Celticity cumulative and in decline
The mysterious devastation of the Atlantic
It is the decline of the Atlantic trade which explains much of the regional economics of modern Britain. Regional poverty, the modern version of the East-West divide, explains both why there is so much resentment of the central region (Midlands and South-East), and why there are so many people looking for a more radical solution to the problems of Atlantic Britain. Sinn Fein, Plaid Cymru, the SNP, Militant, Communists: in the northwest there is a striking concentration of voters who want to change, not just current decisions, but the rules of the political system. There is a common decline of the Atlantic ports: Glasgow, Liverpool, Belfast, Swansea, Cardiff, many others besides, following the decline of the Atlantic trade; since this involved two ends (despatcher and receiver, who is also purchaser), the Celtic nature of the Western ports and their regions is only coincidental to their decline; they are Celtic because the Western half of the island, and archipelago, are Celtic, but the shift of trade is international.
The plight of specific regions, or of areas within regions, is parlous, and the renovation of the regions centring on Liverpool, Belfast, Glasgow, and Cardiff is a historic priority for the British Government, made much of even by the Tories at the 1987 election. Resources are being pumped from the taxpayer to these regions- the widespread belief that the prosperity of the South-east and Midlands core is due to money being sucked away from the North and West is harder to prove and is, in general, I think, paranoid. Recession has afflicted areas on the east side of the country (Tyneside) and in the centre, as well as areas of the Midlands and South East: boroughs like Hackney and Tower Hamlets in London, for example. The geographers Kirby and Robinson point out that "Greater London and surrounding towns constitute the country's most important manufacturing area: some 2.5 million workers are employed...", but clearly pressures on industry, and the exorbitant local cost of land and property, have made life difficult and insecure for the industrial workers of the South-East.
To explain the eighteenth and nineteenth century boom of the Atlantic ports, we have to recall the economic and political conditions which allowed, for a limited historical period, world trade to be dominated by Britain. The overseas markets, to which British goods were shipped from the Atlantic ports, included the USA, Canada, Australia, Latin America, South Africa, India, China. Isn't it true that they bought because they had no native industries yet; or because their financial sector was run by British banks; or because they were colonies outright? Times change. The decline of exports to these territories declined at a very uneven rate, and the composition of exports kept changing, while the volume at times even increased. There were no "events" which one could dramatize or, for example, write a poem about: all the same, the curve is mostly one way, and no-one expects Canada, Australia, and the United States to become again farming communities, eager to buy British manufactured goods. American railways were once built of British steel... meanwhile, the growth of markets in Europe was a solace at national level, but demanded port facilities in the east of the country: while manufacture could more conveniently take place close to those outward parts and to the European continent. The growth of the North Sea and Channel trade did not cause the decline of the Atlantic- instead, the latter is a secular and international curve, which the former did something to palliate. A decline in the new industries and new ports would do nothing to alleviate the recession in the West; on the contrary, a decline in tax revenues would bring mechanical pressure to bear on Welfare expenditures and threaten the worst off. Transfer payments from the prosperous classes, and regions, of Britain, to the less prosperous, are no longer high in comparison with other developed countries, but the net flow has been very appreciable.
The main inheritor of British markets has been the USA, as the world's leading exporter of manufactures: I suppose I used to get angry about this, as a young man. But the logic of criminalizing someone who does what you do, export, is that you criminalize yourself. You can't ask someone who's undergoing unemployment, the worthlessness of their skills, destitution, despair, to be philosophical; but art has to depict situations from all angles of vision in order to reach any kind of truth.
The Atlantic was, from say 1700 up to 1950, a river on whose banks stood the Empire: when we look at the big empty docks on the West coast, the real meaning of what we see is decolonisation. Yet Britain could export to Latin America, Africa, and even the USA, if it produced the right goods. The source of economic potency is in design and manufacture, not in naval power. Nobody who lets the Japanese in would exclude us- if we produced the right goods at the right price. As for the future, no one really expects British industry to generate new jobs, it can thrive only by such advances in overall productivity that net employment can scarcely increase.
The most emotionally appealing thesis is that regional poverty is there because people in the South-east have preferential access to the government and makers of financial policy and simply take the money away from the outlying regions. You will make many people angry if you say it isn't true. But the thesis can only apply in the domain left untouched by other theses about regional inequality, for example, that it is caused by climate and geology, so that it is the fertility of the soil, dictated by the chemistry of the rocks which weathered down to make it, which decides the wealth and population density of a province; or that it is natural communications and access to trade routes which allow business to thrive in one area, making another less attractive. Another factor, important in the distant past, was simply openness to immigration, more advanced populations swarmed in to accessible and attractive areas (principally in the South-East) and introduced more productive techniques, which made the affected provinces much richer.
The question of failures by the City, the owners of capital, and by the Government, as the origins of the problems of regional industries, and so of entire regions, is too complex to argue through here; specially as politics is about the future, rather than the past. The centre is only invoked because the regions, and their business leaders, were unable to win their own struggles; but this incites the retort that commerce, finance, and government collaborated to reduce the share of sales revenues which reached primary producers, and competed to to deprive the latter of the voice in policy which would have allowed them a remedy. The head offices of firms are mostly in London; interestingly, it has been argued that this strengthened industry: "Thus, the emergence of the large corporation in British industry did promote the growth of a more coherent, politically aware, industrial interest which had more influence than in the past and was closer to centres of power in London, where the head offices of these major companies were based." (Cain and Hopkins, vol. 2, p. 20; referring to the period 1914-39). This allowed firms to draw more capital from the financial markets, rather than relying on personal savings and retained profits, in time-hallowed fashion.
State intervention to relieve regional imbalances and help depressed areas began in 1928. Without it, regional poverty would presumably have been much worse than it is today. A glance at the map of depressed areas (first called Special Areas, then Development areas, then Assisted Areas) will show that government assistance has been concentrated in the Celtic areas. There are exceptions; for example the North-east of England shows up as a long-term depressed area. Since 1928, there have been large flows of tax money into the regions where the greatest hostility to the State and to centralized power prevails. Political divisions about small government or big also have a regional basis, politologists have recently voiced fears that the Conservative and Labour Parties may be migrating towards a regional basis, rather than an ideological, moral, or policy one. This is alarming, because their task is to provide national governments; but regionalists already believe that all Westminster governments administer in the interests of the South-east.
