Story of Scotland Ch2: On the Fringe of the Empire

Story of Scotland: Chapter Two


Chapter 2

© On The Fringe of the Empire

by Robert M Gunn©
All Rights Reserved, by all international copyright law exclusively to the author and ©Skye-Net, RM Gunn



The Romans had been in Britain since the first attempted conquest of southern Britain by Julius Caesar in 55-54 BC. But it was under Emperor Claudius that the Romans became firmly implanted in England. During four decades of occupation, and facing serious resistance, including the massive rebellion of Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni, the Romans pushed the boundaries of their empire farther north into Britain.

The Romans had occupied southern Britain confluent with a modal existence of 'Pax Romana' for over three centuries. Native Celtic tribes who failed to convert to Roman ways and culture were, at the very least, very greatly influenced by them. Soon the Romans were eager to seize all of Britain. All that remained of Britain, not in Roman control by 79 AD, was what we now call Scotland.

Celtic warriors fighting naked

[Early Celts often fought naked]
In the north of Britain, there were three major tribes in the Lowlands: the Votadini in the Edinburgh and Lothian area, the Novantae in Dumfries in Galloway in the Southwest, and in between them the Selgovae. In addition to these there were northern Scottish tribes, all called Caledonii by the Romans: the Vacomagi in Angus, the Taezali of Buchan, the Decantae of Ross, and the Lugi of Caithness. Dwelling in the Northwest were the savage and fearsome Cereni, Smertae and Carnonacae, who were said to smear their faces with the blood of the slain. The Damnonii were situated near the Firth of Clyde. Certainly other northerly tribes, without Roman names, existed as well, but the Romans collectively called all of these Caledonians.

There is little doubt that these Caledonii were various Pictish tribes, probably before they were unified as one identifiable people.

[Celts fighting Romans] Much of what we do know about Scotland during this period is due to the Roman historian, Tacitus. Tacitus wrote a meticulous account of history from 79-84 AD in his work, "The Life of Julius Agricola." He had good reason to write about Gnaeus Julius Agricola because he was his father-in-law. Thus we also encounter one of the problems with Roman historians: they weren't always objective, placing personal reasons and motivations in the history they wrote. Often they wrote for the glory of the Empire, as much for self-preservation of history. Some Roman historians have a clear predilection for Roman attitudes which, often show biased opinions of the Celtic people. Their histories are sometimes exaggerated, especially in the numbers of men killed, or involved in battle against the Romans. They liked to slant the odds against them so that their victories seem all the more fantastic. And, as we will see at Mons Graupius, they put lengthy and stirring speeches into the mouths of men they couldn't possibly have ever heard. However, despite these faults, the Roman histories are often very enlightening and insightful. Most of all, they are the only real history we have of early Scotland.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola, Governor of the Province (and chief general) was a Roman senator born in Gaul. Emperor Vespasian sent him to govern Britain, and he continued the 'Romanizing of Britain’, which, had already begun in the southern part of Britain. Tacitus describes this:

"The third year of the expedition brought to light new tribes, which were attacked even as far as the estuary Tyne. The enemy was thoroughly terrified by this attack, and although afflicted by severe weather did not dare move against our (Roman) army, so there was time for constructing redoubts. Nor did Agricola ever appropriate greedily any deed performed by another; whether centurion or prefect, he always with him an impartial witness to his deeds. Among some he was spoken of as too harsh and censured, and just as he was courteous to the good so was he severe to the evil."

Tacitus goes on to relate how the Romanizing of Britain changed the local Celtic inhabitants into, nearly, Roman citizens:

"In order that these men living far apart, unskilled, and eager for war might, by a taste of pleasure, become accustomed to peace and quiet, he [Agricola] personally urged and publicly aided, them to build temples, marketplaces and homes by assisting those who seemed so disposed, and by censuring the inactive."

Celtic village before the Romans

[Typical Early Celtic homes]


By allowing the southern Britons to have Roman culture and civilization, he won the hearts and minds of most of the tribes in the south of Britain. In fact, he was so successful in the Romanization that Tacitus remarked that they have begun to drop the native language in favor of the Roman language and dress. But, Tacitus astutely observes this as well:

"Gradually they fell prey to the allurements of vice. The porticoes, the bath, the dainties of the banquet; this in the judgment of the ignorant was called civilization, although it is really characteristic of slavery."

