Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Skellig MichaelWhiskey, Rain, and Identity

Alistair Moffat, The Sea Peoples: the History of Celtic Britain and Ireland. London: HarperCollins, 2002.

Reviewed by John Bedell

“This is a history,” Alistair Moffat tells us, “of whispers and forgetfulness, a story of how the memories and understandings of the Celtic peoples of Britain and Ireland almost faded into inconsequence.” Right away Moffat impresses us with the beauty of his language, the power of his love for his homeland, and the imprecision of his thinking. What is a history of forgetfulness, anyway? But it is a lovely phrase and it serves as well as any other to introduce Moffat’s delightful and unusual little book. Not really a history, The Sea Peoples might be better described as an exploration across time and space. Moffat wanders the Celtic lands of Britain and Ireland, especially Wales, Cornwall, the Hebrides, and the Isle of Man, talking to people, describing what he sees, and relating the odd historical anecdote. The historical stories come without concern for chronology, touching on whatever catches Moffat’s interest. We get a little on the pre-Roman Britons and the pagan Irish, a little more on medieval monks, a nice chapter on the arrival of the Vikings and the formation of the half Scottish, half Viking Kingdom of the Isles, and a fair amount on the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. The stories are fascinating and Moffat tells them well. I learned much, especially about the revival of the Welsh language in the nineteenth century, based on dissenting chapels and hymn singing, and the history of the Scottish borders. I enjoyed almost every page, and I heartily recommend Moffat’s book.

Moffat occasionally goes in for what strikes me as excessive anti-English ranting, but without ever lying or exaggerating – given how many horrible things the English have done to the Welsh and the Irish, he hardly has to – and he also describes a few of the atrocities the Welsh and Irish have inflicted in return. He dwells in particular on the many ways lowland Scots brutalized their highland countrymen, and King James VI and I is one of the story’s worst villains. Among other sundry oppressions he punished a few rebellious clans by banning their surnames. It became a capital crime to use the name MacGregor, and several MacGregors were executed for the offense of going by their own name. Mainly, though, Moffat celebrates the land and people of Britain’s western shores. He visits a builder of traditional Irish boats, hikes the Welsh mountains while reliving the struggle against Edward I, peruses ancient crosses on the Isle of Man. He goes to Padstow to see the famous ‘Obby ‘Oss, where drunk Cornishmen tell him to get the fuck out of their town. Moffat, not the least daunted, regards this behavior as typically Celtic, and he seems pleased that the Padstow men are determined to keep their ancient festival their own.

Moffat is himself a lowland Scot with roots in the border country, and he makes his living as a producer for Scottish television. By way of a midlife crisis he has thrown himelf into Celtic nationalism, learning Gaelic and producing a series of documentaries about the Celtic lands. The book is, as I said, delightful, but I find this sort of small-country nationalism to be a deeply puzzling thing. Alistair Moffat is a citizen of the world, a resident of multi-cultural metropolis, a master of high technology and contemporary art. What, exactly, is he doing in the Hebrides, mucking around in tweed and  learning a language that none of his ancestors spoke? (The Celtic element of border culture was Welsh, not Gaelic, as Moffat himself explains.) Why is he associating himself with a history of defeat and oppression, instead of celebrating the Scottish enlightenment or the charge of the Scots Greys at Waterloo? I don’t get it. I realize, though, that many of my fellow humans feel this sort of pull toward a small world that they can claim as their own. So I read books like Moffat’s with interest, and wonder what his obsession means.

What, exactly, is Celtic about the western fringe of Britain? Moffat devotes a lot of attention to language, and learning Gaelic has been part of his personal quest. But, as he explains, Gaelic is dying out, and he believes Irish is not far behind it on the road to extinction. Moffat spends a lot of time in Cornwall and on the Isle of Man, where the ancient languages have no more native speakers and are maintained only by a few hobbyists. Only in Wales, he says, does the native language have real strength. So while Celtic is a linguistic term, it is hard to see how language defines the culture of the region. There is history, to be sure, but what do these regions have in common historically but opposition to, and oppression by, English-speaking lowlanders? Moffat has a go at defining a Celtic view of the world, but the only things he comes up with are a love of heavy drinking, a delight in music, a fondness for flowery oratory, a tolerance for bland food, and greater-than-normal interest in sex. On such things we found our personal identities. Over them we fight wars and stage revolutions.

Everything else Moffat finds to say about “Celtic” culture seems to me to be more about pre-modern, peasant culture than anything particularly Celtic. Take, for example, Moffat’s words on how the Celts measured time:

The Celtic way of reckoning time was very different from our modern method of dividing the year into months, days, and hours. The Celtic year was arranged around four quarter-day festivals which took their cue not from the date on the calendar, but from the weather, the landscape and the behavior of animals.” (31)

Which is pretty much the way everyone in pre-modern Europe reckoned time. All Moffat says about how much the Celts love the landscape of their homes, how strongly they have clung to their tiny farms in the face of huge pressure to leave, how deeply they distrust city-based power, and so on, applies equally well to peasants just about everywhere else in the world. I often observe this about nationalists of various kinds. When pressed to name the special characteristics of their homelands, they can do no better than to describe humanity. Small country nationalism is an assertion of difference. I am not like everyone else, says the proud Welshman, Breton, Basque, or Quebecois. But the differences they point to strike me as insignificant, especially compared to the gulf that separates a modern man like Moffat from any of his ancestors born before 1850. In what sense is Alistair Moffat more like Owen Glendower than he is like me?

I think the interest of modern metropolitans in the rural nations of their ancestors grows out of dissatisfaction with the lives we live. Even for successful tv producers, the planet-wide sameness of modern society, the sterility of air-conditioned towers that separate us from the soil and the weather, and the pointlessness of so much that we do batter our souls and full us with emptiness. We are safe from disease and hunger, even tooth pain, but instead of contentment we feel loss. Surrounded by people, we feel alone. We have trouble feeling that any of the greatness around us is our own. We are strangers in the metropolis and our most pressing question is, who am I? The response of many people is to turn their backs on the broader world and immerse themselves in something small. The very smallness of these identities, their hopelessness backwardness, their legacies of defeats and conquests, makes them beacons of meaning in a world that values only celebrity and success. I am a Celt, Alistiar Moffat says to the mirror, and this answer gives him a place to stand amidst the whirl of post-industrial civilization. It is not place I can belong to, or much want to belong to, but his marvelous book gives an outsider some idea of why so many people place their hearts in this quasi-imaginary land.

October 24, 2009

From the 
Commonplace Book

We will take heart for the future, remembering the past.

-T.S. Elliott


Commonplace Book
On the Dead
About us



The Lunar Men

White Mughals


Justinian and the Fall of Rome

The Indus Civilization

Syphilis at Jamestown?

The Archaeology of the Soul

The Mississippians

Archaeology Books

The Sea Peoples

The Lucifer Principle

Piracy and Life


Misremembering the Civil War

The Midnight Ride

Easter Island

Why the Fires

The Forty-nine Steps

Standards of Learning

The Taliban and the Statues

The Ruin of Kasch

The Cellar Hole

Keatley Creek and the Meaning of Time