Celts, Picts and then Scots: Part 3


7   Summary, conclusions and observations

7.1   We can thus see that at the time of the Roman invasion around AD79 Britain north of the line of the later Antonine Wall was inhabited by the same mixture of British Celts as inhabited the rest of the island right down to the south coast, to the English Channel. These were descendants of the Celts who had come over to Britain from the Continent in the two or three centuries prior to 100BC. For just as the Catuvellauni, Atrebates and Brigantes used the hill-letter n2, so too did the Vacomagi of Perthshire, the Cornavi of Caithness and the Carnonacae living somewhere on the northwest coast. And just as the Trinovantes and Durotriges used the hill-letter l1, so too did the Caledoni and a people living in two areas along the southern side of the Moray Firth. And just as the Iceni and Dobunni used the hill-letter r, so too did the Decantae who lived on both sides of the river Ness, the Verturiones who lived in Strathspey, and a people who lived in Strathmore, as well as the Cerones and the Caereni.

7.2   There were thus eight tribal territories stretching from Caithness round the Moray Firth to East Aberdeenshire. There were s-people in the Mounth/Mearns area and r-people further south, in Strathmore, Vacomagi in Perthshire (north of the confluence of the Almond and Tay) and Damnoni to the south and southwest of them. There were also two groups in Fife/Kinross/Clackmannanshire, an l-people in the northeast and an n-people in a strip of land from Braco over to the Yetts o’ Muckhart area and perhaps on to the river Leven. That gives another six tribal territories, making a total of 14 tribal territories north of the line of the later Antonine Wall, 15 when we include the Caledoni who appear to have lived in an arc of land stretching from the Firth of Clyde to Loch Linnhe and on up the Great Glen, and indeed 19 if we include Ptolemy’s Epidi, Cerones, Carnonacae and Caereni. The above represents a snapshot, taken around AD80, of the population to the north of the Forth-Clyde line, but there will have been changes later, perhaps smaller units coallescing to form larger units, larger units swallowing up smaller neighbours and frontiers moving to and fro as tribes, or at least their leaders, jostled for land, wealth and power.

7.3   Now we can move on to consider the identity of the Picts.

7.3.1   But first we will mention a Roman writer who refers to two tribes without actually calling them Picts. This is Cassius Dio (c.AD155 – c.AD235). He tells us that there were two principal tribes of the Britons, namely the Caledoni and the Maeatae and then adds that the names of the others have been merged in these two. Unfortunately we can’t rely completely on this writer because in telling us how the Britons can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship he points out that they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water. Now this must be nonsense. And it casts a shadow of doubt on the accuracy of the writer’s other statements. The Maeatae are discussed below in paragraph 7.3.6. It is probably not true that all the other British Celtic tribes north of the Mounth had been subsumed in the name Caledoni. Indeed it is clear from the writing of Ammianus Marcellinus that this was not true even as late as AD367 (see paragraph 7.3.3 below).

7.3.2   The first mention of Picts is apparently in a panegyric of AD297 where we are told “He conquered the fleet Moors and the well-named Picts; his roaming sword pursued the flying Scot”. Now this gives us no facts about the Picts but we can deduce that at least for that writer the Scots were not Picts.

7.3.3   Ammianus Marcellinus, writing towards the end of the fourth century, and after the so-called Barbarian Conspiracy of AD367, referred to the Picts as being divided into two tribes called the Dicalydones and the Verturiones  (The Roman History of Ammianus Marcellinus, Book 27, 8.5)The Verturiones are clear enough. They had originally settled in the valleys of the Spey and Isla (discussed in paragraph 3.6 above). But Dicalydones is an odd name. The simplest solution is that Dicalydones is a slight modification of Epidicaledoni, with initial Epi omitted. Alternatively, and on the assumption that initial Di means ‘two’, the name Dicalydones may refer specifically to the fact that the Caledoni now had two tribal centres, having taken over Dunadd from the Epidi (see paragraph 6.5.1 above). Their other tribal centre was of course at Caledon/Caledonion, a hillfort on the summit of a steep hill close to a river which Ptolemy called the Itis, this river-name including the river-letter corresponding to the hill-letter lused by the Caledoni. Rivet and Smith draw attention to Ptolemy’s and Marcian’s use of the name Duecaledonius ocean, this being presumably essentially the same name as Dicalydones. The important point to note, however, is that Ammianus Marcellinus specifically uses 'Picts' as a collective term covering the Dicalydones and the Verturiones, but he does not necessarily imply that they were politically united in one single state. They may merely have been allies in the Conspiracy of AD367. Nor does he imply that any of the other British Celtic tribes were covered by the term 'Picts'.

