Celtic tribes of the British Isles

The Celtic tribes of Britain and Ireland, according to Ptolemy c. 150 AD Before the spread westwards of Angles, Saxons and Vikings, Britain and Ireland were inhabited by people speaking Celtic languages. Who were they? Their origins probably go back to about 2,400 BC, when the first Bell Beaker material appeared in the British Isles.1J. Manco, Blood of the Celts (2015). Genetically their predominant signature is Y-DNA R1b-L21, which has been found in pre-Roman skeletons in Eastern England.2S. Schiffels et al., Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomesfrom East England reveal British migration history, bioRxiv preprint 17 July 2015.

This has been overlain to varying degrees by Germanic genetic markers, for example R1a1a, which in the British Isles is predominantly of the Z284 type found in Scandinavia. Its offspring L448 is dominant type in Norway and Scotland. Another subclade, Z287, is also found in Scotland. Both subclades are relatively young, which would fit the expansion of the Norse Vikings.

Since the Celts of Britain and Ireland were illiterate in pre-Roman days, it was ancient Greek and Roman authors who first recorded the names of their tribes. The conquest of Britain from 43 AD expanded Roman knowledge of what had been for the ancient Greeks a distant island on the edge of the known world. The famous Geography of Claudius Ptolemy, written in Greek c. 150 AD, included the British Isles. Ptolemy relied on the work of an earlier geographer, Marinos of Tyre. So the Geography generally reflects the situation c. 100 AD.3Ptolemy's Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters, J. L. Berggren and A. Jones (2000), pp. 3, 23-24.

The Romans tended to turn tribes into civitates, with a Roman-style town as a civic centre. Ptolemy gives the names of Roman towns. Yet he retained the old names for the islands: Albion for Britain, and Ierne (Latinised as Hibernia) for Ireland. The island group had long been known collectively as the Pretanic or Britanic isles. As Pliny the Elder explained, this included the Orcades (Orkney), the Hbudes (Hebrides), Mona (Anglesey), Monopia (Isle of Man), and a number of other islands less certainly identifiable from his names. The post-conquest Romans used Britannia or Britannia Magna (Large Britain) for Britain and Hibernia or Britannia Parva (Small Britain) for Ireland.4Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, book 4, chapter 30; J.B. Harley and D.Woodward, The History of Cartography vol. 1: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (1987), p.192; D.W. Roller, Through the pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman exploration of the Atlantic (2006), p. 28; P. Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World (2001). For Britain Pytheas via Strabo uses Bretannikē as a feminine noun, although its form is that of an adjective. Pliny uses Britannia, with Britanniae meaning all the islands,the Britains. Diodorus, writing in Greek, has Brettanikēnēsos, the British Island, and Brettanoi, the British. Ptolemy, also writing in Greek, has Bretania and Bretanikai nēsoi. However manuscript variants offer an initial P- alternating with B-. The name learned by Pytheas was probably Pretania or Pritannia, corresponding to the Welsh Ynys Prydein, the island of Britain, and the Irish Q-Celtic Cruithen. The Irish retained Alba as a name for Britain. It reappeared in the Gaelic Kingdom of Alba in Scotland,5A. Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (2007), pp.122, 125-6. and the Gaelic word for Scotsman - Albannach. It seems to have retained some currency within Britain too, since the Albiones are mentioned on a Latin memorial within that part of Spain which was settled by Britons in the Post-Roman period. See Celtic Tribes of South-West England.

The Geography is a snapshot of how the Romans perceived the peoples they knew around 100 AD. It would be folly to assume that this pattern can be projected back or forward indefinitely. Tribes were not static entities, but could move, fission and fuse. Their boundaries could expand or contract. Tribal names can vanish from the record, or new ones appear.6T. Moore, Detribalizing the later prehistoric past: concepts of tribes in Iron Age and Roman studies, Journal of Social Archaeology, vol. 11, no. 3 (2011), pp. 334-360. Clues to some of these changes are scattered around in place-names and pedigrees, coins and commentaries, itineraries and inscriptions. Memoirs, annals and legends have been pored over by generations of scholars trying to piece together a picture of these shifting polities. None of this material can reveal the deeper past of the Celts, which vanishes into prehistory - the province of archaeologists. The latter have particular problems with the British and Irish Iron Age. In Ireland and Northern Britain indigenous pottery vanishes in this period. That makes it more difficult to distinguish between different groups of people. Yet the sudden appearance of high-quality pottery in Atlantic Scotland with broch-builders is all the more significant against this background. Foreign links are clear.7D. Harding, Redefining the Northern British Iron Age, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 1 (2006), pp. 61-82. The same is true for the first wheel-thrown pottery in Britain, associated with the Belgae.

