Ghetto na Gàidhlig

2007 - 2022

“Celts”, a review of the NMS exhibition

The Gundestrup Cauldron. Copyright: Knud Winckelmann and Nationalmuseet.

The Gundestrup Cauldron. Copyright: Knud Winckelmann and Nationalmuseet.

Duncan Sneddon is a PhD student who works on early medieval Scotland and Ireland. He blogs at Cruithneach and tweets @Cruithneach

For those who haven’t yet been to see it, the Celts exhibition is still on at the National Museum of Scotland, and runs until the 25th of September. It’s been in Edinburgh since early this summer, and prior to that was based at the British Museum in London.(1) The biggest museum exhibition of Celtic material culture for a generation, Celts brings together a vast quantity of material from all over Europe, some of it very well known, some less so.

Indeed, the scale of the collection displayed at the NMS is challenging in itself. I’ve been three times with different friends and family members, and all have said they’d need two visits to be able to take it all in. Certainly if you’re taking your time and reading the panels as you go around, you’ll find yourself flagging a bit by the time you’re around two thirds of the way through.

So much for quantity, what the quality?

Well, there can be no doubt that Celts brings together some absolutely stunning artifacts – many of which I had known previously only as photographs in books. The Gundestrup Cauldron on its own would be worth the admission fee, and is very much the jewel in this exhibition’s crown. But it shares the stage with some of the most famous productions of Celtic culture – the Battersea Shield, the Hunterston Brooch (which is usually held in the basement level of the NMS, where I think it is displayed better, and is easier to see in detail), the bull-headed Trichtingen Torc, carnyces from present-day France and Scotland, and much else besides. Besides the cauldron, the Braganza Brooch, featuring an intricately-formed golden warrior fighting off a lion was a highlight for me. Indeed, metalwork in general is very well represented in Celts, certainly more so than stone sculpture or illuminated manuscripts, for instance.

There is also a plethora of handy video screens, in which scholars talk through the material on display. The stand-out video panel for me was the one on language, in which Thomas Owen Clancy and Katherine Forsyth (both of the University of Glasgow) give a handy introduction to the Celtic languages and how they can be traced in place names across Europe, as well how they changed over time. I know that the London incarnation of this exhibition faced some criticism for largely neglecting language, which in an exhibition which is supposed to explore issues of cultural identity is a serious (and a curious) weakness. Even in Edinburgh, the visitor is about halfway through the exhibition before they encounter the concept of Celtic languages at all. Since the panels and videos which come before this stress the diversity of the material, and the absence of a monolithic “Celticness” in the material cultural record, this seems to leave it rather late to introduce a key component of the cultural connections between the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe, thus potentially guiding visitors to a more strongly “Celtosceptic” position than is really warranted.

There are other sins of omission as well. Continental Europe drops out of the Celts story more or less as soon as the Romans rock up in Britain, leaving the visitor to wonder what happened to them. Then, following a very good section on the early medieval church (featuring the shrine case for the Cathach, a couple of croziers and bell shrines and the magnificent processional cross from Tully Lough in Co. Roscommon, but surprisingly little from the Welsh-speaking areas), we jump straight into the antiquarian rediscovery of the Celts, Romanticism and the Celtic Revival. Nothing on the Reformation. Nothing on the English conquests of Wales and Ireland. Nothing on the Lordship of the Isles. Nothing on the role of the Welsh-speaking Methodist chapel in the creation of modern Welsh identity, or contemporary language revitalisation efforts. Nothing about the devastating effects of the First World War on Gaelic-speaking communities. Nothing at all about Brittany. Hardly anything about, or from, the Isle of Man. There are no opportunities to hear any Celtic languages being spoken or sung. A handbook with Gaelic translations of the information panels and labels was eventually produced for the exhibition (the panels and labels themselves are all entirely in English), but the modern Celtic languages are not integrated into the exhibition at all – again, a curious omission for something which is supposed to probe “art and identity” (as per the title of the exhibition catalogue).

