A leading professor from the British Museum in London is claiming in a new book that, far from maintaining an unbroken line of descent since prehistoric times, Britain's Celts are a recent invention dating back no more than 300 years.
Professor Simon James, an Englishman, argues that there is no historical or archeological evidence for an ancient nation of Celts in Britain and that the so-called Celtic groups were scattered people with little in common with each other.
The Iron Age and Roman archaeologist said the term Celtic came to be used in Britain only in the 18th century when a book was published by Edward Lhwyd, a language specialist, pointing out or the first time that Welsh, Irish, Scottish, Manx and Cornish were very similar to each other and to the Breton language spoken in France.
"Before that time people just referred to themselves as Irish, Scottish, Welsh and Cornish but they did not see themselves as being linked," he said.
"Lhwyd called the group Celtic because the term had already been used on the continent to refer to the ancient Gauls of France.
"The idea of Celticness developed from there. Some people in Wales started to call themselves Celts and ancient monuments, which had hitherto been called `druidic', came to be known as Celtic as well. Gradually, but within about 20 years, people had begun to identify with this as a concept."
His views, to be published in a forthcoming book, The Atlantic Celts, Ancient People or Modern Invention? have so outraged some people that he has been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide.
Alex Woolf, a lecturer in Celtic and Scottish history at Edinburgh University, said it was a "fatuous" argument and added that it was "blindingly obvious" that the different Celtic languages were all similar and belonged to the same ethnic group.
"It's a question of what's in a name," he said. "People in northern Italy and France referred to themselves as Celts to distinguish [their tribes] from the Greeks and Romans but in Britain there were only Celts so people had no need to label themselves.
"They may not have used the term in Britain but they had many things in common with the Celts on the Continent - the same gods, the same names. We know that Milan in Italy and Whitchurch, in Shropshire, were both called Mediolanum by the Celts. The people living there were of the same race."
Professor James said he was aware that his argument had caused upset. "People do have very strong emotional attachment to this idea. The idea of Celts is rooted in deep antiquity and they get very upset when you tell them that it's a modern invention."
Meanwhile, Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party, said yesterday the English had their own identity crisis that needed sorting out as there was a confusion between Britishness and Englishness. The notion of Britishness, he said, had been claimed by thugs and racists, while Englishness was an "aristocratic, almost medieval concept.
"The rediscovering of the English identity - and claiming it as a forward- looking, benign force, instead of the confusion which is manifest in England - would be a very positive thing both for Europe and Scotland and for the rest of the world."
Rhodri Morgan, the Labour MP for Cardiff West, said he was "Celtic and proud of it" and Professor James' argument was "cobblers. The Celts were here before the Anglo Saxons and it's just English jealousy," he said.
"We were civilised first and in fact the earliest poem ever to be composed in a post- Classical Language was in Welsh. There is no question that the Celts existed and were here when Julius Caesar invaded. It's just modern Anglo- Saxon propaganda."Reuse content