Art. III. – THE PEOPLES OF ANCIENT SCOTLAND., Vol. 17, Jan., 1891, pp.60-82.

Being the Fourth Rhind Lecture.

IN this lecture it is proposed to make an attempt to understand the position of the chief peoples beyond the Forth at the dawn of the history of this country, and to follow that down sketchily to the organization of the kingdom of Alban. This last part of the task is not undertaken for its own sake, or for the sake of writing on the history of Scotland, which has been so ably handled by Dr. Skene and other historians, of whom you are justly proud, but for the sake of obtaining a comprehensive view of the facts which that history offers as the means of elucidating the previous state of things. The initial difficulty is to discover just a few fixed points for our triangulation so to say. This is especially hard to do on the ground of history, so I would try first the geography of the country; and here we obtain as our data the situation of the river Clyde and the Firth of Forth, then that of the Grampian Mountains and the Mounth or the high lands, extending across the country from Ben Nevis towards Aberdeen. Coming now more to historical data, one may mention, as a fairly well-defined fact, the position of the Roman vallum between the Firth of Forth and the Clyde, coinciding probably with the line of forts erected there by Agricola in the year 81; and it is probably the construction of this vallum that is to be understood by the statements relative to Severus building a wall across the island. In the next place may be mentioned as fairly certain that Ptolemy’s Dumnonii extended from the coast of Ayrshire and the Firth of Clyde across the rivers Clyde and Forth to the vicinity of the Earn, two of the towns which he ascribes to them being situated beyond the Forth, namely, Alauna, supposed to be at Ardoch, or somewhere nearer to the Allan; and Victoria, further on in the direction of the Tay. Add to this that there can be no reasonable doubt that the Dumnonii were a Brythonic people of the P group, like the Welsh, the Cornish, and the Bretons, as well as the ancient Gauls, and not a Goidelic people of the Q group, like the Goidels of Erinn, Man, and Scotland. To be more accurate, let us only say that the ruling classes among the Dumnonii were Brythonic, leaving the descent of the bulk of the people a matter of uncertainty. Then, lastly, there remains, from a previous attempt of mine to fix a few points in this early history, the indubitable fact of the virtual identity of the name of the Verturiones of Ammianus Marcellinus with that of the province of Fortrenn, which approximately consisted of Menteith and Strathearn. 

The extensive tract of country, whose boundaries are sufficiently indicated by a mention of the Roman Rampart, the Grampians and the Mounth, is a fairly well-defined one, and it proved the theatre, so to say, of the principal acts in the history of the kingdom of Alban. Now, of the seven eponymous sons of Cruithne mentioned in a previous lecture, three have their local habitation and their name in this region, to wit, Fortrenn, Fib, whose name echoes that of Fife, and Circinn, whose name forms part of that of the Mearns in its Goidelic form of Mag Circinn, the Plain of Circinn or Girg. Without the qualification introduced by the word mag, ‘a plain or field,’ Circinn may be interpreted territorially to have meant the tract consisting of Angus and the Mearns. At any rate this agrees with the 12th century tract, enumerating the provinces as the result of dividing Scotland between seven brothers, the sons, doubtless, of Cruithne; but in the tract each province is sub-divided, and Circinn gives place to Enegus cum Moerne. Similarly, instead of Fib we have Fif cum Fothreve, which, by thus supplementing Fife, extended the province to the vicinity of Stirling, the Ochils, and Abernethy, The treatment of Fortrenn is the same, except that the name Fortrenn disappears, to wit, in favour of Stradeern cum Meneted. The same tract also gives a list of the seven provinces or kingdoms, as it calls them, without reference to the seven brothers but by defining them mostly according to their geographical boundaries. In the Cisgrampian region which concerns us now, this latter list, like the previous one, places three realms: the first is an inland tract from the Forth to the Tay, evidently including Fortrenn; the second begins from Athran, that is to say Athrie, near Stirling, and takes in the bends of the coast as far as Hilef, supposed to be the river Isla; but the Liff has also been suggested, which flows into the Tay where Perthshire and Forfarshire meet on the Firth of Tay. In either case, therefore, this kingdom would comprise not only Fif cum Fothreve but also possibly a part of Gowrie. The third kingdom in this region extended from the Hilef to the Dee, so that it took in Enegus cum Moerne or the modern counties of Forfar and Kincardine, Putting aside the subdivision it will be seen that these arrangements agree in dividing Cisgrampian Alban into three regions, but that they show a difference real or apparent with regard to the north-eastern boundary of the middle realm. 