Does this matter? Well, yes, it does. When notions of Celtic identity are being probed and critiqued, a knowledge of the current linguistic situation is essential, and a lack of it will lead to very strange conclusions. Quite a few responses to Celts (certainly in its London run) seemed to have been led by the exhibition to take up cudgels against Romantic notions of Celtic unity and monolithic identity (strawmen, these, which are not encountered either in academic Celtic departments or in Celtic-language communities). One of the most bizarre was this, from a review by Julian Cope (for some reason) in The Guardian:

Soon, Celtic elements were being “discovered” in places with little or no historical evidence of the so-called Celt – and so it has continued. Nowadays, even the 4,800-years-old Callanish – that splendid megalithic cruciform sitting high upon a Hebridean headland – has fallen prey to a recent Celtic revival. Its simple Scandinavian spelling – of a fairly commonplace word meaning “boat jetty” – is nowadays given the Gaelic spelling Calanais on tourist signs. Appropriately Celtic this may be, but it is still entirely fanciful.(2)

Cope seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that the signs pointing drivers to Calanais are there because of a “fanciful” Celtic revival, in which Celto-enthusiasts have popped up to appropriate all sorts of things for themselves, in a fit of misplaced ethnic pride – perhaps even with darker hints of atavistic irredentism. This, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with road signs in Lewis. Gaelic is the language spoken by most people who live in Callanish.(3) Road signs in the Western Isles are in Gaelic because that is the language spoken there. Leòdhasaich in general are very much aware of the Norse history of their island, and having road signs in their own language is certainly not part of some attempt to efface this.

Cope would presumably never imagine that a sign pointing visitors to “Stonehenge” was an “entirely fanciful” pan-Germanic ethnic fantasy, appropriating the legacy of people who lived in Wiltshire before the English speakers did. He could never make that mistake, because he knows that English is spoken in Wiltshire (I assume. I’ve never been there). Ignorance about the presence and situation of speakers of Celtic languages, however, is pretty much par for the course in much public discourse about these matters, and that such ignorance can find a place in the pages of The Guardian is indicative of a wider problem. That the Celts exhibition, for all the stunning, amazing quality of the material it presents, was unwilling or unable to engage with this problem is a great pity.

So, should you go? Yes. Go twice. The quality of the jewelry, weaponry, everyday utensils, cult objects and the rest is amazing. The levels of skill and craftsmanship that went into making much of the material are nothing short of astonishing. Go, and you’ll spend an hour or more immersed in work that is truly wonderful. But be mindful, too, of what isn’t there, and could have been. As with all exhibitions, don’t take what’s there as definitive, but as the starting point for discovering more, learning more, discussing more.

Oh, and try the cullen skink in the cafe downstairs. It’s very good.

(1) NB – I did not see the exibhition when it was London, so all my comments relate to how it was in its Edinburgh incarnation. Any changes that may have taken place in the presentation, or material which was added or subtracted for reasons of physical space etc. between the two runs will therefore not necessarily be reflected here.

Comments (43)

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  1. Crubag says:

    Good article. I like Julian Cope’s books, a mix of enthusiasm and useful information.

    But he has his own enthusiast’s biases (which academics iron out by being non-committal, particularly if they are archaeologists!) – he seems to subscribe to an odd view of what places ARE, rather than how people define and redefine them – which is the reality.

    Modern Lewis people are wrong to Gaelicise a Norse-origin name because that is the original, though there are no Norse speakers left.

    But Shetland is non-Celtic for all time, because the Gaelic population was submerged by the Norse – though plenty of place names point to their Christian presence.

    He also seems to be in some doubt about the Picts being in the Celtic-language group. Romantic ideals die hard.

    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      Crubag writes:
      “Modern Lewis people are wrong to Gaelicise a Norse-origin name because that is the original, though there are no Norse speakers left.”
      I write:
      So the default Anglicised versions of the Norse-origin names which pepper the Scottish seaboard are fine on our signage? Have you ever seen a Norse-origin name written in original Norse orthography on a Scottish sign? (Not that I am against that idea…)

      1. Craig P says:

        I take it that Crubag is paraphrasing Julian Cope, not giving his own opinion.

        1. Crubag says:

          Yes, that seemed to be Julian’s point. That the current inhabitants shouldn’t be putting their own cultural overlay on the land.

          I wonder what he’d make of “Glendale”?

          1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

            Abject apologies.

          2. Julie McIntyre says:

            My deceased husband was from Glendale Skye what was the original name?

  2. Ewan Macintyre says:

    I visited the Celts exhibition last week. It is excellent.
    The Battersea Shield is interesting. Given that it is dated c. 350BC-50BC and was found in London it follows that Londoners were speaking the British Celtic language at that time. Therefore, logically, the British language is British Celtic, not Germanic English.

    Also, why does Prof Clancy (in the language video) assume that Gaelic came from Ireland? Could it not have been introduced into Ireland by British Celtic speakers from the island of Britannia and later became a dialect of the original British Celtic language just like Cymraeg (Welsh), Cornish, Cumbric, Pictish, Manx, etc.?

  3. Alf Baird says:

    Sounds like a good reason to visit Chambers St, although the Unionist ‘elite’ running NMoS (and much of the rest of ‘institutional Scotland’) managed to ruin the place when they removed the two large ‘atmospheric’ and much loved fish ponds so they could stage posh dinners and soirée’s for their well-to-do friends and similar types in the financial, legal and rugby fraternity. Not to forget the grotesque GIV Bridge extension… Locals’ opposing views on these issues were simply ignored.

