Below are short descriptions of some Celtic personnages I have found interesting. They arenít the most significant figures in history - just my personnal choices. I am indebted to a number of sources including the Skyelander Web Site, The History of Scotland by Peter and Fiona Somerset Fry, and A Treasury of Irish Folklore, edited by Padraic Colum. Some other sources are noted in individual entries.

Bonnie Dundee
Black Agnes
BONNIE DUNDEE (John Graham of Claverhouse)
Bonnie Dundee
To the Lords of convention 'twas Claverís who spoke,
"Ere the King's crown shall fall there are crowns to be broke;
So let each Cavalier who loves honour and me
Come follow the bonnet of Bonny Dundee.

Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can,
Come saddle my horses, and call up your men;
Come open the West Port, and let me gang free,
And it's room for the bonnets of Bonny Dundee!"

Dundee he is mounted, he rides up the street,
The bells are in backward, the drums they are beat;
But the provost, douce man, said "Just let him be,
The Gude town is well quit of that devil Dundee."

As he rode down the sanctified bends of the Bow,
Ilk carline was flyting and shaking her pow;
But the young plants of grace they looked quite couthie and slee,
Thinking, luck to thy bonnet, thou Bonny Dundee!

Come fill up my cup, come fill up my can,
Come saddle my horses and call up my men;
And to the west port, and let us be free,
And some wear the bonnets of Bonny Dundee!

"There are hills beyond Pentland, and lands beyond Forth,
If there's Lords in Lowlands, there's Chief's in the North;
There are wild Duniewassals three thousand times three,
Will cry "Hoigh!" for the bonnet of Bonny Dundee."

"Away to the hills, to the caves, to the rocks,-
Ere I own an usurper, I'll crouch with a fox;
And tremble, false Whigs, in the midst of your glee,
You have not seen the last of my bonnets and me!"

--Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832)

John Graham of Claverhouse, known to his friends as Bonnie Dundee and to his enemies as Bluidy Claver's, was the romantic subject of the poem above. He was born about 1649 to a noble Scottish family. He served as a soldier in France and the Netherlands, returned to Scotland about 1679 and was commissioned a Captain of Dragoons. He was sent to suppress Covenanters opposed to King Charles II and after a defeat at Drumclog, helped defeat them at Bothwell Bridge. He spent the next two years in England and gained favor with James the Duke of York and Charles II's brother. James assumed the throne in 1685 in the face of wide spread opposition. When William of Orange invaded the country in 1688, Graham was second in command of the Scottish army sent to aid the King. James created him Viscount Dundee - and almost immediately fled into exile! Graham returned to Scotland to rally support for James' cause among the highland clans. His forces won a great victory at Killiecrankie, but Graham himself was killed. Without his leadership, his cause collapsed and the line of Stewart Kings came to an end.

Historical Notes:
The religious/political situation in 17th century Scotland was very complex. The Scots considered themselves to be an independent country, while the English throne claimed sovereignty over them. In the Protestant Reformation, the English had chosen a middle course between Roman Catholicism and the extreme Puritans. The Anglican church rejected the authority of Rome but continued the authority of the bishops (the Episcopacy), and most of the traditional forms of worship. The Scots were strongly Protestant, most of them favoring Presbyterianism in which there were no bishops. Their ministers were chosen by the people and the church (the Kirk) was run by the minister and the elders or Presbyters. In the mid-16th century, the first of several national Covenants was drawn up and signed by many of the Lords and common people. It confirmed their religion and committed them to maintain it against Roman Catholicism. Some of the more extreme Covenanters even wanted to discard the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments as being "tainted" by the Roman Church. There were also many Scottish Episcopalians who held to the English Episcopal church in which the bishops were usually appointed by the secular authorities.

James VI became king of Scotland after the execution of his mother, Mary, Queen of Scots, a cousin of Queen Elizabeth of England. When the Queen died without an heir, James assumed that throne as James I. He wanted to unite the the two countries and establish a uniform religion, using the English Episcopal, model with himself as head of the Church. At the time of his death in 1625, he had partly realized this ambition, but the power of the Scottish Presbyterians and of the English Puritans was growing.