But the tribes of Scotland had been another matter entirely. Whilst some degree of Romanization, in what is now southern Scotland, was successful, the Britons of the mid-north and the Caledonii of the upper north (mostly early Pictish tribes) became aware that a powerful and hungry army was occupying much of Britain. Although they certainly knew resistance to the powerful Mediterranean army would sow discord, they decided not to submit to the authority of the Romans. Being descended from an ancient people, they were not afraid of the invaders; perhaps they should have been.

Excavation suggests that indeed the imperialists Romans were bent on conquering Scotland. In Annandale, recent finds show that there had been an early attempt to push their way into northern Britain, which had reached as far as Carlisle. There is also evidence of Roman forts and camps established in the area we now refer to as the Borders, and in Dumfries and Galloway.

[Roman Infantryman] In 80 AD, Agricola began his offensive on Scotland. He sent his Ninth Legion up through the territory of the Votadini (in the area of Edinburgh and Lothian), on the eastern side of Scotland. At the same time, he sent the 20th Legion up the west side through Annandale. The two Legions met up, joined forces, and marched to the Firth of Tay. Having already blocked the main exits from the Highlands with three forts, he built a major fortress at Inchtuthil, near the junction of the Isla and Tay, which served as his main base. Spurred on by ambitious Emperor Domitian, he marched some 35,000 men up the west coast conquering and subduing the Novante. Agricola built a series of constructions -- garrisons, forts with a continuous barrier -- from the Clyde to the Forth, with a network of roads to secure the southern territories. Still, Agricola's ambition was not fulfilled. Perhaps word from Rome was his motivation, or perhaps it was always meant to be a conquest, but whatever the reason for his discontent, he advanced on Scotland. In AD 83, he started a march north with a powerful fleet on the east coast in support. Interestingly, those bent on conquering Scotland would later imitate this very campaign strategy. By AD 84, having defeated numerous tribes in the south of Scotland, while building many forts and barricades, he took 10,000 men into Scotland to subdue the Caledonians in the north. Agricola's advance was rapid and he nearly captured a major granary of the Northern tribes. This would have been a devastating blow to the Caledonians, for without that valuable source of food for the winter, they'd have starved or have been too weak to put up much of a resistance. But by Providence sake alone, they did not capture it. The fight would go on. Eventually, the two armies eyed each other from the tops of hills and waited for the killing to begin. History has come to call the battle, but probably not the location, Mons Graupius. There has been a persistent but mistaken idea that this was in the Grampian mountains, due to the similarity of the names.

Decorative Celtic helm
[Decorative Celtic Helm]
Over the centuries, more than twenty sites have been suggested as the actual battle site. As soon as scholars are keen to accept the latest location, a new one is proposed and the process of finding the real location starts over again. The use of the term ‘Graupius’ has understandably, often been translated to the Grampian Mountains. The word ‘Grampian’ apparently derives from a setting error in the text of Tacitus’s biography of Agricola when it was printed in Milan in 1474. Since then historians of the period have assumed the battle to have been in the region of the Grampians. It has been suggested that the actual battle took place at one of several locations: a site near Inverurie, Bennachie Hill, northwest of Aberdeen; a flat plain known as the Muir of Blair, Stonehaven, and one author, Nigel Blundell, states with confidence the site was actually the Hill of Moncrieffe.

Wherever the actual site was, Tacitus (who couldn’t possibly know) puts a noble speech into the mouth of the Caledonian leader, Calgacus the Swordsman. Calgacus is likely a Romanization of the Celtic ‘Calgaith’, meaning sword.

“…we the noblest souls in Britain…had never seen the shores of slavery and preserved our very eyes from the desecration and the contamination of tyranny…today the farthest bounds of Britain lie open; there are no other peoples beyond us; nothing but the seas and cliffs and, more deadly than these, the Romans whose arrogance we shunned in vain by obedience and self-restraint. Harriers of the world, when the earth has nothing left for their ever-plundering hands, they scour even the sea; if the enemy has wealth, they have greed; if he be poor, they are ambitious; neither east nor west can glut their appetite; alone of the people on earth they passionately covet wealth and want alike. To plunder, butcher, steal - these things they call Empire: they make a *desolation [*some translations say desert], and they call it peace!”