If you will for a moment turn to Ptolemy’s Geography, you will find that he assigned only two peoples to this Cisgrampian country, namely, the Dumnonii, whose northern territories came within it, and another people called the Vernicones, to whom he gives only one town, namely, Orrea, which is perhaps to be sought somewhere near the confluence of the Orr or Ore Water with the Leven in Fifeshire; but the territory of the Vernicones must have extended north towards the mountains as Ptolemy makes it conterminous with the land of the Vacomagi to the north-east of the Dumnonii. It is this dominion of the Vernicones with Gowrie carved partly out of it, and partly perhaps out of the land of the Dumnonii, that seems to have yielded the two provinces of Fif cum Fothreve, and Enegus cum Moerne. It will have been noticed that the Vernicones in Ptolemy’s Geography contrast very strikingly, as possessed of only a single town, with the Dumnonii who had no less than six, and they may be presumed to have been of a different race. This is countenanced by the fact that neither Orr nor Fife seems to be a word of Celtic origin. There is some difficulty about the exact form of the name of the Vernicones in the manuscripts of Ptolemy, but assuming Vernicones to be the correct one, it would have to be regarded, it seems to me, as a name given them by their Brythonic neighbours: in modern Welsh it would sound Gwern-gwn, and mean the ‘Hounds of the Marshes,’ or ‘Marsh-dogs.’ In that case it may be supposed to have had reference to the dog totem of some of the non-Aryan aborigines, and to imply by antithesis that there were other dog-peoples known to the Celts of Britain, which is not improbable, as I have already tried to show. 

As to the relative position of the Vernicones, the fact of the whole of the Cisgrampian region being represented by the Brythonic people of the Dumnonii under various names, such as Mæatæ and Verturiones, goes to show that the Vernicones were overshadowed by them: in fact the latter may be supposed to have been for a time at any rate reduced to the position of a subject race, regarded either as a sort of a client state dependent on the Mæatæ, or else ruled by adventurers gone forth from among the Mæatæ to make conquests of their own among their non-Aryan neighbours. It is important, however, to bear in mind that the Vernicones seem to have, as a people, remained non-Celtic until they came under the influence of Goidelic institutions and language, and it is especially necessary to remember this antagonism of race between Brython and Vernicon, when one comes to consider the difficult question, how the central region about the Tay came to be Goidelic. Ptolemy wrote about the year 125 A.D., from information dated probably some years earlier; but one may contrast the number of his tribes with the appearance at the opening of the third century of the same tribes under two names alone for the whole of the North, namely, Mæatæ and Caledonii. Here the single name of the Mæatæ takes the place of the two names of Ptolemy’s northern Dumnonii and the Vernicones. The Mæatæ were threatening the Roman province we are told, and the Caledonii were preparing to help them in spite, as it is said, of promises made by them to the contrary. In the Mæatæ we have in all probability the leading people of Cisgrampian Alban – the Verturiones of Ammianus – and their clients or allies. For Dio Cassius, abridged by Xiphilinus, gives his readers to understand, that they were tribes who lived in the district adjoining the Roman Rampart, and that they inhabited the plains and marshes of the country. 

This describes, with some approach to precision, the home of the northern Dumnonii, if you include that of the Pictish peoples overshadowed by them. As to the Caledonii, we are told that they lived beyond the Mæatæ, a description which, while it requires no comment, suggests one good reason why they, in this instance, followed the lead of the Mæatæ; but the latter were probably more advanced in the art of war, for the reason, if for no other, that their land bordered on the Roman province, and their name seems to claim for them the attribute of boldness and daring par excellence: it has the appearance of being a Brythonic word of the same origin as the Welsh word meiddio, ‘to dare.’1 At any rate, it is with them and not with the Caledonii that the Roman governor, Virius Lupus, had to treat; for failing to obtain the reinforcements which he wanted, he had to purchase peace at a great price from the Mæatæ. A few years later the natives of the North brought upon themselves the great campaign of Severus in 208, one of the results of which was that they had to give up a considerable tract of country to be garrisoned by Roman soldiers. It was probably the country between the Clyde-Forth Rampart and the river Tay. This is supposed to be attested by the remains of strong stations, which historians are inclined to ascribe to the Romans – one, for instance, at Fortingall, not far from where the Tay issues from the lake of the same name; another at Fendoch, on the Almond, where that river emerges from the Grampians; and a third at Ardoch, where the remains in question are, as I am told, to be distinguished from what has sometimes been taken for Agricola’s camp. 

In fact, we learn from Tacitus’ account of the campaign, which Agricola undertook in the year 80 in the region beyond the Forth, that he afterwards had forts, castella, built in it, and that after his victory over Calgacus in the year 86, he returned through the country of the Boresti, where he received hostages. This introduces a name, Boresti, otherwise unknown, but the bearers of it were probably a portion of the Dumnonii, or some people subject to them between the Tay and the Forth. Much the same peoples may be supposed to have given hostages, and allowed castella to be built in their midst both by Agricola and Severus. These structures of the Roman army seem to have formed in the eyes of the Northerners such a remarkable feature of the district that they gave rise to a new name for it. At any rate, the designation, Verturiones, under which the Mæatæ appear later, admits of being best explained with reference to these military works. This name Verturiones appears first in the pages of Ammianus Marcellinus, referring to the events of the year 364, in which the northern inhabitants of Britain made a determined attack on the Roman Province. Their onslaught was for a time stemmed by the arrival of Theodosius in 369, and one of the results of his victories in the North was that he caused the castella of Agricola and Severus to be re-occupied as a protection against the future inroads of the tribes beyond the province. At any rate, this would seem to be a fair inference from the words of Claudian, when he glorifies Theodosius as- 

‘Ille Caledoniis posuit qui castra pruinis.’

