[From Proc IoMNHAS vol 1 #12]

[note that the migration theory here expounded by Kermode though still held by some is no longer thought by most archaelogists to be correct - the movement within the Celtic area would appear to be that of ideas rather than of people]



( Read 25th February, 1909).

My authorities for this brief sketch of the Celtic Tribal System are as stated in the previous paper. The Rev. Canon Quine has at different times expressed views on the subject, with which, so far as I am acquainted with them, I am in agreement, and it seems to me the more inquirers we have, and the more points of view from which the question is approached, the better for arriving at an understanding of it.

The history of the Celtic peoples shows that they regularly organised themselves into tribal communities, and, as our information in regard to the British Isles is fullest in the case of Ireland, I shall base my remarks on what is known of the system there. Judging from analogy, the idea of the tribe must have originated in something quite simple and natural—the actual family life of father, children, and grandchildren, growing at an early date into a body of kinsmen all descended from a common ancestor. The Celts appear to have advanced thus far in their organisation before they came over from the Continent.

The earliest references recorded from Ireland show that the Tuath, or Tribe, was then the unit of the system, and consisted of several Septs, having all, however, an origin from a supposed common ancestor, whether mythical or historic, from whom it took its name. At first these tribes were nomadic—bands of brothers wandering about the country where they pleased and as they pleased ; but, when they passed from the hunting and nomadic stage to the pastoral, as the larger and more important had done by the fourth century, and became possessed of larger herds of cattle, it followed as a natural consequence that each tribe should appropriate a special territory for the better management of their flocks and herds. When they settled down in fixed limits and in a defined tract of country, which they came to regard as their own territory, only tribesmen would be allowed to use the land for pasture, and, when cultivation of the land began, we find that the arable land was annually divided into lots, one of which each member of the tribe had a right to crop, the laud then reverting to the tribe. From the earliest times a process existed whereby outsiders could be placed in the position of blood-relations and admitted members of the tribe. Upon being so received, or at the age of 14, upon proof of parentage, certain religious ceremonies were gone through in the presence of the tribe, after which the chief affixed a mark of ownership, usually by cutting off a lock or portion of the hair ; and this, like many other pagan customs, was subsequently taken over by the Church, which substituted baptism for the ancient ceremony. With cultivation of the land came a relaxation of the rules as to the composition of the tribe, from the fact that persons were needed to assist in that work, and the idea of admitting members was utilised, and its mode still further enlarged by the teaching of Christianity, that all men, as the children of God, were agnatic relations—that is, descendants of one Father.

But the freemen of the tribe alone had the right of pasture and allotment, The unfree, who had come in from other countries or territories, or belonged to a conquered territory, or for breach of tribal laws had passed into bondage, formed from the first a lower class. On the death of the founder, his place as leader would have to be filled, and when the system first comes into the dawn of history, we find that the successor to the chief was elected from the senior line of the common ancestor, who had, therefore, a hereditary claim to obedience. As leader, he was the Toisech, or captain ; as the superior authority and judge, he was the Ri, or king ; and, in order to safeguard the tribe from being left without a proper head, another member of the family was elected Tanaisi, or successor to the Ri, in the event of his death. The chief or king had the same right of pasturage and annual allotment of arable land as other members of the tribe, but he had, in addition, a right to maintenance, which may have given the first impulse to something like separate possession of lands. From very early times (as argued by Mr. Willis Bund), those tribesmen who were of stronger character and superior abilities would take a leading place among their fellows, and those whose prudence or sagacity had enabled them to increase their possessions of cattle, and thus become entitled to a larger annual allotment of lands, must soon have acquired a more important position in the tribe. Thus there came to be recognised a gradation of ranks founded upon the possession of personal wealth and importance. The next step was that when a man was enabled by his means and position to retain the land in his own family for a succession of years, he was not generally interfered with in its possession, and, later, when a family had retained possession for three generations, it came to be regarded as a right to the property, and so a class of territorial lords was evolved whose position as Aires was based upon property in land.

