The Celts were a weird bunch, and not least because the word weird itself comes from proto-Celtic mythology. They’re symbols of ancient British culture, the blue-painted nature-worshipping natives who were crushed by the Romans then re-crushed by the Saxons and then…um…re-re-crushed by the bane of the British Isles, the English. But they weren’t originally British. They weren’t Britain’s original natives. And they definitely were more than a little English. Or rather, the English are definitely more than a little Celt. The story of the Celts isn’t just the story of those pre-Roman invasion tribes, then, but the story of Ireland, and Scotland, and Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man and Brittany – the Six Celtic Nations (although, ironically, not the rugby playing ones) that are still recognised today.
The story of how the Celts came to be is all too common in history – so common, in fact, that I could sum it up with one easy catchphrase: Germans are too good at history. It’s probably a familiar pattern (for all the wrong reasons) – Germans gets some great technology, Germans decides to spread great technology and expands massively, Germans find that being all-powerful doesn’t make them too popular, Everyone Else teams up to defeat Germans. This is what happened to the Hallstatt culture – originally from Hallstatt in Austria (which, to be fair, counts as German for most of history) they used the exciting new technology of Iron to spread their culture and religion all across Europe, from Spain to France to Britain and…look, if I just say Europe that will pretty much cover it. While they differed from area to area, they were all recognisably one thing, and that was Celtic, from the fancy new curved metalwork they made to the odd-at-the-time habit of washing frequently. So what happened to the Celts on the mainland? The answer is simple. The Romans happened.
Roman history is immensely complicated but this much of it is clear – they bloody well destroyed the Celts. The Celts had Iron but the Romans had structure, organization, tactics – Roman society itself was designed to encourage constant expansion and turn everyone they found into either a Roman or a corpse (or a slave, or a plebeian, or…look, told you it was complicated). The Celts generally chose the former, but we still have awesome stories like Boudicca where tribes chose the latter. So how did our Celts, our Irish and Scottish and all survive? I hate to break it to you – we weren’t worth it.
If the Romans sucked at one thing it was boats. If they sucked at two things they were boats and cold weather. So, when they were told of another great Celtic land across the channel, they took the warm, flattish England-shaped bit but left the much colder, more violent Scotland and Wales shaped bits, frankly because “Come to Alba/Cymru! It’s colder than Italy and you’ll get attacked by hordes of Celts who, unlike a lot of our enemies, have iron pretty much figured out” isn’t much of a marketing slogan. Hadrian’s Wall was as much a gesture of “Keep those scary blue people out” as “Screw the scary blue people, I’m invading somewhere warmer” As for Ireland…they didn’t discover it until waaay too late, thinking it was just endless sea past Caerphilly. Roman Galleys 0: Celtic Boats 1.
Nothing lasts forever, particularly if you’re a militaristic, continent spanning empire (with one almost-exception…wait for it…the Mongols) and the Roman hold on Britain was reasonably short lived. The Celts who had survived moved back into the land the Romans took and, for a little bit of history, the British Isles were all Celtic. …Then the Saxons invaded England. Then the Angles, who were Danes. Then the Vikings, who were different Danes. Then the Norwegians, who were still mostly Dane. Then the Normans, who were actually French, but who were originally Danes. England was left powerful, unified, but definitely not Celtic, and the surviving Celts around were forced to brace themselves for another millennium of being beaten up by a bigger neighbour.