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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


Novantae (Britons)
Incorporating the Anavionenses

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 Tène waves, and Belgae, the latest arrivals. By the first century BC these latter people dominated the south and east of the isles.

The northern British tribe of the Novantae had long been settled in territory in what is now south-western Scotland before the beginning of Roman occupation. These southernmost Caledonians (later to be known as Picts) had been cut off from their compatriots to the north by the apparent declaration of a kingdom of the Damnonii Britons in the second century. This would have cut right into their tribal lands which in any case were heavily bordered to the north by large forests and mountainous terrain.

MapThis 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 (see feature link). The Attacotti name can be broken down in two ways. The first supplies the name Alt Clut, capital of the Damnonii, while the second, 'at-', meaning 'above, 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 which 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' could 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 which 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), and '-ens, -es' (Roman). The name is likely to be a Roman mess which was created in an attempt to describe the people along the 'River Anam', probably in terms of a district rather than a tribe.

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), from Roman Britain: A New History, Guy de la Bédoyère, from Geography, Ptolemy, from Life of Agricola, Tacitus, and from External Link: The Brittones Anavionenses, A Rivet (Cambridge University Press, 2011 from a 1982 original).)

AD 80 - 82

The Roman Governor of Britain leads two invading columns into modern 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.

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)

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.

Roman 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.

Another fort is set up at Annan, not far to the west of Gretna on the south-facing coast and a potential caputal of the little-known Anavionenses. The fort's presence 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.

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 otherwise obscure Anavionenses, which emphasises the level of detail Rome is employing to record everything within the province.

Dalswinton fort
Dalswinton fort was one of a number to be thrown up by the campaigning Romans in AD 82 as they secured their lines of advance during their progression northwards


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 be Whithorn or Wigtown. This area is 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.


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.

St Patrick
This impression of St Patrick in Ireland is one of the less fanciful, and clearly shows the bishop in his later years, towards the end of the fifth century

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.

The Novantae warrant no further mentions in history, but following the departure of Roman administration from the British Isles, their former territory would largely seem to fall within the bounds of the region which is known as Galwyddel.

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