The Galley birlinn naibhig or nyveg

The most familiar symbol of Clan Donald over the centuries has been the galley. It is also possibly the most misunderstood. Even prominent historians such as Sir Iain Moncreiffe in his beautiful work “The Highland Clans”, 1967 stated most Highlanders descend from two Highland houses which he represented by the Galley and the Rampant Lion. Inside the front cover of his book Moncreiffe listed the Highlanders of Norse ancestry as those symbolized by the galley. Inside the back cover he listed those of the ancient Dalriadic line symbolized by the Rampant Lion. According to Moncreiffe, most of the Highland clans trace back through these two houses. Of course Moncreiffe is not alone in this view of Highland clan ancestry. He is holding to a theory put forth by most Scottish Historians, of whom the authors of “The Clan Donald” stated,

“We confess to attaching very little value to the opinion of Scottish historians regarding the history of the Highlands. Ignorance of the language, customs, and traditions of the people has so tainted their utterances; racial hatred has likewise so blinded them to facts, that their deliverances on the difficult problems of Highland history are in the main quite unreliable”.

Unfortunately, their “utterances” have dominated most published accounts of Highland history including their version of our genealogy. Most published histories all but ignore what the ancient Highlanders wrote about themselves, including the prominence of Celtic galleys in their culture predating any Viking invasions.

The Ancient HighlanDers DeclareD Their Own Ancestry

The original Gaelic Highland histories firmly declare that our ancestors were Gaidhealach (pronounced “Gaelic” meaning literally “of the Gael”). The Greeks called them Keltoid (from which the English called them Celtic), the Romans called them Gauls, Caledonians, Cruithna, or Picts, but our ancestors consistently referred to themselves as Gaidhealach (Gaelic). Their Gaelic (or Celtic) culture was undeniably influenced by other cultures around them, but ignoring the Gaelic roots of Highlanders is historical gerrymandering.

Sir Iain Moncreiffe was not the first, but possibly the most famous, to incorrectly identify the Celtic galley as a Scottish adaptation of the Viking longboat. One possible explanation for this gerrymandering of Scottish history may be that the 19th century British Empire keenly felt the need to stem the tide of Irish, Celtic nationalism. The last thing Britannia needed was to arouse any Highland sympathy for the Irish cause or encourage Scottish nationalism. The turn of the 20th century was a time of increasing unrest across Europe that erupted into two World Wars. The demands of maintaining a world Empire had taken its toll on Great Britain. As Rudyard Kipling eloquently stated in 1897, “Lo, all our pomp of yesterday is one with Ninevah and Tyre!” The United Kingdom demonstrated how far it has come as a nation when in the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony its diversity was acknowledged through presentation of the unofficial “national” hymns from the four cultures that comprise the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Well done Britannia! You have secured your place as one of the world’s most enduring kingdoms.

Rewriting Highland Pedigrees Began in the Early 16th Century

But this tolerance of Great Britain’s original cultures was not so evident when early British historians altered Highland history as demonstrated by the web site Siol nan Gaidheal (literally “seed of the Gael”). It provides quite a different account of the transition of power in Scotland than that given by one of the most prominent Scottish Historians, George Buchanan. Buchanan’s account became the basis of Shakespeare’s world renowned play “Macbeth”. According to Shakespeare, the rightful King Duncan was the victim of a villainous usurper MacBeth, and an even more villainous Lady Macbeth. But the ancient Gaelic account gives quite the opposite perspective, or in Shakespeare’s words, “Fair is foul and foul is fair”. In addition to the role reversal of the major characters, the original Gaelic includes accounts of Celtic birlinn (galleys) battling Thorfinn Sigurdson‘s longboats in 1035 AD. Recent archeological digs have discovered Celtic birlinn far predating the 9th century Viking raids of the ancient British Isles. Ancient Celtic accounts of the earliest Celtic invasions of Ireland such as the Gaelic Black & Red Books of Clanranald are replete with Celtic seafarers independent of, and many centuries prior to any Viking influence in the British Isles.