These landed men soon formed a separate and superior class termed Flaith, or Chieftains, and constituted an order Grad Flaith in contradistinction to the Giad Feine, or inferior order. And, with the growth of the Flaith arose classes of tenants and dependents—Ceile, or retainers ; Bothach, or cotters ; and Fuidhir, strangers or " broken-men " from other tribes, and others.

The stronghold of the Tuath was the Dun, or fort, of which each king was bound to have at least three. The average number of fighting men would appear to have been, in Ireland, about 700; in Scottish Dalriada, the three tribes consisted of 300, 500, and 700, so that we may suppose the total number of a Tuath to have been anything from about 700 to 2,000. But it was found to be an advantage, almost a necessity, for these Tuaths to join together in forming a group which usually consisted of three to seven, and were called Mortuath, or Great Tribe, its leader being the Ri moituath, whose equivalent among the Scottish Gaels was the Mormaer. We find that in Scotland, when the old system was being altered under Alexander I. , these passed into Earldoms, which give us some idea of their size and importance. The Tuath, or tribe, in Scotland at the same period became a Thanage, the Toisech, or chief, getting the Saxon appellation of Thane. Finally, several Mortuaths formed a Province or Cuisidh, each of the five Cuisidh into which Ireland was divided having also its own head or king, the Ri Cuisidh ; and, as later, in the Saxon Heptarchy, one of the kings came to be recognised as overlord or Bretwalga, so one of these provincial kings became the Ard Ri, or high king of all Ireland. This was the complete organisation in Ireland at the time of Patrick, but already it was undergoing change and disintegration, the effects of various causes, internal and external.

With the recognition of personal ownership in property arose the smaller divisions called the Fine, a word which came to be applied to those sub-divisions of the Tribe which may be called Septs or Clans, equivalent to the Teulu in Wales, which Mr. Willis Bund supposes to have been the unit of the tribal organisation there about the fifth century. When three generations had been settled on the land, the offshoots of the Aires, or that member of the Grad Flaith who had secured the right, formed a group of the nearest agnates of the founder, increasing in numbers as the generations went on. These were the Ciue. or kinsfolk of the leader or founder, and to them were added the freemen of the tribe who derived a common origin with them and placed themselves under the chief as Ceile, or dependents. As the Flath increased in wealth and power, and as his territory extended, he added to his followers by settling stranger Septs, Fuidhir, upon his waste lands, thus still further augmenting his power. The formation of the Fine, or Sept, had, therefore, a territorial basis, but there was a bond of union between the chief and the first class of his dependents, Cine, derived from community of blood. After five generations from the founder of the Fine, the kinsfolk, excepting seventeen descendants in the most direct line, expressly provided for by custom, disappeared to be merged in the commonalty of the Fine. As to the strength of such a Clan, we find a Teulu, or Sept, in Wales sufficiently numerous to turn out a military force of 120 fighting men. The Ri Tuath, or Tribal Chief, became the Fiath, or Chieftain, of the most powerful Sept within the Tribe.

The tie between the chiefs and their dependents was further strengthened by the custom of fosterage, by which the children of the upper classes were entrusted to a family belonging to the inferior ranks to be brought up and trained along with its own children. This system became a great and important institution among the Celts, leading, Mr. Willis Bund surmises, to the Christian sponsorship, the tie between god-father and god-child, closely resembling that between fosters,

The Chief was autocratic within the limits of his authority, but those limits were not wide. The main difference between him and the other tribesmen was that upon his being injured the tribe received larger compensation than it did if any other tribesman was hurt. Among other things, while a chief could allow strangers to settle in some part of the tribal lands, he could not alienate a yard of it without the consent of the tribe.