Be that as it may, the inhabitants of the North, collectively and loosely called Picts, without any regard to the Celts among them, were then divided into two nations, as we are told, namely, the Dicalydonæ and the Verturiones. In the former race we have a collective term meant to include all the mountaineers, while the latter has its echo in the later Fortrenn, the inhabitants of which could not all be called Picts, except in a sort of geographical sense; and the name Verturiones was probably in the main geographical, if we may judge from the use of Fortrenn as the name of a district, with its Brythonic people usually called Fir Fortrenn or Men of Fortrenn. But the term Mæatæ had not been forgotten in Adamnan’s time, as he calls them by the slightly modified forms Miati and Miathi in his life of St. Columba written in the last decade of the seventh century and preserved in a manuscript which is not later than the early part of the eighth. Adamnan there speaks de bello Miatorum which Aidan king of the Dalriad Scots was carrying on, and about whose success St. Columba was very anxious. This particular engagement, fought in the year 596, has been identified with a battle known otherwise as Cath Circinn or the Battle of Circinn. This tends to shew that it was fought in the district for which Circinn, son of Cruithne, was invented as the eponymus, the district otherwise described as the kingdom of Enegus cum Moerne. Very possibly it was Aidan that first gave Gowrie its individual existence, namely, by clearing it of the Mæatæ, that is to say the Brythonic Men of Fortrenn. In any case, the allusion to the Battle of Circinn in the course of Aidan’s war with the Mæatæ forms the first hint admitting of being construed into evidence of a Goidelo-Scottic people having penetrated into the heart of the Cisgrampian region. Lastly, it falls so readily to its place here, that I cannot help regarding it as the first recorded event in the series of fierce conflicts of which the history of a later age gives us glimpses from time to time, as Brython and Scot return to the struggle for supremacy on the banks of the Tay. 

The Brythons, known as Mæatæ and Verturiones or Men of Fortrenn continued on the whole to have the best of it down to the time of Kenneth macAlpin; for previous to his reign and the triumph under him in 844 of the Gaelic speaking population, the kingship of the southern Picts was in the power of the Men of Fortrenn for rather more than a century, beginning with the ascendency of Angus son of Fergus, in 731, over Goidels and Picts. Throughout that period the Men of Fortrenn had constantly to maintain their sway by force of arms, so that finally when they had received a crushing defeat from the Danes in 839, Kenneth macAlpin was able in a short time firmly to establish himself and his Scots in power. This was the end of the rule of Fortrenn, but it is evident, that, from the dawn of northern history down to that time, the Men of Fortrenn, whether as such or as Verturiones and Mæatæ, had with a few short interruptions been the most formidable people in the Cisgrampian area. They were either lords of the greater part of it or at any rate they were more powerful in the long run than any other people within it. They were of sufficient account for Agricola to have castella built in their country, and for Ptolemy a little later to ascribe several towns to them as northern Dumnonii, while Dio gives them as Mæatæ the lead of the Caledonii in their attacks on the Roman province in 201 and the succeeding years. Ammianus mentions them as Verturiones, taking an active part against the Province in 364; and towards the end of the sixth century as the Miati of Adamnan they are engaged in a war with antagonists consisting probably both of Scots and Picts likewise, and it is some such a combination that was destined ultimately to overcome them. Nevertheless with some intervals in the time between St. Columba and the triumph of Angus son of Fergus, their power sufficed to carry the rule of Fortrenn down almost to the middle of the ninth century: and during far the greater part of the seven centuries and more following the campaigns of Agricola in Britain, Cismontane Alban virtually meant the Brythons of Fortrenn. They had, however, a formidable foe before the Scots were settled on the Tay, and that was the Pict or Caledonian who held the strong position of Dunkeld and other posts on that river. On the whole, however, the introduction of a Goidelo-Scottic people to the Tay Valley, is, in my opinion, to be interpreted as an admission on the part of the Pict that he was unable single-handed to withstand the advance of the Brython: in other words the Scot was called in to render aid to the Pict before it occurred to the Scot to fight for his own hand. 

Thus far the Brythons have mainly occupied us: let us now turn our attention to the other peoples of North Britain which Tacitus calls Caledonia. That name alone raises the presumption that the Caledonians were at one time the most important people there; but one of the great difficulties of this question is that their name has for some reason or other been nowhere retained in modern Scotland with the single exception perhaps of Dunkeld,2 which means the dún or fortress of the Caledonians. Further, the geography of Ptolemy has difficulties of its own, when one comes to examine his account of the northern half of Britain. Among other things, his Scotland, instead of running north is turned round towards the east, so that what should have been its western coast forms its northern side, and that its eastern coast looks towards the south. Moreover his Ireland as a whole is placed too far north, so that his Scotland, had it occupied its proper place, would have overlapped a part of his map of Ireland. The most probable explanation is, that he had before him three maps without meridians or parallels of latitude, a map of Southern Britain, a map of Northern Britain and a map of Ireland. The map of Southern Britain reached north as far as the Wear and the Solway, for that is the latitude at which he goes wrong. As to his map of Ireland, it is necessary to point out that its north-east corner seems to include several of the islands which are wont to be reckoned with Britain, together with parts of what may be suspected to have been corners of the mainland of Britain. A mistake of this kind appears also in the Itinerary of Antoninus, when it places the island called Clota in Iverio, that is to say in Ireland. Now that I have warned you of this error, which one has to bear in mind when making use of Ptolemy’s geography, I may proceed to what he had to say of the various tribes of Caledonia. 

