[This text is a continuation of 'Celts, Picts and then Scots', which may be accessed by clicking on 'The Celtic "Picts"' in the main menu above]


Celts, Picts and then Scots: Part 2


6   Place- and river-names on the northwest coast of Scotland

6.1   Section 5 above did not consider the northwest coast of Scotland, but to decide if the Pictish Class I stones, which have been found almost exclusively on the eastern side of Scotland, might have been produced by pre-Celtic people who moved from the western to the eastern side of the country before the stones were produced, we need to know if there had been any pre-Celtic people living along the northwest coast. Unfortunately we have very little information for that region. Indeed for the region between the Epidium promontory and the Nabarus river Ptolemy gives us only three names:

Longus river

Itis river

Volas bay.

He also gives us the names of tribes said to occupy that region, namely the Epidi, the Cerones, the Carnonacae, the Caereni and in the extreme east the Cornavi.

6.2   The Epidi are said by Ptolemy to have lived near the Epidium promontory, not on it but near it, and that promontory is normally taken to have been the Mull of Kintyre. And the Cornavi were discussed above – they lived in what is now Caithness. Ptolemy’s information as to the whereabouts of the tribal territories of the remaining three tribes, the Cerones, the Carnonacae and the Caereni is very vague. And he gives no information as to the relationship between the territories of these three tribes and the Longus river, the Itis river and the Volas Bay.

6.3   Longus and Itis could be British Celtic river-names of the kind discussed on this website. Longus could be a land-name transferred to a river, the land-name comprising the hill-letter l qualified by the inversion-type element ong meaning ‘hill steep’. And Itis might comprise the river-letter t corresponding to the hill-letter l. These names would then suggest that a Celtic people who used the hill-letter l inhabited part of the west coast of Scotland. This should not be surprising. People who used the hill-letter l  inhabited large areas down the west coast of Britain – we see them in Cornwall and Devon (e.g. Alovergium and Uxelis), in Wales (as evidenced by all the river-names starting with the corresponding river-letter t, in some cases changed to d) and in northwest England (e.g. Caluvio, Olerica and Lagubalium), so it is not surprising that they might also have occupied part of the west coast of Scotland. But we are unable to identify clearly the Longus and Itis rivers. And the name Volas bay might support the view that an l-people inhabited part of the west coast of what is now Scotland, for Volas may be a land-name Bolas, where bol means ‘high hill’, transferred to a bay, and with the b changed to v, a common change in place- and river-names. But we cannot be certain as to the identification of the Volas bay.

