Fascist Fantasies and the Celts

If you’ve been spending any time in the Gaelic or Gaelic-adjacent parts of Twitter over the last few days, you’ve probably been made unpleasantly aware of a filmmaker in the United States who has been trying to raise money to make a Celtic-themed television series. If you haven’t been spending time in the Gaelic or Gaelic-adjacent parts of Twitter this has likely passed you by, but you will have noticed that I’ve not named the filmmaker or the title of his proposed show. Nor am I going to.

I was in fact swithering about writing this.  The TV show, and the promotional materials for the fundraiser – which thankfully fell woefully short of its target – are nothing other than far-right propaganda, and it’s in the nature of propaganda that getting people talking about it is crucial.  Propagandists of all stripes have long fed on outrage, and this is probably truer in the age of social media than it was before.  Many of us have found ourselves torn between the satisfaction of retweeting something with a sarcastic dunk attached and not wanting to give some moronic or bigoted statement more oxygen. Nobody wants to become the conduit for someone else’s hatred. And yet the attempt to make the show points to issues about cultural engagement with the past that do need to be discussed and illustrates discourses on the far right that need to be contested. The issue is bigger than the frankly pathetic antics of a fantasist who has spent most of the weekend blocking every Gaelic speaker on Twitter, whether they had taken the time to take him to task or not.  So I won’t name him or his wretched project, if you’re curious you can probably find it easily enough yourself.

If you’ve seen the promotional clips, you’ve probably gaped open-mouthed at how bad they are. The acting is laughably atrocious. The script might, if given some serious attention, improve to the level of being merely moronic. Its sense of style and artistic subtlety make Samurai Cop look like Andrei Rublev.  To get a general impression, imagine that Tommy Wiseau and Neil Breen had locked themselves away for a year, rotting their brains by reading nothing but Stormfront and The Turner Diaries before embarking on a pseudo-historical fantasy.  And the history in display is very much of the pseudo variety, showing – despite protestations of extensive research – no sign of any knowledge of the languages, the history, culture or pre-Christian religion of the cultures we conveniently if problematically designate “Celtic” that couldn’t have been gleaned from 80s fantasy comics and a glance at the titles on display in the books section of a New Age crystals-and-incense shop. The errors are sufficiently laughable and basic that I trust anyone two weeks into a first-year undergraduate Celtic Civilisation course would be rolling their eyes, but fun as this knockabout stuff is, it’s not really the point.  

The fact is that ignorant fantasists trying to make a penny from a myriad of indistinguishable repackagings of whatever they think “Celtic” is after all is nothing new, and while speakers of Celtic languages and scholars and students in Celtic Studies roll (? enjoy rolling) our eyes at the Enya-Druids-Ancient-Wisdom-Moon-Goddess-True-Secrets-Real-King-Arthur slurry that gets spread around the internet and popular culture, we don’t tend to meet it head-on.  For one thing, if we did spend time debunking this nonsense we’d never have time for anything else, and for another most of it is, while nonsense, fairly harmless nonsense. Don’t get me wrong, the wider issue of the commercialisation and commodification of real, living, minoritised cultures is a serious one. It speaks to bigger questions about our economy, about how minority cultures are elbowed out of the mainstream cultural discussion and how others feel free to appropriate what they want, decontextualised and packaged to suit the tastes of the (in this case) Anglophone majority. All of that is true, and it all plays a part in the slow, grinding process of undermining the actually-existing Celtic-language cultures. But nobody thinks that any particular piece of Celtic New Age Mysterious Relaxing Music To Chill To or book purporting to reveal the lost ancient wisdom of the druids, or tattoo in badly-spelt Irish is actually the big problem. None of those things is in themselves a big enough deal to be worth much of anyone’s time and energy.  So we roll our eyes and get on with our lives.

[Read: Enough is Enough – Scotland’s Anti-Catholic Marches]

This is different. Rather than trying to flog another book about the Mystical Mysteries of the Mysterious Ogham, this filmmaker is using this fantasy of Celticism to produce what is openly and explicitly far-right propaganda. The show’s promotional materials and social media resound with the tedious clamour of the far right’s favourite tunes: the Roman Empire was “Globalist” and “Multicultural”. The Celts were a freedom-loving people, defending their sacred freedom of speech from the censorious Romans.  Everyone who scoffs at this arrant nonsense is a neo-Marxist globalist. The show’s website declares the show to be a commentary on the present-day “globalist empire occupying our lands” and warns against the “totalitarian censorship” that threatens our freedoms. Pointing out that this paranoid fantasy has as little basis in the present as it does in the dim-and-distant Celtic past is, naturally, totalitarianism.  By neo-Marxists, naturally.  These are familiar refrains to anyone who has spent any time observing the far right.  Sadly, so too is the appropriation of medieval imagery and invocations of Iron Age identity to make their point.

