The Basse Yutz Flagons and BBC Myth-Making

In Neil McGregor’s much-admired radio series  A History of the World in 100 Objects he today focused on the early world of the Celts through two bronze drinking flagons, the Basse Yutz Flagons – considered to be the most important and earliest examples of Celtic art.

As his programme reaches a crescendo of analysis he says:

“The Greeks constructed an image of the Celtoi as a barbaric violent people. That ancient typecasting was replaced a couple of hundred years ago with an equally fabricated image of a brooding mystical Celtic identity that was far removed from the grainier practicalities of the Anglo-Saxon industrial world, the romanticised Celtic Twilight of Ossian and Yeats. Since then “being Celtic” has taken further constructed connotations of national identity. Just look at the Celtic clovers and crosses that for many Scots Welsh and Irish are visible statements of their tribal identity, or the fact that visitors are welcomed to modern Edinburgh with greetings in gaelic, a Celtic language never historically spoken there.”

“The notion of Celtic identity, although strongly felt and articulated by many, turns out under investigation to be disturbingly elusive, unfixed and changing. The challenge when looking at objects like the Basse Yutz Flagons is how to get past those distorting layers of later myth-making and let the objects speak as clearly as possible about their own place and their own time … but their may nonetheless be some truth in the enduring stereotype that northern Europeans, Celtic or not do know how to drink …”

Listen here (from 12.00 – 13.27):

Now Neil McGregor’s a great broadcaster and the construct of this programme is beautiful, but this programme is offensive and wrong in so many ways it’s extraordinary.

Gaelic has been used in Edinburgh for more than a thousand years when the settlement was incorporated into the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba. Gaelic was the language of political, economic and cultural power in Edinburgh for two centuries or more, and today is spoken by thousands of people. The first gaelic book was published in Edinburgh in 1567 and the first collection of poetry in 1751. The city has been home to writers and scholars like Duncan Ban MacIntyre (1724-1812), Alexander Carmichael (1832-1912),  Sorley MacLean (1911-96) among them.

The literary work of the Celtic Twilight is dismissed and casual myths about Ossian are regurgitated without a thought.

How can a ‘national’ broadcaster put out content … historical content … that is just so lazily wrong about such basic facts?

The sub-text is: your history and your identity doesn’t really exist (but I’ll throwaway line about drink).

Can you imagine a scenario of a Scottish broadcaster putting out a programme so badly wrong about its neighbouring country’s past?


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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    I’m glad you picked up on this Mike. Appallingly ignorant

  2. jptonner says:

    Especially frustrating since it always stop short of the the logical extension of that line of argument: that all identity is fabricated and based on myth, including contemporary forms of British, Australian or French identity etc. I suppose the counter claim is that just because identity utilises selective narratives (that may not have been accurate) doesn’t mean that it isn’t real, felt and experienced.

    Not the first time this view is expressed from otherwise respectable BBC radio programmes.

    In the In Our Time episode dealing with the Celts ( ) the same ‘conclusion’ is asserted; the people who we call Celts didn’t really exist and they are an 18th century fabrication. It takes Alistair Moffat (pal of Gordon Broony) to call them out on their historical three card trick: ‘military defeat, colonisation, marginalisation, pastiche and now we don’t exist…a subtle removal of our past.!’

    1. Ray Bell says:

      There is a mild taboo on the word “Celtic” in some quarters. I know it’s got football connotations and all that, but some archaeologists won’t touch it, and I suspect some biases are at play.

      Apparently we have to use “Iron Age” instead, even though the earliest Greek (Pytheas) and Roman sources tell us that the people here (or most of them) spoke a Celtic language. A lot of the forts on Hadrian’s Wall like Vindolanda and Segedunum have Celtic language names.

      I once asked an archaeologist why we don’t just call the Romans “Iron Age” as well, because that would refer to their technological level. I also pointed out later on that a lot of the Roman Army’s soldiers weren’t even Romans. But the Romans don’t get airbrushed out as “Iron Age” or “Classical Period” or whatever.

      Archaeology is a lot more politicised than people think and it could do with more scrutiny in Scotland.

  3. Richard Easson says:

    The rubber stamp of the ivory tower hopes to be indelible. It reminded me of a geographic/cultural change I noticed. My old school atlas, under Great Britain , has England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland with their respective capitals. However in my large new Collins atlas there is no mention of these four countries, it mearly has The United Kingdom with its well known capital of London. When did this happen and were they told to do this from above or a bit like Neil MacGregor, if you say something from what you think is a position of authority (often enough) it will be believed?

