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2. Lies, lies, lies

No matter how one today understands the historic relationship between the Iberian Peninsula and the lands and peoples to the North, chances are it's informed by a series of perpetuated fallacies—or at least distortions—disseminated primarily through perniciously successful English-language mythologies that originated in the 16th and 17th centuries and have only further benefitted from English subsequently attaining its place as "the new Latin" in our contemporary, post-colonial world ridden with mass media.


Nonetheless, how one today understands the fate of the Armada or the Spanish occupation of the Lowlands, for example, depends a lot on whether you’re reading histories written in and by the Spanish or those coming out of London or Amsterdam. One would expect nothing less. But, there is a lot more to these histories than simply local bias. 


The germination of contemporary dominant discourses is in the idea of a European political landscape created by Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and his assumption of the role as head of the Church of England. This idea conveniently negates the earlier impact of Luther’s Reformation, already ensconced in Northern Europe, long before Henry’s libidinal tantrum.


This tale of an English king so eager to marry his Protestant mistress that he would defy the unquestionable authority of the Vatican, establishes the idea of a power struggle moving inextricably towards a showdown between sleighted Spain and defiant England. It also conveniently ignores the fact that Charles V was pretty good at being both Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, at managing to rule as His Most Catholic Majesty over one empire and a Catholic Hapsburg over the Protestant German princes of another.


It wasn’t until the Elizabethan era—or centuries later when these supposed histories were written or retold—that this drama of conflict between England and Spain became a “fact”, a dominant history that every Anglophone school child still learns throughout the Commonwealth. Over time, these histories were disseminated even further afield, initially through the publishing and educational mechanisms of  British empire during the 19th century and, far more recently, through mass media such as film and TV series, a production pipeline that remains dominated by the commercial power of Anglophone regions while, understandably, the "new money" of Asia has far less cultural investment in how these particular tales of the West—Asia appears only rarely and peripherally—are told as long as it's "good entertainment".


Quite aside from the Spanish versions of events before, during and after the ill-fated Armada, a key elision from the dominant discourse is the relationships between the lands and peoples to the north of Spain who did not accept the authority of nor share the cultural values of England.

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"I sent my fleet against men, not against the wind and waves." - Philip II

The real problem with this reductionist (largely nationalistic) Anglophone history hinging on the conflict between Spain and England culminating in the failed invasion by the Armada isn't really even the debate about the Armada itself. Nor, indeed, is it this polarised vision of a European political axis with Catholic Spain on one side and Protestant England on the other. 

It has a tendency to become the historians' version of a pub brawl over a football match. Every historian toeing the English line behaves like a provocative football hooligan, jeering with hyperbolic claims that verge close to a claim that England is protected by some God-given right: that's why England wins. Unfortunately for the Spanish, the English just love pointing out that the Spanish crown of the day loved making exactly that claim about Spain prior to defeat.

Conversely, Spanish historians will point out—backed up by balanced English historians and any skilled sailor reading journals of the prevailing sea conditions before and during the battle—that the Spanish fleet was struck by overwhelming bad luck with the weather; conditions that turned to favour to the English. Furthermore, the Spanish admirals in charge of the Armada went on record as not rating their chances of a successful invasion. Despite discharging their obedient duty to the Spanish crown, they had already expressed their concern about the English ships' speed and potential to outmanoeuvre the massive Spanish vessels. But, of course, it doesn't suit English versions of history to acknowledge the men in charge of the Armada as honourable, even to the point of sailing against the odds.

The Spanish Armada was not sunk by the English, but by the sea herself. Despite the spin of some English writers—trying to channel the god-angering narratives so beloved of the Ancient Greeks—any old salt (or contemporary meteorologist) will tell you that when the sea turns nasty, you're pretty much buggered, regardless of which god you worship.

The ripostes you know

The English court of Elizabeth I had the means of rapidly transmitting mythologies about the fate of the Armada and quashing voices of dissent in the immediate aftermath—only a fool would underestimate the consummate kingship of Elizabeth herself in instrumentalising art and culture to ideological ends. But, among the mythologies counteracting the English rendition of events that arose fairly soon after the Armada, that of the “Black Irish” remains one of the most enduring and is not entirely without factual basis though much of it—like Sir Walter Scott’s 19th-century invention of “Highland dress” when we speak of the Scots—turns out to be the stuff of a romanticised past that never really existed. 


Today these mythologies of a romanticised resistance are largely circulated by fourth and fifth-generation Irish and Scottish descendant cultures that have settled elsewhere on the planet. Contemporary Irish culture itself remains particularly skeptical of the whole notion. And, indeed, the whole notion of the Black Irish turns out to be rather uncoordinated.


