History Files
 

Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain

 

Creones / Cerones / Carnonacae / Caereni (Britons)

FeatureIt was the Romans who coined the name 'Gaul' to describe the Celtic tribes of what is now France and Belgium, quite possibly based on an original form of the word 'Celt' itself (see feature link). When it came to the Celts of Britain, the name of the islands itself was used: Prydein (Latinised as Prettania or Britannia). Its collective people were Britons, although not all of them were Celts, let alone the same 'type' of Celts. Successive waves of immigration had left a vague mix of Bell Beaker folk, Urnfield proto-Celts, Hallstatt and La Tne waves, and Belgae, the latest arrivals. By the first century BC these latter people dominated the south and east of the isles.

MapVarious tribes were attested for the far north of Britain during the Roman period. The Creones, between Fort William and Mull in western Scotland, were neighboured to the north by the Carnonacae, who were themselves neighboured to the north by the Caereni. To the east of the latter were the Smertae and Cornavii, while further down were the Caledonii, with the Epidii to the south of the Creones. In general these tribes, along with all the others in the Highlands, were lumped together by Rome as the Caledonii, and it is from these tribes and those of the eastern Highlands that Pictland emerged (see the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view the locations of these tribes in relation to all other Celts).

FeatureThe three tribes of the Creones (or Cerones), Carnonacae, and Caereni were probably either descended from a common, single tribe, or remained a single tribe with various pronunciations of their name (see feature link). Another option is that the tribe(s) lived in a region which already had such a name, and they adopted it in various pronunciations. It is theoretically possible that the neighbouring Cornavii were a splinter of a southern tribe: the Cornovii of western Cornwall who may also have formed the district of Cornouaille in Brittany (although all three lived on a 'horn' of territory surrounded by plenty of water, so 'Corn' or 'people of the horn' would be a common naming). Not far from them, Ptolemy reports a tribe of Decantae (of, or from, the Cantae, a possible refugee offshoot of the Cantii in Kent). Migrations to Scotland from the south are certainly possible given the history of tribal migrations across the whole of Europe.

The meaning of the tribal name(s) is unknown, but may come from the horned god, Cernunnos, either directly or through a leader named after the god. The alternative spelling for Cernunnos is Carnonos, which is perfect common Celtic. The root 'carn' means 'horn', with plural suffix being added, and then '-os', which is a male singular nominative suffix. The name means 'horns' as a name for a male individual. If the tribes adopted their name(s) from the region itself, then it could derive from a Celtic word for a prominent stone or pile of stones, a word 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 tribal area would approximately have encompassed the north-west Highlands, starting around northern Argyll and Mull, and extending some distance up the coast (perhaps opposite, and including, Skye), while also extending an unknown distance east into the interior. In later periods at least, 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 Dl Riatan Scots moving up from the south.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Edward Dawson, with additional information by Peter Kessler, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), from Life of Agricola, Tacitus, from Geography, Ptolemy, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from the Pictish Chronicle, from Ancient Man in Britain, Donald Alexander Mackenzie (Blackie & Son Ltd, 2014), and from the Ravenna Cosmography (compiled by an anonymous cleric).)

AD 83

Within the Caledonian heartland, firstly north of the Firth of Forth (in AD 83) and then at Mons Graupius (or Mons Grampius, in AD 84), Roman Governor Agricola wins victories over what are termed the 'Caledonides' led by Calgucus (using the diminutive form of the name, perhaps to suggest that this is viewed as a minor group, perhaps without a recognised leadership). The idea is to pre-empt an intended attack by the Caledonians, but it almost proves disastrous in the first year as the Roman Ninth Legion is surprised by a night assault.

Map of Britain AD 10
By the end of the first century BC and the start of the first century AD, British politics often came to the attention of Rome, and the borders of the tribal states of the south-east were pretty well known (click or tap on map to view full sized)

84

The Roman fleet goes ahead along the coast to spread terror, and is accompanied by British allies. The location of the decisive battle they fight against the Caledonides has been strongly identified with the mountain now known as Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. It is reasonable to expect that the tribal grouping of the Creones, Carnonacae, and Caereni could be involved as members of what would seem to be a tribal alliance.

The Caledonii/Caledoni tribal alliance has a name which is obscure but is rather suggestive of 'fortress' (-dun) in its second part. 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 is 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 (as in the Galatian kingdom), or in this case, Caled, all mean the same.

685

King Brudei of North Pictland faces a huge Northumbrian host on the plains of Dunnichen, in Angus, probably with descendants of the Creones tribe amongst his forces. The Battle of Nechtansmere (the English name which may originate from the same root word as the Caledonian one) is a turning point in which Brudei makes his name.

Pictish hanging bowl
This Pictish hanging bowl dates from the sixth or seventh century and is indicative of later products from the Highlands of the Creones and the other tribes

The Northumbrians had previously defeated every force they had faced, and had occupied southern Pictland for thirty years, probably as part of the territory of Dunbar. Brudei defeats them and massacres the entire enemy host including its king, and proceeds to clear Pictland of the remaining Northumbrians who have settled there, killing or enslaving them.

c.700

The Ravenna Cosmography, written around the end of the seventh century, mentions a town called Credigone (Old Kilpatrick in Scotland) which might possibly be related to this tribe or tribes. More likely, there is the modern town of Crinan on the bay called Loch Crinan, which appears to derive from the tribal name.

The Creones, Carnonacae, and Caereni themselves merge into the general Pictish population and kingdom, becoming indivisible from them, and eventually falling under the domination of the Dal Riadan Scots.