6.4   We might allow ourselves a brief digression here, since this discussion may indicate the original home of the Caledoni tribe. Most of the names of tribes living in the north of Scotland appear to be based on the topographical names of the respective tribal centres. This appears to be true for the Cornavi, the Smertae, the Decantae, the Verturiones and the Vacomagi. It may also be true for the Caledoni, for Caledoni might just comprise the old-style element Caled, meaning ‘steep hill summit’ with an oni ending. This would tell us that the tribal centre was a hillfort at the top of a steep hill, the name of the hillfort being perhaps Caledon or Caledonion. Caled is of course a place-name element in the hill-letter l1. Ptolemy indicates that the territory of the Caledoni extended from the Lemannonius Bay as far as the Varar estuary, thus right up to modern Inverness, though the place- and river-names in this latter area do not bear this out. Elsewhere on this website the writer identifies Lamlash bay on Arran as Lemannonius bay, this location being between the Clyde estuary and the Mull of Kintyre, which is where Ptolemy tells us the Lemannonius bay was. Now the l in Lemannonius may be  l1 and the l in Cindocellum at Dumbarton Rock is l1. The initial L in Ben Lomond may be l1 and the writer has placed Ptolemy’s Lindum (which also includes l1) in the upper Tay valley. If these names do indeed all include l1 then the l1 names are taking us north from Arran in the general direction of the Great Glen. At this point we bring another piece of the jigsaw into place, for Ptolemy tells us that the Vacomagi were below Caledonia. What this means is that on a modern map Caledonia would be west of the Vacomagi. It seems quite clear that the Vacomagi lived in Perthshire north of the confluence of the Almond and Tay. This suggests that the Caledoni occupied land around the Firth of Lorne and Loch Linnhe, at the southern end of the Great Glen. It is surprising that the territory of one and the same tribe should extend from Arran all the way up to some point in the Great Glen, especially as the land between Loch Tay and Loch Linnhe must surely have been sparsely populated, and there are very few hillforts between Fort William and Loch Ness, suggesting that that area, too, was thinly populated. But there are many hillforts between the Beauly Firth/Inverness area and the area around the northern end of Loch Ness and, assuming that most of the hillforts date back to at least the early part of the first century AD, one would not expect the Decantae to build so many hillforts in that area unless there was a perceived threat from the south. It may well be, then, that the more southerly of the hillforts around Loch Ness were in fact in the hands of the Caledoni, so that Ptolemy was not so very far from the truth when he said that the territory of the Caledoni extended up to the Varar  estuary. But given that the territory of the Caledoni was so very elongated the tribal centre was presumably in the Firth of Lorne/Loch Linnhe area and, as noted above, it will have been a hillfort on the summit of a steep hill. And now we can finish the jigsaw puzzle, since if the Caledoni used the hill-letter l (actually l1), if the names Longus river and Itis river suggest a people using the hill-letter l and if the Caledoni lived around the Firth of Lorne and Loch Linnhe, then perhaps we should identify the Longus and Itis rivers as rivers flowing into the Firth of Lorne or Loch Linnhe, and we should identify the Volas bay as a bay in that area.

6.5   But even if we have located the territory of the Caledoni and even if we have roughly located the area where Ptolemy’s Longus river, Itis river and Volas bay were, the plain truth is that we don’t have enough information, or clear enough information, to decide whether a pre-Celtic population might have existed somewhere along the northwest coast of Scotland at the time when the data in Ravenna and Ptolemy was compiled. But we are not completely stuck. If we can show that the tribal names  Epidi, Cerones, Carnonacae and Caereni are constructed in exactly the same way as the majority of other tribal names north of the Antonine Wall then it would be fair to conclude that those names are in fact British Celtic tribal names. If, then, we are prepared to assume that Ptolemy gave us the names of all tribes living along the northwest coast of Scotland then it would be reasonable of us to conclude that there were in fact no pre-Celtic people living along that coast. It has been shown above that the tribal names Cornavi, Smertae, Decantae, Verturiones, Vacomagi and Caledoni are all based on topographical place-names, presumably the names of the respective tribal centres. And it is shown in ‘The Boresti and Mons Graupius’, which may be accessed from the Main menu above, that Boresti is a name of exactly the same kind. What we need to do, then, is see whether we can construct Celtic topographical place-names which, with very minor amendment, would yield the tribal names Epidi, Cerones, Carnonacae and Caereni.          

6.5.1  The tribal centre of the Epidi may have had a name such as  Ebindion. This is a name in the hill-letter n2, where the element bind means ‘high hill summit’. The hill-letter will have been dropped (cf. Dercandae → Decantae  and Vancomagi → Vacomagi) and b has changed to p (this change is known – see Alphabetical List/Changes in names over time, 3).  Ptolemy indicates that the Epidi lived near the Epidium promontory, which is usually taken to have been the Mull of Kintyre. It is thus possible that the Epidi had an early tribal centre called Ebindion, perhaps on the Cowal peninsula, and a later tribal centre at Dunadd (NGR: NR 837 936), just north of the Crinan canal, this new tribal centre having a name somewhat of the form Denconion, where Denc means ‘summit of hill steep’. At a later date that new tribal centre may have been taken over by the Caledoni, who used the hill-letter l1, the place-name then becoming Lodenconion. This form, with deletion of de, the common change cg and modification of the ending, yields the place-name Longus, which Ptolemy applied to the river now called the Add. The Caledoni of course would apply their own river-letter t to the river and this t, changed to dd, is present in the name Add (cf. Duddon and Nidd). But Ebindion, somewhere else, will have been the tribal centre at the date of compilation of Ptolemy’s information as to tribes and their location. Note that one sees the hill-letters l1 and n2 also in Lemandonion, appearing in Ptolemy as Lemannonius, the hillfort at Clauchlands, high above Lamlash bay on Arran. This suggests that the territory of the Epidi once extended all the way from the Dunadd area over to Bute and Arran, but that at some point the tribe was absorbed, taken over, by the Caledoni.

