Dark Age Candles (VIII) : The Attacotti


As a little break from Axis & Allies I’m now in the National Library of Scotland working on the Attacotti theory I’ve been working on.  A few weeks back the Shetland Times printed a strange version of my Attacotti theory, which they allowed to be intercepted by the curator of the island’s main museum. “Probably not,” says Dr Ian Tait. Well, we’ll just have to see about that.

IMG_20160512_034941Our quest begins with something I’d noticed in a map left behind at my new house in East Lothian. Most versions of Ptolemy’s Geography mention an island called Sketis off the north-eastern coast of Scotland, which past historians have assumed was Skye, misplaced. However, in the map I was looking at, it had a completely different name – Ocitis. This is the version found in most manuscripts of the Geography, & for me it contained a clear phonetic match to the Cotti of the Attacotti. Now these guys were a northern British tribe which turn up in the 4th century.  Ammianus Marcellinus, who wrote a history of Rome in the late fourth century, mentions (book 27) describes them as ‘a warlike race of men‘ who fought alongside the Picts & Scots in what is known as the ‘Barbarian Conspiracy’ of the mid 360s.

It will, however, be in place to say, that at that time the Picts, divided into two tribes, called Dicalydones and Verturiones, as well as the Attacotti, a warlike race of men, and the Scots, were ranging widely and causing great devastation; while the Gallic regions, wherever anyone could break in by land or by sea, were harassed by the Franks and their neighbours, the Saxons, with cruel robbery, fire, and the murder of all who were taken prisoners.

In the same century, St Jerome traveled to Gaul, where he observed certain members of the Attacotti getting up to some rather bestial behaviour, writing of them in his Adversus Jovinianum (c.393AD);

Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the paps of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.

So, the Attacotti were a bunch of warlike cannibals, some of whom found themselves in Gaul. The evidence for them on the Continent comes in the Notitia Digitatum, compiled about 400 AD, which lists four Attacotti auxillary regiments as fighting in the Roman Legions, two of of whom, the Honoriani Atecotti seniores & the Atecotti iuniores Gallicani,  were stationed in Gaul. It seems that after Count Theodosius’ restoration of Roman order in Britain, the Attacotti were recruited to fight as auxilia palatina in the legions. The Notitia reads

In Italy: Atecotti Honoriani iuniores

In the Gauls with the illustrious master of horse in Gauls:
Atecotti Honoriani seniores
Atecotti iuniores Gallicani.


For a long, long time, scholars have speculated on the homelands of the Attacotti, but to no avail. However, while looking at an Ogham inscription on an obscure Pictish stone discovered on the Shetland Islands, I hit paydirt. Etched into what is known as the Lunnasting Stone, it reads;

ettecuhetts: ahehhttannn: hccvvevv: nehhtons 
(Forsyth 1996)

Chispologically speaking, Ettecuhets is a lovely match for Attacotti, especially when we combine two variant spelling in the Notitia, being ‘attecotti’ & ‘attcoetti,’ as in;  Attecoet / Ettecuhet. Elsewhere on the Shetlands, at a place called Cunningsburgh, another Pictish stone also seems to mention the Attacotti.

  Transcription :   +TTEC[O^G][–] | [–]A[V^BL]:DATT[V][B!][–] | [–][A!]VVR[–]
     Reading :   ETTEC[O^G] [–][A!]VVR[–]A[V^BL]: DATT[V][B!][–]

There is an island called Mousa, just a stone-skip across the waters from Cuningsburgh, which is home to the greatest of all the stone, Pictish roundhouses known as Brochs. Archeologists calculate a date of 100 BC for its construction, which leads us to a possible discovery of the etymological root of the Attacotti.

brochs_mapIf we look at the distribution of the Pictish brochs, we see that they are found chiefly in Caithness, the Orkneys & the Shetlands. Archeologically speaking, the majority of them date from around 100 BC to 100 AD. If we conject that the broch-builders are part of the same tribe, & that the Attacotti at Cuningsburgh built the broch at Mousa, then we can assume that the Attacotti were also found on the Orkney islands & also on the mainland at Caithness. The central portion of this ‘empire’ are the Orkney islands,  which fits in perfectly with the nerve-centre of a Pictish diaspora as described by Hector Boece, a sixteenth century Scottish Historian.  According to Boece, the first Scottish region in which the Picts ever settled was the Orkney Islands, after which they spread south into Scotland as far as Lothian. In his ‘History & Chronickles of Scotland’ Boece writes;

