Western Scotland

Modern names of islands and coastal features in the west of Scotland are mostly Norse and/or Gaelic, plus of course English.  Gaelic names often came after Norse names.  There is no inherent objection to thinking that early, lost names were Celtic, possibly in early precursors of Gaelic or Welsh, or in the mysterious Pictish, but attempts to explain Roman-era names in this area using parallels from Celtic languages have almost entirely failed.

So the earliest names are generally described as “pre-Celtic”.  The implication is that they were coined in as yet unknown languages, as far back as the Bronze Age, possibly even non-Indo-European and related to Punic or Basque.  After all, Orkney has some of the oldest stone monuments in all of the British Isles, and the Outer Hebrides were settled very early.

The problem shows up acutely in Adomnan’s life of Saint Columba (active around AD 560), which mentions sixteen or so islands in sailing range of Iona.  None of their names can readily be connected to names in the Ravenna Cosmography.  Even though Adomnan wrote in Latin (like Saint Patrick around AD 400) it appears that little memory had survived of the period when much of Scotland was ruled by Rome.

Modern scholars who have studied this problem tend to be bewitched by a theory that island names were coined by their inhabitants.  However, it is obvious all over the world that islands get named by sailors and that islanders generally call their home something generic like “The Island”.  So it is entirely reasonable to wonder if the earliest recorded names in the west of Scotland were bestowed by sailors employed, directly or indirectly, by the Roman Empire.

Let’s look at the Cosmography’s list of names and cross-check them with Ptolemy’s Geography and with modern maps.  The Cosmography starts with ‘some islands set variously in the western ocean’, which seem to track from north-west England into the Firth of Clyde.  Corsula, Mona, Regaina, Minerve, Cunis can all be identified with reasonable confidence, thanks to Ptolemy and linguistic resemblances.   They suggest regular voyages, by traders or Roman navy logistics vessels.

The next five seem to represent a passage into the outer Firth of Clyde, with possibly a theme of natural resources available for cargo vessels: Manna, Botis, Vinion, Saponis, Susura.

Next come five islands (a number picked up by Ptolemy and Pliny), whose names look distinctly Graeco-Latin: Birila, Elaviana, Sobrica, Scetis, Linnonsa.

Finally there are nine names, continuing with a Graeco-Latin appearance, which possibly represent exploration further north, not regular commerce: Magancia, Anas, Cana, Atina, Elete, Daroeda, Esse, Grandena, Maiona, Longis.

Notice three names that appear to have survived into modern times, but are probably just misleading coincidences: Botis ≠ Bute, Scetis ≠ Skye, Cana ≠ Canna.

Further north, only Ptolemy supplies useful names.  Λογγου, Ιτυος, Ουολσας, Δουμνα.

There must have been some voyages across the Irish Sea and among the Scottish islands deep in prehistory, but there is no real evidence of regular trade before Roman times.  So it seems reasonable to guess that men who supplied the names that Ptolemy and the Cosmographer wrote down were rather like later explorers such as Magellan or Cook – technologically and culturally different from the native people they met.

Who were those Roman mariners?  Where were they recruited?  Locally, or from around the North Sea, or from the Mediterranean?  It is easy enough to imagine small groups of tough young men, not so very different from later Vikings, sailing or rowing by day and camping on beaches at night.  But what orders did they have from the Roman high command?  Was their mission to make maps, or to claim new lands for the Empire, or just to boldly go and claim bragging rights for their commander?

There are possible clues that Roman sailors were on the lookout for economically exploitable minerals.  For example the Cosmography remarks ubi et gemmae nascuntur ‘also where gems are born’ about the Exosades, and there is Birila the beryl island, and Grandena possibly named from wave-polished marble pebbles on the beaches.  And did the Romans find veins of lead on Linnonsa (Islay)?

The first person to arrive in a geologically complex area with the right technical skills naturally gets first pickings of any valuable rocks exposed at the surface.  Is it possible that Greek speakers from the eastern Mediterranean went on those voyages of exploration not only as skilled mariners but as technicians who knew about gemstones and metal ores?

You may copy this text freely, provided you acknowledge its source, recognise that it is liable to human error, and try to offer suggestions for improvement.  Last edited 15 July 2016