The Votadini, the Selgovae and the Novantae
1.1 The purpose of this page is to demonstrate how the principles set out on this website can be used to understand more clearly historical developments in different regions of Britain. The region chosen for study comprises north Northumberland, the Tweed basin and southwest Scotland.
1.2 The term ‘British Celtic’ is used in a few places on this page. The term is merely used as a label to distinguish those Celts who came to Britain from the Continent in the centuries prior to 100BC, and their descendants, from the pre-Celtic people who had earlier lived in Britain and from the Gaelic-speaking Scots who came to Britain from Ireland, apparently in the 5th century AD.
1.3 The basic building-blocks employed in forming British Celtic place-names are discussed in Chapter 1 of the Home menu. The structure of compound place-names is described in Chapter 2, which also gives an explanation of the terms ‘old-style place-names’, ‘transitional place-names’ and ‘inversion-type place-names’. The structure of British Celtic river-names is discussed in Chapter 19.
1.4 It is demonstrated in Chapter 23, paragraph 6.1, that the changeover from old-style place-names to inversion-type place-names took place during the second half of the 2nd century BC. In the interests of simplicity it will be assumed on this page that old-style place-names were coined before 130BC, that transitional place-names were coined in the ten year period from 130BC to 120BC and that inversion-type place-names were coined after 120BC.
2 North Northumberland and the Tweed basin
2.1 For reasons which will become clear below the writer suggests that the river Rede in Northumberland was once called the Bretemena. This form, with loss or omission of the river-letters b and m and of the ena ending, gives Rete which, with the common change t → d, yields the modern river-name Rede. As explained in the entry for Coccuveda in the Alphabetical List the river Coquet will once have had a name somewhat of the form Lacerocomaguvetusuron, this comprising a river-suffix tusuron attached to a place-name Lacerocomaguve. The place-name comprises three inversion-type topographical elements Lac, roc and mag all meaning ‘hill steep’. The place-name will have been the name of the Iron Age promontory fort at Brinkburn Priory, on the river Coquet. The name was transferred to the Roman fort at Learchild, changing at some point to Maromago. The place-name Coccuveda and river-name Coguveusuron are both derived from the river-name Lacerocomaguvetusuron. Note that the linking vowels between the elements of Lacerocomaguve are of no importance. Indeed Maromago may be obtained from Lacerocomaguve and Coccuveda and Coguveusuron from Lacerocomaguvetusuron even if one ignores those linking vowels altogether.
2.2 It may be easiest simply to look at the chronological development of place- and river-names in north Northumberland and the Tweed basin. The earliest names are place-names using the hill-letter s and river-names including the corresponding river-letter b, sometimes changed to v. The only such place-name is Certisonassa (Ravenna’s Certisnassa) at Berwick/Tweedmouth. The river-names are the Duabs (the Tweed, the element Duabs being present in Ravenna’s Duabsissis, another and apparently Flavian name for Berwick/Tweedmouth), the Bretemena (the Rede), the Alavna (the Aln) and the Vividin (the Teviot, the name Vividin being almost certainly a scribal error for Tividin or Dividin). Next came people using the hill-letter m in old-style names, thus before 130BC. We see this m in Gambildandion (apparently the Celtic name which was modified to Habitanci, at Risingham) and the corresponding river-letter r in Bretemena (the Rede). Next came people using the hill-letter l1 in old-style names. We see this l1 in Gambildandion and the corresponding river-letter t in Bretemena. Next came people coining old-style names in the hill-letter n2. We see this n2 in Gambildandion, in Lenda (close to the river Till) and Voltandinion (Yeavering). We see the corresponding river-letter m in Bretemena and the corresponding river-letter l in Till and apparently in Lete, a tributary coming in from the north to join the Tweed at Coldstream. When the Romans later built a fort at High Rochester they simply gave it the name of the nearby river Rede. The fort name was Bretemenium, this being shortened by omission of te to yield the name Bremenium. Now we enter the period when