Novantae and Selgovae
The Novantae and Selgovae were peoples of the early second century who lived in what is now
Galloway, in southwestern-most Scotland. They are mentioned briefly in Ptolemy's "Geography", and there is no other historical record of them. Their ethnicity is unknown, with various authorities asserting Brythonic, Pict, Gael, or some combination thereof.The Romans under Agricola had campaigned in the area in 79, and it was Roman-occupied (at least nominally) between the time that Hadrian's Wallwas built (c. 122), through the building of the Antonine Wall(c. 138), until the pullback to Hadrian's Wall in 164. Ptolemy's "Geography" was written within this timeframe, so his account is contemporary.
The historical record: Ptolemy
In his description of Britain, Ptolemy (flourished ca. 82 – 161) included the names of coastline features, the names of peoples and the coordinates of their towns, and a map of the world as it was then known to the Romans.
His map of Britain is famous for showing an easterly "twist" to the
Scottish Lowlands, while the Scottish Highlandsturn sharply eastward (to the right). If it is "untwisted", it shows the familiar outline of the island. The reason for this "twist" makes some sense, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. It is not the result of a "terrible blunder", as was once alleged. Galloway is at the very top of the island, with the Firth of Clyde at right center.
The Novantae are unique among the peoples that Ptolemy names in that their location is reliably known due to the way he named several readily identifiable physical features. His "Novantarum Cheronesus" is certainly the
Rhins of Galloway("cheronesus" means 'peninsula', as does 'rhin'), and his "Novantarum promontory" is the Mull of Galloway. This "pins" the Novantae to that area, and since the Selgovae are next to them, their homeland is similarly known. Ptolemy's coordinates for the location of their towns is consistent with this, although those locations cannot be identified with any certainty.Ptolemy says that the towns of the Novantae were Locopibium and Rerigonium, and that the towns of the Selgovae were Carbantorigum, Uxellum, Corda, and Trimontium. However, there were no towns as such in the area at that time, so he was likely referring to Roman militarycamps and native strong points such as duns.
The reasoning of serious and knowledgable scholars often adds perspective to peoples and places in history that are little known. Presented below are their estimates concerning the Novantae and Selgovae, and the locations of their 'towns'.
It should be noted first that while most histories of Roman Britain constructed between 1750 and the end of the nineteenth century are marred by their reliance on the spurious "
De Situ Britanniae", that document does not impact knowledge of the Novantae and Selgovae. They and their 'towns' are mentioned in it, but it simply repeats what others had previously said of them, and did not invent fictions about them. [Citation
title=The Description of Britain, Translated from Richard of Cirencester
publisher=J. White and Co
Ethnicity and Culture
Brythonic, Pictish, and Gaelic are offered. The region has a history that includes all three as possibilities at various times, alone and in combination, and there is not enough information to disprove any of them.Regarding the Novantae:Rerigonium: Innermessan, according to Skene.:Locopibium:
Whithornaccording to Skene; Wigtownaccording to Horsley; much is made of the fact that 'loco' means 'white' in Greek and 'shining' in Brythonic, while Northumbrian 'whit' also means white, implying a continuous reference to the same place over the centuries, and echoed in the " Candida Casa" of Saint Ninian; others see the name preserved in the Water of Luce.
Regarding the Selgovae:Carbantorigum: the Moat of Urr according to Skene; Rhys thought the name derives from "Carbantorion" ("chariot town").:Uxellum: Wardlaw Hill at
Caerlaverockaccording to Skene and Horsley; it is noticed that it sounds like Welsh "uchel" ("high") or Gaelic "uas", "uasal".:Corda: Sanquhar, according to Skene.:Trimontium: Birrenswark Hill, according to Skene (who says its name likely represents Brythonic "Tref mynydd").
Rhys, agreeing with Wyntoun, thought that 'Selgovae' means 'the hunters' (Irish "selg", Welsh "hela", 'hunting').
Assertions that the
Solway Firthpreserves the name of the Selgovae are without any foundation. 'Solway' is Anglo-Saxon from the thirteenth century ("sol" = 'mud', "wæth" = 'ford'), and this was the name of the main crossing at Eskmouth at that time. [Citation
contribution=Annals of Solway — Until A.D. 1307
title=Transactions of the Glasgow Archaeological Society
publisher=James Maclehose & Sons
accessdate=2008-05-25|] The firth had been known by various names in the past, and this one happened to be the survivor.
Moving Trimontium across Scotland
William Roy(1726 – 1790) was a skilled surveyor and Director of the Ordnance Survey, and is famously remembered for having instigated the Principal Triangulation of Great Britain. He had surveyed Scotland between 1746 and 1753, and made it a point to survey every Roman site that he noticed, as he was also an avid antiquarian and amateur historian. Like virtually everyone else, he had accepted " De Situ Britanniae" as valid, and attempted to follow the supposed itinerary through Scotland described in the book. There could have been few people more qualified to do so, given his surveying skills and interest in the subject matter. However, not knowing that "De Situ Britanniae" was fiction, he encountered unexpected difficulties, and in attempting to reconcile them, he made adjustments as best he could.
His "Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain" was published postumously in 1793, and in it he asserted that the Trimontium of the Selgovae was not where Ptolemy had placed it, but rather was at the Roman site of Trimontium, near
Eildon Hill, on the other side of Scotland. To accommodate this theory, the Selgovae were moved northeast from Galloway, and as the Novantae were next to the Selgovae but still connected to the Mull of Galloway, their territory was enlarged far to the east and north.
With benefit of hindsight, it is to be expected that Roy would encounter difficulties in attempting to retrace a fictional itinerary. On the basis of what is now known, his considerable efforts were time ill spent, through no fault of his own. On that same basis, Roy's corrections to the fictional itinerary are properly discarded.
However, this particular speculation has survived to the present day in some modern works – the sole legitimate historical reference (Ptolemy) has been discarded in favor of an adjustment to a fictional account. Among the works that contain this inaccuracy is the influential "Iron Age Communities in Britain", by
Barry Cunliffe. [Citation
title=Iron Age Communities in Britain
page=216 - map of the tribes of Northern Britain, attributed to "various sources"]
title=The Hereditary Sheriffs of Galloway
title=A History of Dumfries and Galloway
publisher=William Blackwood and Sons
editor-first=Immeline M. H.
title=History of the Lands and Their Owners In Galloway With Historical Sketches of the District
title=Galloway in Ancient and Modern Times
publisher=William Blackwood and Sons
publisher=LacusCurtius website at the University of Chicago|
Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.
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