7.3.4   There are indeed later references to the Picts, for example in the Gallic Chronicle of AD452 which records for the year AD383 that the tyrant Maximus achieved an admirable victory over the invading Picts and Scots, but apparently none which takes us forward in trying to understand who the Picts were. The latest useful information we have is thus that of Ammianus Marcellinus, who tells us that at the time of the Barbarian Conspiracy of AD367 the Picts were divided into two tribes called the Dicalydones and the Verturiones.

7.3.5   Now there was a migration of Gaelic-speaking Scots to the west coast of Scotland, apparently in the 5th century AD, but it is evident from paragraph 7.3.2 above and from later history that the Picts were not Scots. Nor were the Picts Vikings because Pictish Class I and II stones existed before the Vikings came to Scotland. And whilst there may have been a little Anglian migration into the region around the Firth of Tay (discussed below in paragraph 7.9), the Angles were clearly not Picts. Indeed the Angles and Picts were enemies, the hostility culminating in the battle of Dunnichen in AD685. Nor is the present writer aware of any other migration into the north of Scotland between AD400 and AD800. And we have seen above (paragraph 6.6) that there were no pre-Celtic tribes living north of the line of the Antonine Wall at the time of the Roman invasion of AD79. We are therefore forced to the conclusion that whilst the term ‘Picts’ was applied to only two specific British Celtic tribes around AD400 (by Amiannus Marcellinus) it later came to be applied to any or all of the British Celtic tribes living in the north of Scotland, perhaps merely as a convenient collective name, or used by people who were too lazy to name the individual tribes or perhaps didn’t even know their names. We hear later of northern Picts and southern Picts, though the precise meaning of those terms is not clear. We can be fairly sure that the term ‘northern Picts’ applied to the Celtic tribes along the southern side of the Moray Firth and was probably also used of the tribes living up the western side of that Firth and even in Orkney, but it is not clear if it covered the Vacomagi of Perthshire and the r-people who lived in Strathmore. Consequently it is not wholly clear whether the term ‘southern Picts’ applied only to the Vacomagi and the r-people of Strathmore or only to the Maeatae, assuming this latter name was still in use, or to all three of the Vacomagi, the r-people of Strathmore and the Maeatae. But the single most important point to note here is that the people we call Picts were in fact British Celts, descendants of the Celts who had come over to Britain from the Continent in the two or three hundred years leading up to about 100BC.

7.3.6   Further to paragraph 7.3.1 above it would appear that the Meatae (the name also being known in the form Maeatae) were a union of the Damnoni with the n-people who lived around Braco (Bograndium), Yetts o’ Muckhart (Lindinonaco/ Lintinomagoand perhaps further east around the river Leven, the in Leven being the river-letter applied to minor rivers by those who used the hill-letter n. The names of most of the tribes north of the Antonine Wall appear to have been based on the topographical names of the tribal centres. This appears to have been the case with, for example, the Cornavi, the Smertae, the Caledoni, the Verturiones and the Vacomagi. It may also be true of the Meatae. The new tribal centre of the union appears to have been at Dumyat, a hillfort on a steep, high hill a little to the northeast of Stirling. The hillfort may have been purpose built and will then have had an inversion-type name somewhat of the form Megaton, essentially the same name as Macatonion at Dymock in Gloucestershire, Megat/Macat meaning ‘hill steep high’. The place-name will have used the hill-letter m since the hillfort was actually in the territory of the Damnoni  and the Damnoni used the hill-letter m. (The writer has chosen g rather than c for Megaton since the Damnoni used g in nearby Mugulesde at Stirling). The people of the union will then have been known as the people of Megaton, so presumably as the Megatae. Later, the intervocalic g was dropped (omission of intervocalic consonants was a fairly common change in place-names), whereupon the place-name became Meaton and the people the Meatae. Much later the place-name acquired a Gaelic Dun at the front and with the passage of time Dunmeaton changed to Dumyat. Another hillfort associated by scholars with the name Meatae is Myot Hill near Denny in Stirlingshire, but this seems too far south to have been the tribal centre of the Meatae. The tribal centre of the union was probably close to the frontier of the territories of the two old tribes and so is much more likely to have been north of the river Forth. It is also unlikely that the Meatae included the tribe or tribes in Strathmore, as some scholars have argued, since then one would expect the new tribal centre to have been further north than Dumyat.  

