ANDREW DUNCAN: Insularity

This is a series where poets get away from their jobs as poets. Lyndon suggested something for Junction Box that wasn’t about literature. This is a stretch for me, culture is where I live. But I can reach out into folklore. I have written about something crucially important to me, which I am afraid does involve literature. It is a feuilleton, a kind of Sunday morning piece. The theme is Celtic culture.

The start point is a Scottish Gaelic folk tale, collected (twice) in the late 19th century, The Knight of the Red Shield (Gaisgeach na sgeithe deirge), and a phrase in it which runs the four red parts of the world, ceithir ranna ruadh an domhain. I plan to go in circles, so the start point doesn’t matter. Maybe the real start point is me, trying to study for a degree course in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, in the 1970s, and coming across the weird and flamboyant erudition of Irish classical tales, feeling that to understand that set of semantic relations was the key to ‘doing Celtology’, and struggling with the defective scholarly support available. Dealing with one 19th century folk-tale is a much reduced version of that. It happens to be the best Scottish folk-tale I have ever seen. Perhaps partly because Kenneth Macleod edited it from two separate narrators.

Why is the world ‘red’?

Four red parts of the world reminds me of ‘bely svet’, literally ‘the white world’, a phrase basically from Russian folk poetry which found its way sometimes into Russian literary poetry of the 20th century. Why white world? well, it could be in opposition to a world of darkness. Or it could mean the ‘open world’, where the ‘white’ means without obstacles and corresponds to English words like ‘open, clear’. Clarus in fact means ‘bright’ as well as ‘land without trees or buildings’.

But did these archaic phrases point to sets of worlds of other colours? blue, green, dark, yellow?

Four parts of the world just means ‘the whole world’. Human bodies have bilateral symmetry, dividing things into two. It is easy to get from this module two to four directions. Space goes off in any number of directions that you wish, but four is a founded number of them.

I started with the old Celtic culture either when reading David Jones at the age of 16 or when, about three years later, I had to deal with Old Irish tales as part of a university course. A feature of quite a few of those tales is a question – as I remember, ceist, inna fil – which is an excuse for reeling off some obscure (and often invented) lore. Every text can be seen as the answer to a question. Generally the question is answered by the time the text draws to an end. My feeling inside those texts was one of deep bewilderment and fragmentation. I did not understand what was going on and the rich flows of information were not making the situation better. The questions made it seem possible that the texts would let me in in the same way that stories would have let a child into Irish culture in 860 AD or at other times. It was noticeable that the modern books about Celts did not answer the questions about these old texts, and I rapidly got the feeling that the scholars did not understand that culture – that inside that astonishing, unnecessary, wealth of surviving mediaeval manuscripts was something lost, the ethos of the texts. I was in grave doubt that I was going to come out of a course (in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic) with any acquisition except this deep, drowning, feeling, of doubt and perplexity. (Obviously, when I was studying French in year 1 I didn’t feel that French novels were ‘alien’.) Thirty years later, I feel much the same way. But I may have the questions clearer.

One key moment for me was hearing Ronald Black, on the radio, saying that he had no time for people who tried to develop opinions about Celtic cultures without studying the languages. This is polarising but the point is that people don’t want to read the texts. Then, that there is a whole slew of books about ‘Celtic culture’ which have nothing to do with the evidence and which cannot possibly be true. There is a great book by Malcolm Chapman, The Gaelic Vision in Scottish Culture, which deals with the mythical version of the northern half of Scotland, and how speculation hardened into strange forms. In fact we have a whole region populated by misleading accounts of Insular Celticity, which we have to find the yonder edge of before starting to understand. Chapman has that frustrating quality of many classic works of modern scholarship that you find you know much less after reading it than before.

Celtic culture post 1600 does not have the same quality of being incomprehensible. You can argue that this connects to the old culture being broken apart. I think this is another false perspective – that is, because the millions of living people in Wales, Scotland, Ireland, etc. are not something broken, but a living fact. The false perspective is seeing several million people as a lack, i.e. a lack of the exotic and almost non-European cultural practices which their ancestors had. Actually, we could speak of several different ‘Irish Sea cultures’, or if you like phases of one culture area. All of these phases were actual cultures, not the lack of another culture which by then no longer obtained.

The Rosg Gaidhlig book which includes the tale of the Knight of the red shield includes Kenneth Macleod’s friendly essay about the ocean, including parts of folk tales, such as this one.