For example, one rendition of these tales tells of Vikings—or more accurately their Norman descendants—invited to Ireland by Dermot McMurrough in the 8th century, led by the legendary Strongbow, bringing their “dark” Gallic looks (or is that hearts? It depends on linguistic interpretation) with them. It also depends on which sources you believe, whether your source is interpretations of the Nordic sagas by a renowned Norwegian academic or online “Viking histories” written by reenactment societies set up by Scandinavian-descent communities in the American Midwest or Australia.


And the bits you might not know…

Some tales that still circulate today appear to have a basis in historic fact. Some of these relate to Spanish sailors from the Armada, swept north and westwards over the top of  Scotland by the fierce storm, shipwrecked on the northern coasts of Scotland, the Scottish islands and the northern and western coasts of Ireland. According to the prevalent versions of the mythologies, their welcome as good adherents to the Catholic faith and subsequent intermarriage with local women account for the “dark swarthy looks” of their descendants; the supposed origins of “the Black Irish”.


Certainly, there are credible contemporaneous sources that document Spanish sailors washing up on the shores of Northern Ireland who were readily welcomed by local warlords eager for able men to join their resistance against the English. In these accounts, they were more than happy to marry off their daughters to these men—especially the men of elevated status—in exchange for land, their fealty and, above all else, their support in resisting the English. Even the jobbing sailors got a go as the shotgun grooms of less wealthy women.


At the same time, there are  also credible accounts of beached Spanish sailors being clubbed to death on the shore by Irish fishing communities, the prevailing superstition being that if one saved one life from the sea, the sea would demand another in return. Clearly, if these accounts hold any water, many of the poor Spanish sailors never got the opportunity to add their DNA to the Irish gene pool. 


At a certain point in the 1990s and early noughties, with scientific technology revealing new things about human beings, there was a moment of excitement when the study of rare blood disorders not usually found in northern Europe, but a feature in southern European populations, including in Spain, but cropping up in patches in Ireland, seemed to add credence to the legend of the Black Irish. 


And, more recently, as millions of people flock to share their DNA through online commercial concerns in the hope being told something about their “roots”, their ancestry, it has become clear that the genetic connections between the Iberian Peninsula and Ireland, northern Scotland and its islands are far stronger than previously assumed.


But, as specialists point out, such general DNA profiling does little to reveal exactly when and how these shared genetics came about. And, if anything, archaeology currently suggests that it happened much, much longer ago than either the Armada rendition of “the Black Irish” or, indeed the 8th-century 'Dungeons and Dragons' tale of Dermot McMurrough.

Following more than a century of study of Skara Brae, a surprisingly sophisticated Neolithic settlement on the Bay of Skaill on the west coast of Mainland, the largest island in the Orkney archipelago, more recent archaeological evidence is suggesting that the islands were once the later hub of a vast sea trading network that connected Scotland, Ireland, Scandinavia, France and Spain with Phoenician and North African trade, directly or via trading staging posts thousands of years before the rise of Rome as an imperial expansionist. The sheer scale of what this hub might have been appears far greater than anything previously expected. Indeed, the very name "Mainland" gives and inkling that this was once no peripheral European island, but at the centre of things in a Celtic seafaring universe.

The romance is gone

True North approaches the notion of a certain Celtic-Catholic impetus or axis—and its correlative narratives—as a means of making sense of the cultural relationships between the North and Spain. The roots and influence of such a phenomenon remain tangible. But, by the same token, it’s also a romantic gesture, a puff of smoke and a sleight of hand.

Its lineage, just like the very tangible sea routes that connected Spain, Scotland, Ireland and the Lowlands, are very real. But, when that inconvenient thing that is history becomes involved, it transpires that nothing is as straightforward as it might seem, regardless of whichever particular rendition made its seminal impact upon us. 

In a summary preempting the full journey, there are three key periods at which the Celtic-Catholic narrative is instrumentalised to augment its tenets and gain notable potency.

A new enemy

The first occurs not long after its textual and visual birth. Love it or hate it, it's the English court of Elizabeth I that created the Celtic-Catholic impetus and axis as a cultural phenomenon. Henry VIII was the lustful monarch who inadvertently set in motion events that led to the break with Rome. Yet,  “Great Harry” was instinctively a conservative and later tried to dial back what he’d set in motion. A good and devout Catholic when he married Catherine of Aragon, he had signed off massive changes to the Church of England following the break with Rome only to later reverse them—including repealing laws allowing the clergy to marry or the mass being conducted in English. In all but name, Henry VII remained a Catholic and it wasn't until his son Edward, educated by hardline Protestants, that the English Reformation truly managed to focus on theology and creed. Henry VIII most certainly lined his pockets with the dissolution of monasteries and convents and the seizure of their lands and treasures, but he certainly hedged his bets when it came to faith. For example, in his will he left £600 for two priests to say prayers for his soul ad infinitum, something Edward VI's dogmatically Protestant advisors found ludicrous and distasteful.