Landscape and man's mark on it

Celtic hill-forts of Britain (Adapted from Konstam and Bull 2006). Click to enlarge in new windowPrehistorians often look to the landscape for ideas on where tribal boundaries might have fallen. Seas, rivers and mountains form natural barriers. Yet a tribe could inhabit the whole of a river valley, using boats to cross from bank to bank. Water might provide the easiest transport routes in some terrain. Tribes could be linked by the sea. Man's own marks on the landscape provide stronger evidence of divisions. Massive linear earthworks stretching miles across the countryside could only have been built by many people banded together. Such effort speaks of an urgent purpose. Huge ditches and banks may not halt an army for ever, but they prevent chariots and horsemen from conducting lightning raids into neighbouring territory. They make it much more difficult to drive off cattle. Those linear earthworks in Ireland and some in Britain date from the pre-Roman Iron Age.8J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), pp. 110-1.

Hill-forts are another indication of tribal friction. Since warfare itself is often invisible in the archaeological record, it became fashionable in the latter part of the 20th century for archaeologists to dismiss the defensive role of hill-forts and see them purely as displays of status. However a mass burial at Fin Cop Hill Fort in Derbyshire presents a darker picture. The fort was destroyed c. 400 BC before completion. The walls were thrown down into the surrounding ditch along with the bodies.9C. Waddington et al., Excavations at Fin Cop, Derbyshire: An Iron Age Hillfort in Conflict?Archaeological Journal, vol. 169, no.1 (2012), pp. 159-236. It is a strikingly similar picture at War Ditches, an enclosure lying on a spur of the Gog Magog hills to the south of Cambridge. Here again a hillfort was constructed c. 400 BC, but destroyed before completion or shortly thereafter. Skeletons in the ditch, including a charred torso, suggest a massacre.10A. Pickstone and R. Mortimer, War Ditches, Cherry Hinton: Revisiting an Iron Age Hillfort, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, vol. 101 (2012), pp. 31–59.

Once the Romans came into in contact with Celtic tribes in Gaul and Britain, their writings reveal warfare between specific tribes, for example the attacks of the Catuvellauni on their neighbours. However most hill-forts were built long before. In Central Europe hill-forts first appear in the Early Bronze Age, though built in greater numbers from the Urnfield period onwards. Those in Britain and Ireland generally date from the Late Bronze Age and the Iron Age.11A. Konstam, illus. P. Bull, The Forts of Celtic Britain (2006), p. 14; D. O Croinin (ed.), A New History of Ireland (2005), pp. 162-3.

Languages

Northern Britain and Ireland c.750 ADBy the time the inhabitants of the British Isles were producing literature of their own, five languages were spoken within the islands, as Bede recorded: Latin, English, British, Irish and Pictish.12Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the British People, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 10. Latin was the language of the Church in Bede's day. It had arrived in Britain with the Romans. Latin was probably widely spoken in southern Britain by late Roman times. In other parts of the former Roman Empire, Latin developed into the Romance languages, such as French. Perhaps people would be speaking a similar language in England today, had the Angles and Saxons not burst upon the scene, bringing English - the language of the Angles.

The Irish spoke Gaelic, the more archaic form of Insular Celtic. Scottish, Irish and Manx Gaelic all descend from a common ancestor, attested in ogham inscriptions of the 5th and 6th centuries AD. Its spread into Scotland cannot be much earlier than this.13J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), p. 831. In the earliest phases of this process, there was so little difference between British and Irish Celtic languages that we could compare them to British and American English. Later they diverged much more sharply.

