Our job in this episode is to consider the Roman Iron Age, and we will do that, I promise, but you would be disappointed in me if I didn’t introduce a digression at some point, and so I thought I’d start with a digression, you know, just as a firm signal of my future intentions. The digression is to have a quick outline of the sources for the early medieval history of Scotland up to the 9th century is, and some of the challenges. For two reasons really – no, three. One, because it’s fun, two because it’s my podcast and I’ll cry if I want to, but thirdly and principally so that I can minimise the statement ‘we really don’t know’. Though let me tell you, you are going to hear that statement plenty over the next few weeks, you see if you don’t mister.
So in the 18th century there was a Scottish historian and Principal of Edinburgh university called William Robertson, particularly noted for a history he wrote of 16th century Scotland. William was not a fan of the histories of our period, that is to say early medieval history; what I am stubbornly continuing to call Dark Age history all the way through to 1000. As far as he was concerned, it simply not worth studying; it was, in his words ‘the region of pure fable and conjecture’ which ought to be, quote, ‘totally neglected or abandoned to the industry and conjecture of antiquaries’. Antiquaries might need some translation as well – basically they were collections of oddities and early texts you might look through on a lazy Sunday afternoon after having read the sports pages and done the gardening. Basically, William’s message was that proper historians really should not bother. This falls into the ‘moderately dismissive’ category, with application for an upgrade to ‘outrageously dismissive’ at the next formal review.
I hear you step back in surprise from your mp3 player, possibly dislodging the a passenger next to you, or dislodging an article of clothing from the ironing pile. Surely this is one of the most exciting periods of Scottish history – the time when Scotland began to be forged, the age of migrations when the 4 kingdoms of Pictland, Dalriada, Strathclyde and Bernicia grew up, and eventually came together under the leadership of the first king of Scotland, Kenneth MacAlpin. And you would be so right, gentle listener, so right. But William had a point; there is simply so little textual evidence to go on. And not only that. One of the historians who’s work I am using in putting this podcast together, one James Fraser of Edinburgh, nothing to do with anyone called BigVic I have to say, points to the problem of those sources we do have, pointing out that if we use them as simple histories we are kidding ourselves, and being lead into what you might call pseudohistory. Now I have always rather liked pseudo history I have to say, since it’s often more fun than the real stuff, but of course that’s inadmissible – you and I are here together in the search for truth and light as well as a good story, I must try to give you both. Dr Fraser points out that if we use many of these sources as simple records, which are either right or wrong, we miss the point. So for example, central to our story is a 6th century text called the Life of St Columba by Adamnan of Iona. Such a text cannot be simply read as a history – it is a hagiography, a text designed to promote the glorious spread if Christianity, and to emphasise the importance of the monastery at Iona. The point is not historical accuracy – it is to put the main character, Colomba, into situations where the right message can be delivered.
What all of this means is not that the texts are useless, but just need to be dealt with very carefully – which makes the task of the historian even harder. Plus, when I can see deep, deep concern etched into your brow, the early history of Scotland is served by very few texts. This is what you get.
Early doors, in Roman times, life is as dark as you get. There’s Tacitus, who wrote the biography of Agricola in AD 98; Agricola as many of you will no doubt know, invaded northern Britain. There’s Ptolemy in the second century, who mentions the tribes of northern Britain, and there’s Cassius Dio, possibly related to Ronnie James, who wrote in the 3rd century. There are other 4th century snippets, but even the ones I have mentioned are often just brief mentions of tiny snippets of information.
Then we have some characters we have met before – Gildas, the grumpy monk around 543 who’s “On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain” mentions the Picti and Scotti. You have the Life of St Columba, warts and all written in the 6th century, and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English people who, being Northumbrian, spoke of the lands of northern Britain given the lands held there by the Angles, writing in the 8th century. There are then some snippets here and there in the Irish Chronicles such as the Ulster Chronicles.
Probably the most interesting is what’s become known as the The Pictish Chronicle. It seems to date from the reign of Kenneth II, who reigned in the late 10th century in a 14th century copy. The chronicles have three parts. The first is an account of the origins of the Picts, which is confused and mostly irrelevant for Scottish history, and without doubt falls into the pseudohistory bracket. Then there is a super fascinating list of Pictish kings from the earliest times up until the conquest by Kenneth Mac Alpín in the 9th Century. It is usually just a name but every so often there’s a tantalising snippet of information just to keep you on tenterhooks. And finally, there’s “The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba”, which is a list of kings also has rather fuller notes about the relevant reign. It takes you from the 840s to the end of the 10th century. There’s an article on the website so that you can go and read them if you like; it’s quite fun and they are not very long it has to be said.
