Where is Luke Skywalker?

That’s the burning question Star Wars fans want to know and the quest the gets the ball rolling (literally) in The Force Awakens. The Jedi Master is AWOL and the galaxy means to find him. But before we get to the big reveal, if you saw the movie, did you catch the two nods to ancient Ireland? If you haven’t seen the movie yet – spoiler alert! One reference is a small thing but a rather interesting faux pas. The other has huge plot potential, although I doubt the writers will take advantage of it. Know what I’m talking about?

Here’s the first nod to Ireland: when the writers selected the name Finn for stormtrooper FN-2187, who’s turned from the dark side to help the good guys, either actor John Boyega wasn’t cast at that point, or they wanted to give Irish geeks a chuckle. Finn is an extremely ancient Irish name, derived from the Celtic god Vindos, and means “fair, bright white, light-hued.” Actor John Boyega obviously doesn’t fit this description, but perhaps the name is in reference to the stormtrooper uniform or the fact that the character turns from the dark side to the light. There also might be some interesting social commentary going on there, but that topic is for someone else’s blog.

Finn mac Cumaill is the most famous person – the legendary hero of the Finn Cycle – to bear this name. Other finn- names from iron-age Ireland include Finnabair (“white ghost, sprite”), Finnbarr (“fair-haired”), Finnchad (“fair battler”), Finncháem (“fair, beautiful”), Finnchnes (“fair-skinned”), Finnchú (“fair-hound”), Finnétan (“fair brow”), Finnguala (“fair shouldered”), Finnat (“fair, blonde lady”), Finnsech (“fair lady, blonde girl), and Fintan (“the white ancient” or “the white fire”). (Ó Corráin & Maguire, 1981, pp. 100-104).

Since pilot Poe Dameron comes up with the nick-name Finn from the stormtrooper’s serial number, which is in turn a reference to the cell Princess Leia was locked up in in Star Wars: Episode IV, Finn=white is probably just a big coincidence. Still, it’s interesting.

But what’s more interesting is where Luke Skywalker is found…on Skellig Michael, a remote island off the coast of County Kerry. If you’re from Ireland, been to Ireland, or know anything about Ireland, you recognize the steep lonely crag immediately. As soon as the steps and clochans (beehive huts) showed up on screen, I knew where we were. There’s no other place like it in the world AND it’s the first place a hermit would go! The island is famous for the monastery founded there as early as the sixth century AD. You can read more about it here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skellig_Michael.

For Luke’s dramatic appearance, the panoramic view from the island was undoubtedly green-screened with more islands added for an otherworldly, almost Avatarish landscape. Skellig Michel is quite a lonely place.

The island will feature in Star Wars: Episode VIII, but sadly it won’t be the real thing. Instead, we’ll see Mark Hamill on a soundstage. Shooting on the island came to a grinding halt to protect migrating birds. Of course, being a Star Wars fan since age ten, I would love it if the writers brought Earth into the Star Wars universe and made Luke really be on Skellig Michael. Better yet…sixth-century Skellig Michael! He looks like he belongs there.

May the craic be with you!


Ó Corráin, D. & Maguire, F. (1981). Gaelic personal names. Dublin: The Academy Press.

Posted in Archaeology, Language, Mythology, Religion | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bard: Rock Star of Gaelic Ireland

One of the things I enjoy doing every Sunday afternoon is listening to Into the 70s on WGHN – five hours of happy memories. As a kid, growing up in the dead coal-mining town of Export, PA in the 1970s, I was attached at the hip to the radio. My trusty transistor went everywhere – to Barbietown in the playroom, to the fort out back, and anywhere in between. In the process I learned about life in the words of over 5,000 pop/rock songs, which I can still regurgitate some 40 years later.

Last Sunday Larry James played a favorite of mine by Bread, Guitar Man:

He can make you love, he can make you cry.

He will bring you down and he’ll get you high.

Something keeps him going miles and miles a day,

To find another place to play. (Gates, 1974)


It sent a shiver up my spine because I could instantly see a parallel running back to the bards of Ireland. They were talented poets and harpers and led lives of great privilege and honor for close to a thousand years, if not longer. They were the “rock stars” of the Gaelic past.

