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Cliu - the Gaelic Conception of Honor

Christopher Thompson

Cliu , or reputation (literally, "what is heard") is an important concept in traditional Gaelic society, and in the Cateran Society. In the close-knit, kinship-based society of the old Highlands, reputation was an important way of measuring a person by the standards of his community. Community expectations encouraged people to be hospitable, honest, reliable, brave and loyal. These standards were even more important to the clan gentry, who were expected to display extravagant hospitality and generosity to their followers and clansmen, as well as to the learned classes such as the bards. The bards were the final arbiters of cliu for the gentry- it was the bard's duty to observe the chiefs and their warriors, and to praise generosity and courage while condemning greed, cowardice, and dishonorable behavior. Fear of bardic satire was an important check on the power of the ruling elite.

Among the common clansmen, the informal village bards served much the same function. A mocking song or poem could destroy a man's reputation forever, while a song of praise could literally preserve his memory for centuries.

Cliu is often translated as honor, and this is entirely accurate based on the historic definition of honor as reputation and status. But it is misleading if we think of honor as a personal, internal sense of right and wrong, as the term is often used today. As Celtic scholar Alexei Kondratiev says in his article "Celtic Values"-

"The traditional Irish word that is usually translated as "honor" is 'oineach' which (by way of 'ainech') goes back to Old Irish 'enech' which originally means "face" (from Old Celtic 'eniequos') -- cognates in Welsh 'wyneb', Cornish and Breton 'enep' (same meaning). Thus the idea of honor is primarily related to one's "face" which must be saved in the eyes of the community. A closely related concept, often mentioned in the same contexts, is that of 'cl' ("reputation" or "fame"), which comes from an Indo-European root meaning "to hear" and thus refers to what is being said about someone. To be honorable, then, is to maintain one's "face" before the community and to be "heard of" in a good way. Dishonor comes from losing "face" and being "heard of" in a bad way. The term 'enech' also expresses the idea of personal power, since as long as one has "face" in the community one is able to influence others: thus people or things that are your responsibility or otherwise under your protection are described as being "on" or "under" your "face". When you lose "face," of course, you're no longer able to extend the protection. What emerges from this is a sense of honor and dishonor being very much defined by the community, rather than the individually chosen codes of honor that are more characteristic of our modern way of thinking." (

These concepts are completely in line with "honor" as it was understood throughout Europe and America until the late 20th Century, when the dueling era came to an end, and the individualist conception of honor became predominant- although even so, it was considered an anachronism.

Swordsmanship and martial arts have traditionally been associated with honor and codes of chivalry. This has given martial arts an association with self-improvement, and with the internal struggle to conquer aspects of ourselves for a higher purpose. As the Gaelic proverb (and Cateran Society motto) says:

Am fear a thug buaidh air fhein, thug e buaidh air namhaid.
He who conquers himself, conquers an enemy.

Studying martial arts merely in order to learn how to fight is a dead end. The average person would be well advised to learn good self-defense skills, but these have more to do with awareness and avoidance of danger than with combat. Fighting is strongly disapproved-of by society except in a few situations, so gaining a reputation as a streetfighter is not good cliu, even if the warrior societies of the past encouraged the aggressive behavior which they needed for their survival.

Furthermore, archaic martial arts such as swordsmanship have very little relevance to self-defense or any other directly practical application. Modern swordsmen who disdain the deeper aspects of their art and seek only to learn practical sword combat techniques should ask themselves why they are pursuing such an obscure art in the first place. Is it for sport? There are far more popular and lucrative sports. Is it for a romanticized fantasy of swords and knights in shining armor? That would be nothing more than a game, and not worth devoting serious time and effort to.

Because lethal weapons are a symbol of life and death struggle, they provide an ideal forum for us to confront the most important issues in life. When pursued with commitment and not as a mere hobby, they are one way for us to live up to this proverb and to win the struggle within ourselves.

But what exactly does this mean? Many people, in keeping with the individualist spirit of our time, interpret this solely in personal terms. But this was not the viewpoint of the traditional masters of swordsmanship. As Mathewson says in his work on the Highland broadsword:

"It is the cultivation of this art that unfetters the body, strengthens it and makes it upright; it is it that gives a becoming deportment and an easy carriage, activity and agility, grace and dignity;- it is it that opportunely awes petulance, softens and polishes savageness and rudeness, and animates a proper confidence; it is it which in teaching us to conquer ourselves, that we may be able to conquer others, imprints respect, and gives true valour, good nature and politeness; in fine, which makes a man fit for society:"

Note that Mathewson actually paraphrases the Gaelic proverb within his own statement on the merits of swordsmanship- "in teaching us to conquer ourselves, that we may be able to conquer others." He states that the study of the sword will provide physical benefits- an upright body and a graceful, dignified, and active manner. He also mentions the benefits of knowing how to defend oneself with a weapon when necessary- in his words, the sword "opportunely awes petulance."