Nocht lang efter, a banist pepill, namit Pichtis, come furth of Denmark, to serche ane dwelling place ; and, efter that thay war inhibit to land baith in France, Britane, and Ireland, thay landit in Albion. Sum authouris sayis, thay come first in Orknay ; and, sone  efter, in Cathues, Ros, Murray, Mernis, Angus, Fiffe, and Louthiane : and expellit all the pepill, that inhabit that region afore thair  cuming. Thir pepill war callit Pichtis, outhir for thair semely personis, or ellis for the variant colour of thair clething ; or ellis thay war namit Pichtis, fra the Pichtis namit Agathirsanis, thair anciant faderis. In probation heirof, Orknay wes calht the auld realme of  Pichtis. Siclike, thee seeis betwix Cathnes and Orknay war namit Pentland Firth ; and all the landis, quhilkis ar now callit Louthiane,
war callit than Pentland.

Another 16th century historian, William Camden, gives us some slightly more readable information about the early Pictish settlement of Scotland, stating that at,  ‘…the time of Reuther King of Scots; when the Scots, by an intestine division, warring upon one another, each Party being assisted by a considerable number of the Picts, they fought so desperately, that, besides Gethus King of the Picts, the greatest number both of Scots and Pictish Nobility were killed, with many thousands of the Commons of both Nations. Which great slaughter, with the invasion of the Britons at the same time, constrain’d the Picts (who perceived themselves unable to resist) to fly, some by land and others by sea, to Orkney, where they abode for a time, and made Gothus, brother of the foresaid Gethus, their King. And after a few years, having left some of their number to people and plant the Countrey, they return’d to Louthian; and having expelled the Britons, settled themselves again in their ancient possessions.

Between Camden & Boece we learn that the original Pictish settlement in Scotland had its main powerbase on the Orkneys, with a secondary settlement in the Lothians. This leads us to another passage in Camden, in which the mainland across from the Orkneys – Caithness – seems to be named after King Gethus himself;

Now Orkney, being a cluster of thirty Isles, separated from one another by little arms of the Sea: they are said in a certain old manuscript to be so call’d from Argat, that is (as it is there explain’d) Above the Getes: But I had rather interpret it, Above the Cat; for it lies over-against Cath, a Country of Scotland, which, from the promontory, is now called Catness; the Inhabitants whereof seem to be falsly called, in Ptolemy, Carini instead of Catini.”

Whatever ‘certain old manuscript‘ Camden was using, it definitely gave the Caithness region an original name of Getes, with the Orkneys being ‘above them.’ That the G & C are interchangeable can be seen in two historical notices of the Pictish kingdom of Cat. In the Pictish Chronicle, the seven kingdoms of the Picts are given as, ‘Fib, Fidach, Floclaid, Fortrenn, Got, Ce, Circinn,’ while the Irish translation of the Historia Brittonum  states their names are Cait, Ce, Cireach cetach cland, Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Foirtreand.’

Returning to King Gethus, that he was a contemporary of ‘Reuther King of Scots;’ as given by both Boece & Bellenden allows Gethus to be inserted into the following time-frame;

Kings of Scots
Fergus I : said to come to Scotland in 330 BC
Reuther : ————-

Kings of Picts
————– Gethus :  gives his daughter in marriage to Reuther
Cianus :  Taken prisoner by Claudius in the Orkneys (43 AD)

 These dates place the Gethus/Gothus brothes a couple of generations before the Claudian conquest of Britain, say, 80 years or so, which to the middle of the first century BC. This reinforces the connection between the Getes & the Broch-builders, & for me there is too much frantic chispological activity going on to deny that the Attacotti were connected to the broch-building ‘Getes.’ But lets just see if we can strengthen the theorum with as much evidence as we can;

The Etymology of ‘Attacotti’

When looking at the the name, Attacotti, I wasn’t convinced by Philip Rance’s ideas about the Attacotti being based on the Irish Aithceach Tuatha  (Deisi and Magnus Maximus: the Case for Irish Federates in Late. Roman Britain 2001). Instead, I decided to have a pop myself & divide the name up into Atta & Cotti. Both Latin & old Gothic render Atta as ‘father,’ which could translate as ‘father gothus,’ indicating that they were descended from the Orkney Pitcs. That the Picts are said to have a possible Scythian & German origins support a Gothic ‘Atta.’ However, after discovering the former naming of the Shetlands as ‘Ocitis,’ I realised that dividing the name into ‘At’ & ‘Acotti’ seems more prudent. In Latin, Et means both, & we have already seen how the Ogham describes the ettecuhetts. This then leads us to something like, ‘both acotti.’ We have seen how ‘Argat’ means ‘above the Getes’ & was applied to the Orkneys. The Shetland Isles are also found above the Getes,’ which fits into the idea of two divisions of the ‘Acotti,’ both of which lie beyond Caithness, which I’m giving the rather poetic name of ‘The Kingdom of the Two Cats.’ As already stated, support for this comes from that island called ‘Ocitis’ found in Ptolemy I mentioned at the start of the post. Its there, right at the edge of the page at the 20th parralell.


