Votadini Celtic Tribe

The Votadini, also known as the Wotādīni, Votādīni or Otadini, were an Iron Age tribe in the British Isles prior to the Roman invasion of Britain. Their territory was in what is now south-east Scotland and north-east England.  This area was briefly part of the Roman province of Britannia.

Settlement in the area can be traced back to as early as 3000 BC, evidenced by offerings dating from that period found at Cairnpapple Hill in West Lothian, which included items imported from Cumbria and Wales, indicating connections with those regions. By approximately 1500 BC, Traprain Law in East Lothian was already being used as a burial site, with signs of occupation and defensive structures emerging after 1000 BC. Excavations at Edinburgh Castle revealed artifacts from the late Bronze Age dating back to around 850 BC.

The influence of Brythonic Celtic culture and language began to permeate the region sometime after the 8th century BC, possibly through cultural exchanges rather than large-scale invasions, leading to the development of various kingdoms. The presence of numerous hillforts and settlements suggests a society marked by contentious tribes and small kingdoms, a characterization consistent with Roman records. However, instances where defensive structures were neglected at times hint at the importance of symbolic power alongside warfare.

In classical sources, the name of the people is recorded as Votadini, while old maps of ancient Roman Britain depict them as Otodini. Their descendants formed the early medieval kingdom known in Old Welsh as Guotodin, later referred to in Welsh as Gododdin [ɡoˈdoðin].

One of the oldest pieces of British literature is a poem called Y Gododdin, written in Old Welsh and transmitted through the oral traditions of the Brythonic-speaking Britons. This poem commemorates the valor of soldiers from what later became known by the Britons as Yr Hen Ogledd – The Old North, a region lost in battle to an invading force at Catraeth (modern-day Catterick).

The Realm of the Votadini according to Ptolemy

“Further south [i.e. below the Selgovae] are the Otalini (sic), among whom are the following towns: Coria 20*10 59°00 Alauna 23*00 58°40 Bremenium 21*00 58°45″.

The Geography of Ptolemy

The name of this tribe is recorded in the works of the Greek astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemaeus (see above), writing in the late-2nd century AD, who also records the names of three major settlements of the tribe. 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 Votadini:

  • The Firth of Forth, which marked the tribes northern border was known in ancient times as the Boderia or Bodotria Aestuarium.
  • The River Aln in Northumberland was known as the Alaunus, upon which was situated the settlement and fort of Alauna.
  • The Cocuveda Fluvius now known as the River Coquet, empties into the North Sea at Amble in Northumberland, opposite Coquet Island.
  • The River Tyne, or the Tineus Fluvius, possibly marked the tribe’s southern border with the Brigantes tribe of north-eastern England.

Given these geographical clues we can place the Votadini tribe firmly in the eastern (coastal) parts of Northumberland, Borders and Lothian, their territories stretching from the River Tyne in the south through the border country of the Cheviots to the Lammermuir Hills just south of Edinburgh in the north.

The Civitas Votadininorum The Principal Tribal Centre

Traprain Law, Lothian

The Traprain Law Hillfort in East Lothian (NT581747), dubbed ‘the oppidum of the Votadini tribe’, is a large hillfort first settled in the 8th C. b.c.e. which continued in occupancy throughout the Romano-British period. The fact that its inhabitants were allowed to remain points to there being some form of treaty between the Votadini and the Roman military administration.

The original defences which covered an area of only 10 acres (4 ha) were expanded in stages to enclose at their maximum extent some 40 acres (16 ha) by the 1st C. A.D. . By the end of the 4th century, however, the defences had again been contracted to a quarter of this size, back to its original size and situation, enclosing the very top of the hill. In 1919 a large hoard of Roman silver-plate was found hidden on the west side of the hill.

The Minor Tribal Πολεις (Poleis or Settlements) Assigned by Ptolemy

Corbridge (Coriosopitum): The large military supply base of Corstopitum was established on the north bank of the Tineus at the eastern end of the Stanegate military road. Hadrian’s Wall was later built just to the north of the town.

Learchild (Alavna) The substantial garrison here encouraged a number of civilians to establish a vicus settlement along the line of the Roman road leading to the fort’s main gateway.

High Rochester (Bremenium): It would appear that another civil settlement accompanied this smaller fort.

Other Known Roman Settlements

Risingham (Habitancum) There is evidence to support the existence of another vicus settlement outside the defences of this fort.

Tweedmouth (Berwick-upon-Tweed): (Northumberland) There is a suspected settlement and fort here at the northernmost point of England overlooking the mouth of the River Tweed.

Other Votadini Strongholds

In the Lammermuir Hills just south of Gifford in East Lothian there are a number of hillforts of the Votadini tribe, each situated close beside a stream. The hillfort at Kidlaw (NT512642) has traces of later Romano-British homesteads of rectangular outline within the enclosure, which has been considerably reconstructed. The suspected Iron-Age fort at Harelaw (NT546631), surmounting a rocky summit, has later settlements on the hills lower flanks to the north and east. The hillfort at Black Castle (NT580662), south-east of Danskine on the northern edge of Lammermuir, lies about 5 miles due south of the tribal centre at Traprain Law; its bivallate defences were apparently left in an unfinished state with the outer rampart circuit incomplete, the work possibly being abandoned in the face of a Roman advance.

The Chesters hillfort (NT507782) on the north side of the River Tyne south of Drem in East Lothian lies within sight of the probable cantonal capital at Traprain Law across the river to the south-east, and, although unexcavated, was probably occupied during the early Roman period.

The Castle Law hillfort (NT229639) at the north-eastern end of the Pentland Hills range south-west of Woodhouselee in Midlothian is a large multivallate fort with evidence of occupation in the Romano-British period, when a souterrain was built between the inner ramparts. The Roman fortlet at Glencorse Mains was possibly built to police this area, and is situated close by to the south-east, on the opposite side of the Glencorse Burn.