Today when we think of a bard, we might conjure up images of a poet or singer of tale and legend. The bards of ancient Ireland, however, were far more than that. Wright reveals a broader picture with his description, dividing the bards into three distinct branches: the filidh, whose function it was to compose and recite odes and elegies; the breitheamhain (brehons), who recited the ancient laws and acted as official judges; and the seanachidhe, who were historians and genealogists. Sanger and Kinnaird (1992) paint a slightly different picture of the Irish bardic class at a later period in time, dividing it into filidh, reacairí, and harpers. “In the ancient schools of Irish poetry, the classic arrangement was that the fili, highly trained and highly respected, composed the poetry but did not perform it. It would instead be chanted or recited by a reacaire, to accompaniment of a harper” (p. 36).

But all this composing and performing of poetry – recited, chanted, and sung – was not for mere entertainment value, although poetry, legends and music were certainly a feature at royal and lordly feasts (and I’m sure the bards made more than a few girls swoon).  The harp, after all, was considered to be an instrument of magic since its music could deeply affect the emotions. Every bard was expected to master the three noble strains: goltraí (bitter strain) – used for funerals and other sad occasions; geantraí (joy strain) – used for feasts and merrymaking; suantraí (sleep strain) – used for healing, trances or lulling a perturbed king to sleep. But the bards also performed an important political function: they delivered the poetry of praise and blame.

The ancient Irish believed that a king was “wed” to the land (even in Christian times). Thus, if the ruler was moral and just, the land was fertile; if he was corrupt, the land grew barren. It was the duty of the bard to express the favor or disfavor of the land with the reign of the king. The bards accomplished this through praise and satire. “Satire,” says Carney, “is a religious sanction and represents the means which the pagan ‘church’ used in order to exercise power over the state. If a [bard] satirises a prince he is in effect telling him that the forces of nature, with which he, the [bard], is in communion, are not satisfied: the result of the satire is an injury to the king’s honour….The converse of this necessarily holds: when a poet praises a king he is assuring him that the powers of nature find him pleasing and that the marriage is going well (1985, p. 111). Satire, it was thought, would raise boils and blemishes on a person’s face – which isn’t so hard to believe. The stress of public ridicule might cause a flare up of acne (just ask any teenager).

Words were considered so sacred that they were forbidden to be written down. With the power to glorify or condemn a king with mere words, it’s obvious that the bards were well respected and even feared. So much so that by 575 AD at the convention of kings at Druim Ceatt, the bards were threatened with exile. “The order of the bards had long held the status of poet-chroniclers of kings and time-honoured guardians of tradition. Their ancient stature had fallen under an ever darker shadow, in consequence of its druidic associations, in Ireland’s early Christian centuries. The response of the bards was to demand ever greater privileges for their order until, on some three historical occasions, they were threatened with expulsion from Ireland….It was [St.] Columba who spoke in the cause of the filidh. His eloquent defense preserved the bards from expulsion, and in gratitude for his advocacy twelve hundred bards are said to have risen as one to sing verses in his praise” (Marsden, 1995, p. 49).

During the Middle Ages as Irish society was influenced by the Church and the nobility became literate, the bards continued to lose their status until they became mere entertainers (harpers). Norman and English disruption of the Gaelic world further lowered their value. Still, the English Crown feared their influence. Queen Elizabeth I is often quoted as having said, “Hang harpers, wherever found, and destroy their instruments.” While there’s no evidence she actually issued a decree to exterminate all the harpers – just for being harpers – there was an effort to control their influence. What she did issue was an edict to execute itinerant men, including vagabonds, beggars, harpers, and bards who could not produce papers to testify whose servant they were. The edict followed on the heels of a rebellion that resulted in the Battle on Kinsale in 1602.

Gaelic nobles who had long patronized the harpers were either killed or exiled, and the harpers eked out a living wherever they could. The harp became a symbol of Irish rebellion and harpers were forbidden to congregate. As itinerants, they were the primary source of news. The English felt that the harpers stirred Irish blood with their music and song.

They still do to this day.


Then the lights begin to flicker and the sound is getting dim.

The voice begins to falter and the crowds are getting thin,

But he never seems to notice – he’s just got to find another place to play.

