War-Mad Celts?

The idea that the Celts were or are inherently war-like, natural-born soldiers who love to fight, is one of the oldest and most persistent stereotypes that adhere to the present to both the Scottish Highlanders and Irish, although in slightly different forms and for different reasons.

The image of Scottish Highlanders as innate brawny warriors, fighting for loyalty and honour – such as still celebrated at Highland Games and in popular fiction – was carefully crafted by Highland landlords during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century so that they could benefit from a booming military-industrial complex that fed the expansion of the British Empire by acting as the exclusive channel for recruiting the tenants on their estates.

Anyone who doubts this historical reality should read Andrew MacKillop’s ground-breaking book ‘More Fruitful than the Soil?’: Army, Empire and the Scottish Highlands 1715-1815, in which he concludes:

The British state’s willingness to create distinctive recruiting arrangements centred upon what was perceived as the chiefs’ clan power, points to an alternative analysis for the effects of large-scale war upon the eighteenth-century Highlands. … ‘Provincial’ interests were as likely to reinvent themselves and become agents of the state, thereby manipulating its authority for its own ends and reinforcing their own status. Highland landlords, through their manipulation of the metropolitan centre’s belief in clanship, constitute a particularly high-profile and successful Scottish example of this process. Moreover, to justify excessive rewards of patronage landlords needed to distinguish themselves from their competitors: this they did by deliberately emphasising the uniqueness, both real and imaginary, of the Highlands.

MacKillop, ‘More Fruitful than the Soil?’, 238

We should always be cautious whenever an entire society or culture is essentialized as just one thing or personifying just one kind of trait. Societies always consist of multiple and contrary strands and elements, which are highlighted or reinforced by specific contexts or agendas. There have been, in reality, Gaels who criticized warfare and violence, and Gaelic traditions and narratives that advocate for peace and resolution rather than bloodshed.

Even the earliest evidence of Gaelic traditions illustrates that this was the common understanding of the purpose of kingship. The term sìdh refers to both “peace” and “the Otherworld” in the oldest layer of Gaelic literature, with the implication that the king ensures peace and prosperity in his kingdom by maintaining the proper relationship with the Otherworld. Kennings for chieftains incorporating the element sìdh, such as crann-sìdhe, continued to be used in Scottish Gaelic literature into the eighteenth century.

The oldest Gaelic wisdom text composed c.700 to guide kings states (in translation, and in part):

… He should lift up mercy, it will raise him up. He should be considerate of his tribe, they will be considerate of him. He should give deliverance to his tribes, they will deliver him. He should calm his tribe, they will calm him. Tell him – it is through the sovereign’s truth that the death toll of a mighty war-band [and] great lightning bursts are kept away from people. …

Audacht Morainn “The Testament of Morann”

This sounds a lot more like the Beatitudes of Jesus than Braveheart. Arguably the first international treaty to protect innocent civilians in war-time was created and promoted by Adomnán of Iona in 697, gathering the signatures of many Gaelic, Pictish, Brythonic, and Anglo-Saxon kings to ratify Lex Innocentium (or Cáin Adomnáin, to give it its Gaelic title).

Many people assume that the portrayal of warrior-heroes such as Cú Chulainn in Gaelic literature serve to glorify warfare, when in fact some of the stories serve as cautionary tales about the heavy personal and social costs of excessive violence. The tragedy of how Cú Chulainn killed his only son – often called “Bàs Connlaoich” in Scottish Gaelic, which survived into the twentieth century in song and prose form – was one of the more popular and heart-rending narratives of this type, and anyone who actually studies the tale will realize that it is a critique, not a celebration, of warfare.

The lopsided fixation on militarism and rugged Highland warriors obscures the many forms of “soft power” that were used effectively as aspects of the clan system, most especially diplomacy between chieftains, the persuasive power of the spin-doctor poets (filidhean and baird) employed by chieftains who had the latitude to travel widely between courts, and the dynamism of social bonds such as contracts of manrent, fosterage and strategic marriages.

Mel Gibson imaginatively portraying
William Wallace in Braveheart.

Of course, it requires a person to do more than cast a casual glance at stereotyped images of brawny barbarians in order to gain an understanding how Gaelic culture works at its many levels, and the over-simplified misrepresentations of Highland history overshadows those more nuanced perspectives. Indeed, this approach of reducing Highlanders to caricatures of primitive peasants whose society was doomed to fail due to being “undeveloped” and “obsolete” in the modern world has been used by apologists of angloconformist empire for well over three centuries, enabling people to ignore and underestimate the many accomplishments of Gaeldom and its distinctive civilization in its many diverse facets.

The conquest and absorption of the Scottish Highlands into the British Empire dramatically changed the balance of power and the latitude of options available, but even if there are numerous examples of native Highland poets who were willing and eager to celebrate Gaelic contributions to imperial military enterprises, and a gradual acceptance, through the course of the eighteenth century, of this role in empire, there are interesting cross-currents that also deserve notice.

Some Gaelic primary sources suggest ambivalence if not regret about military service. There are tales and song about young Highland men drinking at the tavern, only to wake up later to be told that they had taken the King’s Shilling and must now pay off their debt through serving in the military. Press-gangs used even more coercive force to bring young men into military service (see my edition of such a poem here). Others simply wanted to leave their military posts and return home (see my edition of such a poem here). There is also evidence from the Canadian diaspora, as I’ve documented in Seanchaidh na Coille / Memory-keeper of the Forest: Anthology of Scottish Gaelic Literature of Canada, of what we would now recognize as PTSD.

The history of warfare in the Gaelic world, as well as of participation in militarism and empire, is not as simple and straightforward as the modern stereotypes of gallant and handsome Highland regiments might suggest. For a more comprehensive and broader approach to understanding Highland history and heritage beyond the stereotypes, you can join the Hidden Glen learning community! See Course listings here.

One thought on “War-Mad Celts?

  • This is a really good essay. And it fits with stories that have passed down about some of the Highlanders who were sent here during the French and Indian War who went with the Mohawk after the disastrous battle for Fort Carillon.

    Liked by 1 person

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