  4. Adrian Roper says:

    Totally agree with the irritation expressed.
    MacGregor is shallow and insensitive in making a valid point.
    The valid point is that the culture that made those drinking pots is far removed from the current day, and significantly far removed from anything we might consider as Celtic in the past two millennia.
    From a Scottish perspective, the joy is that Scotland is built on a multiple of cultures coming together. Pict/Cambrian/Welsh, Gael, Norse, and Inglis. These are all the ancestral big yins, but with more ever joining.
    It’s great to look back down a Scottish thread that leads to the Celtic golden age in and around the Alps.
    But there is another story of the Western Seaboard that connected Scotland via Ireland, Wales and Iberia to Greece.
    And another that connects to Norway and Iceland.
    And another that connects to Germania and England via Northumbria.
    And another that connects with Normandy and France via the Bruce and his kin.
    Let’s stop there – although the full story is far richer.

    A curse on those who demean or disparage Scotland’s past and current Celtic culture.

    And ditto likewise for all Scotland’s wonderful cultures.

    Some line of MacDiarmid is hovering.
    About a thistle, is it?
    Something about the ae o a’?

    1. Ray Bell says:

      The trouble with the plurality of these cultures is not that they existed, but that they are often used to airbrush Gaelic out through whataboutery. It is used to argue against Gaelic all the time in Edinburgh. The Gaelic influence upon this region appears to have happened in two or three phases, and at least one of them occurred while part of Northumbria, which is something never discussed in school books or popular history.

      But if you’re going to talk about the complexity of Scotland’s cultural past, it’s pretty simple compared to the Balkans or Iberia, which were less isolated than where Scotland is…

      1. Gashty McGonnard says:

        The whole, ‘Gaelic was never spoken in X so no signs please’ thing isn’t really about historical linguistics or respecting Scotland’s plural origins, anyway.

        If you see Edinburgh as a national capital, it’s natural and obvious to expect signs in all of the nation’s extant languages. That’s just a marker of self-respect and cohesion. (And yes, signs in Scots too please, where placenames differ from the English version)

        If you think of Edinburgh and Stornoway as two distinct UK localities with no particular common bond, then Fàilte gu Dùn Èideann looks as perverse to you as Cornish signage in York.

        Of course, the BBC’s worldview prefers Scotland as a purely geographical or administrative unit. Anything that indicates a national identity must be undermined.

      2. Adrian Roper says:

        I should declare an interest. I’m writing from Wales, last redoubt of the native Britons.
        Not so long ago in Chinese terms, early Welsh was spoken throughout the whole island of Britain, with a particularly hardy tribe up north called the Caledonii. (The modern Welsh for “hard” is “caled”).
        Then the Gaelic Scots arrived from Ireland and the Britons ended up confined to greater Strathclyde (still connected to Cumbria for a while) with their citadel at Dumbarton (“fort of the Britons”). When the Vikings started raiding up the Clyde the Cambrian royalty cut their losses and sailed south to reinforce the redoubt in Wales. But they took with them the earliest heroic poetry of Northern Europe, all written in Scotland but somehow airbrushed from Scottish consciousness.
        Then the Angles conquered the SE corner up to the Forth and made it part of the kingdom of Northumbria.
        Then the Danes conquered NE England and the Inglis of SE Scotland aligned with their fellow Christian Gaels and grew apart from the English south of the Danelaw.
        Then these SE subjects began to grow in influence and eventually dominated the Scottish court.
        They renamed their language Scots, and this Inglis tongue became the dominant language of Scotland.
        Then came the catalogue of 18th and 19th events that first decimated the Gaelic population and then turned Scots into a patois for the poor.
        Ive left out the Norman influence, and barely touched on the Norse.
        My point is that Scotland’s story is not as simple as “we were once a Celtic Gaelic country”.
        That airbrushes out the Cambrians, and the Norse, and marginalises the glories of Scots Inglis.
        I don’t think it makes sense to think of Scotland as a Celtic country. It’s a mongrel, and all the richer for it, provided it values its various roots and parts.
        And of course that includes the mighty Gaelic language. Long may it live and prosper.

        1. John S Warren says:

          I think you may have missed the Picts, unless you have folded them into the Caledonii or elsewhere?

