Why stop at Keith? The Romans in Scotland

As it’s the end of Big Roman Week, I thought I’d put my bit together about the Romans in Scotland. Most people with an interest in the history of Romans in Britannia, have heard of Tacitus and his story of Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s campaign against the Caledonians. However, what many people may not know is the fact that no-one knows where his famous Battle of Mons Graupius, where he finally defeated the Caledonians, took place.

In fact, we can’t even say with any certainty which part of Scotland it took place in. When Agricola arrived in Britain, he was following three successful governor-generals, Bolanus, Cerialis and Frontinus. The first two had between them put down the northern confederation of tribes known as the Brigantes, leaving Frontinus to defeat the Silures in south Wales. There is no mention of campaigns in the north in accounts of Frontinus’ governorship, suggesting the Brigantes remained quiet.

So, who were the Brigantes, and where did they live? As with so many of the critical questions about early Roman-period Britain, we don’t know exactly. We do know that they lived in northern Britain, and their territory stretched from east coast to west. To the south, the Parisi lived around Humberside , the Corieltauvi across Leicestershire and Lincolnshire had their capital at Leicester, and the Cornovii lved south of the Mersey, with their capital at the Wrekin, near Wroxeter. This indicates the Brigantes lived north of the Mersey and the Humber. A further tribe mentioned in the area are the Carvetii, who may have amalgamated with the Brigantes, and were based around Carlisle, probably extending westwards into Dumfries-shire. To the north were the Votadini, Selgovae and to the west the Novantae, who occupied Galloway. The Votadini occupied East Lothian, and the east coast, possibly as far as the Tyne. The Selgovae are recorded as having lived next to the Novantae, and presumably therefore occupied the area around Kirkcudbright.

The Brigantes therefore occupied the area roughly defined by Lancashire and Yorkshire, possibly extending into southern Cumbria and Teesside, and into the Peak District. It is important to consider this when looking at Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s campaigns. Bolanus and Ceralis had definitely campaigned against the Brigantes. Bolanus was only in Britannia for two years, 69-71, and was present at the start of the Brigantian revolt. He was recalled, possibly for failing to put the revolt down although he is recorded as having campaigned in the lands of the Caledonians, and as having captured the breastplate of an enemy king. Cerialis was governor from 71-74, and crushed the Brigantian revolt, plus their allies. Frontinus had been governor of Britannia for four years when he was recalled, and had campaigned in Wales, indicating that the north was quiet.

According to Tacitus, Agricola in his first year campaigned in north Wales, then in his second advanced along a line including estuaries and forests, and in his third year contacted new tribes, reaching as far as the estuary called “Tanaum”. In the fourth year he consolidated his previous year’s conquests and built forts in the vicinity of the “Cloda” and “Bodotria” – the Clyde and Forth. In the fifth year he crossed the Clyde and subdued some “hitherto unknown” tribes, posting troops in the area facing Ireland. In his sixth year he explored the states beyond the Forth, using a fleet to support him. Hearing this had caused the tribes of Caledonia to issue a call to arms, he split his forces in three, and suffered a heavy assault upon the camp of the ninth legion, which was defeated within the camp itself. The tribes then issued a further call to arms, and Agricola advanced with a lightly armed force, supported by a fleet, to “montem Graupium” which the British had occupied with a large army. There the final battle was fought and the Romans had the victory. The following day, there were no Britons to be seen, and Agricola led his troops back into the territory of the Boresti, took hostages and then headed slowly back through the newly-conquered tribes to their winter quarters, sending a force along with the fleet to sail around Britain before returning to harbour, having sailed around the south of the island. Agricola was recalled in 84, and within a few years his farthest conquests had been abandoned. In the reign of Trajan, the frontier had been pulled back as far as the Stanegate frontier, a chain of forts along the line of, and predating Hadrians Wall.

From Tacitus’ description of the campaigns, it is clear that the critical battle took place north of the Forth, and north of the land occupied by the Boresti. Unfortunately, this tribal name is unknown apart from Tacitus’ single use of it. It was at this time generally believed that Ireland lay between Britain and Spain, and that the east coast of Scotland was actually its north coast. When Tacitus refers to the fleet sailing around Britain along the south coast before returning to harbour, he cannot mean that the fleet circumnavigated Britain, since the fleet would surely have realised that the west coast of Scotland and the south coast of England were very different and corrected this belief. However, it may mean that it sailed around the north of Scotland and saw that the coast turned south near Cape Wrath and therefore assumed that they were looking at the extreme south-west corner of Britannia looking east, and then turned back. It is also possible that the fleet sailed around Buchan Ness and saw the coast heading a long way “south” and made a similar assumption, turning round in the Moray Firth.