7.4   The British Celts had been in possession of the region north of the Forth-Clyde line for upwards of three hundred years at the time Agricola marched north of the Forth. In all probability any of the pre-Celtic population which survived the coming of the Celts to Britain will have been fully assimilated into Celtic society, living the same lives and enjoying the same material culture as the people around them, and speaking the same language(s).

7.5   On the question of language it is likely that the different groups of Celts spoke different languages when they arrived in Britain, but since the different groups seem to have followed substantially the same rules when forming their place- and river-names those languages were presumably related. It is possible, too, that some of those languages may have died out, but it is clear that there were still at least two languages as late as AD700 since Bede, who lived around that time, in listing the five languages used in Britain, referred to both British and Pictish. By British he presumably meant the variety of Celtic spoken by the British Celts in and around Northumbria. By Pictish he can only have meant a Celtic language spoken by one or more of the British Celtic tribes living north of the Antonine Wall. Thus if some scholar is having difficulty in interpreting an ogham inscription on a “Pictish” inscribed or carved stone he/she really shouldn’t take the easy way out by saying that a particular word might be pre-Celtic or even non-Indo-European, because it won’t be. The inscription will be in a British Celtic language, unless of course the carving on a particular stone was carried out by, or to the order of, the Christian church, in which case the inscription might be in Latin, or to the order of visiting Irish/Scots monks, in which case the inscription concerned might possibly be in a form of the Gaelic language spoken in Ireland. Exceptionally an inscription on a stone found in the region around the Firth of Tay might conceivably be in the language used by the Angles of Bernicia/Northumbria (see paragraph 7.9 below).  

7.6   Moving on now to consider who actually produced the Class I stones, we see in E.A. Alcock’s Map 1 (Alcock E.A., 1988)  that whilst  Class I stones have been found right down the eastern side of Scotland from Orkney to the Firth of Forth there are distinct concentrations of the stones in a few particular areas. Those areas are the Golspie area, the Inverness area, Strathspey, Strathdon in Aberdeenshire and the area around Abernethy. The Inverness area and Strathspey were inhabited by people who used the hill-letter r. Strathdon and the area around Abernethy were inhabited by people who used the hill-letter l2. Golspie looks different but in fact that area had been inhabited by people who used the hill-letter r, as indeed had the whole region between the river Findhorn and the Pentland FirthIn paragraph 5.5 above the writer suggested that the frontier between the Cornavi and the Lugi was in the Golspie area. He did this partly because Ptolemy indicates that the Lugi extended to the Cornavi boundary and partly on the basis of the distribution of hillforts and other fortified positions in that region. But Ptolemy’s information is not always reliable. It may be that there was an area between the territories of the Lugi and the Cornavi that was still inhabited by r-people and Ptolemy either didn’t give us the name of those people or perhaps he was unaware of their existence because the information from his source was so scanty. On the other hand it is possible that the r-people who had been living in that area were able to stay on, albeit under new masters, those in the southern part of the area under the Lugi, those in the north under the Cornavi. And in the few centuries after AD80 those r-people may have been able to gain their independence. What this would mean is that the dense concentrations of Pictish Class 1 stones are found only in areas populated by people who used the hill-letter or l2 even though the place- and river-names north of the Forth-Clyde line indicate that all seven hill-letters n1 ,s ,m, r, l1 ,n2 and l2 were in fact in use in that region (or at least had been in use in the case of n1). This is strange and calls for an explanation.

