Notes from the North Country

by Lon and Lynn Emerick

The year is 1785, and it is early morning on the western coast of the Scottish Highlands. Mist is swirling off the sea in ghostly patterns, the ocean is gruffing the shoreline and a chilly north wind is keening around rocky headlands. Then, faintly at first, comes the skirl of a bagpipe playing the plaintive rhythms of the Skye Boat song. Does this not conjure up images of the ancient kingdoms beside the Celtic Sea?
Over the past decade there has emerged a cottage industry devoted to all things Celtic: graphic art, jewelry, especially Celtic crosses and brooches in classic loops and knots; music and literature. If you happen to visit Sedona (Arizona), you will find New Age Celts wearing white robes and dancing around stone circles in the red rock canyons.
Who were the ancient Celts (the Greeks called them Keltoi and the word “Celt” is pronounced with a “k” sound) and where do their descendants live now? The Celts were a related group of tribes who lived and thrived in Northern Europe during the era of the Roman Empire.
An innovative, artistic and energetic people, they pioneered the use of iron for making tools and weapons, invented chain armor, were the first to shoe horse created stone shrines and built elaborate stone fortifications on rocky hilltops.
When the Roman Legions pushed the Celts out of Europe and invaded the British Isles, the Celtic tribes fled westward to rocky redoubts the invaders deemed worthless or militarily untenable. The Romans—as did later invaders of Britain—feared and despised the Celts. They wanted nothing to do with the fierce warriors who painted themselves blue and went naked into battle.
Never did we think we would use this smug expression, but here goes: we were Celts (Lynn: Scots, Irish, Welsh; Lon: Cornish) long before being Celtic was cool. We celebrated our heritage by flying appropriate flags on Celtic holidays, recognizing feast days of Celtic saints and reveling in the joy of visits to Celtic countries. There are six Celtic countries or sections of countries. We have just mentioned four: Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Cornwall. Can you name the other two? *
People of Celtic ancestry share some traits: a tendency to be intuitive, even impulsive; determinedly independent but also fiercely loyal; a unique blend of mirth and melancholy; love of flowery language; astonishing visual artistry (we dropped out of the gene pool on this one); and, among others, an abiding, almost mystical connection to the natural world.
Doesn’t that sound like many residents of the Upper Peninsula? Indeed, many Irish, Cornish, Welsh and Scots came here to work in the copper and iron mines and the lumber camps during the boom years. Their descendants are still here—flocking to concerts by Boys of the Lough, Battlefield Band and to Cornish reunions in Calumet.
During a fundraising drive for Public Radio 90, one old Celt even offered to paint himself blue and scale the Cohodas Administrative Building to inspire contributions. Cooler heads prevailed.
You have a chance to celebrate a Celtic holiday later this month. January 25 is the annual celebration of the birth date of Robert Burns (1759-1796), the national poet of Scotland.
Many of us (all persons with a Celtic ancestry share a very similar DNA) host a party; Scots call them “ceilidhs” (pronounced “kay-lee”) with music, dancing and a feast. The least you can do is eat a scone.
See if you can amuse the clerk at the bakery by using the proper Scottish pronunciation: “skahn” (rhymes with Lon). Skip the haggis.
—Lon and Lynn Emerick

Editor’s Note: Comments are welcome by writing MM or e-mailing marquettemonthly@marquettemonthly.org
Lon and Lynn Emerick’s Upper Peninsula books: The Superior Peninsula, Going Back to Central, Lumberjack—Inside an Era, Sharing the Journey, You Wouldn’t Like it Here and You STILL Wouldn’t Like it Here are available at area book and gift stores or by visiting the North Country Publishing site at www.northcountrypublishing.com

* The Isle of Man (Manx) off the coast of England and Brittany (Bretons) in France.

For extra credit: Does anyone know why triads—the number three—have such a mystical significance for Celts?

 

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