The Edinburgh Geologist
Issue no 35

Celtic Connections 

by Alyn Jones

In the final paragraph of my Editorial in the Spring issue of The Edinburgh Geologist, I asked whether anyone knew anything about the Ancient British tribes, the Ordovices and the Silures. In response to this, I was sent the following contribution by Alyn Jones of Ashby de la Zouch.

The Ordovices and the Silures, which gave their name to the geological ages Ordovician and Silurian, were Celtic tribes living in western Britain at about the time of the Roman conquest in 43 CE. The Ordovices occupied most of northern Wales from about Aberystwyth in the west to near Shrewsbury and the Long Mynd, while the Silures inhabited southeastern Wales from present-day Llanelli to Newport. 

In 51 CE, Caractacus took the warlike Silures north to join the Ordovices and was defeated by the Romans. The Ordovices were reputedly annihilated ten years later by the Roman general Seutonius Paulinus in order to safeguard the Roman Province from their depredations. 

The name Ordovician was first used by Charles LapworthƯ in 1887 and Silurian by Roderick Murchison in 1835. 

Two, or possibly three, other Celtic tribal names from this same period have been used in British geology, leading to the Brigantian, the Caledonian and, by a slightly more circuitous route, the Devonian. The Brigantes occupied the valleys of the Pennines and the north-west of England and much of Yorkshire, south to Cheshire and north into southern Scotland. 

The Caledones were located a little to the north of Perth in the upper Tay valley with Schiehallion, which takes its name from the Gaelic Sithean Chailleann, the fairy hill of the Caledonians, as their sacred mountain. The Caledones were defeated, with their allies the Picts, by Agricola at the battle of Mons Graupius in 84 CE. The site of the battle is now believed to be near Bennachie, west of Inverurie. As a somewhat bizarre aside, the sixteenth century historian Hector Boece misread the name Mons Graupius as Mons Grampius and thus gave the name to the Grampian mountains. They have in turn given their name to the Grampian orogeny, a mountain-building event of around 470 Ma. 

The name Brigantian was given to a Stage in the Visean (Carboniferous) by Ramsbottom and Mitchell in 1980. Description of the Caledonians goes back to 1656, but its use in geological literature is of the early Nineteenth Century. The name of Devon is thought to have been derived from the Dumnonii, who occupied that part of the country. 

This all rather begs the question as to who were all these Celtic tribes and where did they come from? There is an immense amount of literature about and by them going back to 500 BC but it is only in the last thirty years or so that a clearer picture has emerged. The Celts left almost no written records before about 500 CE, and it is reports from Greek and Roman writers that give the earliest information, together with that from archaeology. It is the Roman names that appear on the map here. 

The origins of the Celtic peoples are uncertain but they appear to have started to migrate from eastern Europe around 2000 BC and spread across western Europe including Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, France and the Low Countries before arriving in the British Isles about 700 BC at the beginning of the Early Iron Age. There were further incursions from France and the Low Countries in the early part of the fifth century BC, mainly into south-east England. Britain had been inhabited from the Bronze age or earlier going back to at least 2000 BC but it is not clear whether the Celts displaced this earlier population or simply colonised them. The Celts were never a unified kingdom but remained a tribal people with a more or less common language base. 

Once established in Britain, Celtic society was temporarily disrupted in southern England by Caesar's raids of 55 and 54 BC but continued to flourish for nearly a century with increasing influence from the Roman world. During the Roman period, especially in southern Britain, it subtly metamorphosed into a Romano-Celtic (usually referred to as Romano-British) culture, in which some of the most outstanding achievements were in art. This Romanisation continued until 409 CE when the Legions were withdrawn and the invasions of several different groups began. 

Scotland by this time was ruled by several Pictish kings but in the early 500s CE in the west of Scotland, the Scots, a Celtic tribe from northeastern Ireland occupied Argyll while the by-then North and South Picts moved into Cumbria and the German Anglo-Saxons invaded eastern England. It is believed that these last were in quite small numbers but their influence eventually led to their dominance. The purer Celts remained on the edges in Cornwall, Brittany, Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland and Scotland where they continued their tribal life until around 1200 CE. The last remnants are still with us in the clans of Scotland and Ireland though much muted since 1745. 


Delaney, F. 1986. The Celts, BBC Publications: Hodder and Stoughton, London. 

Dillon, M. & Chadwick, N. 1967. The Celtic Realms, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London. 

Laing, L. & Laing, J. 1995. Celtic Britain and Ireland, The Herbert Press, London. 

Laing, L. & Laing, J. 1998. The Picts and the Scots, Wrens Park Publishing. 

Mordecai, S. et al. 1991. The Celts, Rizzoli, New York. 

Ramsbottom, W.H.C. & Mitchell, M. 1980. The recognition and division of the Tournasian Series in Britain, Journal of the Geological Society, Volume 137, pp. 61-63. 

After graduating from Edinburgh University and joining the Edinburgh Geological Society in 1953, Alyn Jones went into the mining industry as a geologist. Metal mining was first at Wanlockhead, followed by coal mining in the West Midlands, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, Kent, North Wales, Lancashire and Cumberland. He took early retirement in 1985 but did a little work in India after this.

[Return to Edinburgh Geologist index]

[Home] [News] [About] [Lectures] [Excursions] [Publications] [Edinburgh's geology] [GeoConservation] [Links]