Two brief monarchs later, it was his daughter Elizabeth who unleashed the dogs of dogma. Realising that there was no going back after signing the death warrant of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth gave almost free rein to her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham and others of his ilk to sniff out Catholic plots. Accurately recognising that Philip II, King of Spain, was hellbent on removing Elizabeth from the English throne, men such as Walsingham and other advisors to the queen took a novel approach in English propaganda. 

The fundament of this game of Early Modern media spin played out as one in which, for the first time in English history, all things “foreign” were argued to be suspicious. Certainly this was something new on the scale on which it was articulated. Most importantly, for the first time it created a narrative in which English Catholics were openly equated with being in the thrall of foreign powers. Catholics, even those who were entirely English by birth and heritage, were cast as a strange form of insidious foreigners living on English soil.

Leading Protestants knew well that most patriotic English Catholics—including powerful members of the aristocracy—were fully able to separate their allegiance to England from their devout faith (even when Rome actively encouraged them not to do so). But what makes a bold move is one that’s prepared to stand behind bold lies, something we still understand all too well in our global media today.

In this new security state there were very real threats to the English monarchy. The pope himself practically incited all good Catholics to assassinate Elizabeth, stating that to do so would not only not be a sin, but find favour with God.. Thus, even some English Catholics hitherto loyal to the throne began to see their future as better allied to those openly antagonistic to an English Protestant sovereignty but true to the Catholic faith. Over the borders, much of the Scottish nobility and the Irish openly pledged their allegiance to Rome and in England itself there were pockets of influential adherents in the north and east of England. 

In this first wave articulating a Celtic-Catholic axis, France, Spain and the Netherlands under Spanish rule remained important, as both places where a new generation of English priests could be trained in seminaries and as havens for exiles identified as security risks for their devotion to the Catholic cause. These countries also remained important as locales committed to Elizabeth’s demise, places that might well—and in various cases did—fund audacious plots to overthrow Protestant monarchy in England.

Just as the English celebrated each failed Catholic plot sponsored abroad, so too did this new wave of Catholic resistance, with its own martyrs, develop its own, often romanticised narratives. These were picked up with increasing vehemence in locations such as Ireland in the light of Elizabethan England’s signalling that no one faithful to the Catholic religion was safe from English aggression.


Scotland, remained more circumspect, a lot less easy for the English to read. James VI, king of Scotland since infancy was brought up a Protestant and the regents responsible for the governance of Scotland during his minority were strongly allied to the Protestant cause. James was also acutely aware that he was, failing a miracle, the heir apparent to the English throne and not keen to do anything that would upset his famously moody aunt, least of all before she named him on paper as her successor.

At the time, many pinned their hopes on James as a future king of England who might treat the Catholics more equitably. After all, his mother Mary, Queen of Scots had been a Catholic. And, much to the surprise of many, his Lutheran wife, Anne of Denmark had converted to Catholicism almost a decade after their marriage, only underscoring the deep-seated devotion to Catholicism associated with the Scottish royal family and the upper echelons of the Scots nobility, despite the Protestant faction holding the day-to-day power of governance outright. 

These hopes ignored or overlooked other facts. For one thing, James had broken completely with his mother long before her execution. While sympathetic voices cite the fact that he had been pressured to break with her to send a clear signal to the English crown that he did not support his mother's misguided intrigues, others point out that Mary, who had no role in his upbringing, was someone whose foolish alliances and political blunders were a source of embarrassment, something of which James was constantly reminded by Mary's enemies who had overseen his upbringing, just as he was reminded that most people believed she was responsible for his father's murder, proven or not. The last thing James needed was anyone questioning his adherence to the Protestant religion: he could not gain the prize of England's throne with any certainty as a Catholic, perhaps not even as someone simply believed to be one. 

Any optimistic hopes of a better deal for the Catholics following James' accession to the English throne were soon dashed with his reaction to the discovery of a number of minor plots, either to remove him from the English throne and replace him with a Catholic monarch or to force him to repeal anti-Catholic legislation. He made absolutely no concessions to the Catholic cause. 

What James I did do, however, as English monarch, was to pursue peace with Spain. With both of the key antagonists who had inadvertently created the Celtic-Catholic impetus and axis now dead—Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain—one of James I early diplomatic achievements was peace with Spain. Like James, Philip III, the new Spanish king, was far more concerned with matters at home and in the Americas than to continue an expensive war of religion between England and Spain. Some English Catholics were dismayed, angered even, at Philip's terms of the Treaty of Somerset House of 1604; his not really pushing for any concessions for English Catholics. Philip III does not generally get presented favourably by historians, especially Spanish historians who frequently cite that he lacked the drive, dedication and passion of his father. Even if that weren't actually true, he certainly showed no indication of applying these to a thus far expensive war that had singularly failed to remove the English Protestant monarchy, not even to successfully invade Ireland with a rebuilt Armada in 1601. 