But then he moves on, to list the benefits to the swordsman's own character- studying the art will soften and polish the swordsman's "savageness and rudeness." (In many ways, swordsmanship is an ideal martial art for someone who has lived a violent lifestyle and grown tired of it.) It will give him confidence, respect, valor, good nature and politeness. "In fine," he says, the art will make the swordsman "fit for society."

Mathewson is clearly discussing the same kind of community-based ethic we find in the Gaelic concept of cliu. He may very well have been influenced by the Gaelic sword masters with whom he studied in Scotland, as his use of a Gaelic proverb suggests.

Mathewson is clearly discussing the same kind of community-based ethic we find in the Gaelic concept of cliu. He may very well have been influenced by the Gaelic sword masters with whom he studied in Scotland, as his use of a Gaelic proverb suggests.

In traditional Gaelic terms, the factors that influence cliu are many. There is no clear-cut list of rules as in the Samurai code of Bushido. There are, however, many sources from which we can gain understanding. Gaelic proverbs, poetry, legend, and old lore all provide numerous examples. Taken as a whole, they display an ethic of hospitality, loyalty, kinship, generosity, courage, and fair play.

You are strongly encouraged to explore these sources for yourself, but the following extracts should help get you started. Approach the discipline of martial practice in the spirit of these traditions, and you will be on your way to integrating these values into your own life, to the benefit of yourself and others.

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Gaelic Proverbs

(Gaelic Proverbs and Proverbial Sayings -- With English Translations --
by T.D. MacDonald -- c. 1926)

  • Abair ach beagan agus abair gu math e. [Say but little and say it well.]

  • Aithnichear an leomhan air scriob de iongann. [The lion is known by the scratch of his claw.]

  • An rmh is fhaisg air laimh, iomair leis. [The oar that's nearest at hand, row with it.]

  • An neach nach cnn na chadal, Cha chnn e na dhuisg. [He who will not prosper in his sleep. Will not prosper when awake.]

  • An lmh a bheir 'si a gheibh, Mar a d'thugar do dhroch dhuin'e. [The hand that gives is the hand that will receive, Except when given to a bad man.]

  • A lion beag s bheagan, mar a dh' ith an cat an t-iasg. [Little by little, as the cat eats the fish.]

  • An rud a nithear gu math, chithear a bhuil. [What is well done will be shown by results.]

  • Am facal a thig a Ifrinn -- Se a gheibh, ma 's e 's mo bheir. [The message from hell -- Give to the highest bidder.]

  • An uair a bhios sinn ri rach Bidheadhmaid ri rach; 'S nuair a bhios sinn ri maorach, Bidheadhmaid ri maorach. [When we are seeking gold, let us be seeking gold; And when we are seeking bait let us be seeking bait.]

  • Am fear nach gheidh na h-airm 'nam na sth, Cha bhi iad aige 'n am a chogaidh. [Who keeps not his arms in times of peace, Will have no arms in times of war.]

  • Air rir do mheas ort fhin 'S ann a mheasas cch thu. [According as thou esteemest thyself Others will esteem thee.]

  • A cheud sgeul air fear an taighe, Is sgeul gu lth' air an aoidh. [The first story from the host, And tales till morning from the guest.]

  • Am fear a bhios fad aig an aiseig Gheibh e thairis uaireigin. [He that waits long at the ferry Will get across sometime.]

  • Am fear nach seall roimhe Seallaidh e as a dheigh. [He who will not look before him Will look behind him.]

  • An rthad fada glan, is an rthad goirid salach. [The long clean road, and the short dirty road.]

  • A bh is miosa 'th' anns a bhuaile 'S is cruaidh ni gum. [The worst cow in the fold Lows the loudest.]

  • An rud nach gabh leasachadh, 'S fheudar cur suas leis. [What cannot be helped Must be put up with.]

  • An rud a thig gu dona falbhaidh e leis a ghaoith. [What is got by guile will disappear with the wind.]

  • Buinidh urram do'n aois. [Honour belongs to old age.]

  • Bheir an igin air rud-eigin a dheanamh. [Necessity will get something done.]

  • Bheirear comhairle seachad ach cha toirear gilan. [Council can be given, but not conduct.]