7.7   But before coming to that explanation the writer wishes to draw attention to various items found in the south of Scotland and the north of England which appear to indicate that so-called “Pictish” symbols may not have originated in the area conventionally associated with the "Picts" (i.e. with the British Celts living north of the Forth-Clyde line).

7.7.1   The Norrie’s law hoard was found near Upper Largo in southeast Fife. This is quite near the river Leven and it has been argued elsewhere on this page that the area around the river Leven may have been inhabited by people who used the hill-letter n2. Norries’s Law could therefore have been in the frontier zone between the territory of those people and that of the l2-people living in northeast Fife. What matters, however, is not where the hoard was found, but where it came from. The hoard comprised an amount of hack-silver (from Roman plates and the like)  and included part of a Roman silver spoon and a silver plaque bearing two “Pictish” symbols, one a double-disc with Z-rod and the other looking somewhat like a dog in a seated position. The hoard appears to be the sort of material which may have been given by the Romano-British authorities as payment for good behaviour in the past or as a bribe to buy good behaviour in the future. If this is the case then the hoard itself, no matter when it was actually deposited in the ground, is likely to date to a period before the end of Roman Britain, i.e. before AD410. Laing and Laing point out (Laing, L. and Laing, J. 1984, 263) that the hoard included, or was associated with, two coins of Valens and Constantius II, i.e. from the period  c. AD337 to AD378, which would be fully consistent with giving the hoard a date earlier than AD410.  The silver plaque with the “Pictish” symbols thus most likely came from somewhere south of Hadrian’s Wall, i.e. somewhere within Roman Britain. The dog’s head on the plaque has been likened to a dog’s head in the Lindisfarne Gospels. In this case, given the dates, it is not that the design of the plaque was inspired by the Gospels, but rather that the illustrator of the Gospels used a design which had been known for some time and which he may even have seen on various objects.

7.7.2   The Laings also refer (ibid  271) to ten heavy silver chains. Three of them were found north of the Antonine Wall, the other seven to the south. A few of the ten chains have ends with “Pictish” designs, and all of them are apparently made of Roman parcel-gilt melted down. It is probable that the chains were made in southern Scotland (one was found at Traprain Law in East Lothian).

7.7.3   The Laings also draw attention (ibid 272) to a stone cup found at Binney Craig near Linlithgow, the cup having a “Pictish”-looking beast on its handle. Again there is no necessary connection with British Celts living north of the line of the Antonine Wall. The cup may have been made locally. Alternatively it may have been brought to West Lothian by monks from Lindisfarne and may have been manufactured in Northumbria.

7.7.4   One further point worth picking out of the wealth of information provided by the Laings is that an altar found at Vindolande (Chesterholm) is decorated with a double-disc symbol (ibid  269). Now one might suppose that the Roman military engaged a British Celtic craftsman from the region north of the Antonine Wall to carve the altar, but this is surely highly unlikely. It is much more likely that the altar was made by a local craftsman using symbols well known in the area around Chesterholm or at least well known to the Roman military.

7.7.5   Finally, at Trusty’s Hill, a little to the west of Gatehouse of Fleet, there is a rock carving comprising a double-disc and Z-rod symbol and a strange beast which looks as though it is about to fall onto a large, sharp pin (or perhaps sword) pointing straight at its stomach. The carving is called “Pictish”, though apparently for no better reason than that such carvings are conventionally called Pictish. It has been suggested that the carving may have been made by a Pictish raiding party, though one would imagine that such a party is likely to have had more important things to do than hang around carving patterns on rock. Moreover, raiders are perhaps unlikely to take a stonemason along with them. Given what is said above about other items found in the south of Scotland and the north of England it is entirely possible that the carving at Trusty’s Hill was made at leisure by local craftsmen in the period prior to the destruction of the hillfort in the early 7th century AD.