The most outlying and divergent parts of the British Isles have Celtic speech in common. (One could add Brittany to the list, to complete the ring.) The poetry emanating from those parts is distinctive, and the acceptability of ideas and artworks popular in the South and East may be quite low in these outlying parts. It's also true that in the recent past the literature and the material culture of these areas were very archaic, and contained echoes of Celtic civilisation as reported in the Dark Ages or even the Roman Empire. So should we talk about a Celtic variety of British civilisation? This would open the interesting possibility of a comparative study of Ireland, the Highlands and Islands, and Wales, and possibly Brittany as well.
E.G. Bowen has, since the 1940s, been tracing the sea-routes which in prehistory linked the Western shores of Britain with the Atlantic, and with a current of trade, hence also of culture, flowing from Galicia, or from south-west Spain, North Africa, or even Egypt. No doubt the short hauls (e.g. Munster-South Wales, Cornwall-Brittany) were more dense with ships. This trade did not freight millions of tons, since it linked societies which were basically autarkic; however, it may have brought the people who composed West British societies; the first agriculturists, and the Wessex Culture, may have arrived from the West. Sir John Morris-Jones outlined, in 1891, the theory that Insular Celtic had linguistic structures in common with Berber languages, so that the people of Britain had spoken a language of North African origins up until the arrival of the Celts. This theory was greatly developed, in the twentieth century and up until the 1980s, by Julius Pokorny, Ernst Lewy, and Heinrich Wagner. Wagner has this amazing comment to make:
"Chain alliteration, typical of archaic Irish verse and rhythmical prose, is also found in Meroitic and Somali, as well as in Egyptian verse of the Greek (Demotic) period, cf. W Vychicl, Die Sprache II, 216f. This would strengthen my theory that alliteration of the early Irish type has, like other elements of Early Irish civilisation, its origin in Egypt of the early centuries of the Christian era or even earlier." (Trans. Philol. Society, 1969). Meroitic is a Nubian language of the Upper Nile. The rule in question has to do with obligatory alliteration. We know that Irish manuscripts and stone crosses had some features borrowed from the Coptic art of Egypt. The arrival of the Muslims in Spain may have impoverished Ireland by cutting ancient trade-links.
What interests us is the society which was already in Britain in 2000 BC, and which, even though it became celticized, held on to the culture traits (e.g. house design, fishing and boatmaking technique, stockrearing methods, possibly religious and artistic ideas) which were mature and well-adapted. The way of life which throve in arable and rich areas of Europe (i.e. the region of classic Celtdom) can never have been implemented wholesale on the acid hills of upland Britain. It is ironic that these areas have become the stronghold of Celticity in the linguistic sense. Conversely, the social order suitable for a pastoral and fishing economy may have originated elsewhere.
Society is dominated by the aristocrats, who gather the commons around them as clienteles, and vote in assemblies, having no kings. Polytheistic religion is organized by the Druids, oak-priests. Eloquence and courage, and generosity are the most admired virtues. Formal speech, e.g. poetry, is chiefly praise, which extols these virtues. Women enjoy more independence than in the Mediterranean world, and excel in courage and in dedication to their husbands. The nobles are boastful, quarrelsome, given to personal adornment, eager to be first in precedence. They compete in military feats of horsemanship and chariotry. They may be buried with their chariots, or triumphal wagons (an eastern trait). Generosity is proven, and clienteles maintained, by feasting, so large cauldrons are status objects; they love to drink. Sometimes prophets spring up, who have great political importance. Society is illiterate, but specialist priests compose metrical records of important notions, which are memorized. There is a cult of the head, especially as a trophy of a defeated enemy. There are showy, prestigious sacrifices in groves and lakes or rivers. There are no towns.
These traits don't cover the economy; the Classical observers remark little on these, since the Celts were just a variant on the basic peasant society, originating in Western Asia, which had existed in Central Europe for thousands of years even before La Tene started. It was an adaptation of this model to the local conditions which affect farming; it used different breeds, even different species, but above all different mixes of food species, from the Anatolians or even the Greeks. Because it was a political economy specific to Northern and Central Europe, one has to ask how different it was from Germanic society: the differences are quite hard to find, although the Germani were farther away from the high civilisation of the Mediterranean, and so tended to receive new things after the Celts, and often in a Celtic form. Certainly it would be crazy to project the differences between 18th C England and Ireland, say, onto the Iron Age.
It would be more convenient if important traits of Insular Celtic culture, as we have it, didn't come from Africa and Asia; since this contradicts the geocultural images deeply imprinted on the mind of the public. I suppose the curse of Celtology is that its subject societies are so anomalous, when viewed through the lens of the plains-arable-urban societies we are used to reading about, that the truth about them is quite unacceptable and so is rapidly forgotten. Anyway, Cyril Fox famously remarked on the conservatism of the Atlantic West, but with so much sea around things are constantly arriving from Outside, and the conserved traditions may have been formed and integrated somewhere else altogether.
Celto-Scythia: the Animal Style
Clark and Piggott remark, of finds of the 3rd millennium BC, "Like the Alaca tombs, too, those of the Caucasus show the first flowering of an animal-art style and a high tradition of metallurgy which was to stretch from the Troad to the Caucasus and to continue in varying forms until the time of the Scythians and Sarmatians." They mention that the same culture made 'chariot burials', which must in some way be forerunners of the same practice in Celtic society. The horse came to Europe from the steppes; the chariot is said to have been invented, logically, where the forests with their timber met the open steppe with its invitation to speed, i.e. in the foothills of the Caucasus. Major advances were made in about the 8th C BC: "Scythian art is something original and individual, it is true, but not wholly without roots; these... lay partly in the ancient Caucasian tradition which was taken over by new masters in the eighth century BC, and partly in the ultimately Mesolithic animal art of Eurasia." Alaca is in central Anatolia; so the art in question was part of the Western Asian peasant culture which became European culture. Representations of animals, and so presumably myths about animals, go back, as our authors remark, to a common Mesolithic stock, of which special elaborations are found in many countries. So we can speak of a cumulative Animal Art.
