The Revival of Scottish Celtic Identity

From The Lecture Series: The Celtic World

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

After the British invasion, the Celtic countries had largely lost their Celtic identities. Some laws also deliberately targeted elements of Celtic culture. But, after centuries, those cultural elements began to re-emerge. How? Let’s find out.   

Detail of original Scottish kilts.
The Dress Act of 1746 forbid the use of tartan, except for the Scottish regiments within the British Army. (Image: Paolo Gallo/Shutterstock)

James Macpherson’s Works

In 1760, the Scottish poet James Macpherson published a series of poems that he claimed to be translated from an old Gaelic book. The poems became widely popular, were translated into all the major European languages, and influenced Romanticism significantly. At the same time, they had considerable consequences in the revival of the Scottish culture.

The poems had signs of familiar tales from Irish tradition like the stories from Finn Cyle about Finn McCool and his son Ossian. Together with his fairy lover, Ossian travels to the Otherworld. When he returns, he discovers that 300 years have passed, but for him, it was only a blink of an eye. In the poems, Ossian is the bardic narrator.  

Although Ossian became popular among the general public and was considered the Celtic equivalent of Homer, some literary scholars were not that enthusiastic. The text had been claimed for Scotland, which made the Irish angry. But the more serious questions regarded the authenticity of the poems. Scholars doubted there were original texts from which the translations were made, and Macpherson did not create those poems.

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A Fierce Literary Debate

Portrait of James Macpherson.
James Macpherson published poems that he claimed were translated from an old Gaelic book. (Image: National Portrait Gallery/Public domain)

Prominent scholars like Samuel Jackson, the compiler of the first English dictionary, and the Irish author Charles O’Conor called Macpherson’s works a forgery. Others like Hugh Blair, the Scottish author, defended him. These controversies continued until the early 19th century and after that.

Nowadays, modern scholars all agree that Macpherson’s sources were original but oral. The ballads that he gathered contained traditional stories drawing on Irish and Scottish traditions. Then he fabricated a bardic epic with his own style.

However, some of the stories were discovered in medieval Scottish manuscripts that Macpherson could not have seen. So, the Ossian hoax shows that the tradition in which he drew was somewhat authentic. The only thing he was not truthful about was claiming that he only had one written source and that the poems were all written by Ossian himself.

The Ossian hype led to a new fascination with Scottish culture. In 1778, the Highland Society was established in London. Expatriate Scots gathered there and discussed their homeland’s culture.

Learn more about Celts and Picts in Scotland.

The Story of Jacobite Rebellions

The Jacobites were the devoted supporters of the Stuart family, the descendants of James VII of Scotland and James II of England. These kings had been dethroned in 1688 for their incompetence and their aggressive ruling. The Jacobites derived their name from “Jacobus,” the Latin form of “James”.

From 1689 to 1745, they performed a series of attempts to bring back the Stuarts to the British throne. But all of them failed. The last attempt was in April 1746 when James II’s grandson, Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie, was bitterly defeated.

These savage oppression of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 had enormous consequences in the history of Celts. The battle of Culloden is wrongly considered a conflict between Highlanders on the Jacobite side and Lowlanders and Englishmen on the government side. But according to the records, both sides of the clash had speakers of Scottish Gaelic. Also, some Gaelic poems mourning the death of Jacobite soldiers and a Gaelic Bible belonging to a soldier loyal to King George were found on the battlefield, which rejects that idea.

Learn more about Politics and Literature in Wales.

The Ban of Tartans by the English Government

Soldiers from a Highland Regiment circa 1744.
Tartans were associated with bravery before the Dress Act was repealed. (Image: unknown (not attributed)/Public domain)

But for the British government, all the Highlanders were rebels. In an attempt to replicate the Anglicization of the Irish during the Tudor conquest, they passed the Dress Act in 1746. According to this Act, the use of tartan was forbidden except for the Scottish regiments within the British Army. This ban of tartan, which was the distinctive colorful checked cloth popular in Highlands, had two purposes. First, to weaken the solidarity among the Highland clans, and second, to integrate the Highlanders into Lowland culture. Predictably, the Dress Act was met with great resentment and turned into a radical tartan chic. But forbidding tartans for civilians and allowing it only within the British Army had opposite effects and made tartan a marker of Scottish identity as a whole, rather than Highland or Gaelic.

The repeal of the Highland Dress Act in 1782 led to a higher status of Scottish culture. Only Scottish regiments within the British Army could wear tartans, as they had demonstrated bravery in many British battles around the world. Now, tartan was associated with valor, not with rebellion. But things took a surprising turn after the law was repealed. So far, tartans were a local thing because each region produced its unique tartan patterns based on the available local dyes. There were no clan tartans. But after 36 years after tartan was banned, it was revived and associated with particular clans.  

Common Questions about the Revival of Scottish Celtic Identity

Q: Who was Ossian?

Ossian was the main character in the poems of James Macpherson. The poems were inspired by ancient Irish stories. They had a significant influence in reviving Celtic origins of Scottish identity.

Q: Who were the Jacobites?

The Jacobites were the passionate supporters of the Stuart family, the descendants of James VII of Scotland and James II of England, who had been dethroned. They launched rebellions to bring them back, but they failed.

Q: Why were tartans banned?

Tartans were banned in the mid-18th Century by the British government for two purposes. First, to weaken the solidarity among the Highland clans, and second, to integrate the Highlanders into Lowland culture.

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