Celts, Picts and then Scots
1.1 The purpose of this page is to identitfy the people who were called Picts in the works of Roman writers. This can be done, indeed will be done, on the basis of the place- and river-names in the Ravenna Cosmography and the Geography of Ptolemy.
1.2 The text below is written on the assumption that the reader is already familiar with the basic building-blocks of Celtic place-names (Home menu, Chapter 1), with the structure of Celtic compound place-names (Chapter 2) and with the structure of river-names (Chapter 19).
1.3 No justification will be given for the identification of any place-name in Ravenna or Ptolemy except where the name is one which has not been discussed elsewhere on this website.
1.4 In the interests of brevity reference will sometimes be made to, for example, “r-people” in place of “people who use the hill-letter r”. This also applies, of course, to the other hill-letters.
1.5 As explained in Chapter 23, 6.1 of the Home menu the changeover from old-style to inversion-type place-names occurred during the second half the 2nd century BC. For convenience and in the interests of brevity it will be assumed on this page that old-style place-names were coined before 130BC, transitional place-names in the ten year period from 130BC to 120BC and inversion-type place-names after 120BC. These dates are probably not exactly correct, but they can’t be very far from the truth.
1.6 The term ‘British Celts’ will be seen at various points of this page. The term is used simply as a label to identify the Celts who came over to Britain from the Continent in the few centuries leading up to 100BC, and their descendants, and to distinguish them from the pre-Celtic population of Britain and from the Gaelic-speaking Scots who came to Britain from Ireland, apparently in the 5th Century AD.
1.7 The text below refers to a number of hillforts and to several brochs. Unless otherwise stated information as to the distribution of hillforts and brochs, and as to the structure or layout of individual hillforts and brochs, is taken from Lock, G. and Ralston, I. 2017. Atlas of Hillforts of Britain and Ireland. [ONLINE] Available at : https//hillforts.arch.ox.ac.uk.
1.8 The study will begin by listing in section 2 below all the place- and river-names given in Ravenna and Ptolemy for the region north of the Antonine Wall. Some of the names are given in the form restored by the present writer and for the benefit of those readers who have not read other pages of this website paragraph 2.9 below gives a concordance showing the restored form and the form given by Ravenna and/or Ptolemy. The names are divided in section 2 according to the hill-letter(s) used in each place-name and according to whether the name-element including a particular hill-letter is old-style or inversion-type. Place-names given by Ravenna and/or Ptolemy are shown bold, whereas river-names are shown bold and in italics. Restored forms of names are shown in italics. Some names are shown with a question mark. This normally means that it is not clear whether a hill-letter in the place-name concerned is used in the old-style or the inversion-type manner. The place-name is then given in both categories, with a question mark. Likewise any corresponding river-name is shown in both categories. The columns of place-names and river-names below should be read independently. There is no intended association of any place-name with a river-name which might appear in the same horizontal line.
2 Celtic place- and river-names north of the Antonine Wall
2.1 Names in hill-letter n1 or river-letter m or l
2.1.1 Old-style names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter m||River-name with river-letter l|
|Bindocornion (Findhorn)||Isla (Moray)?|
2.2 Names in hill-letter s or river-letter b
2.2.1 Old-style names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter b (perhaps changed to v, n or p)|
|Iberban (second b)|
2.2.2 Inversion-type names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter b (perhaps changed to v, n or p)|
|Iscaelis||Iberban (first b)|
2.3 Names in hill-letter m or river-letter r
2.3.1 Old-style names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter r|
2.3.2 Inversion-type names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter r|
2.4 Names in hill-letter r or river-letter s
2.4.1 Old-style names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter s|
2.4.2 Inversion-type names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter s|
2.5 Names in hill-letter l1 or river-letter t
2.5.1 Old-style names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter t (perhaps changed to d or th)|
2.5.2 Inversion-type names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter t (perhaps changed to d or th)|
2.6 Names in hill-letter n2 or river-letter m or l
2.6.1 Old-style names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter m||River-name with river-letter l|
2.6.2 Inversion-type names
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter m||River-name with river-letter l|
2.7 Names in hill-letter l2 or river-letter t
Inversion-type names only
|Place-name||River-name with river-letter t (perhaps changed to d or th)|
2.8 Ravenna’s Decha and Lodone have not been included above since it is not sufficiently clear what the correct forms of those names were.
2.9 Concordance showing place- and river-names in forms restored by the writer and the names as given by Ravenna and/or Ptolemy
3 Place- and river-names between the Great Glen and the Mounth
3.1 Looking at the place- and river-names along the southern side of the Moray Firth, the oldest name appears to be Findhorn. This is a river-name nowadays, but it seems to be just a modification of an old-style place-name somewhat of the form Bindocornion. The Bind element of the Celtic name means ‘high hill summit’ and the cor element means ‘steep hill’. The n in the Bind element is n1. The initial B will have changed to F (via V probably), the o in the middle has been dropped, the c has changed to h and the ion part of the ending has been dropped. This will have been the name of a hillfort close to the river and at some stage the name has simply been transferred to the river (though by whom is not clear). The ideal hillfort would appear to be Dunearn (at NH 932 407), standing atop a high, steep hill immediately adjacent the river.
