The Ancient Catti Tribe

The Chatti (also Chatthi or Catti) were an ancient Germanic tribe whose homeland was near the upper Weser.   The history of the Chatten or Catti before living in Hesse is quite shrouded. Some claim that they descend from phœnician traders, and even from the Tribe of Gad.

 The Chatti successfully resisted incorporation into the Roman Empire, joining the Cheruscan war leader Arminius’ coalition of tribes that annihilated Varus’ legions in 9 AD in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.  According to Tacitus in his book Germania (chapter 30), they were disciplined warriors famed for their infantry, who (unusually for Germanic tribes) used trenching tools and carried provisions when at war.

 Germanicus later, in 15, raided their lands in revenge, but Rome eventually responded to the Chatti’s belligerent defense of their independence by building the limes border fortifications along the southern boundary of their lands in central Hesse during the early years of the 1st century. A major raid by the Chatti into Germania Superior was defeated decisively by the legions in 50 AD.

Those who stayed became part of Germany under Roman rule.  Some moved on to Batavia, or Holland, and eventually from there to Northern Scotland.  Our focus is on that part of the tribe.

The Keiths traced their origins back to an ancient Rhineland tribe called the Catti. Sometime in the first century BC, so the legend goes, the Catti fought the Romans in the Hercynian forest: their retreat took them by Katwyck on the Rhine to embark for Scotland from the coast of Holland. Just how many Catti took to the boats in the exodus is not known but they eventually made landfall in Caithness or  as it was perhaps more recognizably known in first-century Scotland – Cattiness.

Catti Tribal Symbol

Catti Tribal Symbol

The 17th century English/Scottish historian, Sir Robert Gordon stated, “In the year of Christ four score and two, there arrived {in Scotland] a great company of Germans named “Catti”, a valiant people of mighty bodies who were banished out of their native land for killing of a Roman general. At their first arrival, their captain went onshore to spy the land, when he was suddenly invaded by a company of monstrous big wild cats that much molested the country. The fight between them was cruel, yet in the end he killed them all. From thence the thanes and earls of Catti, or Sutherland, even unto this day do carry on their crest or badge, above their arms, a cat sitting with one of its feet upwards ready to catch his prey.” He continued, “There is not a rat in Sutherland. And, if they do come thither in ships from other ports, which often happeneth, they die presently as soon as they do smell the air of that country.”

Whatever the fate of rats in the area, there is tradition that after landing in the north of Scotland, the Catti named the area of Caithness and their chief married the daughter of the Pictish King Brude.

During the reign of Corbred the second, King of Scotland, circa A. D. 76, a part of these Catti emigrated to Britain, some of whom, called Fordun, “Catti Meliboci,” were driven to the northern parts of Scotland and landed in that part called Kateness, or Caithness; i.e. Catti’s promontory. The Celtic name for that district is “Catt taobh,” Catti’s side; and the inhabitants are styled “Cattich.” Caithness is also called “gall taobh,” “Stranger’s side, way, or shore.”

From the College of Arms, London, England, is an extract from a work on the origin of names about the Keith clan: “This family derive their descent from the Chatti, or Catti, now Hesse, a tribe of Germans, who dwelt in what is now called Hesse-Cassel, and whose name … is preserved in Katzenfort, Katzenburgh, etc., Germany. About B. C. 100, a part of this tribe descended the Rhine, and settled in Batavia or Holland, where the name is also maintained in Katwijk aan Zee, Katswoulde, etc.

The first of the tribe named by the Senachies is Gilli Chattan Noir, chief of the Catti, temp. King Alpine (A.D. 831-834), from whom descend the Kethi, Keychts, Keths, or Keiths; and also the MacPhersons, Sutherlands, etc., known under the general name of Chattan Clan. The ancient title (Celtic) of the Earls of Sutherland is “Morfhear chat,” Lord Cat; literally Greatman Cat.

Robert, the chief of the Catti in 1010, fought against the Norsemen. He slew Comus, the Viking leader of the invaders, and thus gained a complete victory, for which Malcolm II gave him the lands of Keith in East-Lothian.



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