Next to the Dumnonii and in a north-westerly direction from them, he places a people whom he calls Epidii, and he terms the Mull of Cantyre the Epidian Promontory. Add to this that an island appears on the north, coast of Ireland called Epidium, which is very possibly the Mull of Cantyre detached in manipulating the three maps. This suggestion, made by Mr. Henry Bradley, is countenanced by the fact that to the north-west of it is placed another island called Malleus, which, judging from its name, may be presumed to have meant that of Mull. These are two out of a group of five islands to which the geographer gives in common the name Æbudæ, and of the remaining three two have no other name than that of Æbudæ, which may be guessed to have been Islay and Jura. The fifth of the group is given the name Rhicina; and this may have really belonged to Ireland; its name suggests that of Rathlin, called in Irish Reachrainn. It does not appear whether one should suppose the name Αιβουδαι to be in any way related to that of ‘Επίδιον. Beyond the Epidians – and probably beyond Loch Linnhe – Ptolemy places in succession along the coast tribes bearing the names respectively of Cerones, Creones, Carnonacæ, Cæreni and Cornavii. These last were at the extremity of the island, and appear to have been so called from one of its headlands likened to a horn, the word for horn being in Welsh and Irish corn. This form of the name was Celtic, and Southern Britain had a people between the Dee and the Mersey called the Cornavii, and there are such other traces of the name as that which survives in the modern name of Cornwall; but which headland the Northern Cornavii were called after by Ptolemy’s Celtic informants one cannot tell; for the north-west and the north-east corners would do equally well. 

So there are here several points of great uncertainty in the geographer’s precarious outline. Thus nobody knows how far towards the north of the island he supposed the Epidii to extend. We are therefore at liberty to say that it may have been right up to the northern boundary of the present county of Argyle, for ancient landmarks are apt to persist. So one makes a guess at the same time at the southern boundary of the Cerones, but one is no better off with regard to the northern frontier of their land. Some help, however, seems offered by the modern topography, as we may perhaps venture to regard the name of the Cerones as echoed by the modern Carron. In that case it might be concluded that Loch Carron opposite Skye was in the country belonging to the Cerones, and that the latter extended to Glen Carron and the head of Dornoch Firth, into which the Carron Water flows. Along the west coast it may have extended to Loch Broom, or possibly as far as the southern boundary of the present county of Sutherland. You will notice, however, that this crowds the other three tribes, the Creones, Carnonacæ, and Cærini together on the west coast of Sutherland. In other words, they would have to be considered as very small communities; but a very different explanation is possible, namely, that two or all of these three names may have been merely variant readings of a single name. I wish, however, to leave that question for a moment in order to return to it from the other side. 

After disposing of the western coast the geographer begins anew from the country of the Dumnonii, by saying that the Caledonians extended from the Lemannonian Gulf to the Estuary of the Varar. The former would seem to have been a gulf taking its name from the same source as the district called Levenach and Anglicized Lennox; so the gulf may have been Loch Long or Loch Fyne, or even Loch Lomond, erroneously regarded as a part of the sea. As to the Varar, that seems to be exactly what is now Farrar, the name of the river which near its mouth is called the Beauly. Above the Caledonians, according to Ptolemy, lay the Caledonian Forest, that is to say, probably to the west of them, and between them and the tribes bordering on the west coast, while to the north of the Caledonians comes a people called Decantæ, and beyond them the Lugi, who bordered on the Cornavii. Above the Lugi, that is to say, more inland, he places a people called the Smertæ, and this completes his map of the tribes on that side of the Caledonians. Here our uncertainty is left a narrower range than on the west coast; still it is considerable; for, though the Caledonians extended to the Estuary of the Varar, as the nearest point touched by them on the seaboard in that direction, they may have extended a good deal further north and east; in fact it is not improbable that theirs was the double peninsula between Beauly and Bonar Bridge at the head of Dornoch Firth. Mr. Bradley, if I understand him aright, finds reasons for placing Ptolemy’s Decantæ beyond Dornoch Firth. This means that the eastern aspect of the country from the Kyle of Sutherland to the extreme end of Caithness was divided between no less than three tribes, the Decantæ, the Lugi, and the Smertæ; thus it follows that they must have been comparatively small tribes. One must, therefore, in the case of those on the corresponding extent of the west coast not be too ready to assume that the number assigned to the latter region by the manuscripts of Ptolemy’s geography is greatly in excess of what the author actually wrote. Rather are we to infer that, for some reason unknown to us, his information concerning the northern extremity of the island was more minute than one could have been led to expect. Possibly this might be ascribed to the exploration carried out by Agricola’s fleet. In any case the information here must have reached him through a Celtic channel, as is proved by such a name as Cornavii; nay, that Celtic channel can be more narrowly defined to have been Brythonic as distinguished from Goidelic, as can be shown from the name of the Decantæ. The interest attaching to this must be my excuse for going into a few details. 