3.2 There is no other clear use of the hill-letter n1 in this region, but note that the modern river-name Nairn has exactly the same consonant combination n,r as the name Bindocornion/Findhorn and also has a simple letter n as an ending, so it is conceivable that Nairn is also derived from an old-style topographical compound in the hill-lettters n1 and r. The rivers Findhorn and Nairn are not far from one another and so it is possible that the areas around both rivers were occupied by the same tribal group at any historical moment. The river-letter l in the river-name Isla (a tributary of the Deveron) could correspond to either hill-letter, n1 or n2.
3.3 At some point most of the region appears to have been occupied by people who used the hill-letter s and the river-letter b. We thus see the hill-letter s in the old-style element ocs of Locsa at Birnie, on the river Lossie to the south of Elgin. And we see the river-letter b changed to v in the river-names Deveron, Divie (a tributary of the Findhorn) and Avon (a tributary of the Spey), changed to p in the river-name Spey and changed to n in Ness (probably via v). Where these s–people came from is not clear, but since the ocs element of Locsa is old-style it is clear that the s-people came to this area before about 130BC, perhaps considerably earlier. These s-people appear also to have built a hillfort called Ecsa or Ecsion on the Tap o’ Noth, just northwest of Rhynie in Aberdeenshire. An explanation for this suggestion is given below in paragraph 3.5.
3.4 But the s-people later lost control of this region. The first group to make inroads into their territory was an m-people who settled around the river Deveron. They were still coining old-style names, so they arrived sometime before 130BC. We see their river-letter r in Deveron, after the b, changed to v, applied by those who used the hill-letter s. The m-people also settled around the river Urie, this name also including the river-letter r, and presumably in the lower valley of the Don (we do not know the earlier name of this river). But we do not know the full extent of the territory of those m-people. Some time later, but still earlier than 130BC, an l1-people settled in northeast Aberdeenshire, their territory extending sufficiently far to the southwest as to include the Tap o’ Noth, the name of the hillfort here becoming somewhat like Ecsalion. The territory of the l1-people separated the northern m-people around the Deveron from the southern m-people around the Urie. Some years later, after the changeover to inversion-type names, thus later than 120BC, an l2-people took over the valleys of the Don and Urie, displacing the m-people southwards into the area around the Mounth and the northern end of the Howe of the Mearns. It was these displaced m-people, by now using inversion-type names, who put the r in the river-name Iberban (the Bervie Water). Later still some event in eastern Aberdeenshire, perhaps simply northwards expansion of the l2-people or the arrival of more l2-people from the south, caused some of the l1-people living in northeast Aberdeenshire to move west. We see their river-letter t, changed to d, at the front of the river-name Deveron. Presumably some of the m-people who lost their territory moved to Easter Ross and were later identified by Ptolemy as the Lugi, who also used the hill-letter m. But to return to our l1-people, some of them moved further west, now going through territory occupied by the s-people, and took over the settlement at Birnie on the Lossie, the name of this settlement then becoming Locsa (this name appearing as the river Loxa in Ptolemy). And some of the l1-people moved further west still and took over territory around the river Divie (a tributary of the Findhorn). Again we see the river-letter t, changed to d, at the front of the river-name. Some of the s-people, perhaps those who had been living between the Deveron and the Spey, moved southeast to the area south of the Mounth. We see their river-letter b at the front of the river-name Iberban (the Bervie). They also founded a settlement with a name somewhat of the form Ascatonion at or near Stracathro (the Asc element survives in the modern river-name North Esk) and another with a name somewhat of the form Estion (apparently at Forfar), this settlement being discussed in detail in ‘the Boresti and Mons Graupius’, which may be accessed from the main menu above. The displaced s-people also took over a settlement at or near Inverquharity, this settlement now being called Iscalis (the Isc element survives in the modern river-name South Esk). But other displaced s-people, presumably those who had been living west of the Spey, moved west and settled in the central area of the far north of Britain, these people later being referred to by Ptolemy as the Smertae, who also used the hill-letter s. The names of the main rivers in eastern Aberdeenshire are Ythan, Don and Dee. These all appear to be simple river-names in the river-letter t, changed to th in Ythan and to d in Don and Dee. The name Ythan is essentially the same river-name as Eden, and the rivers Eden in Fife, Cumbria and west Kent all appear to be associated with people who used the hill-letter l2 (for the Kent river Eden see Home/Chapter 23, 2.5: for the Fife river Eden see paragraph 4.9 below). Likewise the river Don in Yorkshire appears to be associated with a people who used the hill-letter l2 (see ‘Ptolemy’s Celtic tribes in Britain’, 7). But since the Ythan, Don and Dee are simple river-names, as opposed to compound river-names, one has the impression of new people moving into the area and the previous occupants moving out. We do not therefore know the earlier names of any of the three rivers, but the new people who settled in eastern Aberdeenshire will have been a people who used the hill-letter l2. One final point, concerning the population of the area between the Findhorn and the Ness. This area appears to have been inhabited by a people who used the hill-letter r. One sees this in the cor element of Bindocornion/Findhorn and possibly in the name Nairn. It is also suggested by the river-letter s in Ness.