British (or Brythonic) and Pictish fit into a family of Celtic languages in which the kw sound of Indo-European had shifted to a p sound, known as P-Celtic. There is written evidence of P-Celtic in Northern Italy from 600 BC and it was spoken in Gaul. So we can deduce that this sound-change arrived in Britain with Iron-Age migrants from Gaul. See Hallstatt and La Tne. The surviving form of it is Welsh. Another form - Cornish - survived in Cornwall into Tudor times. Cumbric was the form spoken in what is now northern England and Lowland Scotland as far north as Dumbarton (Dn Breatainn, fort of the Britons) during the Early Middle Ages. It was closely related to Welsh. As Anglian settlements advanced, Cumbric was replaced by English and its Scottish variant - Lowland Scots. Pictish, the language of the eastern Highlands, was similar to Cumbric. An historian writing in 1140 declared that Pictish had vanished. Certainly the language of the Scottish court changed to Gaelic when the Gaelic and Pictish kingdoms were united into the Kingdom of Alba, north of the Forth-Clyde isthmus. In the 10th and 11th centuries Alba expanded to include the Kingdom of Strathclyde, formerly part of Cumbria, and Lothian, formerly part of Anglian Bernicia. The enlarged Alba became the Kingdom of Scotland.14J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp. 1444, 1447-8, 1592-3; Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba: 789 - 1070, (2007), pp. 320-340; Vclav Blažek, On the position of Gaulish within Celtic from the point of view of glottochronology, Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 114 (2009).

Inscriptions

Celtic personal and tribal names can be preserved in Latin inscriptions within Roman Britain. The Latin alphabet could also be used to record a complete message in Brittonic, though that is rarer. Of the hundreds of Curse Tablets of Roman Britain, many include Celtic names, but almost all are set within a Latin text. Latin continued to be used for memorial inscriptions in the Post-Roman period in British Christian areas.

The ogham alphabetThe Irish language was first written in a script called ogham. The earliest surviving inscriptions date from the 4th or 5th century AD. The ogham alphabet clearly arose from familiarity with alphabetic writing. Romanised Britons could have carried the idea to Ireland. Though Ireland was never part of the Roman Empire, there was trade between Ireland and Roman Britain. Ogham inscriptions cluster in Munster and also appear in southern Wales and Cornwall.15J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 18; Paul Russell, chapter 12 in D. Crinn (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vol 1 (2005), pp. 410-11. A few inscribed stones in Wales carry bilingual inscriptions in Latin and Ogham.

The online Corpus of Celtic Inscribed Stones database covers every non-Runic inscription on a stone monument within Celtic-speaking areas (Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Dumnonia, Brittany and the Isle of Man) in the early middle ages (AD 400-1000). There are over 1,200 such inscriptions.

Tribal names

The names of Celtic peoples can be divided into two types: the self-ascribed and those imposed from without. Within the British Isles, the terms Picti (painted ones) and Scoti were bestowed by the Romans, but did not refer to specific tribes, but to peoples beyond Roman control - those of Britain north of the Roman border and those of Ireland respectively. Celtic tribal names clearly self-bestowed are those derived from a Celtic god or tree or animal name. The animal totem type of ethnonym appears the most ancient. Other names may distinguish between arable farmers and pastoralists. For example the Silures (seeders) of south-east Wales versus the Epidii (horse-breakers) of Kintyre. A tribal name could reflect the landscape, such as the Dumnonii and Dobunni (lowland people). The tribal name could boast of fighting prowess, for example the Ordovices (hammer-warriors) of Wales and the Catuvellauni (excelling in battle) among the British Belgae.16Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, Linguistically Celtic ethnonyms: towards a classification, in Juan Luis Garcia Alonso (ed.), Celtic and Other Languages in Ancient Europe, pp. 101-118. Ediciones Universidad Salamanca 2008.

Ireland

For an overview and specific tribes of Ireland see Celtic tribes of Ireland.

Britain: overview

The Peutinger Map: Roman road map of Britain c. 400 AD. Click to enlarge in pop-up window Scotland and Wales did not exist as separate countries in pre-Roman times, but for simplicity the present country names are used in the tribal lists for Britain. The climatic downturn at the Bronze to Iron Age transition hit both Britain and Ireland, yet did less damage to agriculture in Britain. Some upland in Wales was abandoned, along with some lowland prone to waterlogging in Central Southern England. The overall picture though is one of continuity.17P. Dark, Climate deterioration and land-use change in the first millennium BC: perspectives from the British palynological record, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 33, no. 10 (October 2006), pp. 1381-1395.

