Celtic tribes of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

For an introduction to the Celtic tribes of Britain, see the main page for Celtic Tribes of the British Isles.

Peoples of Northern Britain from Ptolemy's Geography. Click to enlarge in pop-up window In northern Britain as far south as the Firths of Forth and Clyde and the Antonine Wall, the pattern is that of tribes divided from each other by mountains. Those of the far north and west - protected by the Grampian Mountains - had little contact with the Romans, so it is not surprising that their names are not recorded again after appearing in Ptolemy's Geography. For these tribes, Ptolemy probably relied, directly or indirectly, on the geographical data obtained by a Roman fleet ordered by Agricola to sail around Britain c. 83 AD.1Tacitus, Agricola, 10 and 38. In the Post-Roman period, literacy was mainly preserved by the Christian Church. Sources for northern Britain are limited in the early historic period, but reveal that kingdoms developed to the south and east of the Great Glen, and in the Orkney Islands to the north. The north-east, the Highland glens, Sutherland, the north-west, the Western Isles and Shetland have left no record of kings and may have remained the preserve of 'farmer republics' as late as the Viking Age.2J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 66-67.

Women using a quern in the Hebrides in 1772Indeed some aspects of Highland life changed little up to the 18th century. Highland houses of that era were mainly built from local materials. Craftsmen and labourers lived in two to three rooms, often with box-beds and heather mattresses, while the poorest families usually occupied a single room, usually with no windows or chimney. A central peat fire provided warmth and heat for cooking. This was very different from the Georgian splendour of Edinburgh. The Highland lifestyle was described by travellers such as Thomas Pennant in 1769. He records in detail the celebration of Beltane on the 1st of May, when bonfires were kindled, one of the four historic Gaelic festivals.3T. Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1769, 4th edn. (1776), pp. 110-111. Hand-operated querns continued in use in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland for grinding grain until the end of the 18th century, long after they had been replaced by watermills and windmills in the rest of Britain. Mills were labour-saving and the Highlands had plenty of fast-running rivers to drive water-mills. However isolated farmers might well prefer to avoid both the cost of milling and that of transporting grain and flour over long distances.4M. Rackwitz, Travels to Terra Incognita: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides in Early Modern Traveller's Accounts (2007), pp. 311-312.

Picts

Distribution of Pictish stones and graffiti. Click to enlarge in pop-up windowThe Picts were not a tribe. The name began as a collective term for all tribes north of the Roman border, which shifted between Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall. The latter ran between the Firths of Clyde and Forth. In the 730s AD Bede reported that the the Firth of Clyde had originally been the southern border of the Picts. 5Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the British People, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 12. Within 8th-century Pictland we find reference to various peoples, kingdoms or districts. 6J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 44-9. In 305 Constantius Chlorus claimed a victory over the "Caledones and other Picts".7C. E. V. Nixon and B. Saylor Rodgers (ed. and trans.), In praise of later Roman emperors: the Panegyrici Latini (1994), VI: Panegyric of Constantine, pp. 226-7 and note 27. This is the first reference to Picti. It means painted in Latin. Isidore of Seville tells us that it refers to the use of plant dye to create tattoos.8The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 386 (XIX.xxiii.7). The plant dye was from woad. When the Romans first encountered the people of Britain, they noted the British habit of dying their bodies with woad, which left a blue colour.9Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.14; Pomponius Mela's Description of the World, ed. Frank E. Romer(1998), p. 116 (book 3, chapter 51). Other colours could be derived from iron ochre. A Byzantine historian, pulling together what he could glean from writers centuries earlier about the British, mentioned the tattooing of their bodies with iron-red. This was probably taken from a verse by Claudian which could be so translated.10Jordanes, Getica, II.14; Claudian, The Gothic War, XXVI. Even in 208 the Britons were still said to tattoo their bodies with coloured designs and drawings of all kinds of animals, but this evidently refers only to those north of Hadrian's Wall. 11Herodian, The History of the Roman Empire, III.14.7. As the Britons within the Roman Empire gradually adopted Roman ways, those outside it would be easily distinguished by their tattoos.

