Novantae Celtic Tribe

The northern iron-age tribe of the Novantae had long been settled territory in south-western Scotland before the beginning of the Roman occupation. These Caledonians, who were later known as Picts were probably responsible for the creation of one of the ‘four kingdoms’ in Lowland Scotland in the second century.

The Realm of the Novantae according to Ptolemy

They are mentioned briefly in Ptolemy’s Geography (written c. 150), and there is no other historical record of them.

“The Novantae dwell on the side toward the north below the peninsula of this name,¹ among whom are the following towns: Locopibia 19*00 60°20 Rerigonium 20*10 60°40.”
The Geography of Ptolemy

According to the ancient geographer Ptolemy, the Novantae are thought to have inhabited the larger part of the Galloway Peninsula, comprising the ancient counties of Kirlcudbrightshire, Wigtownshire and southern Ayrshire; in modern (i.e. post-1974) geography, western Dumfries and Galloway and south-west Strathclyde. The Galloway Peninsula juts out into the Irish Sea, which provides a natural boundary to the tribal territories on the south and the west and is, for the most part, nowadays designated a Coastal Conservation Zone. The extent of the tribal lands to the north were constrained by the regional topography, which is mountainous and unsuitable for anything except the raising of sheep, and is nowadays covered by the forests of Glentrool, Clatteringshaws and Fleet, with the periphery given over to hill farming.

Other Geographical Features Named by Ptolemy

Other passages in Ptolemy (Book II Chapter 2) give the ancient names of a number of rivers and other geographical features within the territories of the Novantae:

  • The Novantarum Peninsula ‘the peninsula of the Novantae’ is easily identified as the Rhinns of Galloway; the compound Latin word pen-insula literally means ‘almost an island’, which very accurately describes this geographical feature at the extreme south-western end of the Scottish Mainland.
  • The Novantarum Promontorium translates literally as ‘the Headland of the Novantae’, and is identified on the OS Map of Roman Britain as the Mull of Galloway, although the name may equally belong to the Machars and Burrow Head to the east, or even to the entire south-western peninsula.
  • The North Channel which separates Dumfries & Galloway from Northern Ireland was known as the Oceanus Hiberniae.
  • The Abravannus Fluvius has been identified with the Water of Luce which empties into Luce Bay in the south-west.
  • Loch Ryan on the opposite side of the Galloway Peninsula from Luce Bay, was called Rerigonius Sinus; the settlement of Rerigonivm (?) / Rerigonium lay nearby.
  • The Iena Aestuarium may possibly be Wigtown Bay, which would mean that the ancient name of the River Cree was the Iena, however, this may equally have been the ancient name of Kirkcudbright Bay.
  • The River Dee empties into Kirkcudbright Bay in the south, and was known as the Devas Fluvius in ancient times, the settlement of Locopibia was nearby.
  • The River Nith, which may have formed the eastern boundary of the tribe, was named the Novius Fluvius.
  • In addition, the last-mentioned river empties into the Solway Firth, which was known as the Ituna Aestuarium.

It is possible that the northern tribal boundary was delineated by the Water of Girvan, beyond which lay the territories of the Damnoni. Almost all of the land suitable for cultivation in the Galloway Peninsula lies to the south, between the mountains and the sea, and it was here that the majority of the population of the tribe would have lived. The tribal boundary to the east is problematical, but must have extended at least as far as Nithsdale, perhaps even as far as Annandale, but the coastal lands here in the Firth of Solway may have been too marshy for habitation. The territories beyond the mountains to the north-east belonged to the neighbouring Selgovae Celtic Tribe tribe, while the Carvetii lay to the south-east across the Solway Firth.

The Civitas Novantarum The Principal Tribal Centre

Rerigonivm (Stranraer?, Dumfries & Galloway)

The Other Tribal Πολις Assigned by Ptolemy

Lovcovivm (Glenlochar?, Dumfries & Galloway)

Native Settlement Sites of the Novantae

There are very few hillforts of any size in the territories of the Novantae Barsalloch Point small promontory fort (NX347413) near Port William, Broomhillbank Hill hillfort (NY131911) north of Lockerbie, Burnswark hillfort and Roman siege works (NY185785) near Ecclefechan SE of Lockerbie, Mullach hillfort (NX929870) near Dalswinton in Dumfries, Trusty’s Hill small hillfort (NX589561) just west of Gatehouse of Fleet, and Tynron Doon hillfort (NX820939) near Penpont. All of these aforementioned forts are situated in the modern county of Dumfries and Galloway, whereas the hillfort at Kildoon (NS299075), lies in southern Strathclyde at the northern extremity of the Novantae territories.

Roman Military Sites in Novantae Tribal Territory

  • Glenlochar: Auxiliary Fort and complex of six Marching Camps strategically situated at the crossing of the River Dee.
  • Gatehouse of Fleet Fortlet: Fortlet at a crossing of the Water of Fleet
  • Newton Stewart:Probable military site at the lowest crossing point of the River Cree.
  • Glenluce Temporary Camp: Marching Camp beside the Water of Luce at the eastern end of Luce Bay.
  • Rerigonivm (?) / Rerigonium: Probable military site at the southern end of Loch Ryan, overseeing the principal tribal centre.

It appears likely that all of the abovementioned sites were established during the fifth campaign season of governor Agricola in A.D. 81. The build-up of forces at Glenlochar is evidenced by the complex of marching camps, and the siting of the Auxiliary Fort here emphasizes the strategic importance of this river crossing. The large marching camp at Glenluce was established on the Rhinns of Galloway only a few miles from the tribal centre at Stranraer and was very likely supplied by the ships of the Classis Britannia from a base somewhere on the north Cumbrian coast.

It also seems likely that the suspected legionary sized marching camp at Dalbeattie Marching Camp near the Water of Urr on the Solway Firth and the two legionary Marching Camps at Girvan Mains West Temporary Camp overlooking the mouth of the Water of Girvan in southern Strathclyde, are all associated with the Agricolan campaign of A.D. 81, but lie outside the tribal territories.

The lack of permanent Roman military installations within their lands, along with the dearth of Roman archaeological finds from the area in general, probably points to there being some sort of diplomatic agreement with the Novantae. It is very likely that the tribe, which had no substantial native defensive sites within the tribal homelands, was seen as posing no military threat and possessed nothing worth the effort of maintaining a military garrison.

As a final note, it may be significant that later Roman military activities seemingly all occurred just outside the easternmost fringes of the Novantae homelands, where the westernmost branch of the bifurcated western military road was situated, running northwards along Nithsdale between Gallaberry Marching Camp and Islafoot, Drumlanrig Temporary Camp. This lack of military activity in later times may be due to an arrangement between the Roman administration and the Novantae chieftain(s) but the existence of such an agreement cannot be proven.

References for The Novantae

  • The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);
  • Atlas of Great Britain by the Ordnance Survey (Country Life, 1982);
  • Historical Map and Guide: Roman Britain by the OS (4th Ed., 1990);