exploring stories, traditions, and folklore from Scotland

In Search of Clota: The Lost Goddess of the River Clyde

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I first discovered Clota many moons ago when I began researching the existence of Scottish goddesses (like Dia Greine and the Cailleach) but there was so little known about her that I didn’t spend much time digging any deeper. After a recent conversation with a friend put her back on my radar, I decided to have another go at it and see if I could find out enough about Clota to make her worth writing about.

I grew up with the Clyde. I spent my childhood and early adulthood on its banks, and I can just make out its slate surface in the distance now, across the farms and fields that surround my current home. The river’s always held a fascination for me, and the thought that it might take its name from a female Celtic deity, connecting it to my love of folklore and mythology, was incredibly exciting. But nothing’s ever easy, and, because of her great age, Clota is a particularly elusive figure.

The river Clyde is ancient. Prehistoric. Its waters flow for one hundred and ten miles from the Lowther Hills to the Firth of Clyde, and the lengths of its banks have been settled on for fourteen thousand years.  Water worship was widespread in the Celtic countries, particularly at wells and springs, but also extending to larger bodies of water. The Celts regarded rivers as sources of fertility, givers of life, and it would definitely have been unusual for there not to have been a Goddess associated with the Clyde.

In Wonder Tales from Scottish Myth and Legend (1917), Donald MacKenzie says:

Almost all the rivers of Scotland were abodes of goddesses, but about many of them there are no surviving stories. The character of a goddess was suggested by that of a river. The goddess of the river Forth, for instance, was ‘the deaf or soundless one’, because the Forth is a comparatively silent river; the goddess of the Clyde, on the other hand, was ‘the purifying one’, because the old people knew it as a river which scoured the country it passed through, and carried much mud and clay seaward when in flood.

Until the arrival of the Romans in the 1st century AD, the Clyde was known to the Brythonic Celts of the Iron Age as Clut, meaning clean, or Clywwd, meaning loud, or heard from a distance.

In 77 AD, the Gaulish Roman General Gnaeus Julius Agricola journeyed to Britain to take up his position of Governor of Brittania, and to complete the conquest of its lands. Agricola travelled up the country through Wales and northern England before pushing further north to the Highlands of Scotland. It’s in the Roman historian Tacitus’s account of this journey, written twenty-two years later, that we first learn the Latinised name of the river we now know as the Clyde: Clota.

There are no records of any battles around the river in this time, suggesting that the Roman Empire integrated with the local peoples without meeting much resistance, no doubt due at least in part to the similarities in the belief systems of the Romans and the Celtic Britons. Both cultures were polytheistic and animistic, believing that gods or spirits were present in all parts of the natural environment, particularly in water. Local deities would continue to be honoured while gradually being merged with their Roman equivalents, to the extent that it’s now often very difficult to distinguish between Celtic deities that existed in pre-Roman Britain and those that were imported with the Romans.

This blending process, known as syncretism, was a common one in the course of the Roman conquest, and in looking for a counterpart for Clota, we find her closely associated with the Gaulish water nymph, Clutoida.

Very few sources referencing Clota as a goddess exist, and none give us any more information than her name, but thanks to inscriptions discovered at archaeological digs at two separate sites near the ancient Gaulish town of Bibracte, we have a little more information on Clutoida.

Clutoida’s name is found in two engravings, both addressing her using the prefix dea: goddess. The first is inscribed on a wall, and reads:

Augusto sacrum deae Clutoidae et vicanis Masavensibus Medius Acer Medianni filius murum inter acrus duos cum suis ornamentis de suo dedit

Sacred to Augustus, to the goddess Clutoida and to the deities of the inhabitants of the vicus of Masava. Medius Acer, son of Mediannus, had this wall erected between two archways with its ornaments.

The second is a dedication engraved on a crotalum, a type of musical instrument similar to castanets, made from brass, shell, or wood. The inscription reads:

Dea Clutoidae Elatussio

To the goddess Clutoida, Elatussio offered this.

Instruments like the crotalum were used ritually to attract the attention of the gods, and the word crotalum itself is also used to refer to a noisy or talkative person. The archaeologist and historian Jean-Jacques Hatt states that the appearance of Clutoida’s name on such an instrument suggests that she may have been associated with the gift of listening, a divine ear, a particularly interesting suggestion when you consider the meanings of one of the early names of the Clyde: Clywwd, meaning loud, or heard from a distance.

The worship of Clota would presumably have continued in the Clyde basin until the advent of Christianity in Scotland. The Damnonii, who inhabited Alt Clut, or Strath-Clota, the area around the river that would eventually become the Kingdom of Strathclyde, until around 8AD were probably the last people to venerate her.

In 1967, a 2000-year-old carved tricephalos was unearthed in Wishaw, close to the River Clyde, and was determined to originate with the Damnonii. Whilst the eminent Celtic scholar Anne Ross discerned its three faces as male, she also believed that such an object could not have come to exist without a connection to the patron deity of the river. In the Glasgow Archaeological Journal she states:

It may be suggested that Heads 1 and 2 gaze out fiercely towards the sacred waters while the Face peers upwards towards the sun, from which the powers of healing were believed to emanate in conjunction with the waters.

The river Clyde was clearly venerated in pagan Celtic times as, or in connection with, a goddess. Whether this tricephalos stands for three individual deities or for a single deity in its threefold capacity, or merely for the concept of divinity in general, we cannot say, but we may hazard a guess that here we have a portrayal in various guises of a powerful god…connected with the cult of springs, or of the river itself, and perhaps even the mate of the mighty goddess of the Clyde – Clota.

So, it seems indisputable that there would have been a goddess associated with the river, as with all rivers, and the likelihood is that she was a pre-Celtic goddess whose original name has been lost to time, but who nonetheless gave her name to the Clyde. She was known to the Brythonic Celtic and Cumbric peoples of her banks as Clut, or Clywwd, though her first recorded name was Clota.

From the practical benefits of transportation, commerce, and the provision of food, to its less tangible qualities of regeneration, fertility, and healing, the Clyde was central to the lives of its settlers and it’s easy to understand why it was deified. As time marched on the river became a platform for industry, and was a vital conduit in establishing Glasgow as a hub of international trade.

Although Clota has been forgotten, the river Clyde remains an important and iconic part of Scotland’s geography, and is still much beloved by her people.