3.5 And now an explanation as to why the writer suggested in paragraph 3.3. above that the s-people who lived along the southern side of the Moray Firth built a hillfort on the Tap o’ Noth, that hillfort having a name somewhat of the form Ecsa or Ecsion. The clue lies in the tribal name Taxali/Taexali and the modern river-name Bogie, the Bogie being the river which flows north along the eastern side of the Tap o’ Noth to join the Deveron at Huntly.The other main rivers in that region - the Deveron, the Isla, the Ythan, the Don, the Urie and the Dee – all have British Celtic names, so this is probably also true of the Bogie. But the g in Bogie indicates that the early name of the river was not a name comprising only river-letters. It must have been a river-name of the kind having a river-prefix or river-suffix attached to a place-name comprising one or more hill-letters. Now, the tribal name in the Taexali form suggests that there was originally a consonant between the a and the e. That consonant will have been a b, this yielding a place-name of the form Becs, meaning ‘high steep hill’ (cf. Becsa at Cockleroy, south of Linlithgow, transferred as Pexa to the Antonine Wall fort at Mumrills). The early hillfort on Tap o’ Noth will thus have had a name such as Becsa or Becsion. It was taken over, at some point earlier than 130BC, by an l1-people and the name became somewhat like Becsalion. Presumably at some time early in the first century BC the l1-people abandoned their hillfort and established a new tribal centre down in the valley, somewhere near the river Bogie. The river was called the Tabecsalion, this being a river-name comprising the river-letter t used as a prefix attached to the place-name Becsalion. The l1-people became known as the people of the Tabecsalion, ie. as the Tabecsali. This tribal name, with omission of the b and change of cs to x, yielded Ptolemy’s tribal name Taexali. But the river-name itself developed differently. The Ta and s were dropped and the c changed to g, this yielding the form Begalion, and it is this form which will have developed further to yield the modern river-name Bogie. (For an alternative explanation of the river-name Tabecsalion see Chapter 19, 11.4).
3.6 There is one final tribal migration to note. At some time after 120BC a people using the hill-letter r and river-letter s settled in the area around the rivers Spey and Isla. We see the river-letter s in both river-names Spey and Isla and since the s appears at the beginning of the two river-names it is clear that those people coined inversion-type place-names in the hill-letter r. Presumably the people who used the hill-letter r came to this area when their own land in what is now Caithness was taken over by the Cornavi (discussed below in paragraph 5.7.1). It seems possible that their tribal centre had a name of the form Vertulion, this name indicating that they took over a place which had been settled by l1 people some years earlier when they were displaced from East Aberdeenshire. Vertulion will have been on the side of a high hill (the meaning of the vert element in the name), most probably on the east side of the Spey and probably not too far from the river mouth. This might explain the line of the Roman marching camps in the north. Both the Flavian and the Severan camps lie on a line from the Stonehaven area to the mouth of the Spey. Presumably the r-people, called Vertuliones after the name of their tribal centre, were friendly towards Rome on the basis of the principle “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. The Romans had recently conquered the Brigantes, who used the hill-letter n2, as did the Cornavi, and so the Flavian troops were able to head for the mouth of the Spey in AD84 confident that they could there obtain fresh supplies, including supplies delivered by the Roman navy. 120 years later things perhaps looked rather different. Severus may have seen the Vertuliones as ringleaders in all the troubles the northern tribes had been causing the Roman authorities in Britain, so he took a large army north, following in the footsteps of the Flavian troops as demonstrated by the line of his marching camps, towards the mouth of the Spey, but this time the Romans had come to teach the Vertuliones a lesson they wouldn’t forget in a hurry. At some point the l/r interchange caused the name Vertuliones to become Verturiones, the latter name apparently first being mentioned by Ammianus Marcellinus during the second half of the fourth century.
3.6.1 It may be noted in passing that there is nothing unusual in a people taking their name from their tribal capital. Several tribes in the Highlands appear to have taken their names from topographical place-names, presumably the names of the tribal centres. This appears to be true of the Smertae, the Cornavi, the Caledoni and the Vacomagi. As suggested above it is apparently also true of the Verturiones.
3.7 The above clarifies the population distribution along the southern side of the Moray Firth at the time of the Roman incursion in AD84/85. An r-people occupied an area to the east of the river Ness as far as the river Findhorn, an l1-people occupied the region from the Divie/Findhorn to somewhere east of the river Lossie. Another r-people, later arrivals than those just mentioned, occupied an area around the rivers Spey and Isla. The l1-people occupied another area around the river Deveron and perhaps along the coast to the east and an l2 -people occupied the Don and Urie valleys and perhaps some adjacent areas.
4 Place- and river-names south of the Mounth
4.1 In the region between the Mounth and the line of the Antonine Wall the only place-name which clearly includes the hill-letter n1 is Cindocellum at Dumbarton Rock, or, if not there, then at Sheep Hill, a little further up the Clyde. With Cindocellum at Dumbarton Rock we see the river-letter l (corresponding to the hill-letter n) in the river-name Leven. We see a river Leven in Fife, too, though it is not clear whether the l corresponds to the hill-letter n1 or n2.
