools, pubs, grocery stores, and on television. The English name for Wales comes from the Anglo-Saxon word wealas, meaning foreigners, a description many Welsh today would turn on its head and apply to the English themselves.

Besides language, what gives the Celtic Welsh a chest-pounding feel of home is heroic history—and Wales is thick with it: walled towns, roofless churches, spiral-engraved standing stones, holy wells, crumbling hill forts, all proclaiming a past age of Celtic dominance.

The history that stirs the hottest passions among Welsh Celts belongs to medieval times, when Welsh leaders resisted the ultimately successful invasions of the English kings. Those heroic days seemed as fresh as an open wound to David Petersen as he drove me through the Towy River valley in southwestern Wales. I had met the ponytailed Petersen before at the Festival Interceltique, the pan-Celtic music event in Lorient, Brittany, where he headed the Welsh delegation. When I heard him call the Union Jack a "butcher's apron," I knew I'd found a Celtic troublemaker.

Petersen, a Celtic commentator and sculptor, wanted to show me one of the latest patriotic monuments to the Welsh cause. He was in a pugnacious mood, befitting the son of a former heavyweight champ. Jabbing his finger right and left as we sped through the mellow valley, Petersen bloodied the English face on the landscape. He angrily corrected a few anglicized names of towns; pointed out the ruins of Welsh castles while ignoring the bulkier, fixed-up English ones; and, slowing down beside a modest piece of pastureland, complained that no marker identified this ground as the site of the glorious Battle of Coed Llathen. Here, in 1257, Welsh troops crushed the invading English army of King Henry III. "A new map of this area has left the battlefield out," Petersen said in disbelief. "The effing nerve of the authorities to tell us that this has no historical value."

Wheeling into a car park in the center of Llandovery, an old market town, Petersen reached the point of his harangue: On a rise, sharing space with the broken walls of a castle, stood a warrior's statue. Helmet, spear, flowing cloak, shield, and broadsword—the costume of war gleamed in stainless steel. But where there should have been a face and a body inside the medieval uniform, empty space stared out.

The 16-foot-high (five meters) statue represents Llywelyn ap Gruffydd Fychan, a "brave nobody," Petersen said. When English troops stormed the area in 1401, looking for the army of Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr, the local Lord Llywelyn led the enemy in the wrong direction, buying time for Glyndŵr to escape. As punishment for his subterfuge, Llywelyn was executed in the town square. "The English took his stomach out and cooked it in front of him," Petersen said. The empty cloak symbolizes the horrific form of death.

Petersen knows the full story behind the raising of the statue on the 600th anniversary of Llywelyn's execution. His sons Toby and Gideon designed and built the locally commissioned monument. Back at the car we found a £30 ($50) parking ticket on the windshield. Petersen snatched it up, cursed the authorities, and vowed to fight the ticket. He had no choice: A Ghost of Wales Past was looking over his shoulder.

When I reached Cornwall at the southernmost tip of England by car—alas, no ferry—I drove from St. Just to St. Ives to St. Agnes to St. Austell. People joke that there aren't enough seats in heaven for all the Celtic saints. Wherever you are in Celtic lands, every day is a holy day. For the first week or so of September alone, I counted feast days for saints named Macanisius, Ultan, Rhuddlad, Disibod, Kieran, and Finian. The saints' names date to the time between the fifth and eighth centuries when Celtic Christian missionaries, most from Ireland, scattered along the Atlantic coast and beyond to establish monastic centers. The monks often located their sanctuaries at pre-Christian ceremonial sites, acknowledging their sacred significance.

This entwining of pagan and early Christian traditions today exerts a magnetic pull at the religious sites, luring pilgrims, tourists, spiri-tual groupies, and mystic seekers. Something about Cornwall, its woolly wet weather, its abundance of prehistoric sites, and its ties to the legend of King Arthur (local Arthurians locate his castle at Tintagel), draws the more mystical and pagan of the pilgrims.

One day while looking around the Iron Age village site of Carn Euny, I met Cheryl Straffon, a Cornish goddess worshipper. I first noticed her at the head of a group of American women coming out of an underground chamber. The early Celts may have used such subterranean rooms, called fogous in Cornwall, as ritual sites. "That room has great acoustics," I overheard Straffon saying. "Chanting sounds good in there."

Straffon is editor of a newsletter called Meyn Mamvro about sacred sites in Cornwall. Middle-aged with a mop of graying blond hair, she has been intensely drawn to the Cornish landscape since she was a schoolgirl here. "It's as if I had been born with memories of these places," she said. "It is not a cold remote past here. It's a warm immediate past."