James' son succeeded to the thrones as Charles I. He had little knowledge of or sympathy with his Scottish subjects and his rule provoked growing opposition among them. In 1638, the earlier Covenant was revived and many Scottish leaders and common folk pledged to resist any restoration of Catholicism. When Charles refused to recognize their grievances, they raised an army and invaded northern England. As Charles had also alienated many of his English subjects, Parliament refused support and he was forced to accept the Covenant. The situation in England deteriorated until open war broke out between the King and Parliament. In return for a promise that Presbyterianism would become the established religion of both countries, the Covenanters sent any army to aid them. The Parliamentarians were by this time controlled by the Puritan movement, particularly the army under Cromwell. They prevailed and Charles was imprisoned and finally executed. His death and the Puritan refusal to honor the original agreement outraged the Covenanters and provoked open resistance. They invited Charles II to return, but after a long campaign, he was forced into exile again and Cromwell gained control which lasted until his death in 1658.

In 1660, Charles was invited to return to rule both countries, on his promise to continue religious tolerance; he immediately established Episcopalianism as the official religion. The Covenanters resisted sporadically for the remainder of his reign. In 1685, Charles was succeeded by his brother James, a Roman Catholic. Hoping to re-establish Catholicism, James ruled that both it and Presbyterianism should be tolerated. This alienated both the Scots and a majority of the English. A group of English lords invited James' son-in-law, William of Orange to take the throne. William promised the Scots religious liberty and a gathering of Scottish leaders agreed to accept his rule at least until a National Parliament could be convened. Many of the Scottish Episcopalians (called Jacobites from the Latin for 'James') still supported the exiled James. One of these was John Graham of Claverhouse, Earl of Dundee; he raised and army and gained support of some of the highland clans. At Killiecrankie, they engaged and wiped out the force William had sent against them, although Graham was killed. They then marched on Dunkeld but met strong Covenanter resistance which finally wore them down and ended their cause.

GRANUAILE (Grainne Ni Mhaille, Grace O'Malley)

Granuaile is one of the great folk heroes of Ireland, Sea Queen or Pirate Queen depending on your point of view, but a Queen none the less. Her banner of a white seahorse was known and feared throughout the western seas for most of her life.

Strangely, there is little mention of her in Irish sources of the time; most of what is known comes from various English State Papers. She was born about 1530 to the O'Malley clan, lords of the lands around Clew Bay on the west coast of Ireland. Her name was Grainne Ni Mhaille, which is now usually shortened to Granuaile, Grace O'Malley being the Anglicized version. She was fostered at her family's holding on Clare Island, where she acquired a love of the sea and skill as a sailor. Her clan were seafarers, and Granuaile excelled them all as sailor, Captain and Commander. In 1546, she was married to Donal O'Flaherty, tanist (heir to the Chieftanship) of the western O'Flahertys; the united clans made fair to rule the western seas.

By this marriage she had two sons, Owen and Morogh and a daughter named Margaret. After the death of Donal around 1564, Granuaile moved to Clare Island and built a castle overlooking the harbor where her galleys were drawn up. She made a living providing safe passage, piracy, and providing pilots to passing ships. She married her daughter to Richard Burke, named Devil's Hook, whose stronghold was across Clew Bay; between them they dominated the western seas. Granuaile herself married another Richard Burke, called Richard in Iron from his habit of always wearing chain mail. In 1576, the English Deputy reported that she and her husband came to see him and that she offered him the use of 3 galleys and 200 men. He later knighted Richard in Iron, which pleased them both.

Granuaile continued her lifelong trade of "maintenance by land and sea" or raiding. Her son Owen she says was a good and loyal subject and grew up to have his own holding. While the notorious Sir Richard Bingham was English Deputy in that area, the Burkes and Joyces rebelled and Sir Richard sent his brother, Capt. John Bingham of even blacker memory to put down the rebellion. Failing to catch the rebels, John Bingham treacherously attacked Owen, stole his cattle and horses, and captured Owen and chief followers, all of whom were murdered. After this, Granuaile gave her sympathies and help to the rebels. On the death of Richard in Iron, she was granted the supposed protection of Sir Richard Bingham and invited to settle in his territory. While she and her followers were making the trip, she was captured by Capt. John Bingham and was to be hanged, but was eventually released. For the next several years there were sporadic rebellions, in which Granuaile's galley frequently had a part.