4.2 The s-people occupied this region, too. They settled at Castle Law, Abernethy (Lecimocsava, Ravenna’s Levioxava), at Castle Craig, east of Auchterarder (Marcotacson, Ravenna’s Marcotaxon), and at Stirling (Mugulesde, Ravenna’s Ugueste). In these place-names the element including the hill-letter s is an old-style element, thus in use earlier than 130BC. The s-people probably settled at Drumquhassle around the same time (Demerosessa, Ravenna’s Demerosesa), the hill-letter s in Demerosessa probably being old-style. At a later date the s-people occupied Iscaelis (at or near Inverquharity) and Rascatonium (at or near Ravenna’s Ravatonium at Stracathro), though these appear to have been s-people who had been displaced from the Moray Firth area (see paragraph 3.4 above). We see the corresponding river-letter b in Bdora (the Forth) and Iberban (Bervie Water), changed to v in the river-names Veromo (the Almond in Perthshire), Tavus (the Tay), Leven (in Fife and Dumbartonshire) and Devon (Clackmannanshire), and changed to n in the river Arnete (the Earn).
4.4 But much of the region south of the Mounth was taken over by people who used the hill-letter r and river-letter s. At some time prior to 130BC they founded Cerma in the Dalginross area, Cermium at Forgandenny and Bograndium at Braco. Later on, some time after 120BC, they took over Stracathro (or wherever Celtic Rascatonium was in that area), Cardean in Angus (Rugulentum, Ravenna’s Ugrulentum), Forfar (Vorestion – this name is discussed in detail in ‘the Boresti and Mons Graupius’, which may be accessed from the main menu above), Drumquhassle (Demerosessa) and Castle Craig (Marcotacson). We see the river-letter s used by those people in the river-name Isla.
4.5 It is not clear whether these people who used the hill-letter r came over to Britain at the same time as the Iceni and Dobunni, who also used the hill-letter r, or whether they had earlier lived further south in Britain and were displaced northwards by intertribal warfare or the arrival of newcomers from the Continent. But wherever they came from at some point they lost a lot of territory to newcomers who used the hill-letter m and the river-letter r. These newcomers were the Damnoni, who appear to have been an offshoot of the Dumnoni, who lived away down in the southwest of the island, in the territory between the Bristol Channel/Severn estuary and the south coast. The Damnoni took over the Dalginross area (Cerma) and Forgandenny (Cermium) and later, sometime after 120BC, took over Drumquhassle (Demerosessa), Castle Law Abernethy (Lecimocsava), Castle Craig (Marcotacson), Stirling (Mugulesde), Dunfermline (Melantvrum, Ravenna’s Memanturum) and the Malling area (Maculion/Matulion, Ravenna’s Maulion). They also occupied the area around Strageath (Matagea, Ravenna’s Tagea) if the initial M of Matagea is correct. We see the river-letter r, corresponding to the hill-letter m, in the river-names Veromo (the Almond in Perthshire), Bdora (the Forth), Iberban (Bervie Water) and Arnete, the first part of the latter name surviving in the modern river-name Earn.
4.6 The next people to consider are those who used the hill-letter l1 and the river-letter t (sometimes changed to d or th). Again it is not clear whether they came over to Britain at the same time as the Trinovantes and Durotriges, who also used the hill-letter l1, or whether they had earlier lived further south on the island and were displaced northwards by intertribal warfare or by the arrival of newcomers from the Continent. They settled in the Malling area (Maculion/Matulion, Ravenna’s Maulion) and the Yett’s o’ Muckhart area (Lindinonaco, Ravenna’s Lintinomago) and took over Dumbarton (Cindocellum), Doune (Lecilodanum, Ravenna’s Leviodanum) and Dunfermline (Melantvrum, Ravenna’s Memanturum). We see their river-letter t in the river-names Tavus (the Tay) and Teith, and, changed to d, in Devon (in Clackmannanshire).
4.7 Now we move on to the people who used the hill-letter n2 and the river-letters l and m. They appear to have settled in the Dunkeld area (Binnatis, the Bannatia of Ptolemy), to have taken over the hillfort at Braco (Bograndium) and to have gained control of the Yetts o’ Muckhart area (Lindinonaco, Ravenna’s Lintinomago). They also appear to have taken over Dunfermline (Melantvrum, Ravenna’s Memanturum) from the people who used the hill-letter r. And they may have been present around the river Leven, further east in Fife, since this river-name includes the river-letter l. They also appear to have founded Doune (Lecilodanum, Ravenna’s Leviodanum). They were also at Cardean in Angus. It is not clear whether the name of the Celtic settlement there was Rugulentum (Ravenna’s Ugrulentum) or Rugulendum. Either way the n2 -people were the earliest settlers and one sees their river-letter l in the river-name Isla. This name was applied only to that part of the modern Isla upstream from Cardean. The part of the river downstream from Cardean was called Matovion, this including the river-letter m corresponding to the hill-letter n2.