The name Decanti occurs in the oldest manuscript of the Annales Cambriæ in the slightly different form of Decanti, as forming part of the place-name Arx Decantorum, or Hill-fort of the Decanti, now called Degannwy; its remains are to be seen on a hill near Llandudno and the mouth of the Conwy. The later Welsh name of Degannwy derives its form from an early Decantovion or Decantovia, according as the gender was neuter or feminine, but the origin of the word must be the same as that of the form Decanti. Now this name, whether the Decanti of the Llandudno peninsula were aborigines or invaders from Ireland, was a great name in that island, especially in Munster as the Ogam inscriptions of that province go to prove. The Goidelic form they show is the genitive Decceti, as part of the designation of chiefs called, in the same case, Maqui Decceti, or Son of Dechet; for cc in the orthography of the old inscriptions was a digraph borrowed from the Brythons to express the sound of the spirant guttural ch. A tombstone of Maccu Decceti is still to be seen in Anglesey, and is so written in Roman capitals, whereas the same name occurs on a stone found in the vicinity of Tavistock in Devon, written Macco Decheti, with the later Brythonic digraph ch used in spelling it. The situation of these two stones is a sufficient indication of the great activity of this tribe of invaders, whose ravages of Britain extended from Mona to the heart of Devon; but what interests us most directly at this point is the fact that their chiefs, from one generation to another, have the same designation of Macco Decheti, that is probably the Mac Dechet, just as Ireland still has men styled ‘the Mac Dermot,’ ‘the O’Connor Don,’ ‘the O’Donoghue,’ and the like names distinguished by the use of the definite article. Now Decheti in early Irish and Decanti from a Brythonic source point back distinctly to a common source Decenti, which, according to the well-established habits of phonology prevalent in Irish and Welsh respectively, must yield Dechet and Decant, the latter of which is the form we have in Ptolemy’s name of the Sutherland Decantæ. So much of the Celtic forms of these names and their pronunciation, but, when we come to the question of their origin, I am unable to say whether that was Celtic or not. In any case it is very remarkable that a people in the part which was the most certainly Pictish of this island should have been called Decantæ, that is to say Decheti, and that a powerful people of southern Ireland should have had as their chieftains men styled individually Macco Decheti. The inference I draw is that they were also of the same non-Aryan race, a fact which there is every reason already for assuming in the case of the Ivernians of Munster. The name Macco Decheti implies the individual name Dechet, and this, as a matter of fact, is known to Irish literature in the form of Techet as, for instance, in the name of a lake called Loch Techet. The Irish legends in which Techet figures offer nothing which would be contradictory of the supposition, that Techet was an ancestor – a god ancestor, most probably – of the aborigines. 

We now come to the tribes on this side of the Caledonians, and the first in importance are the Vacomagi, who have no less than four towns assigned to them, namely, Banatia, supposed to have been at Buchanty on the river Almond, Tamea at a remarkable spot known as Inch Tuthill, near Caputh, on the north side of the river Tay; thirdly, a place called the Winged Camp, which is supposed to have stood on the promontory of Burghead; and lastly, Tuessis, supposed to have been on the river Spey, near Boharm. Below the Vacomagi, and counterminous with them, were two peoples, the Vernicones, already mentioned, and to the north-east of the Vernicones the Tæxali. To these last he assigns one town called Devana, whose name and position indicate an inland site near the Dee: the remains of an ancient town near the Pass of Ballater, and close to Loch Daven, have been supposed to mark the spot. The Tæxali would seem to have inhabited the whole tract represented by the present county of Aberdeen; how much more, it is impossible to say. I should, however, be inclined to suppose that they extended to the Spey, and to give them a boundary in that direction coinciding roughly with that of Buchan and Marr on the side of Moray, and not wholly different from the western boundary of the present county of Banff. On the side of the Vernicones the question is still more difficult, as the history of Alban since Ptolemy’s time does not lead us to expect the same comparative permanence of ancient landmarks in the basin of the Tay, or even in Angus and Mearns. So one might draw the boundary along the hills that continue the Mounth towards the sea between Stonehaven and Aberdeen, or treat one of the Esks as the division, or else, extend the domain of the Tæxali down to the Sidlaw Hills and the Firth of Tay. This last is perhaps the best hypothesis, and it coincides with Mr. Henry Bradley’s conclusions, which make the Tæxali extend from the Tay Firth, to the mouth of the Spey. 

To take a more comprehensive survey of Ptolemy’s tribes of North Britain, one cannot help being struck by the length of his list of them as compared with the summary allusions to them by Tacitus, Dio Cassius, and Ammianus Marcellinus. The tribes outside and beyond the Cisgrampian region are included by Dio under the simple designation of Caledonii, and by Ammianus under that of Dicalydonae, are we then to suppose that they had sunk their differences and amalgamated into one people in the lapse of years between Ptolemy’s time and that to which Dio Cassius refers? Hardly. One would come probably nearer the truth by supposing them more divided than Dio suggests, and more united than Ptolemy would lead one to infer at first sight. For not only does Dio speak of them under the single name of Caledonii, but the same manner of speaking is virtually postulated by Tacitus when he calls their common country Caledonia; the same is the inference from the term Dicalydonæ used by Ammianus, as it gives a collective force to a word referring to two sets of Caledonians, or the inhabitants of two Caledonian regions. Whatever the exact meaning of this Celtic, nay probably Brythonic, compound may have been, it seems to show that the Celts regarded the peoples beyond them as to a certain extent united among themselves. This is to be detected also in Ptolemy’s adjective, Δουηκαληδόνιος, which he applies to the sea washing the shores of the Western Highlands. On the other hand it is not surprising that he should attempt to give us an exhaustive list of the tribes, since his business was geographical rather than political; but it is only accidentally that he allows his readers to discover that a part of his Albion was called ή Βρϵττανία, namely that in which London was situated. 