Devices came from the Steppes in several different pulses: "beginning in the fifth century BC and continuing in various forms to the dawn of the European Middle Ages in the British Isles, we have a new, and essentially Celtic, art style. It is largely one of pattern and ornament, linear and plastic but rarely sculptural, a non-representational convention in which 'man is a stranger', but with an animal world of fantasy and magic. Its roots are triple-in the immediate Hallstatt past, in the Graeco-Etruscan use of plant ornament and in an animal-art style which shares elements with that of the steppe and the Northern Nomads" (Piggott and Clark). Scythia? well, the eastern end of the Celtic world bordered on the Scythian realms. Some Greek historians use precisely this word, Celto-Scyths. Evidently, where ethnic Celts ventured into regions climatically suited to the mounted pastoral life, they adopted these customs and were identified by Greek observers with the Scyths. The superior development of art among the Scyths was no accident; it emanated from the Caucasus mountains, where the abundance of metal had given rise to expert technologists with a natural market in the steppe aristocracies. The Scyths put their wealth into personal display (weapons, belt buckles, horse gear) because they could only own what they could carry. A rather long development of metal adornment thus gave rise to a cultural peak, down which the style drained into an emulatory barbarian Europe. It proved pleasing to the Germanic lords; and reached Britain with the Anglo-Saxons. There, in Northumbria, in Pictland, and in Ireland, we find it magically transferred into paint on vellum manuscripts. Finlay remarks, of Pictish animal art on stone, that "The curious whorl-like renderings of musculature and shadow which have been called joint-spirals, elaborating haunches, shoulders, and other parts, go back beyond the Celts altogether to Scythian roots." Beyond? the problem is separating the elements of La Tene surviving in Celtic Britain, or Ireland, in the 7th C AD, and those elements of stylized, running, multiple animal ornament which, coming from Scythia during the Voelkerwanderung, had reached the British Isles in the form of Anglo-Saxon jewellery and metalwork. It's a long jump from the visual art of Ireland, up till then, to the splendours of the Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts. These certainly weren't just a tracing of a Celtic art that already existed; and, if they did have a symbolic meaning, it would stem from Scythian conceptions, probably of ensuring the magical fertility of game or flocks.
The "renderings of musculature and shadow" resemble the Assyrian sculpture in the British Museum, where muscles are rendered in paint. No doubt they reached Anatolia from Mesopotamia. I suppose this method of rendering anatomy was made obsolete by the invention of depth in drawing and sculpture, which failed to reach the Caledonians. I suppose also that the spirals of Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts are extrapolations of these musculatures, and have, like muscles, to do with motion.
The opposition of Celtic and Germanic has been grossly exaggerated in prehistory and history, based on a determinist linguistic view of human culture. If those two things existed as dense, stable, known, cultural structures, then we would only have to determine the ethnic affinities of some Dark Age village in order to know its mentality. This was wonderfully tempting for a previous generation of prehistorians; but the premise it rested on was largely that race determines culture. Even that wasn't the source of error, this was instead the temptation of assuming knowledge where none was available. So nineteenth century scholars went to Irish fishing villages in the belief that they were seeing Eternal Celtic folkways which would help them to understand Celts of the third century B.C. Non-academic readers today believe in those Eternal Folkways because of the hangover from those sentimental professors. But Celtic societies are no more static than others, and social structure must have varied with the geographical and economic base: fisher villages were different from pastoral groups, and these were different from farming villages, who were different from the towns where commerce and government took place. There is no such thing as 'Celtic social structure'. The most obvious thing about Welsh, Irish, and Scottish cultures is that they are Welsh, Irish and Scottish. In prehistory, the assumption that Celts and Germani were basically different is no more reliable than the assumption that all Celtic groups are culturally interchangeable.
There is a story in Karl Miller's Memoirs of a Modern Scotland about Hector MacIver, asking questions about family history to his brother: 'In what year did Neil MacIver leave Uisg? [about 1850]. Is it true that he had the rafters of his house in the boat?'. (I suspect that the timber in question was not the rafters, but the cruck, or couple, as forked timber of the right size is always in shortage.) We can compare this with the story, in several parts of the Landnamabok (13th century), that the original Norwegian settlers of Iceland took the master-posts of their houses in the ships with them, and threw them into the sea so as to make their homes where the stems should come to land. The story about a man taking the timbers of his house away with him when he had to leave is distinctive; but it does not distinguish between Norway and the Hebrides. If the characteristics of the North and West of our archipelago derive from the interaction, within the permissions of geology and climate, of food species and pest species, it is superfluous to invoke Celticity as a causal agency: there is nothing left for it to cause. It has to retreat to the leisure part of life, to folklore and the traditions shaping folk tales, ballads, and dances. Maybe the culturati of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland would do better to think what it means to be the northwest of the world now than what it means to have the tattered legacy of Iron Age aristocracy.
Christopher Hawkes developed, for British prehistory, the theory of 'cumulative Celticity'. There was no single invasion by a homogeneous group bearing a stable and inflexible culture, which replaced what was there already. Instead the 'celticity' of the tribes whom Caesar found in possession was the outcome of thousands of years of development, and several waves of cultural import. New sets of prestige weapons and equipment (chariots, horse tack, etc.) are interpreted as competitive importing of innovation by existing elites, rather than as 'invasions' where new peoples arrive and old ones vanish. The equation of material culture with ethnic identity is owed to Gustav Kossinna, who was an outright Nazi. The elites accepted the imported techniques because their ideas of aristocratic display and majesty already exalted such trappings. So enrichment over millennia only intensified characteristics already there at the beginning. We can follow this up by asking how far British culture in the 5th C AD was 'Celtic' or 'Romano-Celtic', and how far the arriving Anglo-Saxons just brought one more stratum to add; which was compatible because it had been developed in a similar society, and drawing on the same northwest European themes. The 'Hiberno-Saxon' style of manuscript illumination, known until the 1930s as 'Celtic', has many themes close to continental Germanic traditions. Because the Celtic culture was composed of different strands, it was subject to change, it did not stand or fall as one stubborn block.
