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In Roman Scotland
By Jessie Mothersole (1927)


ALTHOUGH the occupation of Scotland by the Romans lasted for but a single century, and was limited in extent as well as in duration, yet there still exist many striking proofs of their presence in the country. Naturally it is for the remains of forts and of temporary camps that we must look, and not for signs of Romanized civil life, such as are common in the south.

The second-century stone-built forts that have been excavated in Scotland are similar in plan to hundreds of others throughout the Empire, but they have features which call for special attention : the very massive earthen ramparts, the intricate system of outer defences, and the fortified annexes, to accommodate women, children, and traders. It cannot have been from any lack of stone that the defences were so frequently constructed of earth, but it may have been found that such ramparts resisted better the violent assaults of the native tribes.

Much light has been shed on the history of the Romans in Scotland since the beginning of the twentieth century. The excavations in 1902-3 of forts along the Antonine Wall—Bar Hill, Rough Castle, and Castlecary—disclosed the fact that

Agricola had only held this series of posts for a very short period, not more than a year or two, and it was conjectured that his occupation terminated with the abandonment of these forts, Then came the discoveries at Trimontium (Newstead, on the Tweed) in 1905-8, proving that the "Agricolan ” hold on the country had endured—unshaken, though not unassailed—for a period of some thirty or forty years. Again, the discovery at Camelon, north of the Antonine Wall, of much first-century pottery, with other evidences of a prolonged early occupation, served to upset the theory that the Romans withdrew to a line along the Tweed soon after the departure of Agricola. Not only at Camelon, but also at Ardoch and Inchtuthil in Perthshire, evidence has been found of at least two, and possibly three, pre-Antonine permanent forts, proving continuous activity on the part of the Romans, even up to the very doorway of the Highlands, and even into the third decade of the second century.

In the first chapter of Agricola's Road into Scotland I have given a short account of the dealings of the Romans with Northern Britain, and it is not necessary to repeat it here. It is enough to recall the fact that Roman activity in Scotland can be divided into three well-marked periods :

1. The Agricolan Period, inaugurated by Agricola, in a.d. 81, and lasting, as we now know, for some thirty or forty years.

2. The Antonine Period, extending approximately from A.D. 142 to 181.

3. The invasion of Severus in a.d. 209-10, by far the shortest and least important of the three periods.

To the first period belong the original forts along the continuation of Dere Street right up into Perthshire, and also the original forts along the Forth-to-Clyde line. Blatobulgium (Birrens), one of the only two forts in Scotland whose Latin names have been handed down to us, seems to have been built at the end of this period as an outlier of Hadrian’s Wall.

The second period is chiefly remarkable for the building of the Wall from Forth to Clyde, and for the reconstruction of Agricola’s forts with probably the addition of several to their number.

The third period, merely comprising two military campaigns, is not likely to have left traces of any permanent building, except perhaps at Cramond, which has never been excavated.

There are temporary camps north of the Wall, even as far north as Aberdeenshire, which belong either to the first period or the third; it is not possible to say which. Two of these—Glenmailen in Aberdeenshire, and Raedykes in Kincardineshire —were explored in 1913 and 1914 by Sir George Macdonald and Professor Haverfield. They proved to be indubitably Roman, but nothing was found to show whether they were the work of Agricola on one of his last campaigns, or of Severus, a century and a quarter later.

In making this brief survey of all the permanent forts that are known to have existed in Scotland, I have relied for my information on the records of the archaeological societies, chiefly those of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. I am especially indebted to Sir George Macdonald, not only for his invaluable writings, on which I have drawn largely, but also for help he has given me in conversations. To Mr. R. G. Collingwood also I must again express my thanks.

I owe to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland the permission to use Plates 6, 7, 10, and Figures 2, 5, 6-11, 14-26, 35-40, 43, and 44; while Figures 1, 3, 4, 30-33, and 42 are included with the sanction of the Controller of H.M. Stationery Office.

The pilgrim in Roman Scotland will find that the distances between the various sites are too great to be covered in a reasonable time without the help of motor-car, train, or bus. Excepting the Antonine Wall and a few isolated stretches of Roman road, there is no continuous line to be traced on foot. Many of the sites can still lay claim to considerable beauty of natural surroundings, and perhaps the loveliest time of year for visiting them is early summer. In the case of the Wall, care must be taken to choose a month when the bracken is not breast-high upon the mounds.

In Roman Scotland
By Jessie Mothersole (1927) (pdf)

Hadrian's Wall
By Jessie Mothersole (1927) (pdf)

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