Fade away…got to play…. (Gates, 1974)


To find out what it took to be a bard, check out this previous post:



  • Carney, J. (1985). Medieval Irish lyrics, selected and translated with The Irish bardic poet: A study in the relationship of poet and patron. Mountrath, Ireland: Dolmen Press.
  • Gates, D. (1974). Guitar man. Kipahulu Music, ASCAP.
  • Marsden, J. (1995). The illustrated life of Columba. Edinburgh, Scotland: Floris Books.
  • Sanger, K. & Kinnaird, A. (1992). Tree of strings: A history of the harp in Scotland. Temple, Scotland: Kinmore Music.
  • Wright, D. (1974). Druidism: The ancient faith of Britain. Totowa, NJ: Rowan & Littlefield.
Posted in History, Language, Music, People, Politics, Religion | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

From Mighty Oaks

No matter where you go in the world this time of year, the climate is lovely, moderated from the extremes. Even the arctic tundra is awakening and returning to life.  Spring cleaning is done and garden beds are being prepped for the growing season in northern climes. Everywhere in West Michigan gardening is on the mind and oak trees are in the nose – or, at least their DNA is! Every year, I ask the same question: Why do I have to be allergic to oak pollen? What good does it do me or the oak tree? From an evolutionary standpoint, absolutely nothing. But it’s the preservation and propagation of this precious DNA that has spawned an international campaign to save the ancient forests of Ireland.

As the second installment in a series of posts on trees sacred to the Celtic peoples, we’ll consider the oak tree this time and the modern-day initiatives of Ireland’s Woodland League. Read the first post – on the ash tree – here.


One curious thing about the oak is that it is struck by lightning more often than any other species. Therefore, the Celts associated it with their thunder god Taranis. The oak was a common emblem of kings, because of its strength, and a symbol of a king’s hospitality and protection. It also served as a boundary marker and a gathering place for the tribe (Gifford, 2001, p. 67). It can be found in placenames such as Derry (dairbhre), meaning “oak plantation,” and Durrow (dairmag), “plain of the oaks.”

Oaks were valued not only for their dependable wood but also for their acorns, an important food supply for pigs. Pannage was the practice of measuring land according to the number of swine its oakwoods could feed (Gifford, 2001, p. 64).

The Irish law tracts mention three types of fencing, one of which was the dairime, which may have been a line of oak trees plashed. In this technique, the trees weren’t cut all the way through, so the branches may have lived and grown for a while, adding to the barrier (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 283).

The huge live oak in Raheen, near Scarriff, in County Clare was planted – legend has it – by the high king Brian Boru a thousand years ago. The tree is still producing acorns and thus valuable offspring. Trees such as this ancient specimen are essential for the recovery of Ireland’s native woodland. “Having been in the one place for 1,000 years, they have remarkable DNA, adapted to this biozone. Each native tree has developed unique relationships with insects, mammals, plants and fungi,” says Andrew St. Ledger of the Woodland League. “The authentic landscape of Ireland is western Atlantic temperate rainforest, dominated by oak….Our hills are covered with exotic confers that basically acidify the soil, don’t provide much of a haven for wildlife, and deny Irish people their cultural heritage….We are a forest people without a forest.” Today only about ten percent of Ireland is covered in forest and less than one present is primeval (Walsh, 2014). The Woodland League hopes to turn this around [see link below].

One of the rough meanings of Guoidel – the Old Welsh term for the Irish people, the Gaels (the modern Welsh word is Gwyddel) – is “forest people,” according to John T. Koch in his Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopedia. Guoidel apparently shares Proto-Indo-European linguistic ties with the Irish word Fianna, the ancient warbands who often lived in the woods. Interesting.

As for me, I’m still picking last year’s oak leaves out of the lavender beds. And since I can’t breathe now, I think I’ll admire Michigan’s native oaks from behind closed doors and closed windows!


Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.

Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.