7.8   E.A. Alcock’s Map I  shows the distribution of Class I stones. But in fact it shows rather more than that. It is very similar to the snapshot of population taken around AD80 and discussed in paragraph 7.2 above, but with a few differences which indicate political changes which had occurred after AD80.

7.8.1  Class I stones have been found in the territory of the Decantae, who used the hill-letter r, but in the territory of the Caledoni, stretching from Loch Ness down to Loch Linnhe and from there over to the Firth of Clyde, there is not one single Class I stone (there must be some special explanation for the rock carvings found at Dunadd, this stronghold having fallen to the Scots of Dalriada some considerable time before the Class I stones are thought to have been produced). And the Caledoni used the hill-letter l1 One has the impression that people who used the hill-letter l1 took no interest in the Class I stones and their symbols and had no use for them.

7.8.2   And this is the clue to what happened along the southern side of the Moray Firth, for there on Alcock’s map we see a blank to the west of the river Findhorn in an area which had been populated by r-people and where we might therefore expect to see some Class I stones. But there are none.  And in the area around the river Lossie which had been populated by l1-people and where we would not expect to find Class I stones there are indeed some stones. And further east, around the lower reaches of the Spey, in an area which had been populated by r-people and where we might expect to see some  Class I stones there are in fact none. And in Strathisla, which had been occupied by r-people in our snapshot of AD80 and where we might again expect to see some Class I stones, there are again no stones. It seems clear what must have happened. Some event or circumstance in northeast Aberdeenshire must have caused some l1-people to move west. They swept the r-people out of Strathisla and away from the area around the lower reaches of the Spey. Some of the r-people moved further up Strathspey, to an area where many Class I stones have been found. Others moved west from the Spey to the area around the river Lossie and displaced the l1-people who had been living in that area. Those l1-people moved west and settled in the area west of the Findhorn. This area west of the Findhorn was now populated by l1-people who, like the Caledoni, took no interest in and had no use for the Class I stones and their symbols. And no Class I stones have been found in that area. The area to the east, around the river Lossie, was now inhabited by r-people who did have some use for the Class I stones and so we do find some Class I stones in this area. But to the east of the Spey, in an area now inhabited by l1-people, again we see no Class I stones. It does therefore seem clear that whatever the Class I stones and their symbols meant the l1-people were not interested in them.

7.8.3   Now, turning our attention to the Damnoni, and assuming they had survived the Roman occupation as a tribal group, in AD80 they occupied a large area south of the river Earn, down to the southeastern corner of Loch Lomond and across to Stirling and Dunfermline, but in that large area no Class I stones have been found other than a single stone shown on the map as having been found somewhere between Stirling and the river Earn. It thus seems clear that the Damnoni, who used the hill-letter m, were not interested in Class I stones and their symbols and had no use for them.

7.8.4   Going up north to the Lugi, who in AD80 had occupied the area between the Beauly Firth and the Golspie area, we would not expect to find Class I stones in their territory since the Lugi  used the hill-letter m, like the Damnoni. But we do in fact see Class I stones in that region, more or less arranged in a corridor linking the Dornoch Firth area to the inner end of the Beauly Firth. One has the impression that this area had been settled by the r-people who had been displaced from the area west of the river Findhorn. The Lugi tribe had presumably ceased to exist or had been confined to the Black Isle, where no Class I stones have been found, and possibly the peninsula immediately to the north, between the entrances to the Cromarty Firth and the Dornoch Firth, where again no Class I stones have been found.

7.8.5   Now, turning to the territory of the n2-people who in AD80 were living around Braco, Yetts o’ Muckhart and possibly further east in the direction of the river Leven, no Class I stones have been found. Again we have the impression that the Class I stones and their symbols, whatever they meant, were of no interest to the n2-people. This is confirmed by the Vacomagi, who also used the hill-letter n2In AD80 they lived in the Tay valley upstream of the confluence of the Almond and Tay. No Class I stones have been found in that region other than one stone at a point more or less across the Tay from Inchtuthil.