What the new peace did bring was a period in which trade between Spain and the North became a lot safer and more fluid. Ships sailing between Spain and Scotland often travelled via the Lowlands where specific ports had offered Scottish ships preferential terms for centuries. However, during the various wars between Spain, England and the Dutch Republic, merchant vessels, even ones from technically neutral countries, ran the risks of being impounded or having their goods seized in the constantly changing seascape of changes in policy or control of ports. Ships could be attacked, mistaken for enemy vessels, or passengers and crew murdered if suspected of being enemy agents—perhaps conveniently if carrying a valuable cargo. And ships sailing between Ireland and Spain faced increased risks of piracy in the Bay of Biscay. While technically criminals unless licensed by the crown, Elizabeth I's government had effectively turned a blind eye to piracy that damaged Spanish interests. The most effective privateers were far more interested in the wealth of Spanish galleons returning from the Americas. But, both low-rent coastal outfits and those returning empty-handed from the Atlantic took any opportunity should it arise with little fear of reprisal as long as they preyed on ships serving Catholic realms. 

With an uneasy peace restored between Spain and England, merchant vessels could once again expect state protection and the flow of goods between both countries—and the Lowlands—once again increased. Chinese ceramics carried by Dutch vessels to Rotterdam changed hands and on to Edinburgh, along with paintings and furniture; curious artefacts, animals and fruits brought all the way back from the Americas could once again be picked up in A Coruña, along with spices and textiles, and sold for a profit in Ireland with a reduced risk of being intercepted at sea or seized in some port on a war footing.

Slowly, as trade replaced dogmatic war, the Celtic-Catholic axis began to fragment. But, this wasn't just as a result of peace. While James I stated that he intended to pursue a more tolerant policy towards Catholicism in Ireland, this never transpired. Some historians believe that his intention to pursue a more tolerant policy was how he intended to "sweeten" his plan for "Magna Britannia", an official union between Scotland and England—and by implication, Ireland. But, any such union would have to wait a century: there may have been peace with Spain, but the papacy, the Anglican church and English parliament were having none of it. No, as far as they were concerned, the entire old Gaelic Catholic nobility of Ireland were to be locked out of ruling in Ireland by new laws. 

The resulting "flight of the Earls" was a dramatic event that saw almost all of the Irish-Gaelic and old Anglo-Irish aristocracy pack up their families and goods and depart into exile on mainland Europe. If others had been optimistic that a solution could have been found in Ireland, it wasn't them. Sharing the Gaelic language and distinct sea routes with their Scottish peers, they knew only too well how James had continued James IV's policy of ending the rule of the Gaelic lords of the Scottish islands and bringing them under the control of the Scottish crown. He had his cousin Patrick Stewart, 2nd Earl of Orkney imprisoned and later hanged, together with his son Robert who had led an unsuccessful rebellion. Under the codes of honour of the day, when nobles were entitled to be beheaded, it was a particularly cruel and disdainful gesture to execute such high-ranking nobles with a method reserved for common criminals.

If they could not beat him, the Irish earls would not be complicit in this new Ireland under James. They never returned. While some of their descendants did become involved in various plots and schemes against the English crown or played a role in the various Jacobite risings, most of these Irish nobles settled in Europe, some of their offspring later settling in the Americas. It's almost as if they reconciled themselves to there being no place for a Gaelic-speaking Catholic aristocracy in the world unleashed by the Reformation in Britain and Ireland and choose, instead, to simply build new lives for themselves elsewhere. 

The resulting vacuum in Ireland—of power and unmanaged physical space—led the way for "the plantations". In one of the biggest migrations between the islands, Scottish and English nobles were granted the lands and new titles in Ireland, replacing the departed Irish noblemen, an instant Protestant overclass that would rule over Ireland and hog the privileges and benefits in Irish society. And, that, of course, is the seed of what would play out in Ireland —and against the Irish resident in Britain—for centuries to come

The Celtic-Catholic impetus and axis may have been preceded by various other cultural phenomena that looked to a kind of pan-Celtic culture, but it was certainly the first significant wave in post-Reformation Europe. Born of a turbulent period characterised by religious schism and violence, it spanned five reigns even if the years in which the key dramatic developments happened took place within less than a century. But, even fairly early into the fifth reign, that of James VI of Scotland and I of England, the notion that the traditional homelands of the Gaels, bonded by a long history of Catholic christianity could overcome Protestant heresy and persecution, especially if supported by the might of the Most Catholic Majesty—and pockets—of Spanish monarchs, evaporated.