All writers on Celtic society have commented on its archaism. A single example. While walking in Hampshire, I stumbled across Butser Iron Age farm, an experimental replica set up by archaeologists; inside one of the huts was a long chain, above the fireplace, by which a cauldron could be variably hung at different heights above or in the fire, for temperature control. (The equivalent of turning the gas down.) The original chain was over 2,000 years old. A week or so later I was looking at the cover of one of Alexander Fenton's books about Scottish folk life, and saw an identical cauldron-chain - in a 1930s photograph of the interior of a black house in the Hebrides. Dozens of similar examples could be given. (Non-Celtic rural areas of northwest Europe are not necessarily more progressive.) This conservatism (of techniques which had reached perfection, after long refinement, a millennium and a half ago) can reasonably be searched for also in Celtic poetry. (The word bardus, borrowed into Latin from Continental Celtic, is still used in Welsh and Gaelic today.)
When scholars speak of Highland society in the 18th century and Gaulish society of the third century AD as if they were the same cultural horizon, we should not dismiss this but look, for example, at continuity of agricultural techniques, and how far European society reached a technical peak in the Bronze Age which it hardly excelled until the end of the Midle Ages and the advent of a new material equipment. It is hard for us to think ourselves back into the era of zero growth, when excess was poured, not into investment, but into feasting and other forms of extravagant display, of which art was the beneficiary. The need for chiefs to compete with other chiefs within the same geographical horizon leads to the wish to excel and so, mechanically, to artistic progress, and even, for crafts like jewellery, technical progress. But it leads also to shared models, and the need for public acceptance of your display gesture militates for conservatism of form. We can think of mediaeval Celtic society as the inheritor of forms pushed by furious creative thought in the past towards a natural climax, not easily excelled within the limits of oral composition or a certain empirical metallurgy, but which, once reached, embodied prestige and the heart's desire in the eyes of later smiths and bards and chiefs. The poems could be memorized and the ornaments worn and flaunted. Other elements of civilization- law, formal courtesy, cookery, textiles, conventions of hospitality, ornaments of speech- may have been equally classical and conservative. For such form-series, or more cogently limits to serial mutability of form, the word classical is the appropriate one. They expressed, quite literally, links to the founding ancestors of the aristocracy. The Christian world of forms was, so far as we can see, younger than the classical Celtic one; both have exerted a powerful influence on 20th century artists struck by the fact of being outside them. The local classical forms of culture were ended in Wales in the sixteenth century, in Ireland in the seventeenth, and in Gaelic Scotland in the later eighteenth.
In French politology, for example Andre Siegfried, the West is treated as archaic, loyal to the monarchy, in the grip of the Church; offering an interesting analogy to Britain. We think of Ireland as republican, but in about 1640 parliament was very alarmed at the prospect of Charles I raising an army of the Irish (and of the Highlanders) with which he could subdue Parliament itself; a similar alliance had James II fighting William III with an Irish army.
The main feature of the modern history of Celtic languages has been their shrinking geographical and cultural hold: 'declining celticity'. The successor, in every case, has been English or a related dialect; identifying the Celtic cultures with the past in a double sense. There is as I write no possibility of any author making a living by writing in Welsh or Gaelic. Gaelic is at the present day spoken by about 2% of the population of Scotland, Welsh by about 25% of the population of Wales, Cornish by no one except in evening classes, Cumbric and Manx by no one, Irish as an everyday language by about 1% of the population of Ireland. In contrast, up till the 15th century Gaelic was the speech of the whole of Scotland except for some Norse areas and Scots in the Central Lowlands, Borders, and certain seaports. At that time, the whole of Wales, and parts of the Border counties of England spoke Welsh; English speakers in Ireland were rare; and Cornwall and Devon spoke Cornish. Even in 1745, one fifth of the population of Scotland spoke Gaelic; in 1500, they had been 50%. To complete the Western strip, Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire had once been of Celtic speech (up until the eleventh century, perhaps), lost despite Celtic neighbours, isolation, and the relative sparseness of the Anglian population nearby. In Ireland the majority spoke the native language even up until 1840.
The counties which were formerly Gaelic-speaking, in whole or in part, are Nairn, Banff, Moray, Aberdeenshire, Kincardineshire, Angus, Perthshire, Dunbarton, Ayr, Wigtownshire, and Kircudbrightshire. One could add certain parishes from other counties. The case of Caithness is uncertain; I omit the counties where Gaelic predominates at the present day.
Vast tracts, therefore, of Britain are linguistic polder, they speak a language which was acquired as the old one ebbed away. They show a typical "new" uniformity of speech, (like the USA and Australia) whereas 'old' linguistic terrain shows a characteristic "little domain" pattern of dialect variation. Towns also show this uniformity. It is even possible that the British distaste for linguistic innovation (a trait, real or imaginary, made much of by certain critics) stems from this.
Certain stylistic traits in poetry are perhaps not freely and arbitrarily chosen by the poet, but stem from the divergent and regional speech patterns of ordinary people.
A comparison could be made between Standard English and mediaeval Latin, claimed (by G.G. Coulton, for example) to produce a certain sort of scholar, fluent and able to avoid mistakes, but incapable of original thought. This assumes that there is a vital linguistic experience in childhood, when physical experiences and the material world are organized via discriminations and associations into concepts, expressed by a vocabulary, the basis for abstract thought; the problem arose because the mediaeval scholar spoke another language in childhood. The lack of flavour attributed to standard English would be, then, because the speaker cannot express inner experience by means of it. Such stiffness would be important at most for one generation, i.e. when someone speaks and writes a language which he did not know as a child. Some very silly claims on this score must be discounted, e.g. I can't accept that the population of Cornwall and Ayrshire (and Dublin) are not fluent in English. Traces of previous (and non-English) linguistic patterns are easy to find in 'non-central' English; although picturesque (and dear to the heart of linguists), they should not be confused with the features which we call poetic style. Nobody writes poems in 'previously Celtic', they write poems in English or in Scots. Nonetheless the political extremism I spoke of above is bound to seek linguistic signals when it comes out in poetry.