The northern and north-western area of Scotland was Gaelic-speaking in historic times, as indicated by the distribution of Gaelic place-names in Scotland. Care is needed though in the interpretation of place-name evidence. Pictish place-names were Gaelicized, as Gaelic became the dominant language of Alba. Conversely the Pictish place-name element *pet(t) (land-holding, portion, share) was borrowed into Scottish Gaelic and exported to Lothian. However the concentration of Pit- or Pet- names falls in the coastal and riverine areas (i.e. those most suitable for agriculture) of the eastern Highlands. The distribution of Pictish symbol-stones is remarkably similar, though they also occur in the Western, Orkney and Shetland Isles. 12J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp. 1444-8, 1592-3; G. Whittington, Placenames and the Settlement Pattern of Dark-Age Scotland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 106 (1977), pp. 99-110. Most stones carved with Pictish symbols date to the 6th-9th centuries AD, so it was exciting in 2015 to discover that one site with such symbols dates from the 3rd or 4th century. This was a fort built on an inhospitable sea-stack the south of Stonehaven, known as Dunnicaer.13Earliest Pictish fort yet discovered was situated on sea stack, Past Horizons, July 28, 2015.

Brochs

The distribution of Iron Age brochs Cutaway artist's reconstruction of a broch. Click to enlarge in pop-up windowThe north-eastern tip of Scotland is notable for its brochs - tall, round, stone-built, hollow-walled Iron Age tower-houses. Brochs emerged on Shetland and Uist around the 4th century BC and slightly later in the Western Isles. They are also found in Orkney, Skye and the Outer Hebrides. Brochs were often sited close to the sea. While it is commonly argued that they evolved from the Atlantic stone-built round house, the hollow-walled construction is distinctive. So Euan Mackie sees their predecessors in earlier hollow-walled defenses, one in a ring-fort on Shetland dated to the 6th century BC; associated pottery links it to Late Bronze Age Brittany. Promontory forts in the western isles with hollow walls were probably also built by new arrivals, in this case from southern England. It seems that settlers felt the need for defense against sea-borne attack. While some brochs in NE Caithness show cultural links to Shetland, further south it appears that local people adopted the broch. In general broch-building societies appear multi-cultural. Some probably had chiefs of distant origin, but subordinates of more local origin. Most brochs were built between 200 BC and 100 AD and some remained in use as late as the 6th century AD. It was during this main burst of broch-building that a new type of quern appeared among the broch-builders. This adjustable disc quern was unknown elsewhere in Britain. It is among the types found in Iberia, where the rotary quern seems to have been invented, and so hints at continuing contact with Brittany, which had trading links to Iberia.14E.W. MacKie, The broch cultures of Atlantic Scotland: origins, high noon and decline: part 1: Early Iron Age beginnings c. 700-200 BC, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 27, no. 3 (2008), pp. 261-279; part 2: The Middle Iron Age: high noon and decline c.200 BC - AD 550, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 29, no 1. (2010), pp. 89-117; Z. Outram et al.,The integration of chronological and archaeological information to date building construction: an example from Shetland, Scotland, UK, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 37, no.11 (November 2010), pp. 2821-2830; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 106, section 30 and map 15.1. Map shown on this page taken from A. Konstam, The Forts of Celtic Britain (2006).