A series of forts were established in a line stretching from the headwaters of the Forth nearly as far as Aberdeen, with a central base at Inchtuthil, near Meikleour, Perthshire. The most recent discovery earlier this year was the possibility that a Roman fort lies underneath Stonehaven, and a network of pathsconverge on a further uninvestigated site near Auchenblae, which would complete a chain of defences from Stonehaven down to Dumbarton, effectively cutting off the Highlands. The majority of these forts have conclusively been dated to the Flavian period. Inchtuthil and presumably the forts further north were abandoned in 87, and the series of fortlets and watch towers along the Gask Ridge after that.

North of Stonehaven, and heading along the line of the A96, are two series of temporary camps. They represent two separate campaigns that reached at least as far as the Spey, and of two different scales. The first, and probably earlier, of the two is a series of camps that are large enough to accommodate a single legion. The second is a series of camps that could accommodate at least two, and maybe up to four legions. This latter is assumed to belong to the campaigns of the Emperor Septimius Severus in 208-11, abandoned by his son Caracalla shortly after Severus’ death. The first is actually a mystery. It could belong to Agricola’s time, representing either his lightly armed force that was involved in the decisive battle against the Caledonians, or the force that accompanied the fleet on its trip after the battle. It could also belong to one of a number of campaigns recorded between Agricola’s governorship and the Severan campaign.

The design of the gateways of the camps is normally used to indicate they were of Agricolan dates, since they use a type of gate design used by Agricolan forces at Stracathro. However, the latest dated camp with this design is in Judaea and has been dated to 133. The governor responsible for this camp was Julius Severus, who had been recalled from Britannia, potentially after subduing a serious rebellion there. The Brigantes at least were in revolt at this time, and it is possible that they were supported by tribes from further north.

The northernmost area that has been definitively identified as having seen the Roman legions is Strathisla, just to the east of Keith. Here are one of each type of camp. The larger camp surrounds the farm of Muiryfold, and the earlier camp fills the space between Auchinhove farm and the river. As with all the camps north of Aberdeen, the sites have not been dated conclusively. Extensive digs at Kintore prior to the building of a new housing estate have resulted in radiocarbon dates of the late 1st century AD. As this is from the larger series of camps (the smaller has not yet been conclusively identified) and therefore assumed to be of Severan date, there is the distinct possibility that the camps were reused on more than one occasion, possibly throughout the late first and second century. They were probably occupied for up to two or three weeks at a time until the surrounding area was properly subdued.

So what happened when the Romans got to Keith? Where did they go from there, and what evidence is there to support it? The answer is simple. We don’t know, and there is no conclusive evidence. Assuming that the spacing of the camps would remain the same, we would expect the next pair of camps to be near the Spey. A logical location would be the high ground to the east of the river and north of Fochabers, where a site has long been identified as a Roman camp. A number of cropmarks here are suggested to be Roman, but they have not been conclusively proven to be so. These include two to the north-east of Bellie Kirk, one possibly containing a curved corner, and two on the north-western edge of the high ground by the Romancamp Gate junction. For these latter two to be part of a camp would suggest that the high ground had been significantly eroded by the river, since the maximum dimension remaining is 160 metres – about a third the size of the smaller series of camps, meaning at least 300 metres has been eroded away. The mark with the curved corner would also require the high ground to have been eroded to the south-west – but only to the tune of 150 metres, not 300 metres. The key question, which has not been addressed, is how much of this 17 metre high bank could have disappeared in two thousand years?

The issue of erosion is one that causes greater problems further west. The next logical location by distance would be in the vicinity of Elgin, after that, Forres, then Nairn and then Culloden. In the majority of these areas, the ground is subjected to severe wind erosion as well as the vagaries of flood-prone rivers, meaning that if further camps existed on low ground, the chances of anything surviving as a crop mark are slim at best. This is also applying modern logic to an ancient invasion. We look at the distribution of our own towns and do not appreciate what was here 2000 years ago. The rivers were still there, but the coast was far inland, low lying salt marsh flooded at high tide. What would prevent Roman legion commanders, clearly following the Isla upstream, from carrying on upstream, and reaching the Spey via the Fiddich, or the Burn of Mulben? If so we might look for camps at Gauldwell, or Cairnty. The Spey would have to be crossed, on foot, and is wide, deep and fast. There are fords shown by General Roy (c1750) at Garmouth, Dipple, Orton and Arndilly. The next is at Inveravon, a dozen or so miles upstream. The presence of the unfinished fort at Little Conval may also support the advent of Rome on the Fiddich. Once across the Spey, where would an invading army hope to find a foe to fight? Cluny Hill at Forres, maybe, or Craig Phadraig at Inverness. Possibly even Burghead, if the site was occupied at this early date (it was an island at this point). The logical routes would therefore be either up the Glen of Rothes to the Lossie, possibly near Thomshill, where a large hoard of Roman silver coins was found, and on to the shore near Alves, or across the high ground towards the Lossie at Dallas and on towards the Findhorn and Cluny Hill. It is only at this point that the invading army would have headed along a more coastal route towards the forts around Inverness.