The relationship between Standard English and local speech is not merely geographical, but also to do with social class: Standard English is typically spoken on the spot, by socially prestigious groups, and minority languages play the role of dialects. These phonetic contrasts are a dulled and blurred record of power relationships of the past. People often discuss their speech patterns in terms of conscious and unconscious choice, where the latter is often correlated with compulsion, and of course with external sources of control.
It has been argued, notably by Robert Crawford, that part of the stimulus to avant-garde writing was a psychological objection to standard English; this has been invoked for Joyce and MacDiarmid, but also, what rather spoils the argument, to Eliot and Pound: who were supposedly 'barbarians'. The opposite applies in Celtic areas, and even in Lowland Scotland, that writers are inhibited from verbal experiment by the disintegration of language in the literal sense. You can't be a subversive in a society which is already disintegrating. The opposite of the avant-garde is perhaps a folk writer, deliberately taking up tradition; neither side can give a fair view of the other. It seems that nationalism encourages folk art, as imbued with national traditions.
There is a distinction between the acoustic and cognitive sides of language. The former would account for the sound production of any language. The latter would include the experiences which shape someone's mind, close-up ones like food and other people's bodies, more remote ones like landscape and the material and lay-out of buildings, social interaction, work. I suspect that human psychological structure depends on the latter; so that a switch of language is not profoundly important, since any language can be used to express any experiences. It is not a difference of language that makes Highlanders different from Londoners. However, this proposes fundamental problems for the transmission of poetry; how can someone from London, or Birmingham, understand poetry from Lewis or Skye, where the objects of everyday life, the economic structure, the whole way of life, are entirely different? Not every English speaker shares the same cognitive structures. Printing records and transmits the sound shape of poems, not their meaning. The very otherness which makes the idea of regional literature tempting, as a kind of exoticism, makes it unattractive, because hard to assimilate.
By culture I mean a set of literary conventions which are separate from both sound organization and from cognitive structures, although they are not independent from either of them. I would posit four strands of provincial culture.
1. archaic Celtic tradition. This would account for heroic poetry in Wales, the bardic tradition in Ireland, and so forth.
2. folk literature. This is much less distinctively 'Celtic', much more common European, than (1), because such tales are easily memorized and translated or transported; which would not apply to difficult poetry. But it has the advantage of having survived into the 20th C.
3. the Christian culture; in many forms. It is important to realise that the 19th and 20th C popular culture of all three Celtic countries was really this, and not some bardic heritage.
4. imitation of Classical cultures, for example Latin or French.
This leaves out the English influence, and the whole area of post-Romantic literature, realism for example; but perhaps these are sufficiently obvious (and non-Celtic) for us to ignore them.
Celtic writers are often criticised for lack of rootedness; in practice this means pursuing styles which aren't soundly based in (2) or (3). There is an interesting article by John MacInnes relating MacLean's style to the style of Gaelic Calvinist preaching; I can't judge this because I don't know any Gaelic. In fact, the writer who tries to develop a modern and personal style will face the loss of the local nationalist support, and a huge lonely strain; while anything archaic appeals to group emotions; and this is the central problem of provincial literature. It's usual to refer to 'European' styles here, but I feel that this is misleading; there is no orthodoxy in modern literature, so it can hardly be a model; and the looked-for style would be original, not some rainy imitation of Sartre or Pasternak (or whoever you care to pick). In fact the provincial writer who is borrowing the plumage of some Grand Master is one of the most depressing sights of the contemporary scene. Now that we are in the 'Europe of the regions' it is clear that Europe is all regions, there is no centre; no place is more culturally privileged than any other.
So far as I can find out, Welsh poetry has done very much better than Scottish Gaelic poetry in the last century (and possibly in the 19th C too). The most probable reason is that in the 18th C the Welsh Protestant clergy seized on print as a way of spreading the Word to the faithful, in Welsh; whereas in Scotland the clergy were wholly anti-Gaelic (and were, as a matter of fact, anti-Scots), until the late 19th century. Consequently, the enthusiasm of the Welsh for their native poetry and culture was translated, as the professional bards of the aristocracy disappeared, into mass literacy and the habit of intense reading in Welsh. Welsh piety never conflicted with Welsh literature or the Welsh language. It's true that there is no equivalent in recent Welsh folklore to the Fenian and mythological tales which were so abundant in 19th C Scotland; in fact, Welsh folklore is rather arid.
British radicalism, in poetry as in politics, has drawn much of its personnel and ideas from the Highlands, or adjacent regions, and from Ireland. In those Atlantic provinces, the ideas of capitalism, of rule from Westminster, of loyalty to a shared British enterprise which was basically fair and successful, were rejected by entire communities. If everyone had a job who wanted one, the idea of rejection wouldn't be so emotive today. When someone speaks of the Centre, we also have to understand by that word, sometimes, the central body of opinions - about the sanctity of property, the undesirability of state intervention, the benevolence of the corporation, the goodness of the great, the desirability of things as they are now - which upholds the social order. Even if only a minority seriously oppose these, outside the storms of youth and the occasional access of rage, that minority has included a remarkable number of poets. If you maintain these opinions, you presumably do accept that they will bring disasters, as they have in the past, and as they are doing now. Property is a collective verbal fiction, from which individuals with the power of speech always have the possibility of withdrawing their consent. The linguistic field of the poetry we are describing contains the different effects of political opposition, phonetic diversity, and cognitive economic bases, as material traces in the verbal fabric. Their distribution map reflects diversity from the behavioural norms of the metropolitan regions, where the population of the island is thickly concentrated. More elusive is the reaction to stylistic devices which are excluded, or mis-used, because they are associated with loyalty to the central authorities, as innovations reach outlying regions in the wrapping of imports from the centre. The political failure of minority parties, in a system where the winning party at Westminster decides everything, leaves their adherents at a certain distance away from reality, and puts stress on language, because negation in the symbolic domain has become the residual act of righteousness. So poetry is drawn into gestures of defiance and pride. Part of the appeal of avant garde forms may be the wish not to give countenance to the chains of legitimation and webs of validation of the prevailing social system. For the reader, what is not being said may add up to zero.
