History Files
 

 

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

 

 

MapNovantae (Britons)
Incorporating the Anavionenses

MapThe northern tribe of the Novantae had long been settled territory in south-western Scotland before the beginning of the Roman occupation. These Caledonians, who were later known as Picts, had been cut off from their compatriots to the north by the apparent declaration of a kingdom of the Damnonii Britons at Alt Clut in the second century. Alt Clut would have cut right into their tribal lands which in any case were heavily bordered to the north by large forests and mountainous terrain. This isolation was probably reinforced by Magnus Maximus' defensive reorganisations of Britain in 382-383. Even so, the Novantae Picts were probably responsible for the creation of one of the 'four kingdoms' in Lowland Scotland in the second century. (See the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view the tribe's location in relation to all other Celts.)

FeaturePeople of this tribe form one of the candidates for the mysterious Attacotti of the fourth century AD. The Attacotti name can be broken down in two ways. The first supplies the name Alt Clut, while the second, 'at-', meaning 'above' or 'higher, plus 'coit', meaning 'forest', could mean 'the people from above the forest'. This can be taken to refer to remnants of the Novantae in the hills of the southern highlands, the only location south of the Antonine Wall that could contain the required 'wild Britons'.

As for the Novantae (or sometimes Novantia) name, that is a much more puzzling prospect. On initial inspection, 'nova' might be taken to mean 'new', but 'ante' means 'in front' or 'before', which makes no sense. Instead, the Welsh dictionary contains the noun 'nwyf' [m.], meaning 'vivacity, energy, vigour', and 'nwyfiant' [nwyfiannau, m.], meaning 'vivacity, vigour'. It should be remembered that in Welsh an 'f' is pronounced as a 'v', so could the Novantae be 'the vigorous'? Cognate in Latin is 'navitas', meaning 'energy, get-up-and-go', which supports this analysis. This type of name is fairly similar to that of the Continental tribes, the Bituriges and Bucinobantes, and to the Insular Trinovantes.

On the supposed southern border of Novantae territory with the Brigantes were a people known as the Anavionenses. They were entirely unknown until a recent discovery was made of a Roman tablet at Vindolanda which mentioned them. This people are thought to have lived along the banks of the River Annan, in Annadale (in modern Dumfries and Galloway), a location that would probably place them either at the northernmost limits of Brigantes territory or as part of the southern Novantae. 'Anavionenses' suggests a name of 'Anam' plus a string of plurals added by others, -ion (Celtic/Germanic), -ens -es (Roman). The name is likely to be a Roman mess that was created in an attempt to describe the people along the 'River Anam', probably in terms of a district rather than a tribe.

(Additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, and from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère.)

AD 80 - 82

The Roman Governor of Britain leads two invading columns into Lowland Scotland, with (probably) the Twentieth and Ninth Legions meeting up at Inveresk (near Edinburgh) in the territory of the Votadini. The force sets up permanent garrisons in its wake. The following year the campaign continues into the territory of the Selgovae and Novantae tribes. In AD 82, the Novantae western coast is secured as far north as the Clyde in order that the Damnonii tribesmen there can be contained and perhaps to prevent Irish landings.

Forts are raised at Dalswinton in the Nith valley, close to Dumfries in Novantae territory, at Glenlochar and Gatehouse of Fleet, and towards the west coast at Loudoun Hill. The discovery of another fort at Annan (not far to the west of Gretna) on the south-facing coast suggests that the 'crossing' mentioned by Tacitus is a seaborne assault across the Solway Firth from the coast near Luguvalium in the territory of the Brigantes. This is guaranteed to surprise the Novantae, who are perhaps expected to offer stiff resistance to a westwards assault from the territory of the Selgovae.

Dalswinton fort
Dalswinton fort was one of a number to be thrown up by the campaigning Romans in AD 82

early 100s

The Romans conduct a detailed inventory of their possessions in Britain, including subject peoples. An unnamed censor in the Novantae region mentions the Anavionenses, an otherwise obscure group which emphasises the level of detail Rome is employing to record everything within the province.

c.140s

Ptolemy mentions the Novantae in his Geography, stating that they "...dwell on the side towards the north below the peninsula of this name", the peninsula being the Novantarum. He ascribes to them the towns of Locopibia and Rerigonium. The former may have been Whithorn or Wigtown. This area was later controlled by Roman forts at Glenlochar and Dalswinton

360 - 361

At the start of 360, Roman Caesar Julian (the Apostate) is wintering in Lutetia Parisiorum (the early Paris) when reports reach him that the Scotti and Picts have broken an agreement (perhaps made in 343) and are plundering lands close to the frontier, presumably those of the Novantae and Selgovae. Whether the campaign goes ahead under a less senior commander after the original commander is recalled is unknown.

c.400?

The precise period in which St Ninian is active is uncertain, with a general date of the fourth or fifth century being given. St Ninian (known as Ringan in Pictland and Trynnian to the Northern British), is certainly active in these areas. His base may be in the territory of the Novantae, which later houses a major shrine to him, while he spreads the word amongst the South Picts. He becomes known as the 'Apostle to the Southern Picts'. His work is carried out before that of St Patrick in Ireland, because the latter mentions the Southern Picts being apostates, meaning that they have renounced their conversion to Christianity.