Posted in Agriculture, Climate, Mythology, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

A Great Pestilence

For many months, it was prominently featured in the headlines. For many months, panic bubbled just beneath the surface. For many months the same word was echoed throughout the world in grave apprehension: Ebola. In the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, the same awe can be detected in the words of the Irish monk who recorded: “Aois Criost, cuicc céd ceathracha a trí. An cuigeadh bliandhain do Diarmait. Pláigh egsamhail choitcheann ar feadh na cruinne, gur sgrios an train bú airmhidnithe don chineadh daonna. The Age of Christ, 543. The fifth year of Diarmaid. There was an extraordinary universal plague through the world, which swept away the noblest third part of the human race.” (O’Donovan, 1966, p. 182-183).

Although Ireland was not touched by this deadly pandemic – unlike the more famous Black Death that swept through Europe in the 14th century – the Irish were well aware of the disaster coursing through mainland Britain. Irish raiders plundered the west coast of Britain, captured slaves and hostages, and set up colonies in southwest and northwest Wales and southwest Scotland. But during the 540s, they must have stayed clear of the major British population centers – the crumbling walled towns of sub-Roman Britain.

O’Donovan’s footnote in these annals states that “this plague, which was called by the Irish Blefed, is entered in the Annals of Ulster under the year 544, and in the Annals of Clonmacnoise under 546. In most chronological tales it is noticed under the year 543, as having passed from Africa into Europe.” (1966, p. 183).

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles make no mention of this instance of the bubonic plague which devastated the isle of Britain, and English textbooks – which tend to gloss over this period – also fail to note it. Yet noted Welsh historian John Davies points out, “Diau y gellir priodoli llwyddiant y Saeson ar ôl 550 yn rhannol i’r nychdod a drawodd y Brythoniaid o ganlyniad i’r pla. Tarddodd hwnnw yn yr Aifft yn 541, a chyraeddasai orllewin Prydain erbyn 549 pan fu farw Maelgwn Fawr ohono. Ymddengys na thrawyd y Saeson gan y pla, canys nid oedd ganddynt hwy, fel yr oedd gan y Brythoniaid, gysylltiadau uniongyrchol â glannau Môr y Canoldir. Credir bellach i bla 549 fod yn gymaint o ergydd â pla enwocach 1349. Trawodd yn arbennig – fel y gwnaeth y pla y mae awgrym amdano ganrif ynghynt – yr hyn oedd yn weddill o’r drefn Rufeinig. Os yw’r ddamcaniaeth fod y Saeson wedi ymatal rhag ymgartrefu yn yr hen ddinasoedd Rhufeinig yn gywir, dichon mai ofn y pla oedd y rheswn pennaf am hynny. (2007, p. 63) The success of the English after 550 may have resulted in part from the inability of the Britons to resist them because they had been enfeebled by the plague. The plague originated in Egypt in 541, it had reached western Britain by 549, when it carried off Maelgwn Fawr. It would appear that it did not attack the English, perhaps because they, unlike the Britons, lacked contacts with the shores of the Mediterranean. The plague of 549 is believed to have been as devastating as the more famous plague of 1349, and there is some evidence of an almost equally deadly pestilence a century earlier. Both scourges seem to have been particularly inimicable to what was left of the Roman order. If there is truth in the assertion that the English avoided the old Roman cities, the explanation may lie in fear of the plague.” (Davies, 2007, 66-67).

Had the plague not struck Britain twice between 400 and 600 AD, the history of the island may have taken a very different course. The various British kingdoms were by no means united against the growing Anglo-Saxon encroachment, but they were headed in that direction by the end of the sixth century. However, what Davies implies is that so much of the British fighting force, along with its leaders, had been decimated that many of the British kingdoms finally fell into disarray and succumbed to Anglo-Saxon takeover and assimilation, leaving the few struggling kingdoms of Wales the last and isolated bastion of resistance. Compared to the relatively quick takeover of Gaul by Germanic invaders after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Britons put up a darn good fight for over two centuries. Would they have been successful in turning back the Anglo-Saxon tide had it not been for the Black Death? If they had, one might hear Welsh spoken travelling between London and Glasgow today – assuming the Normans, Danes, and Vikings were equally repelled.

What really sends a little shiver up the spine is knowing that the bubonic plague is still out there…lurking. Just do a Google search for it and you can easily unearth gruesome images of modern-day plague victims. Like Ebola, it’s a terrifying disease and one not to be forgotten.