It is irrational to describe these cultural areas without also describing what they are different from, i.e. the South-east and Midland 'core'; assumed to be neutral, the norm, and the future. I don't have space for any description; what I will say is that the mainstream of innovation has not originated in England, even though it has reached England before (say) Caithness, Man, and Munster. It would be especially unfortunate to describe the features of modern poetry as 'English', when after all most of them came from France. The same applies to painting, couture, music, cuisine, intellectual fashions, and business practice. It's not up to me to decide whether these innovations are good on the whole; I would rather draw attention to a proposed rival system of change and innovation, summed up by the radical politics of nationalists and Left socialists. In the long term, these Celtic nationalisms might prove reactionary: in the short term, their success would throw everything up in the air. They are radical because their claims are incompatible with the existing power structure. Their system is in competition with the kind of changes proposed by the bosses of multinational corporations, including the ones whose trade is culture and the media. Specialisation in a global economy could, after all, eliminate north-west European artists altogether, offering the population of that region only videos, video games, rock music, magazines, and TV programmes, all imported. This insecurity is common to all other trades than art in Atlantic Britain: a region in crisis. In office, the nationalists' main policy problem would be how to behave towards mobile capital and its great corporations; how could they simultaneously satisfy popular claims for prosperity, nature conservation, and the preservation of traditional lifestyles? Is there any meaningful anti-corporate political approach except socialism?
It may be surprising that I have dug into 18th and 19th century history to write a book about modern poetry. However, it proved impossible to explain anything about political poets without bringing in the social and economic background. I have not discussed events like the 1745 Rising, the Famine of the 1840s, and the Land Wars of the 1880s, which are also of great importance to Highland poets.
The Clearances were the eviction of smallholders, too poor to pay more than a miserable rent, from Highland estates, mainly in order to turn the latter over to sheep, which could be sold for export to yield a high income. According to Prebble, there were two main periods of Clearances: 1782-1820 and 1840-54. He quotes Donald Ross, an eye-witness of the 1852 Clearance of the Macdonell estate in Knoydart: "As far as the eye could see the face of the strath had its black spots, where the houses of the crofters were either levelled or burnt, the blackened rafters lying scattered on the grass, the couple-trees cut through the middle and thrown far away, the walls broken down, the thatch and cabers [crucks] mixed together, but the voice of man was gone." Betsy MacKay recalled the 1813 evictions at Skail, Strathnaver, Sutherland, so: "Our family was very reluctant to leave and stayed for some time, but the burning party came round and set fire to our house at both ends, reducing to ashes whatever remained within the walls. The people had to escape for their lives, some of them losing all their clothes except what they had on their backs. The people were told they could go where they liked, provided they did not encumber the land that was by rights their own." It is fitting that these events be recounted in their full human dimensions, and this is a task that great poets should be able to carry out. The exceptional scale of the oppression during sixty years of Highland history made for an exceptional political awareness and collective understanding of the social order. In the county of Sutherland, no-one would volunteer for the Crimean War, because, as they put it in an address to the newspapers, "We have no country to fight for, as our glens and straths are laid desolate, and we have no wives or children to defend as we are forbidden to have them. We are not allowed to marry without the consent of the factor, the ground officer being always ready to report every case of marriage, and the result would be banishment from the county. Our lands have been taken from us and given to sheep farmers, and we are denied any portion of them, and when we apply for such, or even a site for a house, we are told that we should leave the country. For these wrongs and oppressions, as well as for others which we have long and patiently endured, we are resolved that there shall be no volunteers or recruits from Sutherlandshire." (quoted from Prebble.)
Some may deny, what seems obvious to me, that the notion of property follows from a speech act. Legally provable rights are based on documents, i.e. speech acts in written forms; they inevitably go back, if pursued up time, to initial speech acts. Royal authority, or its delegate, gave any piece of land to an owner, and those around gave their assent, in a weaker speech act, either by witnessing the transfer, as in charters, or simply by acknowledging royal authority. The attachment of the Highlanders to the land was without bounds, and history or anthropology have no example to show of an attachment that was more unconscious and emotionally deep. Yet this bond was broken by the signing of a lease, at a meeting to which they were not admitted, and in return for sums of money which did not pass to them. It would have been much simpler to wipe out the landowning class of the Highlands, depriving them of their property rights, than to deprive the Highlanders of their customary rights, with such loss of life. Extreme and ruinous legal acts justify extremist politics to mend the fictional and arbitrary basis of law.
The basic factor in the Highlands is poverty. 'As in other parts of Europe's fragmented north-western fringe the land itself is poor and could not, one might justifiably think, be more unsuited to its task of maintaining a smallholding population. From the bare rocky hills of Skye and Harris to the undulating peat bogs of Lewis or the loch-bespattered surface of North Uist the dominating impression is one of infertility. Only in a few areas (...) are there any trees worthy of the name. (...) The most fertile croft cannot escape the frequent rain and gales that are a consequence of the north-west Highlands' proximity to the Atlantic depressions that track incessantly north-eastwards between Scotland and Iceland...' (James Hunter, Making of the Crofting Community, describing the crofting counties). "It must be stressed that the gentry of the Highlands [in the late 18th century, AD] were entirely dependent upon agricultural earnings from their land, and of this only a small proportion was suitable for agriculture and even that was mainly of poor quality, often inaccessible, and subject to a severe and unpredictable climate. Under a primitive method of agriculture the extent to which cattle could be raised was the main source of income. (...) The surplus available for payment of rent from what was almost entirely subsistence farming was small even in the good years." (Grant and Cheape, Periods in Highland History.) Because of the thinness of the soil, the impossibility of feeding aggregations or specialists, the population was dispersed. Youngson suggests that, in 1745, there were no villages in the Highlands and Islands: villages were the fast track towards urbanization, the lack of compact markets meant underdevelopment of specialist technical skills and institutions, making it difficult to compete with the Lowlands, or with England, in entering the new world of commerce and industry. Underdevelopment is the key concept, and goes along with political marginalization. The Highland counties contained about 15% of the total population of Scotland in 1801, about 5% in 1939. The ratio of the Scots population to the total British has also gone down. The relative backwardness of the Highlands was accentuated in recent times compared, for example, to what it was in 1500 or 100 AD. Agriculture there has not become more intensive because the soil and climate do not lend themselves to such methods. Net depopulation began in the mid-nineteenth century, the population has decreased from 471,000 in 1841 to about 250,000 now. Ennew records the population of the Western Isles dropping by 16% between 1951 and 1971.
