A Medieval Gaelic Word for Tattooing?

by Oct 30, 2019

What’s the Gaelic word for ‘tattoo’? In modern Irish, it’s ‘tatú’. In modern Scottish Gaelic, it’s ‘tatù’. But these modern words were borrowed from the English word ‘tattoo’, which in turn was borrowed from the original word in one or more Polynesian languages. The modern English word ‘tattoo’ was first used in print in 1769. But what if tattooing was practiced by medieval Gaels 1000 years before that? What would it have been called in medieval Gaelic language and culture?

After my friend Dr. Sharon Arbuthnot and I finished working on last month’s blog post about the Electronic Dictionary of the Irish Language (eDIL) and how it relates to Scottish Gaelic words, she casually mentioned to me that there is evidence of a medieval Gaelic word for tattooing that arose from within Gaelic culture, not from the modern influence of English. As the author of a book of ideas for Scottish Gaelic tattoos, naturally I got SUPER EXCITED and asked if we could share this information with Gaelic.co readers right away! So without further delay, here’s our interview about it:

Medieval Gaelic Tattooing?

EM: As far as I’m aware, there is no physical evidence for tattooing in the medieval Gaelic world, so it’s really interesting to find out about references to tattooing in Gaelic texts from that period! Before you get to talking about the words themselves, let me first ask: what exact time period are we talking about?

SA: It’s difficult to date medieval Gaelic texts in any way precisely unless they contain references to particular historical events or personages, so we try to assign these generally, suggesting centuries or linguistic periods to which they belong. The situation is complicated even further in the case of some of the texts that contain information on tattooing in that the words and phrases of interest to us were added as ‘glosses’, or notes in the margins or above the lines after the original texts were written in manuscripts – and some such notes probably accrued centuries later. So, we have some evidence that dates from the Old Gaelic period, that is c. 700-900 AD, but the notes that I will be mentioning may well have been added several centuries later. As far as we know, all of the texts in question come from Ireland, but of course the medieval Gaelic world took in also much of what is now Scotland.

EM: So, what do these textual references tell us? What, when, where, why, and how were people getting tattooed in the medieval Gaelic world?

SA: Well, we don’t know how closely what is stated in various legal and literary texts corresponds to practices actually carried out in medieval Ireland, but we have at least one reference which seems to indicate tattooing on the calf of the leg. There is a text generally known as ‘The Cauldron of Poesy’ in English (it begins Moí Coire coir Goiriath ‘Mine is the proper Cauldron of Goiriath’ in the original Gaelic text), which might have been composed as early as the 8th century.

It refers to a fictional character named ‘white-kneed, blue-shanked, grey-bearded Amairgen’ (Amargen glúngel garrglas grélíath). Later someone added a note to the manuscript, explaining the name. This has been edited and translated as: colpa iarna crechad no ica tá in colpa glas iarna crechadh ‘a tattooed shank, or who has the blue tattooed shank’.

The same key words, crechad and glas, also turn up in a comment on a list of lowly occupations. This is found as part of an Old Gaelic legal text on status but, again, the comment is in a note probably written some centuries later than the main text. It says: doniad crecad (creachad, v.l.) glas arna roscaib, which seems to mean ‘he used to tattoo in blue on the eyes’.

In medieval Gaelic, and indeed still in Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic, glas covers a range of colours. It is translated into English as ‘grey’, ‘green’ or ‘blue’ according to context, and it is used of the blue-ish dye produced by the plant woad. So, these glosses or notes in early texts seem to refer to tattooing with woad.

Woad leaves and dye from the Lovely Greens blog: https://lovelygreens.com/extracting-woada-natural-blue-pigment/

Woad leaves and dye from the Lovely Greens blog: https://lovelygreens.com/extracting-woada-natural-blue-pigment/

EM: Woad is fab, but “tattooing on the eyes,” what on earth does that mean? Is that like modern tattooed eye-liner? And who was getting these blue tattoos on the calf… or the eye for that matter?

The word used is rosc and, strictly speaking, that is the eye but surely this must be about the eye-lid or general eye-area. To be honest, there’s not an awful lot to go on here. There are references elsewhere to people having blue-ish marks on their faces, but it is not at all clear whether these are to be regarded as naturally occurring or artificial. A character called Bressal Enechglas, for example, is said to have had comarthada glassa ‘blue-ish marks’ on his face in Cóir Anmann ‘The Fitness of Names’, which may date from the 13th century. These could be just some kind of pale or livid marks or bruises, though.

Similarly, it’s hard to tell much about who might have been getting tattoos, but for what it’s worth, Amairgen is a man’s name – the fictional Amairgen in question here was one of the sons of Míl, who supposedly seized Ireland from the otherworldly Tuatha Dé Danann in the Irish mythological cycle.