‘Now, we know where the seal and the swan came from, but wherever did the mermaids come from? It is not difficult to tell this, then. There was a maiden once, and one day she went to the well to drink a drink. She said, while looking at herself in the fresh water, ‘It is hard to tell if there is any female in Scotland as beautiful as I am’. ‘Aren’t you a fool, o darling among women’, said her stepmother, who had come quietly up behind her; ‘though Scotland is big the world is bigger’. ‘But if it is bigger it is not better’ said the maiden; ‘and anyway, I saw this, every knight each one better than the other from the four red parts of the world, and vowing and eloquising every one of them they never saw the like of me either before or since’ . ‘This must be true’, said the stepmother; ‘but though the world is wide, it is small beside the ocean, and there is many an answer hiding in the depth.’ That very night the maiden went to a famous scholar of the black arts, and she asked, ‘O man of the black school, give me knowledge of the sea’. ‘I will make a fish of you’, he said. ‘This is not enough’, she said; ‘I need the eyes of a woman in my head, so as to see and recognise the goodness of my quality’. ‘I will put’, said he, ‘the head of a woman on a fish’. ‘This is not enough’, she said; ‘I need the heart of a woman in my side, so as to take and give love, if there were lovers there.’ Your heart’s desire to you’, he said; and they were taken together to the ocean. Forever after is seen a golden-yellow lady with the tail of a fish, swimming in the waves and forever searching for the thing that cannot be had, a female fairer than herself. And if the rumour is true, though she gained knowledge of the sea, she never gained happiness in its midst; and when she felt love, it was for warm flesh, and never for cold flesh’.

This uses the same phrase again. Clearly it just means ‘knights from every part of the world’. I am tempted to translate ‘orbhuidhe’ as ’blonde’, but that would just sound like Cosmopolitan. The world of the folk-tales is a complete one. It dwarfs the heroes who wander through it, the stories swallow them up. It is inexhaustible. This is where I want to be, in the middle of something that goes on for ever. The word for this form, basic to the Gaelic lands, is scela. This is cognate with chwedl in Welsh, pointing to a prehistoric form *skwedlom. The -kw- becomes -p- in Welsh except where it is preceded by an s-. Wolfgang Meid has discovered that the English word spell derives from a Celtic word, a form of *skwedlom. The skw- became sp- in this case, which shows that it was not Welsh. What language was it and where did the loan take place? This is a bit of a puzzle.

Edward Lhuyd attached (in 1707?) the label ‘Celtic’ to the special languages of the British Isles and Brittany. The word was unknown to any of the inhabitants of these parts but had been used by Classical writers, from Herodotus on, in various descriptions of Europe. In the 1990s, a re-analysis of the source texts showed that the ‘Celt’ word had never been applied to the British Isles. It was a misnomer. These languages are, above all else, spoken on islands; simply to call them Insular seems appropriate, and hence this piece is called Insularity. The Celts lived on the mainland, in central Europe and Gaul.

This is just part of a demolition of older (largely 19th and 20th C) views about ‘The Celts’ and their relationship with modern peoples of north-west Europe known (since Lhuyd) as Celtic – removing the fantasy component. This change is largely linked to three books by Simon James, John Collis, and Michael Morse. To link the people of the zone between Burgundy and Slovakia (roughly!), of the Iron Age Hallstatt and La Tne cultures, with people living in Ireland, Wales and so forth, would demand an immigration – boats carrying people who would have brought the languages among other things. The ‘soil record’ in the islands does not faithfully yield signs of such a wave of arrivals. The better archaeology gets, in its accumulative project, the more glaring the lack of artefact support for a migration to fit the schedule has become. The more mature local scholarship has become, emerging from under a top-burden of being under-funded, marginal, far from Where Things Actually Happened, etc., the more tenuous a link with areas close to the Mediterranean and described by Classical historians has become. What this step leaves us with is ‘the Irishness of old Irish society’ – a worthwhile theme. Increasingly, the link between the Atlantic world and the Graeco-Latin texts looks archaic, a claim for legitimacy which belonged to an era of colonisation and low self-confidence. The notion of fitting insular societies into celebrated texts in the Classical languages seems like provincial families trying to claim links to the great families of the earth. It can be jettisoned without affecting the overwhelming historical reality of the Welsh, Irish and Scottish nations, in all the dimensions of their history.

The link to Hallstatt and La Tne may have to be abandoned – and it may have been a prop for theories. There is no evidence of what languages the bearers of Hallstatt and La Tne spoke. The correlation of those artefact styles with Celtic languages dates back to the mid-19th century, but reached a classic statement in Henri Hubert’s 1914 book. The traces of Celtic place-names in areas like North Italy, Austria, Serbia, (Singidunum, now Belgrade), recorded much later than the end of La Tne, may be a record of an eastwards move from Gaulish population groups in Gaul. An earlier westwards movement looks increasingly unlikely. Central Europe could only be the ‘origin’, the ‘place of genesis and emergence’, of Celtic languages if such languages were in fact spoken there.

