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Celtic Kingdoms of the British Isles

Celts of Britain


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

The Selgovae were an Iron Age Celtic people who occupied much of the territory between the Cheviot Hills and Dumfries in southern Scotland, probably with a southwards extension into the modern county of Northumberland and into eastern Strathclyde (Ptolemy states that they reached the Firth of Forth). They may have extended farther to the west than is shown in the timeline map below, giving the Solway Firth their name, but perhaps this extension occurred later, after the building of Hadrian's Wall and the loss of their southern territorial extension. They were certainly this far south-west by the time Ptolemy wrote, around the 140s.

MapThe tribe remains little-known, mostly due to its lack of contact with Celts on the European mainland or with the Romans before the latter's invasion of the Brigantes in the AD 70s. They were neighboured to the east by the Votadini, to the south by the confederation of the Brigantes (and especially by the Carvetii), to the west by the Novantae, and to the north by the Damnonii (see the map of most of Europe's tribes around the first centuries BC and AD to view this tribe's location in relation to all other Celts).

They may have been related to at least some of those tribes which made up the Brigantian confederation, especially the aforementioned Carvetii in the region of Carlisle. For the most part they themselves remained in the 'Southern Upland' region of modern Scotland. While it seems obvious that the modern name of Solway (or Salway) is based on the tribe's name, there is a claim that 'Solway' is an Anglo-Saxon construction, 'sol' meaning 'mud', and 'waeth' meaning 'ford', with the ford in question crossing the mudflats at Eskmouth. Documentary evidence for the name only begins in the thirteenth century, long after both the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon periods, so it is impossible to say which origin may be the correct one.

The tribe's name breaks down as *selg-ā-(je/o-), meaning 'hunt', so that *selgo-wiro-(??) means 'hunter'. Irish Gaelic has 'seilg' (vt, vi) for 'hunt'. The tribe saw themselves as 'the hunters'. In Brythonic this was possibly rendered as Selgowion or Selgowon. In Welsh, the Brythonic 's' became an 'h' in many cases, so that 'hunt' was later rendered as 'helfa'. The Norse petty king, Sölve of Soløyjar, has the same naming form, meaning that he was also 'the hunter'.

FeatureThe tribe's capital was on Eildon Hill North near Melrose, while it was the Romans who later built the nearby fort of Trimontium, at Newstead. The Selgovae may have formed one of the 'four kingdoms of ancient Scotland' which apparently became established in the second century (actual formation may have taken longer for most following the declaration of the Damnonii kingdom in opposition to the Roman invasion of the lowlands). By the end of the fourth century the bulk of the Selgovae's northern and central territory seems to have been taken over by Alt Clut (the descended form of the Damnonii kingdom), while the southern remnants were part of Coel Hen's supposed 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' (see feature link).

Ancient Britons

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, from Atlas of British History, G S P Freeman-Grenville (Rex Collins, London, 1979), from The Oxford History of England: Roman Britain, Peter Salway, from Geography, Ptolemy, from Life of Agricola, Tacitus, and from History of the Kings of Britain, Geoffrey of Monmouth.)

AD 79

With the Romans advancing northwards in preparation for a campaign beyond the territory of the defeated Brigantes, the Selgovae abandon their hill fort capital at Eildon Hill North. Another two hill forts are also abandoned in the face of the Roman advance, these both being on the summit of Cademuir Hill, to the south-west of Peebles in the Border region. They are never reoccupied.

Eildon Hills
This view of the three Eildon Hills contains the location of the defeated Selgovae oppida, its capital settlement, amid a verdant landscape

Other tribal forts include Dreva Craig, which is located to the south-west of Broughton in the northern Borders, plus Rubers Law, near Hanwick in the Borders region, and Tamshiel Rigg, to the south-east of Hanwick.

80 - 81

The Roman Governor of Britain leads two invading columns into what is now 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. In the following year the Roman campaign continues into the territory of the Selgovae and Novantae tribes. A small wooden defensive position which possibly serves as a watch tower is set up at the western end of the Eildon Hill North hill fort.


The western coast of Lowland Scotland is secured as far north as the Clyde in order that the Damnonii tribesmen there can be contained, and perhaps to prevent Irish landings. By this time Roman Governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola has founded the first military encampment at Newstead, and this becomes the new tribal capital of Trimontium under Roman rule.

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)


Ptolemy confirms the location of the Selgovae, and records their four major towns as Trimontium (Newstead, in the modern Borders), Carbantorigum, Corda, and Uxellum. The bivallate hill fort of Eildon Hill North, the tribe's pre- Roman capital, overlooks Trimontium, although it is now abandoned. The latter name means, in Latin, 'place of the three mountains', the mountains being the three Eildon hills.

The other major towns which Ptolemy mentions have yet to be located. Roman forts have been erected at three sites - Birrens, Netherby, and Bewcastle - to provide advance warning of threats to Hadrian's Wall. While the Selgovae themselves may not be a threat, they quite probably turn a blind eye to warbands from farther north passing through, especially those of the Damnonii, who remain largely outside Roman control and are particularly aggressive in their defiance of the Romans.


The reorganisation of the frontier by Emperor Marcus Aurelius means that Roman troops largely pull out of the territory and withdraw to Hadrian's Wall. The forts at Birrens and Netherby are retained for a time before being abandoned completely. The Selgovae remain entirely undocumented after Ptolemy, and whether they take part in the increasingly frequent incursions over the Wall in the later years of Roman Britain can only be guessed.

Solway Firth
The incredibly scenic Solway Firth, one of the very few modern links back to the Selgovae, although a highly debatable one

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 a previous 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.

4th century

The Selgovae territory immediately north of Hadrian's Wall emerges as part of the 'Kingdom of Northern Britain' in the late fourth century while the remainder seems to have been seized by the Britons of Alt Clut, the descendants of the Damnonii. By the start of the sixth century the remaining Selgovae region appears to be a self-governed minor kingdom under the name of Caer-Guendoleu.

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