The first historical account of the islands of Britain and Ireland was by Pytheas, a Greek from the city of Massalia, who around 310–306 BC, sailed around what he called the “Pretannikai nesoi,” or “Pretannic Isles.” “Pretani” or “Pritani” was understood on the European continent to mean “the land of the tattooed” or “the painted ones.”
When the Romans invaded Britain in 55 BC, they also found the Celtic-speaking natives to be resplendent in body art. In his account of the Gallic Wars, Caesar wrote,
“Al the Britons doe dye themselues wyth woad, which setteth a blewish color vppon them: and maketh them more terryble to beholde in battle.”
From “Pretani,” the name “Britain” was eventually derived. When the Normans arrived in 1066, they too discovered the Britons’ fondness for tattoos. In the 12th Century, the chronicler, William of Malmesbury, described how tattooing was one of the first practices the Normans adopted from the native British people.
The above map of the British Isles during the Bronze Age is one among many on the Abroad in The Yard website. To read more about the Celtic tribes of Britain, click on the BBC Future article, The name for Britain comes from our love of tattoos.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the English language, check out my post The History of English!