Highland history tends to become telescoped, stripped of details, and reduced to what is moral or heroic. This process of underdevelopment tells us that it was those defeated at Culloden who were evicted; that the old-style native aristocracy were deprived of their power; that there was a Westminster policy against the Highlanders; that the population of the Highlands declined after 1745. None of these is true. Nor is it true that the whole country was evicted; I have been unable to determine what proportion of the Highland population suffered eviction, or disastrous loss of grazing rights, but the whole process happened an estate at a time, rather than country-wide. Prebble states that, in the first period of Clearing, 'from one half to two-thirds of the Highland people in Caithness, Sutherland, Ross and Inverness had been uprooted and dispersed'; this excludes the counties of Argyll and Perth, but the number of people affected would have been, on this showing, between 100,000 and 200,000. But the population of the whole Highlands increased from 337,000 (estimated) in 1755 to 381,576 in 1801, and 472,487 in 1841: the clearance of tenants is a response to the drop in average income caused by population increase. The net decrease in Highlands population did not begin until almost the end of the Clearances. A number of contemporary observers warned that the Highlands might reach their carrying capacity, a point where everyone was equally poor, there was no spare land at all, and no purchasing resources with which to develop agriculture and stave off starvation. This state had, after all, been reached in large parts of Ireland. It might, indeed, have been reasonable to accept the throng of people as a primary fact, and the desire for cash rents as secondary and artificial. The threat of famine hardly argues for the introduction of sheep, raising the cash value of the land but decreasing its calory yield and the purchasing power of those most likely to perish by starvation. Indeed, the victims of the Famine of the 1840s (when charity preserved the land from demographic catastrophe, but nonetheless people starved to death) would no doubt have been fewer if so much land had not been taken away from subsistence farming and given over to fattening sheep for export. What is farming for if not for human subsistence? If there was dying to be done, it was the aristocracy who could most easily be spared from the working of the land, and whose status gave them a natural claim to precedence. But it was the sanctity of property which made a fair solution impossible. A good number recognized this and saw then that property was artificial and not sacrosanct.
One of the anomalies of folk memory is that some events loom very large and others are totally forgotten. By this process the Clearances are regarded as an attack on Celticism, rather than as an example of the dynamic quality of the Celts, their ability to modernize ruthlessly and to discard obsolete social structures. The Clearances were a reaction to outside forces, but they were the conscious self-aggrandizing action of the Highland aristocracy - the holders of traditional authority and the patrons of specialized artists who preserved the legends of the past. Indeed, the alternative view of the events (as Youngson points out) is that they were an attempt to develop the Highlands, and prevent the region from reaching a terminal state of overpopulation and subdivision of holdings. Smout draws a picture in which the need for cash derived from the indebtedness of various landed families; trustees cleared out crofters to maximise cash income in order to pay off debts and prevent the lands from vanishing into the hands of the moneylenders. The trustees (who were in fact Scottish businessmen) acted to preserve family holdings, and the traditional order, albeit only for a few families. The historian may well reflect that a sell-off would have put the land in the hands of a class of local small farmers, and that the latifundia were not ideal from the point of view of progressive farming. England was involved to the extent that the debts were partly run up by high living in London; and that in the old order of Celtic society no such expropriation could have taken place: the unlimited property rights of the spendthrift lairds were guaranteed by Scottish law, but the Scottish monarchy had never been strong enough to reduce the Highlands to law and order, which is why the chiefs up till 1745 saw their strength in the numbers of their fighting men, and so wanted more tenants. I believe that in the archaic state of Celtic politics it would have been impossible for some laird to alienate the land to any outsider, since he would have been assassinated off and replaced by some more competent and popular relative. It was Scottish law-courts which froze ownership in place, and Scottish local government which sent troops in to protect property rights against the assembled tenantry. Property rights caused the whole disaster - and our modern polity has done nothing to curb these or move on to some new understanding of justice and power. MacLean's poems about the Clearances have a tremendous sweep because he saw them as arguments from the past to support his politics of the present, namely communism.
The story of the crofters and British politics is that the crofters were enfranchised by national legislation in 1884. The Highland Land Law Reform Association, dedicated to the interest of small tenants, then won four parliamentary seats in the 1885 General Election. "The obvious mass support which they enjoyed in the North and West helped to push the legislation of the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act of 1886 through Parliament. This made a complete break with the classical nineteenth century ideas of laissez-faire and the sanctity of property. The government had now assumed oversight of the crofters." (Grant and Cheape.) The Act gave security of tenure and the right of heirs to succeed to tenancies. There were still many landless people; measures were also taken to transfer large farms to small farmers: "Between about 1896 and 1924 almost all the land of the big farms was restored to crofting tenure." Emigration continued; the crofts were simply not susceptible of improvements which would make them yield incomes comparable to lowland northwest Europe. (This suggests an analogy with other stranded peasant groups in the 'backward' regions in Ireland, Portugal, France, Wales, and in fact every mountainous region in the whole area.) The 'indirect rule' of Scotland from Westminster by alliance with Scottish magnates was the cover which made the Clearances possible; that system was crumbling and has since been replaced in every way. The crofters got the vote and the lairds lost their political pull. A completely new Scottish political class replaced them, and this from the second half of the last century, as quickly as the Liberal Party managed to reach the new electorate. These were great achievements. There are urgent political and economic issues facing the Scottish people, who are in fact 50 times as numerous as the Gaelic speakers.