Carry the lad that's born to be king, over the sea to Skye

The second key wave of these romantic mythologies relate to various Jacobite uprisings. The visual, material and intangible culture of the Jacobite cause—much of it resurrected again in the 19th and 20th-century by movements such as Scottish nationalism or political resistance to British rule in Ireland—was in itself a kind of revival, some of its narratives and imagery influenced directly by the Celtic-Catholic impetus and axis of the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.

The Jacobite manifestations of these narratives arise in the 18th century, preceded by manifestations in response to William of Orange's campaigns in Ireland. The minutiae of these are easily lost in the mossy bog of history. But, this period spawned some of the most enduring pieces of non-tangible Celtic-Catholic culture—the legend of Flora McDonald, for example—almost certainly because it afforded a connection in cause between what had been happening in Ireland for centuries and what then unfolded in Scotland. Yet, when scratching the surface, some of the basic tenets of Celtic-Catholic narratives repeated centuries later may not really hold any water.


At heart, the Jacobite cause, on one level at least, was about endorsing the God-given right of Catholic kings to rule as absolute monarchs. Where this idea even arises might be traced back to Charles I’s teenaged illegal trip to Spain. While still Prince of Wales, the future Charles I travelled incognito to Madrid accompanied by his father's former lover George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham in an effort to woo the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna. The act in itself demonstrates the disrespect Charles showed towards his father and the king of Spain: for an English prince to travel to Spain required the express permission of both monarchs. It also gives an insight into Charles' sense of entitlement. His father, James I, had abandoned the proposed match when it has met with massive resistance and a spike in anti-Catholic and anti-Spanish sentiment in England. Yet, entirely ignoring the religious sensitivity required by an English monarch, Charles believed that no one had the right to dictate to a future king who he could or could not marry.

Some historians have argued that, while at the Spanish court, its absolutism and grandeur so impressed Charles that he viewed it as a model for his future vision of the English monarchy. If he did, it did not serve him well: when eventually king, he was deposed and beheaded. Even during his time in Spain, things did not go to plan. Philip III effectively held him hostage, agreeing that he could wed the Infanta if he promised to convert to Catholicism. Finally grasping that this would mean losing the English throne, Charles promised to do so and promptly cancelled the engagement once safely out of Spain. 


Charles' second son James inherited a throne from his elder brother Charles II, who had been careful to fulfil his promise to uphold the English Protestant state with the very real involvement of a parliament not understood or accepted by most European absolute monarchs. But, James II, who had been fairly open about his Catholicism whilst still Duke of York, showed no such understanding of the nature of the English monarchy following the Restoration once he became king. He believed that he could not have his religion dictated by a summarily concluded English agreement of Protestant “constitutional monarchy” before the two exiled princes had returned to England after the collapse of a viable English Republic. And, like his father, James II lost his throne, driven into exile, where he became the seed of the Jacobite cause. 

While the much earlier conflict between Protestants and Catholics had really affected all layers of society, those who ultimately stood to benefit, should the Jacobites prove successful, were a smaller sector of society, primarily the nobility. Though, before and after the Jacobite risings, there were both nobles and ordinary people who suffered as a result of anti-Catholic legislation and power structures in England, Scotland and Wales. But, in the century or so since the first manifestation of the Celtic-Catholic impetus and axis, Britain and Ireland had changed substantially. One aspect of this was that the systematic embedding of Protestantism at all levels of society in countries subject to the rule of the English crown that had continued unabated and encountered relatively little organised resistance. The Protestant majorities in England, Scotland and Wales were happy with legislation that kept Catholics out of power and influential jobs, even more so the fairly new Protestant minority overlords in Ireland. 

One of the reasons that the Jacobite cause even managed to gain enough support to prove vexing for the English crown was because that, in this series of uprisings, rebellions and guerrilla warfare, the primary issue actually became more one of "Celtic" rather than "Catholic". While the various natural heirs to the Stuart dynasty, starting with the deposed James II, were Catholic and pressurised Catholic European monarchs to support their cause, many of the Scots who rallied to their call were not. If anything, the Scottish Reformation had proven much more extensive per capita in the long run than the Reformation in England. Yet, enclaves of the Scottish aristocracy, their households and supporters, both at home and in exile abroad, remained staunchly and openly Catholic. But, many of the men and women who rallied to the Jacobite cause, especially in the Highlands and Islands, were not.


Just as Mary Stuart had been able to attract Protestant Scottish soldiers to fight in her various doomed campaigns to take back control of Scotland, for many Scots, the issue was one of cultural identity and pride. The would fight for their Scottish monarch, whether Catholic or Protestant, because he or she was their monarch in a long dynastic line that had nothing to do with the English.