    1. Ewan Macintyre says:

      If you are a native of Edinburgh you may be interested in a forgotten book entitled Gaelic Place Names of The Lothians by John Milne, LL.D.
      He gives the meaning of 869 Celtic place names in the Lothians. Scroll down for Midlothian:

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        Sorry. I do think a health warning is necessary here. These Victorian-type etymologies can be dodgy to say the least. For example, to derive “Auld Reekie” from “alt-ruighe” is surely entirely fanciful.

        For those interested in such matters, a couple of useful starting points might be the following (though certainly not exhaustive, they are quite comprehensive, up-to-date, and soundly authoritative):

        The online ‘Gaelic Place-names of Scotland’ site

        Iain Taylor’s excellent 2011 paperback ‘Place-names of Scotland’ (£7.99)

        1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

          Iain Taylor (Iain Mac an Tàilleir) also has some useful Gaelic place-name pdfs on the Scottish Parliament website. Scroll well down here:

        2. Ewan Macintyre says:

          OK! Some of his meanings are unlikely to be perfectly correct – but do you know for certain which of those listed are incorrect?
          If Auld Reekie was originally “Alt-ruighe” is it not likely that the dominant Anglicised aristocracy who subsequently took over in Edinburgh would be disinclined to pronounce that particular place name in Gaelic? Instead, is it not more likely that, as John Milne suggests, place names “… had been turned into English words similar in sound but different in meaning, and sometimes they have undergone several transformations.”

        3. Ewan Macintyre says:

          Note the real meaning of Auldearn in Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba (AÀA – Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland). “Auld” in this case is not Lowland English for “old”. It is instead “allt” meaning stream or burn in Gaelic.
          Iain Taylor is an admirable authority on the meaning and pronunciation of Gaelic place names. However, a knowledge of all of the various dialects of Gaelic is necessary to determine accurately the meaning of all of the Gaelic place names in Scotland.
          For instance, I grew up in a Gaelic speaking family beside Loch Leven and attended secondary school at Kinlochleven.
          Both are examined in AÀA.
          Note that Henry Cyril Dieckhoff provides the local Lochaber and North Lorn pronunciation of Loch Leven in his A Pronouncing Dictionaty of Scottish Gaelic which agrees with that of the late Hugh MacInnes, a local Gaelic singer, in a recording of a local song called Mo Ghleannan Taobh Loch Lìobhann (mis-spelt).
          Mr Taylor’s verdict differs in the entry for Kinlochleven, the very same loch.
          Let’s face it – its meaning is unknown and may even be Pictish.

          1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

            With respect, any apparent disparity regarding the derivation and spelling of “Leven” is a minor distraction to this discussion and does not in the least justify indiscriminate endorsement of John Milne’s material. The more I look at the latter, the more profound are my misgivings. I repeat that in my opinion it is unsound. Overwhelmingly unreliable.

            Let us for example consider Milne’s proposed etymologies of the following two place-names:

            PUMPHERSTON, for Baile Pund-fhear. Town of the pundler.
            Baile, town ; pund -/hear, pundler, officer who impounded
            straying cattle. S converted /hear into an English possessive.

            MERCHIESTON, for Baile Mor Chos. Town at the big fold.
            Baile, town ; mor, big ; chos, cos aspirated, fold. Cos is aspirated
            because it follows its adjective.

            In contrast to the foregoing profferings, WFH Nicolaisen in his ‘Scottish Place-names’ (1976) provides us with the far more straightforward and intuitively convincing:

            “Pumpherston MLO (Poumfrayston in 1421) is ‘Pumphrey’s farm’ from the Middle Welsh ‘ap Hwmfre’ (son of Humphrey), and Merchiston in the same county (Merchinston 1264-66) has the Old Welsh personal name Merchiaun/ Merchion as its first element” (p37)

            To take one more example, if we struggle through Milne’s entry for ‘Holyrood’ below, we can glimpse what seems to be his arbitrary procedure, ie to simply stare at the name and conjure up (what he considers to be) any plausibly equivalent Gaelic terms. It is excruciating to behold:

            HOLYROOD. If this name is pre-Christian it represents Ruigh
            Choille. Base of the hill. Ruigh, lower slope on a hill ; choille,
            coille aspirated, hill. Gh and dh have the same sound, hence g
            and d are mistaken for one another. C in ch is silent and had
            been lost. In old Gaelic coille means hill ; in modern it means
            wood. If the name is post-Christian it means holy cross.