Eventually she took a different tack and petitioned Queen Elizabeth of England for pardon, a livelihood, and permission to make war on the Queen's enemies. The Queen sent her a list of questions, the answers to which are preserved in the State Papers. Before the Queen could act, Bingham captured Granuaile's son and brother. She boldly sailed to London to petition the Queen in person. Despite a denunciation by Bingham, the Queen granted the petition, her son and brother were released, and Granuaile sailed back home. She continued her raiding, while Bingham harassed her as he could and the tides of rebellion swept the land. It is believed that she died in 1603.

During Granuaile's life, she fought and raided for more than 40 years, on land and sea, and dominated the Clew Bay region and much of the western sea. Her presence is still alive on its shores and islands and in the castles and strongholds she built. The traditional song "Oro 'Se Do Bheatha 'Bhaile" has a line: "Were I to last only a week, may I live to see Grainne Mhaol and a thousand warriors declaring the destruction of the foreign invaders". (Grainne Mhaol, meaning Grainne the Bald, was supposedly given her when she was a young girl and asked her father to take her with him on a sea voyage. When he refused because she was a girl, she cut her hair short like a boy and asked him again. It isn't recorded whether she got to go, but she did gain the nickname.)

References to Grainne Ni Mhaille are hard to find. Probably one of the best is the book Granuaile by Ann Chambers. The author has devoted many years to her subject and published several editions of the book, the most recent being in 1998.

BOUDICA (Boadicea)

The Iceni were a large and prosperous tribe living in East Anglia during the 1st century AD. Britain at this time was occupied by Rome, and governed by Suetonius Paulinus. Prasutagus, King of the Iceni had recently died and left a will naming the Emperor Nero and his two daughters as co-heirs, in the hope that this would assure peace in his kingdom. Instead, Boudica his queen was flogged and his daughters raped by Roman soldiers. His wealth and that of his chief followers was plundered and many were enslaved. Justly enraged by these atrocities, Boudica led a revolt of the Iceni and other Celtic tribes. They razed the Roman settlements of Camulodunum, Londinium and Verulamium and massacred the inhabitants. They were finally defeated when they abandoned their traditional style of warfare and tried to fight a Roman type of direct confrontation against better armed and armored legions. Boudica reportedly died by taking poison.

As in the case of Granuaile, the main facts of Boudica's life were recorded by the historians of her enemies. The primary source is Tacitus, The Annals Book XIV.


In the first century BC, the once extensive empire of the Celts had shrunk until they controlled only Northwestern Gaul. The Celts had fallen victim to their fatal inability to unite for a common purpose, even their own survival. The Romans on the contrary were a closely united people who were accustomed to fighting as a unit and thus able to use sophisticated strategy and tactics. They were also politically astute and often overcame the Celtic tribes in an area by allying with one tribe to defeat others, then attacking the former ally.

Around 80 BC, a Gaulic chief named Celtillus tried to unite the tribes in Gaul to defend their last continental territory. His one success came when they united just long enough to kill him for what they saw as an attempt to gain power.

