What is Gaelic Folklore?

Image of a waulking taken from Wikimedia Commons.
Image of a waulking taken from Wikimedia Commons.

Dearest Reader,

Now that I am at home with more time on my hands, I thought it time to put some blog posts together on ideas and cool things that I’ve been learning about. It’ll be a good way for me to review much of what I’ve been learning while sharing some interesting things.

First on the list: Gaelic folklore!

This is on my mind a lot since I still have to finish an essay for that class, and I know a lot of people who read this are Outlander fans and there are Gaelic folklore aspects of the series.

So what it is?

The first thing that needs to be addressed is actually another question: what is folklore?

When Googling “define folklore,” two things come up:

the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed through the generations by word of mouth


a body of popular myth and beliefs relating to a particular place, activity, or group of people.

Let’s unpack this a bit, because the definition sounds straightforward, but it gets pretty wobbly when looked at closely.

First: what exactly does it mean for something to be traditional? Does it have to be a certain age or pass through a certain number of generations? A search for a definition ties it to traditions, and tradition is defined as “the transmission of customs or beliefs from generation to generation, or the fact of being passed on in this way.”

That definition sounds pretty similar to the one for folklore itself, minus the stories and word of mouth. So are all traditions folklore but not all folklore is a tradition, since folklore can be orally transmitted stories that don’t follow under the “customs or beliefs” that counts as tradition?

And yet, because talk about the tradition of folklore, as if it is in itself a tradition because customs can revolve around those stories.

And are things like Bloody Mary and local ghost legends folklore passed on in our modern culture, or just scary stories?

It’s difficult to tell (although I’d say yes to those examples).

Another question: Is folklore fixed?

We often get folklore written down or performed and told by people drawing from written sources, at least in a culture so literate as ours (that changes when cultures become less literate and have different ideas about the written and spoken word than America/Europe).

That makes it easy to forget the folklore isn’t fixed. It’s constantly changing and being added to so it fits the times and the storyteller. Major plot points of stories don’t change, and poetry is much more likely to stay the same, but things are added or removed or forgotten. There are multiple versions of much of what exists in the world of Gaelic folklore, and other traditions are similar, although it really matters about the collectors and what people wanted to record or write down, because some groups were targeted for collection more than others.

That brings us to the next point, though: how do you define the group of people the folklore belongs to?

In some cases this is easy. Local legends belong to local communities, after all, and some folklore is situated in certain tribes or cults. However, it gets complicated when things proliferate themselves into many groups. If it can’t be changed, who does it belong to, and what are the limits determining groups? Race, class, religion, ethnicity, education level? Can there be a wealthy group folklore and a poor group folklore in the same place at the same time? Should all work by a race or nationality be grouped together, or could there be other things placing them in different groups altogether?

And how does language play a part?

And the answers to these questions vary culture to culture, community to community, group to group, and even storyteller to storyteller. They have to be considered all the time when looking at any piece of folklore.

Luckily, it’s a bit easier to figure out what Gaelic folklore is. It’s defined mostly by the language: Gaelic folklore is in Gaelic, either Irish or Scottish, and exists alongside folklore in English and Scots and any other language that makes its way into communities, such as Norse many centuries ago.

But the groups can get smaller from there: women, men, children, bardic, leading clan members, soldiers, etc, etc. One of the things that must be done is try to figure out what voice might be speaking through the song or story or poem.

Because that’s another thing: when speaking about Gaelic folklore, although there are customs and beliefs involved, a lot of it is working with literature that fits within those customs and beliefs.

Storytellers that were collected from for Gaelic folklore were mostly men, although there were still plenty of women, and collectors ranged from reverends and ministers to lairds and academics since it started.

And even with a simple language element to Gaelic folklore, it’s still easier, as it is for folklore in general, to look at what it does to help parse it out, not what it is.

Folklore is used for entertainment, cultural validation, education, and establishing/maintaining accepted patterns of behavior, ideas put forth by William R. Bascom.

So what is Gaelic folklore, besides folklore in Gaelic?

The class I’ve been taking has focused on Scottish Gaelic, but the Scottish Gaelic tradition overlaps with the Irish Gaelic tradition in a majority of places, and where it doesn’t, the basic ideas are still the same.

There are many things included in Gaelic folklore, including (but not limited to):

  • Hero tales (like Fenian)
  • Fairy stories
  • Children’s songs
  • Working songs (like waulking songs or rowing songs)
  • Prayers
  • Praise poetry (panegyric)
  • Satire
  • Other poetry
  • Clan sagas
  • Historical legends
  • Omens
  • Divinations

As you can see, it’s a long list, but that just means there are a lot of interesting things to look at, which is how some people can dedicate their lives to this.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of Gaelic folklore that isn’t accessible to most people because it’s in Gaelic and hasn’t been translated, but there is also a lot that has been translated, so it’s still something people can get into.

Some books (certainly not an exhaustive list, just what I can think of that we’ve used this semester):

  • The Gaelic Otherworld by John Gregorson Campbell
  • Hebridean Folksongs
  • Scottish Traditional Tales by Alan Bruford
  • Scottish customs: from the cradle to the grave

Any questions? Post them in the comments or shoot me an email and I’ll see if I can answer! That way I know I’m posting about things you want to know about and not just spouting what I think is interesting.

Your Bonnie Celtophile,



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