This in no way touches the difficulty attaching to the identity of the two sets of natives who gave rise to the Duecaledonian designation; for in the first place it is hard to understand the boundaries of Ptolemy’s Caledonians. Their seaboard in the direction of Loch Fyne must be regarded as somewhat indefinite, for when he proceeds to speak of the Epidii as the next to the Dummonii towards the north-west, no allusion is made to the Caledonians coming in like a sort of wedge between them. In the next place the Caledonian Forest is said by him to have been above the Caledonians, but it is not quite certain how he looked at his map; on the whole, however, he seems to have regarded the forest as forming a part or the whole of the boundary between the Caledonians and the tribes beyond them on the west coast. In the attempt to trace the western boundary of the Caledonians as between them and the coast tribes, one is lost in the mountain region between Ben Nevis and the upper course of the Farrar, at the mouth of which, under the name of Beauly, we are enabled to detect the Caledonians a second time, thanks to the geographer’s express statement that they extended to the mouth of the Varar. The boundary between them and the Vacomagi is still more hopeless, and if the Caledonians were conterminous with the Dumnonians in the south-west of the former’s territory, they probably reached the fringe of the forest extending across the country from Menteith to Dunkeld; but as one proceeds from Loch Lomond in a north-easterly direction one comes upon the Vacomagi on the Almond, so that if they were posted there, one would not unnaturally expect to find them in possession of the greater part or the whole of Athole westwards to Loch Lomond. 

Now, Ptolemy gives the Caledonians neither an intelligible frontier towards the Vacomagi nor the possession of a single town or stronghold, and altogether one looks in vain in his pages for any indication of the Caledonians as such being at any time of sufficient importance to have given their name to Caledonia. On the other hand the Vacomagi held the southern border of the forest dividing the Brythons of Fortrenn from them and kept up a challenge to the latter on the banks of the Almond, while they had a position on the Tay at a point below Dunkeld. Judging from the number of towns assigned them by Ptolemy – and they were the only Transgrampian people who had any towns at all except the Tæxali, who had one – it looks as if they could have had no rivals in the Highlands at the time to which Ptolemy’s account applies. It is natural therefore to regard them as the people to give its collective name to the northern Pictland and not his Caledonians. The explanation therefore is that either the Caledonians had once been more powerful than the Vacomagi and better known to the Celts; or else – and this is the more probable theory – both Ptolemy’s Caledonii and Vacomagi were equally entitled to the name of Caledonians. The Caledonians of Ptolemy were, I take it, divided into two tribes or branches, of which the one was called Vacomagi while no distinctive name for the other has reached us; it was unknown also probably to Ptolemy. In other words Ptolemy’s Caledonii and Vacomagi were both Caledonians, and they were the peoples implied by the terms Duecaledonius and Dicalydonæ, which refer to two sets of Caledonians or the inhabitants of two Caledonians. That the Vacomagi were as much Caledonians as the others is rendered highly probable by the fact, among other things, of the still existing name of a strong position, which must have been one of the most important in their possession: I allude to that of Dunkeld, which literally means the dún or fortress of the Caledonians, though it was in the country of the Vacomagi. Further, if you will look at Dr. Skene’s map of ‘Scotland with the ancient Divisions of the Land’ in the third volume of his Celtic Scotland, you will find that the territory of Ptolemy’s Caledonii, plus that of his Vacomagi, which one may collectively speak of as Duecaledonian, coincides, roughly speaking, with his Moray and Ross, together with Athole. At any rate that will do if you allow a certain margin for the forest separating Athole from Fortrenn, and also for contingencies, in the direction of the Decantæ, arising out of the difficulty, already indicated as attaching to the question of their exact locality, and of the impossibility of ascertaining the date of their subjugation by the Duecaledonian power. Further, all the southern lands owned by the Picts fell away from them when their power was broken in the region of the Tay, and then Athole appears with an individuality of its own. How much of Gowrie should be regarded as having had a similar history is not clear. But after the well known and crushing defeat inflicted by Angus king of Fortrenn, on Nechtan and his Picts, on the banks of the Spey, in the year 729, the Northerners never obtained a firm footing south of the Grampians until Macbeth succeeded in establishing himself there for a time. 

Everything points to the fact that the strength of his race lay in the country bearing the dual appellation of Moray and Ross. These were divided from one another by the river Beauly, and it is possible – I will not say probable – that the duality of Moray and Ross was but a continuation of the duality echoed by such early forms as Duecaledonius and Dicalydonæ. The application of the former by Ptolemy to the sea on the west of Scotland is very remarkable, as it argues the paramount importance sometime or other of a people or group of peoples of Duecaledonii, whose existence as such is completely ignored in his pages. It is possible that the tribes on the west coast owned allegiance even then to those occupying the country afterwards known as Moray and Ross, and that the latter ruled down to the sea. The earliest information on this point is, that the Dalriad Scots, having taken possession of a large extent of the west coast, were driven back into Cantyre by Brude mac Maelchon, the Pictish king, to whom St. Columba paid a visit at his headquarters somewhere near Inverness. The Dalriad Scots were Christians, under the powerful protection of their kinsman Columba, and the object of his mission to the Pictish king was probably to intercede for his people, as well as to convert the heathen Picts to the Christian faith. In this latter object he and his coadjutors are said to have been successful, but it does not appear that the saint obtained any immediate advantages for the Dalriad Scots, as we read of the latter sustaining another defeat, attended by the death of their king, at the hands of the Picts at a battle fought in Cantyre in 574. However, Brude seems to have either given St. Columba the Isle of Iona, or to have confirmed him in the possession of it. Now, Cantyre and Iona are both far from Inverness, and the allusion to them here will serve to elucidate what Bæda has left on record, when he terms Brude a most powerful king. 