Morse’s book is called ‘How the Celts came to Britain’. This does not mean ‘a prehistoric migration brought Celts to the islands’ but ‘in the 18th century antiquarians named the older inhabitants of Britain Celts (and got it wrong)’. He quotes Worsaae on the completeness of Old Irish literature – which allows antiquarians to explain processes in Celtic Europe (Spain? Switzerland? Bohemia?) by reference to those vastly numerous texts. It looks as if the idea of homogenous ‘Celtic space’ was founded on blankness, a near-total lack of information. But archaeology has been accumulating knowledge ever since. At present archaeologists see Bronze Age Europe as made up of cells of maybe 60 km2. This goes along with ‘sociological’ facts of a subsistence economy, very limited trade, low population mobility, and an intense cultural life which was ‘short-range’ because there were no means of long-range dissemination. Transplanting results from one cell to another is no longer credible without further evidence. Worsaae was writing in the 1840s. Thus the grand generalisation preceded the stage of data accumulation. Knowledge, very strongly localised, has been accumulating ever since, and this is what has done for the idea of sea-to-sea Celticity. It has gone away and it isn’t coming back. John Collis has referred to ‘deconstruction’ to describe the ‘post-Celticist’ writers, but really it’s nothing to do with that.

As the ‘Celtic’ ideological structure collapses, what emerges to inherit the whole scene is the concrete living cultures of the north-east Atlantic zone, languages and literatures which actually exist as opposed to being theoretical constructs. We can do slightly better than this: we can point to an ‘Irish Sea culture province’ and to a set of shared or loan structures of behaviour which link the peoples close to this shallow sea. Most tangibly, we have the Gaelic and Welsh languages, and the resemblances between them, verified by scholarship to the point where no doubt about them persists. We can set up a ‘theoretical construct’ of the ‘vanished language from which Gaelic and Welsh derive’, although in the light of recent work we are reserved about which features are ancestral and which derive from assimilation during a late period of intense bilingualism on the shores of the Irish Sea, so that key features of insular ‘Celticity’ may be late and shared innovations (as Ranko Matasovic in particular has proposed). The ‘bilingual’ period may have been 0-600 AD, perhaps, and connected to the Irish ogam inscriptions in Wales and the transplanting of the Gaelic language to Scotland (initially in Argyle and no doubt in Galloway). There was a ‘Küstensprachbund’, to use the technical term. We might call this double language Clishmaclaver or Matasovka.

The archaeologist Barry Cunliffe, in particular, has argued for the conservatism over a long period of the people ‘facing the Atlantic’, along the littoral from Spain up to the Orkneys. The culture of these lands, in late Antiquity, had not come from the east. They were not an offshoot of the Central European cultures. Cunliffe recently edited a book called Celtic from the West which argues that the Celtic language originated in Spain and spread from there. There are unfortunately a few problems with this theory, and with the interpretation (by John T Koch) of very early (even 8th C BC) ‘Tartessian’ inscriptions from the region of Seville as Celtic, but this whole wave of hypotheses is of great interest.

Koch identifies a word kaarnerion, in the syllabic script, on a stone, as being a third person preterite plural of a verb, corresponding to Latin *carnaverunt or similar, and meaning ‘they erected (this stone)’. A root carn means ‘heap up’ in Gaelic, like a cairn for example. There is no reason to think that Koch’s guess for what the inscription means is right. Actually we don’t even know what language the brief text is in. But there are stones in North Italy, in Lepontic and Gaulish, on which words ‘carnitus’ ‘karnitu’ and similar mean, quite probably, ‘erected’, (3rd person, preterite, plural), referring to the upright stones themselves. They are half a millennium younger than the Tartessian material. I spent a long time in 2011 puzzling over what Koch has to say. Since Celtic is cognate with Sanskrit and Greek it must have come from the east.

The book Cruth na Tire has on its cover a map of Argyle and Ulster which has been rotated so that the east is at the top. Suddenly, the water dividing the two large islands is no longer the key feature, instead the gap between Scotland and Ireland seems utterly tiny and the centrality of the Gaelic lands to the Gaelic world shouts at you. The centre of the Gaelic word is also the centre of the map.

Imagining that Gaelic world as falling into two separate parts is mistaken. A true-tale recorded in Air beulaibh an t-sluaigh says that, a long time ago, when they still spoke Gaelic in Belfast, men went out from Mull in boats and met men from Ireland, and exchanged pigs for poitin, out there on the sea.