MapGalwyddel (Galloway)

The territory of Galwyddel (the later Welsh version of the northern British name, which is also shown in its Gaelic version as Gallgeidhael) re-emerged following the departure of Roman administration. Apparently this was as a division of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' (again, a later title to describe the administration of the North), although perhaps not straight away. Initially, in the fifth century the Picts of Galwyddel appear to have been governed from Ynys Manau, before being acquired by the growing kingdom of Rheged. The regional capital of Dun Rheged was formed at this time (Dunragit, near Stranraer).

The area of Rhinns (the long 'nose' peninsula to the south-west of Stranraer) and Machars (which incorporates Wigtown and Whithorn) both show signs of Christian activity in the fourth and fifth centuries. Both areas contain memorial stones and church dedications for this period. This is contemporary (or nearly so) with similar finds in Carlisle and the Wall which were controlled by Rheged, but there is a clear gap in between these locations and those of Galwyddel in which there is very little evidence of Christianity, possibly a sign of limited but successful British Church missionary activity from Carlisle across the Solent that failed to penetrate eastwards. The alternative is early missionary activity from Ireland into Galwyddel.

However, once Rheged collapsed between 595-638, the region apparently fell under Ynys Manau's control again. It remained independent of its neighbour, Alt Clut, until AD 900, its occupants continuing to be recognised as Picts, separate from the Northern Britons of the area. Soon after that, probably as the Vikings invaded Ynys Manau, Strathclyde (Alt Clut) absorbed Galwyddel. Its name, however, lives on in modern Galloway.

(Additional information from The Landscape of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe, and from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland, listed in the 'Post-Roman Britain' section of the Sources page.)

c.485

The son of Cinuit of Alt Clut, Tutgwal Theodovellaunus, establishes himself in Galwyddel, perhaps as a legitimate division of Alt Clut on his father's death, an entirely normal and customary practise in Celtic kingdoms. It also seems that he and his successors rule Ynys Manau at the same time.

c.485? - c.495

Tutgwal Theodovellaunus ap Cinuit

Son of King Cinuit of Alt Clut. Also king of Alt Clut (c.490-495).

Dingat ap Tutgwal

Son.

fl c.550

Sennylt ap Dingat

Son. Exiled to Ynys Manau.

c.550

Galwyddel is invaded by Rheged and annexed to the kingdom. Sennylt flees with his family to Ynys Manau. This would also seem a likely point for the reoccupation of an early hill fort at Rockcliffe, overlooking Rough Firth (the Urr Estuary) approximately twenty-five kilometres (fifteen miles) south-west of Dumfries. Today it is known as the Mote of Mark (after King Mark of Cornwall, perhaps due to a confusion - both he and the conqueror of Galwyddel, Cynfarch Oer, have fathers named Meirchion).

The fort is occupied from the sixth century and has a seaward side that falls sharply away to the water, while on the landward side is a rampart, a drystone wall in a timber frame, one of the few partial British parallels to Cadbury Castle. This rampart does not go all the way around, and the protected enclosure is much smaller, just sixty-one metres by forty metres (200 feet by 130 feet). Inside, fragments of metal and jewellery prove the presence of craftsmen and a rich patron.

Mote of Mark
The Mote of Mark was a pre-Roman hill fort that was reoccupied around the mid-sixth century AD, and is often linked (erroneously) to King Mark of Cornwall

c.590s

Christianity is known to flourish in Galloway around this time, in the form of the British Church. Archaeologists later discover Celtic crosses from this period in layers beneath the building which precedes the later Whithorn Priory, and more such finds are made at St Ninian's Cave. Old English runes found on the crosses are later additions.

fl c.597

?

Three unnamed 'chiefs of Novant'.

c.597

The Gododdin is a long series of elegies composed from the early seventh century onwards, principally by Aneirin, son of Dunaut of Dunoting. It commemorates a force of Britons who assemble near Edinburgh at this time in preparation for facing their powerful foe. It includes not only the Guotodin themselves, but warriors from all over the country, including 'three chiefs of Novant', clearly the nearby Novantae in post-Roman form. This force marches south to fight the Angles at Catreath (generally accepted as being modern Catterick, approximately eighty kilometres north of Ebrauc). It seems strange that they should march past Bamburgh on their way, the capital of the early Bernician kingdom, but perhaps not if they are making an attempt to reclaim the lost capital of the North, Ebrauc.

The battle seems to take place during an attack against the Roman fort near the strategic road junction now called Scotch Corner, by the south bank of the Swale at Catterick Bridge. Gwawrddur is praised for 'glutting black ravens on the wall of the fort, though he was not Arthur' (a term used to denote great slaughter of the enemy, but even so this warrior is still not a match for Britain's heroic battle leader of the previous century). Ultimately, the battle is a disaster for the Britons. The flower of the Northern British warrior class is decimated by the superior numbers of the Bernicians. Guotodin, as well as the other kingdoms of the north, probably including Elmet, are all fatally weakened by the defeat.

c.616

The remnants of North Rheged collapse after being overrun by Edwin of Bernicia, although there is the possibility that an enclave remains. It seems that Bernician, and later Northumbrian, influence is felt in Galloway from around this point, although perhaps only following a period of autonomy. The Mote of Mark fort, reoccupied in the sixth century, is destroyed by fire in the seventh century, possibly during the collapse of North Rheged.

731

The Northumbrian bishopric of hwit ærn (Whithorn) is established. Galwyddel's history is thereafter very vague, but it seems likely that it follows the general sequence for Strathclyde until its permanent inclusion in Scotland.