  • Bior a d'dhrn na fisg; Easbhuidheachd ri d' nmhaid na ruisg; Ri gearradh-sgian a d' fheol na isd; Beisd nimheil ri d' bhe na duisg. [A thorn in your grasp, do not squeeze; Thy wants to thine enemy do not bare; The dagger's point to your flesh do not hear; A venomous reptile do not rouse.]

  • Bithidh sonas an lorg na caitheamh. [Felicity follows generosity.]

  • Bithidh cron duine cho mr ri beinn mas leir dha fhin e. [A man's faults will be as large as a mountain ere he himself sees them.]

  • Brisidh an teanga bhog an cneath. [A smooth tongue will blunt wrath.]

  • B'fhearr a bhi gun bhreith na bhi gun teagasg. [Better be without being than without instruction.]

  • B'fhearr gun tiseachadh na sguir gun chriochnachadh. [Better not to begin than stop without finishing.]

  • Cha tig as a phoit ach an toit a bhios innte. [No fumes from the pot, but from what it contains.]

  • Cha'n fhiach gille gun char, 'S cha'n fhiach gille nan car. [The man without a turn is worthless, And the man of many turns is worthless.]

  • Cha'n fhiach brn a ghnth, 'S cha'n fhiach cel a ghnth. [Sorrowing always is not good, And music (mirth) always is not good.]

  • Cha do bhris deagh urram ceann duine riamh, Agus is mr-am-beud a bhi uair 's am bith as aonais. [Due civility never broke a man's head, And great the pity to be at any time without it.]

  • Cha'n eil fealladh ann cho mr ris an gealladh gun choimhlionadh. [There is no deceit so great as a promise unfullfilled.]

  • Cha'n eil saoi gun choimeas. [There is no hero without compare.]

  • Cha sgeul rin e is fios aig triuir air [It is no secret when three know it]

  • Eiridh tonn air uisge balbh [Waves will rise on silent water]

  • Feuch gu bheil do theallach fhin sguaibte, ma's tog thu luath do choimhearsnaich (See that your own hearth is swept before you lift your neighbour's ashes)

  • Gealladh gun a'choimhghealladh, is miosa sin na dhiultadh (Promising but not fulfilling, is worse than refusing.)

  • Is fhearr na'n t-r sgeul air inns' air chir (Better than gold is the tale well told)

  • Is fhearr bloigh bheag le bheannachd, na bloigh mr le mallachd (Better a small portion with a blessing than a large portion with a cursing)

  • Is fhearr cmhairl na thrath, na tiodhlac fadalach (Timely advice is better than a late gift)

  • Na las sop nach urrainn duit fin a chuir as (Do not light a whisp (fire) that you cannot yourself put out)

  • Tagh do chomhluadar ma'n tagh thu do dheoch (Choose your company before you choose your drink)

  • Thig crioch air an saoghal, ach mairidh gaol is cel (The world will pass away, but love and music will endure)

  • Na tog mi gus an tuit mi (Don't lift me up until I fall)

  • Na sir 's na seachainn an cath (Neither seek nor shun the fight)

  • Aithnichear duine air a chuideachd (A man is known by his company)

  • Am fear a ghleidheas a theanga, gleidhidh e a charaid (He who holds his tongue keeps his friend)

  • Bheir duine glic breith bliadhna air fear na h-aon oidhche (A wise man will form a year's judgement from one night's knowledge of another man)

  • Faodaidh fearg sealltainn a stigh air cridh an duine ghlic, ach cmhnaichidh i an cridh an amadain (Anger may look in on a wise man's heart, but it abides in the heart of a fool.)

  • Theid duine gu bs air sgth an nire (A man will die to save his honour)

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More Gaelic Proverbs

(from "A Handbook of the Scottish Gaelic World" by Michael Newton, Four Courts Press 2000)

  • Cha nigh na tha de uisge anns a' mhuir ar ca\irdeas- (All the water in the ocean could not wash away our kinship.)

  • An leanabh a dh'fha\gar dha fhe\in, cuiridh e a mha\thair gu na\ire (The child who is left to himself will bring shame to his mother.)