            I have wasted too much time on this already. Hopefully I will have at least stopped others (including your good self) from wasting theirs. I do not intend to post again on this matter.

    2. Marcia Blaine says:

      the fishponds were a victim of atavistic irridentism, clearly

  4. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Ceud mìle taing airson seo, a Dhonnchaidh, agus gu sònraichte airson a’ chuideim a tha thu a’ cur air cànan. Many thanks for this, Duncan, and especially for the emphasis you have put on language. So few Scots appreciate that antecedent relations of Gaelic were once spoken across Europe from Portugal to Turkey, from Shetland to the lakes of North Italy, and that a great many placenames throughout the Continent attest to this.

    In context of your remarks regarding the exhibition, perhaps readers would find of interest the following extract from a review (of a volume called ‘Celtic Consciousness’) I did in a yesteryear edition of Cencrastus :

    Your language speaks you. Like those intertwined beard-pullers from the Book of Kells, language and consciousness have each other by the throat…More than one writer (O’Driscoll, De Paor, Neil Bartlett) compares ‘Finnegans Wake’ to the Book of Kells in its love of multi-faceted intricacy (‘barely controlling an explosive anarchy’ – De Paor)… The crucial fact is, though, that Joyce’s love-affair was not with Irish, but with English; indeed it has been argued that it was his passion for English which spurred him to write at all –

    ‘Ba scríbhneoir é James Joyce toisc gur thug sé gean a chroí go fíochmhar don Bhéarla. D’fhéadfá a rá nach raibh aon ábhar eile aige seachas an cumann rúnda idir a shamhlaíocht féin agus an Bhéarla’ [‘James Joyce was a writer because of a fierce commitment to the English language. It could be said that he had no other subject-matter than the mystical communion between his own imagination and English.’ – Alan Titley (Scríobh 5. Ed. Seán Ó Mórdha, 1981)]

    The practical results of this commitment of Joyce are a more malleable English and an expanded consciousness for the English-speaker. My central argument therefore is this – authentic commitment to Celtic Consciousness ought to involve a ‘fierce’ commitment to Celtic language, because the stretching of that language means the expansion of that consciousness.

    Commitment to Celtic Consciousness therefore means not just being au fait with translations from the Celtic (the ultimate in ‘Gaelic without Groans’), nor even actively translating Celtic literature into English (which, as has just been pointed out, is inevitably far more concerned with the consciousness of the English-speaker than of the Celtic-speaker). Commitment to Celtic Consciousness means writing in Celtic for the Celt; the translation of English and world classics into Celtic; the determination to stretch Celtic like a drum-skin round the outermost rim of the cosmos and then hammer a tune on it; a resolve that the Celtic tongues will have a future as well as a past. And that last is surely one of the great creative challenges of our day.

    Liam De Paor describes how the Celts lavished delicate craftsmanship on their armaments, by that very act expressing a disdain of death. Here we have an appropriate symbol for Celtic language – a finely wrought shield, inlayed with jewels, summation of millenia of craftsmanship, confronting now, as ever, death. Let us make no mistake; when the shield falls, the warrior follows. Without the protection of Celtic language, Celtic Consciousness will be nought but a bonehaunting wraith, mute to all but the self-deluding romantic and the self-proclaiming psychic, its diaphanous form manifest only on photographs of whose authenticity we can never be sure. And should we unearth and reconstruct its bones it would be but a pseudo-resurrection – a nerveless marionette articulated by an alien mind.”

  5. Mach1 says:

    There is a strong tendency in “British” culture to emphasize the particular at the expense of the general, leading some to insist there is no such thing as the Celts. This is at its most excruciating among those who fail to understand that the Scots were originally a Northern Ireland based tribe who tended their herds on either side of the Irish Sea. There is a similar nonsense in modern accounts of Scottish history, where people of Irish descent who came to Scotland pre-Irish independence are defined as “immigrants”, a term which would never be applied to someone of English origin who had chosen to live in Scotland. Celtic culture is a central component of Scotland’s cultural history. I for one will be going along to the NMS to see this exhibition before it closes on 25th September.

  6. Philip R. Hosking says:

    There are other sins of omission as well. Well yes, and can I just say that in your article (and perhaps in the original exhibition too) one glaring omission is Cornwall and the Cornish. You write “nothing at all about Brittany. Hardly anything about, or from, the Isle of Man” yet no mention of Cornwall, or lack of. Why is that?