transitional place-names were coined. The only example we have is the Cert element of Certisnassa, apparently the Antonine name for Berwick/Tweedmouth, and we see the corresponding river-letter s in Duabs (the Tweed). Now we enter the period after 120BC, the period when inversion-type place-names were coined. We see the hill-letter m in the mag element of Lacerocomaguve, the Celtic name of the promontory fort at Brinkburn Priory on the river Coquet. We see the corresponding river-letter r in the tusuron suffix of Lacerocomaguvetusuron (the Coquet). The r is also seen in various rivers to the north and northwest, as in Adron (the Whiteadder), Intraum (the Leader or Ettrick), Antrum (the Ettrick or Leader), Liar (the Yarrow) and Durolavi (Lyne Water). Next came people using the hill-letter r in inversion-type names. The only example is Lacerocomaguve, the promontory fort at Brinkburn Priory. The corresponding river-letter s is seen in the river-suffix tusuron. Next came people using the hill-letter l1 in inversion-type names. We see this l1 in Lacerocomaguve, Voltandinion (Yeavering), and Lenda (on the river Till). The corresponding river-letter t, sometimes changed to d, is seen in the river-suffix tusuron, in the Till, the Duabs (the Tweed), the Tividin/Dividin (Teviot), Adron (Whiteadder), Intraum (Leader or Ettrick), Antrum (Ettrick or Leader), Durolavi (Lyne Water), Tinea (the Eden Water, a tributary of the Tweed) and in Litar, probable original form of Ravenna’s river Liar (the Yarrow), as well as in the modern Leithen Water, a tributary which joins the Tweed at Innerleithen. We thus see these l1-people throughout the Tweed basin and in Northumberland at least as far south as the river Coquet. These l1-people were Ptolemy’s Votadini, the tribal name being derived from the place-name Voltandinion (Yeavering) by loss or omission of the hill-letters l and n.
3 Southwest Scotland
3.1 The earliest name in this region is Bandion, using the hill-letter n1. It appears to have been the name of the Iron Age hillfort on Cruise Back Fell immediately adjacent the Water of Luce to the north of Glenluce (NGR: NX 179 622). The name Bandion was incorporated in the river-name Abranobandion (the Water of Luce), shortened and modified by Ptolemy to Abravannus. Next came people using the hill-letter s and river-letter b, sometimes changed to v or n. The hill-letter s appears in Ucselodunum (Uxelodunum) at Castlesteads and Eburocaslum at Broomholm on the Esk. The river-letter b is seen in Eburocaslum (actually a river-name transferred to the Roman fort at Broomholm), in Anavus (the Annan), in Novius (the Nith), in Britena (apparently the Iena of Ptolemy with its river-letters reinstated: with the change of b → v and the r/l interchange Britena became Vlitena which, with the change of v to f, presumably effected by the Angles of Northumbria, became Flitena, the initial Flit now being the modern river-name Fleet) and Abravannus (the Water of Luce). It is thus clear that the s-people settled throughout the entire region. They were followed by a people using the hill-letter m and river-letter r. We see the hill-letter m in Gambaglanda at Birdoswald and the river-letter r in the river-names Irthing, Eburocaslum (the Esk), the Urr, the Britena (the Water of Fleet) and Abravannus (the Water of Luce). We need to remind ourselves that we are speaking here of a period well before 130BC. Next came a people using the hill-letter l1 and river-letter t. We see the hill-letter l1 in Gambaglanda (Birdoswald), Ucselodunum (Uxelodunum at Castlesteads), Lagubalium (Carlisle, the bal element), Eburocaslum (Broomholm) and Bladobulgion (Burnswark Hill: original form of Blatobulgio). We see the river-letter t changed to th in Irthing and to dd in Liddel (a tributary of the Esk), and simply as t in Britena (the Water of Fleet). In addition the d in Ptolemy’s Devas (the Dee) appears to be a modified river-letter t corresponding to the hill-letter l1. We thus see that the l1 -people settled in an area from the eastern limits of this region as far west as the Water of Fleet. These l1-people were Ptolemy’s Selgovae, though the tribal name should be Seglovae since we are dealing here with old-style names and the s-people came before the l1-people. Ravenna does actually mention a place called Segloes amongst its diversa loca, but it seems quite clear that Ravenna has simply misread a tribal name on a map as a place-name (as well as omitting the v of the ending).
