THE Celtic Revival is thought of by many as being shrouded in Celtic mists and lost in the Celtic Twilight. It is accused of sentimentalising Celtic culture, and of lacking a proper sense of the essential realism, including misery and brutality that are taken to be our proper concerns and not to be too much disturbed by pleasure, joy, celebration or anything of that sort, and certainly not by anything visionary.

Two weeks ago I made the point that as a simple geographical fact twilight is extended in the Gaelic-speaking parts of the world: double that in the Mediterranean. Living, as I do, on Eilean a Cheo – the Island of Mist otherwise known as the Island of Skye – I am also aware that mist is a common, almost prevalent phenomenon – and that applies to the whole of the west coasts of Scotland and Ireland. So what is the problem?

Perhaps it is the fairies, trickier than politicians and more elusive than truth. But the Celtic Revivalists did not invent the fairies, though some of their number can certainly be accused of prettifying them. What they did do was be inspired by/plunder/exploit/misappropriate/ennoble/traduce/violate/glorify (take your pick to suit your prejudice) Celtic culture. What is Celtic culture? Don’t ask. Just go with the flow. It’s obvious to most of us, even if we can’t articulate it, but it is hugely problematic for the scholars.

With the Celtic Revival came an increasing interest in Scotland’s Celtic legends, many of which are shared with Ireland and involve travel between the two countries. Connecting us both are also major Christian links, particularly exploited in the figure of Saint Columba (Columcille) of Iona. Columcille’s story goes back to Saint Adomnán, who knew people who knew Columcille, so when Adomnán writes (more than 1300 years ago) about Columcille’s farewell to a white horse, whether we believe the statement that the horse was in tears is beside the point. The point is that Adomnán wanted to assert a kind of communion between the creature and the human, and for John Duncan to paint the scene in oils is no more a sentimentalisation than for Adomnán to paint it in words.

In Duncan’s painting of 1925 St Columba Bidding Farewell to the White Horse, Columcille wears a white habit, and the horse, which sorrowfully foresees Columcille’s death, is also white, the colour emphasised in paint and in the title. Columcille and the horse are both white-haired. The plants shown are Achlasan Chaluim Chille (Saint John’s Wort), and Copag (Curled Docken), both healing plants and the first named after Columcille. The symbolism is important, as, in Adomnán’s telling, Columcille’s fellow monks regard the white horse as a mere ignorant brute, whereas Columcille is prepared to attribute to it human sentiments, albeit miraculously imparted. Look at the positioning of Columcille’s hands. There is a touching intimacy there that will be well understood by those who love horses.

The National:

John Duncan’s St Bride

This may not go so far as a Christian endorsement of the possibility of shape-changing, but it is a profound communion between species. In Gaelic tradition, Columcille also converses with a swan, which he is said to have healed when he found it wounded on the strand. It was a swan that had knowledge of life and death, and it explains that it was wounded by the Fianna – the warrior band of the Gaels – and had swum from Ireland to be saved. “The song of the swan on the beach”, Mo chasan dubh, which I quoted two weeks ago, emphasises the symbolism and the connection between Scotland and Ireland. The colour symbolism of white, representing innocence, makes the swan an obvious choice of symbolic creature: likewise, the dove, representing peace and the Holy Spirit and after which Columcille was named.

In Gaelic myth and song, swans are deeply symbolic. The Children of Lír were turned into swans by a jealous stepmother, and waited three hundred years upon the sea between Ireland and Scotland, until given baptism so that they could die. One of John Duncan’s finest paintings is entitled The Children of Lir are driven forth on the western seas in the form of swans. It dates from 1914 and emphasises the innocence and fragility of the children, as well as the whiteness of their skins – in this instance exposed to the full violence of the sea, as they look backward with longing to the land.

The action of the story traverses the Sea of Moyle – the dangerous waters between Islay and Antrim. These ancient connections survive not only in Duncan’s painting but in that of the Irish artist Mainie Jellett, whose The Children of Lir painted in 1935 sees their transformation into swans as something approaching a deliverance.

Jellett’s technique is modernist -but her relative abstraction was derived not only from an aesthetic that matched her musical gifts and the family’s mathematical past, but her awareness of Celtic abstraction, of which she wrote tellingly: “Do not think that the reason for abstraction in pre-Christian Celtic or Early Irish Christian Art or in any other art form was, and is, the failure and incompetence of the artist to reproduce nature realistically. The Celtic sculptors or those of the Early Irish Christian High Crosses and the painters of the illuminated manuscripts had consummate skill and a highly developed sense of form. The photographic representation of the human figure if they had wished to do it, would have been child’s play after the formal intricacies of Celtic or early Irish Christian abstract pattern and form. The ideal behind this art was the same as that of the ancient African and of many other great art forms, the creation of form either inspired by nature or by the human mind and used to produce a complete organic structure of form and colour controlled by whatever medium the artist chose to employ.”