On that warm summer day in 84 AD, Calgacus led some 30,000 Caledonians (probably Pictish Tribes) against Agricola’s 10,000 highly trained and disciplined Legionnaires and Auxiliaries. The Caledonians under Calgacus took their positions on a hill, with the footman marshaled in ranks upon the slopes of the hill. It was a good defensive position. In the center, lower on the plain, chariots raced back and forth between the two armies, the Celts bravely taunting and harassing the Roman lines. Since Tacitus mentions, “it was the foot who clashed first”, we can speculate that the footman weren’t all grouped in one area, but rather occupied several hills in a series of rising slopes.

Celtic Charioteers - Angus McBride
[Celtic Charioteers]

This would allow the chariots, which by now had gone out of favor with the Romans, to travel from flank to flank without putting themselves in too much peril. Outdated as they may have been, chariots still commanded respect from the Romans. The Celts used them to distract and taunt their opponents -- a clever strategy which often worked -- drawing the enemy into battle out of anger and frustration before they were psychologically prepared. Two warriors usually occupied Celtic chariots. One was a driver while the other would nimbly run up and down, along the length of the axel and back, hurling javelins and insults at the enemy.

The Romans drew up beyond their camp in a battle line of 8,000 auxiliary on foot, 1500 light horse on the flanks, and faced the Caledonians. Not all of these combatants were Romans themselves, but men drafted for service from Gaul and Germany. The Legions (of Roman stock) were kept in reserve to be called if needed, or to mop-up. Their front line, spread very thin, stretched nearly two miles. Tacitus reports that Agricola’s 10,000 men faced over 30,000 Caledonians. While Roman historians are known to exaggerate numbers of hostile forces to further the valor of the Empire, it is possible that 30,000 are a fairly accurate figure. By careful negotiations, Calgacus managed to secure alliances of otherwise hostile or rival tribes, such as the Taezali and Vacomagi tribes.

Not to be outdone by Calgacus’s speech to the Caledonians, Agricola made a brief speech to the Roman forces. His was one of pride in the Empire. Plus, he included personal incentive: to fight for their very lives. It probably wasn't necessary to remind the Legions that they were so deep into enemy territory a defeat would be disastrous. Then again, it certainly did not hurt to remind them and Agricola was a meticulous general.

[Romans vs Celts] The battle began with a flight of Roman javelins, many which found their mark; many deflected away by the shield and long sword of the Caledonians. Despite heavy casualties early on, the Caledonians didn’t falter or retreat and as long as they held the high ground, it was going to be a difficult fight for the Romans. Something had to give, so Agricola ordered two of his Germanic and Gallic cohorts to close ranks with the front ranks of the tribesmen, thrusting with their short swords, bashing their shields into Celtic faces. Roman warfare was close quarter, aggressive, bloody and if done correctly, well orchestrated. The shock of this initial impact must have been quite severe for the Celts began to fall back, many trying to climb to higher slopes of the hill. It is probably during this time that the Celtic chariots were finally engaged by the Roman light horse and were taken out of the battle.

Battle of Mons Graupius by W.Reynolds

[Celtic charge at Romans]

The Gallic and Germanic auxiliaries battled so deeply into the front lines that they were in danger of becoming enveloped by the Celts. The death-strewn hill was steep, and moist with blood, causing Roman troops and cavalry to fall as the ascended the slopes. Unfortunately, this seems to have caused the excitable Caledonians to believe the time was right to strike. The Celtic warriors rashly charged forward, shrieking and screaming in rage, to exploit their perceived advantage. But in abandoning the high ground, they gave Agricola chance for which he’d been waiting. Amid the shouts, the cries of pain and death, the clash of metal, and the spray of blood, the Celts attempted to out-flank the Roman cohorts. It was a good move, but one which the experienced Agricola had anticipated. Hastily, he sent his reserve mounted brigades of light infantry to the front and they pressed in and began to surround the massed Caledonians. As the battle intensified, the Caledonians threw themselves into the battle trying desperately to break up the Roman lines. But, the Roman shield wall in the center held, and as the Celtic flanks began to fall to the Romans, the tribe’s center became overpowered despite a fierce melee that must have been heard miles away. The Celtic tribes began to falter and dissolve. They were cut down and those who did manage to pull away were chased down by Roman cavalry. The Gaesti (a Caledonian version of later Viking ‘berserkers’) continued to hold out at great cost, but eventually had to withdraw to the woods. Although the battle appeared over, the Celts made a final attempt to surprise the Romans. Seeing their chance to finish off the fleeing Caledonians who were retreating to the woods, the Roman infantry rushed headlong into what could have been a devastating ambush. The Caledonians reaching the safety of the woods, turned, and attacked their pursuers. Agricola, seeing the danger halted the infantry pursuit and the remaining Celtic tribesman melted into the woods and to safety.

