To what extent does Celticism fit with the notion of Britishness?

6 Sep

Written on November 2013 for Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, Scotland, UK

The Celtic Nations

The Celtic Nations

For various researchers, scholars, and society in general, the Celtic world has been a great deal of interest, not only due to its importance as part of Britain, Ireland and the European continent’s history, but also because of the many cultural and historical features surrounding it. According to Green (1995, p. 14), “there is inevitably a diversity of approach, methodology and treatment which […] enriches and enlivens the subject: scholars from varied disciplines examine aspects of Celtic culture from the differing perspectives of archaeology, language, literature and anthropology.” This is the main reason as to why this essay shall be introduced, giving a historical and geographical background about what is considered as the Celtic countries.

The British Isles have been inhabited by many different ethno-cultural groups since the medieval era. Picts, Saxons, Danes, and Normans, just to name a few, give us evidence of the earlier inhabitants of the Isles. Although by the twentieth century, the majority came to define themselves as British and together they constitute the British nationality (Hechter, 1975, p. 10). However, there is an indefinite geography about what has been called the Celtic fringe (Pittock, 1999, p. 1). For Pittock (1999, p. 1), the fringe usually covers Ireland, Scotland and Wales, although sometimes Cornwall and the Isle of Man are included as well. Furthermore, there are cases in which the term only refers to those areas in which the Celtic languages are spoken or has been spoken recently. In either case, this lack in its geographical delimitation reflects the complexity of the Celtic label. Green (1995, p. 3) also notes that “the problem of defining what is (or should be) meant by the terms ‘Celt‘ and ‘Celtic’ centres around the relationship, if any, between material culture, ethnicity and language.”

As Pittock (1999, p. 19) states, “when Britain as a modern political entity was formed in the period 1688-1707, ambivalence emerged in attitudes towards the Celt. No longer could Scots or Irish be classed completely as outsiders: they were part of the State, integrated to a greater degree than ever before … The Celtic citizen was, especially if unreconciled to the British polity, bound to be a source of uneasiness and resentment”. Indeed, the ‘Celtic’ was often identified as ‘other’ in historical terms, as we will see through Pittock’s work (1999). Thus, by drawing upon evidence from various authors, this essay will discuss how Celticism fits with the notion of Britishness, explaining the relative failure of national development in the United Kingdom. Following the assessment into the distinction of the main aspects of Britishness and Celticism, a conclusion will be reached assessing to what extent it is justifiable to define both notions separately.

In order to contextualise the notion of Britishness, that is to say, British identity, the term nationalism should be introduced briefly. In Hechter’s (1975, p.3) words, “nationalism is often held to be a great, even predominant, social force in the modern world. While in earlier historical eras individuals thought of themselves as members of solidary groups like families, clans, or communities, nowadays almost everyone has a nationality”. For Ernest Gellner (Gellner, E. n.d., cited in Pittock, 1999, p. 20), nationalism is described as “the inseparable ideological counterpart of modernization, of the transition from agricultural to industrial society, in every country of the world.” Thus, with the expansion of the English State, the majority of the early inhabitants of the British Isles came to consider themselves as ‘English’, or less occasionally, ‘British’. We can only find one contemporary survivor: the so-called Celts of Wales, Ireland, and parts of Scotland (Hechter, 1975, p. 47).

The imposition of English Authority started with the 1534 Act, which marked the beginning of the English Reformation. It gave England effective sovereignty from all outside authorities for the first time. Afterwards, and almost simultaneously, England’s formal political control started to become more widespread, along with its influence over Wales, Ireland and Scotland (Hechter, 1975, p. 67). Indeed, the British state formation was based on the absolute sovereignty of Parliament and the centralization of State functions (Pittock, 1999, p. 23). As it is mentioned by D. Marquand (in Vright & Gamble, 2009, p. 10), “after the Act of Union … immense quantities of emotional energy and rhetorical skill were devoted to forging a ‘British’ nation and a ‘British’ identity, subsuming the several nations and identities of the British archipelago.” It is therefore not surprising that chauvinist attitudes, that is to say, aggressive patriotic attitudes, emerged, since, according to Pittock (1999, p. 23), “it was the fate of the Celtic countries to be marginalized into mere ethno-cultural tribalism by the alternative contractually formed superstructure of the British state.” From then on, popular anti-English or anti-Englishness attitudes expanded substantially (Pittock, 1999, p. 22). Thus, the unwillingness to involve the Celts with political issues, not only led to distance, but marginalised them through ethnic caricatures and mockery, in that way downgrading systematically the internal culture of Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which were considered as colonies (Pittock, 1999, p. 106).