Furthermore, during the late 17th and early 18th-centuries, hugely unpopular legislation and policies impacted on Scotland. One of these, for example, was the Acts of Union of 1707 that effectively united the kingdoms of England and Scotland as one. Though the bills passing these into law were signed by a Stuart, Queen Anne, many ordinary Scots felt betrayed by it. Those in the Highlands and Islands—who practically saw Edinburgh and the Scottish lowlands as a foreign country—could not understand or accept it. So what if the bankers and politicians in Edinburgh explained that the country had no choice as a result of their irresponsible speculation that ruined the Scottish economy? How would union benefit ordinary faelk? They were even more wary of it because the idea of union had first been endorsed by the Dutchman William III (William of Orange) in what many Scots saw as an attempt to retrospectively legitimise "the Glorious Revolution" of 1688 that had deposed Catholic James II and put Protestants William and his pliant Stuart wife Queen Mary on the throne as joint English monarchs. 

When the Scottish parliament did nothing to oppose the English parliament naming the Protestant Sophia of Hanover as Queen Anne's tenuous heir in the run up to the Acts of Union passing into law, many Scots felt cheated. The other Stuart heirs were intrinsically excluded because the English constitutional monarchy expressly forbade a Catholic monarch. A bit like decent, down-to-earth people feeling cheated by a sneaky clause in an insurance policy, Scots anger and resistance rose. This, they thought is how it's going to be: it's supposed to be an act of union between two equal countries, but somehow English law runs the whole new entity. 

The outrage felt at what many Scots saw as the colonisation of Scotland by deceit was enough to attract soldiers, Catholic and Protestant alike, to the cause of the first failed Jacobite rebellion aimed at restoring James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed King James VII of Scotland and II England. While English historians often refer to him as "the Old Pretender" a dismissive nickname given to him by Whig politicians in London, for many Scots, he was no such thing.

If the sentiment of many Scots was strong enough to take up arms on behalf of the Jacobite cause the first time round, the subsequent English policies in Scotland meant that they were also prepared to do so on two more occasions, first for a second failed attempt by James Stuart—this time with Spanish backing—and finally in a third unsuccessful campaign led by his son. 

Some historians claim the uneasy Hanoverian dynasty, newly on the throne of England, were easily led by elements in London that amplified the Jacobite threat for their own benefit. Whether true or not, it's easy to see how the extent of support for the Jacobite cause, extending into the very heart of the English parliament, would cause alarm to the new rulers. Subsequent Georgian policy in Scotland was brutal and hated by the Scots. English garrisons sent to keep rebellion in check acted as a law unto themselves and the arrogance, corruption and unjust actions of English officers were detailed by poets, balladeers and pamphleteers across Scotland often, much to the annoyance of the English, in the Gaelic language that they could not understand. 

The last final pitched battle for the Jacobite cause—in fact, the last pitched battle on British soil—took place in 1745, the Battle of Culloden. In the aftermath, the English forces scoured the countryside, seeking Catholic and non-adherent Protestant sect churches and burning them, almost unaware that many of the Scots who had fought for the last hope of reviving the Stuart monarchs were, in fact, staunchly Protestant.

As the Jacobites themselves had done, later Celtic movements would revive and romanticise the legends of the Jacobite risings, particularly in the 19th century and as part of 20th-century movements opposing British policies not only against Celtic peoples but also against others with whom they perceived a shared history of English oppression. In fact, the legend of Flora Macdonald, a real person, is a good example of this 19th-century romantic revival. In the 1870s, Harold Boulton, an English baronet from Kent—hardly staunch Jacobite stock—with a keen interest in Scottish folk music penned the lyrics to 'The Skye Boat Song' and set it to an obscure traditional air from a collection assimilated by Anne Campbell MacLeod. As with numerous other examples, what is still popularly believed to be a surviving Jacobite song is in fact a pretty ditty more likely to be sung in Victorian parlours.

Over the century or so following Culloden, organised armed resistance in Scotland and Ireland was put on the back burner. The Scots and Irish, particularly Catholics, started to look further afield for their futures. Waves of emigrants left for new lives in the Americas, some throwing themselves fiercely into the fight for American Independence in the late 18th century. Others threw themselves into profits to be made in new lands—in the Caribbean, for example—where Scots were amongst those who benefitted most from the slave trade. And, yes, it is also ironic that Scottish Protestant voices were later amongst the earliest and loudest campaigners against slavery given their church's record on oppressing Catholics.


After many Scots and Irish were sent to Australia as criminals, later waves of Scots and Irish chose to emigrate there and to New Zealand. Even Patagonia still has its little enclave of Welsh speakers. Conversely, the Scottish Enlightenment and its subsequent culture of science and technology made some Scots rich and influential across the United Kingdom and its empire, particular during the 19th century. Other Scots and Irish threw in their lot wholeheartedly with the opportunities offered abroad by Victorian colonialism, in Africa, Canada or Asia. Whether soldiers, sailors, engineers, prospectors, administrators or conmen, such places offered opportunities, comparatively affluent lifestyles and new social structures in which the demands of keeping the empire intact meant that, much to the chagrin of local bigwigs, certain snobberies and prejudices still so prevalent in the United Kingdom had to be left far behind. 