The Severan army, we know, turned back south abruptly. The Emperor was at York, having sent his son Caracalla onwards with the army. On hearing his father had died, Caracalla hastily set up treaties with local tribes and hastened towards Rome, aware that his younger brother Geta was more popular than he was, and keen to ensure that he was made Emperor. The campaigns and treaties were very effective, with no records of disturbance in Scotland for a century or so. The hoard at Birnie contains no coins later than Severus’ reign, showing that it was almost certainly part of the treaties Caracalla made before departing southwards. It seems perfectly reasonable to suppose that the Severan campaign was operating from Muiryfold when the news reached Caracalla of Severus’ death. So, what of the other series of camps?

The period after Agricola’s governorship and the withdrawal back to the Stanegate forts is poorly known. The Emperor Domitian’s policy of withdrawal was probably purely due to pressures on the army from elsewhere, and although he was assassinated in 96 and replaced by Nerva, the new Emperor was a stop-gap, with a successful heir-apparent, Trajan, who came to the throne in 98. Trajan was not concerned with Britain, seeking conquest and glory elsewhere, and did not cease the withdrawal. There are hints that the provincial governor was present in person on the Stanegate in 103, which would indicate possible trouble from the Brigantes, perhaps due to the return of the army after prolonged absence. By 105 it is likely that everything to the north had been abandoned and many of the forts show signs of having been destroyed by fire at this time – possibly burned by the Romans rather than the British tribes, although the destruction of the supply base at Corbridge, serving the Stanegate may well have been rebellion. It seems unlikely that the smaller series of camps belongs to this period of withdrawal.

In the 120s Hadrian’s wall was being built. There are a number of records which indicates there was serious disruption and military activity in north Britain during Hadrian’s reign, possibly associated with the erection of the wall, which may well have run arbitrarily through established tribal territories, most likely the difficult Brigantes, who were among the tribes who revolted. The governor Falco, who was responsible for crushing the initial revolt, then planned the Wall with the Emperor, leaving his successor Nepos to build it. It is altogether possible the rebellion may have brought other tribes in from the north, given the destruction of the forts north of the Wall, and that campaigns were necessary to put these tribes down, but there are no specific references to tribes other than the Brigantes. The governorship of Sextus Julius Severus in the early 130s, until his abrupt summons to Judaea may indicate a need to have a competent general in charge, and as has been outlined above, Severus’ campaign in Judaea has camps with the same design as the smaller series of northern camps, and either Falco or Severus could in theory have campaigned northwards as a shock-and-awe tactic to punish supporters of the Brigantes.

Having completed Hadrian’s Wall, the frontier was then moved forwards to the Forth/Clyde boundary again by the next Emperor, Antoninus Pius. Possibly motivated by a desire for a shorter, more defensible frontier as well as a need to bring the Brigantes and their supporters to heel (it seems possible some of the Brigantes were actually north of the Wall), his governor Urbicus advanced to that line, possibly beyond to pacify the area, and commenced the erection of the new Antonine Wall. More warfare continued throughout the reigns of Antoninus and his successor Marcus Aurelius, and almost all of it appears to have been between the walls and in Brigantian territory south of Hadrian’s wall. In the reign of the next Emperor, Commodus, there were definitely campaigns north of Hadrian’s Wall, and possibly further than the isthmus, under the governor Ulpius Marcellus. However given that the province seceded from the Empire under Pertinax and Clodius Albinus, it appears likely that actions against those considered outside the Empire were secondary at this time, and apart from the possibility of a campaign by Marcellus between 180 and 184, there are no other hints of a northern campaign.

In about 197, we hear for certain the first hints of trouble from north of the Antonine Wall, when it is recorded that the Caledonii had broken their treaties, and were preparing to aid the Maeatae who were presumably in rebellion. The Maeatae lived around Stirling and Falkirk, and probably further afield than that, and the governor Lupus was ordered to pay them off in around 200. The Caledonii – probably a term to indicate the tribes of Caledonia, rather than a tribal name, and therefore as vague as the term “Highlanders” – were not mentioned. However, with the rest of the Empire in civil war, it appears that the bribe was unsuccessful or ignored, since there were further campaigns, possibly under the governor Pudens, possibly his successor Senecio. According to Herodian’s account, these campaigns triggered a more serious uprising with Caledonian support in which towns were burned, and the province overrun with barbarians. The situation was sufficiently critical to ask for Imperial aid. It is therefore possible that either Pudens or Senecio campaigned further north as well.