    1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      They´ve had their funding cut, so they no longer officially exist. Nos da, Kernow 🙁

      1. Craig Weatherhill says:

        That won’t stop us. We only started to get funding – a mere £150K a year – a few years ago, but we funded the remarkably successful revival of Cornish ourselves for an entire century. What we did before, we can do again, in spite of governments that break agreements and ignore Charter obligations. Our language is formally recognised and legally protected, and so is our Cornish ethnicity now. What else is different is that, throughout most the revival years, Cornish wasn’t very visible (apart from place-names on signposts) but now it’s everywhere, and with much more to come. Street nameplates – thousands of them – are now in bilingual form. Pubs and supermarkets have signs in the language. We have musicians and rock bands performing in Cornish – take a look at ‘The Changing Room’ on YouTube for an example. Cornish has been used in ‘Poldark’, in a song sung by Demelza (there was none at all in the original series). Cornish MPs have been swearing in at the House of Commons in Cornish for many years now – Andrew George was the first to do so.
        Nos da, Kernow? I don’t think so. We’ve hardly started!

        1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

          Thing is Craig (how´s the hoss btw, still kicking I hope), Brexit will give Westminster an excuse to wriggle out of a number of European agreements and treaties, quite possible including the Language Charter.

          I´ve just read elsewhere that Maga is apparently to be completely closed down, I honestly never thought they´d go that far, seemed like a fixture. I noticed a few bilingual street signs in Liskeard last time I was there, but nothing much else is publicly visible. I imagine it all takes time to work its way through the system. What will happen now to stuff in the pipeline?

          1. Craig Weatherhill says:

            First of all, you appear to be confusing the EU, which we voted to leave (erroneously, in my view), and the Council of Europe which is entirely different, and on membership of which we didn’t vote. Protection of our language and ethnicity comes under the Council of Europe which we co-founded sometime around 1949. So “Brexit” affects neither.

            MAGA is no more, but has been replaced by Akademi Kernewek, so things are still up and running. The bi-lingual Signage Panel, which has been running for 8 years, is still in full operation – I’ve been part of the that from the outset, and we’re all volunteers, so it’s not costing anything. The number of bilingual street signs now numbers in the thousands, and there will be a hell of a lot more to come. This costs no extra, either, despite some thinking that it does. These signboards have a life expectancy limit so, when one needs to be replaced, it goes back in bilingual form. The laser method used to create the lettering costs no more for 50 characters than for 5 (according to Highways who make them), so that’s all being achieved at absolutely no extra expense to the taxpayer. (Kowethas an Yeth Kernewek has just published “The Place-Names of St Keverne parish”, in which the Signage Panel and Tavas ha Tir collaborated, with 4 fantastic maps of the parish with fully Cornish names, produced by Davydh Trethewey – just £3, so you might like to look into their website – the same for Lanivet, Redruth and Heamoor/Madron have laready been produced, but no maps in those, unfortunately). In all, things will carry on as normal. We have no intention of stopping or slowing down. The withdrawal of £150K a year is hurtful, yes, but it will not put a stop to anything. We like to take a positive view. We already know how to operate without funding and it’s just one of those little set-backs that we have to work around. A whole load of good, able and dedicated people are involved with the language. Most do it for love, and are in there for the long term, so there’s absolutely no room, or need, for despondency.

  7. Gashty McGonnard says:

    The study of early insular cultures is as scientific as necromancy. I’ve read too much awful guff by professors (and amateurs) who peek over the rim of history, looking for factoids to prop up their favourite chauvinism [English, Irish, Scottish, British… Goidelic, Pictish, Anglic, Norse, Brythonic]. The whole enterprise is premised on an essentialist, racialist view of language and nationality that should have went out with the Ark, or the Reich. And it only gets funded because it assists the politics of prejudice.

    I watched Paxman nearly wet himself last year, reading out a question on University Challenge: “Which example of Hiberno-Saxon art…?”. The answer/punchline was “The Book of Durrow”. He clearly hadn’t heard yet that the term ‘Celtic Art’ is no longer applied to those books. His mirth was palpable.

    Julian Cope’s writings involve a much more guileless and forgivable form of cultural appropriation. He visits a place, or a monument, or a road sign, and interprets it within in his own terms of reference, ascribing the meanings that suit him best (we all do that). I guess that the fact of a literate, persisting Gaelic cultural memory somehow constrains his wilder reveries about Ancient Albion- so it suits him to ignore or minimise it.

