CHURCH doctrines have influenced many aspects of Celtic culture, one of these casualties was dancing.

Dancing is common to many ancient peoples, it quickly follows the development of music in culture, so it would be unusual to have a rich musical heritage with no sign of dance.

The Irish and Scots were able to preserve their traditional dances, but not without a struggle against the church, for instance the Irish adapted their dancing to use less arm movements, due to this influence.

This view of dancing as sinful is seen within the deterioration of Welsh traditional dance.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the Welsh culture was under huge pressure from the church who had decided that traditional dancing, music and singing did not marry well with their teachings.

Some of the dances were written down to try and preserve them, but the traditions dwindled and by the start of the 21st century Welsh folk dancing had all but disappeared.

However, the tide was turning, unable to stomach this aspect of their culture becoming extinct, the Welsh started to take an interest again in the old dances and efforts were started towards their resurrection.

The first step was to collect dances with Welsh names or character.  These were researched from various sources including dance books from other countries such as Ireland, Scotland and England, which seemed to have borrowed from Welsh traditions.

An appeal was also made to the public asking for help to gather folk dances in an effort to reap living memories for vital clues.

On old woman, whose father was a harpist, offered one of these gems when she relayed the reel that she danced as a young girl.

Her recollection revealed a dance that was distinct from the others gathered from other sources and perhaps was wholly Welsh without outside additions.

Finally in 1949 the Welsh Folk Dance Society was formed to sustain the life brought back to traditional dancing.

Since then the efforts of the society have not stood still and the old dances have been used as a historical basis to introduce creativity and add new dances.

Hebrides Today brings you the latest news from Stornoway and the Western Isles


By Annie Smith

ABANDONED by the ancient peoples who created its structures the peat moss slowly smothered these magnificent obelisks almost obliterating their presence from history.

However an 18th century Lewis crofter became an unlikely hero rediscovering the historical bounty when he took a fancy to one of the Callanish Stones to aid him in a repair to his home.

He determinedly dug down to release the stone revealing the depth of the peat camouflage.

His excavation became the starting point for more work and from then on the stones of Callanish were slowly restored from their earthy entombment.

When the excavation of the sentinels, who are believed to have stood tall on their Lewis hilltop for 5,000 years, was completed archaeologists calculated the peat to have been 1.5 metres deep.

Today a multitude of visitors travel to the atmospheric Scottish landmark keen to sample the sense of eternity which pervades the site.

Unlike Stonehenge visitors are still able to experience and examine Callanish up close.

Although visitors are encouraged to keep to the paths around the site they are still able to touch the structures hewn from Lewisian stone believed to be the oldest in Britain and amongst the most ancient in the world.

No one knows for sure why the stones were dragged to the hilltop and placed in corridors to the central monolith, however, those who have studied the site believe the stones were used as a giagantic astrological chart.

Despite periods of neglect Callanish is now respected as an important archaeological site and a visitor centre and maintenance program underlines this significane.

On its own the main site at Callanish is important, but it is by no means unique on the island.

Skirting around Callanish are many other ancient sites, although some still remain prisoners to the peat moss.

They await their own rescue and may one day add to the knowledge of our ancestors.

This return from the brink for Welsh dancing means that now there are many adult dance teams and junior dance club across the country.

The Urdd National Eisteddfod hosts dancing competitions each year which attracts thousands of dancers.

The Gwent Children’s festival and Welsh Children’s festival continues this success and the adults demonstrate their sure footwork at the St John’s eve festival in Cardiff each mid-summer.


By Angus Graham

A NEVER ending cycle was how the Celts saw the passing of the seasons.

The circle or wheel of life travelling along symbolised the unity between the old and new years, showing change, but repetition.

As with our modern interpretation there were four sections to the Celtic year.

The divisions were marked and celebrated at the spring equinox, the summer solstice, the autumn equinox and the winter solstice.

Known as Lady Day, or Eostre the spring equinox signalled the end of winter, Easter is named after this feast.

Litha on June 21 celebrated the longest day of the year, the custom was to take the festivities into the forest, where the people enjoyed picnics, bonfires and games.

Mabon at the autumn equinox took place on September 21 when the final harvest before winter would be stored away.

But it is in the feast of Yule where we see most clearly the link between the Celtic festivals and the Christian traditions of today.

Yule, taken from the word Yula, meaning wheel of life, took place on December 21 marking the shortest day of the year.

Dried fruits harvested from summer were a favourite Yule treat and homes were decorated with mistletoe and holly, while a Yule log was burned to bring luck and to honour the great mother goddess.

Celtic decorations had significance; holly was valued for its evergreen properties, to ward off evil spirits and for hospitality, as the ancient people believed it acted as shelter to tiny forest folk.

