'Celtic? The whole thing has become a negative, soggy thing with no centre'

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WE'RE all Celts now... or so it would seem. A generation or two ago, for most of us, "Celtic" - pronounced with a soft "c" - was a football team. Today it's liberally applied to everything from Irish economic tigers to new-age religion and, most widely, to music.

With the approaching rumble of Glasgow's Celtic Connections, kicking off on 11 January, it's worth asking whether the C-word is now - as some scholars have protested - so ubiquitous as to have become meaningless.

One can perhaps understand its use as a term of convenience to encompass Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Breton and Galician music. But what on Earth does a reviewer mean when he gushes that a certain group played "in the traditional Celtic manner"?

In his notes for an album by the Gaelic singer Christine Primrose, the Gaelic poet and novelist Angus Peter Campbell grumbled a few years back that Gaelic song and music "has in recent years almost been destroyed by what I call Celticism: the trend to label any kind of fiddle-led music with the tag of 'Celtic'. Through this process, lyrics have been obfuscated, meaning has been diluted, historical context has been ignored, language has been discarded and authenticity has been destroyed..."

Michty! Dr Bernhard Maier, reader in Celtic in Aberdeen University, agrees: "The name clearly started off as a classificatory term used by Greek and Roman ethnographers; as such it was never clearly defined, it was not used to refer to Britain and Ireland, and it had really nothing to do with languages," says Maier, whose book The Celts: A History from Earliest Times to the Present, came out in 2003.

"The linguistic use developed in the 18th century, archaeology following suit later. Obviously, Romanticism and cultural nationalism played a large part in this development."

William Gillies, professor of Celtic studies at Edinburgh University, says the word "Celtic" can be used "with relatively specific meaning in a number of different theatres. It's when you start lumping them all together then the thing becomes a brochan, a mess. The whole thing just becomes a sort of negative, soggy thing without a centre, and I think that's happening."

One of his concerns is that this obscuring of definition risks fulfilling the arguments of revisionists, such as Simon James, whose recent book, The Atlantic Celts argues that Celtic identity is a product of 19th-century nationalism and/or romanticism or simply wishful thinking. Others, such as Malcolm Chapman, have said Celtic identity is a mere projection of "the other", as opposed to the dominant Anglo-Saxon British culture.

Gillies doesn't have much time for this: "The only way these theories work is if you consider yourself as standing at the centre of the world, while at the edge you've got the northern barbarians or the Celts or whatever. I do not stand solely in a London-centric or Anglophone universe, so to me this seems rather weird.

"The word 'Celtic' has multiple validities, and those who throw up their hands in exasperation are reacting to this uncritical lumping together of Celts in archaeology and music and all that sort of thing. The answer is to stay with the specifics of one art-form or academic discipline."

But what is Celtic music? Difficult, muses Robert Dunbar, Canadian-born reader in Celtic and law at Aberdeen University, who says the term is being applied willy-nilly to things that aren't even tenuously Celtic. "Musical forms cross cultural boundaries. In Canada we have a lot of Quebec music, for instance, influenced by acquisition of Irish tunes and playing styles - so I think it's legitimate to say there have been Celtic influences."

Other connections, however, he regards as fanciful, such as those made with certain forms of American country music. "Some of it has a strong base in Lowland Scots and Ulster Scots traditions, but to what extent are those roots Celtic? When it comes to something being described as 'played in a true Celtic style', that's sometimes simply shorthand for fast and lively."

The enthusiasm for all things "Celtic" has raised enrolments in Celtic studies. Dunbar says, though, that lecturers find themselves having to debrief some over-enthusiastically Celtophile students on all manner of assumptions - from theories about black soul music being inspired by Gaelic singing to Celtic goddesses and druids.

Perhaps the answer is simply to sit back, enjoy the music and leave the terminology to others. Though admittedly, "Nebulous Connections" wouldn't have quite the same ring to it.

• For full Celtic Connections listings and booking details visit www.celticconnections.com