The Celtic inhabitants of the Isle of Man belonged to that earlier stock which peopled Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. They began to come to Britain from the Continent from six to seven centuries before the Christian era, and, about 300 B.C. , were followed by Celts of the other branch known as Cymric, before whom they retired westwards and northwards. They reached Ireland at different times and from different quarters, the latest to do so being the Milesians, or Scoti, who landed in Meath, possiby as late as the first century of our era, a period (to quote from Dr. Sullivan) " when there were everywhere great displace-ments of the Celts consequent on the conquests of the Romans, which may have caused some of the displaced tribes to have migrated to Ireland. O’Curry, who connects them with the Brigantes, has ascertained the names of forty-six such tribes, of whom the Scotraide probably took the most prominent place in the subsequent invasions of Britain ; their name thus coming to the knowledge of earliest historians came to be applied to the whole land and people of Hibernia—and we have to bear in mind that all early references to the " Scots " signify the people of Ireland, the-name not being applied to the people and land of Alban till the eleventh century. They formed the central kingdom of Meath, and drove the Ultonians ultimately into the SE. corner of their province. There may be some foundation of truth in the legend that Cormac Mac Art in the year 254 banished the Pictish tribes of Ulster to the Isle of Man and the Western Isles. It is, at all, events, generally accepted that the Eremonian branch of the Scots followed the Picts, and afterwards became the dominant element in Man, Anglesey, and Gwynedd, or North Wales. Between the second and the fifth centuries frequent expeditions were made by the Irish to Wales in particular, and it seems likely that our Island, standing midway, would be affected by these movements. When the Celts first began to arrive here they would find the land inhabited by a much older race, probably nearly as far advanced in civilisation as themselves. These earlier people, usually spoken of as Iberians, belonged apparently to the race met with on the north; and west shores of the Mediterranean. It is perhaps impossible to estimate their numbers ; the fact that traces of them are met with in every part of the Island may be due to the circumstance that they had occupied the district for a very long time. In all probability, however, their number was never great, their organization must have been feeble, and, divided by the bitter jealousies and differences always found in people at that early stage of their development, they would offer no resistence, and in time became assimilated with the new corners, but for a long time, at all events, they would be in the majority. This fact, together with the mode of the Celtic arrivals—not by a single invasion, but in small numbers at different times as offshoots from different tribes, driven by their enemies from their own land—must have greatly modified their development in the Isle of Man. Still we cannot doubt that by the fifth century, when, we are told by Orosius, writing in 456, and speaking of Mevania, "the island next to" Hibernia, that it was inhabited by tribes of Scots (a Scotorum gentibus habitatur)," the new-comers had to a certain extent amalgamated among themselves and with the older people, and become banded into local tribes, each settled in its own territory. But these tribes must have been very small as compared with those in the surrounding lands, and perhaps the system resembled more nearly that of the Fine, or Septs, which appear to have obtained in Wales at that period.

We have some very slight traces of our tribal system in our language. The word Ree (king, ruler) is the same as the Irish. Toshiagh is given in the Manx Society’s dictionary for a prince, general, leader, chieftain ; and this word has been handed down in the compound, Toshiaght-joarrey, or as better spelled by Cregeen in his dictionary, Toshiagh-jioarey, is the Manx term for an officer of our civil courts (now known as the Coroner), one of whom is now appointed to each of our sheadings. A similar word, Toshach-dor (from Toisech and Dior, chief man of the law), is given in Skene’s " Celtic Scotland " (Vol. III., p. 279) as the equivalent o( "Coroner, an officer mainly confined to the Highlands and Islands." The word is still in use in our spoken language. I have heard it pronounced Thoshagh-jore and Thorishjore. Our dictionary also gives us the word "Feniaght, a champion, hero, giant ; and plural, Fenei, invaders, or foreign spoilers," and the editor is right in connecting this with the Fine of Ireland, though, of course, not so in the supposed connection with the Phoenicians of Carthage ! We meet with this word in some of our place-names, e.~’., Cooil-ny-feeney, the nook of the Fine, or Clan— a large field on Claghbane, Ramsey ; Chibbyr-feeney, the Clan’s Well, in Bride, and another on the mountains, Lonan ; Claighfeeney, at the head of Glen Rushen, Patrick ; Traie-feeney, the Clan’s Strand, Maughold Head ; Lheaney-feeney. the Clan’s Meadow, in Bride, in which was the Chibbyr-feeney ; and there may be other instances. In the dictionary word " Flau, flah, a Prince," we certainly have the Irish Flaith, chieftain, which also, to judge by analogy of scottish records, is the word signified in our Manx Chronicle by the Latin term "optimates." The dictionary gives us " Kinney, kindred, kin, progeny," and " Boddagh, clown," which, of course, are the same as the Irish words " Ciné " and " Bothech."

