By Hugh Cheape

• From the February 2015 Piping Times

In 1994, a mid-winter festival was launched in Glasgow under the banner of ‘Celtic Connections’. It was a piece of genius to fill that gloomy episode between Hogmanay and Burns’ Night with a music festival and the event has gone from strength to strength. Celtic Connections has now achieved world-status as a winter music festival. Its main impact has been to showcase the best of Scotland and to invite performers from other parts of the world whose art strikes a Celtic chord (and appeals to us!). The formula ‘Celtic Connections’ is an enabling one and does not seem to have discriminated against music that was not demonstrably ‘celtic’. This is as it should be, since the strength of the Scottish tradition is in its eclecticism and its power to absorb and re-shape influences from outside. We build ‘connections’ therefore by offering a platform to artists and consequently performance is rich and varied. On the other hand, the festival begs the question whether ‘celtic connections’ in a deeper and inherited sense might be traceable and palpable.

Carlos Nuñez.
Carlos Nuñez.

In recognition of this, Celtic Connections 2015 commissioned our good friend and fellow-piper, Carlos Nuñez, to create a new selection of music – a sort of ‘Celtic Concerto’ – on the theme of the ‘Atlantic Corridor’ predicated on the concept of cultural links between Galicia and the Gàidhealtachd. Who better than Carlos to ponder this deeper value? He has taken part in more than ten Celtic Connections and, while in Glasgow, has always performed in a range of shows in the festival. He has long been convinced of an ancient cultural conduit between Galicia and the west of Scotland on an ‘Atlantic corridor’ and is keen to explore through piping more meaningful implications of ‘Celtic Connections’. His show was on January 21 in the Main Auditorium.

The time is ripe for some re-interpretation since Celtic Studies’ research in the last two decades has explored new domains and connections such as an ‘Atlantic Corridor’ concept. In searching for musicological origins for the Great Highland Bagpipe, I offered up an idea in 2008 in Bagpipes. A national collection of a national instrument, not as proven fact but as hypothesis that might allow us to grasp more of the wider context of such a universal phenomenon as the bagpipe:

Places seen today perhaps as peripheral were linked by sea to Europe more directly than most parts of Scotland. This offers the interesting possibility that the bagpipe arrived in Scotland by way of an Atlantic corridor, and that its closest relation is the Spanish Gaita which itself seems to represent the archetype bagpipe of the European Middle Ages, a mouth-blown instrument with a conical-bore chanter and a bass drone with large bell top. (See Bagpipes, page 35).

The figure of a piper on a late 15th century wooden panel from Threave Castle in south-west Scotland. The bagpipe compares to a Spanish gaita.
The figure of a piper on a late 15th century wooden panel from Threave Castle in south-west Scotland. The bagpipe compares to a Spanish gaita.

Carlos is using the bagpipe to unlock deeper truths on ‘celtic connections’ and, in the circumstances of current research, the bagpipe can be a catalyst. The earliest tangible evidence for the bagpipe in Scotland, the sculpted figures of the late 14th and early 15th centuries at Melrose and Roslin, show a single-drone instrument more reminiscent of a Spanish gaita of today. Simple comparisons can be made of course between instruments but stages of evolution of bagpipes in Scotland are by no means as clear as we thought them to be. It can be instructive to step sideways and look at other cultural influences and artefacts in the understanding that the bagpipe didn’t sustain itself in a vacuum. Scrutiny of cultural analogues throws up links between Scotland and Spain over millennia and, more specifically, between Galicia and Gàidhealtachd. Such information now suggests ‘narratives’ for a Libretto for a ‘Celtic Concerto’ for the bagpipes!

One or two modern books of research have prompted a reassessment of the prehistory of western Europe. They question the concept of a ‘Celtic homeland’ of west-central Europe of c.500 BC, with its exclusive emphasis on the La Tène and Hallstatt sites with their ‘trademark’ Celtic craftsmanship and metalwork. This view of a pan-European Celtic cultural region (from Asterix to the Garden of Eden) which ruled our understanding in the 20th century suited the national histories and ideologies of European states in the emergence and enlargement of the EU. The emphasis has now moved to Europe’s ocean façade and the ‘Atlantic Celts’, and to a time-period reaching back before the first millennium BC, and to the study of ‘continuity’ and ‘connections’ replacing theories of waves of invaders and mass settlement.

A very European image of a pig piper carved in stone on Melrose Abbey. Mid-14th century.
A very European image of a pig piper carved in stone on Melrose Abbey. Mid-14th century.

There is neat detail in archaeology to corroborate ‘connections’, evidence for example for relatively advanced maritime technology and for the Gaelic capital of Dunadd in Argyll as a trading destination from France and the Mediterranean. Lateral thinking offers us accounts of masters of navigation of pre-Christian eras such as the Phoenicians, trading out into the Atlantic and following the Pole Star to Celtic Britain.