Medievalists have been growing increasingly concerned in recent years by the far right’s annexation of popular representations of our field.  From handily anti-Islamic Crusader imagery, replete with the supposed Crusader battle cry of Deus Vult, to the display of Norse (or pseudo-Norse) runes and imagery at Charlottesville, far-right actors have shown a fondness for branding themselves in such a way, trying to give support to their laughable claims that their ideology represents some continuity with the European deep past. No doubt their rather Victorian stereotyped view of the past as being dominated by Manly Men with Big Swords and Big Muscles appeals to how they would like to imagine themselves in the present.  Defenders of Europe/”the West” against invading hordes (our present filmmaker froths about the Globalist Multicultural Romans bringing African soldiers over to oppress the Britons), often with a chorus about how “we” must “defend” white women from “them”, so they can perform their proper function of being pretty, blonde and submissive. It’s all very ludicrous, and if you’ve been fortunate enough not to have come across this it must seem pretty far-fetched, though anyone who has spent time observing the far right will recognise every word of it.  

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In fact, when it comes to current ideologies cosplaying as historical ones, we have the amusing irony that in this particular instance our propagandist is behaving in a profoundly Roman manner.  After all, using the trope of the noble, freedom-loving Celts (or any “barbarians”, really) to deliver an unsubtle rebuke to the decadence and servility of imperial culture is one that we find quite often in Roman writing, the best-known example to Scottish readers doubtless being the stirring speech penned by Tacitus to ventriloquise Calgacus. “The Romans make a desert and they call it peace” and all that jazz. Of course, Tacitus had no intention of running away from the comforts of the Roman empire and living as a Caledonian, any more than our present filmmaker has any intention of a meaningful engagement with actually-existing Celtic-language culture outside the safety of his own fantasy, not if his mass and often pre-emptive blocking of Gaelic and Irish speakers and Celtic scholars is any guide. No. Celtic-language speakers are to be silent, their histories and their cultures are to provide a vaguely exotic backdrop for his hateful ramblings to be projected onto. It’s standard-issue far-right frothing, but with pretty knotwork thrown in.

So far, most of the far-right appropriation of the past has centred on the Crusades and the Vikings – with nary a mention of Heimskringa and other Norse texts identifying Odin and the gang as immigrants from Asia Minor, naturally. That would rather spoil things. And this is nothing new – after all, German ultranationalists since long before Hitler have enjoyed getting esoteric with runes and invocations of their manly, racially pure, fiercely heterosexual pagan warrior forbears.  There has been less of this nonsense abusing Celtic imagery and culture, but not none as our filmmaker demonstrates.  

The abuse of these cultures as props for the propaganda of a hateful, poisonous ideology has to be met with more than a roll of eyes or it will gain a foothold. It has to be called out for the hateful, paranoid, ahistorical nonsense that it is. Those of us privileged to teach, to research, to publish, to sing, to exhibit, or in any way to share any aspect of “Celtic” culture have to be on our guard. We have to be aware that bad actors (in both senses) in bad faith want to use these things to propagate their hateful worldview.  We have to make it clear that their vile ideology has no place in what we do.      

Duncan Sneddon is a Research Assistant in the Department of Celtic and Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh and writes here in a personal capacity.  He holds a PhD in early medieval Scottish history.

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Comments (23)

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  1. Jennie Macfie says:

    In the 1980s and ’90s, I was involved in producing and distributing feature films and television series. The budget for The Celtics – $150,000 – bears no relation to the reality of production. There’s a budget for hiring transport but none for fuel and no mention of a driver. No mention of insurance, either. Shoot a whole film in *five days* on location? Whether music video or feature film, you need around a day to shoot enough footage to edit down to a usable three or four minutes. Film making is an agonisingly slow and fragile process, especially on location.

    Especially on location somewhere in the Pacific NW of the US.

    It has to be a con. Hence the antagonism towards the Gaeltachd when the cultural appropriation was pointed out. But why? The only thing I can think of is that it will harvest a list of romantic but ignorant marks to target with disinformation and/or bleed money from.