But we have other indications than those contained in language. The Rev. Canon Quine, at our meeting in October last, speaking of the Tynwalds held at Cronk Urleigh, Killabbin, and St. John’s, surmised that these mounds were originally places of inauguration of the chieftain of the district, and our sheadiugs, he thought, might be survivals of independent groups of clans, each owing allegiance to a prince or little king of its own. (See "Proceedings, New Series," No. 6, p. 179). But from the record of the Cronk Urleigh Tynwald (1408), we see another connection with our old Celtic system in the fact that Sir John Stanley called upon the Barons to show their titles ; for we find that it was customary on the accession of every new chief for the owner of the land and the members of the " Tribe of the Saint," as the ecclesiastical community was then called, to state the rights they claimed to possess, and it was for him to say whether they were or were not to retain their rights.

Mr. Moore has dealt fully with our early system of land culture and its bearing on this question ; and Canon Quine, in December, 1906, gave us traces of the system, with the names and localities of the principal Clans so recently as the sixteenth century It may yet be possible to discover further indications of the Celtic tribal system in our Island ; for the present I suggest, as a working hypothesis, that our Parishes, which were consttuted as such probably in the thirteenth century, correspond roughly with the districts occupied by the Fine, or Clans, and our Sheadings with, as I think is contended by Canon Quine, those of the Tuatha, or Tribes ; and the fact that our Sheadings (with one exception) consist of three Parishes, seems to show that each Tribe was composed of three Septs, or Clans, each, we may suppose, with its Clan Fort, and, at a later date, with its Clan Church, three being the smallest number of forts expected of every King or Ri-Tuath and we may suppose that, by the middle of the fifth century, the whole Island represented the equivalent to an Irish lIior-tuat/t, and that one of its Tribal Chiefs was recognised as a Ri šiortuat/i, Head Chief or King of the Isle of Man.

Now, if we suppose for each of our Tribes an average of 300 fighting men, which was the size of the smallest in Dalriada,: Argyle, it gives us a total for the Island of i ,8oo. What proportion that would be to the whole population it is difficult to judge, but I should imagine little more than half, so that we may suppose a population for the Island in the fifth century of nearly 4,000. Again, on the basis of each parish representing a Fine or Clan, and having, as in the Teulu in Wales, a fighting force of 120, we get a total population for our Island of about 4,500, and something like this is what we might reasonably expect. It is true that Bede, (616), speaking of the smaller of the Mevanian islands, evidently referring to Man, says there were, according to the estimate of the Angles, about 300 families ; and he represents the population of Anglesey as three times as great. Such families, including retainers and serfs, might average about ten, giving a total of about 3,000, which seems a low estimate.

The nearest analogy to the Celtic settlement in Man may b found in that of the Manualh which eventually grew into the Kingdom of Dalriada in Kintyre and the adjacent coast of Argyle, but with this great difference, that the latter was practically the result of a single invasion of Tribes and Clans already organised, namely, from the ancient Dalriada of Antrim, and that, too, so recently as the beginning of the sixth century. In that case, as in the Isle of Man, there seems to have been an earlier settlement from Ulster, and these appear to have been confined to a small central territory and to have contributed ioo of the 700 fighting men liable to be raised by the largest of the other three Tribes.

There was another important settlement of Gaelic Celts in the beginning of the fifth century, viz., that of Cunedda, in South Wales, bttt that does not appear to apply at all to our case, so that it is not necessary to do more than call attention to it in case anyone would care to make fuller inquiries.


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