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Issue 59 - They came, they saw, but didn't conquer

Scotland Magazine Issue 59
October 2011

 

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They came, they saw, but didn't conquer

John Hannavy explores Scotland's Roman remains

In a little box among my late father’s most treasured possessions, were some large iron nails, which he always claimed came from a Roman galley, and two Roman coins. Dad was an historian, and as a child, I always enjoyed trips out with him to Roman sites, prehistoric settlements and tombs, and ancient castles.

That fascination for the tangible reminders of past civilisations has never left me, as readers to Scotland Magazine will be well aware.

The larger of the two crudely made coins was minted in Alexandria, Egypt in AD69, the letters LB identifying it as the second year of the reign of the Emperor Galba, who actually ruled for only four months from October AD68 after Nero’s suicide, until January AD69 when he was assassinated. By the time he came to power, a Roman presence in Britain was already quite well established, but Scotland remained something of an unknown quantity!

The smaller coin, also made in Alexandria, probably comes from the reign of Maximian between AD285 and 310, by which time the Romans had given their Scottish conquest up as a lost cause! I never did know where Dad got the coins, but it was a party trick of his, when showing groups round Roman sites in Scotland, to pretend he had just found them in the grass! Cue lots of ‘oohs’ and ‘wows’ from the gullible!

The Romans developed a low opinion of the Scots, but they also had a healthy respect for them – the scale of Hadrian’s Wall testifies to that! But it was not always so. Initially they had anticipated quelling the entire island, the Scottish tribes and their lands included, but both the people and the landscape thwarted their plans. They never established towns or villas north of the border as they did in England, and many of their settlements – primarily military – were built of timber rather than stone. There are exceptions, of course, but few of their stone constructions are visible above ground today.

Of their great fort at Trimontium near Melrose, only scant indentations in the ground remain, and a recreation of a Roman altar stone identifying the site, placed there in the 1950s.

One particular indentation is said to be the only surviving evidence of a Roman military amphitheatre in Scotland.

South of the Antonine Wall, the remains of a bathhouse complex at Bearsden were exposed some years ago, and traces of another bathhouse survive at Bothwellhaugh in Lanarkshire . Apart from that, the most tangible proof of Roman occupation consists of fragments of monuments, carved and decorated stonework, pottery and other artefacts, preserved in Scotland’s museums.

The most visible evidence on the ground is the huge military encampment at Ardoch on the outskirts of the Perthshire village of Braco – by far the most extensive Roman fortifications still visible north of the border, and said by many to be the most complete military camp to survive anywhere in the entire Roman Empire.

When Thomas Pennant explored the site in 1772, the camp was in a more complete state than today. While a bridge crossed the River Knaick at this point even in his day, it was a narrow pack bridge, the road to which skirted the camps without having caused too much damage. And Pennant was impressed.

Of Agricola and Ardoch, he wrote “As this stationary camp was the most important, so it was secured with greater strength and artifice than any of the rest. No general ever equalled him in the judicious choice of situations; no camp he made was ever taken by storm, or obliged to surrender, or to be deserted. This he fixed on an elevated situation, with one side on the steep bank of the little river of Kneck, and being fortified on that part by nature, he thought fit to give it there the security of only a single fosse. The other three have five, if not six, fosses, of a vast depth, with ramparts of correspondent height between.” At Comrie, and at Strageath, both just a few miles from Ardoch, Pennant visited two smaller camps and gave detailed accounts of all three. But Ardoch impressed him the most – every bit as much as it impresses the relatively few people who visit the site today.

Agricola had intended his major military base in Scotland to be at Inchtuthil near Dundee, work on which started in 83AD.

Within four years the still incomplete station had been abandoned, and by the early years of the 2nd century, the Romans even withdrew from Ardoch. A few years later, work started on Hadrian’s Wall, effectively sealing Scotland off from the south.

The Romans, this time under Antonine, returned in AD138, and by the early AD140s, a great turf and timber wall had been built between the Forth and the Clyde. Abandoned for a period in the 150s, it was re-occupied and then finally abandoned about AD165.

The Roman experience of trying to tame Scotland was not a good one, and certainly not a successful one. The tortuous terrain over which they laid the military road we know today as Dere Street underlines both the challenge which faced them, and their determination.

But Scotland never really became part of the Roman Empire, unlike the lands south of Hadrian’s Wall. To become a recognised part of the empire, military rule usually gave way to civilian governance. In southern Scotland, military rule prevailed, however tenuously, for the entire period of the several occupations.

Further attempts were made to quell the tribes north of the Forth and Clyde, and the Romans did advance back up towards Dundee at one stage, but their successes were short-lived. Hadrian’s Wall itself held until around AD400, by which time Roman disenchantment with the north was pretty complete.

Historians still debate just how far north the Romans ventured – with some suggesting they made it at least as far as present day Aberdeen.

The exact extent of their incursion, and indeed the exact locations of their battles, will probably never be known.