3.2 But there was one group of m-people who were not subjugated by the Seglovae/Selgovae and that group lived in the extreme southwest corner of Scotland. These people were Ptolemy’s Novantae. We see their river-letter r in the river-prefix Abra of Abranobandion/Abravannus and we see it again used as a river-prefix in the river-name Rerigonion, apparently the Water of Girvan. Ptolemy’s Rerigonius was presumably a Roman fort/harbour at Girvan, the name having been taken from the river. Rigonion is a place-name in the hill-letter r where Rig means ‘hill steep’. Rigonion was probably the Iron Age fort on the summit of Dow Hill, a steep hill immediately south of Girvan. The fact that the river-name uses the river-letter r of the Novantae as a river-prefix indicates that the Novantae had taken over the Girvan area, so that Rerigonius was in fact in the territory of the Novantae, as Ptolemy indicates. That the people of Ayrshire used the hill-letter r is borne out by the gar element of Vindogara at Irvine.
3.3 It may be noted in passing that where a river has a name comprising a river prefix or suffix attached to a place-name, then not only does the place-name refer to a place on the river in question but also the river usually also has a name employing only river-letters. Thus the river Conwy in north Wales went by the names Tuerobis and Canubio, and the river Brit in Dorset went by the names Velox and Brit (presumably with some ending). The other name of the Water of Luce was probably Lus (again presumably with some ending) where the L was applied by the n1-people who occupied Bandion (the hillfort on Cruise Back Fell) and the s was added by the people who lived in South Ayrshire and used the hill-letter r and river-letter s, it being noted that the Water of Luce rises in South Ayrshire.
3.4 The frontier between the Novantae and the Seglovae/Selgovae was thus west of the Water of Fleet, presumably at the river Cree, which centuries later was to be the county border between old Wigtownshire and Kirkcudbrightshire. Indeed it has been suggested in the past that the river-name Cree is derived from a Gaelic word which actually means ‘frontier’, though this is highly unlikely in a region where all the other main rivers have British Celtic names. The modern river-name Cree is more likely to be a remnant of a Celtic river-name comprising a river-suffix attached to a place-name. The river-letter(s) of the river-suffix has (have) been lost and Cr is probably an old-style place-name element in the hill-letter r, the element meaning ‘steep hill’, it being noted that the river Cree rises in South Ayrshire where the inhabitants used the hill-letter r.
4 Later developments
We have seen above that an l1-people coining inversion-type topographical place-names established themselves in north Northumberland and the Tweed basin. These were Ptolemy’s Votadini. We have also seen that an l1-people coining old-style topographical place-names established themselves in southwest Scotland east of the river Cree. These were Ptolemy’s Selgovae, though the name should actually be Seglovae. And we have seen that an m-people had established themselves in the southwest corner of Scotland. These were Ptolemy’s Novantae. But there were later changes, not referred to by Ptolemy, presumably because they occurred too late to be included in his data as to tribes and their relative locations. These changes are discussed below.
4.1 There was an incursion of n2 -people into the western part of the territory of the Votadini. No place-names come to mind but we see their river-letter l in Liar (the Yarrow) and in the modern Leader and Leithen Water. These n2 -people appear to have been displaced from the region south of the Firth of Forth, for there we see n2 in Almond at Craigie Hill by Edinburgh airport and in inversion-type Lecidanisca (Evidensca) at Inveresk. The n2 -people put their river-letter l in the river-name Leith. But an l2 -people arrived and took over the whole region along the south shore of the Firth of Forth and so the n2 -people moved inland. It was the l2 -people who put the t in Novitia (the Tyne in East Lothian) and the t changed to th in the river-name Leith. And it is l2 we see in Almond and Lecidanisca. It may be noted in passing that the hillfort on Traprain Law will have been a tribal centre of the l2 -people and not of the Votadini. But it would appear that the displaced n2 -people occupied part at least of the Leader valley, the valley of the Leithen Water and part at least of the Yarrow valley. The large hillfort on Eildon North, near Newstead, was presumably intended to stop any eastward thrust of those n2 -people into the lower Tweed valley. The Eil of Eildon may be a remnant of an inversion-type place-name element in the hill-letter l1, thus showing that the hillfort was indeed in the hands of the Votadini. The Celtic name of the hillfort may have started with Deli, where del means ‘summit of hill’. The d has been dropped and eli has changed to Eil. The don element of Eildon was presumably added much later, when that area was part of the kingdom of Northumbria.