Intriguingly a structure similar to a broch has been discovered in Central Spain. Bronze Age mounds dot the plain of La Mancha. The excavation of one - the Motilla del Azuer (Daimiel, Ciudad Real) - revealed a double-walled tower. It is earlier and more complex than any broch.15F. Molina et al., Recent fieldwork at the Bronze Age fortified site of Motilla del Azuer (Daimiel, Spain), Antiquity, vol.79, no. 306 (December 2005). So it remains unclear whether the concept travelled, or whether this is a case of parallel development. In the first century BC, the Veneti of what is now southern Brittany were outstanding navigators, with a huge fleet of ships, with which they controlled traffic with Britain, until they were crushed by Caesar. So we may guess that they were at least the intermediaries in a movement of people, goods and ideas to the north. Traffic along the Atlantic seaboard continued through and after the Roman period. The elites of Argyll imported wine, dyes, spices and fine wares from Aquitaine in the early historic period. Adomnan's Life of Columba mentions a vessel fresh from Gaul arriving in Argyll.16Caesar, Gallic Wars, III.8,16; Adomnan, Vita S. Columba, 1.22; J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 172, 243. Adomnan says the Gallic ship had arrived at caput regionis (the head of the region), which could mean Kintyre (Ceann-tir - head of the land) or the capital of Argyll.