     map 1         2000px-OrkneyShetlandConstituency.svg

Ptolemy describes four main islands off the far northern coast of Britain. What I found interesting is that with the map of Scotland clearly turned 90 degreees on its axis, then the two Ptolemic islands, Dumna & Ocitis seem to match the situations & correlations of the Orkneys & the Shetlands. This suggests that Ptolemy – who never really left the Meditterranean – may have used two seperate travellers accounts for this part of the world, which became superimposed upon each other. This means that Dumna would also be the Orkneys, that Ocitis would also be Thule, & thus Thule would also be the Shetlands. Evidence for this comes as flows;

Ocitis as Shetland

In one MS, Ptolemy’s Ocitis appears as Sketis, about 70 miles easterly off ‘Cape Orkas.’ Most scholars say this was Skye misplaced. But Sketis becomes Schetis becomes Camden’s Schetland  just as easy, and Shetland is about 70 miles NE of Scotland, i.e. Cape Orkas. We must also acknowledge that the Shetlands were also known by the name of ‘Inse Catt’- ie island of the Cats.

Dumna as the Orkneys

255px-DamsayIn the very centre of the Orkney archipelago, there is a small, flat islet called Damsay, which could well have derived from Dumna. It seems that in the distant past, it was quite an important spot. The island is home to a number of submerged constructions, with Caroline Wickham-Jones, of Aberdeen University, telling the BBC in 2009;

We have certainly got a lot of stonework. There are some quite interesting things. You can see voids or entrances… There’s this one feature that is like a stone table – you’ve got a large slab about a metre and a half long and it’s sitting up on four pillars or walls so the next thing we need to do is to get plans and more photographs to try and assess and look for patterns. The quality and condition of some of the stonework is remarkable. Nothing like this has ever been found on the seabed around the UK.

The thinking here is that in the deepest iron-age past, the Orkney Islands were actually named Dumna, with its spiritual centre being situated somewhere on or about the island of Damsey. The name should derive from Domnu, the Celtic goddess of the Summer Solstice Goddess. She is described as the Mother of Water who absorbs and reflects the rays of the sun as it climbs to it’s annual zenith. A place so far north as the Orkneys, then, would be a perfect place to celebrate the unbroken sunlight of midummer

Thule as Shetland

Several contenders for Thule have been proffered over the years, from Iceland to the Scandinavian land-mass, but in a genius & comprehensive bit of investigation – in an age long before google – Camden tells us quite decisively;

But if that of the learned Gaspar Peucerus, in his Book De Terræ Dimensione, be true, that Schetland is by the Seamen call’d Thilensell (and I know no reason to except against his testimony) Thule is undoubtedly discover’d, and the Controversie at an end… Schetland is the same with Thule, we may believe, First, from the situation of it in Ptolemy: For Thule is plac’d in the sixty third degree from the Æquinoctial by Ptolemy, and so is Schetland. call’d by some Hethland. Again, it lies between Scotland and Norway; where Saxo Grammaticus places Thule, as but two days sail from the point of Cathness; in which Distance Solinus also places it: And Tacitus says, that the Romans spy’d it afar off, as they sail’d by the Orcadesin their voyage round Britain (83 AD). Lastly, it faces the coast of Bergæ in Norway; and so lay Thule, according to Pomponius Mela, in which author the text is corruptly Belgarum littori, instead of Bergarum littori. For Bergæ, a City in Norway, lies over-against Shetland; and Pliny makes Bergos to be in this tract, which I take to be the small Country wherein Bergæ is seated; as none will deny that Norway is Pliny’s Nerigon.

Both Pliny & Strabo noted the comment of the fourth century BC Greek Geograper, Pytheas, that Thule was a six-day voyage north of Britain. Which in the terms of a antiquital voyaging seems about right – in 54 BC, for example, it took Cesar 18 hours to sail from Boulogne to Dover. That Thule was a Pictish possession is inferred from the poet Claudian who, writing about 400 AD, places them on the island;

The Orkney Isles with Saxon Blood were wet,
And Thule with Pictish gore did sweat.