Hallstatt and La Tne

Trade continued to thrive. The people of the British lowlands were in constant contact with the Continent in the Bronze and Iron Ages. Consequently the form of Celtic spoken in Britain by Roman times was similar to the Gaulish spoken across the Channel. The Iron Age Hallstatt Culture developed north of the Alps from about 700 BC and spread into Lowland Britain by 600 BC. It reached as far north as the Forth-Clyde line. It was superseded by the La Tne Culture from around 450 BC, which again spread to Britain. La Tne metalwork styles are widely distributed in Britain and often have close Continental parallels.18J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 21 and maps 15.2-8.

The degree to which they were spread by movements of people has been much debated. The clearest cases for migration earlier than that of the Belgae can be made for two tribes of the north notable for La Tne material, including chariot burials: the Votadini and Parisi.

Specific Celtic tribes of Britain are listed on their own pages by region: see menu left. Further reading: Barry Cunliffe, Iron Age Communities in Britain: An account of England, Scotland and Wales from the seventh century BC until the Roman Conquest, 4th edition. Routledge (2005).

Notes

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  1. J. Manco, Blood of the Celts (2015).
  2. S. Schiffels et al., Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon genomesfrom East England reveal British migration history, bioRxiv preprint 17 July 2015.
  3. Ptolemy's Geography: An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters, J. L. Berggren and A. Jones (2000), pp. 3, 23-24.
  4. Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, book 4, chapter 30; J.B. Harley and D.Woodward, The History of Cartography vol. 1: Cartography in prehistoric, ancient, and medieval Europe and the Mediterranean (1987), p.192; D.W. Roller, Through the pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman exploration of the Atlantic (2006), p. 28; P. Freeman, Ireland and the Classical World (2001). For Britain Pytheas via Strabo uses Bretannikē as a feminine noun, although its form is that of an adjective. Pliny uses Britannia, with Britanniae meaning all the islands, the Britains. Diodorus, writing in Greek, has Brettanikēnēsos, the British Island, and Brettanoi, the British. Ptolemy, also writing in Greek, has Bretania and Bretanikai nēsoi. However manuscript variants offer an intial P- alternating with B-. The name learned by Pytheas was probably Pretania or Pritannia, corresponding to the Welsh Ynys Prydein, the island of Britain, and the Irish Q-Celtic Cruithen.
  5. A. Woolf, From Pictland to Alba 789-1070 (2007), pp. 122, 125-6.
  6. T. Moore, Detribalizing the later prehistoric past: concepts of tribes in Iron Age and Roman studies, Journal of Social Archaeology, vol. 11, no. 3 (2011), pp. 334-360.
  7. D. Harding, Redefining the Northern British Iron Age, Oxford Journal of Archaeology, vol. 25, no. 1 (2006), pp. 61-82.
  8. J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), pp. 110-1.
  9. C. Waddington et al., Excavations at Fin Cop, Derbyshire: An Iron Age Hillfort in Conflict?, Archaeological Journal, vol. 169, no.1 (2012), pp. 159-236.
  10. A. Pickstone and R. Mortimer, War Ditches, Cherry Hinton: Revisiting an Iron Age Hillfort, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, vol. 101 (2012), pp. 31–59.
  11. A. Konstam, illus. P. Bull, The Forts of Celtic Britain (2006), p. 14; D. Crinn (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vol 1: Prehistoric and early Ireland (2005), pp. 162-3.
  12. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the British People, ed. J. McClure and R. Collins (1994), p. 10.
  13. J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), p. 831.
  14. J.T. Koch (ed.), Celtic Culture: a historical encyclopedia (2006), pp. 1444-8, 1592-3; Alex Woolf, From Pictland to Alba: 789 - 1070, (2007), pp. 320-340; Vclav Blažek, On the position of Gaulish within Celtic from the point of view of glottochronology, Indogermanische Forschungen, vol. 114 (2009).
  15. J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 18; Paul Russell, chapter 12 in D. Crinn (ed.), A New History of Ireland, vol 1: Prehistoric and early Ireland (2005), pp. 410-11.
  16. Patrizia de Bernardo Stempel, Linguistically Celtic ethnonyms: towards a classification, In Juan Luis Garcia Alonso (ed.), Celtic and Other Languages in Ancient Europe, pp. 101-118. Ediciones Universidad Salamanca 2008.
  17. P. Dark, Climate deterioration and land-use change in the first millennium BC: perspectives from the British palynological record, Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 33, no. 10 (October 2006), pp. 1381-1395.
  18. J. T. Koch, An Atlas for Celtic Studies (2007), p. 21 and maps 15.2-8.