Who were the nine tribes of ancient Scotland?

A reconstructed Iron Age crannog at Loch Tay. PIC www.geograph.co.uk
A reconstructed Iron Age crannog at Loch Tay. PIC www.geograph.co.uk
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From the red haired fighters found in Caledonia to the heavily bejeweled people of modern-day Fife, the Romans identified nine major tribes after arriving in what is now Scotland in AD79.

Roman geographer Ptolemy did much of the documenting as he embarked on his new map of the world. While his results are mixed, with some of his surveying done from the sea, his work gives us some insight into the Iron Age settlements of the day.

Here we look at the nine major tribes, many who would unite to fight the Romans in the key battle of Mons Graupius in AD84.

The Caledones

The tribes of Scotland as laid down by the Roman geographer Ptolemy. PIC Creative Commons,

The tribes of Scotland as laid down by the Roman geographer Ptolemy. PIC Creative Commons,

Considered a strong and mobile enemy by the Romans, the Caledones settled between the modern towns of Fort William and Inverness with one translation of the tribe’s name being “possessing of hard feet”.

Others believe the name may relate to the rocky land and the hardy people.

Whilst one distinct tribe, the Romans also labelled all people living in a vast area between Loch Long or Loch Fyne in the west to the Beauly Firth in the east as the Caledones.

Several sub-tribes of this land called Caledonia including the Creones and Carnonacae but little is on record of them. Another tribe is the Smertae, from the border of Ross and Sutherland, understood as those ‘smeared’ with enemy or sacrificial blood.

Traprain Law in East Lothian, where hundreds of roundhouses of the Votadini  tribe were located. Vast amounts of silver have been found in this area. PIC Wikipedia.

Traprain Law in East Lothian, where hundreds of roundhouses of the Votadini tribe were located. Vast amounts of silver have been found in this area. PIC Wikipedia.

Roman historian Tacitus describes the inhabitants of Caledonia as having ‘red hair and large limbs’ who were fierce and quick to fight.

READ MORE: 3D visualisations of Iron Age forts to go on display

Damnonii

The original Glaswegians, the Damnonii were conquered by the Romans for many years with their land - which stretched over the Clyde Valley and Strathclyde - occupied by the Roman army on several occasions.

The tribe may have had a settlement at Dumyat Hill near Stirling with their headquarters during Roman times likely to have been a vast hill settlement on Walls Hill, near Howwood in Renfrewshire. The Damnonii is thought to mean ‘the masters’, ‘the dominators’, or ‘the lords’.

Epidii

Based in Argyll, it is presumed their original territory of Epidion is the island of Islay. Its people spread across Jura and Arran and through Kintyre. The name has its origins in the Celtic for horse.

Vacomagi

Vacomagi centred around the fertile lands of Strathmore with their name translating as “inhabitants of the curved fields.”

The Roman forts at Dalginross near Comrie, Cardean in Angus and at Fochabers, Moray are thought to have built on the tribe’s territories.

READ MORE: Why didn’t the Romans hold and conquer Scotland?

Venicones

This tribe lived around the River Tay and what is now Fife, one of the Roman’s most active areas as its legions sought to quell attacks in the east of the Highlands.

A Roman fortress was built at Inchtuthill which remained occupied during the late first century by the Twentieth Legion Valeria.

The Venicones were one of the few groups in northern Britain at this time to bury the dead in stone graves.

The tribe was also known for its massive bronze armlets, which could weigh 1.5kg each.

Taexali

Lived in small undefended farms and hamlets in what is now Grampian.

The key town was Devana - the area now known as Aberdeen - at the mouth of the River De

While the Taexali were defeated by Romans in AD84 at the Battle of Mons Graupius, their land was never permanently occupied.

Votadini

This tribe had a large settlement around Traprain Law, in East Lothian - a large volcanic hill - with territory extending across the Lothians.

Hundreds of roundhouses were built around the Traprain settlement with excavations carried out in the early 1900s unearthing Roman silver, wine jugs, goblets and military buckles.

Much of it appeared as if it had been cut for melting down. The finds, including coins from Gaul, suggested the tribe may have had trading links with the Continent. It is not certain if the hoard was stolen or a bribe or payment from the Romans.

The Traprain Treasure and other artefacts from Traprain are on display at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

The descendants of the Votadini were the Gododdin who had their great stronghold at Din Eidyn – Edinburgh.

Novantae

A little known tribe or people who lived in what is today Galloway who lived a more humble lives that their neighbours the Votadini. Considered to be farmers and herders.

One of their towns, ‘Locopibium’, recorded by Ptolemy, may have been Whithorn or Wigtown. This area was later controlled by Roman forts at Glenlochar and Dalswinton.

Selgovae

Thought to be the neighbouring tribe to the Novantae. Selgovae is thought to mean ‘the people of the hunt’ or ‘the hunters’. The tribe were long associated with the massive hill fort on the north peak of the three Eildon Hills, near Melrose, but they are now thought to have lived farther to the south west in Galloway.

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