To commune with that past, Straffon observes the pre-Christian Celtic calendar, conducting rituals on the season-turning feast days of Imbolc (February 1, to mark the lactation of ewes), Beltane (May 1, when flocks and herds were moved to summer pastures), Lughnasa (August 1, for the first harvest), and Samhain (October 31-November 1, when the world of the dead was believed to briefly open, inspiring the modern Halloween).

On each of these days Straffon and her fellow celebrants invite a Celtic goddess into their midst. Brigid, an Irish deity associated with healing, later absorbed by the church as a saint, is invoked on Imbolc when Straffon visits holy wells like Madron. We tramped one day through woods to the well, a pool of dark water seeping out of the ground. A fungus called stinkhorn gave off a piercing sour smell, and on the surrounding moss-furred trees, shreds of cloth and paper hung like ornaments off every branch. These were offerings, or "clouties," representing body parts that petitioners, Christians as well as pagans, wished to have healed.

When conducting a ritual here, Straffon said she and her friends decorate the well with candles and call in Brigid using Gaelic chants, just the way she imagines people did for centuries. "This gives us a sense of connecting with our ancestors who lived here," she said. "It allows us to relate to the land and give it thanks."

Pagans don't delight everyone in Cornwall. Some members of a local church have stripped the clouties at well sites, Straffon said, and a fundamentalist Christian farmer knocked down a standing stone on his land. But as we sloshed through mud back to the road and rain began to fall, Straffon remarked that, judging by the number of visitors from afar seeking out the local sacred sites, Celts must be everywhere. "I believe if you feel Celtic," she said, "you become Celtic."

In many ways the so-called Celtic spirituality has become as popular and marketable as Celtic music. People are embracing it for its aura of seeking the divine in nature and for treating women as the spiritual equals of men. They come to meditate and conduct rituals at early Celtic Christian centers like Iona in Scotland, Glastonbury in England, and Glendalough in Ireland. On Inishmore in Ireland's Aran Islands, I attended a "Celtic wedding." Dara Molloy, who had quit the Catholic priesthood ten years earlier to protest the prohibition against female clergy, read the vows inside the ruins of a 12th-century church—but only after he had led the American couple to a fertility stone and holy well to pray.

The overnight ferry to Brittany across the English Channel probably follows a route similar to the one taken by Guénolé, a Celtic saint who sailed to "Little Britain" from England in the late fifth century to found a monastery. Driving through rolling farm country (finally, fertile, stone-free fields!), I stopped outside the village of Collorec, at a small fieldstone chapel named after the saint. A farmer was in the doorway, like Father Time himself, with a scythe on his shoulder, having just cut the grass around the building.

"When I was young, people would come to pray for the rains to stop," said Marcel Quéré, laying down his scythe and unlocking the chapel door to give me a look. "When a person died, someone would come ring the bell." Inside the dim interior I saw sculpted dragons swallowing the ends of the crossbeams and carved human heads where the walls met the ceiling. Tolerating these pagan symbols were sad-eyed wooden statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Guénolé.

One Sunday afternoon, a hundred or so people, almost all of them white-haired, gathered for Guénolé's pardon, or feast day. They sat on benches outside the chapel in the shade of pine trees. A mischievous breeze kept blowing the cross off the makeshift altar and onto the grass, until Father Pierre Mahé, smiling through his white beard, laid it flat on the table. Following custom, the priest, who serves 22 churches in four parishes, said the outdoor Mass in French, but the worshippers sang hymns in Breton, now spoken almost exclusively by the elderly. When Mass ended, two men carried the statue of St. Guénolé out of the chapel, hoisted him on their shoulders, and led everyone on a slow procession down the lane, past stone farmhouses, circling around to return the saint to the chapel.

For the rest of the afternoon, the congregants held a dance at a nearby crossroads. Mostly the women danced, twirling and stepping in the crisp syncopation of Breton dance, while a pair of accordion players and someone on the bodhran, an Irish drum, made music under a hot sun. The men bowled in a grassy patch beside the road, tossing unpainted wooden balls at rows of pins. The priest, having replaced his vestments with blue jeans, stayed and drank beer. No one appeared in any hurry to leave.

I suspected that the Scots, the Irish, the Welsh, and the Cornish, the blood Celts among them anyway, would all feel at home here with these Bretons. There were no costumes or causes on display, nothing done to impress an outsider. The past danced into the present, and everyone, with a nod toward St. Guénolé, could feel thankful that on this day the world did not feel strange or hostile. It felt Celtic.