The Culture of the Isles
The Lordship of the Isles is an incredibly diverse state, born out of the determination and valour of a variety
of peoples that are all united beneath the heather, the symbol of Clan Donald. There is little conflict between the races
here, as the leaders are of both Gaelic and foreign descent and see all cultures as equal - a concept that feudal Scotland
does not seem to realise the value of!
Here you will learn what we eat, what we play, how we build, and any traditions that we have that you need to
What do we eat?
I suppose that from what you know of the Highlands you'd assume that the Gael has a diet of bread, fish, oats,
potatoes, beef, and grain, and that we work all year to produce our food. That may be true of the Highlands, but I can assure
you that it is not true of the Lordship of the Isles. We have more resources than the land from which obtain our food.
Whilst we may eat the same things as the Highlanders, even the humblest of us has tasted the richness of whale
meat, lobster, and even sometimes the fins of basking sharks that are hunted by our skilled sailors hundreds of miles out
in the Atlantic Ocean, near the island of Rocabarraidh (this is believed to be the island of Rockall,
which is northwest of Londonderry). You may also find spices that have found their way to the islands with English
and Scottish merchants, and venison and rabbit are also parts of our diet.
There are also some local meals. For example, you may be able to watch the harvest on St Kilda, when the locals climb the rocks that rise out of the ocean to find Great Auk eggs.
What do we play?
The most common sport is hunting, which, although not done for sport is something of a competition, and hunts
are often organised by tacksmen for the men of their clachan. Hunters do not often get to keep what they kill, but the chase
is excellent for stamina and trains you for the use of the bow in warfare. Also, it is a sport that is enjoyed by everyone,
regardless of their power.
Another sport is not native, but is rather a recent game that used to be played in Ireland, that was brought
here by gallowglasses. It is Gaelic football, which is the first sport of that type to be played in Europe. You may be
more familiar with other variations, and would want to try out this one, but be warned that although it does not involve sheer
brutality it is a lot more physical (and a lot more strategic) than your game. Do not let this put you off, however, as it
is a great adventure to play alongside our clansmen, who are all seasoned in the game and may be happy to teach you how to
One sport you may prefer to watch is the races that are held between the crews of birlinns, often between islands
(there have been races from the Isle of Lewis to St Kilda). The races are not dangerous, but winning often requires training and teamwork. Races are usually between two
teams, but local fleets can take part. It is not unknown for the inhabitants of two islands to compete.
Archery is also a common sport, especially amongst boys too young to hunt, but it is a more informal
The Irish stick martial arts are practiced in the south of the Lordship of the Isles, and in Irish communities,
but most of the time this is informal, except in the territories held by Clan Donald in Ireland itself. However, formal or
not, this sport is never as popular as Gaelic football.
One game you will be more familiar with is chess, which is almost the same as how it is played in Scotland,
only the pieces are more ornate, made out of walrus ivory from Norway.
What is our architecture like?
You probably have images in your head of granite cottages, with thatch roofs, wider at the base than at the
top, without any windows but narrow slits. This is what many of our buildings are like, but there are many other features
that this stereotype does not mention.
Many buildings are dry-stane, which means they are built without mortar. This is an ancient technique, which
has proven to be successful. The brochs that were built to fortify this land, successfully, I might add, against invaders
in the time of the Picts were built without mortar, and they are still standing despite over a thousand years of use!
You'll notice, also, that many of our castles are smaller than those of Scotland, but far more fortified (some
of them are built in fantastical locations, such as into cliffs and on stacks that rise out of the ocean).
Art is a beautiful combination of Gaelic and Pictish. It is usually made up of intertwined floral
patterns and depictions of battles, hunts, and, more commonly, the Hebridean galley.
Depictions of warriors with claymore and leine are common on Iona, and the masonry of castles often includes
similar drawings, the origins of which may be pre-Christian (the Pictish obsession with the number seven, for example).
Norse carvings are often seen in wood and on the figureheads of galleys, the Hebridean ships being
descendants of the Viking longship. Not the interwoven foliage of Gaelic design, and not the bizarre geometry of Pictish artists,
but depictions of pagan gods and elements.