From a linguistic point of view, the British government, from its 1688-1707 foundations, was always a “government of the tongue”, and therefore “putting sociolinguistic and cultural pressure to bear on alternative languages, consciousness and practices within the British Isles”, in the words of Pittock (1999, p. 25). The aim was to encourage an allegiance to the crown through the Anglicisation of the natives with the promotion of the English tongue, causing the decline of the Celtic languages such as Scots Gaelic, Welsh, Cornish and Manx, upgrading thus the prestige of the English language (Nic Craith, 1996, p. 5). As an example, the quote below shows the words in 1847 of the government commission on education, in favour of the suppression of the Welsh language (Coupland, 1954, p. 186-195): “The Welsh language is a vast drawback to Wales, and a manifold barrier to the moral progress and commercial prosperity of the people … It bars the access of improving knowledge to their minds. Because of their language, the mass of the Welsh people are inferior to the English in every branch of practical knowledge and skill.”

Hence all Welsh attempts to speak English were surrounded by mockery and caricature. As quoted by Pittock (1999, p. 30), “if an English dramatist wanted to raise a good-humoured laugh, he had only to conjure up a Welsh shentleman”. Additionally, the Irish Celt was often referred to as a “dangerous and unfamiliar other” (Pittock, 1999, p. 45). By contrast, the situation in Scotland proved to be very different. According to Pittock (1999, p. 56), “Celtic Scotland was ethicized to the margin, and presented as occupying only that space in which the retreating Gaelic tongue was spoken: hence Scottish writers denied Scottish national territorialism by relegating the ‘Celt’ to an ethno-cultural edge and making of themselves Germanic Englishmen.”

A very good example of this unitary British identity is given by Pittock (1999, p. 104), when he mentions the case of an advertisement seen in 1914 in The Times, which “asked ‘Englishmen!’ to ‘please use “Britain”, “British” and “Briton” when the United Kingdom of the Empire is in question”. Besides, this Britishness is also reflected in Gwyn A. Williams’s 1979 BBC lecture, When Was Wales? (cited in Pittock, 1999, p. 105), in which Williams stated that “nationalists in Scotland and Wales were opposing the reality of Britain”. In summary, this tendency in the British Isles shows how often powerful and established states see ethno-cultural diversity as a presumption of inferiority, therefore showing themselves as ‘inclusive’ instead of ‘exclusive’ and ethno-tribal (Pittock, 1999, p.7).

For Pittock (1999, p. 6), “the insistent ethnicization of the Celt in the British imagination has itself acted as a strategy which serves to deny political or cultural territoriality to Celtic countries, rather than fringes.” Indeed, since the 1970s, some authors have discussed the truthfulness of the term ‘Celtic’, defending that Celticism and everything related to the Celtic world is a marketing construction rather than a historical reality. Malcolm Chapman has shown this scepticism, suggesting that the ‘Celt’ is a constructed based on oppositions such as wild/tame, savage/civilized or idealist/utilitarian, and so on (Pittock, 1999, p. 5). In this sense, Chapman (1992) states that the notion of Celticism and the word ‘Celtic’ is a complete fabrication of the marketplace, since it did not exist as a concept until the sixteenth century onwards. Interestingly this turns out to be the next quote by the writer Tolkien (1963, 23f; cited in Hezel, 2006, p. 35): “To many, perhaps to most people outside the small company of the great scholars, past and present, ‘Celtic’ of any sort is … a magic bag, into which anything may be put, and out of which almost anything may come … Anything is possible in the fabulous Celtic twilight …”.

This statement becomes interesting when applied to the reality of what is considered as ‘Celtic’ today, where the popularity of its paraphernalia is itself an interesting feature of the global marketplace, e.g. the Celtic lettering is a factitious marketing concept (Pittock, 1999, p. 3). Leerssen (1996b, p. 3) has also supported and reflected this idea by stating “to the extent that ‘Celtic’ is an idea with a wide and variable application, Celticism becomes a complex and significant issue in the European history of ideas: the history of what people wanted that term to mean.” According to Hezel (2006, p. 34), the term Celticism or Celticness was created as an analogy of the concept of Orientalism, introduced by Edward Said (Said, 1977, cited in Hezel 2006, p. 34), which “means the construction of the East by the West –a construction that shows a unilateral, biased, discriminatory image of the Orient”. Bearing this in mind and continuing with the analogy between Celticism and Orientalism exposed by Hezel (2006, p. 34), the common idea of inadequacy between the Celtic countries thus is the result of an historical argument to build the British image. Consequently, Celticism is a construct of those who wished to alienate it (Pittock, 1999, p. 6).