We could identify a boat, overrun with pigs and strong liquor, somewhere south of Mull, as the centre of the Gaelic world, and it is about being in the centre that I wanted to write. The book which has the ‘four red parts’ was designed, I think, as a textbook for pupils studying Scottish Gaelic for what we would call the sixth form, in the early years of the century. It has a strange structure whereby it starts out with modern Gaelic, then later on it gets more difficult and then it turns into completely Irish Gaelic. This was the older Scottish language. The texts in question are drawn from Geoffrey Keating’s History of Ireland, written around 1640. There is a transition between the two ends of the book, in the 17th century Scottish prose of some formal clan histories, written in a classical Gaelic which is very close to the Irish of that time. I wouldn’t mind making this transition, exalted though it is, but I find the old Gaelic prose almost incomprehensible. Actually people do still speak Gaelic in Belfast. Ciaran Carson explained this to me.

If you go to the Scottish parliament you find every publicity leaflet translated into Gaelic and none in Scots. It’s Gaelic or English. Empty gestures! (Scottish) Gaelic is spoken by a maximum of 80,000 people and is favoured as a ‘minority language’ because it is very cheap to subsidise. Scots (Anglian dialect resembling English) is spoken by millions of people but the SNP have never made any moves to help it because it would be very expensive to do something for so many people. Gaelic is a dying language and is not associated with large numbers of working-class people in the big cities. Scots (the language) is the aspect of national life that interests me most & I am not pleased with the SNP stance on this. Every nationalist party in Europe favours the language of the (local) nation except the Scottish one.

Hennig Brinkmann said (in 1966 I think): ‘The Roman tradition (as one can call it) which seeks regular measures; the process of Germanic alliterative poetry, which gives assent to variability; the art of repetition and chiming of sounds, cultivated by the Irish ‘ – all contributed to the origin of rhyming poetry. He finds an early use of rhyme in magical spells, as part of a sonorous bluster, including many exotic words and not always meant to be meaningful. He locates the rhyme revolution in Ireland in the 7th century.

JF Campbell’s 1873 book Leabhar na Feinne collects Fenian or ‘Ossianic’ ballads from several manuscript collections, going back to about 1510. I thought to read it. The complexity of the language blew me off almost immediately.

The smooth ? ? horses

Stride-long stride-slender

Fine-piebald, fine hair, fine ears

Large-foaming, large-?, large-curls

Bustle and sighing of the horses

Were drawing Cuchulainn to the graveyard.

This is from a poem about Cuchulainn’s chariot, a praise-poem full of elaborate descriptions. According to John D MacInnes, 100,000 lines of Fenian balladry have been collected from oral tradition in Scotland in the twentieth century. It is a strange thing. These ballads were clearly a cultural ware of supreme importance to the Gael, something which they clung on to and which was found in virtually all districts where Gaelic itself was found. It is part of high culture which was preserved in oral tradition, difficult to memorise but felt as something of great value. MacPherson must have understood this, his choice of material showed that he was a true Gael. And yet this miasma of fakery hangs around the Fenian material because of the circumstances of the texts which MacPherson presented, in print and in English. MacPherson was inventing the code of the tourist industry before that industry existed. The Ossianic ballads are quite possibly the most important sector of oral creation ever recovered in the British Isles, yet if you talk about them people will simply assume you’re talking about the dodgy MacPherson.

The words I couldn’t work out in that poem have a certain value. They stand for the boundary where comprehension ends. They simply aren’t in Dwelly’s dictionary, 1000 pages long but recording the Gaelic of around 1900. I bought, on-line, some ‘reprints’ of 19th century collection of folktales, based on OCR scans of original copies. Gaelic uses accents on some letters, and the OCR was programmed not to recognise accents. The raw outcome has not been edited but thrown dirtily into print, corrupt and incomprehensible. This is the contribution of 21st century technology to Celtic studies, to produce complete rip-offs.

There is a version of the ‘Leabhar na Feinne’ on-line but it has been scanned badly and about one character in four is corrupt. People preserved these poems for centuries by memorising them. Now modern technology reduces them to gibberish. A Gaelic speaker could have recovered so much of the text with one day of work before printing it. But the publishers didn’t bother. Gaelic, who cares?

There is a specific sensation of looking at those damaged texts – a mixture of horror, pain, and glimpses of light. Like a migraine.

‘Ossian’ and ‘Fingal’ may be fake but they aren’t as fake as Blake. Actually, Blake was imitating ‘Fingal’ to a large extent. Without MacPherson, no Blake. Without Blake, no British Poetry Revival.

A stray reference in a collection of conference papers (Rannsachadh na Gaidhlig, number 5) tells me that Campbell’s book was a complete flop when it was published. This must explain why there was no follow-up volume with translations and explanations. I just can’t deal with the Gaelic text without some props.

In Old Norse rannsaka means ‘to attack the house’, which would normally be accompanied by furious searching through a clutter of objects to find the ones worth carrying away. Ransacking. The Gaels borrowed this word, rannsachadh. So this is a sensible word to use for research. Ransacking the Gaelic, a learned conference. The search bit comes from circulus, circle. Chercher, going in circles. Research, go in circles many times.