6.5.2   The tribal centre of the Cerones may have been called Ceronion. This is a straightforward topographical place-name in the hill-letter r where the element Cer means ‘steep hill’. The territory of the Cerones presumably lay on the west coast north of (though perhaps including) Mull.

6.5.3   The tribal centre of the Carnonacae may have been called Carnonacion. This topographical place-name is a compound in the old-style  element Car  (meaning ‘steep hill’), the hill-letter n used in the old-style manner and the inversion-type element nac (meaning ‘hill steep’), also using the hill-letter n. This structure, a name having an old-style element in one hill-letter followed by an inversion-type element in that same hill-letter, is unusual, but there are a few examples, including Omirededertis (Ravenna’s Omiretedertis), in which one sees the old-style element red (meaning ‘hill-summit’) followed by the inversion-type element dert (meaning ‘summit of hill high’).  Ptolemy’s Carnonacae would then be the people of Carnonacion and they would be a people who used the hill-letter n2. This is confirmed by Ptolemy’s Volas bay, because Volas  is not a modified land-name (place-name comprising one or more hill-letters) as suggested above in paragraph 6.3. Volas is a river-name in the river-letters b (changed to v), l and s. The earliest river-letter in the name is s and this corresponds to the hill-letter r  in the Car element of Carnonacion.  The river-letter b changed to v  was applied by people who coined inversion-type place-names in the hill-letter s, i.e. by the Smertae (discussed above in paragraphs 5.3 and 5.7), so apparently the headwaters of the river Volas were in the territory of that tribe. The river-letter l  in Volas is the river-letter applied to minor rivers, or to tributaries or headwaters of main rivers, by people who used the hill-letter n. It is thus sufficiently clear that Ptolemy’s names Carnonacae and Volas are correct as they stand, that the Carnonacae used the hill-letter n2 and that the river Volas flowed through the territory of the Carnonacae to reach the sea in Ptolemy’s Volas bay, though its headwaters were in the territory of the Smertae tribe.

6.5.4   The tribal centre of the  Caereni  may have had a name such as Caberenion. The element Caber means ‘steep high hill’ (cf. Cibra at Bearsden). In this case the b meaning ‘high’ will have been dropped. The dropping of internal letters is a common change in Romano-British place-names (see Alphabetical List/Changes in names over time, 9).

6.5.5   The name changes discussed above are indeed minor, so it seems reasonably clear that the Epidi were the people of Ebindion, i.e. of Epidion, the Cerones  the people of Ceronion, the Carnonacae the people of Carnonacion and the Caereni the people of Caberenion, i.e. of Caerenion.  It thus seems quite clear that the tribal names Epidi, Cerones, Carnonacae and Caereni are indeed constructed in exactly the same way as the majority of tribal names north of the Antonine Wall and so it is reasonable to conclude that they are in fact British Celtic tribal names. That being so, and on the assumption that Ptolemy has given us the names of all the tribes living along the northwest coast of Scotland, we can fairly conclude that there were no pre-Celtic tribes living in that region.

6.6   It follows from the above and from sections 3, 4 and 5 above that at the time of the Roman invasion around AD79 there were no pre-Celtic tribes living anywhere on the mainland of Scotland north of the line of the Antonine Wall.



[For technical reasons the text is continued on a separate page, 'Celts, Picts and then Scots: Part 3', which may be accessed by clicking here]

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[This page was last modified on 21 February 2021]