For even more creepy things to think about, check out the program The Monsters Inside Me on Animal Planet. But if you’re a hypochondriac, this is clearly not the show for you!


Davies, J. (2007). Hanes Cymru. New York: Penguin Books.

Davies, J. (2007). A History of Wales. New York: Penguin Books.

O’Donovan, J. (1966). Annala Rioghachta Eireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland, by the Four Masters,  from the Earliest Period to the Year 1616. New York: AMS Press, Inc.

Monsters Inside Me  http://www.animalplanet.com/tv-shows/monsters-inside-me/


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THE HOBBIT: What’s Welsh Got to Do with It?

Previously, I’ve posted about Ireland’s connection with one of the most-loved authors of our time – J.R.R. Tolkien. He had a special place in his heart for the Emerald Isle and was particularly drawn to the wilderland of The Burren. But there is another Celtic land which sparked Tolkien’s imagination – a land near to his own childhood home in the West Midlands of England. To Tolkien, Wales was a land which harbored a language that was both ancient and alive. The coal cars from Wales passing behind his house near the King’s Heath station bore names that fascinated him from an early age.

“So it came about that by pondering over Nantyglo, Senghenydd, Blaen-Rhondda, Penrhiwceiber, and Tredegar, he discovered the existence of the Welsh language. Later in childhood he went on a railway journey to Wales, and as the station names flashed past him he knew that here were words more appealing to him than any he had yet encountered….” (Carpenter, 1977, p. 26).

Before he penned The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien created the languages that were heard throughout Middle-earth. For him – a linguist – the languages were primary, the story an after-thought. In The Hobbit, which grew out of a series of tales he told his children and drew upon the fairy-tale tradition, he populated Middle-earth with hobbits, dwarves, men, and elves. “The Lord of the Rings was…a continuation of Tolkien’s search for a mythology for his Elvish language. ‘The invention of language is the foundation,’ he said. ‘The stories were made rather to provide a world for the language than the reverse.’ Tolkien once admitted that he had considered writing the entire book in Elvish, but much of the original Elvish was edited out. ‘Only as much language had been left in as I thought would be stomached by readers’” (Becker, 2012, p. 37).

Die-hard fans know that the Elves of Middle-earth speak Quenya – a language of nobility, high ritual, and wizards’ spells, inspired by Finnish – and Sindarin – a utilitarian Lingua Franca Tolkien based on Welsh. Although the Sindarin language never appears in the book The Hobbit, the Elves can be heard speaking it (accompanied by subtitles) in each of the three films by Peter Jackson.

For Tolkien, it was the sound of Welsh – a soft, supple sound – that he found so pleasing, and he infused that sound into Sindarin. He once said, “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful,’ especially if dissociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent” (Carpenter, 1977, p. 56-57).

If you have an interest in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Welsh, there’s a wonderful interactive webpage you can explore: Why Do the Elves in The Hobbit Sound Welsh?


And for more fun, enjoy this behind-the-scenes look at filming an Elvish scene in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Actor Bret McKenzie, who plays Lindir, is told he has several lines of Sindarin to speak in a shoot that afternoon, and he has to master them virtually on the spot! He has a terrible time with it but in the end pulls it off beautifully. Bret’s adventure starts about 3:42 into the video:


And here’s how the perplexing scene turned out:



Becker, A. (ed.). (2012). A Tolkien treasury. Philadelphia: Running Press.

Carpenter, H. (1977). Tolkien: a biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

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World Tree

As I raked leaves this weekend, I spent some time taking stock of the ash tree standing sentinel over the front yard. It’s had a rough few years and bears the D-shaped scars of attack from the emerald ash borer, a devastating insect pest that’s slowly making its way east to west across the US, killing every ash tree in its path. But not this one. Not if I can help it. This tree has witnessed the death of all the other ash trees in the neighborhood because none of my neighbors bothered to arm them against the coming battle. The armor, a treatment administered by a licensed arborist, costs about $200 every two years for a 25-foot tree, and to me it’s worth every penny. My ash tree is lush and healthy and could, one day, be the only one left in west Michigan. And it’s not just in North America that ash trees are struggling to hold their own. British ash trees are succumbing to a deadly fungal disease commonly referred to as ash dieback. It breaks the heart – especially one pumping Celtic blood.