An early glossary called Sanas Cormaic ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ refers also to some kind of marks which are specifically around the calves of men: crechtir id crechdha im cholpa fer, which might mean ‘a tattooed hoop is tattooed around the calves of men’. The glossary is associated with Cormac mac Cuileannáin, a king and bishop of Cashel in Munster who died in 908, and it says also that this hoop is im cholpa niad ‘around the calves of warriors’. If there is an historical basis for this, perhaps these marks were a sign of achievement or status, but again details are scarce!

Another thing to notice is that, although both colpa ‘the calf of the leg’ and crechad, the word we have been taking as ‘tattooing’, are mentioned in ‘Cormac’s Glossary’ and in ‘The Cauldron of Poesy’, glas ‘blue’ does not appear in the glossary. Interestingly, glas is absent also from an Old Gaelic satirical poem which might have to do with tattooing. In the original, the line of poetry of interest to us runs ro crechad anís co crissu, which the editor translated as ‘he has been tattooed from below to the waist’.

EM: So, if I understand you correctly, various scholars are translating this word crechad as ‘tattooing’, but sometimes it is used alongside the word glas, the blue colour of woad, and sometimes it is used without glas. Could it mean something else when there is no reference to colour or dye?

SA: Yes, it’s possible that crechad has to do with branding rather than tattooing in some of these texts. We know that this verb can be used to mean ‘cauterizes’ – cauterizing is burning the skin or flesh with a heated instrument. Medieval Gaelic medical texts discuss the cauterizing of teeth and wounds, presumably to stop bleeding and prevent infection, and some indicate that this was done with a red-hot tool of iron. So, particularly where glas is not mentioned, the hoops or markings might be the result of burning or branding rather than tattooing. It would still be in the realm of body modification, possibly for aesthetic or social purposes, just a bit different from tattooing.

Was Tattooist a Profession in the Medieval Gaelic World?

EM: So, extrapolating a bit here, if crechad is tattooing, then was there also a medieval Gaelic word for a tattoo artist or tattooist based on that?

SA: One of these texts does hint at an early term for a tattooist! Going back to the legal text I already mentioned, the note which seems to be about tattooing around the eye relates to the word creccaire in the main text.

As I said before, the main part of this legal text is a list of lowly occupations: it gives details of the seating arrangement of various professionals in a banqueting hall, and the creccaire sits amongst the likes of the lúamaire ‘pilot’ or ‘steersman’, the clesamnach ‘performer of tricks’ and the braigetóir ‘farter’.

The Book of Leinster, 29 a. Tech Midchúarda. ‘Diagram of the Banqueting Hall, with the names and order of the principal guests and the portions allotted to them.’ ‘Creccairi’ is about halfway down the fourth column.

The Book of Leinster, 29 a. Tech Midchúarda. ‘Diagram of the Banqueting Hall, with the names and order of the principal guests and the portions allotted to them,’ www.isos.dias.ie. ‘Creccairi’ is about halfway down the fourth column. Image © the Board of TCD.

EM: OK I have to go off on a tangent here and ask, was it literally the job of a braigetóir to fart?

SA: Haha! Yes, it would seem so. This word has a note of its own in the legal text, explaining exactly what the braigetóir was known for, and the note in this case says doniad in bruigedoracht as a tonaib ‘he used to fart from his buttocks’. Professional flatulists are on record from various different periods throughout history and from various different cultures. Roland the Farter, for example, seems to have performed ‘one jump, one whistle and one fart’ every Christmas at the court of King Henry II of England in the 12th century. One of John Derrick’s Images of Irelande (published in 1581) shows a number of entertainers, seemingly including flatulists, but it’s important to bear in mind that Derrick was concerned to denigrate Irish culture, rather than accurately represent it, and to justify English intervention in Ireland, so we shouldn’t place too much faith in the images he produced.

Excerpt from John Derrick’s Images of Irelande (1581) showing what appears to be a professional braigetóir, farter, or flatulist among other entertainers

Excerpt from John Derrick’s Images of Irelande (1581) showing what appears to be a professional braigetóir, farter, or flatulist among other entertainers

SA: Anyway, back to the creccaire… There don’t seem to be any early examples of the word except in that legal text, but ‘kreahkirin’ appears in a letter written in 1693 about poets and other traditions in the Highlands of Scotland, and creccaire has been taken to be a related word. The ‘kreahkirin’, we are told, ‘could discourse on anie short & transient subject, told newes and such modern things’. Based mainly on that and on the idea that crecc- might be onomatopoeic, creccaire is defined in the dictionary as ‘a person who entertains his patrons with raucous chatter’.

However, even if the single word creccaire in the legal text denoted some kind of entertainer, the person who added the comment about tattooing apparently didn’t understand it in this way. His comment suggests that that he took the lowly occupation in question to be crechaire ‘tattooist’.

