Scholarly Investigations of the Celtic Heritage

From The Lecture Series: The Celtic World

By Jennifer Paxton, Ph.D., The Catholic University of America

Long after Celtic lands were conquered by the English, a scholarly tradition began to revive and connect with the Celtic past. The attempts started in the 16th Century with linguistic studies of the Celtic languages. The first scholar was a Scottish man named George Buchanan, whose actions sparked unprecedented change. Read on to learn more.

Image of antique books, with brass clasps on old wooden table.
Scholars began investigating the Celtic heritage in the late 16th Century. (Image: tomertu/Shutterstock)

George Buchanan, the First Researcher of Celtic Culture

The first scholar who studied the Celtic culture was George Buchanan, who was from Scotland. He discovered that there was a linguistic relationship among the Celtic languages. He was also the first person who introduced and expanded the idea of a “Celtic” race.

Buchanan had been engaged in a wide range of activities in his career. He taught Latin to the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots for a short time. However, when Mary was in power, Buchanan converted to Presbyterianism. When Mary was sent to exile, he tutored James VI and had a pivotal role in incriminating Mary in the murder of Lord Darnley, her second husband. So, he was active both in politics and scholarly pursuits.

As a native speaker of Scottish Gaelic, he was a prolific writer in Latin and Scots, and had a pivotal role in the Renaissance.  When he was young, he came across some stories about the origin of the Irish and the Scots, which were the traditions covered in the Irish Book of Invasions. According to this tradition, the ancestors of Scots and the Irish came from Scythia in central Asia. Some versions even mentioned Troy as the origins of the Scots and the Irish. But Buchanan doubted their credibility and decided to perform the investigation of Scots and Irish origins using his own methods.

Learn more about the Celts.

Buchanan’s Method and Errors

Statue of George Buchanan at Scottish National Portrait Gallery
George Buchanan was the First Scholar to Study the Celtic Heritage (Image: Stephencdickson/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Buchanan found similarities in language and religion through a method he had devised. He was particularly interested in the similarities among place names used by several different nations. By finding common elements in place names, he put forth the theory that the Celtic speakers of the British Isles and the Celtic speakers of continental Europe were related. For example, he found that the prefix lug- was present in the names of places all over Europe, which can show a shared cult of the god Lugh.

But he made some mistakes in several areas. For example, he correctly believed that the language of Picts was similar to that of the Celts. But he found that the Picts came from Scythia, which has now proved to be wrong. Still, he made significant contributions, the biggest of which was the connection he made between Britain and the continent. He revealed that the people in these places were all Celts. This finding helped the Celtic speakers in Scotland gain classical credibility that made them related to the people who had defied Julius Caesar.

One ironic consequence of Buchanan’s investigation of the Scots origins was that the stories of the Book of Invasions became the center of attention.

This is a transcript from the video series The Celtic World. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Sir Edmund Spenser

Portrait of Edmund Spenser.
Sir Edmund Spencer studied the origins of the Irish. (Image: Historical potraits/Public domain)

As a prominent scholar, Buchanan’s works were widely read by other scholars, including Sir Edmund Spenser, the English poet. He was also one of those scholars who investigated the origins of the Irish. He had spent several decades in the 1580s and ’90s as a colonial administrator in Ireland. Because the rebels drove him out of Ireland during the Nine Years’ War in the 1590s, he fiercely criticized Irish culture in his writings.

He attacked the Book of Invasions for making a connection between Ireland and Spain. In the 1950s, this attack would draw a fierce controversy because the English had defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588, and Spain had allied with the Irish rebels in response. Now, this was a perfect time to reject the connection between the Spanish and the Irish.

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Geoffrey Keating’s Foras Feasa ar Éirinn

Unlike George Buchanan and Sir Edmund Spencer, who attacked the traditions embodied in the Book of Invasions, some scholars regarded them highly valuable. One of those scholars was an Irish Catholic priest from an Old English family. His name was Seathrún Céitinn, and his English name was Geoffrey Keating. His family had descended from early English settlers that had remained Catholic, but he had Irish cultural identity while being loyal to the Stuart Dynasty. He wrote a book named Foras Feasa ar Éirinn, or The Foundation of Knowledge on Ireland, but he could not print it for its obvious pro-Catholic ideas. But the manuscript was widely read, which helped the semi-legendary traditions of early Irish history live through the upcoming centuries.

Common Questions about Scholarly Investigations of the Celtic Heritage

Q: Who was George Buchanan?

George Buchanan was a Scottish scholar who first studied the linguistic relationship among the Celtic languages and popularized the notion of a “Celtic” race.

Q: What is the Book of Invasions?

The Irish Book of Invasions is an ancient book about the history of Ireland. It has stories that depict the ancient tradition of Ireland and shows where the Irish and the Scots came from.

Q: Who was Sir Edmund Spencer?

Sir Edmund Spencer was an English poet who investigated the origins of the Irish. He was a colonial administrator in Ireland in the 1580s and ’90s. Because the rebels drove him out of Ireland during the Nine Years’ War in the 1590s, he slammed Irish culture in his writings.

Q: What were George Buchanan’s contributions?

The most significant contribution of George Buchanan about the Celtic heritage was the connection he found between Britain and the Continent. He revealed that the people in these places were all Celts.

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