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Roman Britain

Tribal Names: The Attacotti

by Edward Dawson, 28 February 2010. Updated 13 October 2020

The Attacotti, Scotti, Picts, and Saxons mentioned by the historian Ammianus are clearly mentioned as different peoples. All of the Irish are lumped together as Scots (Scotti). The Picts are mentioned as one group. The only Germans to be mentioned are Saxons, but it was common practice in Roman Britain for any encountered sea-borne Germans to be labelled Saxons (the later Welsh continued the practice).

This all implies that the Attacotti were members of another ethnic group. But if so, where did they come from? There are no others in the region. The only peoples in the British Isles at this time are Germans (Saxons, Frisians, etc), Picts, Scots, and Britons. So could the Attacotti be Britons?

St Jerome's Against Jovinianus mentions numerous tribes and peoples by name, and differentiates between them strongly. St Jerome says, 'I myself, a youth on a visit to Gaul, heard that the Atticoti, a British tribe...' ('cum ipse adolescentulus in Gallia viderim Atticotos, gentem Brittanicam').

This was in the fourth century AD, the middle 300s, and in that period the only Britons outside the empire (though not outside its influence) were in the mostly abandoned region north of Hadrian's wall, south of the Antonine Wall (and possibly including the 'lost' province of Valentia). [1] The tribes between the two walls at that time seemed to have formed client kingdoms, and they knew they needed to behave themselves or a Roman legion could appear and take their forts.

Only one tribe or kingdom of Britons had a fort which could not be easily reduced by the Roman engineers. This was Alt Clut, the 'rock of the Britons'. It was on top of a high rock with many vertical sides, protected by water on three sides. And it was to the north of the Antonine Wall.

If one removes the two 'l' from Alt Clut, one gets 'At Cut', easily simplified or mispronounced as 'Atcut', which would then be Latinised as 'Atticoti' when written in Latin. The Britons of Alt Clut had a tradition of calling themselves the last free Britons. As such they would resent the Roman occupation and would be willing to attack Roman Britain to their south.

An example of this behaviour comes a century later in the epistle to Coroticus which was written by a Briton known today as St Patrick (see external link, right, for the full epistle). In that letter Patrick complains bitterly to Coroticus, the king of Alt Clut, because Coroticus' soldiers had attacked Patrick's Christian converts in Ireland, murdering some and taking captive others who were then sold to the Picts. Patrick was a Roman Briton, and Christianity was in that period regarded as a Roman religion to be shunned by the pagans of the north. The original 'barbarian conspiracy' of Scots, Picts, Saxons, and Attacotti would have been an alliance of pagans who were opposed to Roman Christianity and all it stood for (the empire in particular).

They would appear to be the perfect candidates for the Attacotti - Alt Clut, otherwise known at a later date as Strathclyde.

The Rock of the Britons today
Dumbarton, the Rock of the Britons, today is still a formidable obstacle, although the defences of its British occupiers were finally breached in 870-871

[1] In his book, Roman Britain, Guy de la Bédoyère contests that the mention of Valentia in the Notitia Dignitatum is a transcription error which should instead say that the province of Maxima Caesariensis had been renamed Valentia, probably at the same time that London was renamed Augusta, after AD 367.

An alternative option (1)

If, perhaps, the Attacotti are not Alt Clut, then an alternative might be 'at-' (above, higher) plus 'coit' (forest), ie. 'the people from above the forest'.

So where would enemies be who were 'above the forest'? Probably highlanders of some sort, which would seem to suggest the Picts. But the Picts are mentioned separately, so it couldn't have been them. Instead, there is another highlands, the lesser-known Scottish southern highlands. Could the Attacotti be remnant Novantae in the hills of the southern highlands? It is an intriguing idea.

But why the Novantae and not the Selgovae or even Votadini?

Because the Novantae territory included the southern highlands, known later to be the home of wild Scots. The Selgovae territory contained no real highlands, and they were recorded as Britons. It cannot have been the far better-known highlands to the north (only people who use paper maps which are orientated to the north think that way anyway). All wild Britons north of the Antonine Wall were apparently known as 'Picts', but the Novantae were the only enclave of wild Britons south of the Antonine Wall.

An alternative option (2)

In his document, Patrick's Coroticus, Martin Counihan discusses the origin of Coroticus, ruler of Alt Clut.

In that work there is mention of another naming: 'There are other "rock" places in Ireland, such as Ail Coithrigi (Cat's Rock, at Uisneach Hill in Westmeath)'. Ail Coithrigi is only partially translated, as 'rigi', meaning 'king', is not mentioned. A reliable translation would be 'Cat King's Rock'.

Is that form of name - Ail Coithrigi - a pointer to who the Attacotti were? The name is 'cat'. That's the name of the large northern and north-western division of Pictland: Cat (see the full-sized map, below). If 'cat' became 'cot-ti' and if it is assumed that they were not considered Picts by the Romans, then the question becomes what means 'atta'?

Map of post-Roman Britain in the fifth century
This map attempts to show the political situation in fifth century Britannia, albeit without any Germanic influence being shown - the 'kingdom' of Cat is show across much of Scotland's highlands area (click or tap on map to view full sized)


Main Sources

Counihan, Martin - Patrick's Coroticus (Research Gate, September 2020)

Saint Patrick's Letter to Coroticus, fifth century

Schaff, Philip & Wace, Henry (editors) - Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol 6, Christian Literature Publishing Co, Buffalo, New York, 1893. Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight



Text copyright © Edward Dawson. An original feature for the History Files.