Really it is very sparse indeed. So while there’s a lot of archaeology to support the texts, archaeology is not great at constricting the big picture and the chronology. And so, it means that there are whopping great big gaps in it all. The Roman period is a case in point – as you’ll hear, there’s Agricola, then Severus, maybe Constantine and then, essentially, “er…would someone turn out the lights please?”
So, there you go – just take it as read that very often we just don’t know the answer. The approach I will take is actually to avoid trawling through all these kings in the Pictish king list – it’s seriously nothing but dull names and mindless speculation. I’ll try to focus on the big picture, and focus in on lives where we do know a bit of detail, like St Columba for example.
Which brings us as night follows day to the narrative history. We’d left northern Britain on the threshold of the Roman age; Julius Caesar was brushing off his sandals and re-arranging his tunic and planning a trip over. But before we move on to JC, we should probably have a chat about the Celts should we not? Traditionally, the British Isles were inhabited by Celts by the time the Romans arrived, and one of the traditional views was that this had been a violent process, a migration and take over from the existing inhabitants. The modern coverage of the Celts is very different. I have to tell you that I have 6 history books on the desk open in front of me covering this period and all but one do not even have the word Celt in the index, and the one that does is embarrassed about it. Which is slightly odd. Mainly this is probably because of what is seen now as misconceptions about the history of the British, rather than a desire to completely rub out the word. But let it be noted that the word Celt was never applied by the Romans to the people of Britain – they were quite simply Britons. None the less there seems to be no denial by historians that Britons throughout the Islands shared common cultural characteristics and probably religion; there’s the famous story of Agricola and the Druids of Angelsey for example. It’s just that the process of acculturalisation is now favoured rather than a violent mass migration.
Avoiding the use of the Celt word also reflects the rather messy contribution made by DNA, which I think I mentioned last time. It’s possible to see an article from Oxford University which says there is no single genetic Celtic identity, cheek by jowl with an article saying the very opposite. Though the latter seem to be becoming rather more cautious than they had once been. What most people admit is that it’s a lot more complicated than it might once have appeared.
So ethnically, now continuity is stressed, from the first stone age inhabitants through the Roman invasions and indeed beyond. In language, there seems to be broad agreement, though once again not without a fair amount of initial pain and furious debate. The story is that there are two families of insular Celtic languages, insular referring specifically to the British Isles, Britain and Ireland. These are variously called – P-Celtic and Q-Celtic, or Brythonic – i.e. P-Celtic – and Gaelic or Q-Celtic. You’ll also hear the word Goidelic Celts for Q Celtic. The idea is that in our period, Brythonic is spoken throughout Britain, and Gaelic is spoken in Ireland. Over the next few centuries that will change; but we’ll cover that as we go, and as we get to the Picts in a little while. But before I move on I should note that these days it seems to be that we are left with two main families; Welsh as the remaining descendant of P-Celtic, and Irish Gaelic as the remaining Q-Celtic.
Although JC popped over to have a look at Britain in 54 and 55BC as part of his Gallic wars, he took the approach of many successful generals – he decided he didn’t have the wherewithal, so he declared victory and ran away. Famously Emperor Claudius in AD 43 wanted his slice of glory, and identified Britain as the ideal location for a spot of glory winning, and the general Aulus Plautius was duly dispatched with a bunch of legions. Now you will be relieved to hear I am not going to go through the Roman Conquest of Britain; this is the History of Scotland not a Podcast on British History. But I did want to go as far as Claudius’s visit to Britain, which came in that first year of 43 when they’d won enough territory and subdued enough tribes to make it look good, and so Claudius the God was able to come to the future town of Colchester and do his bit of gloating, receiving the submission of 11 kings, according to Cassius Dio.
There’s a rather nice story that one of the kings who bowed his head to the emperor was not one of the Britons of southern England, but a king of Orkney. Now there has been doubt and suspicion thrown on this little wrinkle of history – why would he do that – he hadn’t been defeated? Could a king of Orkney, so far north really have the capability to get that far? Nah, can’t be right, the Roman’s must have just made a mistake.