The large hillfort at Arthur’s Seat (NT275728), overlooking the modern city of Edinburgh from the south-east, was a major stronghold of the tribe, although an accurate occupation date cannot be ascertained due to damage by the plough, which has removed all traces from its interior.

The hillfort at Coldingham Loch (NT899688) near St. Abb’s Head in the northern Borders region, enclosed a number of round-houses and fell into disuse sometime after the 2nd C. A.D. . There are four small, undefended settlements in the immediate area, but the chronology of the group and its relationship to the hillfort are unknown. Nearby, on the summit of Tun Law Hill, on cliffs overlooking the sea, lie the twin enclosures of the Earn’s Heugh fort (NT892691), defending several circular huts which were occupied from the mid-2nd to the turn of the 5th century A.D. .

The area around Edin’s Hall (NT772604) near Preston in the northern Borders region was occupied in some form from the late pre-Roman Iron-Age until at least the 3rd century A.D. . The small, oval hillfort was abandoned, possibly during the first Roman campaigns through the area in the late 70’s A.D. , and later replaced by a substantial broch built into its eastern half, possibly following the initial withdrawal of Roman troops from the area sometime before the turn of the 2nd Century, the broch itself being abandoned after only a short occupation and replaced by a small settlement sited in the western end of the old hillfort.

The probable Iron-Age fort at Haerfaulds (NT574501) near Cambridge in Lauderdale, Borders region, was seemingly abandoned, possibly in the face of the initial Roman advance through the area as the main Roman military highway through south-eastern Scotland passed close by the fort to the south and west. The fort was re-settled during the Romano-British period, when several round-houses were built in its interior.

The Woden Law hillfort (NT768125) south-east of Jedburgh in the southern Borders region, close to the English border, may be attributed to the Votadini if credence is lent to Ptolemy’s attribution to the tribe of Corbridge in Northumberland, but as it stands close beside the main military route into eastern scotland, which was possibly built through the area in order to separate the tribe from their neighbours the Selgovae to the west, its attribution is uncertain. The area to the immediate south and east of the fort is host to a number of Roman military installations, which, like the Burnswark hillfort beside the main western route into lowland Scotland, were seemingly built to train troops in the construction and use of various siege-engines and both defensive and offensive earthworks.

Eastern Hadrian’s Wall Forts

The most remarkable Roman military construction within the lands of the Votadini was undoubtedly Hadrian’s Wall, the eastern end of which cut-through the southernmost part of the tribal territories, separating the town of Corstopitum from the majority of the tribe which resided to the north of this mighty barrier. Eighteen forts were known to have been sited upon the Wall, the five easternmost of which were almost certainly sited upon Votadini tribal lands.

After the Haltonchesters fort, which lies only 2½ miles north of Corbridge, the Wall continues westwards for only six miles before it spans the River North Tyne just east of the fort at Chesters (Cilurnum), also in Northumberland, but thought to be sited in the territories of the neighbouring Brigantes tribe.

The Northern Outpost Forts

From Corbridge two major Roman roads head northward. The Devil’s Causeway travels north-north-east across ? to the outpost fort at Alauna (Learchild, Northumberland), from whence it continues north-north-west to the suspected fort and settlement at Berwick-upon-Tweed on the English-Scottish border.

The other route north from Corbridge runs north-westward towards the Firth of Forth, passing through military installations at Habitancum (Risingham), Bremenium (High Rochester) and Chew Green before passing into the lands of the Selgovae Celtic Tribe; the fort at Cappuck possibly marking the border between the two tribes.

The People of the Votadini

History gives us the name of a single member of the Votadini nation. Both Gildas (De Excidio Britanniae, ) and Nennius (Historia Brittonum, lxii) mention one Cunedda, styled ‘King of the Votadini’, who’s father and grandfather both bore Romanised names, and who in the early-5th century helped the tribes of North Wales prepare against attacks from Irish raiders. The details of his translation from the Scottish Lowlands to Snowdonia remain unclear, however (Birley, p.169).

It was once held that Cunedda and his fighting force were transferred to North Wales by the emperor Maximus in order to replace Roman garrisons which had been withdrawn to the continent (Frere, p.362), but this view has since fallen into disfavour (Salway, p.404).

The Post-Roman period

Following the Roman withdrawal in the early 5th century, the territories inhabited by the Votadini became integrated into the region known as the Hen Ogledd, or the “Old North.”

Around 470, a new kingdom known as Gododdin emerged, encompassing much of the original Votadini lands. Meanwhile, the southern region between the Tweed and the Tyne rivers formed a distinct kingdom called Brynaich. Legend holds that Cunedda, the mythical founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in North Wales, was originally a chieftain of the Gododdin who migrated southwest during this period.

Both Gododdin and Brynaich engaged in conflicts with the Angles of Bernicia, a struggle immortalized in the late 6th to early 7th century poem-cycle known as Y Gododdin, attributed to the poet Aneirin. However, Gwynedd, where Cunedda established a militaristic dynasty, remained unconquered until the 13th century.

References for The Votadini

  • Life in Roman Britain by Anthony Birley (Batsford, London, 1964);
  • Britannia – A History of Roman Britain by Sheppard Sunderland Frere (BCA, London, 1974);
  • Roman Britain by Peter Salway (BCA, London, 1981);
  • Iron Age Communities in Britain by Barry Cunliffe (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London/Boston, 1974);
  • Roman Wales and the Votadini by F.A. Patterson in The Welsh History Review (Cylchgrawn Hanes Cymru) by the University of Wales Press, Cardiff) (vol.VII, pp.213-222);