Misuse of the HeralDic Term “LymphaD” for the HighlanD Galley

The first catalog of Scottish Heraldry was compiled by Sir David Lindsay in 1542. He described the armorial bearings of the Lord of the Isles as “A galley, or longa fadha with an eagle displayed, and a fiery cross.” This misuse of the Gaelic term longa fadha for the Celtic galley initiated the confusion in heraldry that persists today. The Gaelic Longa fadha is appropriately translated “long boat” or more accurately “long ship” and was the Gaelic term used to describe what we call Viking longboats, not Celtic galleys. The Gaelic word meaning “ship” was “longa” without the “fadha” meaning “long”. Longa was used in many Gaelic accounts of ancient Celtic galleys.

Most West Highland Heraldry terms are believed to have derived from Old French or Latin. Lymphad is believed to have come from the Gaelic term Longa fadha. Today Lymphad is used for the galley which is so prominent is Scottish Heraldry. But neither longa fadha nor lymphad are what our ancestors called the galleys carved in stones all over the Highlands & Islands, or displayed on the official “seals” by the signatures of our ancestors. These ships, especially the larger galleys, were referred to in the original Gaelic writings as birlinn. Longa is the Gaelic word for ship and was used interchangeably with birlinn. But fadha is the Gaelic adjective meaning “long”. Again, ignorance of the Gaelic language created further misunderstanding of Gaelic culture being a seafaring culture. Gaelic writer’s references to longa fada are about Viking invaders, not Western Islander’s galleys. Unfortunately Scottish historians “ignorant of the (Gaelic) language” assigned the wrong Gaelic term to the Highland galley in Scottish heraldry. The heraldic use of lymphad for the Celtic birlinn has contributed to the misconception that the ancient Celtic carvings on their memorials were Viking “longboats”. Prior to the recent archaeological discoveries of ancient Celtic galley ruins most British historians theorized the only boats used by Celtic people before the 9th century Viking invasions were curraghs.

These curraghs were smaller, hide covered, saucer like, rowboats used to navigate rivers and lochs. There are legends 0f Curraghs being taken on the high seas, but they became a legend because it wasn’t a common occurrence. Our ancestors regularly navigated the seas in birlinn. They were small, oak ships that became a symbol of our seafaring ancestors centuries before the Viking raids of the British Isles. Recent archaeological digs have shown the pre-Viking Celtic people navigated the high seas in birlinn nybhaig much earlier than previously thought by historians. As early as 1896 evidences of ancient 1st century B.C. Celtic galleys were discovered in Ireland. Despite the evidence to the contrary, British historians have chosen to “write off” as mythical the Celtic seafaring described in the Gaelic Lebor Gabála Érenn. This ancient Irish Book of Invasions tells how the Celtic people first sailed to Ireland about 600 BC in ships which they called longa. Another witness, from an external source, is a Norse history of Viking longboats that states Celtic sailing ships had been plying the seas near Scandinavia since the time of Caesar. Archaeological digs have determined early Viking longboats did not have a mast or sail! The Viking mast was a later innovation probably taken from their seafaring Celtic neighbors. But British historians persist in saying Highland galleys were an adaptation of Viking longboats. “Fair is (still) foul and foul is fair.”

Ancient Celtic Galleys Battled Roman Galleys

A third independent witness of the antiquity of Celtic galleys is found in Julius Caesar’s The Gallic Wars 3:13 where he recorded the “first account of a naval battle in the North Atlantic”. It actually occurred in what is now the English Channel, off the coast of ancient Celtic Brittany in 56 BC. According to Julius Caesar the Celtic Veneti were a formidable naval power whose birlinn proved superior to the Roman galleys. Caesar described the Veneti (Gaul or Gaelic) birlinn in detail at least 800 years before the first Viking longboats! He compared & contrasted them to the Roman galleys. He describes the Veneti birlinn as having high prows & sterns to navigate through high sea waves and flatter keels that allowed the navigation of more shallow waters where Roman Galleys could not go. The Veneti galleys were made of oak with a leather sail. Roman galleys were made of soft woods such as pine or fir sufficient for sailing the Mediterranean. Celtic galleys were built to withstand the Atlantic ocean, but they also withstood every Roman attempt to ram them. Roman naval battle technique included ramming the enemy vessel and the occupants of the opposing ships engaging in individual combat until the rammed boat sank. But a Roman galley ramming a Veneti birlinn was like trying to stop a British tank by ramming it with an Italian sports car! After sinking several Roman galleys from failed ramming attempts, Julius Caesar ordered additional soldiers packed onto each Roman galley. The Roman troops then stormed the Veneti galleys to escape their own sinking vessel and gained a costly victory.