But then shards of amphorae of that very period were found in Orkney. Hah! So, not so unlikely then! Hopefully we have learned our lesson from the incident; the people of the North were well aware of what was going on outside their borders. One of them had the nous to realise that having the support of the most powerful man on earth would probably not be a bad idea – especially since he was so far away he was unlikely to interfere on a day to say basis anyway. Smart thinking. But the critical point is about the relationship between those inside the Empire and Barbaricum – the barbarians outside. A frontier is rarely impervious but porous, and this was particularly so with the Roman experience. On the borders all over their empire the Romans were expert at messing with the politics of Barbaricum; all over barbaricum, leaders were looking for advantage and a piece of the Roman action. The debate over the next couple of episodes is essentially about a phrase, the Roman Interlude. The argument behind this is that there was very little impact of the Romans on the Northern Britons; the plucky tribes of the north fought off the evil oppressor and remained free and uncorrupted by their influence. Well – maybe, maybe not.
The Romans moved north and all that; Boudicca gave them all a bit of a shock in the 60’s, but really the fat lady was warbling over most of what would become England one day. Northern Britain though remained unsubdued; with the vast northern confederation of tribes the Brigantes, all the way up to the Southern Uplands of what is now Scotland. What lay beyond, I hear you say?
We are in snippet territory. We have a reference to the tribes north of the Brigantes from a Greek chap called Ptolemy in the second century. Ptolemy was a geographer, and therefore presumably a man noted for wearing leather patches on this toga. When he wasn’t telling everyone how cool his leather patches were,k Ptolemy had laid out who he thought inhabited northern Britain – I am not going to list a bunch of names but I have helpfully and thoughtfully, even kindly, put a map on the interweb for you all – the history of England.com. I’ll mention a couple for you. Obviously the one you are all waiting for is the Caledonii, occupying the highlands of Scotland, and whence the name Caledonia often used as an alternative word for Scotland. Much to the irritation of the shades of the others tribes, because there are many other others; Ptolemy lists 5 tribes in northern Britain below the Clyde-Forth line, such as the Votadini. The Votadini occupied what is now broadly called Lothian, the Eastern area of Southern Scotland, based at their mighty hill fort of Traprain Law; and who would later be known under their Brythonic name of the Gododdin, and be based at a place called Din Eidyn – modern Edinburgh.
North of the Clyde-Forth line; Ptolemy lists 10 tribes, including the Caledonians. However, a century earlier, the picture north of the Clyde Forth line had become apparently much simpler – just one tribe was identified by Tacitus, namely the Caledonians.
Tacitus was the son in law of one Agricola, who became the Governor of Britain in 78 AD. You may have heard of Agricola; in my mind’s eye I can see him standing in the Ladybird book quiet and confident on the coast of Scotland, while behind him Roman Galleys negotiate the surprisingly calm waters. By the time of Agricola, Roman occupation was probably as far north as the Clyde-Forth line. The tribes of southern Scotland might well have been looking with some interest at the attractive looking lifestyle of the invaders – the ancient equivalent of latest mod cons and the dulce vita might well have been reasonably attractive. But not to the Caledonians oh no. One theory is that the name come from the word for hard; rock hard maybe. The Caledonians were not ready for the ancient equivalent of microwave ovens and skinny café latte with an extra shot and a dusting of chocolate. They came howling out of the dark on the Roman encampments of the north, testing their resolve, on one occasion at least coming close to inflicting a dangerous defeat on them.
Now you really don’t have to be Scottish to feel a certain pride here; there we are in the face of the most powerful empire in the world, and the Caledonians wanted nothing of it and would send them south with a bloody nose if they could. I suspect they were not alone in this, the Gauls would probably have felt the same – but the Caledonians would succeed where most of the rest of the world failed. Clearly that is unhistorical flag waving but hey, why not I ask you? Even historians can enjoy a good story, and bought a saltire for my shed so seems silly not to use it.
Anyway, Agricola was having none of this – it was time to do the Roman thing, crush the Caledonians add them to the empire and move on. Steamroller style.
In AD 84 then, apparently, The Roman steamroller, 20,000 soldiers strong finally faced their enemy. A vast horde of hairy Celts, led by the Swordsman – Calgacus. Calgacus spoke to his men to gee them up a bit:
We the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood…we… the last of the free have been shielded before today by the very remoteness and seclusion for which we are famed…Romans…Brigands of the world…the wealth of the enemy excites their greed, his poverty their lust for power…they create a desert and call it peace
At which point you need to get your spelling right, because I can imagine many desserts which I would indeed call peace. Steamed treacle suet pudding for example, with vast quantities of lumpy custard would reconcile me to most tyrannies, but we are not here, ladies and gentlemen to talk of custard! We are here to talk of heroism.
30,000 Caledonians or 30,000 inhabitants of northern Britain had gathered in the lee of a mighty glen. It was called by Tacitus Mons Graupius, which name reflects that we are in the Grampian mountains here, but exactly where no one appears to be able to say, there are a number of candidates, the most popular of which is a place called Dunning, which is fact is distressingly far south of the Grampians but there you go, I suspect it is a debate that will provide occupation for many, for many years.