To the Celtic peoples, trees were (and still are, as is evident by surviving traditions and folklore) sacred. The letters of the ogam alphabet, used by the Irish on stone boundary and grave markers, bear the names of trees.  In ancient Ireland, laws were enacted for the protection of trees, and fines were levied for the damage or destruction of certain trees. “A lost text of the 7th century dealt exclusively with tree judgments. Another surviving tract classifies trees as follows:  airig fedo (nobles of the wood): yew, oak hazel, ash, pine; aithig fedo (commoners of the wood): alder, willow, rowan, elm; fodla fedo (lower divisions of the wood): blackthorn, elder, arbutus (only survives in the warmer climate of Munster); losa fedo (bushes of the wood): [no examples are given]” (Mitchell & Ryan, 1997, p. 284-285). These divisions reflect the economic importance of the wood, along with the mythological endowments given to the species.

I thought I’d start a series of posts focusing on the sacred trees of the Celts, starting with the tree that is first to lose its leaves in the fall – the ash (Fraxinus), known in Irish as nion and in Welsh as onn. It’s also one of the last to come into leaf in the spring.

Looking at the graceful ash, it’s not difficult to see why it was considered the World Tree. Its branches reach for the sky, then dip downward and then up again at the tips. It’s as if the tree can’t make up its mind whether to dwell in the heavens or with man on earth. Early on, the deep root system of the ash tree was noted. As far as the branches reached above ground so did the roots below. To the ancient Celts, the tree represented the past in its roots, the present in its trunk, and the future in the growing tips of its branches. To the Norse, it was Yggdrasill, and it marked the center of the Scandinavian universe. “The Vikings believed that the first man was born of ash….The Viking runes were recorded on tables of ash and the Vikings themselves are said to have been known as Aescling, ‘Men of Ash’….” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).

Spearshafts were almost always made of ash due to the strength of its wood, which does not split, and also perhaps because of the inter-connectedness of all things, as the druids believed. What better way to ensure the death of your enemy than to strike him down with the force of the Universe? “In the early histories of Ireland, it is said that five magical trees protected the land; three of these were ash trees, the other two were yew and oak. The magical ash trees were called the Tree of Tortu, the Tree of Dathi, and the Branching Tree of Uisnech” (Gifford, 2001, p. 28).

The ash tree also has a connection with water, perhaps the most sacred element to the Celts, considering the number of votive deposits that have been discovered in lakes, rivers, and wells. “In ancient Wales and Ireland, water-loving ash was always used for coracle slats and oars, and sailors carried an equal-armed cross carved from ash wood to protect them at sea” (Gifford, 2001, p. 29).

As for me, one thing I appreciate about the ash tree is its leaves: when they fall and dry out, they curl themselves into little balls, making them easy to rake and compact! And no weeds grow under the ash tree (the tree is said to sour the soil so no other plants grow under its canopy). Thank you!

In future post, we’ll take a look at other trees the Celtic peoples deemed sacred.


Gifford, J. (2001). The wisdom of trees: mysteries, magic, and medicine. New York: Sterling.

Mitchell, F. & Ryan, M. (1997). Reading the Irish landscape. Dublin: TownHouse.


Posted in Mythology, Religion | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

What’s in a Name?

Cuibhlean stòlda mu dheas,  [The wheels of industry at a standstill,]
Na fàsaichean a’ tuath,   [The northern lands wasted,]
An taigh-mòr falamh an Dùn-éideann   [The empty house in Edinburgh]
Gun chumhachd gun ghuth.  [Without authority or voice.]      (Macdonald, 1987)

These are some of the poignant lines from the first song I ever heard by the Gaelic folk-rock band Runrig. The lyrics, penned in Scots Gaelic, describe the economic downturn and the lack of true authority granted to the Scottish people to govern themselves – a situation that continues today after the vote for independence on September 18. Things are changing, but not fast enough.