4.2 There was also an incursion into the southern part of the Votadini territory, in this case by l2 -people. We see their river-letter t, changed to d, in the river-name Tividin/Dividin (Teviot). It is also present in the modern river-name Lete Water and, changed to d, in the modern river-name Tweed. But there is no t in Duabs (the Tweed) and no l2 in Certisnassa (Berwick/Tweedmouth). These l2 -people thus appear to have entered Votadini territory from the southwest, from the region embracing Carlisle and north Cumbria, which by this time was inhabited by l2 -people (shown by the lag element of Lagubalium at Carlisle and the river-letter t in Derwent), first settling in the southwestern part of the Teviot valley but later extending right down to the lower reaches of the Tweed.
4.3 There appears to have been some settlement of n2 -people in the extreme east of the territory of the Seglovae/Selgovae for we see their river-letter l in the river-name Liddel, this being a tributary of the Esk . The second l in Liddel will have been added by n2 -people who coined old-style place-names in the hill-letter n2, perhaps people from the region around Gambaglanda at Birdoswald. The first l in Liddel will have been added later, by people who coined inversion-type place-names in the hill-letter n2. These n2 -people may have come from the area just mentioned, but they may have been Brigantes from further south.
4.4 Some of the l2 -people from the Carlisle and north Cumbria region appear to have migrated along the coast of Dumfries and Galloway. The th in Nith was almost certainly added to the river-name by l2 -people. Ptolemy gives the name Novius for the Nith and whilst it is possible that the t was omitted by mistake by Ptolemy it is equally possible that the t was not in the river-name at the date Ptolemy’s information on rivers and bays was compiled. The l2 -people often added their river-letter t to the previous river-name, complete with its ending. We see this in Novitia (the Tyne in East Lothian), in all the Trisantonis and Derventione rivers and in the modern river Darent. The l2 -people will have changed Novius to Novitia. Later the ov was dropped and the t changed to th to give the modern river-name Nith.
4.5 Ptolemy assigns Loucopibia to the territory of the Novantae. It was most probably a Roman fort, the name having been transferred from an Iron Age hillfort/settlement somewhere in the vicinity, and that Roman fort will have been somewhere west of the river Cree (apparently the frontier with the Seglovae), though so far as the present writer is aware no trace of such a fort has yet been found. The name Loucopibia appears originally to have been Lotucobimvia, comprising the inversion-type element lotuc in the hill-letter l2 and meaning ‘hill high steep’, qualified by the old-style element bimv meaning ‘high hill slope’. The name refers to a place on the slope of a high, steep hill. We need, then, to look at what appears to be the only Iron Age hillslope fort in that area, namely that at Barsalloch Point on the eastern side of the Bay of Luce (NGR: NX 347 412). But that seems a very small and insignificant fort. There is a more impressive fort a little to the south, that known as Laggan Camp (NGR: NX 398 373). The hillfort is built on a low knoll, but that knoll projects upwards from the steep lower slopes of a high hill (the Fell of Carleton) and it is but a short distance from the foot of the knoll to the edge of the steep coastal escarpment. The fort can thus sensibly be described as standing on the slope, on the side, of a steep, high hill, and so the name Lotucobimvia would be entirely appropriate. The name would indicate, assuming its form is correct, that the hillfort had belonged to the Novantae but was taken over by l2 -people. The Laggan Camp hillfort may thus have been Lotucobimvia. And the name was later transferred to a Roman fort, at some point changing to Loucopibia. The changes involved are very minor, the fairly common changes b → p and v → b, together with the omission of t and m. Note that the modern river-name Bladnoch is probably similar to Britena (mentioned above in paragraph 3.1) in comprising the river-letters b, r (later changed to l by the r/l interchange) and t, though in this case the t would correspond to the hill-letter l2 and at some stage it changed to d. This would suggest that the l2 -migrants from the Carlisle area had taken over the region known as The Machars, this change coming too late to be included in Ptolemy’s information as to tribes and their relative locations. So far as Ptolemy was concerned the Roman fort Loucopibia was in territory which his tribal data assigned to the Novantae. It may be noted that the old county town, Wigtown, stands on a steepish slope, the lowest parts of the modern town standing around the 15 metre contour and the highest points around the 50 metre contour. The Wig element of the name may thus be based on an inversion-type topographical element such as Vilc meaning ‘slope of hill steep’, the hill-letter having been deleted, v changed to w and c to g. The change of v to w is probably the result of much later Anglian influence.
