Alistair Moffat: The Celtic west is the key to Britain's history

From a talk by the writer and historian at the Edinburgh Book Festival
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Raised only four miles from the border, I have always been aware that the most important fact in Scotland's history has been England. A country 10 times our size on the same island. Scots have much in common with Canadians. As Pierre Trudeau once remarked, it is like being in bed with an elephant - OK until it wants to turn over. And as you know, the English have turned us over many times, occasionally without even noticing.

I began to think that there was an untold story in all this - the story of the War for Britain, the war which the English undoubtedly won, but for once told from the losing point of view. The idea for a book I called The Sea Kingdoms began to grow. This was the story of Celtic Britain, a story which continues and has taken concrete political form with the establishment of parliaments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Although my command of Welsh turned out to be no command at all, I did have reasonable Scots Gaelic, and could understand something of Irish Gaelic and Manx. I believed that knowledge of these languages would help in telling this story, since the best definition of what Celtic means is a linguistic one. It amazes me that 90 per cent of the historians who write histories of Britain and Scotland have not a word of the oldest languages spoken here. No one would dare to write a history of France with no ability to access source material in French.

It is not only that they do not understand that other cultures were powerful, even determinant, in the history of these islands; it also perpetuates an Anglocentric view, as if Britain and the British Empire were inevitable outcomes, and the Celtic colonies of Scotland, Wales, Man, Cornwall and Ireland merely quaint distractions. And this is not a matter of taste, it is a matter of truth and accuracy. Those who fail to comprehend the role of the Celtic west fail to comprehend the whole history of Britain.