7.8.6   But there are a number of Class I stones from the area east of the Tay. Our information for AD80 suggests that the region from the river Tay and its estuary up to the river North Esk, and perhaps a little further north, was occupied by r-people. The area further north, up to and including the Mounth, was ocupied by an s-people. One would not expect to find Class I stones in that area and indeed none have been found other than on the coastal promontory called Dunnicaer, though this may have been in the hands of other people.  

7.8.7   Our data for AD80 indicated that an l-people had settled in East Aberdeenshire. Alcock’s map 1 shows that around AD600 they were concentrated in Strathdon but their territory extended west towards the river Bogie. Some Class I stones have also been found between the Don and the Dee, so presumably that area was also occupied by the l-people. We also see two groups of stones a few kilometres north of the main concentration of the stones in Strathdon. But to the northeast, in Buchan, we see only two stones. Presumably Buchan had been inhabited by l1-people and it was expansion of the l-people into the area north of the Don which caused the westwards movement of the l1-people referred to above in paragraph 7.8.2.

7.8.8   Turning now to Caithness, in AD80 this was occupied by the Cornavi, who used the hill-letter n2. We would not therefore expect to find Class I stones in that area, but two have been found along the north coast and four or five along the south coast. One possibility is that the Cornavi were not numerically sufficiently strong to displace all of the r-people who had earlier occupied Caithness and that some r-people managed to live on in enclaves along the coast. But 500 years is rather a long time to live in enclaves. See paragraph 5.6.4 above, however, for an indication that the r-people may have managed to hold on to part of Caithness. Elsewhere on this page the writer suggests that some of the r-people displaced from Caithness crossed the Moray Firth to settle in the Spey valley. It is possible that some of the r-people on the north coast of Caithness crossed over to Orkney, though whether they were able to take control of the islands is not clear. A cluster of Class I stones has been found in the north of the main island, so perhaps the r-people had to be satisfied with that area, the south of the island being already occupied, and occupied by people who were not prepared to move out.

7.8.9   Finally, in the territory of the s-people called the Smertae, who in AD80 appear to have occupied an area up the centre of the far north of Scotland, with their tribal centre apparently at Langwell, just east of Oykel Bridge, no Class I stones have been found. The Smertae appear to have extended north to occupy part at least of Strathnaver and in Strathnaver one Class I stone has indeed been found.  But this could be the work of r-people still occupying part of the valley (Strathnaver had been in the territory of the Caereni, who used the hill-letter r). Like the s-people living in the Mounth/Mearns area the Smertae appear not to have produced Class I stones.