During that historic day just passed, it came to me that the land we know as Scotland was forged from a longing for independence. The land takes her name from the Scoti, the name the Romans gave to the Irish tribes who raided the western shores of Britain. One such seagoing tribe, the Dál Riata, left the Antrim coast around 500 AD in search of a new place to call home. They found it, seemingly without bloodshed in southwestern Scotland – a land they called Albu, a name which survives today in Scots Gaelic as Alba. The word is a cognate of Albion, which is the oldest name for mainland Britain in the Brythonic language (a precursor to Welsh).

So, what does the name Scoti actually mean? Ireland was originally referred to as Hibernia in Latin and the Irish as Hiberni up until the fourth century AD. Then the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus began to use the term Scoti for the Irish. He referred to the other great enemy of Rome in Britain as the Picti, or “The Painted People.” These were the Picts. “Scoti, by contrast, is a name with no obvious Latin meaning and has been most plausibly suggested as the Latin form of an originally Irish term for ‘plunderer’”(Marsden, 1997, p. 23). It isn’t hard to imagine a young Gaelic warrior lifting his chin and spouting to his Roman captors, “We’re the Raiders and we’re going to kick your….” Well, you get the picture.

A modern Irish dictionary reveals no trace of this meaning for scot or the original term. However, another word which sounds similar makes me wonder. Scoth (plural scotha) means “a young shoot,” or “a family branch,” or “the hair forming the tip of a tail, a brush, or loose-hanging part” (Dinneen, 1979, p. 983). Could the Irish who harried the Roman military have comprised a particular clan (“a family branch”)? They most certainly were a band of young warriors (“young shoots”) to go on raiding expeditions. Was Scoti a nickname used in reference to a particular hairstyle? Did they all sport ponytails or plait their hair in certain fashion? The Highland Clans stuck heather, juniper, and other sprigs of distinctive plants in their belts or caps (and later adopted distinctive tartans) to identify one other on the battlefield), so it seems reasonable that Irish clans or tribes resorted to impressive hairstyles as a means of identification.

“This original identity of the Scots as a people from Ireland is fully confirmed by later Irish authors, writing in Latin and familiar with classical Latin sources, who use Scoti in just that sense. Most prominent among them was Adamnan mac Ronan, the learned abbot of Iona at the end of the seventh century whose Life of Columba not only makes regular use of Scoti as a name for all Irish people and of Scotia for Ireland itself, but also uses the term Scoti Britanniae, the ‘Irish of Britain,’ for the Irish settled in Argyll” (Marsden, 1997, p. 23).

These Scoti were the Dál Riata, the People of Riata, who was a chieftain or petty king. So, what sent them to the shores of Albu? At the time of their migration, the Dál Riata were squeezed into a territory measuring about 450 square miles, bordered to the west by the River Bush, to the north and east by the sea, and to the south by the Latharna people.  This squeeze resulted from the pressures of Uí Néill expansion, and the Dál Riata sought relief in the land they could see across the waves, with their leader – according to legend – Fergus Mór mac Ercca. However, there is another legend of a migration led by Riata, who a century or more earlier delivered some of the Erainn peoples from a famine in Mumu (Munster). They settled for a time in Antrim and then crossed the sea to Argyll in Scotland. Riata’s people would have had to form a relationship with the British kingdom of Stratclut (Strathclyde), a major power source in the region. The kings of Stratclut may have welcomed Dál Riatan settlement to serve as a buffer between themselves and the Picts.

In 575 AD, a pact was drawn up by the Dál Riata’s most famous king, Áedán mac Gabráin, and the Uí Néill, who thought themselves overlords of the clans of the Dál Riata who remained behind in Antrim. The agreement reached was this: the Dál Riata dwelling in Ireland were to provide military service to the Uí Néill, but their tribute belonged to Áedán (and his successors) as their rightful overking.

History repeats itself – this time between Edinburgh and London.



Byrne, F. J. (1973). Irish Kings and High Kings. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Dinneen, P. S. (1979). Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary. Dublin: The Educational Company of Ireland.

Macdonald, R. and C. (1987). Alba on The Cutter and the Clan. New York: Chrysalis Records. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rSKAnXB3ujY

Marsden, J. (1997). Alba of the Ravens: In Search of the Celtic Kingdom of the Scots. London: Constable.

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