Photograph of part of the Bridgeness Distance Slab.

A Roman cavalryman rides down his barbarian adversaries, depicted on a Distance Slab from the Antonine Wall.
© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

Late in the first century AD Roman armies began to penetrate the territories we now call Scotland. These lands would not have been unknown to them. Rome had invaded Britain nearly 40 years earlier, and gradually their military control extended northwards. Traders and spies, and perhaps exploratory fleets, would have brought back intelligence about the geography and people of northern Britain in advance of military incursions. The land was one of extreme contrasts. Its north and west was a vast highland massif deeply indented by sea lochs. Beyond lay many islands, some quite large, connected by a labyrinth of seaways. The east was dominated by three great estuaries - the firths of Forth, Tay, and Moray - which penetrated undulating coastlands of highly fertile free-draining soils. Many of the valley bottoms were filled with swamps and lochans, but the slopes and crests of the ridges were naturally suited to settlement and agriculture.

To the south lay a deep mountainous zone we call the Southern Uplands. These hills are lower and more gentle than the Highlands to the north, but apart from their coastal margins and the fertile valleys criss-crossing them they were relatively unproductive, and represented an obstacle to communication and to the passage of armies. A final and vital geographical feature would have been picked up by Roman intelligence sources. This was the isthmus between the estuaries of Forth and Clyde, an area of low-lying swampland bordering the meandering upper reaches of the River Forth which effectively divided Scotland into two separate islands. The only practical access from the south to the north-eastern coastlands or towards the Highlands lay in the vicinity of Stirling.

Photograph of Deskford carnyx.

The end of an Iron Age carnyx or war trumpet, found at Deskford in Aberdeenshire.
© SCRAN/National Museums of Scotland

If Rome’s agents had expected to find a primitive and sparsely-populated landscape in these territories at the edge of their world they were mistaken. Much of the natural forest had been cleared, and what remained was carefully managed. The eastern and western plains beside the Southern Uplands were settled and farmed, while the valleys and lower slopes of the hills carried a substantial if rather scattered population. The eastern coastal lowlands, from the southern margins of the Forth to beyond the Moray Firth, were covered with well-ordered farms and prosperous tribal communities. Beyond the Highland line, and among the west coast and islands, life was harder and settlement more sporadic, but fertile patches at the bottoms of the glens or by the sea produced crops, while animals grazed the lower slopes. Scotland in the first century AD probably supported as high a population as it did in medieval times.

For a brief period the Roman military machine imposed itself upon this landscape, seeking in various ways to conquer, control, and exploit it. Three distinct episodes can be observed. The first was a process of occupation lasting some two decades at the end of the first century which reached the edge of the Highlands before phased withdrawal brought it back to the Tyne-Solway isthmus by about 105. This ad hoc forward line coalesced into the massive formal frontier we call Hadrian’s Wall during the 120s. Then, in the early 140s, a reconquest of southern Scotland and the building of a new frontier between the Forth and Clyde took place under Antoninus Pius. This was followed by withdrawal to Hadrian’s frontier in the 160s. The final episode was a series of punitive campaigns conducted between 208 and 211 by the emperor Septimius Severus in person.

B/w photograph of scene of fighting, from Trajan's Column.

Romans and Dacians locked in combat; a scene from Trajan's Column.
© Author's collection

These events might be seen as short-lived and ephemeral episodes at the dawn of Scotland’s long history. Yet they may be more important than that, for with them Scotland first enters the historical record. This record is partisan, for the Romans were literate and the natives were not, so the fragmentary written evidence which survives comes from mainly hostile, often misinformed, and unequivocally biased alien sources. Yet for all their faults these accounts provide us with a framework, however unsatisfactory and incomplete, which we can flesh out and sometimes test with the more immediate evidence of archaeology. Even here the Roman side dominates, for the traces of its military activities are so distinctive that they can confidently be recognised and usually dated with some precision. Evidence about the doings of the contemporary native population is much more elusive, at least in specific terms. But the Roman army did not operate in a vacuum. It was working towards its objectives by interacting with the indigenous tribes, within the constraints set by geography and political reality. What the Romans were trying to do, how they sought to do it, and with what success, must profoundly have influenced the activities and subsequent history of those with whom they came into contact. A study of the Romans in Scotland may therefore help us to understand our native Iron Age more fully. It may also tell us something about ourselves.

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