His dominions extended in other directions likewise. The Decantæ and the other small tribes occupying the country beyond Ross were probably all subject to him, as it is known that the Orkneys were. This rests on the testimony of Adamnan, who says that Columba met the regulus of Orkney at Brude’s court, and asked Brude to bid him receive favourably some of the Saint’s fellow-missionaries who had set out on a dangerous voyage to Orkney. This he was in a position to do, we are told, as the regulus was subject to Brude, who had his hostages then in his hands. Thus it would seem that all Alban beyond the Grampians owned the sway of the Picts of Moray and Ross from Cantyre round to the Orkneys: the only region whose history is a matter of mere guess is that from the Spey to the Firth of Tay, but it is not impossible that this also was more or less subject to the same Pictish power. Then as to the banks of the Tay, it is known that the advancing arms of the Brythons of Fortrenn were not able finally to dislodge the Picts there till the contest between Angus and Nechtan in the 8th century. Arguing backwards therefore to the time of Ptolemy, the Duecaledonii must have been one of the two most powerful nations beyond the Forth, and they without doubt exercised far the widest sway there; so that there is nothing to surprise one in the fact, that it is they who gave its name to the country and to the sea beyond. 

Before closing these remarks let us for a moment examine the principal names concerned, those of the Vacomagi and the Duecaledonii. The former of these appears to be a compound Brythonic adjective connoting empty plains or empty fields; it would thus seem at first sight as though the Caledonians termed Vacomagi by their Celtic neighbours, had that name given them in reference to the poverty of the soil of a great part of their country; but it is a somewhat serious objection to this interpretation to find that the territory of the Vacomagi included most of the best land in the north, such, for example, as that of the district between the Ness and the Spey. Let us therefore try another tack; the empty plains or fields implied by the name of the Vacomagi may have referred to them simply as empty in the sense of being free from forest. According to this interpretation, which is quite legitimate and natural, the name might be explained practically to have meant much the same thing as if they were termed Strath Men or inhabitants of the level country; but it lays on us the burden of answering some such a question as how a name of this kind could have been applied to a people occupying the southern fringe of the forest from Loch Lomond to Dunkeld, together with the Highland region immediately behind that line. The only answer to such a question is that the people called Vacomagi must have received that name while they were as yet dwellers of the more level country: in other words they are to be regarded as the representatives of native lowlanders, who had been robbed of their country and driven for refuge to the forests and the mountains by the advance of the Aryan as represented by the Mæatæ, the Men of Fortrenn of a period which for Britain must be treated as pre-historic. Let us now turn to the other term in question, to wit, the name Dicalidonæ used by Ammianus: this, as it has already been hinted, refers us in a sort of way, to two groups of Caledonians; but a far more ancient, and – I would add – a far more correct form is to be extracted from Ptolemy’s ΔουηκαληδόνιοςΟκϵανός, backed as it is by the later geographer Marcian. In the adjective one recognizes the antecedent of the Welsh feminine dwy, corresponding to the masculine dau ‘two,’ and one obtains from Ptolemy’s adjective a Due-Caledon, which would be in modern Welsh Dwy Gelyddon or the ‘Two Caledonias.’ The gender is important to notice, as it shows that the Brythons spoke not of two kinds of Caledonians but of two Caledonias with their inhabitants, in both instances, Caledonians alike. It is needless to remind you that this is not the first instance we have found of the names of the remoter peoples of Britain reaching the authors of antiquity through the medium of the Brythonic inhabitants of the south-eastern portion of the island. So far so well; but what, according to Brythonic ideas, did the two Caledonias consist of? 

To have reached the Brython it must have been some broad distinction, some distinction which would be widely patent to the south; and this, I think, is indicated by the name of the Vacomagi connecting them in an earlier stage of their history with the plains of the Lowlands. That was the one Caledonia, the more level and clear Caledonia of straths and carses: the other was the Caledonia stern and wild of the Highlands of the north and west. The original owners of the former country had retreated into the Highland Caledonia, but they were as truly Caledonian as those whom Ptolemy called Caledonians, though they had come to be known by a name distinguishing them as those who had come from the Lowland Caledonia of clear plains. 

All this implies a state of things differing considerably from the picture I drew of them when I began to study early Scotland: then I regarded the positions held by the Vacomagi on the Tay and the Almond as the advanced posts of a conquest tending southward from the direction of Inverness and the Moray Firth, whereas now I should be more inclined to regard them as the last posts held by the rear of a force conducting a retreat northward; so that when Angus and the Men of Fortrenn defeated Nechtan and took possession of the Pictish positions on the Tay, and when somewhat later they caused the death of the king of Athole, all this is to be regarded as the later terms in the series of Celtic encroachments, in the course of which the Mæatæ had forced the Vacomagi into the forests near the Highland Line. This hypothesis, for it is but a hypothesis, seems on the whole to be free from several objec tions to which the other was open, and to be in harmony with the tenor of the later fortunes of Alban. 