In all these cases, however, the likelihood is that campaigns were limited to the area between the Walls, or at the outside, as far as the Tay. It is only with the revolt of 197 that the Caledonii are even mentioned, and then only in about 205 that they were actually involved, and then as aggressors in support of the Maeatae, not being on the receiving end of retaliation. The response to this aggression was the Severan campaigns outlined above. It is most likely, therefore, that the second series of camps belongs either to the Flavian/Aelian period (with the carbon dates from Kintore representing an earlier unrecognised Flavian camp rather than the Severan occupation of the site), or postdate the Severan campaign altogether.

After a short interval, the Severan occupation of forts north of the Antonine Wall, and the new Severan legionary fortress of Carpow on the Tay came to an end. Indeed, Rome withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall, to all intents and purposes for good, and there is no evidence at all for campaigns north of the Forth for the best part of a century. We move then, to the year 305, when Constantius Chlorus, the new Augustus in the West, needed to campaign against the Picti, who had invaded the province of Britannia. This term was as vague and all-encompassing as the term Caledonii had been a century earlier, and the reference to Chlorus’ campaign isn’t much clearer, just saying that he campaigned in the far north, and that the result was a victory. Pottery evidence confirms that there reoccupied the fortress at Carpow, and there are sufficient similarities between the accounts of his campaign and that of Severus to suggest they took the same route – although this may be conscious imitation. The following year, he died at York, and was succeeded by his son Constantine, who then embarked upon a campaign to be recognised as Augustus, and not on invading the lands north of the Walls. Subsequent campaigns in the north of Britain by Constans in 342/3, Lipicinus in c360, Theodosius in 368/9, Magnus Maximus in 382, and Stilicho in 392 seem unlikely to have ranged so far north.

So we are limited in our possibilities for the smaller series of camps. They may belong to any of the following people and periods –

Bolanus, Cerealis, Frontinus, Agricola, (Flavian, 69-83 AD),

Falco, Nepos, Julius Severus, (Hadrianic, 118-133 AD),

Urbicus, (Antonine, 138-144 AD),

Marcellus, (Antonine, 180s AD),

Pudens, Senecio, (Severan, 202-207 AD)

Constantius Chlorus, 305 AD

The style of these forts, with their distinctive gate entrances, informs that they should be Flavian or Hadrianic. The size, capable of accomodating a single legion, does not immediately suggest an army of conquest, or an exploratory campaign over 60 miles into enemy territory, but is perfectly suited to a punitive campaign, or a diplomatic effort intended to impress those on the other end. In such circumstances, we come back to our original question, what happens at Strathisla?


Returning to our original consideration, possible population and power centres exist at Forres, Burghead and around Inverness. There are a number of forts around the Peterhead area, and a number on the north coast between Fraserburgh and Portsoy, and large unfinished forts at Durn Hill near Portsoy as well as that on Little Conval. But nothing that would indicate any mission intended to have a specific diplomatic purpose would stop here. A punitive mission would suggest that an battle would have needed to be fought, or a territory wasted, either of which would certainly be possible. There are references to battles being fought during the campaigns of the candidates above, and a tribal territory wasting could have been carried out as far as the Spey, with the forts being unfinished due to the punishment having been inflicted.

The final possibility we come back to is that of conquest. Tacitus records Agricola’s belief that Ireland could have been taken by a single legion. Vespasian conquered the tribes of the south-west of Britain with a single legion, so conquest could have been the agenda. If so, there seems no reason to stop at Strathisla, so we either have a series of missing camps, for which there is no confirmed evidence, or a reason for turning back. Perhaps we might look to the historian Fronto, who reminds the Emperor Marcus Aurelius that in the time of Hadrian, great numbers of soldiers were killed by the Jews, and by the Britons. According to one source, the reason Hadrian himself came to Britain in 122 was because the Britons could not be controlled by the Romans.

Could the reason for no further evidence be because there is none, that the legion was destroyed in battle? Until these critical sites are investigated properly, and can be dated with a degree of certainty rather than by inference, there seems little chance of answering these questions. But next time you drive along the A95 west of Keith, remember that you drive where Romans once camped. Pull over for a minute, and take a walk. Not a Big Walk, but a more personal, reflective one. Look around and see what the landscape has to say to you. Why would the Romans stop here, and decide, this is the end of the Empire?