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. In fact, it soon becomes clear that the names themselves are almost a set of Notices to Mariners, and disappointingly little of value can be extracted from the labours of Celtic linguists.
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, who needed to know about navigation marks, where to ride out storms, tidal flows, etc.
The next five seem to represent a passage into the outer Firth of Clyde, heading for the west end of the Antonine Wall: Manna, Botis, Vinion, Saponis, Susura.
Next come five islands named by Ptolemy as Εβουδαι, whose Cosmography names look even more 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. This is where the greatest uncertainty persists, and it is odd that the listing seems to go from north to south.
Notice three names that appear to have survived into modern times, but are probably just misleading coincidences: Botis ≠ Bute, Scetis ≠ Skye, Cana ≠ Canna. Note also that Pliny offered numbers of islands, 7 Haemodae and 30 Hebudes, while the Cosmography's curious word Terdec suggests 13.
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?
One mariner's identity is known: Demetrius of Tarsus. He told Plutarch, in AD 83-4, that “many of the islands off Britain were uninhabited and widely scattered, some of them being named after deities and demigods. He himself had sailed, for the sake of learning and observation, to the island nearest to the uninhabited ones, on an official mission. This island had a few inhabitants, who were holy men, and all held exempt from raiding by the Britons.” An article by Burn (1969) pointed out the parallel with later (Christian) holy men on remote islands. Demetrius was a Greek intellectual, who was probably on the staff of governor Agricola and who dedicated an inscription at York to Tethys a goddess associated with water.
There are also hints 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 did the Romans find veins of lead on Elaviana (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?
An academic article discussing all the ancient names of islands between Britain and Ireland is available on request. It has full references, maps, and detailed arguments, but not web hyperlinks. Comments and suggestions will be welcome.
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 10 March 2021