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Roman Britain

Tribal Names: Creones, Carnonacae & Caereni

by Edward Dawson, 29 August 2011

In Ptolemy's Geography (Book II, Chapter 2) he declares:

Next to the Damnoni, but more toward the east near the Epidium promontory are the Epidi and next to these the Cerones; then the Carnonacae, and the Caereni but more toward the east.

Cerones (or Creones), Carnonacae, and Caereni? Ptolemy was probably doing the best he could but that seems to be far too coincidental. Which three tribes would sit side-by-side and calmly tolerate nearly identical names? Given Celtic pride issues, that would be absurd. Instead, three more likely possibilities present themselves:

  • The three had a common origin as a single tribe. They knew they had a common origin, and didn't mind the similarity in names because they knew they were all one tribe under different rulers.
  • The area north from Argyll was occupied by one single tribe, not three. Due to variations in pronunciation by everyone involved, Ptolemy misunderstood his data and wrote down the three versions he received as three tribes, not one.
  • The tribe(s) lived in a region which already had such a name, and adopted it in various pronunciations.

If one reads Ptolemy and places the tribes on a map you get a series of four, not three, tribes with similar sounding names (south to north up the western coast of Scotland): Cerones/Creones, Carnonacae, Caereni, and Cornavii.

It seems highly possible that the Cornavii were probably a branch of the same tribe which inhabited western Cornwall and a district in Britanny. Not far from them, Ptolemy reports a tribe of Decantae (of, or from, the Cantae, a possible offshoot of of the Cantiaci in Kent). If one reads historical records of the migrations of German tribes which divided into fragments and travelled all the way from one end of Europe to the other, and farther, then it is no stretch of the imagination to assume that the Cantiaci could have done the same.

The tribal area would approximately encompass the north-western Highlands, starting around northern Argyll and Mull, and extending some distance up the coast (perhaps opposite Skye and including Skye itself), and an unknown distance eastwards into the interior.

Pictish hanging bowl
A Pictish hanging bowl from the sixth or seventh century, a product of later Pictland which included the Highlands and the tribal territory of the Creones and their neighbours

It is reasonable to expect that they participated in the Battle of Mons Graupius (or Mons Grampius) in AD 83 against the Romans under Agricola, which the Picts lost. It is also reasonable to expect that they participated in the Battle of Dun Nectan in AD 685 against the Northumbrians under King Ecgfrith, from which the Picts won a total victory.

Creones name

The meaning of the name is unknown but, given known Celtic tendencies, one may conjecture that the name comes from the horned god, Cernunnos, either directly or via a leader who was himself named after the god. [1]

There is also the possibility that if the tribe really did adopt their name from the region itself, as postulated above, then the name derives from a Celtic word for a prominent stone or pile of stones, a word which has been imported into modern English as 'cairn'. A mountain range in the area is today known as the Cairngorms, after the prominent peak, Cairn Gorm.

The Creones in their various guises may or may not be tribally related to the similarly-named peoples in the Midlands (the Cornovii), in Cornwall (Cornubia), and Kernev in Brittany (Cornouaille). As with the widely scattered Veneti name, there is no way to determine their tribal origins.

There is a mention in the Ravenna Cosmography of a town called Credigone (Old Kilpatrick in Scotland) which may possibly be related to this tribe or tribes. A more likely candidate for linking to the tribes is the modern town of Crinan on the bay called Loch Crinan (or Creran), which appears to derive from the tribal name.

The three tribes appear to have been members of the Caledonii/Caledoni, a tribal alliance whose name is obscure. The second part of that name, though, is rather suggestive of 'fortress' ('-dun'). Another and more exciting possibility comes to mind, however. Given that the '-i' is a Roman plural, then '-on' would be the Brythonic plural, leaving 'Caled' as the actual name. This is another form of the most ancient known name of the Celts, which was reported variously as beginning with a 'g' or 'k' sound, followed by an 'a' or 'e', followed always by an 'l', and followed by either a vowel or not, and finally by a 'd' or 't'. So Kelt, Galat, or in this case, 'Caled' all mean the same thing (see 'related links' in the sidebar).

This tribe or tribes would have been under the domination at various times of the high king of the Picts (ie. the king of Alba), and later the high king of the North Picts, before gradually being taken over by Dal Riadan Scots as they expanded up from the south.

[1] The alternative spelling for Cernunnos is Carnonos, which is perfect common Celtic, with 'carn' meaning 'horn', plus a plural suffix, and '-os', which is a male singular nominative suffix. The name means 'horns' as a name for a male individual.


Main Sources

Ptolemy - Geography, Book II, Chapter 2 (available in the paperback version, An Annotated Translation of the Theoretical Chapters, New Edition, Princeton University Press, 26 Dec 2001)

Ravenna Cosmography - (available in the paperback version, British Section of the Ravenna Cosmography (Archaeologia), I A Richmond (Author), O G S Crawford (Author), 1949)



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