Nora Chadwick’s The Celtic Church in the Age of the Saints quotes this piece of ancient Irish prose:

‘Now there are three kinds of martyrdom which are counted as a cross to a man, that is to say white martyrdom, and green martyrdom, and red martyrdom. This is the white martyrdom to a man, when he separates for the sake of God from everything he loves [...] This is the green martyrdom to him, when by means of them (fasting and labour) he separates from his desires [...] This is the red martyrdom to him, endurance of a cross or destruction for Christ’s sake[...]’

This gives us the kind of context in which colour-coding to illustrate a symbolic structure could give us the ‘four red parts of the world’, although it is true we don’t yet know what the symbolic structure was. The text is known as ‘the Cambrai homily’ and dates from the second half of the 7th century. Chadwick describes it as the most archaic piece of Gaelic prose that we possess.

This colour coding fits into the context of a Church which wanted to fix its messages into the heads of people who couldn’t read. Simple, striking, primary. This oldest stratum is Christian, therefore imported, and its verbal structures may belong to Syria, Egypt, or Asia Minor rather than to the Irish Sea region. They pervaded Celtic folklore in the most magical way. This may resemble formal uses of clothing where colour shows the status of a person – grey friars versus black friars, for example.

There is an interesting passage on this very subject. ‘But besides this it seems evident that the Irish artist depicted the Evangelist dressed as he is not merely to integrate him into the network of linear forms. We know that the Irish missionaries who went about preaching the Gospel wore garments which earned them the epithet of the ‘Striped Ones’. More likely, then, their garments, especially their liturgical vestments, became as it were the badge of their calling, symbolising it in both colour and design’. This is a commentary on an illustration taken from the Book of Durrow. I have never seen this stated anywhere else, and it comes from a 1967 book on 20,000 Years of World Painting with no bibliography. The author of this section is Pierre Francastel, not known as an expert on Insular Celtic art but one of the most illuminating of art historians. The illustration shows St Matthew, in a cloak which is not striped but made of chequers of red and yellow with more complex decoration on a hem or fringe and on appliquéd panels. We have to ask whether the artist thought that 2nd century Christians in Palestine dressed like this, or was depicting Irish or Scottish Christians of the 7th century. Next, rather obviously, whether this attention-grabbing garb was an east Mediterranean scheme, Syrian, Palestinian, Egyptian, or whether it was invented in the British Isles.

The Durrow is believed to come from Iona, which is part of Scotland by modern reckoning. It dates to the 7th century, when there were still plenty of pagans in Britain. The image of ‘a realist depiction of something which is (already) stylised and symbolic’ is a figure discussed elsewhere in Francastel’s work.

If we imagine, then, a preacher coming to spread the Word in an area which was not only pagan but without towns (almost by definition, this is the 7th century), his first problem is to gather an audience. Walking around the district wearing distinctive clothing might be a way of doing this. We have to add another possibility. The chequers remind one of the traditional attire of the harlequin, and of the Pied Piper. It is possible that wandering entertainers, a very long time ago, used distinctive and highly unusual clothing as a form of advertisement. The preachers could simply have copied this. I once read an article about the history of clothing which I believe described Syrian preachers wearing clothes of motley colours – I think it was called ‘Harlekintracht und Mnchskutte’ but I can’t now remember the author. The Internet has retrieved his name but I haven’t read this for a long time. (It was Geo Widengren.)

I am sure someone could accuse me of ethnocentricity. I would not be so interested in the Irish Sea Province if I had different ancestors. Someone will say, You live in Nottingham, Andrew, so learn Polish! The defence is the coherence of knowledge. The things I learnt this year came as a result of slowly learning other things over a long period, from about 1976. I have to follow the route because I have been on it for so long. I admit family connections had something to do with me starting down this route in the depth of the past. The Celtic world is the periphery of Europe. As part of the diaspora, a Diasporule, I am the periphery of a periphery. This situation seems quite normal to me, after all it is what I grew up with. However, I can’t really see the centre of things as far away from myself and my family. That would be a strange perspective. Connecting Celtic culture back to sources in Syria or Spain is a get-out, I suppose.

I am quite dubious that the borders of culture areas coincide with the borders of languages. To put that another way, I am dubious that there is a ‘Celtic’ culture area as opposed to a ‘northwest European culture area’ with limited unity and very vague borders. This is at a different level from learning Gaelic in order to reach a text which, quite prevailingly, is written in Gaelic and ‘defended’ by that.

