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This article is about Caledonia as the Latin name for Scotland. For other uses, see Caledonia (disambiguation).
Personification of Caledonia by the Victorian artist William Hole

Caledonia is the Latin name given by the Romans to the land in today's Scotland north of their province of Britannia, beyond the frontier of their empire. The etymology of the name is probably from a P-Celtic source. Its modern usage is as a romantic or poetic name for Scotland as a whole, comparable with Hibernia for Ireland and Britannia for the whole of Britain.

Original usage[edit]

The original use of the name, by Tacitus, Ptolemy, Lucan and Pliny the Elder, referred to the area (or parts of the area) also known as Pictavia or Pictland north of Hadrian's Wall in today's Scotland.[1] The name may be related to that of a large central Pictish tribe, the Caledonii, one amongst several in the area and perhaps the dominant tribe, which would explain the binomial Caledonia/Caledonii.

According to Historia Brittonum the site of the seventh battle of the mythical Arthur was a forest in what is now Scotland, called Coit Celidon in early Welsh.[2] Traces of such mythology have endured until today in Midlothian: near the town centre of Edinburgh stands an old volcanic mountain called Arthur's Seat.

The north-west ridge of Schiehallion - the "fairy hill of the Caledonians"

There are other hypotheses regarding the origin of Caledonia (and Scotia). According to Moffat (2005) the name derives from caled, the P-Celtic word for "hard". This suggests the original meaning may have been "the hard (or rocky) land".[3] Keay and Keay (1994) state that the word is "apparently pre-Celtic".[4]

The name of the Caledonians can be found in toponymy, such as Dùn Chailleann, the Scottish Gaelic word for the town of Dunkeld meaning "fort of the Caledonii", and possibly in that of the mountain Sìdh Chailleann, the "fairy hill of the Caledonians".[5][6]


The exact location of what the Romans called Caledonia in the early stages of Britannia is uncertain, and the boundaries are unlikely to have been fixed until the building of Hadrian's Wall. From then onwards, Caledonia stood to the north of the wall, and to the south was the Roman province of Britannia (consisting of most of what is now England and Wales).[7] During the brief Roman military incursions into central and northern Scotland,[8] the Scottish Lowlands were indeed absorbed into the province of Britannia, and the name was also used by the Romans, prior to their conquest of the southern and central parts of the island, to refer to the whole island of Great Britain. Once the Romans had built a second wall further to the north (the Antonine Wall) and their garrisons advanced north likewise, the developing Roman-Britons south of the wall had trade relations with the Picts north of the wall, as testified by archaeological evidence, much of it available at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Modern usage[edit]

The modern use of "Caledonia" in English and Scots is either as a historical description of northern Britain during the Roman era or as a romantic or poetic name for Scotland as a whole.[4][9]

The name has been widely used by organisations and commercial entities. Notable examples include Glasgow Caledonian University, ferry operator Caledonian MacBrayne, and the now-defunct British Caledonian airline. The Caledonian Sleeper is an overnight train service from London to Scottish destinations operated by First ScotRail. In music, "Caledonia" is a popular folk ballad written by Dougie MacLean in 1977 and published in 1979 on an album of the same name; it has since been covered by various other artists, including Amy Macdonald.[10][11]

Ptolemy's account also referred to the Caledonia Silva, an idea still recalled in the modern expression "Caledonian Forest", although the woods are much reduced in size since Roman times.[12]

Some scholars point out that the name "Scotland" is ultimately derived from Scotia, a Latin term first used for Ireland (also called Hibernia by the Romans) and later for Scotland, the Scoti peoples having originated in Ireland and resettled in Scotland.[13] Another, post-conquest, Roman name for the island of Great Britain was Albion, which is cognate with the Scottish Gaelic name for Scotland: Alba.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Moffat (2005), pp. 21-22.
  2. ^ Rise, Brian Edward. "Caledonian Wood". Encyclopedia Mythica. 
  3. ^ Moffat (2005), p. 22.
  4. ^ a b Keay (1994), p. 123.
  5. ^ Bennet (1985), p. 26.
  6. ^ Watson (2004), p. 21.
  7. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (1911), though, states that "a tribe of Caledones" are "named by the geographer Ptolemy as living within boundaries which are now unascertainable" (Haverfield 1911, p. 987).
  8. ^ The military presence of Rome lasted for little more than 40 years for most of Scotland and only as much as 80 years in total anywhere. At no time was even half of Scotland's land mass under Roman control. See Hanson (2003) p. 198.
  9. ^ "Caledonia". Retrieved 23 February 2012. 
  10. ^ "Rock and roll years: the 1970s". The Scotsman. 16 October 2003. Retrieved 17 January 2009. 
  11. ^ "Biography". Retrieved 17 January 2009. 
  12. ^ Smout et al. (2007), pp. 20-25. The extent of the reduction is a matter of debate. This association with a Silva (literally the flora), by extension, forest or woods reinforces the explanation that Caledonia was a forest or forested area named after the Caledonii or these were named after the woods where they dwelt.
  13. ^ Bede used a Latin form of the word Scots as the name of the Gaels of Dál Riata.
    Bede, the Venerable Saint (1999) [731]. McClure, Judith; Collins, Roger, eds. The Ecclesiastical History of the English People; The Greater Chronicle; Bede's Letter to Egbert. World's Classics. Oxford University Press. p. 386. ISBN 0-19-283866-0. 

External links[edit]