4.6 But note that the statements made in paragraph 4.5 as to Loucopibia and the river Bladnoch may not be entirely correct. It is also possible that the Seglovae, who used the hill-letter l1, inserted the river-letter t, now changed to d, in the then name of the river Bladnoch at some time prior to 130BC, when they were still coining old-style place-names. The later inversion-type name Lotucobimvia could then also use the hill-letter l1. The frontier between the Seglovae and the Novantae would then be west of the river Cree, perhaps on the river Bladnoch itself or even further west. The place- and river-names available to us seem not to settle the issue one way or the other, but it may be possible to tackle the matter from a different angle. It is shown in ‘The Celtic “Picts”: Part 2’, 7.6 (which may be accessed from the Main menu above) that the greatest concentrations of “Pictish” Class I stones (indeed the great majority of Class I stones) have been found in areas which were inhabited by people who used the hill-letter l2 or r. Likewise the “Pictish” designs/carvings found at Binnie Craig near Linlithgow (‘The Celtic “Picts”: Part 2’, 7.7.3), Edinburgh Castle and Traprain Law (‘The Celtic “Picts”: Part2’, 7.7.2) were all found in a region which was once inhabited by people who used the hill-letter l2. The r-people appear not to have played any significant role in the history of Dumfries and Galloway, so it most probably was l2 -people, descendants of the early migrants discussed here, who carved the “Pictish” Class I symbols at Trusty’s Hill, just west of Gatehouse-of-Fleet. This might suggest that the l2 -people from Cumbria, who had apparently settled in the Nith Valley, occupied a swathe of land right along the coast of Dumfries and Galloway as far as The Machars. If this is correct then it most probably was l2 -people who put the river-letter t, changed to d, in Bladnoch and the L of Lotucobimvia/Loucopibia most probably is l2. This would show that the Seglovae and the Novantae had both lost a significant amount of land to the l2-people from Cumbria. But, as noted earlier, this all happened too late to be included in Ptolemy’s data as to tribal names and the relative locations of the tribes.
5 General points
5.1 Regarding assigning particular place-names to particular tribes it is worth noting that Ptolemy gives no names for the l2 -people living in Carlisle and north Cumbria, for those who migrated to the Nith basin or further west to The Machars, those who moved to the valley of the Teviot, those who lived in northeast Fife or those who lived in the valleys of the Aberdeenshire Don and Urie. This must be because Ptolemy’s information as to tribes and their whereabouts was compiled before the tribal movements referred to. Similarly Ptolemy does not mention the Voresti/Boresti or the Verturiones simply because those people did not exist as recognizable tribal units at the time Ptolemy’s tribal information was compiled. We can see that Ptolemy’s tribal information must have been compiled after 120BC since many of his tribal names include inversion-type topographical place-name elements. And we may assume that the r-people who came to be known as the Verturiones moved to Speyside as the Cornavi were completing their occupation of Caithness, i.e. sometime in the first half of the 1st century BC, the occupation having started before 130BC, in the period when old-style place-names were being coined (as evidenced by the very name Cornavi). It thus seems fair to conclude that Ptolemy’s information as to tribes and their relative locations was compiled sometime in the first half of the 1st century BC. But his information as to place-names must postdate the Roman invasion of AD43 since many of his place-names refer to Roman forts. It is thus possible that Ptolemy made some errors when assigning particular place-names to particular tribes, simply because some tribal frontiers had moved since his data as to tribes and their locations was compiled.
5.2 There has in the past been some uncertainty as to whether Ptolemy’s Selgovae lived in the Tweed basin or in southwest Scotland. It should be noted that there is no evidence in the place- and river-names that a people using the hill-letter s and river-letter b occupied the western part of the Tweed basin before or after the Votadini (the v in Durolavi is most probably just a name ending), so the tribal name Selgovae does not appear to belong to the Tweed basin. It belongs to southwest Scotland, where there is clear evidence that that region was once inhabited by an s-people and later by an l1-people. The tribal name Selgovae is based on a topographical place-name (as are most British Celtic tribal names) and in this case we are dealing with an old-style place-name, the s coming before the l1. The correct form of the place-name would thus be Seglovion, that of the tribe Seglovae (though of course the form Segloves would also be in order).
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[This page was last modified on 16 May 2021]