A history which is so precarious and scrappy as that of ancient Britain, is considerably helped by any identification of an old name with its modern representative, in such a way as to give the former some fixity of place. The case of the name of the Verturiones has been duly signalized; but I have one or two more to mention which have suggested themselves to me since the earlier portion of this lecture was put together. They seem too important to be compressed into a note, so I venture to discuss them at this point. Last September I had the pleasure of spending some time at Kennet, on the other side of the Forth, when Lord Balfour of Burleigh took me to see various places of interest in the neighbourhood of the Ochil Hills. As my mind was full of the question how and where the ancient Brythons had settled beyond the Forth, I was, though I am ashamed to confess it, less charmed with the beauty of the scenery I saw than exercised by the sound of the place-names I heard. As the first in order but not in importance may be mentioned the name Ochil itself. The loftiest of the Ochil Hills is said to be Bencleuch, with a height of 2363 feet, which is not a remarkable elevation for Scotland; but as the Ochils rise almost from the level of the sea, and as they appear to advantage in point of mass and height when looked at from the south, they may well have been known to the Brythons on this side of the Forth as the High Hills; so the prevalent etymology identifying Ochil with the Welsh word uchel ‘high,’ may be treated as correct, until a more convincing one is proposed. The westernmost peak over against Stirling sinks to about half the height of Bencleuch; but it affords one of the best views in the kingdom, and it is known by a name which I should phonetically describe as Dŭmyat or D’myat, with its my strongly accented but otherwise pronounced like the pronoun my. The sound of the word roused my curiosity, as it indicated a Celtic name made up of two words in syntactic relation to one another, and I learned from Lord Balfour, who owns the hill, that the spelling he has found in his estate papers is Dunmyat: since then I have noticed that in the New Statistical Account it is printed Demyat and even Damiett, and that in Black’s Guide to Scotland it is given as Dun-myat. Whilst I have been occupied with these points connected with the modern form, you will have anticipated me in the interpretation to be put upon it: beyond all doubt it must mean the dún or fort of Myat, that is to say of the Miati or Mæatæ. Whether there are any traces of the dún still to be seen, and where exactly they are situated on the hill, is a question which I must leave to Scotch archæology. Here at any rate we have one locality with which we can venture to associate the ancient Mæatæ: or more accurately speaking it is one in addition to that denoted by the name of Fortrenn, from which they may be treated as inseparable under their other name of Verturiones. 

But whether we call them Mæatæ or Verturiones, they were merely an outlying portion of the larger tribe of the Dumnonii: they were in fact the aggressive Dumnonii who undertook to extend the dominion of their people northwards. So there would be nothing surprising in their being known also simply as Dumnonii. Now this was likewise the name of a people in the south-west of Britain, and there we know what has become of it, namely, that it has yielded the county of Devon its English name, in modern Welsh Dyvnaint. So we know approximately what sort of name to expect in the north, where it can scarcely be an accident that we have, in the Perthshire portion of the Ochils, a parish called Glendevon, whence the river Devon takes its circuitous course to the Firth of Forth near Alloa. In Glendevon is also the pass through which Montrose marched in 1645, when he came down like a wolf on Castle Campbell. It would be interesting to know whether the site of that castle was fortified in early times, as it can only have been held by men who were masters of the Ochils above it. Now if one put together the fact of the position of Dunmyat and Fortrenn, and of the towns of the northern Dumnonii as placed by Ptolemy; also the negative fact that he assigns them no position on the northern banks of the Forth, one discovers a sure clue to the line of their northward advance. When they had become masters of the country between Dumbarton and Stirling, they pushed on sooner or later along the valleys and straths now followed by the railway from Stirling and the Bridge of Allan to Forteviot and Perth; thereby they avoided the necessity of crossing any high mountains. When they had acquired possession of that line of country, they had practically got round the Picts dwelling between the Ochils and the Forth, and their position on Dunmyat must have been meant to overawe them. At a more eastern point they appear to have ultimately crossed the Ochils, and threatened the Picts on the lower banks of the Devon; in fact it looks as if the entire range of the Ochils had come into their hands, placing the Picts between it and the Forth wholly at their mercy, though that river would seem to have effectually served the Picts as their southern barrier. To return to the identification suggested of Glendevon with the Dumnonii, it is right to say, that it requires the river Devon to have been so called from the upland district in the Ochils, and the Black Devon after the Devon; so we are here on ground, which is less safe, than that on which the connection of Dunmyat with the Mæatæ so firmly rests. 



1  Or shall we connect it rather with the Welsh maedd-u, ‘to beat’? 
2  It is right to say that Mr. Macbain would give us a second instance in the latter part of the name of the Perthshire mountain, Schiehallion, the Gaelic for which he gives as Sith-Chaillinn. 

2 thoughts on “Art. III. – THE PEOPLES OF ANCIENT SCOTLAND., Vol. 17, Jan., 1891, pp.60-82.

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