About 59 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar was named Roman Consul and governor of Gaul. In order to gain money to support his army, and to consolidate his position versus his rival Consul Pompey, Caesar began an aggressive compaign to subjugate the free area of Northern Gaul. His tactics were ruthless (though in simple justice, no more so than the Celts) and he is reported to have destroyed several hundred towns and killed or enslaved over a million people. Several of the Celtic tribal Chiefs resisted individually and were destroyed one by one. Into this desperate situation stepped Vercingetorix, Chief of the Arverni and the son of Celtillus. In 52 BC, he somehow united many of the remaining free Celtic tribes and began a campaign against Caesar, using the hit-and-run tactics which had always been the Celts' most effective mode of battle. The Celts raided Roman supply trains and attacked the legions where they had a clear advantage. Vercingetorix had decided to give up the town of Avericum as being undefendable, but yielded to the demands of the other Chiefs and tried to defend it against a Roman siege. The Romans were masters of this type of warfare and eventually overcame the town and slaughtered most of the inhabitants. Vercingetorix foresaw the inevitable and withdrew his army to Gergovia rather than allowing them to be destroyed in a futile last battle. Caesar attacked the city only to find it deserted of all but women and children. The Celts, who had withdrawn into the surrounding hills, then fell upon the Romans and won a great victory. Overcome by their own success, the Celts defied Vercingetorix's orders, attacked the retreating Romans head to head, and suffered a crushing defeat. Vercingetorix and about 80,000 of his army retreated to the fortress of Alesia to the east. Caesar laid siege to the fortress and encircled it with two walls, one facing inward to contain the defenders and one facing outward for defense against the Gaulic reserves still in the field. From this unique besieging and besieged position, he was able first to defeat the army in the field and finally to force the surrender of the fortress. According to the historian Plutarch, on the day of the surrender, "...Vercingetorix, who was the chief spring of all the war, putting his best armor on, and adorning his horse, rode out of the gates, and made a turn about Caesar as he was sitting, then quitting his horse, threw off his armor, and remained quietly sitting at Caesar's feet until he was lead away...". Plutarch was born about a hundred years after the events and may have indulged in some creative license, but it does seem a typically Celtic grand gesture. Vercingetorix was taken back to Rome; six years later he was paraded in Caesar's Triumph and then publicly strangled.

In the long history of the Celts, only one man ever came close to uniting them and only that same man ever defeated Caesar in open battle. His name was Vercingetorix and his name endures.

BLACK AGNES (Lady Agnes Randolph, Countess of Moray)

At Bannockburn, one of the Bruce's commanders was his nephew Thomas Randolph, Earl of Moray. Randolph died in 1332 leaving behind two sons and two daughters; one of the latter was named Agnes, later called Black Agnes for her dark complexion. When she came of age, Agnes married Patrick Dunbar, Earl of Dunbar and March. Patrick had given refuge to Edward II at Dunbar Castle after Bannockburn, and had helped him escape back to England. He later made peace with the Bruce and was made governor of Berwick Castle. In 1333, rather than try to defend Dunbar Castle against the English, Patrick had it torn down, but was forced by Edward III to rebuild it for use by the English. About 1338, when it had passed back into Patrick's possession, the castle was besieged by an English force under the Earl of Salisbury. At this time, the Patrick was elsewhere, but his wife, Black Agnes, pledged herself to defend the castle.

Dunbar Castle was built on rocks projecting into the sea and was so heavily fortified it was considered nearly impregnable. Salisbury brought in a large number of siege engines and subjected the castle to a heavy but ineffective bombardment. It is recorded that the Countess, to show her scorn for the besiegers, brought her maids out to dust the merlins and crenels between attacks. Salisbury then attempted to bribe the gate guards to allow a force entry to the castle. The gatekeeper took the money but informed the Countess of the plot. She contrived a counter plot to capture the Earl when he entered at the head of his men. When this failed, she mockingly called down to him, expressing her regrets that he had not joined her to have supper and help defend Castle Dunbar against the English.

Salisbury then decided to try starving the castle into surrender. At this point, Ramsey of Dalhousie was ranging the countryside with a band of followers. He determined to help the defenders and one night slipped in a group of his men by sea. They joined the defenders in a sally which temporarily routed the English. This event, after five months with no success, finally convinced Salisbury to withdraw his forces and leave Black Agnes in possession of her castle. A folksong facetiously attributed to Earl describes the Countess:

"She kept a stir in tower and trench,
That brawling, boisterous Scottish wench;
Came I early, came I late,
I found Agnes at the gate."
On the death of her brother John Randolph, Earl of Moray, the Countess succeeded to his titles and estates. Few would argue that she was not a worthy successor to her father.

I first heard of Black Agnes in a passing reference in a book of Scottish history. My first real facts about her came from The Women Warriors page, a wonderful resource on its title subject. My main information came from Deborah Mac Gillivray Rodgers ( in answer to a posting on the Skyelander site message board. Deborah is a very knowlegable student of that period of Scottish history and has provided me a wealth of information. In particular, she pointed me to a two-part article in the archives of the Scottish Banner site. I greatly appreciate her help, and that of all the other sources mentioned.

Sept. 15, 1999