Dewar, a surname, is also a noun meaning ‘the hereditary keeper of a relic’. I had difficulty with this word, but a lucky find on the Internet gave me a grasp on it. It is principally associated with one group of relics: five of them, belonging to Saint Fillan, an 8th century wanderer from Ireland who ended up in Perthshire. What interested me was the idea of family: the precious object is given to a family because the society lacks institutions. In fact the office came with lands, an apanage to support the Dewars and make sure that the relics were kept properly. Arrangements like this are native to a society which does not have corporations or administrative offices, a non-urban society which does not have museums as buildings but which nonetheless has a heritage of significant objects which are to come down in some way. The genealogical idea correlates to the oral memory of an illiterate society. We have charters and so on in the 15th century showing the land of the ‘keepers’ in that part of Perthshire entering the world of written record. But it seems likely that the tenure, like the five relics, goes back to the eighth century. ‘Dewar’ actually comes from a Gaelic word ‘deoradh’ which means ‘exile‘. How? We need to revise ‘exile’ as ‘wanderer, pilgrim’. The dewar was, then, someone who wandered through the country carrying the relics. What for? The oral record shows that St Fillan was associated with cures of mental illness. This may account for the long survival of the cult – mental illness is pretty much a constant. The wandering brought this ‘power of healing’ to where people were. This is a typical institution for a region with no towns and so no ‘central places’. But there was also a healing well associated with Fillan. Another word in the legends is ‘quigrach’, in normal spelling coigreach – ‘stranger’. Again, for ‘stranger’ we can set ‘wanderer’, someone who takes the relics on tour and comes to your homestead. It is pretty much like a crew of pedlars, serving a district where there are no shops. In Italian, ‘pellegrino’ means ‘foreigner’ – but is also our word ‘pilgrim’.

The ‘classical’ Gaelic society in Scotland had no towns, and this seems to have been true of Wales before the Normans. A society without money relies more on a set of social statuses with attached obligations and rights. The dewar idea may not have been in use in districts apart from that part of Perthshire. But it seems to belong with a society with a lack of institutions, which has a calendar, fairs, a set of pedlar’s routes, which has  in the absence of towns and shops wandering specialists who visit the farms and clachans. These groups may have been the origin of the travellers, as some rather curious ‘folk studies’ strongly suggest. The travellers would have included poets – as in the folk-tales about the ‘Cliar Seanchain’, a troupe of wandering poets famous as parasites.

In November, I bought a book called ‘For a Celtic Future’ in a political bookshop in Edinburgh. It is a tribute volume to Alan Heusaff, Breton animator of a little-known organisation called the Celtic League, which has a magazine called Carn. The magazine runs articles in several different Celtic languages, and the book has chapters variously in Manx, Cornish, Irish and Scottish Gaelic, Breton, and Welsh. This is why I bought it. How can you resist a thing like that? It is difficult to think of any government department anywhere saying ‘oh no! We can’t get away with that because the Celtic League wouldn’t like it!” but the atmosphere of people for whom Celticity is a powerful political concept is very comforting to me. I want to spend a day in a world where Celticity is the vital political concept, even if on the next day this just seems vacuous.

Some of the texts Campbell prints are Gaelic written in Scots orthography. They look very strange to anyone used to Irish-style spelling. Everyone learns the Irish-style system today, but the other spelling is not necessarily inferior. Manx was only ever written with English-style spelling, which is why it looks so odd. In the Celtic League book we have ‘Ta sleih ennagh as cheeraghyn elley coontey yn Ghaelg y ve ny chengey shenn erskyn towse, bunys. Cha nel shen kiart. Ta’n Ghaelg noa dy liooar. Ta schollagyn cliaghti gra dy vel shy chengaghyn celtiagh ayn, rhyennit ans da possan[.]’ Probably, though, this spelling system has defects. This brings us to the great intellectual achievement of the Irish phonemic spelling system. I have been trying to work out when this took place. I should say first of all that literate culture was a Roman benefit, so that writing came to Ireland with British people familiar with Roman culture, so that the first reduction of Irish to writing was presumably by native speakers of Romano-British. Ogham was even earlier but that is rather marginal as a writing technology. We know that the spelling system of English was devised by Irish people, wishing to write English down as part of bringing Christianity to the country. My impression is that there were two inventions of Irish spelling, so that the properly phonemic one, using silent vowels to indicate the broad or narrow articulatory class of the adjacent consonant, and the symbol h to indicate lenition, arrived with the second one – Gaelic 2.0 as it were. This is the system still used for Scottish and Irish Gaelic.

I guess ‘dy liooar’ might be ‘gu leor’ in ‘Irish spelling’ so ‘Gaelic is quite new’. ‘Chengey’ must be ‘teanga’, language, ‘chengaghyn’ the plural teangachain. I guess ‘towse, bunys’ means ‘first, original’.

I think the sentence quoted means something like, “People think Manx is our old language, but this is wrong. It is something new. Scholars are agreed that it is a Celtic language, Celtic is divided into two branches…” And later it says that Man used to speak Welsh but this was replaced by Gaelic around the birth of Christ.