Each of these waves of adventurers and immigrants took old songs, stories and symbols from old struggles with them across vast oceans to new homes. Kept alive and in many cases amplified in places where the authorities were less able to stamp them out, in many ways, it's this next historical phase and the stuff that develops far, far away from the traditional homelands of the Celts that contributes to their perpetuation.

Struggles and troubles

The third wave—by far the most resonant or at least accessible for us today—arose in the 19th century when a new kind of nationalism posited around Celtic identity was born. Following the poetic calls to action by writers, songwriters and veritable creators of modern, written Celtic languages—the makars—it had traceable global routes of dissemination. Carried by sea to the new safe havens of pride and power in the Americas or Antipodes, replications of these mythologies remained resolute in supporting Irish struggles for an Irish state freed of English control, right through to late 20th-century political struggles in Northern Ireland. 

Outside of Ireland—or amongst its diasporan cultures—the 19th-century manifestation of Celtic cultural narratives are rather peaceful, the stuff of nerdy academics formalising written modern Gaelic, gentle clergymen advocating teaching Gaelic-speaking children in their native tongues and quietly passionate enthusiasts hurrying to commit old tales recounted by traditional storytellers to print lest they be lost to a new industrial world too busy with baseline financial survival to remember them. 

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert's personal passion for the Scottish Highlands and its culture—not to mention her possibly physical passion for John Brown after the prince's death—played no unexpected part in this. In a sense, they built on George IV's passion for "Scottishness" following his being entranced by Sir Walter Scott's pageantry highlighting supposedly traditional Highland costume and traditions on an official visit to Edinburgh while still Prince of Wales. Despite the inconvenience the Stuart claim presented to their German ancestors, Victoria and Albert simply made Scotland and Scottishness fashionable, the queen delighting in its customs and way of life connected to nature; her husband a great admirer of Scottish engineering advances.

Conversely, many Irish historians point out the disconnect between more recent film and TV representations of Victoria's response to Ireland—where she was widely known as "the Famine Queen"—and historical accuracy. If there is any truth in her winning over the Irish public and earnestly soliciting the opinions of Catholic clergy in Ireland, as such historians point out, she did not spend much time popularising Irish culture in the way that she did Scottish culture, actually more of a feature when the likes of Oscar Wilde rose to prominence during her son's reign and, even then, a product of the Protestant intelligentsia and social elite.

Rather, Irish culture in the 20th century is something that is first heavily embraced on the international stage by American folk singers and fellow travellers. Today, we most easily remember musicians and activists eager to draw similarities between older Irish struggles and their contemporaneous involvement in the anti-racist American Civil Rights movement. But, in fact, this phenomenon of linking the contemporary with historic songs of the Celtic-Catholic axis was actually notable in the folk movement of a generation or more earlier. For example, in the 1930s, leftwing folk music venues in London and New York invited Spanish singers singing Republican songs growing out of the resistance to Franco to perform alongside those singing old songs of Irish and Scottish resistance to English rule.

While many histories of the Spanish Civil War told in English-speaking regions naturally emphasise the international nature of the volunteers who rushed to Spain to defend the Republican cause, it's worth briefly noting the level of support the cause attracted in Scotland and Ireland. Furthermore, of the Scots men and women who travelled to Spain to fight against Franco, a sizeable number were not from the affluent Leftist elite, as was the case with many English volunteers, but working class Scots whose support was facilitated by the strong leftwing Scottish trade union movement that felt a solidarity with the Republican cause.

Later, the general culture of resistance arising in the 1960s became more clearly radicalised and politicised after the beginning of what are often referred to as "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. Artists performing in the UK with a notable Republican position remained notably absent, save for Irish traditional groups easily explained away as singing "traditional songs". It would be easy to say that this is because such topics, considered unacceptable for a mainstream audience and a youth audience in particular, were simply prevented from being performed on British broadcast television, possibly extending that hypothesis to various other European countries, each with their own anxieties about "Euroterrorism". Yet, there might be a far simpler explanation. Irish or Scottish musicians, more culturally likely to identify with such causes were largely absent in the British music industry of the day—unless you're counting The Bay City Rollers, Rod Stewart, Clodagh Rogers, Dana or Gilbert O'Sullivan, none of whom seemed likely to have an outburst endorsing the IRA. Particularly for mainstream Irish musicians, career success was linked to being "apolitical".

