A New History of Scotland, Part 2: They came, they saw, they left

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by Stuart McHardy

Gliog an seo gus an aiste seo leughadh sa Ghàidhlig
Click here tae read this airticle in Scots

Unfortunately due to circumstances beyond our control the Gaelic version of this article has been delayed.  It will be published as soon as it becomes available.  We apologise for the inconvenience.

Julius Caesar’s famous saying Veni, Vidi, Vici “I came, I saw, I conquered” is very well known, but it is about England.  Up here things were altogether different.  Not that you would know that given the attention paid by historians and archaeologists to the Romans in Scotland.

Take the Museum of Scotland as an example – in the Early People’s gallery the vast majority of the Roman material is presented as a cohesive whole, while the various Pictish atrefacts are scattered throughout.  Intentionally or not this gives the impression that the Romans are of major importance and the Picts some kind of secondary add-on.

Till very recently there were more digs at Roman sites in Scotland than all other periods together.  Partially this is because the Roman sites are so obvious in the landscape.  At Braco for instance there are the remains of a Roman fort that was perhaps used a handful of times on various campaigns.  The massive earthen walls are still obvious almost two millennia after they were raised by the Roman legions. It is quite possible that such complexes were only used for a few days or weeks at a time.

There is nothing indigenous from the period that is so obvious.  This is just one of dozens of forts, marching camps and signal stations that were erected, not to forget the Antonine wall.  All of this does prove that the Romans did come to Scotland on several occasions.  However hard they tried though, Agricola, Severus and other Roman generals never managed to subdue the native tribes.

A further aspect of such sites is that archaeologists know what they are looking for, as they have lots of comparative information from similar English and Continental sites.  We lack information on the society, economy and life-styles of our own ancestors form the same period, and not simply because they didn’t build on a similar scale.  

Basically the situation is that over a long period far too much of our limited archaeological resources have been devoted to Roman sites in Scotland. And what does all this effort tell us?  Effectively that the Romans, came, saw and left.

This concentration on Roman remains is a problem in understanding our own history.  That problem is that the Romans are not that important in Scottish terms but given the centrality of Rome to the very idea of the British Empire they have developed an inordinate hold on academic thinking.  

England on the other hand was part of the Roman Empire for four centuries.  The people in England were were urbanised, organised tax-paying citizens to a great extent while here, well what do we actually know of the Romans in Scotland?

There has been a great deal written over the years about client kingdoms north of Hadrian’s Wall while some have talked of a sphere of Roman influence ‘between the walls’.  The most recent archaeology informs us that the Antonine Wall was begun in the early 140s, perhaps completed by 146, was abandoned before 155, re-occupied and finally abandoned by 167. So over a twenty-five year period the wall was abandoned at least twice, meaning a maximum concerted occupation of no more than fifteen years, if that.  We should also remember that its construction was of timber and turf as opposed to the stone of Hadrian’s Wall between the Solway Forth and the Tyne.  Fifteen years is not a great deal of time to subdue an armed population.

Certainly in Scotland we have villas at both ends of the Antonine Wall but these could very well have been supplied by sea.  Looking at the map it seems obvious that the Roman sites, apart form the Antonine wall itself, are lines of forts and marching caps etc. which suggest they were part of military campaigns not sites of occupation and control.

A great deal has been made of the hoard of Roman silver found on Traprain Law in east Lothian, some going so far as to claim this as evidence of  the local people, the Votadini – later known as the Gododdin – were clients of the Romans.  There has been more Roman silver and other artefacts including coinage found in Bavaria than in Scotland – well beyond the limits of a the Roman Empire.  Such materials may have been the result of trade with the Romans but are just as likely to be loot from raiding. However the British view of history has always needed to try and make Scotland’s history look as much like England’s as possible, that process being to convince us that many of our ancestors were under Roman control.

In 217 Dio Cassio wrote that the Romans held the land south of the wall that ‘divided the island in half’ and generations of historians have tried to convince themselves that this refers to the Antonine wall.  This is impossible.  That wall had been abandoned fifty years earlier and someone as well connected as Dio Cassio, with access to official records, would certainly have known that.

However when it comes to the Romans our Britishist academics have always bent over backwards to believe otherwise.  The great Roman victory by Agricola at Mons Graupius around the year 80 is central to the story we have been given.  The problem is we only have Tacitus’ version of this supposed battle and he was Agricola’s son-in-law!  There is no corroborative evidence of any kind, and after this ‘victory’ the Roman legions returned south.

From the year 120 onwards Hadrian’s Wall was constantly occupied till the Romans left Britain around 406.  Why? I suggest it was because that was the limit of Roman rule and despite the demands of Britishist history there is no evidence that tells us different.  This story however will go on, for a while.