The Celtic Britons

by Gordon Lightburn

Banner Image: Hartsop Romano-British Settlement © Anne Clarke


Exactly when in time the iron-using Celtic people arrived in Cumberland and Westmoreland remains an open question, in part due to the general lack of archaeological evidence hitherto uncovered, but it is generally thought to be during the 3rd and 2nd Centuries BC, having made their way to the fertile plains of the Eden valley and eastern approaches of the Lake District by migrating across the Pennines from Yorkshire.

More proficient farming

Technically more proficient than their Bronze Age neighbours, they brought a more advanced mixed farming economy, in which horses were bred for riding and draught work. Together with superior skill and craftsmanship in working iron and other metals. The westerly trajectory of migration would suggest that the tribe known as the Carvetti was a sub tribe of the larger Brigantes tribe, which came to dominate the entire region of what is now Northern England.

Gods, Goddesses and Druids

The name Carvetti is thought to translate into ‘those who belong to the deer’. This link may also account for the worship of the horned god ‘Belacutadros’ for which several alters have been identified at Brougham, as well as elsewhere. Celtic culture was polytheistic, there were other Gods and Goddesses too; Brigantia - Goddess of rivers and water. Also Epona – the Celtic Horse Goddess and very many more. Access to these Gods was furnished through the Druids, who provided religious leadership, as well as acting as adjudicators, lore keepers, medical professionals and political advisors. The Druids maintained an oral tradition, passing their extensive knowledge and history verbally through successive generations - a knowledge subsequently lost - following their disappearance in the turmoil of the following centuries.

Warrior tradition

In Celtic society, women shared a more equal role with the men, including their acceptance to rule. The Celts were respected for their hardiness, resourcefulness and upheld a steadfast warrior tradition. In battle they would pattern themselves in blue wode. They wore little or no armour, relying instead on agility and aggression and were quick to the fight – an apparent fearlessness that on occasion could lead to undoing.

At the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43, the Carvettian capital is believed to have been centred at Clifton Dykes at the eastern edge of the Ullswater /Eamont catchment, placing it at the intersection of 4 main routes - as it still is today. It is also close to the nearby henge of Mayburgh - making it the likely meeting point central to the region.

Ullswater's Celtic Settlements

Celtic settlement within the Valley is evidenced by the hillfort at Dunmallard and the family settlement circle at Maiden Castle, Watermillock. Further settlements have been investigated at Baldhowend and Glencoyne Park. The abundance of natural resources of Ullswater – fishing, deer, boar, wild geese and plentiful woodland would compensate for the relatively difficult agricultural terrain, with the higher fells above the treeline providing adequate summer grazing for sheep, hill cattle; and the ponies, the descendants of which graze the uplands to this day. The extensive deposits of iron ore within the Valley would certainly have been exploited but precise evidence is sparse due to the subsequent activities of later settlers and miners.

Cumbric Place Names

The language spoken was known as Brittonic, shared throughout Britannia, albeit in comparable dialect forms. This language would evolve into ‘Cumbric’ and bequeath many a place name to the area, such as Blencathera (the summit of the seat like mountain) and Mel as in Mell Fell (meaning little round hill). It lives on also in the traditional counting system Yan, Tan, Tethera.

The Celtic peoples and in particular their traditions in this region, struggled to endure the Roman military occupation of the region from circa AD80 – AD410.

by Gordon Lightburn

Browse the Knowledge Bank