When I was a youth learning to play the Highland bagpipe, I copied a chart from one of my tutors that showed who studied with who, from the living masters that my teachers learned from, back to Angus MacKay, the piper to Queen Victoria and through him back to the MacCrimmons, the hereditary pipers to the chiefs of the MacLeods. From Finlay MacCrimmon in the 16th century down to myself I recorded nineteen generations of tuition. In the not so distant past the only way to hear and to learn music was to hear it live and this is still the best way. Recordings and broadcasting have transcended time and space somewhat, but the rare earliest recordings are now barely over a century old. Written music is of course older, but the fact remains that most traditional musicians learn their art from others on a face-to-face basis. Tunes and influences from recordings are still for the most part learned directly from other living musicians.
Our heritage of traditional music is dependent on an unbroken chain. Until the present era of recordings, only real time human contact has been the way that tunes, lyrics and musical technique have been passed from one generation to the next. In the visual arts of graphics and sculpture this limitation is not the case. While we can only hear the music of ancient times as it survives in a living tradition, we can see surviving examples of artwork hundreds or thousands of years old and the observant student of art can acquire images, influences and techniques directly from the distant past. Unlike musicians, most Celtic artists and designers working today are self-taught and only a few have had the benefit of a one-on-one teacher. Yet every day thousands of people are exposed to monuments of Celtic design that have stood on the same spots for a thousand years. The survival of monumental stone carvings in the form of the High Crosses and other monuments has meant that Celtic design has been a constant part of the visual world in the Celtic lands even when sometimes for generations the art was not practiced.
Celtic interlace designs make their first appearance in early Christian Celtic Art in the middle of the seventh century A. D.There are three ways I expect various readers to be upset with the opening sentence of this article. Celtic interlace, that is knotwork designs as well as interlaced birds and beasts are the most recognized elements of so-called Celtic Art. In our time these designs are very frequently used to identify Celtic heritage or sympathy with Celtic ethnicity, religion or culture, thus many are passionate about the art, where it came from and what it means. I have encountered each of these objections in many conversations on the subject over many years, frequently from people who should know better.
There is a prevailing folklore that each element, each knot, spiral or interlaced animal, is a symbol. The notion that there is some sort of secret language to Celtic ornament is widespread and persistent. One of the most common questions from the general public about Celtic jewelry is, “what does it mean?” The creators and purveyors of modern Celtic jewelry, and other articles decorated with Celtic ornament, sometimes offer very responsible educational explanations for their wares, but others have taken a great deal of liberty.