7.9   Now it is time for the explanation referred to in paragraph 7.6 above. Why are dense concentrations of Class I “Pictish” stones found only in regions occupied by people/tribes who used the hill-letter r or  l2 The answer probably lies around the Firth of Tay, where there were r- and l2-people living in close proximity, the l-people south of the estuary and the r-people to the north. The writer suggests that the people of pre-Christian Northumbria or even earlier Bernicia were active up the east coast of Scotland. This may have involved simply a close trading relationship but it is possible that there was actually some settlement of people from Bernicia/Northumbria in the region around the Firth of Tay.  It will have been during that period that the l2-people of northeast Fife and the r-people of Angus became familiar with certain artistic designs used by the Bernicians/ Northumbrians, designs such as those discussed  above in section 7.7, some of which designs may have been borrowed from late Roman-Britain and others were perhaps designs which the Angles brought with them to Bernicia. But whereas the Bernicians/Northumbrians perhaps produced those designs mainly on portable and possibly even perishable items it was the l2-people of northeast Fife and the r-people of Angus who started incising those designs on stone. This may have been an original idea of theirs, or perhaps some of them had actually seen altars like the one found at Vindolande (Chesterholm) which is decorated with a double-disc symbol (see paragraph 7.7.4 above). But whatever the inspiration the r­ and l-people around the the Firth of Tay began to incise symbols on stoneThis was the birth of the Class I stones. The stones were probably used as altars, just like the one from Vindolande at Chesterholm, but some may have been used as markers for the graves of VIPs. Perhaps the r- and l-people believed in an afterlife and thought it would be helpful to the soul of the departed if the grave marker bore symbols substantially the same as those appearing on altars. The custom of incising symbols on stones may have spread from the l2-people of northeast Fife to the l2-people of Strathdon and from the r-people of Angus to the r-people of Strathspey (the Verturiones). From them it may have spread to the r-people around Inverness (the Decantae) and from them to the r-people who lived around Golspie. At some point in the 7th century the Northumbrians converted to Christianity and started producing their stone crosses. They passed on their new Christian ideas to the l2-people of northeast Fife and the r-people of Angus and both groups picked up from the Angles the idea of carving crosses on stone. But they were not 100% convinced by the new religion and decided to play safe – they placed the Christian cross on one side of a prepared stone slab and the old symbols on the other side. Thus were the Class II stones born. But it may be that the people north of the Mounth were not quite so quick to adopt Christianity and so continued to produce their Class I stones. In this scenario it may be that the production of Class I stones was relatively short-lived down around the Tay estuary but continued for a longer period north of the Mounth. And it may be that the battle of Dunnichen in AD685 intervened and put a stop to the missionary work of the Anglian Christians. But at some later date the missionary work resumed and in due course Christianity and Class II stones were adopted north of the Mounth. In this scenario one would then expect to find early Class I stones in the south, around the Firth of Tay, and later stones in areas north of the Mounth. This may be contrary to Stevenson’s declining symbols theory (Stevenson 1955, 104-106), according to which the earliest stones had the finest, most complex designs but with the passage of time the designs became simpler, and certainly inconsisent with the view of Henderson (Henderson 1958) who, resting on that theory, argued that the best designs, and therefore by definition the earliest designs, are to be found on stones in the Inverness/Golspie area. 

7.10   Nothing said above detracts from the possibility that the British Celts living north of the Antonine Wall may have invented some symbols of their own or that raiding parties from the north may have seen in the south some attractive items bearing strange designs and took some home as souvenirs, but the main thrust of the argument set out above is that the trigger for the creation of Class I stones was the arrival in the region around the Firth of Tay of people, possibly settlers, from Bernicia/Northumbria and that they brought with them knowledge, and perhaps even material examples, of artistic designs which had been well known for some time in the regions north and south of Hadrian’s Wall.

7.11   At some time Christianity became the fashionable religion and the old religion(s) became irrelevant. It would be at this point that the British Celts (“Picts”) stopped carving the old symbols on their stones, sometimes carving battle scenes in their place. The old symbols are most likely to have had some religious significance since if they had marked territorial boundaries or commemorated marriages, as some scholars have argued, they are not likely to have been dropped, boundaries and marriages surely being just as relevant in the 9th century as in the 7th.  The production of these new stones without the old symbols, the so-called Class III stones, may have overlapped that of the Class II stones, this merely indicating that the Celts in some regions may have gone over to Christianity completely while those in other regions were still hedging their bets by employing both Christian and pre-Christian symbols on their stones.

7.12   And now, to end on a lighter note, we may visualize a British Celt living around the year AD900, perhaps somewhere in the vicinity of Scone, turning and saying to his wife “My dear, our ancestors arrived on these shores more than a thousand years ago. Then about 600 years ago some wretched Roman writer called us Picts, and the name stuck! Then 50 years ago the remaining lands of our ancestors were united in one kingdom with the lands already seized by the Scots and we woke up one morning to realise that we ourselves would henceforth be called Scots. And we even had to learn the language of the Scots. But I predict that many hundreds of years from now our descendants will stop using this new language and will learn yet another new language, this time the language of the Angles. Ah well, so turns the wheel of history, and life goes on!”.