The battle of Mons Graupius was over and 10,000 Caledonians lay dead on the braes and slopes. Tacitus claims that only 360 Romans died which seems inordinately low, but a similarly lopsided battle would take place near the area over 16 centuries later at Drumoisse, or Culloden.

The first recorded battle in Scotland ended in defeat for the Scots and Tacitus would write:

“The next day an awful silence reigned on every hand, the hills were deserted, the houses smoking in the distance … “

The Caledonians were defeated in battle but they remained unconquered. Despite Tacitus’s exclamation, stating Britain was “completely subdued”; it wasn’t nearly finished fighting. Agricola, unable to pursue his victory, partly because the season was turning against him, retreated to an area near the Moray Firth. Over time, the great army dispersed to their winter quarters.

A majority of the Scottish army had escaped destruction and despite what must have been a demoralizing winter, the Celtic tribes would be back again. Archaeology suggests that at one time Rome intended to subdue and occupy part of the Scottish Highlands. Nevertheless, the forts were abandoned and the only area consistently occupied by the Romans was south of Hadrian’s Wall.

Whether the Romans felt a further conquest of Scotland a waste of resources, or whether it was just a political decision, Agricola was recalled to Rome in late AD 84, by Emperor Domitian.

Hardians Wall
[section og Hadrian's Wall]
Forty years after Agricola returned to Rome, the Emperor Hadrian came to Britain. There are two valid theories to explain his action and why he ordered the construction of his great wall in Northern Britain. After Agricola’s return, the restless Pictish tribes captured several half-constructed Roman forts. The fortress at Inchtuthil was destroyed, and the Romans chased out of vast areas taken by Agricola. Part of this, no doubt, was due to the constant shuffling of Roman troops in Northern Britain. This was standard practice for the Roman Empire in the first century. Troops would be recalled to Rome, deployed to other areas of the Empire, and fresh troops (or at least new to the area) sent to replace them. In addition, around this time, a seriously dangerous situation was developing in Rome’s Germany, which necessitated the withdrawal of some of the troops in southern Scotland, and they were relocated into the German lands. Since a large portion of Roman troops were local men or soldiers from other occupied parts on the world; this kept them from getting too familiar with the natives. This, combined with renewed raids by the Caledonians, meant the Romans were in orderly retreat, the Caledonians hot on their heels. In 117-8 AD, some disturbance or revolt caused the Legions to once again enter Scotland. Their stay was short-lived, once again, and it was 3 years more before the Romans took much note of Scotland, other than to watch it warily. By then, the Emperor, Hadrian, combined business with pleasure and came to Scotland (not for the first time). His desire was to oversee initial construction of the wall that would bear his name, and to put the annoying Caledonians in their place.

Reconstruction of fort on Hardians' Wall

[Reconstruction of fort on Hardians' Wall]
In 122 AD, Hadrian decided that simply defining a limit to Rome’s northern frontier was the best solution. He ordered construction of a great barrier, Hadrian’s Wall, across the Isthmus of the Solway and the Tyne. Historian Simon James is joined by many contemporaries in the notion that the wall was as much a tribute to his memory, a legacy, than a defensive monstrosity. Whilst there can be little doubt it deterred large-scale Pictish incursions of Romano-Briton lands, it rarely prevented smaller, but equally deadly, invasions by bands of Caledonians up to a few hundred men. In fact, history seems to indicate constant activity around the wall and the Romans found it necessary to upgrade the wall with 'milecastles' every 1600 yards, and fortified garrisons at less frequent intervals. Roman emperors are traditionally remembered by one of two things: military conquest or mammoth construction. Since conquest of Scotland during Hadrian’s reign seemed unlikely -- or unwanted -- Hadrian seems to have decided to leave his mark on history via the construction option. It took nearly eight years for the Romans to build the wall with considerable manpower, effort and time. Many of the stones used in parts of the fortifications could only be obtained from places far away. But forts were not the only things built into the wall. Recent excavations (1997-2000) have revealed towns, markets, and even correspondence on stone tablets. One tablet was discovered written by a Roman officials wife, asking her friend to attend her birthday party! One tends to think of the wall as a lifeless, lonely tomb rather than a place were great civilization and ordinary life took place. Civilized and forbidding as it may have been, it failed to keep out the pesky and persistent tribal raiders, especially at times when the forts were lightly garrisoned. One raid, of 180 Caledonians, managed to cross the partition, sack the fort and adjoining Roman town, and retreat into hills.