          1. Adrian Roper says:

            Hi John
            The Caledonii were a Celtic tribe in the Roman era. They undoubtedly became part of Pictland. Scholars are pretty unanimous that the Picts were part of the Brythonic Celtic language group, just like the Votadini (another Roman era tribe) who became the Gododdin centred on Caeredin (Edinburgh) with their cousins in Manaw Gododdin (Fife). The most obvious evidence of the Picts’ Brythonic language affiliation is in the widespread use of the word Aber to demote a river mouth in the eastern Highlands. Aberdeen. Aberfeldy. Aberdour. In Brythonic Wales we have many Abers. Aberystwyth. Abertawe. Abertillery.
            The Gaelic equivalent is Invir. On the west coast of Scotland it’s all Invirs. In the east it’s a mixture. Aberdour is next door to Inverkeithing.
            This shows how the Gaels completely dominated the west and gradually rose to dominance in an eastward direction.
            I’m no expert, but my reading suggests that the Gael take over of Pictland was not a crude military takeover. A few battles no doubt, but also a lot of intermarriage and the gradual supremacy of a more vibrant culture that embraced and flowed from Ireland.
            I’m not sure what to make of this in terms of creating a Scottish national story, but I do think that Scots could contemplate a shift in their thinking regarding the Picts. Instead of viewing them as some great tragic lost culture, they could see them as northern cousins of the Gododdin in the eastern lowlands and the Strathclyde Cambrians in the western lowlands, and reclaim the literature of these people which has been miraculously preserved in Wales. We call them Gwyr y Gogledd. The Men of the North. Brilliant poets like Aneurin and Taliesin. They are part of Scottish history in their own right, but also offer the best available window into the culture of the Picts.

        2. Ray Bell says:

          You’re not telling me anything I don’t know here. But when the Brythons/Cymry are invoked in Scottish discourse, it’s usually to say something along the lines of “Edinburgh spoke Welsh not Gaelic”. I’ve lost times of how many times I’ve heard that. A lot of them won’t believe you when you tell them the Lothians have dozens of Gaelic place names, or some local words have Gaelic etymologies.

          If you ask them about actually Brythonic culture here though they can usually tell you very little. And the folk who say that kind of thing in Edinburgh tend to have no interest in Taliesin or any kind of Cymric language revival. It’s just a stick to beat Gaelic with.

          Gaelic is one of the most important languages in Scottish history. More so than the Norse on the Mainland. More so than pre-Norman era Anglo-Saxon.
          More so than Norman French or Flemish. As for Pictish, we know so little about it which is a tragedy, but also a fact. There is no doubt in my mind that if anything has been airbrushed out of Scottish history, it’s Gaelic.

          1. Adrian Roper says:

            Hi Ray
            You make lots of good strong points. I certainly don’t support Welsh/Cambrian being used to deny the importance and relevance of Gaelic in Edinburgh or anywhere else in Scotland. Not only is Gaelic a huge part of Scottish history, it is also (unlike Welsh in Scotland) a living language and a treasure to protect and nurture.
            I’ve offered a few thoughts on the Picts and Cambrians in a reply to another post. They expand a little on my sense that Scotland has plural roots and should embrace them all, and perhaps especially those currently airbrushed or unconsciously unrecognised. Cambrian/Welsh is one. Even more so if I’m right that it is a window into Pictland.
            Scots needs more recognition too.
            But you only have to look at a map of Scotland to very quickly find that, without a basic grasp of Gaelic, you can’t even pronounce most places, let alone know what they mean. Correcting this should part of the core curriculum of every Scottish primary school.

        3. David Inglis says:

          Fascinating insight. I’ve never heard about the Inglis of the SE. Do you have any resources where I could further research them? Often the name Inglis is seen in a negative context or as English.

          1. Adrian Roper says:

            Hi David, I used the word Inglis to refer to the Anglophones of SE Scotland. It’s the word they used to describe themselves and their language until the wars of Scottish independence..
            They used to be part of Bernicia, and then Northumbria but eventually became loyal subjects of the Gaelic kings of Scotland and then gradually ascended into cultural dominance, at least at court in the east, rebranding their language as Scots to make it clear where their loyalties lay. If you Google “history of the Scots language” you should find a very informative website.
            You probably know there is an Inglis clan, but I’m sure this relates to a family of Anglophones that acquired it as a surname. In the same way, many families in Scotland acquired the name Welsh because they spoke Cambrian into medieval times. Interestingly, King David I, who promoted the expansion of the Inglis through the establishment of royal burghs under their control, was also known as David Prince of the Cambrians. Your name is a Scottish history lesson!

