Scottish Culture/Scottish symbols


Our family has done lots of research over the last several years into our heritage. We've been fortunate enough to even travel to Scotland to meet distant relatives. Now my sister and I have decided to get matching tattoos. The most meaningful thing for us would be the word "piuthar" with a symbol for "sister". All of the symbols we find seem to be Celtic. We thought that was Irish. Are we mistaken? There is a lovely Celtic knot that works, but we want to be sure we aren't mixing things up. After days of frustrating research, I decided to ask an expert. I understand this is an odd request, but hope you can share some insight.
Thank you,

Dear Crystal

The word Celtic can mean different things to different people. As a general rule it is applied to describe the art, cultures and artefacts of a number of peoples - called the Celts -  who llived between c. 750BC- around 50 AD (roughly). They traded with each other and used some similar languages, but were not of the absolutely the same ethnic background. What we know about them generally comes from Roman writers, as these people seemed to have been non-literate societies.

Identification with Celtic peoples can be found in Scotland, Ireland, Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall / Kernow (in England) and Brittany. There are parts of the Iberian peninsula, such as Galicia, which also have associations. So while, certainly in the US 'Celtic' (should be pronounced with a hard 'c' - so Keltic) gets associated with Ireland, it is not just Irish culture and art.

.... which doesn't make your job any easier, I have to say.

What I would ask is where did your family come from - what names did and does your family carry. I ask because I get a lot on communication about people trying to locate which Highland clan they belong to, when in fact, while their name is Scottish, it is not associated with Highland culture.
For example there are Borders families which have just as much history etc as the Highland families, some people have more Norse ancestry than Gaelic ... and woven between this all is the Pictish question. The Picts in habited areas of what we now call Scotland, but their culture and identity was subsumed by Gaelic invaders - you can have a quick look-see about them  at

Basically, while a Celtic design would therefore be pretty appropriate, there are perhaps other alternatives - -see for some Pictish stone art
It's a bit generalised, but categorises some image-styles

Good luck with whatever you choose - and choose a good tattoo artist!

All things good


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Kaye McAlpine


Lifecycle (birth, marriage, death) customs in Scotland, Early Modern Scottish social customs, modern Scottish social customs, Border March laws and procedures, criminal processes and judicial execution practices, social history in Early Modern Scotland, ephemera printing in Scotland. While I have some knowledge of the clan system and function of the clan society (Highland and Lowland), I am not a an expert in clan genealogy. Having traced back my own family over a couple of centuries, and traced others due to academic research, I do know how the system works, however. This doesn't mean that I'm a genealogist. Please note that I do not speak Gaelic.


Research Fellow (University of Edinburgh). Contributer to various books and journals on ballads, including Scottish Life and Society: A Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, The Ballad and History and The Harris Repertoire. Freelance tutor in outreach courses from Edinburgh University on Scottish Culture and Tradition, including lifecycle customs, broadsheet ballads in Scotland, the traditional ballad and history. Freelance writer, guest presenter on Ch4 History Hunters programme, contributor to BBC Radio Scotland's 'Songlines' series on 'The Dowie Dens of Yarrow'. Currently co-director of a media production company

Books: Forthcoming: The Gallows and The Stake Published: Compendium of Scottish Ethnology, vol. 10, chapter on The Traditional and the Border Ballad; The Harris Repertoire (2000, Scottish Text Society, co-editor), The Ballad in History (chapter on Border ballads). Journals include Folklore, The Review of Scottish Culture,Sottish Studies, and The Scottish Literary Journal

Ph D, M. Phil, BA (hons)

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