The Horsemen

Tribes of Northern Roman Britain (Wikipedia Commons)
Tribes of Northern Roman Britain (Wikipedia Commons)

If you look at the map above, there is a tribe named the Epidii in the western isles of Scotland. This tribe as been a bit enigmatic because the name has never appeared on any maps or referred to in any writings after Ptolomy’s survey during the Flavian era. The name Epidii has as its root epos, meaning horse. As it stands it appears to be in the Brythonic language. I’ve always thought that it was strange that the men of Kintyre and the western isles would be known as horsemen, considering that this is unlikely to be good horse country. Although there are Pictish symbol stones with what look like sea horses: horse’s head and foreleg with a fishes tail. There are also many other types of symbol stones in Scotland with horses.  Fraser has recently written that there is continuity in the name for Kintyre.

In Gaelic, the word “reti and later riata, normally denotes a riding horse” (Fraser, p. 148). This is significant because Reti is the root word of Dalriada. (Dal Reti -> Dal Riata -> Dalriada) So Dalriada/Dal Riata reflects the name of the Roman era Epidii.  As Fraser showed in an earlier paper, the progenitor of the 6th-7th century royal family of Dalraida was known as Domangart Reti. (Aedan mac Gabran mac Domangart Reti) I have written before about the use of a regional name attached to a rulers name, such as Constantine Corneu, Maelgwn Gwynedd, Urien Rheged etc. This might suggest that Domangart’s family took control of Kintyre, or at least organized it, during his time. Domangart is the ancestor of Cenel Gabran of Kintyre and Cenel Comgall of Cowal. This does not necessarily mean that the Irish first came to the area in Domangart’s time. Frazer and others have noted that there is no archaeological disruption in the area throughout the era. Before I get away from the name is also worth noting that two ancient genealogical tracts, Cethri primchenela and Miniugud senchasa fher nAlban, that unite all of the kindreds (cenels) of Dalraida do so with an ultimate ancestor named Eochaid, “the Gaelic cognate (in later form) of Epidii” (Fraser, p. 148)

Fraser hypothesizes that the people of Kintyre and surounding islands converted from Brythonic speakers to Gaelic between the Flavian period and when they reappear in the written record as Dalraida.  Again he notes that this linguistic changed occurred when there was no accompanying archaeological change, no change in material culture. At the same time, there was a group of people in northern Ireland known by the name Cruithni, which means “Britons” in Gaelic. At some undated point, these ‘britons’ began speaking Gaelic. So we have Gaelic-speaking Britons in Ireland and people who supposedly came from Ireland converting territory in Britain to Gaelic. It is also worth noting that the Gaelic name for the Picts is Cruithni. So Irish authors used the same word to describe rulers in Ulster as in Pictland.

“The Cruithni may have been British incomers from various parts of the west of outer Brigantia, Argyll, and the Hebrides. Later Gaelic ethnographers distinguished Dal Riata from the Cruithni in racial terms. If we set such pseudo-history aside, we are confronted by two neighboring Early Historic peoples, one based largely in Britain with a small presence in Antrim, and the other based in Ireland but known as ‘Britons’. Together they form a link between Argyll and north-east Ireland that scholars require to explain Gaelic in Argyll. Contrary to the conventional model and early medieval origin mythology, however, the link probably arose from inclusions into Ireland from Britain, and not the other way around. There is nothing at all unlikly about the proposition that the inhabitants of Argyll ‘went Gaelic’ along with the Cruithni in Ireland, even if precisely how, and moreover when, such a process could have taken place remains unclear.” (Fraser, p. 148-149)

Clearly the Early Historic period has much to teach us about linguistic change. It calls to mind how many Irishmen settled in southwestern Britain, in Wales and Dumnonia, only to leave no linguistic trace. Legend claims that the kingdom of Dyfed in Wales has Irish origins related in the tale, the ‘expulsion of the Deisi’, yet they eventually spoke Brythonic/Welsh. There are a few archaeological traces of Irish in Wales, notably ogham writing.

The northern examples of linguistic change in Kintyre and Antrim may be informative for the dominance of English in Bernicia and elsewhere that lacks a lot of early archaeological evidence of Germanic settlement. The archaeological evidence of Germanic settlement is a little more pronounced, but then we would expect Germanic settlement to be more of an abrupt change than from one Celtic culture to another Celtic culture.


James Fraser (2009) From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795. Edenburgh UP

5 thoughts on “The Horsemen

  1. Right, okay, even more than Alex Woolf’s I have to read this now. I will probably spit feathers and cast it down upon the bed in annoyance, but I have to read it. Thanks for continuing to make this clear 🙂

  2. When you see what he does to Urien you may indeed be spitting feathers. I haven’t found the energy to tackle that topic yet.

  3. Dear Michelle,

    Your post above is very insightful. By the way, Eochaidh and the other two names are my legal names. I read a book about Irish clanns and read that some young Irish Americans are legally changing their names to A’ Gaeilge names.

    I’m right at this moment up-dating my web-page, Na Fineachan Gaidhealach: The Day Before Mons Graupius. I always knew that the Epidii were the Dal Riata. Your post will allow me to state the obvious.

    The Votadini (Fo-taidh-daoine = multitude of Dwarf people = the Irish) became the Gododdin (Go = Fo; -do = taidh; and -din = daoine). A king of theirs united the Southern Picts (who were Irish) with the Northern Picts (who were Brythonnic (Old Welsh) = Clann Brodie = Brigante = Caledonii (Coille -daoine)).

  4. Interestingly, the Macleods(especially of Lewis and Raasay) were known as the race or seed of the mare(Siol na Larach), they had the horse as their totem. It was said if you dreamed of a horse you were sure to meet a Macleod. Perhaps the name was originally something akin to Mac Gille Eochaid

  5. How about this: some Romans are sailing along the Kintyre coast, and the only humans they ‘espy’ are racing along the coast, checking out the largish ship. So, calling this area the Land of the Horsemen makes some sense: ie, “Remember, that week, when we saw a bunch of men on horses, galloping along the coast and waving at us??” Also, if I were an ancient Roman, I wouldn’t be to anxious to land on Kintyre, as most of its length, it would look like a barren, unpopulated ridge.

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