A collection of movements and trends arising in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that revived Medieval Celtic culture. The revival crossed many disciplines including art, poetry, anthropology and literature and spread from Ireland and Britain across Europe.

John Duncan Saint Bride 1913

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Origins of the Movement

The Celtic Revival arose in 19th century Ireland and Britain, partly as a result of archaeological discoveries of Iron Age objects, but also due to and a new consciousness of national identity. Various artists and writers looked back to the art and folklore of Medieval British and Irish society and sought ways of reintroducing them to modern culture. Some have argued the revival was in part a reaction against industrialisation and a desire to return to a more localised, vernacular society. 

In Scotland, the Act of Union in 1707 led to a gradual quest to carve out a Scottish national identity that was separate from England, leading artists and writers to document and idealise stories and events from Scottish history. This renewed consciousness of national history and identity was an important source for avant-garde artists and designers. Writers of romantic literature also did much to promote ancient and Medieval stories from the past. 

The Irish Literary Revival

One of the most prominent and influential aspects of the Celtic Revival was the Irish Literary Revival, sometimes known as the ‘Celtic Twilight.’ Leading writers were William Butler Yeats, Lady Gregory, "AE" Russell, Edward Martyn and Edward Plunkett (Lord Dunsany), who each looked back to the folklore, legends and traditions surrounding Ireland’s Gaelic heritage. Their ideas reflected a growing spirit of Irish nationalism in the wake of British colonialism, which had threatened to wipe out Ireland’s past. Yeats set up the Irish Literary Society in London and the National Literary Society in Dublin in 1892 which were dedicated to promoting Celtic culture. In 1899 he went on to establish the Irish Literary Theatre, which became the Irish National Theatre Society in 1904 and became a platform for Ireland’s up and coming playwrights of the time.

The Edinburgh Social Union

An important figure in Edinburgh who promoted the Celtic Revival was town planner and social reformer Patrick Geddes. In 1884 Geddes established the Environment Society (later the Edinburgh Social Union) to encourage local residents to survey, plan, and improve the local environment. He played a central role in promoting the Celtic Revival partly through artistic schemes associated with the Edinburgh Social Union, but also through the work done in collaboration with Scottish artist John Duncan such as the decorative mural scheme at Ramsay Lodge. He also published the seasonal journal The Evergreen 1895-6, which was his principal mouthpiece for his Celtic Revivalism.

Scotland’s ancient myths, legends and folklore were being reintroducing in a modern context. Other prominent figures within the Edinburgh Social Union were the, stained-glass artist Douglas Strachan and the renowned architect and designer Robert Lorimer. Artists involved with the group who participated in the Celtic Revival in Scotland included Phoebe Anna Traquair, who produced a huge array of artworks including embroidery, illuminated manuscripts and murals featuring references to Celtic mythology or visual culture. In Three Studies for the Decoration of the first Mortuary Chapel, the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, Edinburgh, 1885, we see the Celtic interlocking circles emblem. John Duncan was also an active union member and played a significant role in Scotland’s Celtic Revival, resurrecting subject matter from Celtic folklore for many of his most famous paintings, including Angus Og, God of Love and Courtesy, Putting a Spell of Summer Calm on the Sea, 1908 and Saint Bride, 1913. 

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery

William Brassey Hole’s murals for the Portrait made in 1889, did much to promote Scottish history, illustrating over 150 figures in the Processional Frieze and documenting important events from Scottish history including The Mission of St Columba to the Picts A.D. 563 and The Landing of St Margaret at Queensferry A.D. 1068. By the end of the century, a large number of artists and designers were dedicated to promoting and celebrating Scottish history. Popular motifs were Celtic crosses and knots, which appeared on jewellery, grave stones and architectural details.

Later Developments

The Celtic Revival overlapped with and influenced various art movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau. Celtic symbols had a profound influence on the art, architecture and design work of the ‘Glasgow Style’, as featured in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) and Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh (1864-1933). Much later, the painter John Bellany (1942-2013) tapped into aspects of Scottish folklore in many of his works; in particular he focused on fishing as a symbol of Scottish national identity through the centuries.

Discover more

 This Google Arts & Culture introduces the story of Celtic Revival movement in Scotland since the 19th century.