Solway Plain - past and present by the Holme St Cuthbert History Group

Painting of Celtic woman playing string instrument

The Celts are a fascinating but mysterious people. They left behind no written history of their own and little local archaeology. They spoke a language similar to Welsh which is preserved in some Cumbrian place names like CARlisle and PENrith.

Celtic tribes were living on both sides of the Solway before the Romans arrived and were still there when the invaders left. They were present throughout the Iron and Bronze Ages and into the sixth century AD when the Anglo-Saxons arrived.

Archaeological work around the Overby and New Cowper sand quarries has produced signs of a late Bronze Age settlement there which may have continued in use during and after the Roman period. This Celtic settlement is located on slightly higher ground, overlooking the coastal strip.

During those times, the land below was a mixture of woodland, bog, and dark forbidding pools. Possibly the people just made occasional fishing trips there, used it as a hunting ground or as summer pasture for their animals. They may have feared it was haunted by evil spirits or the ghosts of their ancestors.  

Late Bronze Age man worshipped water and often cast valuable items into pools as an offering during some religious ceremony. In 1957, a bronze rapier was found during ploughing near Edderside. The rapier (45 cm long) was cast in one piece. The design suggests it was made locally or in Ireland about 1,100 BC.

The Salta rapier
The Salta rapier

We can only guess at how the rapier came to rest there. Maybe the owner was buried with the rapier but there is no report of human remains being found.

At that time the climate was wetter and the sea level higher.  The low-lying fields at Salta and Edderside were probably either sea or a bog. Perhaps the rapier was cast into the water as a sacrifice to some long forgotten god.

At the Roman fort of Bibra (Beckfoot) pottery finds outside the fort suggest there was a nearby vicus (civilian settlement) which was occupied into the fifth century.

 An intriguing sculpture, perhaps the image of an unknown god was also found there – could this possibly be the deity to whom the Salta rapier was offered?

Carving of Horned Diety found at Beckfoot fort
The 'Horned God'

Some modern writers claim that, after the Romans left the Solway, the Celts formed a kingdom there, known as Reghed. Claims that this kingdom extended to both sides of the Solway and down to modern Lancashire and Yorkshire are based on the origins of a few widely dispersed place names

There is little historical evidence for the kingdom's existence but there seems to have been a local war lord known as Urien of Reghed. The idea that he was actually a “King” comes from a number of Welsh poems by Taliesin, a legendary 6th century Welsh bard, which are said to draw on an earlier oral tradition.

Aerial view of Arthuret
The supposed site of Urien's battle at Arthuret

It is said that Urien led an army composed of men from several Celtic tribes who lived around the Solway and in other parts of the north. Around 573, he fought off the invaders at the battle of Armyeryd (Arthuret) near Longtown, just north of Carlisle. Some years later, about 580, he led his men into the Anglo Saxon heartlands and laid siege to their headquarters on the Island of Lindisfarne. Urien died during the siege. According to the Historia Brittonum by Nennius, a ninth century monk from Bangor, he was killed as the result of treachery by one of his allies, Morcant.

Painting of Celtic War Dead

version of this
Detailed account of Reghed at the Early British Kingdoms website.
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The Celtic Solway