4.7.1 The people who lived in the area north of the confluence of the Almond and Tay will have been Ptolemy’s Vacomagi. Indeed Ptolemy specifically indicates that Bannatia, Pinnata Castra, Tamia and Tuesis were in the territory of that tribe. Bannatia appears to have been a Celtic settlement in the Dunkeld area, Pinnata Castra was the Roman fortress at Inchtuthil, Tamia appears to have been a Roman fort (as yet not discovered) upstream from Inchtuthil, and Tuesis was the Roman fort now called Bertha, at the confluence of the Almond and Tay.
4.7.2 We can perhaps make a slight digression here to discuss the tribal name Vacomagi, which appears to be derived from a topographical place-name. For Vacomagi appears to be like the place-name Magiovinto (Dropshort farm) with the elements in the other order, so first vinto and then magi. The t of vinto (meaning ‘high’) has been replaced by the c meaning ‘steep’ and the hill-letter n is missing from Vacomagi (the initial vowel in the name is of no consequence). If the name is indeed topographical one would expect there to be an n between the v meaning ‘slope’ and the c meaning ‘steep’ since the Vacomagi appear to have used the hill-letter n2. The name in its full form, Vancomagi, tells us that the settlement in question had earlier been occupied by a people who used the hill-letter m (the Damnoni?) but had been taken over by the Vacomagi, who used the hill-letter n2. The writer can make no suggestion as to the location of the settlement called Vancomagi, though if the initial V is correct that settlement will have been on the slope of a steep hill. That settlement was presumably at one time the most important settlement of the tribe, more likely than not the residence of the tribal leader.
4.8 The final group of settlers were those who used the hill-letter l2 and the river-letter t (sometimes changed to d or th). They took over Cardean (Rugulentum) from those who used the hill-letter n2. They took over Abernethy (Lecimoscava) from those who used the hill-letter m. In addition they took over Stirling from those who used the hill-letter s but later lost it to the Damnoni, who used the hill-letter m. Finally they took over Doune from those who used the hill-letter l1. We see the river-letter t in the river-name Arnete, the first part of the name surviving in the modern river-name Earn, and in Matovion, referred to above in paragraph 4.7. We see the river-letter t changed to th in the river-name Teith and changed to d in Bdora (the Forth), Eden and Dean Water (joins the Isla at Cardean).
4.9 We thus see that at the date of the Roman incursions into this region the Mounth and the northern end of the Howe of the Mearns were occupied by people using the hill-letter s and Strathmore, to the south, by a people who used the hill-letter r. There may have been some l1-people on the west side of the river Tay in the lower reaches of the river, this perhaps accounting for the river-letter t in Tavus. The area higher up the Tay, around Dunkeld, and the valley of the Almond appear to have been occupied by the Vacomagi, who used the hill-letter n2. It is likely that their territory extended into the upper Tay valley and the valley of the Tummel. Ptolemy’s Lindum was probably in that area (though Ptolemy actually assigns Lindum to the Damnoni) as well as his Tameia, actually a river-name corresponding to the place-name Lindum (cf. Lindum Colonia on the Witham and Londinium on the river Tamesa) but apparently transferred by the Romans to a fort which they built close to the river Tay (for a fuller explanation see the entry for Bannatia in the Alphabetical List). Moving south, the Damnoni, who used the hill-letter m, controlled a swathe of territory stretching from Drumquhassle (Demerosessa) through Malling (Maculion or Matulion) and Dalginross (Cerma) to Strageath (probably Matagea) and from there along Strathearn to Castle Craig (Marcotacson) and Forgandenny (Cermium). Further south they controlled Stirling (Mugulesde) and Dunfermline (Melantvrum, Ravenna’s Memanturum). Northeast Fife was in the hands of a people who used the hill-letter l2, as shown by the place-name Lecimocsava (Ravenna’s Levioxava) and the river Eden. An l2-people also held Doune (Lecilodanum, Ravenna’s Leviodanum). People who used the hill-letter n2 held Braco and the Yetts o’ Muckhart area (Lindinonaco, Ravenna’s Lintinomago). They may also have held land around the river Leven, unless they lost that when they lost Dunfermline (Melantvrum) to a people who used the hill-letter l. But note that the river-letter l in Leven may correspond to the hill-letter n1. Indeed it may be noted in passing that the place- and river- names of East Fife can be most easily explained if we take the n of Lomond (the writer has in mind here the hillfort on East Lomond) to be n1. The people who used the hill-letter n1 put their river-letter l in Leven. Later, but still while old-style names were being coined, thus earlier than 130BC, much of that region was taken over by people who used the hill-letter s. They built Lecimocsava at Castle Law, Abernethy. They also put their river-letter b, changed to v, in the river-name Leven. Later, after the changeover to inversion-type names, thus sometime after 120BC, both hillforts, East Lomond and Castle Law Abernethy, were taken over by people who used the hill-letter m. Later still both hillforts were taken over by people using the hill-letter l2. One sees the river-letter t corresponding to the hill-letter l2 in Lecimocsava in Arnete, the then name of the river Earn. At some time the l2-people at East Lomond abandoned their hillfort and established a new settlement on the lower slopes of the hill. The name of that new settlement will have included the element Valc, meaning ‘slope of hill steep’, and this Valc has survived in the Falk element of modern Falkland. The river Eden flows close by Falkland. The d in Eden is a modified river-letter t corresponding to the hill-letter l2 in Lomond and Valc.