    Talking of which, it’s rather reminiscent of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party which made potential candidates pay £50 for “vetting” (3,000 people applied, allegedly). If I recall correctly, supporters also had to pay £50 to join his “March to Leave”. There must be a right wing handbook somewhere..

  2. Dennis Smith says:

    There are various long-established tropes about the Celts, with weird interconnections that are hard to disentangle. One of the odder ones is Scientology, whose founder L. Ron Hubbard published well over 100 books. One of these was a “Scottish” novel in which the all-American hero detected an evil plot to dominate the world (so what’s new?) The plot was defeated when he travelled to Scotland and rallied a clan of pure-blooded Celtic warriors to back him.

    There’s a lot of racial fantasy stuff about, some of it sanitised as entertainment in the mainstream media.

  3. Alasdair MacCaluim says:

    Fìor dheagh artagal a Dhonnchaidh! Tha mi ag aontachadh gu mòr riut.

  4. Mons Meg says:

    Yep, it’s a pretty standard ossianic antiglobalisation fantasy.

    ‘Michael Kingsbury’ is, of course, not to be confused with the real Michael Kingsbury: the Time Out and Peter Brook award-winning London-based theatre and television writer, director, and actor. It would be an easy mistake to make when deciding whether or not to part with your money.

  5. Joan Nicdhòmhnaill says:

    Sgoinneil a Dhonnchaidh!!

  6. Stephen Cowley says:

    “Moronic”, “ignorant fantasists”, “openly and explicitly far-right propaganda.”, “arrant nonsense”, “their rather Victorian, stereotyped view of the past as being dominated by Manly Men with Big Swords and Big Muscles”, “their proper function of being pretty, blonde and submissive”, “very ludicrous”, “amusing irony”, “standard-issue far-right frothing”, “their manly, racially pure, fiercely heterosexual pagan warrior forbears”, “hateful, poisonous ideology”, “hateful, paranoid, ahistorical nonsense”, “vile ideology”,

    Whoever they are, it sounds like they are hardly the only ones engaging in propaganda.

    1. Gavin Campbell says:

      Reads to me like your feelings are hurt.

      1. Stephen Cowley says:

        Yes to both, in a way.

        I’m sure we’re all familiar with attempts to identify the cause of Scotland with the political left. The recent “There is no place in Scotland for…” or “Scotland says no to…” (whatever right wing position) posters and rhetoric, for example. This article seems to be trying to extend that to the Gaeltacht. The argument is that, the views of the left being true, or at least held by the most people, appealing to them will win independence.

        However, it is unhistorical to say that there is no autochthonous political right in Scotland (the Jacobite monarchists, James Steuart, Thomas Carlyle and many more). And many people thinking about self-government would be suspicious of the powers of a Parliament from which the right was excluded on principle, given that it is supposed to be a place for debate. As Douglas Sneddon’s article shows, identifying the cause of Scotland (or Gaeldom) with the (far) right would create a similar reaction.

        1. Mons Meg says:

          ‘Michael Kingsbury’ isn’t trying to identify the cause of ‘Scotland’ (whatever that might be) with the political right. He’s trying to make a fantasy TV series about Celtic resistance to Roman imperialism; ‘Much as the people in our own time and in our own lands do. The people, a people, seeing their own identity destroyed by a globalist multicultural Empire’, as the movie pitch says. You can just imagine a scene in which the ‘Celts’ are licking their wounds around a campfire after a battle and singing about sending them homeward to think again – perhaps even in Gaelic.

          1. Alulkoy says:

            You mean like the “Celtic” Americans, who mass invaded , Multiculturalized, and now squat on someone else’s indigenous homeland?! When are they leaving the existing tribal lands of Native Americans. Last time I checked it was not celts but Europeans working together to invade tribal Nations indigenous homelands. That was a invasion of globalist colonizers!

        2. Gabe says:

          If you decide that the hill you want to die on is defending explicitly white supremacist ahistorical propaganda from people who correctly identify it then that’s your business but don’t imagine other people can’t see exactly what you’re trying to do.

    2. Lys NicOirbsiu says:

      The truth is not propaganda except to those who support what that truth debunks. Nice self-ownership you did there.

  7. Ty Larson says:

    Ironically Odin as an evolution of Lugos points to a Celtic origin. Odin like Lugh/Lugos was not part of their main tradition but a later addition. The Vanir are likely local to the north but the Aesir I think are likely tied to the Indo-European Asura connecting all the way to India. You can often see the -as, -oss, -uz ending to their name like Teiwaz ie Tyr the original god that Odin displaced or Zeus or Deus which are two big daddy sky gods popular today despite being huge assholes for the most part.