It was often placed for these purposes around doors and openings.

When Christianity came holly continued to remain important, becoming the symbol of Christ’s crown of thorns, with the plant’s red berries representing his blood.

Mistletoe was also important to the Druids, its modern day association with kissing may come from ancient fertility rituals, or perhaps is coloured by mythical stories such as the Viking god, Balder’s resurrection.

Legend says that Balder (the summer god) dreams of his death.

To avoid this fate his mother Frigga negotiates with all the elements of the earth, the animals and the plants which grow from the earth to spare her son.

Yet, Loki (god of Evil) finds the mistletoe, a parasitic plant which finds its nourishment from its host and not the earth, has been missed, he poisons the plant and fashions arrow tips from it.  Balder is shot by one of these arrows and killed.

The earth grows dark at the loss of the sun god and all the elements try to bring him back to life.

Eventually Frigga manages to save him and her tears of joy turn into the white berries of the mistletoe.

Her relief at her son’s restoration reverses the mistletoe’s poison and she orders that anyone who passes beneath a tree where the plant grows should have a kiss to ward off harm.

Other well loved Christmas traditions such as gift giving, Santa’s elves and reindeers are also believed to be connected to the Celts.

Gifts placed under trees could be associated with the Celts offerings to their Yule-time gods and goddesses, Santa’s elves could be the tiny forest folk and his reindeer a re-interpretation of a horned deity.

It seems that in the quest for converts the early church was only too willing to mould pagan festivals, customs and ceremonies to Christian doctrine, thus December 25, which marked the worship of several pagan gods became Christ’s birthday, while other important days were assigned to the Saints and Apostles.

Thus the Celtic, or pagan traditions were not lost, but simply incorporated to give the church an added strength to their teachings.


By Greigg Adams

THE ATLANTIC arch is how today’s modern Celtic countries are collectively described.

The people of these areas were able to hold fast to a Celtic heritage, when others succumbed to alien cultural influences.

Their geography was the main factor to this preservation, with sea and mountains creating isolating barriers and allowing the Celtic ways to continue to flourish.

The two regions of Spain which were protected by such terrain are Galicia and Asturia.

Out of the Celtic regions these two Spanish enclaves may be the least well known.

As with their cultural cousins the land is defined by magnificent geography, lush greeness and links to the sea.

Their people gripped on to the old ways and today the vestiges of a Celtic heritage are still discernable in Asturia and Galicia’s artefacts, architecture and music.

Even though they are sometimes overlooked, these people have a strong attachment to this heritage, with many believing they have managed to best preserve the Celtic ways.

Preservation of language is important and passing on the culture by teaching their children about the regions’ history and unique characters is undertaken to show how they remain quite different from the rest of Spain.

Music is an important factor in this demonstration, both countries have a form of bagpipes and use other instruments regarded as Celtic, both regions have numerous traditional folk groups which play at festivals such as international festival’s such as Brittany’s Lorient, or Scotland’s Highland Celtic festival.

Other similarities include feasts with a clear Celtic connection, such as bonfires at the Summer Solstice, mythological stories which rival the fantasy of the Irish fairies and sharing a love of cider with the Cornish.

In Galicia and Asturies we see the mix of Latin and Celtic giving us another interesting facet to the Atlantic Arch.

Thousands get connected

By Greigg Adams
FOR ten days each August the Breton town of Lorient becomes the most important Celtic meeting place in the world.
The Lorient Interceltique Festival attracts a massive 650,000 spectators.
With hundreds of events and 4,500 performers showcased at 12 different venues in the town the event is a huge undertaking.
Honoured at this year’s festival is the nation which is probably the most overlooked of the Celtic collective, Asturia.
This northwest province of Spain neighbours Galicia and in turn shares a Celtic heritage.
The region has a million people and a landscape so often shared with the other nations of green lands and mountains.
As well as entertainment the festival also has an educational element and includes masterclasses featuring different aspects of Celtic culture.
However it is not only the traditional which is highlighted at the festival it also provides a platform for future talent.
Diversity is displayed with each area of the arts spotlighted classical, folk, rock and jazz musicians perform along with singers, dancers, painters, film makers and writers.
Shown by the depth of their popularity and continued ability to grow festivals such as Lorient forge a path for Celtic culture in the modern world.
They also bring a healthy economic impact for the host region creating wealth and employment.