Antonine Wall
[Antonine's Wall]
In response to this sort of rough treatment by the ungrateful barbarians, the new Emperor Antonius Pius sent his trusted general Quintus Lallius Urbicus to Britain to subdue the tribes and reestablish a defensive wall. This time the Romans built a different type of wall. Placed north of Hadrian’s Wall, known as the Antonine Wall (after Antonius) or later, Graham’s Dyke, this turf and stone wall was less concerned with eternal fame than effectiveness.

[Remants of Antonines Wall]
Antonine’s Wall is a shorter wall, cutting across the smallest waist of southern Scotland. This wall, which stretched between the estuaries of the Forth and Clyde, the Forth-Clyde Isthmus, began construction in 140 AD. Not much remains of the wall but ruins of the fort are still visible at place such as Watling Lodge, Rough Castle, and Seebegs Wood. At right, ruins of it are still visible near Rough castle.

In decades following the wall’s construction, much of the territory was retaken, lost and retaken again. Despite the new wall, forts and timberworks, the Antonine Wall was abandoned 20 years later after repeated attacks.The Romans decided to take permanent refuge behind Hadrian’s Wall.

Starting about 180 AD, attacks from Caledonian tribes were so severe and frequent, that the Romans once again came in force to suppress them. Circa 208 AD, Emperor Septimius Severus came to Britain with his sons to attempt to crush the rebellions for the last time. Making his main base at York, previously sacked by the Britons, he went north with a large army.

The Caledonians, no doubt remembering the defeat at Mons Graupius, decided on different tactics. They avoided pitched battle, and direct, headlong, confrontations with the Roman war machine. Wisely, they followed the Roman invaders during their march north making regular surprise attacks, harrying the Romans whenever possible. This hit-and-run style warfare suited for Caledonians well. Avoiding large-scale engagements, they were able to use the mountainous terrain, and lightening strikes to their best advantage. In this manner, they inflicted many casualties on the Romans without suffering too many themselves. After four years of fighting, Severus reached the Moray Firth, going farther into the Highlands than any previous army. In poor health, and convinced he had shown Roman military might (at tremendous expense), Severus returned to the Lowlands. During his retreat, upwards of 50,000 Roman soldiers were killed.

Just under 100 years later, in 306 AD, Emperor Constantius, along with his son, the future Emperor Constantine, tried to attack the Caledonians once again. A combined force of Caledonians and North Britons (along with tribes clearly identifiable now as the Pictii) forced them out. The Britons and Picts were now on the offensive. Again, seven years later, they fought a combined Germanic-Romano mercenary army.

The Scots are, on occasion, believed to be stubborn to the point of absurdity. Perhaps this adage might be said of the Romans in northern Britain at this time, for the Celts routed them again. Finally, a combination or boredom and common sense eventually persuaded the Empire to leave Scotland to the natives.

Harrying the Romans - A. McBride

[Celts shadowing the Romans from the forests]
Around 400 AD, the Roman Empire was near total collapse, and what was left in Britain of the Roman army was called back to Rome. The Romans that remained were the Romanized Britons who had been under Roman rule and law for three centuries. No doubt the Roman influence in Britain, especially in the south, was immeasurable. Many of the areas now spoke Latin, wore Roman clothing, and used Roman customs and laws. But northern Britain (and modern Scotland) were never truly Romanized, as was England. When the Romans first arrived in Scotland, they encountered various disorganized tribes that fought with each other as much as with the Romans. By attempting to conquer them, over several centuries, the Romans actually helped to unify the scattered tribes of Scotland. Peaceful times, however, were not on the horizon for a nation yet to be called Scotland. In fact, all of Britain was in turmoil. With the departure of the Romans, there was a power vacuum in Britain. British tribes were now pitted against each other for a share of a land that was once, barely, on the fringe of the Empire. Caledonia now divides into the Picts, the northern Britons, the invading Irish, i.e the Scots, and a new threat, the Germanic Angles. All these would now be vying for the possession and the soul of the young Scottish nation.



Next, in chapter 3 of "Four Peoples, One Nation",we will examine the four antagonists who will struggle for the possesson and soul of early Scotland. Including the early battles, Scots, Picts, Angles and North Britons.

  • Chapter 3 - 'Four Peoples, One Nation'- the birthing pains of a forming nation.

  • Story of Scotland - Menu

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