What the Saxons were doing on the Orkneys in 400 AD is unclear, but the Pictish presence on Shetland / Thule in 400 AD is pretty much sealed.


It seems pretty much nailed on that the Attacotti were based in the northern islands of Scotland, & as such we can strengthen the theory ever more. Earlier in the post we saw how the Picts left their Lothian possessions on the death of King Gethus, but later on in time returned to their lands in Lothian. Camden writes;

After a few years, having left some of their number to people and plant the Countrey, they return’d to Louthian; and having expelled the Britons, settled themselves again in their ancient possessions.

What is remarkable here is that in the Lothian regions, at Traprain Law, the capital of the Votadini tribe, a silver horde was found in which the shield pattern of the Honoriani Attacotti Seniores seems to have been replicated on a silver plate. Indeed, the coinage in the horde determines that it was deposited during the reign of emperor Honorius himself.

This image is a reconstruction based upon fragments found in the horde.
To this we must add the presence of King Loth, a 6th century Pictish king remembered as ruler of both the Lothians & the Orkneys. Historians have often been a tad bemused at this double kingdom, but we can now see that he was in fact the ruler of the Attacotti in the 6th century. To this we can also imagine that the etymology of Gododdin – a  version of the Votadini – could also be connected to the ‘Cotti’ of Caithness, etc – where the Pictis chronicle calls them Got.
Looking once more at the Notitia shield patterns, it is with the Junior Honorianes that a real clincher can be found. Their shield carries a curious image of two heads facing each other, with at least one of them seeming to be a bill-beaked bird. An extremely similar image is also found on a Pictish stone discovered in 1887 at Papil, West Burra, in the Shetlands.
The stone was found at a pre-norse  Christian centre – the name Papil comes from papar – a Nordic word for priests – & was removed to the National Museum in Edinburgh, though a replica still stands in the churchyard of St Laurence’s Church, Papil. Kelly A Kilpatrick, in his ‘The iconography of the Papil Stone: sculptural and literary comparisons with a Pictish motif’ (Proc Soc Antiq Scot, 141 (2011), 159–205), writes of the birdmen,
 They have commonly been regarded as a misrepresentation of the Temptation of St
Antony, but this theory is debatable and needs to be compared and contrasted within the wider framework of this motif in Irish and Pictish art. Examples of axe-brandishing human and beast-headed figures are, however, found in Pictish sculpture, and are comparable with the imagery on the Papil Stone. Furthermore, the bird-men motif on the Papil Stone has striking parallels with contemporary battlefield demons in early Irish literature
 A common interpretation of the Papil birdmen is that they are a distorted representation
of the Temptation of St Antony, a scene in which Antony was tempted by women disguised as birds who whispered into his ear. This was, in the words of Radford), ‘a favourite scene on the Irish crosses, where it is usually pictured in a more realistic manner.’
Detail of the Temptation of St. Antonny the hermit. Moone high cross, Kildare
The Papil bird-men have a stronger connection with axe- and weapon-carrying hybrid & monstrous human-like figures in Pictish sculpture. There are 10 similar examples in the corpus of Pictish sculpture, three of which, it should be emphasised, have bird-features. They occur as single figures or as single figures associated with an anmimal or beast, & also as paired figures like the Papil bird-men. They must have had a long currency in Pictish art, for they are found on a variety of monumental media, ranging from simple incised stone boulders to panelled motifs on elaborate cross-slabs and even on a sculpted shrine panel.
Of these, the image of a dog-masked man found at Cuningsburgh, Shetland, where as we have seen there was an inscription to the Attacotti, seems the most important. Also of interest is a stone found at Murthly, Perthsire.  When comparing it with the Juniores shield pattern, we see that to the left is the long-beaked bird & to the right is the stubby-nosed dog or boar.

