National Geographic : 2006 Mar
to students overheard speaking the native tongue. Now it's different, they said, and the government is promoting the language. More drinks, and Norman's brother Alasdair drops by and starts singing. The tune is "Gealach Abachaidh an E6rna," or "The Moon that Ripens the Barley." It sounds sad, I remarked. "Well," Alasdair said, "that moon is huge, very yellow, and it breaks your heart." Ah, the clues are adding up for identifying a Celt: the ancient language, an easily retrieved sense of historical grievance, a resort to song, and this bittersweet sentimentality. Less clear is how a fringe culture like the Celts managed to sur vive, even flourish, in a rapidly assimilating world. A brief detour into history begins to tell the tale. Most of us are unaware that Celts once dominated the breadth of Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic-and for a long time. An early form of Welsh was spoken in Britain 1,500 years before Old English took root. The Celtic languages still spoken in Europe hark back to the Late Bronze Age (1200-800 B.C.) and a civilization of aristocratic warrior tribes. The word "Celtic" comes from the Greek Keltoi, first appearing in the sixth century B.C. to describe "barbarians" living inland from the Mediter ranean Sea. Little suggests these people united or called themselves Celts. Yet there is no deny ing that these far-flung peoples spoke closely related languages and shared beliefs, styles of art and weaponry, and tribal societies. Trade, prin cipally by water, connected them. Calling them Celts makes sense, if only to separate them from what they weren't: Roman or Greek. All this categorizing might easily have become an arid academic debate about a lost people. Beginning in the second century B.C. Roman legions vanquished Celtic armies across Europe. Only the peoples of northern Britain and Ireland remained unconquered. In the fifth century A.D. the Anglo-Saxons invaded Celtic lands, followed LOYAL TO THE MOTHER TONGUE Bannatyne MacLeod speaks the old language of Scottish Gaelic to his family and neighbors on Harris, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides. As everyday speech, the Celtic languages are most widely heard along the farthest western edges of the Celtic realm. 80 NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * MARCH 2006 by the Vikings, storming the coasts in their long warships, the Normans, who attacked from France, and finally the colonizing armies of the English and French crowns. From these wars of resistance came many Celtic heroes and martyrs such as the legendary King Arthur, the Irish High King Brian Boru, and Scotland's William Wal lace, known as Braveheart. By the end of the Middle Ages, Celtic culture was headed toward extinction, its remnants pushed to the very western edge of Europe. "No one else wanted to live where the Celts did," a Breton man said. "Those places were poor and remote, and no one spoke their languages."