One of those artists, whose medium was music, was Francis George Scott (1880-1958). He had taught Hugh MacDiarmid and set many of his pupil’s poems in masterly songs combining lyricism and modernism. Despite his modernism and his connection with the rebarbative MacDiarmid, Scott was initially inspired by Kennedy-Fraser and she, on her death bed, hoped to be carried down to hear Scott sing some of his own songs. One of those songs is Saint Brendan’s Graveyard. Maurice Lindsay was caustic about Jean Lang’s lyrics – “rather weak verses” – and he was equally unpleasant about Scott’s music, writing of “tonal muddiness rather than of timelessness” and of “the strong desire for time to move on”. But Scott creates a miraculous sense of timelessness with a vocal line floating in disembodied beauty and simplicity over a piano part which subtly varies the drone effect – part of the overall intention of imitating piobaireachd. Saint Brendan’s Graveyard is rarely sung. Isobel Buchanan recorded it beautifully with Lawrence Glover many years ago, but it is demanding of the performers and they shy off of it. It is a pity as this, more than any other of Scott’s songs, is a positive outcome of the Celtic Revival of which Kennedy-Fraser was such a vital part. Saint Brendan’s Graveyard is in Barra, named after one of the earliest and most widely honoured of the Celtic saints and friend to Saint Columba. And this is Jean Lang’s poem, not, in my view, to be so easily despised:

High up there they rest, their long day’s work done

Above the stark rocks that bastion the shore.

They are drenched by the rain, warm’d by the sun,

Awaiting the day when Time is no more.

Coarse grass their coverlet, tansy of gold,

Rude cross their head-stone, with “Pray for the soul,”

“Rest here in peace,” till the Book’s leaves unfold.

They rest as they lived, where green breakers roll,

Where waves surge and thunder, surf dashes high;

Grey mist and chill rains watch over their sleep.

High over their beds the wild sea-birds cry,

Winds’ sough and seas’ moan are the dreich lullaby

Of souls that still cling to the shadowy deep.

Well, we are in the shadowy deep of the year and so (this being Christmas Eve) to John Duncan and that other great Celtic saint, Saint Brigid.

There are few characters more quintessentially Celtic than Brigid. Was she a goddess or was she a saint or was she both? In the painting by John Duncan, made in 1913, she is, according to legend, being carried by angels to witness Christ’s nativity. At first I thought Brigid should not be accompanied by seagulls but by the birds named after her – the Gille-Bhride or oyster-catcher said to have protected the infant Christ from Herod’s soldiers by covering him with seaweed. But oyster-catchers stay close to the shore and these are common gulls, almost as delicate as kittiwakes and, in this image, benign sea-going attendants.

In Gaelic poetry Brigid is even imagined as suckling Christ in defiance of time, space and her own virginity – which puts her ahead of all the other saints and leaves Mary doing the dishes. In the Gàidhealtachd, Brigid is invoked for aid and protection over people and cattle. In the 9th-10th-century Broccan’s Hymn to her, she is supposed to have hung her mantle on a sunbeam; and in a later 12th-century commentary, the feat is imitated by Saint Brendan. In another version of the commentary, Brigid holds sunbeams in her right hand. As I wrote last week, romantic exaggeration is in the original texts of more than a 1000 years ago, along with many a 1000-year-old poem of nature nostalgia; so we should go easy on the Celtic Revivalists.

John Duncan’s images of Brigid are of necessity also imaginative: but what imaginings! Just look at the angels who carry her with such care and attention in their expressions. The subtle use of colour on the mantles with their wonderful embroidery of Christian symbolism is only outdone by the angels’ wings. Who, in the long history of images of angels, ever painted such glorious coloured wings?

As for Brigid, she is in virginal white, but she and the angels have red Celtic hair. They are carried along by a sky full of early evening colour. There we see whence comes the colour of the angels’ wings. The light catches the sea, even tinging the coat of the seal who leads the angels forward, and the steep waves, almost Japanese in their blend of life and formality, tell us that she is carried over a troubled world in which even the tiny silhouette of Iona Abbey seems almost menacing The angel who supports Brigid’s legs looks backward, her robe embroidered with scenes of the Annunciation and Nativity: the angel supporting Brigid’s spine and head looks forward through time, her robe embroidered with scenes from the life of Christ, the Passion and the Resurrection. They are headed east, but it is from the west, from Iona, that they come. You don’t have to be a Christian to realise that this is not just a pretty picture, a sentimental vision: it is an allegory as profound and complex as you choose to follow, a uniquely Celtic and truly worthy contribution to the great Renaissance tradition of religious iconography.

Although Brigid’s sunbeam miracle is not included, light is a regular and sometimes culminating feature of the Gaelic prayers to the saints and to Christ, collected by Alexander Carmichael in the nineteenth century:

“Is gràdh-gheal nan neul thu,/ Is gràdh-gheal nan speur thu,/ Is gràdh-gheal nan reul thu,/ Is gràdh-gheal na ré thu,/ Is gràdh-gheal na gréin thu,/ Is gràdh-gheal nan nèamh thu,

Thou art the pure love of the clouds … of the skies … of the stars … of the moon … of the sun … of the heavens.”

And with these midwinter thoughts I wish you Nollaig Chridheil – a Happy Christmas. May it be broad-minded.