4 thoughts on “Dark Age Candles (VIII) : The Attacotti

  1. Very interesting reading and great research as always Damo.
    I had thought that Attacotti might connect with Scots, but i see they are both mentioned in a same source that you quoted.
    “6 neighbour islands of the Ocean (Ireland, Iceland, Gothland, the Orkneys, Norway and Dacia/Denmark).” – Geoff of Mon.
    Not sure about the other islands, but it looks like you could be right about Thule being Shetland, though i haven’t researched this any much myself. One doubt was that a source mentions 3 island Albion, Ierne and Thule, which might suggest a larger island, but Shetland is possible there. Olaus Magnus map shows ‘Tile’ which is similar to Thyle and Thilensell. (Tyrians were from Tylos which some connect with Dilmun.) There may be some analogy of Thule opp Bergos, and Thanet opp Belgium?
    I had only previously heard of Thule and hadn’t known about the other islands. Not sure myself if it is likely that the 4 islands are 2 islands doubled, but it is hard to see any easy good match.
    I just wondering if Dumn(i)a could possibly connect with Damona (sheep goddess), and so with the Faeroes or Fair isle whose names mean “sheep”? Or with Burns’ ‘Doon’, or with Dunnet Head?
    Sketis would seem closer to Shetland than Skye like you suggest. Looking up linguist dictionary they claim Shetland is from hjalt “hilt” and Skye from sgiath “wing” (plus Skye has a district Sleat), which might be closer name the other way around though? Unless there is a link with Skara Brae (which i once thought might be Scheria/Phaeacia) which they claim is from skari “shore”.
    Interestingly they say Orkney might be from orca “whale, sea monster”, which makes me wonder about Loch Ness monster? Wiki says Olaus Magnus map shows a monster, an orca, and a balena near Tile/Thule. (Though i had thought that Orc(h)ades was from Orcus (Pluto).) It looks like Orkney & Ness mentioned in Egil’s Saga or Orkneyinga Saga?
    Have you seen the book by Kaledon Naddair?

    1. In regard to the Saxons being in the Orkneys around 400CE, a time before scholars see them as moving over to England, there are various recordings of Saxons here in these islands, going back to a record in the ‘Poems of Sidonius’ where it is recorded that the first battles of the Romans in these islands were fought against a confederation of Scots, Picts and Saxons. This is some 500 years before the Saxons were supposed to have sailed here. Again, a plaque in Mold, North Wales, records a battle fought between the Britons (Welsh) and the Picts, Scots and Saxons. This was around 430CE.

      There is a record of an invasion of the Orkneys by Saxons led by Octa (son/Grandson of Hengest, depending on accounts) and Ebussa. Although these have been ignored by scholars I have read a recent archaeological find of SAXON runes in Maes Howe, so this account is most likely true. (The English Runes vary in parts from the Elder Futhark and the Viking Runes.) This is far later than the one mentioned around 400CE, but I think there is an account of a Saxon invasion in the 4th Century CE.

      The Attacotti –

      The Chatti were settled in Surrey before the Romans came, and another tribe known as the Catuvellauni in West Essex, the latter perhaps being a Roman variant. It is interesting to note the connection with the Goths, since we do seem to have dim memories of Gothic Tribes here in these islands, and the famous Old English text of Beowulf tells the story of the Geats (Goths) –

      Got – Catti

      Attacotti – Atta-Catti

      There was a Pictish Tribe called the Verturiones who have a variant name of Vecturiones, Vecta being one of the Ancestral Names of the Jutes, and the Jutes are considered to be Geats/Goths/Getae/Gots, and the word ‘Getes’ mentioned here (In regard to this, an area of Sweden is named ‘Gotaland’ pronounced ‘Yotaland’, hence the variations in the sound-names.) The Vecturiones were associated with the Attacotti.

      If your idea of the Orkneys being called ‘Dumna’ is right then the tribe known as the Dumnonians who occupied Devonshire were also linked to this in some way. Contrary to modern theories England had a high proportion of Germanic-Norse here before the Roman invasions, and it does not follow that the ‘Dumnonians’ were Celtic in origin. Coins of the Iceni Tribe show what coin experts call the ‘Eye of Odin’ (or ‘Eye of Woden’ to be more precise) and a Greek name given to the Chatti was ‘Kenni’ which could form part of the name I-cen-ni. In Wales there is a memory of a Germanic presence in the name Gwydion/Wydion who is the English ‘Woden’.

      The extent of the Saxon incursions into different parts of Britain has never been fully estimated. In 1999 the ‘Irish Times’ printed an article about an archaeological find in the centre of Dublin, Ireland. It seems that whilst digging BELOW the Viking settlement they found a ‘Saxon dwelling’, which would hardly have been a single dwelling so we can assume they found a settlement, or left it at that so that this would not have been widely known. Even in earlier times (back to 100BCE) there was a people known as the Deceanglii (Roman) or ‘Tegeingl’ (Welsh) in the area of Leinster, Ireland. The name ‘Anglii’ was used by Tacitus of the Angles or English, and ‘Tege-Ingl’ translates as ‘Fair Ingl’ – the English today still call themselves ‘Inglish’. This tribe moved further eastwards over the centuries, through Gwynedd and Anglesey (Angle’s Island’) and then into Flintshire, where the area they settled was named ‘Englefield’ – ‘Field of the Engle’. Dublin is in Leinster which is interesting in view of what I said here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>