1   We have seen on this page that the names of ten tribes who lived north of the line of the Antonine Wall – the Caereni, Caledoni, Carnonacae, Cerones, Cornavi, Decantae, Epidi, Smertae, Vacomagi  and the  Verturiones -  appear to be based on the topographical place-names of the respective tribal centres. And in ‘The Boresti and Mons Graupius’, which may be accessed from the main menu above, we see that this is also true of the Boresti. It may interest some readers to consider the remaining tribes living in the region north of the Antonine Wall, namely the Lugi, the Taxali, the Damnoni and the Venicones. The tribal names Lugi,  Damnoni and Venicones also appear to be based on topographical place-names whereas Taxali is in fact a river-name, as explained in paragraph 3.5 above. The most similar river-name is probably Ravenna’s Traxula (river Axe in Devon), which differs from Taxali only in that its river-prefix includes not only the river-letter t  but also the river-letter r (the vowels being of no importance).

 2   Where a tribal name indicated above comprises only one hill-letter, as in CaereniCaledoni and Cerones, that hill-letter was the hill-letter used by that tribe. Where a tribal name comprises two or more hill-letters, as in Cornavi and Smertae, the latest hill-letter added to the name is the hill-letter used by that tribe. Thus the Cornavi used the hill-letter n and the Smertae the hill-letter s.  Now it seems quite clear that the Lugi used the hill-letter m. At some point in history their territory must have extended inland from the coast of the Moray Firth at least as far as the hill-fort at Langwell in the Oykel valley – this accounts for the m in Smertae (as explained in more detail in paragraphs 5.3 and 5.7 above). And we see the corresponding river-letter r at the end of the river-name Varar (originally Barar). Now, Lugi is a simple as opposed to a compound name, so it seems quite clear that Lugi was originally Mugi. One sees the l/m interchange in several names, though usually in the direction l → m, as in Celtic Lelamon → Ravenna’s MelamoniMelantvrum to Ravenna’s Memanturum, and Lacerocomaguve → Ravenna’s Maromago.  The writer cannot bring to mind any other example of the change in the other direction, i.e. m → l, but it seems evident that this change must have occurred in Mugi → Lugi. In this case Mugi would be a tribal name like the others considered above, the tribal name being based on the topographical name of the tribal centre. That centre, perhaps called Mugion,  will have been adjacent a steep slope, where mug is an inversion-type element meaning ‘hill steep’.

3   The tribal name Damnoni seems quite clearly to be based on a topographical place-name. That place-name was presumably Damnonion. The ending of the name will be onion which indicates that the first in the name is the hill-letter n. The name  Damnonion thus comprises the inversion-type element Dam, meaning ‘summit of hill’, qualified by the hill-letter n. The hill-top in question was thus first settled by an n-people and was then taken over by the Damnoni, who used the hill-letter m. Note that the hill-letter n2 was used by the Vacomagi, the Venicones and the Epidi (‘Ptolemy’s Celtic tribes: Part 2’, 18 and 19), so it is not clear where Damnonion might have been.

4   The tribal name Venicones appears also to be based on a topographical place-name, perhaps of the form Veniconion. Venic  is an inversion-type place-name element meaning ‘slope of hill steep’. The vowels in the name are not important, the element being seen as Vanc in Vancomagi, apparently the original form of Vacomagi. But the hill-letter in Venic is n. What this means is that the Venicones cannot have been the l2-people who lived in Abernethy and northeast Fife, as the present writer earlier thought. They must have been the n2-people who lived in a swathe of land stretching east/southeast from Braco (Ardoch) in the direction of the river Leven (though not including Dunfermline, which was in the hands of the Damnoni). What this means is that Ptolemy’s Orrea, assuming it really was in the territory of the Venicones, must have been somewhere in the swathe of land just mentioned. It may have been on the coast, but need not have been. If the name was originally Latin Horrea, as assumed by most scholars, then Orrea may just have been a storage centre founded after the battle of Mons Graupius to collect the taxes of the people living in what is now Fife, Kinross and Clackmannanshire, the taxes being paid in the form of grain and other foodstuffs. But note that the v/b interchange is very common in Romano-British place-names, so it is possible that the tribal centre had earlier been called Beniconion and the tribe the Benicones, where Benic is a transitional element meaning ‘high hill steep’. And if the initial part of the old name has survived in a modern name, then that modern name may start with a B, a V, a P, an F or even a W.



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[This page was last modified on 21 May 2021]