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Issue 30 - Meet the Romans

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 30
December 2006


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Meet the Romans

Ian R Mitchell looks at where you can find traces of the Roman invasions of Caledonia, the only territory their legions failed to conquer

Scotland’s Antonine Wall is currently the subject of an application that it be added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites existing in Scotland, these already include Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, St Kilda, and New Lanark. Such a listing would raise the profile of Scotland’s Roman sites in general, which are one of the country’s main underutilised tourist and educational assets. Meanwhile, from short walks from the car park to major hikes, along with indoor bad weather options, here is a brief sample of the many places where you can meet the Romans in Scotland. They are my personal favourites, and they each offer a different kind of experience of the land the Romans called Caledonia.

By Inverurie, Aberdeenshire In AD 79 20,000 Roman legionaries invaded the present territory of Scotland. They were led by Gnaeus Julius Agricola, and the native Caledonian tribes, whom Agricola called “a pack of spiritless cowards,” wisely retreated before this overwhelming force. Unfortunately, in AD 84, the Caledonians decided to make a stand at a place called Mons Graupius by Tacitus. He was Agricola’s son-in-law, who later wrote an account of the Roman invasion. Doubly foolish. The Caledonians abandoned their good defensive position on the mountain to meet the Roman army on lower ground, where, according to Tacitus, the legionaries’ arms “ached with the slaughter of the battle.” He estimates 10,000 Caledonians died, compared with 360 Roman soldiers.

You will probably have heard the phrase, “They make a desert and they call it peace”? Tacitus puts these words into the mouth of the leader of the Caledonians, Calgacus, making him the first Scotsman ever quoted in history.

Apart from Tacitus’ physical description of Mons Graupius, which fits Bennachie, there is a vitrified stone fort on the hill’s summit dating from the period in question and a Roman camp at nearby Durno. Most authorities accept Bennachie as the site of the battle, yet every now and again, someone (usually from outwith Aberdeenshire) perversely suggests an alternative site. I suggest you climb Bennachie, a not too difficult walk from any of its waymarked starting points, stand in the huge stone fort, and look around you. You can feel that this was the site of the battle. If that fails to convince, retreat to Pittodrie House Hotel, half way up Bennachie, and after a few drams of the local malt whisky, Glen Garioch (pronounced Geerie), go out into the evening forest and you might well see a Roman in the Gloaming, or feel the presence of one of the slaughtered Caledonians, and be finally persuaded.

Falkirk Despite their victory at Mons Graupius, the Roman hold on southern Scotland was tenuous, and they even retreated back to Hadrian’s Wall c120AD. Then another advance attempted to secure a more permanent military frontier in the Antonine Wall. This is Scotland’s most important Roman monument. Constructed from 139AD onwards, on the orders of the then Emperor Antoninus Pius, it had a brief lifespan as the north-western boundary of Rome’s territories, being abandoned in the 160s AD. Then the Romans destroyed their camps and filled in their wells, before retreating again to Hadrian’s Wall.

Its 60km length between the Forth and Clyde presents less of a visual impact than Hadrian’s Wall does, since, unlike the latter, the Antonine Wall was built not of stone, but of turf (though on a stone base, a good example of which can be seen at Hillfoot Cemetery, Bearsden). Thus the remains of the ditches, ramparts and fort foundations are more in evidence, than of the original wall itself.

Agood place to see the ramparts and ditch is at Watling Lodge, just outside Falkirk, where the fortifications are still 12m across and 5m deep. A bit to the west of here is possibly the best and most visited of the Roman forts on the Antonine Wall. This is Rough Castle, with its ditch, Roman road, bath house, granaries and other remains. The most interesting aspect of Rough Castle is the undoubtedly the “Lilia” to the north of the rampart, consisting of holes which would have been filled with sharpened spikes to catch any unwary Caledonians approaching the wall. As a point of information, by this time the Romans were calling their enemies Picti, meaning painted ones, from which comes the name Picts, a term used for the main ethnic groupings inhabiting present day Scotland untill about 900 AD.