Celtic Galleys KidnapeD St. Patrick

Celtic warriors used galleys in the 4th & 5th centuries A.D. when Irish Fianna raided Britain and returned with horses and captives, including the teenager who became known as St. Patrick. But we get a more accurate picture of our ancestors’ 12th & 13th century birlinn nyvaig by looking at the 14th century Irish birlinn nyvaig of the famed seafarer known as Grace O’Malley, (Grainne ni Mhaille, or Granuaile). These birlinn were half the length of longboats and had a rudder in the center instead of the Viking “steer board” on the right (starboard) side of the boat. Somhairlidh (Somerled) is credited with inventing the central, fixed rudder which was a major innovation to sea travel in Northern Europe. In some respects these nyvaig (galleys) were similar to the Viking galleys with a high fore and aft and a shallow, open hull for oarsmen. But archeological evidence now indicates the original Viking longboats did not have a mast or sail characteristic of Celtic birlinn as early as56 BC . Both Celtic & Nordic galleys could have two or three men on each oar so even a small galley could transport 40 to 50 warriors quickly. The larger galleys could hold more than 100 warriors. The Viking innovation to the galleys used by many nations, including the Celts, was that the longboat was much longer! It could carry double the manpower, double the oarsmen, weapons, and spoils of war. Recent archeological digs have verified that the Viking longboat was a 9th century improvement on ancient galleys of other cultures. In fact one of the largest longboats discovered deep in the Nordic sea was made of Irish oak! The more we learn about birlinn nyvaig, the more it appears that Vikings incorporated more than just Irish oak into their longboats. In other words Celtic birlinn nyvaigs preceded Viking longboats, not the other way around. Despite all the archaeological discoveries & research into Celtic seafaring the BBC still calls the birlinnAileach” a Viking longboat! Such a tiny article to include so many inaccuracies. “Fair is foul and foul is fair” is true to this day!

Puirt-à-beul or Gaelic Mouth Music

Many of the old Gaelic rowing songs recorded in ancient Gaelic poetry show a rich heritage of seafaring ancestors long before Viking incursion of the West Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Gaelic seafarers sang as they rowed instead of the dreary drumming of the ancient Roman galleys. The strong beat created solely by what they called “mouth music” provided the rhythm for the men rowing their galleys, women using hand mill stones to grind grains for food , or waulking their wool. Click on this YouTube link to hear Julie Fowlis sing samples of Gaelic songs our ancestors sang as they worked in unison. Waulking their wool was a process of pounding newly woven material soaked in a solution to set the indigo (blue) dyes and create a colorful garment capable of sheltering them from their harsh environment. These ancient Gaelic songs are a way of looking back into the every day life of our Celtic ancestors. The nyvaig (galleys) are a key symbol of their way of life and our Gaelic heritage of Ri Airer Gaidheal agus nan Eileán (the Kingdom of Argyll and of the Isles).

The Galley Aileach

Most of what we know about these birlinn nyvaigs comes from the research Wallace Clark put into the reconstruction of a birlinn he called Aileach after the wife of our ancestor Eochach Dubhlein. Written descriptions of the legendary Irish pirate Grace O’Malley’s birlinn and earlier stone carvings were used by Wallace Clark to design and build the replica of a birlinn. His account of the research and construction of the Aileach was published in his book “The Lord of the Isles Voyage” (currently out of print) , but the latest information concerning the Galley Aileach is available on The Restoration of the Galley Aileach. We hope to again have the opportunity to either virtually (on line) or actually (physically) experience the thrill of manning oars as our ancestors did on the high seas between Ireland and Scotland and throughout the Hebrides.