    1. Edel Porter says:

      Never heard of any connection (etymological or otherwise) between Odin and Lugh before. The name derives from PGmc *Wodanaz cognate with the archaic English ”wood’, meaning ‘mad’. The – z/s ending is the common a-stem ending for the nominative singular form of masculine nouns in PGmc, nothing to do with Aesir or Asia. Snorri Sturluson is probably the one responsible for this – in his Edda he gives a euhemeristic account of the Norse gods origin s in Asia minor based on false etymologies.

      1. Stephen Cowley says:

        I imagined Wotan was a derivative of “witting” (i.e. knowing). So we had the god of knowledge/scholarship, the god of war/thunder (Thor) and the god of the hearth (Freia) – corresponding roughly to the medieval church, aristocracy and family – or to Wednesday, Thursday, Friday. I’m sure that’s what you find in Wagner’s Ring cycle and he must have had his sources. Plus, it makes a kind of sense.

  8. Gavin Campbell says:

    Tried watching some of their videos. Where everyone speaks in American accents and uses hair styling products.

    1. Mons Meg says:

      It does seem to be a strange throwback to the sword-and-sandal films of the 1960s.

    2. Wes Ferry says:

      Very heavy Trump School of Acting vibe and look by the snarly young fella in one of the clips.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    I haven’t bothered to look into the proposed television production, but there are some aspects of the article that apply to other media. I am warming to The Bard’s Tale IV: Director’s Cut (now I’m wondering about those Roman numerals) after journeying beyond the fictionalised Skara Brae through the forest of Inshriach to the norse-like islands. This game had a success kickstarter fundraiser, apparently raising more than $1.5 million:
    and has presumably introduced its Gaelic songs to a wide global audience, although as a non-Gaelic speaker, I cannot understand them or comment on their authenticity. If Bard’s Tale IV has an ideology, it is not rightwing (aside from your small band’s heroic hacking and slaying, and plundering like a British Army). The plight of refugees, the worthy anti-racist causes you align with, the preponderance of active female characters (if you employ the plot’s characters, you can easily find yourself with majority-female bands —maximum of 6—, as mine is currently 2 female human bards, 1 female elvish magic practitioner, 1 female human fighter, 1 male ex-paladin, 1 male trow rogue, whose periodic autonomous conversations challenge religious, ethnic and racial supremacist views). I don’t want to give away any plot spoilers, but your enemies may well belong in the ‘hateful worldview’ sphere.

    It might be useful for Bella to review the game (by someone fluent in Gaelic and versed in Bardic lore) or at least interview a member of the cultural production team.

    1. Duncan Sneddon says:

      Robbie Anndra MacLeòid would be the best person for that. He’s a Gaelic speaker, academic and gamer (he does livestreams in Gaelic). I don’t know if he’s written for B.C. before, but he’s on Twitter as @Cluicheamaid. I don’t really know the first thing about computer games myself.

  10. Alulkoy says:

    These European American wannabes Celts have no room to talk about globalism, Forced multiculturalism and invasion when they squat on Indigenous American land, and are descendants of the inventors of globalism, capitalism, and multiculturalism, who invaded 2 Native American continents and whose descendants act like they are the indigenous population of the non-White homelands they mass immigrated to. If they had any integrity they would self deport to their own Celtic homelands where their own ancestors are buried. They need to stop being hypocrites and go back to where they belong, in Europe!

    1. Stephen Cowley says:

      If there is no law of the land, we have to fall back on natural law. Farmers have land rights because they cultivated the land. If someone steals their crops, they are deprived of the reward of their labour. It can’t really be the same for hunter-gatherers. If I catch a fish, I don’t own the river it swam in. Or if I catch a deer, I don’t own the mountain or forest it fed on. There would be a hundred owners for each asset.

  11. Alulkoy says:

    After Europe including Scotland, Ireland and England Invaded and Colonized every other non White lands, forced multiculturalism on the indigenous populations by then bringing Africans, Hindus, Asians as slaves and cheap labor. Forced assimilation on the Natives to detribalize them. Now that the European colonizer is rich off other peoples wealth, lands and resources. They want to go back to their supposed Celtic tribal roots, even though they are not living cultures anymore with no ties to the land or their ancestral belief systems and spiritualities. Gtfo! You fakes! You will never have an indigenous culture again because your ancestors gave it up for Christianity, wealth, and greed by capitalism.

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