5 Place- and river-names north of the Great Glen
5.1 There has long been dispute as to whether the Pictish inscribed stones were the work of Celts or of a pre-Celtic population still living somewhere in the Highlands. Earlier passages of this page have shown that the region up the east coast of what is now Scotland to Buchan and then along the south coast of the Moray Firth to the area around modern Inverness was inhabited by the same mixture of British Celts as inhabited all of the southern part of the island right down to the south coast, to the English Channel. So, to decide whether the Pictish inscribed or carved stones may have been the work of pre-Celts living north of the Great Glen we must now look at place- and river-names in that region. We only have Ptolemy to guide us here and at first sight his names are somewhat baffling. The names are:
Tarvedum promontory (also known apparently as the Orcas promontory or Orcades)
5.2 It now seems clear, however, that Nabarus, normally identified as the river Naver in Sutherland, and Varar, normally identified as the river Beauly, a little to the west of modern Inverness, are in fact British Celtic river-names. They both involve the land-name element bar meaning ‘high hill’, the b being changed to v in Varar, this being a common change in place- and river-names. Nabarus is then a river-name of the kind in which a river-element is added as a prefix to a land-name (for other examples see Home menu/Chapter 19, 7.3). In this case the prefix was originally the river-letter b but this has changed via v to n. The name Nabarus thus means ‘River Bar’ or ‘Water of Bar’. There must therefore have been a place called Bar somewhere in Strathnaver. There are at least three brochs in the valley, Skail (NC 720 473), Dun Chealamy (NC 720 514) and Dun Viden (NC 727 519), all of them associated with defensive enclosures, though it is apparently not clear whether the enclosures are contemporaneous with the brochs. The brochs are all located adjacent high hills, so the element bar would be appropriate for any of them. Note that the river-letter b corresponds to the hill-letter s, so the name Nabarus appears to indicate that this area was once occupied by a people who used the hill-letter r but was taken over by a people using the hill-letter s and river-letter b. Varar on the other hand is a river-name comprising a river-element added as a suffix to the land-name Bar (for other examples see Home menu/Chapter 19, 7.4). The suffix is the river-letter r corresponding to the hill-letter m. Varar, originally Barar, thus means ‘Bar River’ or ‘Bar Water’. In the case of the Varar we would be looking for a settlement close to the river Beauly/Farrar, a settlement which might have been called Bar. There are in fact at least two candidates, the first being the fort at Corffhouse (NH 514 448) at the top of an escarpment on the opposite side of the river from Lovat Bridge. The second is the fort now called Dun Fionn (NH 472 429) on the east bank of the river a little downstream from Crask of Aigas.
5.3 The above explanation implies that the hill-letters s, m and r were all in use north of the Great Glen. This seems rather a surfeit of hill-letters, but Ptolemy places a tribe called the Smertae somewhere in that region. It has been said in the past that the name Smertae might be related to Ravenna’s Smetri and Smetriadum, but both of these places were away down south in the Pennines, and if a people had migrated from the Pennines to the region north of the Great Glen one would expect them to use only one hill-letter, not three. It seems more likely that the tribal name Smertae in the far north is based on a topographical place-name in the hill-letters s, m and r, the name presumably of the main centre of the tribe. The place concerned will have been occupied at different times by the three peoples who used the hill-letters just mentioned. Now Ptolemy appears to place the Cornavi up in what is now Caithness and the Lugi next to them down the coast. And since Ptolemy describes the Smertae as being above the Lugi (i.e. to the west of the Lugi on a modern map) this indicates that the Smertae lived inland, not on the coast. So the place with a name somewhat of the form Smertion, or more probably Smerdion, will have had an inland location and will have had at least three occupation phases. The most obvious candidate would be the hillfort at Langwell (NC 410 009), a little to the east of Oykel Bridge in Sutherland. The defences of the fort are said to comprise three circuits and it is thought that these circuits may have been built at different times. This may indicate that the fort was occupied by three different groups, perhaps the r-, m- and s-people mentioned above.
5.4 Ptolemy’s Cornavi tribe, whom he appears to locate in Caithness, may have no connection with the Cornovi around Wroxeter or with the Coronavis element of Ravenna’s Purocoronavis, away down in what is now Cornwall. The name may have developed independently and may be based upon a topographical place-name somewhat of the form Cornavion, indicating that the area was once occupied by a people using the hill-letter r but was taken over by a people using the hill-letter n (actually n2). Note that the letter r appears in all three of Ptolemy’s promontory names in Caithness. Further, the hill-letter n would account for the corresponding river-letter l in Ptolemy’s river Ila.
