Home Contact News Interactive Articles Comments Join Links Facebook

British Iron Age Tribal Names

Julian Ward-Davies

October 2018

Here is a list of all the known British Iron Age tribal names, together with translations of their names where possible.

The language of the Iron Age in Britain.
Almost all the names are examples of the Brittonic language, with some showing Irish and possibly Germanic influences. Brittonic, or Old British, eventually evolved into Welsh, Cornish and Breton.

The names can be interpreted in most cases with a knowledge of modern Welsh. It is as well to bear in mind that many of the names may have been used by people who were outsiders relative to the tribes concerned and in some cases certain of the the tribes may have used an entirely different name from the one recorded. However, on the other hand, it is known from inscriptions that many of the names were actually used by members of the tribes cited below. The Cornovii is a good example.

The sources of the names
Besides those recorded on inscriptions, tribal names are mentioned variously by the Greek geographer Ptolemy and by Julius Caesar in his book Commentaries on the Gallic War. Some of the names can be deduced from the names of their tribal capitals as given in the Antonine Itinerary.

Atrebates - (the) inhabitants.
Belgae - swollen (Welsh bolg = belly) with anger or pride people, or maybe they tended to have fat bellies.
Brigantes - highlanders or noble people.
Caereni - sheep people (ie shepherds).
Caledonii - possessing hard feet, (tough, sturdy people), or possibly indicating a rocky environment.
Cantiaci - people of the white cliffs + adjectival suffix ac (people of Kent)
Carnonacae - plural form of stone + adjectival plural form suffix akos, now og in Welsh. Perhaps they lived in a rocky area.
Carvetii - chariot people?
Catuvellauni - better in battle people. Fighters for Beli is another possibility. Beli was probably the chief god in the pantheon of Celtic religious culture. Cf Billericay: Beli y ri cae = Beli the king's field.
Corieltauvi - heroic people?
Corionototae - army tribe.
Cornovii - people of the horn (-god, -animal or salt).

A detailed plan of the hill fort at Stonnall, undoubtedly a stronghold of the Cornovii. Its ancient Celtic name was still in local usage as late as the 18th century and was recorded as Hean Castell (cf modern Welsh hen gastell = old fort). The hill fort was protected by the high ground of Shire Oak Hill to the north and by the marshy area, Stonnall Gorse, to the south (cf modern Welsh 'y gors' = the marsh).

Creones - ?
Damnonii - possibly the same as Dumnonii.
Decantae - good people, or ten (sub-tribes?)
Deceangli - fair (haired?) Angles(!)
Demetae - sheep people (shepherds).
Dobunni - victorious ones.
Dumnonii - dark, gloomy (place or people).

The tribes of southern Britain according to Ptolemy. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Durotriges - water (coastal) people.
Epidii - horse people (affinities to the animal or a horse god).
Gangani - looks like preposition gan = by/with, with gani = birth, to be born, ie born in the same tribe, similar to Iceni.
Iceni - I think it is cognate with Welsh i = to/for, with geni = birth, ie 'those who are born together'
Lopocares - ? possibly incorporating 'army'.
Lugi - possibly worshippers of the Celtic god Lugus, the deity of shoemakers. The tribe's speciality might have been the manufacture of shoes. Interestingly, Lleu was a shoemaker in Welsh mythology. Lug is also connected with oaths, lawmaking and the moon, so some or all of these factors may be involved.
Novantae - new men, ie newcomers, possibly migrants from northern Ireland, possibly mentioned in Y Gododdin (mediaeval Welsh literature).
Ordovices - hammer people?

Ptolemy map
Ptolemy's map of Great Britain and Ireland. Image: The National Library of Wales

Parisii - cauldron users, fighters, commanders - take your pick.
Regnenses - the proud ones.
Selgovae - the hunters.
Setantii - no consensus, but a sept or sub-tribe of the Brigantes possibly.
Silures - seed people, ie people of a common blood-stock.
Smertae - providers or purveyors?

Taexali - badger people? axe people?
Textoverdi - just claimants (presumably of the tribal lands).
Trinovantes - three groups of newcomers? vigorous people?
Vacomagi - possibly major cattle herders. If so, a Latin influence may be apparent, but as Old British and Latin are both descendents of Italo-Celtic, this is by no means a certainty.
Venicones - hunters with white hounds or kindred hounds, Maen Gwyngwn (area of white hounds), a region mentioned in Y Gododdin.
Votadini - possibly foremost + men, became Gododdin mentioned in early Welsh literature

If you are interested in Brittonic toponymy, don't miss Echoes From the Past, where there are many examples local to the Parish of Shenstone. Also, my Google map of Brittonic Place-Names in the West Midlands.

Click or tap here to like this article


© Julian Ward-Davies BA Hons PGCert, 2018

Design, image editing and programming are the work of the author.

If you have any information, suggestions and/or photographs relating to the subject matter, no matter how trivial, please contact the author by one of the methods shown below.

Please revisit for additions, amendments and revisions.

Home Contact News Interactive Articles Comments Join Links Facebook