EM: Basically, then, one medieval scribe saw creccaire, a term for a professional entertainer, and interpreted it as crechaire, ‘a tattooist’?

SA: That seems to be roughly what happened, yes. Not just a ‘scribe’ in the sense of someone who passively copies material, of course, but a scholar who was actively engaging with the text as he wrote and adding notes as he went along.

Modern scholars have been struck by the fact that whoever wrote this particular note didn’t recognize creccaire as a term for an entertainer – which suggests that this occupation might have disappeared already from Irish life when the he added his notes to the manuscript. That he seems to have thought that the text contained a reference to crechaire and associated this with tattooing is interesting as well, though; it suggests that crechaire was known as a word for a tattooist.

Indeed, crechaire is what we would expect as the medieval Gaelic word for ‘tattooist’. As a verb, we have evidence of crechaid in the meanings ‘plunders, raids’ and also ‘cauterizes’ as well as seemingly ‘tattoos’. And as a noun we have evidence of crechaire in the meanings ‘plunderer, raider’ and ‘cauterizer, cautery iron’. From a linguistic point-of-view, then, crechaire ‘tattooist’ is quite predictable – we just don’t have any clear examples!

Raiding, Ruination, and Tattooing, Oh My!

EM: So, relating this to the theme of last month’s post, about Gaelic and Irish words, are there any modern Scottish Gaelic words related to this medieval word for a tattooist? Crech is reminding me of this phrase “Mo chreach ’s a thàinig” in Scottish Gaelic… are they related?

SA: Yes! If you speak Scottish Gaelic, or you’re learning it, you are probably familiar with crech in its modern spelling of creach, from that well-known Scottish Gaelic exclamation Mo chreach ’s a thàinig! or just Mo chreach! If you learned that phrase in a Gaelic class, then you may have been taught also that creach once meant ‘a plundering expedition’ or ‘a raid’. There’s a tendency today to joke about how Mo chreach ’s a thàinig translates into English as ‘My cattle-raid has come’.

EM: Yes, I remember our first-year Gaelic teacher telling us that it literally meant that, and that it meant “My ruination has come” more generally. Come to think of it, you were in that class with me nearly 30 years ago! Mo chreach, we’re a bit medieval ourselves aren’t we…

SA: Our cattle-raid has not yet come! As you can imagine, for the economies of medieval Gaelic Ireland and Scotland losing cattle would have led to real hardship and ruination. It is clear, though, that a medieval crech could involve the theft of other valuable goods, not only cattle, and that such expeditions could end in the loss of life as well. So, crech developed to mean something like ‘ruin’ and, even in the 10th century or so, it covered emotional as well as material crisis.

The texts that we have been looking at here take the meaning of crech in another direction. Early on, the verb crechaid seems to have come to refer specifically to ‘ruining’ the skin, including meanings such as ‘marks’, ‘cauterizes’, and ‘tattoos’. Crech and its related words underwent remarkable semantic development over the centuries.


The definition of modern Scottish Gaelic “creach” in Dwelly’s dictionary, https://archive.org/stream/faclairgidhl01dweluoft#page/267/mode/1up

EM: This is so fantastic! It’s commonplace for words to gradually change meaning over time in any language. But this particular example of semantic shift is just so interesting for so many of us: Gaelic speakers, Gaelic learners, linguists, historians, art historians, tattoo artists, tattoo enthusiasts… not to mention historical re-enactors!

By the way, on another slight tangent, here are two performances for Gaelic.co readers of the most well-known Scottish Gaelic traditional song mentioning a ‘creach’, the pibroch song “Thogail nam Bò”:

The words to the song are here (note the ‘creach’ in the second verse, translated here as ‘spoil’):

Thogail nam bò, thogail nam bò, thogail nam bò théid sinn;
Thogail nam bò ri uisge ’s ri ceò, ri monadh Ghlinn Crò théid sinn.
Thogail nam bò, thogail nam bò, thogail nam bò théid sinn;
Thogail nam bò ri uisge ’s ri ceò, ri monadh Ghlinn Crò théid sinn.

Thogail nan creach, bhualadh nan speach, thogail nan creach théid sinn;
Thogail nan creach, dhiomain nan creach, thogail nan creach théid sinn;
Thogail nan creach, bhualadh nan speach, thogail nan creach théid sinn;
Thogail nam bò ri uisge ’s ri ceò, ri monadh Ghlinn Crò théid sinn.

To lift the cows, to lift the cows, to lift the cows we shall go;
To lift the cows into the rain and into the mist, up the moor of Glenn Croe we shall go.
To lift the cows, to lift the cows, to lift the cows we shall go;
To lift the cows into the rain and into the mist, up the moor of Glenn Croe we shall go.