  5. Ray Bell says:

    You only have to look out into the Firth of Forth to see places with Gaelic names – under the foot of the Forth Bridge you have Inchgarvie (rough island). Nearby you have South Queensferry, which used to be called Caschillis (Cas Chaolais) after the straits or kyles (similar to Edrachilles in Sutherland). Behind Queensferry, you can find Echline which is probably Eachlainn, a place where they kept horses (presumably while waiting for a boat across)… Then down the firth you have Inchcolm (Columba’s island) and Inchmickery (the vicar’s island).

    Way further out, you’ve the Isle of May, one of the easternmost specks of land in Scotland – it doesn’t have a Gaelic etymology, but it’s got Gaelic names on it – two Tarberts (Tairbeart – an isthmus), Colm’s Hole, an Ardcarron and a place called the Burrian whose name is presumably related to the Burren in the west of Ireland. (Boireann meaning bare rock.)

  6. Gashty McGonnard says:

    Thanks Mike.

    It’s hard to keep calling out these subtle, politically motivated falsehoods from ‘experts’, since they’re so frequent. Needs to be done though.

  7. shaun macdonald says:

    If only we Scotland could have a broadcasting service where we could do such things, where we could start as many littles fires as we currently see being lit all over the “msm” in the run up to the next Holyrood elections. Great little piece, informative and as always revealing.

  8. Josef Ó Luain says:

    By accepting the simple proposition that England is a foreign country, the underlying reasons for the frequently displayed ignorance by that country’s media organisations regarding Scotland, its culture and its history, become pretty damn obvious. No?

  9. Andrew says:

    Temple – a mere 13 miles from the centre of Edinburgh was known as Baile Nan Trodach. Currie, Balerno, Balgreen – all examples of Gaelic place names.

  10. Arboreal Agenda says:

    He is right about the ‘Celts’ though isn’t he? They are not a coherent grouping of much meaning. I went to an amazing exhibition of ‘Celtic’ artefacts in Edinburgh a couple of years ago that showed this very clearly. I don’t think this means to suggest Scottish history and identity does not exist but perhaps not in the way some people like to think. Bit confused about the Ossian reference as that was just made up rubbish wasn’t it? Or are you saying McGregor citing that was clearly bogus because of that, so is misleading?

    1. david black says:

      Ossian is most certainly not made up rubbish, though MacPherson was a dubious character who took some liberties with his compilation from perfectly authentic (mostly oral) sources. The denigration owed much to people like Samuel Johnson at a time when anti-Scottish racism in London was rife. It is certainly disappointing that Neil MacGregor didn’t do better – not only is he a Glaswegian, he’s a bloody lawyer to boot! In 2014 I raised the issue of the lawful ownership of the contents of the British Museum and the Tate Gallery of British Art, which would, pro rata, be about 8.5% Scotland’s. His response was ‘We can jump of that bridge when we come to it.’ Scotland is of course proudly polyglot. The Livingstons were originally ‘sons of Levi’ Penicuik is Brethonic Welsh, the Keiths are descended from the German Catti tribe, and names like Skene and Erskine are Pictish. It’s all there if you look for it!

      1. Arboreal Agenda says:

        I stand corrected – I thought he had claimed they were from old written sources and when challenged to produce them, he never did as they did not exist in that form. I notice though that some of the most severe objections were from the Irish, notwithstanding Johnson’s intervention (the letters between McPherson and him are classic). It does seem he made up a lot of the poems himself basing them on old stories. I think this is the bone of contention.

      2. Malcolm Malcolm says:

        He went to Glasgow Academy. I don’t know if you’ve met many of it’s alumni but that school tends to produce pretty hardline, condescending conservatives. Whether he trained as some kind of lawyer is neither here nor there. One listen to his daft accent should tell you everything you need to know about his political biases.

  11. Robert Logan says:

    That was rather brutal. Utterly condescending to be honest.

  12. Wul says:

    When I hear guff like this I always think; “If they talk that shite about us, they are probably talking shite about the rest of the world’s people too”.

    1. Wul says:

      I’ve increasingly noticed output from the BBC is telling me WHAT to think about a topic, rather than simply presenting facts and allowing me to make up my own mind.

      Very apparent in even news broadcasts now. Don’t know if its increasing in frequency, or just that I’m noticing it more nowadays.

      1. Arboreal Agenda says:

        I think it’s always been there – ‘Auntie’ and all that, educate, inform, entertain etc. Maybe in the era of fake news they have tried to be more ‘educative’. Mind you I watch very little TV so don’t really know if things have changed on that medium and BBC Scotland has always been quite distinct (bad? – Armando Iannucci does a great routine about when growing up and his heart always sinking on the phrase, ‘that’s except for viewers in Scotland…’). Been listening to R4 since the 70s and haven’t noticed much change there.

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