It's not until the 1980s that British youth, influenced by punk that proved that musical prowess was not a job criterion, decided that being a pop group was about as good a career prospect as any in Thatcher's Britain, that we see Scottish pop bands—followed shortly afterwards by Irish outfits—moving to prominence in British (and later, global) youth music culture. While much of this jingly, jangly guitar music was the stuff that had made youth music go round since its invention in the 1950s, such as songs about angsty teenage relationships or simply looking cool, occasionally there would be a step into new territory: a song sung in Scottish slang or a release that channelled Celtic identity that gained a mass audience.


Then U2 came along and it turned out that politics—or at least the aesthetics of political struggle—struck a chord with youth, with very real commercial benefit to musicians. 

The 1980s was awash with popular bands singing supposedly political songs, whether about feminist issues or Nicaraguan conflicts; animal rights or Apartheid. But, when U2 released their album 'War' in 1983, it was the single 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' that propelled them from yet another hopeful in the "indie band" stakes of the period to a stadium-filler almost overnight, directly referencing the infamous Bloody Sunday in 1972 when civilians at a protest in Derry were shot dead by British forces. Many who heard the song outside of Ireland and the UK may not really have had an immediate idea about the events to which it referred (No, kids, no Google back in 1983). But, between the music press and the oral history of an older generation of Irish-Americans who had long supported the Irish Republican cause, here was something new: a rousing pop song with a militaristic beat speaking out about a just cause. 

It's interesting that so many may have heard (maybe, maybe not) The Special AKA's 'Free Nelson Mandela' the following year, with its direct, active call to political action but didn't elevate them to international super-stardom. And, indeed, U2 opened the door to various other musicians who were part of the musical manifestation of "the Celtic Tiger", from Sinéad O'Connor to The Zombies. Yet, all of this raises interesting questions, least of all whether these apparently political, pro-Republican Irish musicians were being afforded prime time on UK TV some 15 years before any kind of visible peace process in Ireland because the British government government had failed to legally prevent them from appearing on broadcast TV, or because they had already been judged to be no security threat at all. 

"The British used the war against Napoleon as justification to seize the Cape of Good Hope, the Netherlands being under French control at the time. 

"One of the later British governors of the Cape, Sir Harry Smith, who had fought against Napoleon, had a Spanish wife, Lady Juana. Every morning, for breakfast she would eat sweet melon that grew abundantly in the Cape's sunny climes. 

"The Cape Malay servants at the governor's residence, who spoke a Dutch dialect, didn't really have a word for it. So, they started to refer to it as 'Spanspek'— literally Spanish bacon. Because, this is what she, unlike Sir Harry, ate for breakfast. 

"This is the origin for the Afrikaans word for this particular type of melon."

There is a tale told about resistance to Apartheid in South Africa, about the women who lived in the townships and how they organised to prevent the men, returning from exhausting days working in mines, from entering the shebeens. They had noted that, once drunk, the men lost their anger and determination for direct political action. Part of the legend of tells of how these women would link arms and chant  "Wathint' Abafazi, Wathint' Imbokodo!" ("You strike the woman, you strike the rock!"), an anthem forged in the Women's Protests of 1956 against the hated Pass Laws and also something of a cynical warning. While these women wanted the men to be angry, they also knew full well that when not allowed the escape of booze, their anger could easily be turned on them.


Political positions comparable with U2's supposed Republican sympathies were prevalent in the pop music culture—particularly the pop music of "underground" movements—in many other parts of the world, including those that arose in Barcelona, Madrid or Vigo in the period following Franco's death and Spain's transition to a constitutional monarchy, in the strange bubble of West Berlin, Hamburg and even in the Netherlands that was considered very liberal at the time. Few of those gained the international audience of U2, almost certainly because they did not sing in English. 

No longer banned from TV nor having their concerts broken up by the police—while raids were still regularly carried out on Reggae and other "black clubs" across London and in gay clubs across Europe—whether they were genuinely examples of political music culture or merely following the taste for the aesthetics of political radicalism that proved such a hit for U2, is the stuff of debate. Whether these were political statements from the heart or their creators were merely poseurs—one of the greatest insults in 1980s subcultures—also remains open to debate. What is very clear though, just as with the two preceding manifestations of the Celtic-Catholic impetus, is that the taste for culture signalling resistance was ultimately paramount in their dissemination and adoption.

The Spanish taste for whisky may well have grown exponentially in the cameraderie forged during the campaigns against Napoleon on the Iberian Peninsula in the early 19th century. The Spanish would learn about how the “Celtic” part of a much older alliance was forged in a fog of whisky and tears retold in songs carried across stormy seas. And, underscoring it all was the truth that “Celtic” ultimately trumped religion: most of the Scots and Irish who gained real commercial networks out of the wars played out in Spain were Protestants, just as “tastes” for visual culture in both Spain and the North proved creed-agnostic. 

We may have appeared to be embarking on a voyage of religious confederacy while, in fact, it may merely be one of tastes. Literally.

Seo uisge-beatha. Slàinte mhath!

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