Notes

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  1. Tacitus, Agricola, 10 and 38.
  2. J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 66-67.
  3. Thomas Pennant, A Tour in Scotland in 1769, 4th edn. (1776), pp. 110-111.
  4. M. Rackwitz, Travels to Terra Incognita: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides in Early Modern Traveller's Accounts (2007), pp. 311-312.
  5. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the British People, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 12.
  6. J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 44-9.
  7. C. E. V. Nixon and B. Saylor Rodgers (ed. and trans.), In praise of later Roman emperors: the Panegyrici Latini (1994), VI: Panegyric of Constantine, pp. 226-7 and note 27.
  8. The Etymologies of Isidore of Seville, ed. and trans. S.A. Barney, W. J. Lewis, J. A. Beach and O. Bergho (2006), p. 386 (XIX.xxiii.7).
  9. Caesar, Gallic Wars, V.14; ; Pomponius Mela's Description of the World, ed. Frank E. Romer(1998), p. 116 (book 3, chapter 51).
  10. Jordanes, Getica, II.14; Claudian, The Gothic War, XXVI.
  11. Herodian, The History of the Roman Empire, 3.14.7.
  12. J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp. 1444-8, 1592-3; G. Whittington, Placenames and the settlement pattern of Dark-Age Scotland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland , vol. 106 (1977), pp. 99-110.
  13. Earliest Pictish fort yet discovered was situated on sea stack, Past Horizons, July 28, 2015.
  14. E.W. MacKie, The broch cultures of Atlantic Scotland: origins, high noon and decline: part 1: Early Iron Age beginnings c. 700-200 BC, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 27, no. 3 (2008), pp. 261-279; part 2: The Middle Iron Age: high noon and decline c.200 BC - AD 550, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 29, no 1. (2010), pp. 89-117; Z. Outram et al.,The integration of chronological and archaeological information to date building construction: an example from Shetland, Scotland, UK, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 37, no.11 (November 2010), pp. 2821-2830; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 106, section 30 and map 15.1. Map shown on this page taken from A. Konstam, The Forts of Celtic Britain (2006).
  15. F. Molina et al., Recent fieldwork at the Bronze Age fortified site of Motilla del Azuer (Daimiel, Spain), Antiquity, vol.79, no. 306 (December 2005).
  16. Caesar, Gallic Wars, III.8, 16; Adomnan, Vita S. Columba, 1.22; J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 172, 243. Adomnan says the Gallic ship had arrived at caput regionis (the head of the region), which could mean Kintyre (Ceann-tir - head of the land) or the capital of Argyll.
  17. Tacitus, Agricola, 38.
  18. Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), maps 15.2 and 21.2; J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), p. 20.
  19. Tacitus, Agricola, 11, 25, 29-37.
  20. C. E. V. Nixon and B. Saylor Rodgers (ed. and trans.), In praise of later Roman emperors: the Panegyrici Latini (1994), VI: Panegyric of Constantine, pp. 226-7 and note 27.
  21. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, trans. C.D. Yonge (1862), 27.8.5.
  22. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 291.
  23. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; A. Breeze, Three Celtic names: Venicones, Tuesis and Soutra, Scottish Language (2006); A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 286.
  24. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  25. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 301.
  26. A. Breeze, Three Celtic names: Venicones, Tuesis and Soutra, Scottish Language (2006); W. J. Watson, The Celtic Place-names of Scotland (2005).
  27. S. Goodacre et al., Genetic evidence for a family-based Scandinavian settlement of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking periods, Heredity, vol. 95 (2005), pp. 129–135.
  28. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  29. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 325.
  30. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  31. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 326.
  32. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  33. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 330.
  34. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  35. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 360.
  36. J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 121, 146-148, 159-160, 203-6, 238-41; Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the British People, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 11; J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp. 555-7, 1593; A. Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (2007), p. 7; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), map 20.2.
  37. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 401; P. De Bernardo Stempel, Linguistically Celtic ethnonyms: towards a classification, Celtic and Other Languages in Ancient Europe, J. L. García Alonso (ed.) (2008), p. 102.
  38. Adomnán, Life of Columba, chap. 7.
  39. Cassius Dio, Roman History, 77.12.
  40. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 404.
  41. J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 15-16.
  42. E.W. MacKie, The broch cultures of Atlantic Scotland: origins, high noon and decline: part 2: The Middle Iron Age: high noon and decline c.200 BC - AD 550, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 29, no 1. (2010), pp. 89-117 (92, 95); D. W. Harding, The Iron Age in Northern Britain: Celts and Romans, natives and invaders (2004), p.187.
  43. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  44. J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams, The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-Europeans (2006), p. 139; A. Breeze, Three Celtic names: Venicones, Tuesis and Soutra, Scottish Language (2006).
  45. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 433.
  46. S. Goodacre et al., Genetic evidence for a family-based Scandinavian settlement of Shetland and Orkney during the Viking periods, Heredity, vol. 95 (2005), pp. 129–135.
  47. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.
  48. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), pp. 460-61.
  49. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979); P. De Bernardo Stempel, Linguistically Celtic ethnonyms: towards a classification, Celtic and Other Languages in Ancient Europe, J. L. García Alonso (ed.), 101-118 (2008), 106; K. Forsyth, Language in Pictland: the case against 'non-Indo-European Pictish' (Utrecht 1997), pp. 20-21; C. Marx, Rectification of position data of Scotland in Ptolemy’s Geographike Hyphegesis, Survey Review, vol 46, no. 337 (July 2014), pp. 231-244.
  50. Gordon Noble et al., (Re)discovering the Gaulcross hoard, Antiquity, vol. 90, issue 351 (June 2016), pp. 726-741.
  51. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2; A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979); C. Marx, Rectification of position data of Scotland in Ptolemy’s Geographike Hyphegesis, Survey Review, vol. 46, no. 337 (July 2014), pp. 231-244.
  52. A.L.F Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-names of Roman Britain (1979), p. 484.
  53. Claudius Ptolemy, The Geography, II.2.; A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979), pp. 372-3, 491; J. T. Koch, The stone of the Wenicones, Bulletin of the Board of Celtic Studies 29 (1982), pp. 87-9; A. Breeze, Three Celtic names: Venicones, Tuesis and Soutra, Scottish Language (2006); J. N. Dore and J. J. Wilkes, Excavations directed by J D Leach and J J Wilkes on the site of a Roman fortress at Carpow, Perthshire, 1964-79, Proc Soc Antiq Scot, vol. 129, 2 (1999), pp. 481-575.
  54. Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, trans. C.D. Yonge (1862), 27.8.5.
  55. A. Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (2007), pp. 9-10; J. E. Fraser, From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795 (2009), pp. 50-51; J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 32 and map 21.2; A.L.F. Rivet and C. Smith, The Place-Names of Roman Britain (1979), pp. 496-7.