    I’ve read a lot of nonsense in the same vein from Scots too, including pro-Independence Scots. Two classics are: “I can’t believe the Scots came from Ireland”, and as somebody suggested above, “I can’t believe that Gaelic came from Ireland”. The first of those ideas, nobody ever claimed to be true. We know for certain that the word “Scot” was originally a Latin word for the Irish. We also know that some early rulers in Argyll claimed Irish roots, and that they donated the name ‘Scot’ when merging with the Picts. So what? It doesn’t imply in any way that ‘Scottish people’ as a group ever came from Ireland… And what if it was true? How does something that might have happened 2000-odd years ago, or not, affect who we are or what we do today? Would the Gaelic language be any more ‘Scottish’, if some obsolete form of it was shown to have been ‘invented’ here in the distant past? It’s a mad notion. To care about these things, you need to hold the bronze age, biblical mentality, where: countries are eternal things, gifted to one race of people by God; racial groups are unchanging entities; each race has its own language (which is also an unchanging entity).


    Languages change and evolve and split and merge all the time. Borderlines were drawn and erased constantly through human history. Nationalities are formed and altered over time, based on changing languages, economics, intermarriage, politics and war. Isn’t that obvious? We are Scottish now because of what we’ve experienced over our entire history – and huge chunks of that history are shared with our neighbouring nations, as far back as you care to go – including any cultural cachet that goes with them. Which is fine.

    What’s not fine is when people try to revise out of existence the large part of our heritage that can be called ‘Celtic’. And every inch of Scotland is ‘Celtic’ to some degree: suck it up.

  8. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Julie McIntyre asks:
    My deceased husband was from Glendale Skye what was the original name?
    The Gaelic is ‘Gleann Dail’. A native of the locality is called a ‘Daileach’.

    This placename has two elements meaning the same thing: Gaelic ‘Gleann’ and Old Norse ‘Dalr’ both mean ‘Valley’). Other examples of this would be ‘Alltburn’ and ‘Knockhill’.

  9. MBC says:

    What’s Celtic about the Reformation?

    1. Colin says:

      It’s not Celtic in origin but it had a major impact on Celtic languages, the protestant emphasis on translating the bible into the vernacular resulted in the Bible being translated into Welsh in 1588, this was so everyone could read the bible themselves and this also led to a drive towards improving literacy, 18th century protestant nonconformists set up travelling schools to teach literacy – in Welsh. As a result Wales became one of the most literate countries in Europe so the Welsh Bible is credited with saving the Welsh language.

  10. MBC says:

    I went to the exhibition today and was awed by the sheer power of the Gundestrup cauldron, the sound of the carnyces, and the Snettisham hoard. But there was very little attempt to explain Celtic beliefs or history, even if it is accepted that the term, as applied to art and artefacts, covers a wide range of cultures. There are classical references to Celts, to druids, to the destruction of the druid centre in Anglesay, there are Irish law tracts, the poem Y Goddodin, various pieces of Celtic literature that have survived. None of that in the exhibition. Too much emphasis on the classifucation of artefacts.

  11. Abulhaq says:

    Cope’s grumble re ‘celticisation’ is architypical anglocentric conceit. Is he not aware that the form Callanish is an anglo-scots phonetic rendering of the Gaelic Calanais?
    The Cymric Britons of lowland Scotland would appear to be even more ‘short changed’ than their Welsh brothers and sisters in this exhibition.
    300 years of union, 300 years of overwhelmingly one way cultural traffic.

  12. Philip R. Hosking says:

    If anybody is interested in us Cornish Celts (Corn Wealas i.e foreigners of the horn), a new book has just come out that should be very interesting:

    In Cornwall’s First Golden Age Bernard Deacon gives us a groundbreaking interpretation of the history of Cornwall between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans. A period that was not a ‘dark age’ for Cornwall, but something of a golden age, when ‘Cornubia’, with its centre at Tintagel, exerted control over Devon and parts of Somerset, and established colonies in Brittany.

    When this kingdom collapsed it was replaced by a decentralised society with elusive kings, light lordship, village-level decision-making and a key role for the Church.

    After a century of warfare with an expansionist Anglo-Saxon Wessex, Cornwall wasn’t simply incorporated into the emerging English state. Instead, a culture that embodied dreams of Arthur and former glories maintained its unique identity and laid the foundations for future golden ages.

  13. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Info about a variety of books translated into contemporary Cornish, including Treasure Island, Jekyll and Hyde, War of the Worlds, Alice in Wonderland, Around the World in Eighty Days, Wind in the Willows, She, Hound of the Baskerville, etc:

  14. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    …Forgot to mention The Hobbit.

