In his History of the Fylde (1876) John Porter speaks of the ancient British tribe who inhabited the wetlands between the Mersey and the Wyre as ‘the Setantii or Segantii’ ‘the dwellers in the country of water’*. He then provides a colourful description of the way they lived based on Roman records:
The hardihood of the native Britons of these parts is attested by Dion Cassius, who informs us that they lived on prey, hunting, and the fruits of trees, and were accustomed to brave hunger, cold, and all kinds of toil, for they would “continue several days up to their chins in water, and bear hunger many days.” In the woods their habitations were wicker shelters, formed of the branches of trees interwoven together, and, in the open grounds, clay or mud huts. They were indebted to the skins of animals slain in the chase for such scanty covering as they cared to wear, and according to Caesar and other writers, dyed their bodies with woad, which produced a blue colour, and had long flowing hair, being cleanly shaved except the head and upper lip.
He then goes on to express his doubts that the Setantii, or their neighbours, the Brigantes, who Cassius refers to, could be ‘reduced or exalted to such a amphibious condition’. Yet he notes that during their hunting expeditions across ‘wooded and marshy tracts’ ‘there is no question the followers of the chase would be more or less in a state of immersion during the whole time they were so engaged’.
Although exaggerated, Porter’s imaginings of the lifestyle of the Setantii contains elements of truth. Before its draining this landscape was marshland, lowland raised peat bog, alder carr, and damp oak woodland. Archaeological evidence dating from the end of the Ice Age to the time of Roman occupation shows that they hunted animals such as elk, aurochs, and red deer, travelled the rivers in dug-out canoes, and lived in wooden huts around the many lakes (the area was later referred to as ‘The Region Linuis’ ‘The Lake Region’ by the 9th century historian Nennius).
They traversed not only the rivers but the seas. The name of the Setantii tribe is derived from Ptolemy’s Geography (2CE) in which he notes the co-ordinates for Portus Setantiorum ‘The Port of the Setantii’ (which is now lost but may have been located near the mouth of the Wyre).
The dwellers in the water country feel important to me as someone living in the former lands of the Setantii because, during this time of climate crisis, water levels are rising, marshlands and lakes returning, and we are finally beginning to recognise the value of the watery places we drained off.
Over the past few decades organisations such as the Wildlife Trust, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust, and the RSPB have been working to restore drained off wetlands. Recently the Carbon Landscapes project started up with the aim of restoring an interconnected wilderness from the Wigan Flashes through the mosslands of Salford to the Mersey Wetlands Corridor.
It was of great interest for me to find out that the water country is being restored. I will soon be volunteering on this project and am hoping it will give me insights into the plants and wildlife of the landscapes of the Setantii and the tasks they did such as scrub clearance and building wooden walkways.
Over the next few months I am going to be sharing my research on the dwellers in the water country – the wetlands they inhabited, the way they lived, how they related to the land and its deities, in the hope it will provide clues as to how we might live in better relationship with our surroundings. I’m also going to be producing some creative work. Whether this is poems, stories, or perhaps even a novel, remains to be seen. I hope you will enjoy accompanying me on this journey.
*It is important to note that Porter’s description of the Setantii as ‘the dwellers in the country of water’ is based on their lifestyle and is not etymological. The root set- is also found in Seteia, the old name for the Mersey, but has no meaning in the Brittonic language. Andrew Breeze suggests it has been ‘corrupted’ from met– ‘to reap’ and may refer to the Setantii being fierce in battle as reapers of men rather than of crops. Another possibility is the root should be seg– from sego- ‘strong’.
The name of the Irish hero, Setanta, who later became the charioteering warrior Cu Chulainn, also derives from this root. Cassius speaks of the northern Britons driving chariots and Cu Chulainn’s fearsome battle rage, known as the ‘warp spasm’, would fit with being one of the reaping people.
Andrew Breeze, ‘Three Celtic Toponyms: Setantii, Blencathra and Pen-Y-Ghent’, Northern History: XLIII, 1 (2006)
David Barrowclough, Prehistoric Lancashire, (History Press, 2008)
Edward Baines, The History of the County Palatine and Duchy of Lancaster’, (J. Heywood, 1888). Available at https://archive.org/details/cu31924024699260/page/n8 (accessed 19/10/2019)
J. A. Giles (transl), Nennius, History of the Britons, (Project Gutenberg, 2006) Available at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1972/1972-h/1972-h.htm (accessed 19/10/2019)
John Porter, History of the Fylde (W. Porter, 1876). Available at https://archive.org/details/historyoffyldeof00portiala/page/n4 (accessed 19/10/2019)