What do we wear?
Clothes are produced at home by the families of whoever needs them. They are usually easy to
make with wool, and colours can be found naturally, if they are even needed, in things such as seaweed.
It is usually women that are responsible for making clothing (our laws and society may give them equal
rights, but not equal status, although I assure you the situation for them here is better than it is elsewhere in the British
Isles), but servants and male children are also involved, and the men are. responsible for getting whatever
was needed to make the clothing.
As for clothing itself, the plaid, although folded cleverly to create pockets, is nothing more than a piece
of wool which can also be used as a blanket. It is heavy, and is the main piece of clothing a clansman would
own. Warm and often the same colour as the sheep's wool, it is durable and is able to resist the elements.
The leine is a knee-length shirt, usually coloured with saffron, and is long enough to be tied between
the legs when plaids were taken off before battle. It is loose, and relatively comfortable, although for warmth a clansman often dons
another or throws part of his plaid over his shoulder.
Trews are an alternative to the plaid, used for saddling a horse mainly, and are loose trousers, usually
As for jewellery, the brooch was not popular, although may have still been worn as it was in Pictish society.
Influential men dress themselves in beautiful ankle-length cotton robes, coloured with a bright colour
such as red. This is often in contrast to the rim of the sleeves and hem, which are not only a different
colour but also decorated with artistic twirls and interwoven patterns and Pictish mystical designs (especially the combinations
They wear conical helmets with coloured feathers even when not in battle, and make even more
of an effort to keep their facial hair to a minimum (besides the moustache, of course) than their clansmen.
The Pictish brooch and jewellery are not entirely lost, and neither are the knee-length Pictish belted
robes with plaid designs, but these are casual clothes and just for militant leaders, or leaders on campaign
who could not afford chainmail to wear beneath their robes.
Women who were important figures in the Lordship of the Isles wear the same sort of robes as the men, with
even more decoration and colours. But instead of a helmet, the headdress is more appropriate attire. This may include
a veil, sometimes with feathers like the helmets worn by men.
Clanswomen also wear the style of robes that were more common in the upper classes, although without
such intricate decoration. This is unisex attire.
Gaelic names work differently to other names, as they often include a patronymic that may extend back several
generations as opposed to one or two alongside a physical characteristic or personality trait of a person.
Patronymics, unlike in other cultures, make a distinction between the gender of the person. Where people descended
from a named person are referred to as 'sons' in Germanic cultures (Scots, English, etc.) they are referred to by their correct gender in Gaelic. For example, a female descendant of William may inherit
the family name and be known as 'Williamson,' which becomes 'MacUilleam,' in her native land, but in Gaelic there
are no such things as family names (patronymics and descriptions were unique to a person - I
shall discuss clan names further on) and so she would be able to call herself a 'daughter of William,'
or 'NicUilleam' instead.
Patronymics may not take the name of the person's father. They may use their father's profession. For example,
'Mac an t-Saoir,' or 'MacIntyre,' means son of the carpenter. These names are especially common if the person is in the hereditary
retinue of a chief or tacksman, or if their profession is associated with the family.
Gaelic patronymics may also extend back to the name of a person's great-grandfather, or sometimes even further,
and these are the names that appear on official records.
Descriptions in Gaelic names always come after the patronymic, and most often refer to physical characteristics.
A list of common descriptions is written below. Sometimes, though, phrases are used, such as 'of the colours,' or 'of the
rocks,' which often are references to a person's profession. The former may be a standard bearer, whilst the latter may be
a miner or craftsman of some kind.
Sometimes, descriptions are used as first names deliberately, and may then be altered or repeated in the rest
of the name, and in this case a patronymic does not need to be included even if, officially, every Gael has one as a sign
that they have inherited the possessions of their family by rights, and it also means they are recognised in legal matters.
Gaels often take the name of their chief, or the tacksman on whose land they live, as their surname, and
can change it at their leisure to make travelling in areas held by other clans easier.
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please give credit not to me but to the Gaelic people as a whole.