5.5 It is possible that the western limit of the territory of the Cornavi was marked by the hillfort called Ben Griam Beg (NC 831 412), not far east of Strathnaver, and the southwestern limit by the fort called Duchary Rock (NC 850 048). Duchary Rock in Strath Brora was presumably in the frontier zone between the Cornavi and Ptolemy’s Lugi, the fortified positions a little to the south in Strath Fleet being frontier posts of the Lugi. This would place the Ila river, normally taken to be the river Helmsdale, in the territory of the Cornavi and so the l of Ila would indeed be the river-letter applied to minor rivers by people who used the hill-letter n. It is not so clear where the southern frontier of the Lugi was, but the distribution of hillforts in that region makes it seem most likely that the river Beauly/Farrar was the frontier, for there are a number of hillforts in this area, those north of the Beauly/Farrar presumably belonging to the Lugi and those to the south to the Decantae. This would appear to imply that the Lugi emloyed the hill-letter m and river-letter r, the m being seen in the place-name Smerdion and the r at the end of the river-name Varar. It would also suggest that the Decantae employed the hill-letter r (in the Bar element of Barar/Varar) and river-letter s. It is thus most probable that the Decantae and the people between the rivers Ness and Findhorn, who also used the hill-letter r, were in fact one and the same people. In other words the territory of the Decantae extended along the southern side of the river Beauly/Farrar and Beauly Firth and across the river Ness to the River Findhorn.
5.5.1 The civil engineering work carried out at Ben Griam Beg, including a wall some 500 metres long built on a slope and made of huge slabs of stone up to two metres high, puts one in mind of other major engineering accomplishments of people who used the hill-letter n2. One thinks of the remodelling of the defences of Magno at Maiden Castle in Dorset, believed to have been carried out around 150BC and apparently by the people (presumably the Atrebates) who put the n in Magno. One thinks also of the work carried out at Vresmedenaci (later appearing as Bresnetenaci in Ravenna), the hillfort known as Portfield Camp, a little to the southeast of Whalley in Lancashire. In this case the hillfort had been built on a hillside (hence the Vr element meaning ‘side of hill’) but later the interior of the hillfort was artificially levelled, apparently by the people who put the n in Vresmedenaci, presumably the Brigantes. That wall at Ben Griam Beg appears to be a work in the same league, suggesting that it also had been built by people who used the hill-letter n2, indeed by the Cornavi. The hillfort at Ben Griam Beg may have been the place called Cornavion referred to above in paragraph 5.4.
5.5.2 The tribal names Cornavi, Smertae, Caledoni, Verturiones and Vacomagi all appear to be based on the topographical names of the respective tribal centres. This may also be true of the Decantae for with two very minor changes one obtains Dercandae, where Dercand is a straightforward topographical compound comprising the inversion-type element Derc meaning ‘summit of hill steep’ qualified by the old-style element and meaning ‘hill summit’. The writer has put an r in Derc, of course, because the Decantae used the hill-letter r. The corresponding place-name, perhaps of the form Dercandion, would apply to a hillfort which had been built probably several hundred years before 130BC (the hill-letter n being n1, as in Bindocornion, discussed in paragraph 3.1) and was taken over or reoccupied sometime after 120BC. Craig Phadrig, just west of Inverness, would seem the ideal hillfort for such a name. Its defences are said to date back to about 350BC and it remained occupied, though perhaps not continually, until well into the first millenium AD (see, for example, the Canmore website of Historic Environment Scotland). The hillfort stands at the top of a steep hill (on its eastern side) and its location appears fairly central within the Decantae territory.
5.6 Ptolemy’s Ripa Alta is of course in Latin and so needn’t detain us further. But his three promontory names all appear to include the hill-letter r and lie in the territory of the Cornavi. There are many promontories along the north coast and we needn’t assume that the names given are those of the most oustanding promontories. Indeed Ptolemy’s source appears to have overlooked even Cape Wrath as he sailed past. It would appear that Ptolemy’s Tarvedum and Virvedrum are in fact settlement-names which have been transferred to the promontories on which the settlements stood.
5.6.1 Virvedrum is the easier of the two to understand. It may originally have been Birvedunum, comprising the old-style element Birv meaning ‘high hill slope’ and dun meaning ‘summit of hill’. The name seems to be that of the promontory fort at St John’s Point, Caithness (ND 311 752). The promontory is at the lower end of a slope rising to some 73 metres above sea level, with all of the fort being apparently above the 15 metre contour, so there are cliffs of that height all round the west, north and east sides of the fort. It is presumably the presence of the cliffs which caused the Cornavi to add the dun element to the name, the fort being at the top of the cliffs. But note that the form Birvedurum would also be possible. There are place-names in which an old-style element in one hill-letter is followed immediately by an inversion-type element in that same hill-letter. Omirededertis (Ravenna’s Omiretedertis) at Ham Hill in Somerset is an example of such names, the old-style element red, meaning ‘hill summit’, being followed immediately by the inversion-type element dert, meaning ‘summit of hill high’. In Birvedurum the old-style element Birv, meaning ‘high hill slope’, is followed immediately by the inversion-type element dur, meaning ‘summit of hill’.