I like the idea of people willing to pretend that they can read six different Celtic languages. Or that the destiny of Wales is intimately tied up with Man, Brittany, and Cornwall – as opposed to Birmingham, Bristol, and Liverpool. I bought the book in 2012 but I think it was published in 1983. I also tried to read the chapter in Cornish, a low indulgence since I do not know the language. I have spent a good portion of my life reading things in languages I don’t know. It’s like alcohol, I suppose. Intoxicating but not aimed at permanent results. I could follow the Cornish. An essay in Breton on the Isle of Man is of no use to me, but I admire the project.

The word ruadh also occurs in the phrase Dile Ruadh, the ‘red deluge’, which means ‘Noah’s Flood’. The red part might refer to the soil suspended in the water, floodwater generally being dirtier than rivers or seas. But every flood would have scour-off suspended in it, not just that one. So it could also be a hint that ruadh has a by-meaning of ‘great, large-scale’.

A poem, possibly 13th century, linked to the Taliesin folk-tale, runs:

I know why there is an echo in a hollow

Why silver gleams; why breath is black; why liver is bloody;

Why a cow has horns; why a woman is affectionate;

Why milk is white; why holly is green;

Why a kid is bearded; why the cow-parsnip is hollow;

Why brine is salt; why ale is bitter;

Why the linnet is green and berries red;

Why a cuckoo complains; why it sings;

I know where the cuckoos of summer are in winter;

I know what beasts there are at the bottom of the sea;

How many spears in battle; how many drops in a shower;

Why a river drowned Pharaoh’s people;

Why fishes have scales;

Why a white swan has black feet.

(translation by Ifor Williams)

This can be seen as a set of questions – we don’t actually get the answers. The point of this passage is to claim knowledge for the poet who is speaking. As the poem is made of information this fund of knowledge is listed as a claim to being a great poet. So far as I know this is the only such passage in Welsh poetry, but its overall meaning is quite direct and easy to recover. This fantastic catalogue of eccentric knowledge is related to a genre of Insular Celtic literature. Weird knowledge was of great interest to writers in these countries, and the texts are built in some part as answers to bizarre questions, as opposed to being about emotions, telling stories, etc. I don’t understand why breath is black. (I guess this might refer to tarnish? And to various airborne blights and moulds being black?) The Irish tales are full of weird speculation about the origin of place-names and about genealogies, mostly. Knowledge of places and boundaries, related to rights and obligations, and of kinship relations, also related to who held the rights and obligations, was operative knowledge to keep a pastoral society going. (For some reason genealogies of animals rarely feature in the written texts.) The ‘learned’ had to absorb this knowledge but in this case they also drifted across into a more gleeful world of speculation, affabulation, and hoaxes. Thomas Urqhuart wrote in English but came from the far North, his tenants must have spoken Gaelic – I think his dazzling style of hyperbolic and groundless learning may derive from the Gaelic world. It is a world of pure language, surging up and cascading down. I don’t see much of methodical testing and development of knowledge in the old Celtic world, but you get this vaulting weirdness.

(Calling breath ‘black’ might mean it is invisible? As, one step beyond dim is blackness, where things are invisible.)

Andy Wightman wrote a fascinating book called ‘The Poor had no Lawyers’ (2010), subtitle ‘who owns Scotland and why’. A passage in it describes the founding of the kingdom, which he sees in these terms. ‘In the north were the Norse, in the west the Scots from Ireland, a few Saxon settlers in the south-east, and in Galloway the Picts’. This statement needs some unravelling. First, he does not see the Gael and the Norse as colonists, although everyone agrees that they came from overseas and seized land. Secondly, the implication of this condescending attitude is that the Scottish language, and so presumably the people who speak it, are of lower status: the truly admirable are the Norse (who have disappeared) and the Gael (who have almost disappeared). Thirdly, early place-names show that there were Anglians at an early date in the central Borders and south Galloway, so this should read ‘in the South’, not the south-east. Again, we are seeing a nationalist who has scorn for the national language because it could supply a common point with the detested English. There is a related myth whereby Scotland was once completely Gaelic-speaking. This gives us a dream-picture of boundless Celticity. It also implies that the Scots language, as written by Dunbar, Burns, MacDiarmid, and WN Herbert, leaked over the border from England, and is a trace of cultural imperialism. It seems that the arrival of a Saxon princess, Margaret, as queen, in 1070, after the Norman destruction of the Saxon realm itself, led to a shift of the court to Scots and away from Gaelic. There is no doubt that the Scottish Crown from then on favoured Scots-speaking areas, and Scots, over Gaelic-speaking areas, but this would be inexplicable if they did not have a large area of Scots-speaking territory, as a tax base and a source of manpower, to be the basis of the royal might. An anglophone policy in a country with no Anglians would be truly eccentric. It is hard to agree that this change to the tiny elite brought a change to the speech of areas like Berwickshire and Midlothian – most probably they had been Anglian-speaking since the 7th century. Before that they had spoken a P- Celtic language closely related to Welsh.