Anyway, back to our battle. It started with an exchange of missiles, spears flying from each side, countered as well as possible with shields. Then the Roman infantry in their organised ranks ground forward, and the same old story emerged – this was warfare the Romans were good at and the Celts bad at. The Celts had small shields and long swords, in a press and melee that called for large shields and short swords. Also according to Tacitus, apparently the long swords of the Caledonians had no points which was interesting. I had a look on the interweb and they all looked to be very pointy. Oh well.
To finish the job, the Roman Cavalry swung round the Caldeonian flank, and the slaughter began. The surviving Caledonians disappeared into the forests, leaving thousands dead, while he Romans lost 360, and one of those was old Brutus who caught his foot on an amphora and felling into a bog and drowned.
Now then. We’ve had our fun. Is Mons Graupius truth or hogwash, or somewhere in between?
It’s tempting to say hogwash. 30,000 – really? That could have been a substantial proportion of the entire population of northern Britain. Calgacus, sadly, makes a fine speech, but sadly this is Tacitus speaking, not a Caledonian. This is where understanding the motivation of the chronicler is critical – Tacitus needed to give Agricola a credible enemy in order to fulfil the purpose of the book – to big up Agricola and land him a great promotion.
So, hogwash then? Well probably not entirely. After all Agricola got his triumph in Rome, awarded for just such a thing. The likelihood is that there was a battle; it probably wasn’t quite as substantial, the speeches would have sounded different. But the Caledonians probably did fight for their freedom.
From 77 to 84, Agricola apparently went right to the very tippy top of Scotland, with his boats re-supplying him as he went. But he seems to have decided that the highlands games were really not worth the candle. And so a chain of forts was established along the southern edge of the Grampians, so just north of the Clyde-Forth line but also north of fife and Kinross; so essentially taking in all the fertile, high quality farming land south of the highlands. I have added a map for you on the website.
So the limit of Roman Britain appears to have been established; within in’s limits were peoples such as the Dumnonii, Venicones and Uacomagi, who inhabited the north of this region; and the Votadini much further south. And for some 30 years or so these tribes experienced the benefits and drawbacks of having the Roman Sandal on your neck.
The Caledonians were still north of the line. Now, interestingly, Tacitus never actually says that the Britanni Agricola fought were Caledonians; though he calls the whole area Caledonia. He calls it a confederation. So, the possibility exists that all of Ptolemy’s 10 highland tribes worked together to face the Romans at mons Graupius. Which will be relevant when we begin to consider the 3rd century.
We now get a famous piece of Roman dithering. 38 years after Mons Graupius in 122, the emperor Hadrian announced that, quote
The Britons were incapable of being held under Roman authority
A new strategy was put in place – a vast wall was constructed for walkers between the Solway firth and the Tyne estuary. But then, just 20 years later, having spent all that time and effort building this enormous edifice, the Romans said no, no, sorry, forget that. Let’s build a wall further north. And so the Antonine Wall was built along the guess what, Clyde Forth line, just 37 miles long rather than Hadrian’s 85 miles. Fine. But oh no, just 20 years later, lots of bureaucratic hand waving, and it’s back to the line of Hadrian’s wall in 162.
What is going on here? I guess the traditional interpretation is that the Romans just couldn’t contain the tribes of Scotland. That the Celtic tribes fought and scraped and scrabbled to maintain their freedom. That the Caledonians north of the Antonine wall raided and made life so difficult for the Romans that they were forced to run away and leave them in peace and to enjoy the fruits of freedom. This is the basic assumption of most of the books you read actually, especially the popular ones as it were; that the romans were ‘forced’ back, that for hundreds of years before the romans left, the British tribes of Scotland had been searching for freedom. Hurrah, ladies and gentlemen, hurrah for freedom, light truth and justice and the removal of the hated Roman dessert. I mean after all, what is panatone compared to steamed treacle sponge?
Well. Hmm. It could be that this is the case, and job done, we can move on to Severus and his appearance in the north in 208. But other interpretations are available.
Actually, it’s just as likely that the attacks that did occur up to the time that Severus visits in 208 were the result of a desire for Roman wealth. It is highly likely that actually the Caledonians were seen as part of the empire until 208. It is quite possible that patriotic resistance and a desire for freedom had nothing to do with it.