Bearsden One of the most interesting of the many forts on the Antonine Wall is the one at Bearsden (just north of Glasgow), excavated in 1979. The Antonine ditch runs just north of it and the Roman road through it, but the most interesting find was the Roman bath house in the fort, with its changing area, hot and cold rooms, and underfloor heating.

Nearby is a latrine, the excavation of whose deposits showed the legionaries had a mainly vegetarian diet. The head of a goddess, sometimes identified as Fortuna, was found in the bath house. The bath house is a scheduled Ancient Monument and Historic Scotland signs direct you to it from Roman Road near Bearsden Cross.

Hillfooot Rail Station is five minutes walk from the Fort – and a 15 minute journey from Glasgow – and the nearby Hillfoot Café offers refreshments.

There is another fine Roman bathhouse at Bothwellhaugh, in Strathclyde Country Park, 10 miles south-east of Glasgow. This Lanarkshire find would have been of especial interest to William Roy, whose Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain (1764) was one of the first scholarly treatments of the subject.

Born in nearby Carluke, Roy was 18th century Britain’s supreme mapmaker, as well as an expert on Roman antiquities. Roy did make mistakes though, thinking that the earthworks at Fortingall in Highland Perthshire (supposed birthplace of Pontius Pilate) was a Roman site, whereas it dates from much later.

Braco, Perthshire “Ardoch must rank as the single most impressive Roman fort in Scotland,” writes Lawrence Keppie in his splendid book Scotland’s Roman Remains (John Donald).

Anyone visiting the spectacular complex of grassy ditches and ramparts just outside Braco in Perthshire would have to agree, though aerial photographs show the fort’s complexity to its best.

The five ditches on the north and east side were constructed as the garrison was cut back successively prior to evacuation 1800 years ago. Excavations showed the buildings to have been largely of timber, indicating their temporary nature.

According to a gravestone found there, the garrison included a cohort of “Hispani” at one time. Legionaries from presentday Bulgaria and Greece, as well as from Spain, intermarried with local women and added their genetic mix to the Caledonians’ blood stock.

Interestingly, when Queen Victoria visited here in the 1840s she was so uninterested in things Roman that she refused to get out of the carriage and look at Ardoch. Prince Albert did, however, and was enthralled, as you too will be.

Since it was occupied only in part and for little more than an intermittent century and a half, Scotland does not have the high-quality Roman roads of our southern neighbour, but it has about 500 miles of them nevertheless.

Though few roads were paved as in the more permanent areas of conquest, the Roman roads were well constructed and they were the best roads built in Scotland until the 18th century. They were used for hundreds of years after the Romans withdrew. Along these routes, the Legions and their supplies would move at between 15 and 25 miles a day.

Amongst the surviving roads, that from Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders, to Rochester over the Cheviot Hills, by Dere Street is the most walkable, and gives a tramp of more than 20 miles, passing several Roman camps. Dere Street was the main Roman Road into Scotland during the Roman occupation.

The Roman occupiers found the Caledonian climate miserable, and even today it occasionally rains in Scotland and sheltered options become enticing for the tourist. There are many local museums with interesting collections relating to the Romans in Scotland. However, the main collections of Roman remains in Scotland lie in two conveniently sited collections:

University of Glasgow, Gilmorehill Hosts a permanent display of artefacts from the Antonine Wall, and other sites in south west Scotland, including distance slabs, religious items, coins, militaria etc.

Chambers Street, Edinburgh Permanent display of sculptures, slabs, altars, including materials from the Antonine Wall.

Tacitus cites Calgacus as stating that the Caledonians, the forbears of today’s Scots, were “the last of the free.” And even though they defeated Calgacus’s followers at Mons Graupius, the Romans never conquered Caledonia. Nevertheless Scotland’s Roman remains illuminate one of the most fascinating periods in its long history.