The myth that Gaelic was once spoken over all Scotland is a comforting lie but goes back to the nineteenth century. It has been conclusively demolished by Nicolaisen’s work on place-names but it still lingers among emotional nationalists. The shift of the royal court to Anglian (the dynasty began in Gaeldom and had a long history of Gaelic) was related to the conquest of a large part of the old Northumbrian kingdom: as ‘Scotland’ came, after 1000 AD, to include a large area inhabited (no doubt) by Northumbrians, there came to be a basis for changing the language and geographical basis of the central arcana of the State. (The expansion came in two phases, occupying the east and the west regions, one after the other. Both parts will have included many Anglian speakers.) So, in fact, there once was a Scottish State which was exclusively Gaelic. But it didn’t extend to southern Scotland. Its expansion called for political re-thinks by the aristocratic families as the nucleus of the state, and their ability to seize opportunities made the expansion stable as opposed to temporary bravado and bluster.

The losers in this whole process of the formation of the Scottish State were the P-Celtic speakers known as the Picts (politically conquered in the 9th century) and the men of Strathclyde (conquered in the 11th century). Relatives further south, in Cumberland, were conquered early on by a thrust westwards of the Northumbrian state. Both Cumbrians and men of Strathclyde spoke of themselves as Cymru, fellow-countrymen. Recently a local history association has used fragmentary evidence to trace the old border between the Cymru and the Scots, on the edge of the Clyde valley. The Cumbraes, islands in the estuary, were part of the boundary – the name means ‘islands of the Cymru’.

A folk-tale in Meigle, Perthshire, attributes a grave-mound to Vanor or Wanor, Arthur’s queen who betrayed him with Mordred. Gaynor, as explained in D Geraint Lewis’ wonderful Lewisiana, is the pet-name for Guinevere. If the people in Meigle knew that the name Gaynor (minor variant Wanor) was the pet-name for ‘Guinevere’, as in Welsh – it means they were speaking Welsh.

I found out that the four red parts of the world phrase is still used in modern Gaelic prose. I came across it twice, in fact, in the magazine Gath and in the papers from a conference on Scottish Gaelic culture. It evokes rarity, strangeness, lack of knowledge by the speaker. Where in the four red parts of the world will you find a thing like that?

There is a set of earth-colour words also in Air beulabh an t-sluaigh, a collection of traditions from the island of Mull. Talamh is ‘earth’.

talamh glas (blue) ploughed

talamh connlain (straw) stubble

talamh dearg (red)  with crop

talamh dubh (black) in clement weather

I have a book Ar Lafar ar Goedd which describes the ‘colour’ words for kinds of land in Wales (or a part of Wales?). In Welsh, tir glas is unploughed earth, under grass, and tir coch means ploughed land, looking red (we would say brown) where it has been turned up. This is hopeless for ‘four red parts of the world’, it simply can’t be the source. Hmm. The Welsh and Gaelic terms just don’t match up. (‘Black’ is in opposition to white earth under snow and frost, I guess.)

This does explain the titles of some classic collections of short stories by DJ Williams – Storiau’r tir coch and so on. I didn’t even understand the meaning when I read them.

I thought I’d finished this when I looked up words for ‘red’ in an Irish dictionary. Dinneen gives ‘intense, inveterate, great, real’ for dearg, and then in compounds ‘sometimes merely a strong intensive’. Dearg and ruadh both mean ‘red’ although they are discrete, adjacent parts of the spectrum. If we suppose that ruadh also can mean ‘mighty, notable, principal’ then we can see ‘red world’ as meaning ‘wide world, mighty world’. If we then transfer the adjective, we can suppose that ‘four parts of the mighty world’ became ‘four red parts of the world’, because ranna ruadh just sounds better.

    Andrew Duncan was born 1956. grew up in Loughborough, lives in Nottingham. Books of poetry include In a German Hotel, Cut Memories and False Commands, Sound Surface, Alien Skies, Pauper Estate, Switching and Main Exchange, and Anxiety before Entering a Room. Irritated by the lack of recording of modern British poetry, began a project which includes Centre and periphery in modern British poetry (Liverpool University Press, 2005), The failure of conservatism in modern British poetry (Salt, 2003), Origins of the Underground (Salt, 2005), The Council of Heresy (Shearsman, 2009) The Long 1950s (Shearsman, 2011) and Fulfilling the Silent Rules (Waterloo, 2013). New edition of 1980s poetry is expected from Shearsman 2013.

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