  • Cuimhnich air na daoine bhon ta\naig thu (Remember the people from who you descend)

  • Lean gu dlu\th ri cliu\ do shinnsre- (Follow closely to the reputation of your ancestors)

  • Am fear a labhras olc mu 'mhnaoi, tha e a cur mi\-chliu\ air fhe\in (The man who speaks ill of his wife ruins his own reputation)

  • Bheirinn cuid-oidhche dha ged a bhiodh ceann fir fo 'achlais (I would give him food and lodging for the night even if he had a man's head under his arm)

  • Gus an tra\ighear a' mhuir le cliabh, cha bhi fear fial falamh (Until the ocean is emptied with a basket, the generous man will never be empty-handed)

  • Gach cu\is gu cu\mhnant (Let every business be done by agreement)

  • Cha bhi suaimhneas aig eucoir no seasamh aig droch-bheairt (Wrong will not rest, nor will ill-deed stand)

  • Cha mhair a' bhreug ach seal (A lie will not last for long)

  • Am fear a chaill a na\ire is a mhodh, chaill e na bh' aige (The person who lost his propriety and his manners lost all he had)

  • Feumaidh an talamh a chuid fhe\in (The earth (that is, the grave) will get its share)

  • Am fear a gheibh gach latha ba\s, 's e as fhearr a bhitheas beo\ (The man who finds death each day is the man who lives best)

  • Chan eil air a' chruadal ach cruadhachadh ris (The only remedy for hardship is to harden to it)

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Cormac's Instructions to Cairbre

(Old Irish Lore, as Excerpted by Rob Barton of the Cateran Society
from "Selections From Ancient Irish Poetry" translated by Kuno Meyer, pg. 105-6,
Constable & Company, London. 1911)

"O Cormac, grandson of Conn. What habits were with you in your youth?" asked Cairbre.

"Not hard." Said Cormac "I was a listener in a wood...a gazer at stars...unseeing among secrets...silent in the wilds...conversational among many...mild in the mead-hall ... fierce in battle ... gentle to allies ... healer to the ill ... weak toward the feeble ... strong toward the powerful. I was not close lest I become burdensome ... arrogant though I was wise...a promiser though I was with wealth ... boastful though I was with skill ... venturesome though I was with swiftness. I would not speak ill of the absent ... deride the aged in my youth ... reproach, I would praise ... ask, but I would give.

"Through these habits will the young become old and kingly warriors." "O Cormac grandson of Conn, what is good for me?" asked Cairbre.

"Not hard." Said Cormac "Do not deride the aged when you have youth ... the poor when you have wealth ... the lame when you are swift ... the blind though you have sight ... the ill when you have strength ... the dull when you are clever ... the foolish though you are with wisdom." "Be no too wise ... too foolish ... too conceited ... too diffident ... too haughty ... too humble ... too talkative ... too silent ... too harsh ... too feeble." "If you are too wise, they expect much ... too foolish, you will be deceived ... too conceited, you will be vexing ... too humble, you will be without honour ... too talkative, you will not be heard ... too silent, you will not be regarded ... too harsh, you will be broken ... too feeble, you will be crushed."

"O Cormac, what is the worst thing that you have seen?" said Cairbre

"Not hard" said Cormac. "The faces of foes in the rout of battle"

"O Cormac, what is the sweetest thing that you have heard?" asked Cairbre.

"Not hard" said Cormac."The shout of triumph after victory, praise after wages, the invitation to the pillow of a lady."

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The Maxims of the Fianna

(From the Translation in "Celtic Myths and Legends," by T.W. Rolleston, Dover, N.Y.)

The Fianna are legendary warriors, with a major role in both Irish and Scots Gaelic tradition. Their behavior was considered an ideal for all classes of society, not warriors alone. "Cothrom na Feinne" is the spirit of honorable fair-play shown by these warriors.)

"Son of Luga, if armed service be thy design, in a great man's household be quiet, be surly in the narrow pass.

"Without a fault of his beat not thy hound; until thou ascertain her guilt, bring not a charge against thy wife.

"In battle meddle not with a buffoon, for, O mac Luga, he is but a fool.

"Censure not any if he be of grave repute; stand not up to take part in a brawl; have naught to do with a madman or a wicked one.

"Two-thirds of thy gentleness be shown to women and to those that creep on the floor (little children) and to poets, and be not violent to the common people.

"Utter not swaggering speech, nor say thou wilt not yield what is right; it is a shameful thing to speak too stiffly unless it be feasible to carry out thy words.

"So long as thou shalt live, thy lord forsake not; neither for gold nor for other reward in the world abandon one whom thou art pledged to protect.

"To a chief do not abuse his people, for that is no work for a man of gentle blood.

"Be no tale-bearer, nor utterer of falsehoods; be not talkative nor rashly censorious. Stir not up strife against thee, however a good man thou be.

"Be no frequenter of the drinking house, nor given to carping at the old; meddle not with a man of mean estate.

"Dispense thy meat freely; have no niggard for thy familiar.

"Force not thyself upon a chief, nor give him cause to speak ill of thee.

"Stick to thy gear; hold fast to thy arms till the stern fight with its weapon-glitter be ended.

"Be more apt to give than to deny, and follow after gentleness, O son of Luga."