To lift the spoil, (like the) sting of a wasp, to lift the spoil we shall go;
To lift the spoil, to lift the spoil, to lift the spoil we shall go;
To lift the spoil, (like the) sting of a wasp, to lift the spoil we shall go;
To lift the cows into the rain and into the mist up the moor of Glenn Croe we shall go.

EM: Co-dhiùbh, so we have a Gaelic word referring to a concept of material or emotional ruin, that once upon a time included cattle raids… and we still use this word today in modern Scottish Gaelic, as part of an expression of emotional ruin or mild horror. These days, with the influence of texting, O mo chreach! has even been abbreviated to OMC on social media. That shows cultural continuity and innovation in Scottish Gaelic language, culture and history.

'O mo chreach' enamel pin by Graficanna

‘O mo chreach’ enamel pin by Graficanna, available at http://graficanna.com/printshop/enamel-pin-omochreach

EM: And then on top of that, learning about the branding, cauterizing, and tattooing connotations for that word in the medieval Gaelic world makes it even more interesting! The juxtaposition of all of these elements of meaning gives us a fascinating glimpse into how a Gaelic worldview could be expressed in words.

One last question, as I mentioned at the start, the words for ‘tattoo’ in both modern Irish and modern Scottish Gaelic are borrowed from the English word. So I suppose that original Gaelic word for tattooing, crechad, was ‘lost’ in that it went completely out of use, and perhaps people eventually forgot the word had ever been used in that sense, when the tattooing practice itself went out of use.

But modern tattooing is popular, in a big way! So do you think we could start a new trend of using ‘creach’ or something similar for ‘tattoo’ in modern Irish or Scottish Gaelic?

SA: We could, but it might seem as if we were asking for an emotional crisis rather than a tattoo! There is an important point to make, though, in that we have early native words for concepts and objects that are still around today, but often we use borrowings from English or new coinages to refer to these – which creates the impression that there are significant gaps in the vocabulary and that, for example, Modern Irish and Scottish Gaelic ‘can’t do maths and science’ (to quote your own Anti-Gaelic Bingo card). Returning to words that have long histories in the language might go some way to addressing those preconceptions. As early as the 9th century scholars were writing in Gaelic about computistics and astronomy and the like, using words such as rímaire ‘a person who counts or calculates’ and rindide ‘the Zodiac’ and sechtarré ‘the Great Bear’, and it would be great to see native terms being revived in preference to borrowing or coining new terms. eDIL is a tremendous resource of medieval words, some in areas that people might not immediately associate with either Gaelic or medieval language, and the Dictionary can be searched using the English terms found in definitions and translations, so even the quickest browse will almost certainly turn up something of interest.

If you are curious about the ways in which Gaelic words came into being, fell out of use and changed in meaning from the past to the present, you can read about crech – and also about Gaels ‘doing maths and science’ in medieval times – in a book I have written with Máire Ní Mhaonaigh and Gregory Toner called A History of Ireland in 100 Words. The book was published by the Royal Irish Academy last week and has been shortlisted for ‘Best Irish-published Book of 2019’ at the An Post Irish Book Awards.

EM: Congratulations! You had mentioned something to me about voting as well?

SA: Yes! If you enjoyed this blog post and have a few moments to spare, please vote for 100 Words at: https://irishbookawards.irish/vote2019/. Voting closes on 13 November 2019.

You can buy a copy of the book from the Royal Irish Academy at: https://www.ria.ie/publications/new-publications.

EM: Tapadh leat gu mòr Sharon! I love a good book plug as you know. Speaking of plugging the book, for North American readers it might be easier to order it here (this is an affiliate link that supports the Gaelic.co blog at no additional cost when you buy the book).

Sharon has also provided us with scholarly references, which are listed below!


Sharon Arbuthnot [ed. and tr.], Cóir Anmann. A Late Middle Irish Treatise on Personal Names II (London 2007), 55.

D. A. Binchy [ed.], Corpus Iuris Hibernici (Dublin 1978), especially 1617 and 2281.

Liam Breatnach [ed. and tr.], “The Caldron of Poesy”, Ériu 32 (1981): 45–93 (especially pp. 62–63).

Fergus Kelly, ‘Varia III. Old Irish creccaire, Scottish Gaelic kreahkir’, Ériu 37 (1986), 185–86.

Róisín McLaughlin [ed. and tr.], Early Irish Satire (Dublin 2008), 54.

Kuno Meyer [ed.], ‘Sanas Cormaic’, Anecdota from Irish Manuscripts IV (Halle 1912), § 586.

Pádraig Ó Duinnín, Foclóir Gaedhilge agus Béarla, 2nd edition (Dublin 1927), s.v. creachaire.

Subscribe to Gaelic.co!

Join our mailing list to get regular Gaelic.co updates from Dr. Emily McEwan.

Subscribers will receive notices of new blog posts and an e-mail newsletter.

Tapadh leibh! Thank you! Look for an opt-in confirmation e-mail soon.