Sconemac's, The Celtic Family in Ancient Time

Scone's Scottish and Celtic Internet Book

Scottish History and Culture * and




"another page in my book"


The Celtic Family of the Ancients

The subject of the mysterious but fascinating people known as the Celts and the probability of hearing mutterings about beautiful artwork, enchanted myths and stories etc. That is excellent but what about the social institutions and way of life? what about the Brehon Laws? and they way of life? The Celtic family of the ancients is still showing up in the Celtic ancestry of today.

For a modern Western society, the idea of what constitutes a family is very different from that held by our Celtic predecessors. Nowadays, in a world where we can move to a house easily, change occupations, live far from our kin still keeping in touch, or even emigrate, it can be difficult to realise just how important the family and clan were to an individual. Kinship and lineage provided a real tangible link to the area where you lived. It gave rights of settlement and land use, of inheritance, of legal protection, the right to follow a particular craft and a myriad other benefits.

There are, in any society, universal events that affect family groups, such as getting married, making a living, rearing children. These events will, however, be organised in accordance with a particular culture. Let's consider the education of children for a moment. Within the Celtic household, not all children remained with their natural parents, but were quite often sent to be educated and reared in the home of another family. In Ireland and Scotland, such fosterage was practised as late as the eighteenth century. The relationship between a child and his or her foster parents was considered very special and was the closest of all family ties. In modern times we tend to think of the natural parents as being the most significant adults in childhood; indeed our legal system cherishes this dearly. The whole reason for fosterage, was to tighten the bonds of the clan, and what a better way than to have a child grow up in the affection of his own family but also to equal affection to the foster parents and children. It made for an essential bond that made the loyalties of clans, kin inspired, love inspired and the desire to protect and cherish all in the clan.

Until recent times, the family unit played an important role in the education process. It provided a stable setting for the transmission of cultural knowledge. In the Gaelic oral tradition (beul aithris), for example, a wealth of information could be passed onto the child from grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents and foster parents. This learning was gained not only from listening to story and song, but also from the practical experience of daily living and working within a close knit unit of family and community. Certain kinds of fosterage also involved an apprenticeship for the young person into one of the crafts. Today, specialist institutions such as schools and technical colleges have stripped the family of most of its former educational functions. All these traditions were handed down from the Celtic System of teaching, laws, home life, and traditions as well as their own religious beliefs. Much of it has survived today. Much can be seen by visiting a Celtic family.

The family also once functioned as an integrated economic unit in which all its members engaged in various work tasks according to age, experience and aptitude. A whole range of crafts and skills were utilised - hand weaving, baking, herding, fishing, farming, spinning, grinding corn, to name but a few - all essential to maintain the smooth running of the household. How different this world must have been from that of today, where we have come to see the home and the workplace as two separate entities, in two physically separate locations,fulfilling two different functions within society.

Another important occupation of the isles was that of the mariner, particularly in villages in the Western Isles and all port cities. So many families would have had at least some male kindred whose lives were bound up with the sea. This way of life persisted right up until the early decades of this century. Family life was very much influenced by the fact that these seamen could lose their lives at any time. Living on the brink of survival, with such dependence on one another, created strong ties of family and kin that few of my own generation will have experienced.

The breakdown of the Highland clan system and the subsequent demise of the laws of kinship under the sway of feudalism have had perhaps the most devastating effects on the family life of the Gaels. This is a huge subject in its own right. For now it is enough to remark on the fact that it was the kinship group, and not the individual, that was the foundation of Celtic society. Primary kinship, known as 'derbhfine' (jerrav-feen) traced descent from a common great grandparent, with the rights, privileges and responsibilities of the kinship group extending for four generations.

The kinship group also formed the basis of Celtic law. Each kinship group was responsible for the actions of its members - a form of self policing if you like. Let's face it, if you could be made to pay for the crimes committed by your brother, or son or any other member of your kinship group, wouldn't you do your best to make sure they stayed on the 'straight and narrow'? In my own family, my brother and I were both punished if we caused an argument or other uproar. My parents believed it took two to cause it and and in truth, children will seldom confess they were the troublemaker, so it was a simple system - do not cause the disturbance and no one gets punished. A system of self-decipline.

Yet we don't need to journey far into the distant mists of time to find the spirit of the Celtic family. On Arran there are islanders still living who remember being raised according to the old Highland ways, where the hearth was of central importance, the gathering place for music and stories, and where guests received a warm welcome.

I have merely scratched the surface of the wealth of detail on the family life of our Celtic forebears. One thing is clear, though. They saw the role of the family as very different from the rather narrow perception we have of it today - and I believe we still have much to learn, from our Celt ancestors.



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