Common Celtic symbols

Common Celtic symbols

In this respect, a wide variety of examples can be mentioned, such as the use of Tartan as the representative symbol of Scotland. Its use can be dated back at least to the marriage of James VI to Anne of Denmark in 1596, but this symbol has not only become significant for Scotland, but also in Britain. Following the examples given by Pittock (1999, p. 86-87), English Tory squires used tartan to signify their ‘honesty’, and its adoption by Queen Victoria at Balmoral in the 1850s boosted Tartan’s role as a sign of British caste. But the case of tartan is not the unique example. In Wales, the image of the Welsh preacher became very popular, since it certainly expressed national pride. For Lord (1994, p. 72), “it was also a part of the wider structure that allowed Welshness and Britishness to coexist … The image of the preacher fed the myth of the moral superiority of the nation, and set in the context of imperial imagery it succeeded in giving the vague impression of Wales as the moral conscience of the Empire.”

Indeed, the concept of Britishness has been perceived as an imposition applied to those nations located on the periphery of the United Kingdom, which share a Celtic legacy and their own languages (Rösch, 2008, p. 8). In the words of Pittock (1999, p. 99), “Ireland (now independent) is often called ‘England’s oldest colony’, but Wales (the better candidate) is not so termed, because to do so would be to acknowledge its current territorial potential as an un-British nation, and to pose an implicit challenge to the cultural and national integrity of ‘Britain’. England can have no ‘British’ colonies, because Britain is England in very much the unspoken assumption.” In fact, internal differences are not acknowledged in Britain: in the imperial lexicon, the phrase ‘island race’ seems to exclude the very presence of a ‘Celtic fringe’ (Pittock, 1999, p. 11). As Gwynfor Evans stated in 1981 (cited in Morris & Morton, 1998, p. 110): “What is Britishness? The first thing to realize is that it is another word for Englishness; it is a political word which arose from the existence of the British state and which extends Englishness over the lives of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.”

Nonetheless, according to Simon Heffer (Heffer, 2007; cited in Vright & Gamble, 2009, p. 143), “Britain has now become simply a geographical entity and to many English people “Britishness” means nothing other than a series of (quite glorious) historical facts”. As a matter of fact, British symbols of monarchy, state and nation still survive, although in a weakened status, with the appearance of being bolsters for a certain kind of Englishness (Pittock, 1999, p. 115).

Thus, in order to provide an answer to the question of how Celticism fits with the notion of Britishness, it should be taken into consideration the point of view introduced by Bradley (2007), in which he states that Britain was Celtic before anything else. In Bradley’s words (2007, p. 67): “The people who are, for better or worse, known as the Celts are the first inhabitants of the British Isles … They were the founders of Britishness in respect of origin myths and legends, spiritual roots and traditions and language.”

Therefore, the conclusion of this essay must be that Celts epitomise the ‘wild side’ of Britain, as opposite to the more prosaic, dull and regulated Anglo-Saxon element. When thinking about the Celts, society often imagine them as those peoples living on the edge of Britian, represented under the phrase ‘Celtic fringe’, which suggests a community of noble savages who should be treated as exotic and weird species. However, places even more than people express the Celtic spirit According to Bradley (2007, p. 68), “maybe, indeed, it is those ancient pre-Christian Celtic sites of barrows, burial mounds, earthworks, standing stones and stone circles that provide the most truly British landscape … somehow seem more British than distinctively English, Scottish or Irish.” Actually, Celticism in its broadest sense does not define itself in terms of opposition with Britishness, and today’s Celtic representations seem to be more diverse.

Reference list:

Bradley, Ian (2007): Believing in Britain: The Spiritual Identity of ‘Britishness’, I. B. Tauris

Coupland, R. (1954): Welsh and Scottish Nationalism, London

H. Pittock, Murray (1999): Celtic Identity and the British Image, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York

Hechter, Michael (1975): Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536-1966, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London

Hezel, Sabine (2006): Cultural identity represented: Celticness in Ireland, Inaugural-Dissertation zur Erlangung des Doktorgrades, der Philosophischen Fakultät der Westfälischen Wilhelms-Universität zu Münster (Westf.). Available from: [accessed: 18/11/2013]

Green, Miranda (Ed.) (1995): The Celtic World, Routledge

Leerssen, Joep (1996): Celticism. Terence Brown. Amsterdam: Rodopi,

Lord, Peter (1994): Gwenllian: Essays on visual culture, Llandysul: Gomer Press

Máiréad Nic Craith (Ed.) (1996): Watching One’s Tongue: Aspects of Romance and Celtic Languages, Liverpool University Press

Morris, Angela & Morton, Graeme (1998): Locality, Community and Nation, London: Hodder and Stoughton

Rösch, Tobias (2008): How valid is it to say that Englishness is contained within Britishness?, Seminar Paper, Grin

Vright, Anthony; Gamble, Andrew (Ed.) (2009): Britishness: Perspectives on the British Question, Blackwell



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