Scotlands other national sport

By Fulton Ross

SHINTY’s origins lie elusively in the mists of the ancient kingdom of the Gaels.
The game bears a striking affinity with the Irish game of hurling and it is likely that its Scottish inception is the result of increasing Irish influence from the 6th century and, some would argue, even earlier.
It is in this era that we find the first documented records of an Irish migration, lead by Fergus Mhor Mac Erc, from Antrim to the rugged coast of Argyll.
This important dynasty consolidated its position and by the 8th century Argyll was the heartland of the powerful Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riada.
At this time ties with the Irish homeland were strong, but as the centuries passed perhaps the loosening of these ties accounts for the divergence in the games of shinty and hurling.
The Gaels, by means fair or foul, eventually overcame their rivals, the Picts and the Britons, and by the 10th century Alba, or what we would now recognise as Scotland, was formed. Shinty remained primarily a Highland game played between local parishes, straths and clans.

Early accounts suggest a kind of organised chaos where teams of over 50 battled it out in games that could last all day.
The martial and social aspects of the game were evident and as such it suffered greatly.
The Reformation frowned on any frivolous games and a second attack came as part of the systematic onslaught on Highland culture that began even before the Jacobite uprisings in 1715 and 45, culminating in the woes of the Highland Clearances.
Thankfully shinty survived and the modern game really began to take shape at the end of the 19th century where there was a renaissance in all things pertaining to Scottish culture including Gaelic language, dress, poetry and sport.
Shintys ruling body, the Camanachd Association, was formed in 1893 and the first set of standardised rules was agreed as well as the dimensions of a pitch at 200 metres long and 150 broad!
Three years later Glasgow Cowal and Kingussie fought out the first Camanachd Cup, which is now widely regarded as the most coveted trophy in shinty.
Initially teams consisted of 16 players, although now it has been reduced to 12 with one goalkeeper, four defenders, three centre line players and four attackers.
The pitch has also been reduced in size to one 155 metres long and 73 wide.
Each player is equipped with a caman or stick, usually made from ash or hickory, which can hit a ball of cork surrounded by an outer cover of leather at speeds of up to 100 mph.
A hail or goal is scored when one team manages to get the ball between a set of goal posts measuring 12 feet by 10.
Up until 1995 the playing season was structured around north and south leagues, the former with four divisions, the latter with three.
A National Premier Division was introduced for the 95/96 season which consisted of the best teams from across Scotland and it proved so successful that a National First Division was introduced for the 97/98 season.
The winners of the first division gain promotion to the premier division with the bottom team in the premier dropping down, while further down the hierarchy the regional system remains with the winners of North Division One playing a play-off with the winners of South Division One to gain entry to the national division.
The heartland of shinty remains the Highlands with the game field in many cases being the focal point of the community.
Argyll retains a strong shinty playing tradition with teams like Inverary, Kyles and Strachur, while Glasgow and Edinburgh have teams despite a sports curriculum for youngsters that largely excludes shinty.
Hopefully this situation will change and there is evidence to suggest a greater number of children are being attracted to the sport.
With the continued support of the Scottish Executive and Sportscotland this increase looks set to continue and shinty will develop, not as some bizarre Celtic curiosity, but as a skilful modern game that has a real part to play in the fabric of Highland and Scottish life.

Hebrides Today brings you the latest news from Stornoway and the Western Isles

The first stirring of spring

By Angus Graham

The power of the sun was celebrated by the Celts in their fire festivals.
The quickening of spring was seen in the celebrations of Imbolc around January 31, or February 1.
Winter’s dark days still held sway, but the Celts recognised that the sun would grow stronger from this point of the year and welcomed its return in this festival.
Three days of celebrations would mark the seasonal festivals, which  were considered either male or female, Imbolc and Lughnasadh were female, whilst Samhain and Beltane, were considered male.
Imbolc was the second fire festival of the Celtic year.
There are various meanings for the word Imbolc including milking, washing and in the belly, or rebirth of nature.
The in-milk interpretation could point to the lactation of agricultural animals such as ewes and cows.
The ability of the animals to produce milk and cheese at this point of the year, when perhaps other foodstuffs stored throughout winter, were starting to run low would have welcomed by the tribes.
One of the Imbolc customs was to pour some milk onto the earth symbolising the nurture of the soil for new crops.
Due to associations with the female, lactation and the preparation of new growth Imbolc focussed on women and the home.
As a fire festival it related to the hearth fires of home rather than the bonfires of the other celtic festivals.
Another custom of the celebrations was to keep the hearth fire fuelled with particular
woods and to look for symbols of the year ahead in the ashes of the spent fire.
Ritual cleansing also took place and may well endure today in the custom of spring
cleaning your house.
The goddess Brigit the protectress of women giving birth was also honoured during Imbolc, an association which later was transferred by the Christian church in the feast day of ST. Brigid in early February.
As with many other Celtic festivals and rituals the church also incorporated Imbolc into its doctrines.
The Candelmas tradition which commemorates the purification of the Virgin Mary, and the presentation of Christ to the temple takes place on February 2 and mirrors the fire element of Imbolc in the lighting of candles.

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