5.6.2 Tarvedum was probably originally Carvedunum and appears to refer to the promontory fort on Holborn Head (ND 109 716), north of Scrabster in Caithness. The dun element again indicates that the fort stood at the top of cliffs (for dum in place of dunum consider Uxelodum on the Rudge cup and Uxelodunum on the Amiens patera). The Carv element reflects the fact that the fort stands at the lower end of a steep slope rising to some 94 metres above sea level.
5.6.3 The third promontory name, Verubium, was probably originally Beruvium, comprising the Ber element meaning ‘high hill’ and an uvium ending. This appears not to be a settlement name but the name of what was thought to be the extreme tip of the island of Britain, namely Duncansby Head. The promontory here comprises a free-standing hill rising to a height of some 64 metres above sea level, which no doubt is what the Ber element of the name in its original form refers to. High cliffs have been formed by sea erosion on the northern and eastern sides of the hill.
5.6.4 The question as to whether the correct form of Virvedrum is Birvedunum or Birvedurum is not without some historical interest, since if the correct form were Birvedunum this would indicate that the Cornavi did indeed take over the promontory fort on St John’s Point, but not until after the changeover from old-style to inversion-type place-names, some years after the date of arrival of the Cornavi in Caithness. If, on the other hand, the correct form were Birvedurum then this would indicate that the r-people managed to hold on to the promontory fort even after the changeover to inversion-type names. This, coupled with the name Beruvium (Ptolemy’s Verubium), which includes only the hill-letter r, might suggest that the r-people managed to hold on to the northeast corner of Caithness even after the Cornavi had taken over the rest of their territory.
5.7 It might help the reader understand the names in this region more clearly if we look at the chronological development. Apart, possibly, from Dercandion at Craig Phadrig (discussed above in paragraph 5.5.2) there is no name in the hill-letter n1 north of the Great Glen. Nor is there any old-style place-name in the hill-letter s, though we do see the corresponding river-letter b, changed to n, in the river-name Ness. The Ness may have been the western limit of the area settled by s-people along the southern side of the Moray Firth (as discussed in paragraph 3.3 above). But then a people who used the hill-letter r settled in this region (i.e. north of the Great Glen). We see evidence of this in the old-style topographical element Bar/Ber in the river-names Varar (earlier Barar) and Nabarus and in the promontory name Beruvium (Ptolemy’s Verubium). We also see old-style Carv in Carvedunum (Ptolemy’s Tarvedum) and Birv in Birvedunum/Birvedurum (Ptolemy’s Virvedrum). We also see old-style r in the name of the fort at Langwell, parhaps at that time somewhat of the form Erdion (with a d rather than a t since the fort was on top of a hill). The r-people coined old-style names, so they arrived before 130BC, and they appear to have taken control of the whole region from the river Ness to the Pentland Firth. We then see a people who used the hill-letter n2 arriving in Caithness and taking over a settlement having a name including the element Cor, the name then becoming Cornavion. Then people who used the hill-letter m arrived on the scene and they seem to have taken over the land from the Beauly Firth up to the Golspie/Brora area. These people, the Lugi, appear to have coined inversion-type names, so they arrived some time after about 120BC. We see their hill-letter m in Merdion, perhaps the then name of the fort at Langwell. And we see their river-letter r at the end of the river-name Barar/Varar. Then we see evidence of a people who coined inversion-type place-names in the hill-letter s, presumably people who left the area east of the Findhorn when that region was taken over by people who used the hill-letter l1 (discussed above in paragraph 3.4). These s-people were evidently not able to seize the best land north of the Great Glen and had to make do with the agriculturally less attractive, very hilly land in the interior. They took over the fort at Langwell, the name of this fort now assuming its final form, Smerdion. They also settled some land near the river Naver, for the initial n of this name is a modified river-letter b applied by people who coined inversion-type place-names in the hill-letter s. These people who used the hill-letter s presumably used the fort at Langwell as their tribal centre, the tribe then being known as the people of Smerdion, perhaps as the Smerdae, this later changing to Smertae. Finally, in the northeast corner of the region the Cornavi completed their occupation of Caithness and we now see them using inversion-type place-name elements, as in the dun element of Birvedunum (possible original form of Ptolemy’s Virvedrum) and Carvedunum (probable original form of Ptolemy’s Tarvedum). And we see in Ptolemy’s river Ila the river-letter l applied to minor rivers by those who used the hill-letter n, in this case by the Cornavi. At the date of the Roman incursions into the Highlands we therefore see the Cornavi in Caithness, the Lugi down the east coast from the Golspie/Brora area to the Beauly Firth, the Decantae below the Beauly Firth and the Smertae in the interior, to the west of the Lugi but perhaps having a frontier with the Cornavi in the north.
5.7.1 Following on from paragraph 5.7 above it would appear that the time required by the Cornavi to complete their conquest of Caithness straddled the period of the changeover from old-style place-names to inversion-type place-names. That being so it seems likely that towards the end of the struggle some of the r-people who had earlier occupied Caithness migrated across the Moray Firth and settled in the valleys of the rivers Spey and Isla, these people later being known as the Verturiones (discussed above in paragraph 3.6).
[The text is continued in Celts, Picts and then Scots: Part 2. Click here to access]
[This page was last modified on 03 April 2021]