Our interpretation of surviving Iron Age metalwork, ‘celtic art’ and material culture is seen by modern scholars as too simplistic. Instead, interpretation depends on a complex of transmission and transformation by different routes and connections. If the Celtic languages ‘developed’ earlier than has hitherto been suggested, the theory of ‘celtic’ migration from the continent of Europe has to be revised. A current view is that a linguistic ‘route’ may reach from the eastern Mediterranean through Spain and Portugal and an ‘Atlantic corridor’ to Wales, Ireland and Scotland. This linguistic link through Spain to Scotland is being scrutinised and, more importantly, issues of language development are now having an impact on archaeological thinking.

Compelling information is embedded in Scottish Gaelic for the ‘celtic connection’ with Spain. Seemingly whimsical but nonetheless sincere is the once well-known tradition of ‘The history of the Gael from the beginning of time’ – Seanchas a’ Ghàidheil o thùs. ‘Gàidheal Glas’, the son of a Greek prince, was considered to be the ancestor of all Gaels and Scotland’s independence and sovereignty derived from him and from ‘Scota’ the daughter of Pharaoh, the King of Egypt. They came together and conquered Spain and their descendants moved on to Ireland and to Scotland. This was said to have occurred about 1,700 BC and, though this is dismissed by conventional scholarship as ‘pseudo-history’, it holds a mirror to how Gaels (and Scots) saw their identity.

If this seems a ‘celtic connection’ without substance, the concept grows to significance between the 11th and 17th centuries, in a period also perceived as formative in the annals of piping in Scotland. Though largely ignored in Scottish History, the ‘Atlantic Corridor’ was ‘central’ to Highland and Island history. Successive phases can be identified such as links with Spain and the Mediterranean through the Crusades, Renaissance trade and commercial life growing on western European and Atlantic trade routes and the growth of trade with France, Spain and the Mediterranean based on the Irish ports of Galway, Limerick and Sligo. All this is constantly reiterated in the Gaelic traditions of song and story, more explicitly in the period for which we have a fulsome record of vernacular Gaelic (augmenting our knowledge of an earlier, more élite culture).

The richest evidence identifies a trade with Spain growing up in the 15th and 16th centuries and part-controlled by Galway merchants. The names Baile na Gailmhinn for Galway and An Spàinn and Spàinnteach become stock terms in Scottish Gaelic. The language acquired a number of other stock phrases with reference to high-value commodities such as Spanish swords, Spanish guns, Spanish wines, Spanish silks and Spanish currency. This trading pattern was replicated in the movement of people and ideas, to an extent that its familiarity required no reiteration.

The idea of boarding a ship in Skye or Lewis for Spain or Turkey was a commonplace in Gaelic. Now, it seems exotic or has been entirely forgotten. Gaels fought in Irish and Continental wars and went to the continent for education. Following the Reformation in 1560, the Roman Catholic gentry of the clans went to the ‘Scots Colleges’, for example, in Valladolid and Madrid. The powerful MacDonalds of Clanranald exemplify this link. They were said to have brought Spanish horses to South Uist and to have preferred silk tartans from Barcelona rather than anything home-knitted.

An ‘Atlantic Corridor’ stretched from the North Cape to Iberia and linked into conduits of culture and learning from the Eastern Mediterranean such as Venice and Sicily. This was a period in which music and piping influences might have come from Spain since Gaelic was such a strong vehicle for music and poetry as well as acute learning. Influences also flowed south if we appreciate that the balladry of Ossian is still loved in Galicia. Ireland was a link in this chain and an entrepôt for Scotland’s Gàidhealtachd as well as an intellectual source for other areas of learning. In the politics of modern times, the intimacy of these links with Ireland and Spain has been lost.

A curious footnote to the long-running theme of connectivity occurs in June 1719 when the Regiment of Galicia held the line with the Jacobites in the Battle of Glenshiel. Sgùrr nan Spàinnteach, ‘Spaniards’ Hill’, marks the spot and their trenches are said to be still visible. Philip V of Spain had planned an invasion of Britain and used the cause of the Stewart kings in exile to gain support. His invasion fleet was damaged off Finisterre but a small part of the force landed in Lochalsh and occupied Eilean Donan. The pìobaireachd, The Battle of Glenshiel, offers a 1719 voice to the discourse.

The re-working of an identity for Celtic Britain or the notion of the Atlantic Corridor might seem the preserve of those in ‘ivory towers’. If so, ideas are too slow in being transmitted and a creative and egalitarian response can be formulated in terms of bagpipe music (and words) to these concepts. Galicia and Gàidhealtachd can be linked on a western axis, pipe music can be the catalyst, and, if ‘Atlantic Corridor’ sounds a bit menacing, Scottish Gaelic would naturally express it more sweetly – Air druim a’ chuain or Air slighe a’ chuain, for ‘on the ocean’s crest’ or ‘on the pathway of the seas! ‘Celtic Connections’ is the stage for creating a ‘celtic concerto’ critically and academically anchored in modern scholarship. Uniting traditions of instrumental and vocal music, I hope that, if we listen keenly, we shall hear an echo of our own voice.