The main wealth of the West of Scotland is in the sea, with its potential for trade, fishing, and shipping, giving the possibility of urbanisation wherever there was a good harbour. If we take the broadest historical view, we will see that the West was stunningly successful here, and reared up the great metropolis of Glasgow, whose population included very large shares of Irish and Highlanders along with recruits from the Scots-speaking counties. This great wealth grew in the region during the period of union with England, and as a direct result of the British Empire. We need to see the lack of urbanisation and prosperity in much of the West, and in the North and North-east, in this perspective.
A related crime image is that Scotland was deliberately done down by the English in the Industrial Revolution and, in fact, in every phase since then. The objective part of this is that Scottish income and living standards are lower than the aggregate English figure. Checking the figures suggests that the causes are molecular - i.e. that Scotland is relatively farther away from the markets, in Southern England and in Western Europe, and is geographically less able to sell to the rich inner core of Europe (which undoubtedly does exist). The crime has to be tested against a good theory of peripheries, and of sparsely settled tracts of land. The internal differences within Scotland between the Central Lowlands and all other parts should surely alert us to these core:periphery dynamics. The coincidence between backwardness and minority languages is not a function of the treachery of metropolitan areas, but of the influence of communications: standard languages spread along the same quick routes which allow trade and industry to flourish. In the pre-modern order of Europe, every region spoke a broad dialect and was largely autarkic and possessed a subsistence economy. One finds staggeringly deviant and 'broad' dialects or local languages in virtually every mountain area of Europe.
The psychological trauma of the Gaels is partly a regret that modernisation was not more effective and partly a lament for lost autarky. "The life of the glen people was a living whole, for it revolved about its own axis and its centre was within itself; the mind could consider it in isolation from adjacent regions and see it satisfyingly, as unity. But given over to sheep and shepherding the district would be meaningless by itself, its centre would lie outside it far away in the woolmarkets and factories of the south; it would decline at once from an intelligible whole and become no more than an insignificant and not even necessary point on the circumference of a life centred elsewhere." (Fionn Mac Colla, And the Cock Crew).
"had the community retained, as it had in Gaelic, a language of immense strength and resources potentially equal to any other, and of unsurpassed mellifluence... then the community of Albannaich instead of falling to the condition of 'the greatest cultural desert in Europe', would necessarily have developed into a veritable oasis of unexcelled fertility and of vast extent in the area of the human spirit." (Fionn Mac Colla, At the sign of the clenched fist; this is a cultural manifesto) (Albannaich are the Highlanders, the inhabitants of Alba.)
These passages from the Highland novelist Fionn Mac Colla, overblown and nationalistic though they are, reveal the sense of loss of the modern Celt, and also the state of autarky which obtained, in pre-modern times, in the remote mountain areas where Welsh and Scottish Gaelic survived. This autarky also, paradoxically, puts an author in a commanding position: society is visible, comprehensible, and all its members are intensely conscious of a belonging together which a skilled author, by mastery of language and shared memory, can exploit. The individual is explicable because you can see what he is thinking about and encompassing. None of this applies to a society where trade, numbers, and the division of labour, make work and exchange more opaque. The besetting temptation of writers, from the mountain areas, is to write about this sense of community where it no longer exists.
These close communities, confined by mountains, were much smaller than the borders of the language; unity at that level has been conjured up out of the morning mists. The most sensitive question that can be asked of a modern Welshman, Highlander, etc., is 'How Celtic are you?' Part of this is bad faith in failing to assimilate, psychologically and artistically, the real Celtic (or northwest-European) society of the twentieth century. But part of it is a legitimate greed in wishing to appropriate the past, even when this can only occur through fantasy and antiquarian curiosity. Because our life is a long run, it is reasonable to listen to the old, and to retrieve the long runs of the past. My understanding of the Ossian affair is, not that James MacPherson betrayed everyone by faking old Gaelic poems, but that he adapted real Gaelic poems with such vision that they became readable, in printed form and to people outside the Highlands, and this was the feat which should have inspired every Celtic artist born since; but this feat was condemned, and written out of the memory of the literary public.
Poetry does not need to be read by foreigners; but my account of these matters is not written in Gaelic or Welsh. The commodification of poets and thinkers as goods laid out for English visitors to pick over, disparage, and graciously purchase, may be shocking for Celts. Faced with the long-term decline of Welsh and Gaelic, the poverty which has marked Scottish and Welsh societies so deeply, and the long-term material problems of poets in minority languages, and regional poets, I would be unable to bear the knowledge that I had criticized this poetry unfairly. What is sold to tourists, must tend to become kitsch; the intelligentsia of nationalities which are in long-term decline and domination become angry and sensitive to slights. Feelings like these are at the core of the centre versus periphery controversy. All the same, my plan of praise cannot work without the critical approach which makes my praise credible; and I feel that these literatures stand to benefit from debate uncompromised by allegiance.
This was part of 'Centre-Periphery' until 1997, when I was told to cut a script of 130,000 words to 100,000 and to add a whole lot of things too. So out it went. I was so enthusiastic about the history of the Celtic realms, it shook me to realise that I could take all that out and I didn't collapse. Perhaps because this was so personal to me, publication wasn't important once I had written it down. The whole book evolved constantly away from politics and history, and towards poetry exclusively.
The genuine phrase is 'core and periphery' but that is about economics so I changed it to 'centre' because I was writing about culture and the rules are different. You can't just lump poetry in with core-periphery theory (important as it is). The phrase was coined by a marxist geographer named Friedmann.
There is a major gap between the time covered in this piece and the mid-20th century. The old classical poetry is not the direct background for Welsh and Scottish poets in the period 1930 to 1980 (let's say), but only a sort of 'echeloned background'. MacPherson was picking up something which was crumbling very rapidly in the 1760s. A key part of the history of the periphery is radical Protestantism, and this is covered in another chapter cut from the book, published however at www.pinko.org.