The theory is that over the 120-ish years between the campaigns of Agricola in 84 and Severus in 208, it remained very uncertain exactly here the frontier of barbaricum and Rome lay. The various walls seem like a convenient way of identifying this, an impervious line, the Roman empire one side, the barbarians on the other. I have an image of zombies clawing at Hadrian’s wall being mown down by Roman soldiers for centuries until eventually they are overwhelmed and Rome is extinguished. But actually, they may be a distraction – the walls rather than the zombies. The walls were for the most part porous not impervious, though in a panic they could be made impervious. They were not necessarily simply to keep the barbarian out; they were there to control trade, a symbol of a change in the way in which the peoples on either side of the wall were dealt with by Roman officialdom; and they were a guard against that system breaking down. Let me try to explain.
The attitude of the votadini is important here. You will remember that this lot are in Lothian, based around the massive hill fort of Traprain Law, stretching up to modern Edinburgh – they are between the walls as it were, between Hadrian and Anntonine walls. Traprain Law contains substantial finds of roman provenance; nearby Roman forts on the Roman road northwards also contain a lot of evidence of interaction between Roman and the Votadini. The working assumption has been that the Votadini were active collaborators with the Romans. That they liked the benefits of Roman civilisation, the latest mod cons they made available. That as far the as Votadini were concerned, the idea of placing the wall south of them sucked – they wanted in! And so possibly why the Antonnine wall was built.
The second point is that the walls were there to regulated trade and contact as I said; the practice seems to have been that north of the wall no trade was allowed. That does not mean that Roman coin and goods did not find their way north – they most certainly did. They did though, via the Roman army and its diplomatic relationships. We are sometimes liable to see subsidies paid to tribes as forced, as a sign of weakness; it was not necessarily so. Both sides got something – the one side got peace and an absence of raids to get whole of the material possessions they wanted, the other side got the material possessions they craved. It’s a reasonable deal. The point of this is that Rome maintained contact with the Caledonians and other highland tribes throughout. Although they were outside the Roman Province of Britannia, they were part of the system of roman Britain. The point is that Rome also continued to work peaceably for the most part with the tribes between the walls, that they were also part of the system, and a willing part at that.
None the less, there was a degree of violence in the relationship between native and Roman throughout the period between Agricola’s campaign and the arrival of the Emperor Severus in 208. This violence may have been in part a result of the confused policy from Rome about where the province would lie at the line of Antoninus or Hadrian. It is worth noting also, though we’ll spend more time on it next episode, that it is also likely that how the tribes treated each other – thjis was normal.. None the less, the confusion cannot have helped. Broadly speaking, we might think of Iron Age northern Britain as having 4 broad regions. Outer Brigantia was the region between the walls; where there was a relatively high level of interaction; inner Caledonia the area to the immediate north of the Antonine wall where there was still considerable interaction, and then made Atlantic Scotland and Outer Caledonia where interaction was rare.
The violence then was from both Outer Brigantia and inner Caledonia There are flare ups in 155, when Julius Verus fought north of the Antonine Wall; in the 160s there was a siege in Annandale between the walls, and in the 180’s. In 196, 12 years before the arrival of Severus in 208 there was a rebellion by the Caledonians and allies which occasioned the paying of a subsidy. Just to top all of this off, when Severus does come in 208 to revenge the violence of 196, the historian Herodian describes the sins of the Caledonians as a ‘rebellion’. This is an interesting word; it suggests very strongly that for the Romans at least the Caledonians were part of the system not out of it.
It also makes more sense generally doesn’t it? I mean it’s quite noble to think of the period as a noble fight against Roman oppression and tyranny, of the indomitable spirit of the peoples of the north, so that’s tempting, fair enough. But just to be grubby, it feels rather more plausible that the northern Britons would have wanted a piece of the action as far as the wealth and goods of roman Britain are concerned. They may have been perfectly content with being outside the province of Britannia and therefore relatively free of direct control, but the moments of violence are more likely to have been caused by diplomatic failures, a lack of access to roman goods and wealth; for example, the flare up in 196 came spookily close to the departure of the previous Roman governor from Britain. Finally, we should go back to the point that the people of Outer Brigantia showed a consistent appetite for Rome and her wealth and materials., It is entirely conceivable that a degree of the violence arose not because Outer Brigantia was determined to throw off the Roman sandal, but the direct opposite; that they objected to the policy that placed them outside the Empire, rather than the Anntonine policy that placed them within it. It seems reasonably clear that much of the Roman motivation to stay further south lay in that the Highland game was simply not worth the candle; it was not worth the manpower and effort required to bring Caledonia into the Empire. So it’s an intriguing thought; rather than a history of violence to maintain their glorious independence and freedom, maybe the violence of 84 to 208 was largely about a desire to live within the empire.