The Minor Northern Tribes

This section contains details of those tribes located by the Geographer Ptolemy in northern Britain, but were listed without any towns or settlements in a single passage quoted below:

“Next to the Damnoni, but more toward the east near the Epidium Promontorium are the Epidi and next to these the Cerones; then the Carnonacae, and the Caereni but more toward the east; and in the extreme east dwell the Cornavi; from the Lemannonis Sinus as far as the Varar Aestuarium are the Caledoni, and above these is the Caledoni Silva, from which toward the east are the Decantae, and next to these the Lugi extending to the Cornavi boundary, and above the Lugi are the Smertae.”

Above quote from the Geographia of Ptolemy (II.ii)

From this short passage we may deduce these tribes’ positions in relation to each other, and their approximate territorial boundaries may be worked out with reference to a map of northern Britain, helped by other passages in Ptolemy’s work. We must remember, however, that Ptolemy has somehow rotated Scotland 90° to the east, so that ‘east’ is actually north, and when Ptolemy says that a tribe is ‘above’ or ‘below’ another he actually means west and east respectively.

It should be noted that separate pages are maintained for both the Epidii and Caledoni tribes, primarily because the geographer Ptolemy recorded additional details about their tribal territories.


Kintyre, Knapdale and southern Argyll, probably the Isles of Arran and Bute to the east, possibly also the islands of Islay and Jura to the north-west, all of which lie in the modern region of Northern Strathclyde.


Southern Ross, including Morvern, Ardmurchan, Sunart, Ardgour, Moidart, Arisaig and Morar, possibly also Knoydart and Och. It is possible that the Isle of Mull also was inhabited by this tribe.


Inhabited the coastal region of Wester Ross on the Scottish Mainland, from the Kyle of Lochalsh in the south to Loch Broom in the north; it is possible that this tribe also inhabited the Isle of Skye, Scitis Insula, to the south-west.


Inhabited the extreme north-western coast of mainland Britain in the Highland Region of Scotland, from Enard Bay in Northern Ross to Cape Wrath in Sutherland. Their territories included the mountain ranges of Ben More Assynt, Foinaven and Ben Hope. It is possible that Strath Naver marked the border between this tribe and the Cornavi to the east, the River Naver is recorded in Ptolemy as the Navarus Fluvius (or Nabarus).


Lived in the extreme north-eastern corner of the Scottish Highlands inhabiting Caithness and north-eastern Sutherland. Ptolemy names three promontories along the Cornavian coastline: Tarvedrum Sive Orcas Prom., Virvedrum Prom. and Verubium Prom., which are respectively, Dunnett Head north-east of Thurso, Duncansby Head east of John o’Groats and Noss Head north-east of Wick.


This tribe inhabited the inland parts of central Scotland to the east of the Great Glen Fault, encompassing the north Central Region, west Tayside, south-west Grampian and south-east Highland Region.


Inhabited the lands to the west of the Great Glen Fault in the Highland Region of Scotland, comprising Northern Inverness and Easter Ross. Tarbert Ness, which marks the northernmost extent of the tribe, was known as Ripa Alta during Roman times, and the Beauly Firth just north-west of modern Inverness was known as the Varar Aestuarium.


Inhabited the coastal regions of south-east Sutherland and southern Caithness in the Scottish Highland Region. One of the tribe’s rivers is named in Ptolemy, the River Helmsdale, which empties into the Moray Firth south of the modern town of Helmsdale, was known as the Ila Fluvius to the Romans.


Inhabited the inland parts of the western Scottish Highlands, comprising central and northern Ross and south-western Sutherland, between Ben Mor Coignach on the west coast overlooking The Minch and the Dornoch Firth on the east coast overlooking the Moray Firth.

References for The Minor Northern Tribes

The Geography of Claudius Ptolemaeus, trans. by E.L. Stevenson (Dover, New York, 1991);