The Novantae

"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."

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:

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 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

GlenlocharAuxiliary Fort and complex of six Marching Camps strategically situated at the crossing of the River Dee.
Gatehouse of FleetFortlet at a crossing of the Water of Fleet.
Newton StewartProbable military site at the lowest crossing point of the River Cree.
GlenluceMarching Camp beside the Water of Luce at the eastern end of Luce Bay.
StranraerProbable 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 Gnaeus Julius 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 near the Water of Urr on the Solway Firth and the two legionary Marching Camps at Girvan Mains 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 thier 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 and Drumlanrig. 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.

Bibliographical Links

See: 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);