    For those who have no idea what Cornish looks like, here is the blurb for the book:

    An Hobys, pò An Fordh Dy ha Tre Arta
    By J.R.R. Tolkien, translated into Cornish by Nicholas Williams
    2014. ISBN 978-1-78201-090-6. ISBN 978-1-78201-089-0 (paperback)

    An fantasy meurgerys-ma a vydn plêsya redyoryon a bùb oos. Yma an lyver ow terivas an story a hobys gelwys Bylbo Baggyn, neb yw scubys in kerdh wàr viaj heb y wetyas gans Gandalf pystrior ha company a dredhek corr. Whedhel yw an Hobys a aventurs pygus gwrës gans bagas a gorras usy ow whelas owr in dadn with a dhragon. Coweth oll a’y anvoth gansans i’n whelas peryllys-ma Bylbo Baggyn, hobys heb uhelwhans ha rës dhe gonfort, a vydn sowthanas pùbonen ha’y honen kefrës der y injyn ha’y skentoleth avell lader nos. In mesk y aventurs y hyller bos reknys metyansow gans trollow, bùckyas, corras, elvow ha kefnys cowrek, kescows gans Smawg, an dhragon, ha presens anvodhek in Batel an Pymp Ost. Bylbo Baggyn re gemeras y le in mesk an persons dyvarow a lien an flehes. An Hobys a veu screfys gans an Pendescador Tolkien rag y flehes y honen, ha kettel veu dyllys, an grytycoryon a’n recêvas gans gormola vrâs. Yma an lyver dhe gafos lebmyn in Kernowek, in trailyans bryntyn dhyworth an Pendescador Nicholas Williams. Y fëdh gwelys i’n lyver-ma oll an delînyansow ha mappys a wrug an auctour y honen.

  15. Philip R. Hosking says:

    I don’t speak Cornish, much to my shame, but with my intermediate level in Breton, and a knowledge of The Hobbit, I can just about read the text.

    1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

      So how is Breton doing these days? Is it still a case of:

      “Défense de cracher par terre et de parler breton!”?

      1. Philip R. Hosking says:

        No, it’s not quite as bad as it used to be. Today, it’s unlikely you’ll hear anybody openly attack the teaching of Breton (except perhaps JL Mélenchon state-nationalist left or M Le Pen state-nationalist far right). Nowadays, the problem is more of institutional inertia. That coupled with the fact people don’t give a feck about things like dying languages.

        1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

          I have an old 1975 book called ‘LA LANGUE BRETONNE Face a ses Oppresseurs’ by Jorj Gwegen. It carries the following quote:

          “Pell emeur e Bro-Skos diouzh ar politikerezh divyezhek a gaver e Kembre met ken pen all, gwir eo, diouzh ar mac’homerezh yezhel a gendalc’h da ren e Breizh.” – Arzel Even, ‘Istor ar yezhoù keltiek’

          (“On est loin en Écosse de la politique bilingue que l’on trouve au Pays de Galles, mais on est tout aussi loin, cela est vrai, de l’oppression linguistique qui continue de régner en Bretagne.”)

          Obviously it is encouraging that blatant State suppression of Breton is no longer the case. Though of course maybe it has simply done its work and is no longer necessary. As you point out, inertia and indifference are our main enemies now. Though a cynical and clandestine bureaucratic suppression is no doubt still as rife in Brittany as it is in Scotland and Ireland.

          I suppose a globilised “winner takes all” mindset sees the dying of languages as only natural and no loss to progress – as good riddance, in fact.

          Someone online once derided my interest in Gaelic by extolling English as “the only language which had produced a Shakespeare”. I argued that languages prevail because they have had the backing of an army. I ought to have more pointedly asked him to ponder how many potential other-language “Shakespeares” had been shot by the British Empire.

          And who knows, as the Great British Dispossessian of a once Gaelic Ireland progressed, what irretrievable literary riches were lost to us as servant girls lit the morning fire with disdained Ascendency-indeciperable manuscripts, or copious rescued writings subsequently mouldered to mulch beneath neglected sodden thatch.

          Eventually, of course, brutal Empires can sit back and smile. Momentum takes over. Native bureacracies remain compliant not simply through bourgeois self-interest, but because they have entirely internalised the programme. It has become historically “self-evident” to them that they must strive to fulfill the bestowed imperial agenda come what may.

          1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:


  16. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    Remark from earlier in the thread about Cornish roadsigns worth reiterating –

    Craig Weatherhill wrote:

    “MAGA is no more, but has been replaced by Akademi Kernewek, so things are still up and running. The bi-lingual Signage Panel, which has been running for 8 years, is still in full operation…This costs no extra, either, despite some thinking that it does. These signboards have a life expectancy limit so, when one needs to be replaced, it goes back in bilingual form. The laser method used to create the lettering costs no more for 50 characters than for 5 (according to Highways who make them), so that’s all being achieved at absolutely no extra expense to the taxpayer.”

    1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      No one afaik is disagreeing with Craig´s information. I can confirm that there are now a few bilingual signs, street names mostly (entirely??) to be seen around Kernow, and as needs to be said over and over, I´m afraid, any extra cost is negligible.

      So your point is?

  17. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

    My point is that in Scotland also it “needs to be said over and over” that “any extra cost is negligible”.

    1. K. A. Mylchreest says:

      My apology. It´s easy to forget that the phony ´cost´ argument is still doing the rounds in parts of Scotland. I suppose the interesting point behind all of this is why some English speaker seem to be allergic to signs in other languages. Insular doesn´t begin to describe it.

      1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

        I wonder if the Cornish have yet come up against the bureaucratic subterfuge, when officialdom is faced with any legal requirement for bilingual signage, of making the non-English faint and/or miniscule. The Irish use the technique. I regret to say that the Scottish Government itself uses it, eg on Nicola’s ‘Scottish Government’ media-lectern (Gaelic so small as to be illegible in TV), on general work-sites or documents under auspices of ‘Scottish Government/ Riaghaltas na h-Alba’, on ‘Scottish Transport / Còmhdhail Alba’ signs, etc.

        Back in 1212 I exchanged correspondence with the Cairngorms National Park about their so-called “bilingual” signage. Anyone using the A9 will be familiar with the signs, but may not even have noticed (presumably that is the intention) the minute illegible Gaelic at the sign-base (where it is also of course vulnerable to long grass or weeds). Here, for those interested, is an example of a 2012 riposte to the Cairngorms National Park:

        Dear Sir,

        I wrote (via your website) a number of months ago on the above matter, but received no reply. It has now come to my attention that you intend to put up new signs, but that you have decided to keep the Gaelic smaller than the English because otherwise this would apparently “present too much material on the one sign and compromise the overall design”.

        I wish to express my outrage at this sort of inane nonsense being proffered as a serious rationale. For insufferable and vital decades Gaelic-speakers have had to endure such insulting and patronising claptrap from officialdom. You may not quite appreciate just how depressingly numerous your forbears are. So many patter-merchants! What mock-gravitas you have all brought as you have shaken your heads and intoned your po-faced pretexts. Let’s tell it how it is, shall we? Where Gaelic is absent from road-signs it is because some partisan decision-maker wants it that way. Where Gaelic is present on signs but is small and/or faint, it is because some decision-maker considers it of corresponding consequence. If for some irksome technicality Gaelic MUST appear on a sign, then the knack is, correct me if I’m wrong, to make sure it is as unobtrusive as possible.

        I strongly suggest that “not compromising the overall design” is simply your code for “not compromising the paramount functionality of the English”. I happen to be an art teacher. I find it less than likely that your commissioned designer came back to you with proposals that all required smaller Gaelic for the sake of the integrity of the “design”. A designer works to the brief given. If the remit is to make sure that the Gaelic and English are of equal prominence and functionality, then the designer loses the commission if he/she doesn’t produce the goods. We call this “equality” concept, bilingualism. One or two other countries have managed to get their heads round it without, as far as I know, designers having nervous breakbowns.

        Signs are signals. The nigh-invisible non-functional Gaelic on your current signs simply signals a grudging tokenism towards the language. It signals disparagement. Let’s at least have some honesty for once. You know perfectly well that if the Cairngorms National Park decided tomorrow to have trilingual signage in, let’s say, English, French, and Japanese, no insoluble logistical issues would preclude it. Designers worth their salt would enjoy the challenge. You know that. You know that very well. So to attempt to palm off the Gaels, who named everything you can see out of your window, with talk of “too much material on one sign” and of “compromising the overall design”, is exasperating in the extreme. I ask you yet again, have you ever been to Wales?

        Yours sincerely,
        Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh.

        1. Fearghas MacFhionnlaigh says:

          And just on cue in the Holyrood foyer today (15/09/2016):

          Soidhnichean dà-chànanach ùra #gàidhlig

        2. K. A. Mylchreest says:

          The situation in Cornwall is not of course equivalent to that in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, since there are very few fluent speakers of Cornish and practically no native speakers at present. Nor is there any legal requirement for bilingual signs, simply a government and local policy to promote the language. I´m sure Craig can fill us in on the details if required. The nearest parallel would probably be the Isle of Man.

          From what I´ve seen in Cornwall, the use of Cornish on signs is on the whole tokenistic in the extreme. For example the sign to a country park might give the name of the park in its English and Cornish forms, but everything else will be English only. Likewise car-park signs are ´decorated´ with the Cornish word for ´welcome´ at the top (which as someone pointed out, visitors probably think means ´car-park´) but all else, the rules and regulations and so on are English only. The street names I´ve seen also have the Cornish in much smaller type than the English.

          Again, who is to say what´s reasonable in these cases?

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