The northern region of Great Britain comprising present-day
Scotland was known by the Romans as Caledonia, after a local
Celtic tribe, the Caledones. Caledonia was inhabited by two
main groups of people. The first group, people of Celtic origin,
began migrating into northern England from mainland Europe
in approximately 7,000 BC and continued well into the time
of Caesar, in the late first century BC. The second group,
known later as the Picts, are the subject of much debate and
theories of their origin include: they may have been an aboriginal
people who lived and evolved in Northern England, migrations
from Germany and Scythia (todays Eastern Europe and Central
Asia), or as a mix of aboriginal and Celtic peoples, among
these pre-Roman inhabitants evolved in a similar pattern to
Celtic people all over mainland Europe. The whole of the south
of Scotland, up to the very edges of the Highlands, became
covered in small settlements. These settlements were usually
made up of about six huts surrounded by wooden palisades.
In the north and west, where trees were scarce, they built
with stone, though in the same style.
They were farmers,
cultivating wheat, oats and barley, and keeping pigs, herds
of cattle, and flocks of sheep and goats. They depended on
their livestock for food much more than they did their crops.
The Celts knew
the skill of weaving, using a strong wooden frame called a
loom and threads hung from its top cross bar, each pulled
taut by a weight of baked clay or stone hanging near the floor.
Fleece, shorn from their sheep using a sharp knife and spun
into yarn, was woven to make woolen fabric. They used a wooden
shuttle to pass the weft threads under one and over the next
of the weighted warp threads, which were raised and lowered
to let the shuttle pass easily.
They also wove
other materials, basketwork and matting from rushes, wattle
hurdles from thin or split branches, which they used for walling.
Leather working was common, making clothing and harnesses,
and even containers, which were easier to carry than the pottery
ones previously used.
The people of ancient
Scotland were energetic seamen -- traveling to Ireland (Hibernia),
the Outer Hebrides and mainland Europe. The most powerful
were fond of displaying their wealth. Beautiful gold and silver,
arm, neck and ankle decorative bands have been found all over
They were highly
skilled in working iron. Armor and weaponry took an evolutional
leap forward due to their iron working abilities. The Celts
were the first race to use the long sword and small shield
(a type of buckler shield) in Europe. Previously, knives,
daggers, short swords, axes, etc., were the accepted weapons
of war. This three and one-half foot long sword later put
fear into the invading Romans. The great Roman historian,
Tacitus wrote of the Celtic weapon -- "...their (Celts)
swords of this iron materials, and extreme length seemed a
poor choice of sword to the legions until they saw that these
monstrosities could actually be used quickly and efficiently
with proper training. The Ninth Legion under Agricola, in
Britain, feared the barbaric Caledonians extreme advantage
in reach, with this overly long sword."
Agricola and Roman Invasion
(Note: a great
deal of the "history" of this era comes from the
writing of the Roman historian Tacitus. While invaluable as
an ancient source, his work is tainted by the fact that he
was the son-in-law of the general Agricola. Much of his work
may have been embellished to lend support and glory to Agricola
and Rome, as was common with ancient sources)
With the Claudian
invasion of Britannia in the mid first century AD, and subsequent
conquest of the southern tribes, the relative obscurity and
isolation of the Caledonian people was about to end.
About 78 AD Gnaeus
Julius Agricola was appointed governor of Britannia. His predecessor
Cerialis, was primarily concerned with pacifying and Romanizing
the local tribes, but Agricola had more "glorious"
intentions. He wasted no time in carrying out a devastating
campaign against the Ordovices in Wales and various other
northern British tribes.
In 79 AD, the Emperor
Vespasian died and Agricola was ordered by his successor,
Titus, to conquer the whole of the island of Britain, and
in early summer, invaded Scotland. Having already pacified
the Votadini tribe, his sweep across the central lowlands
was bloody and decisive. Under assault by two legions, the
Selgovae tribe was decimated. On reaching the Forth/Clyde
valleys, he secured his position with a turf wall between
the rivers (This wall would be the foundation for the Antonine
wall 60 years later). In the remainder of the year, he consolidated
his position ensuring a non aggression pact with the western
tribes of the Damonii and the Novantae.
In 81AD, however,
the tribes in the south west revolted against the Roman occupation
and Agricola's advance was halted while his forces quelled
the Damonii and Novantae tribes. With that deed accomplished
his legions moved north of the wall, but the campaigning season
was coming to a close. Late in the same year, Domition succeeded
his brother Titus, as Emperor, through treachery. Domition
was at odds with Agricola and demanded a quick and decisive
In the spring of
82AD, Agricola advanced his troops through Fife, with crushing
defeats over the local Venicone tribe. He then advanced his
position to include most of Tayside, and began the construction
of a patrolled frontier along the entrances to the highland
glens. This is known as the Gask frontier and was a series
of forts, roads and signal stations. This frontier was connected
to the wall in the south by a series of roads, and supplied
from the sea along the Tay estuary.
As he pushed farther
north Agricola realized that he was now facing not a selection
of individual tribes, but a firm coalition, led by a warrior-chief,
which in his diaries, he called "Calgacus". Tacitus
provided a record of the words, or at least a common sentiment
of Calgacus and the tribes of Britannia, as he came into contact
with the Roman Legions. "They create desolation and call
it peace. Let us then, unconquered as we are, ready to fight
for freedom, prove what heroes Caledonia has been holding
With a seemingly
unified front against the Romans, the campaign changed to
that of two well organized armies jostling for position. Tacitus
makes mention of vast military sweeps across the countryside,
and of both sides splitting their forces, trying to gain the
tactical upper hand. Calgacus and his Pictish army of warriors,
farmers, hunters and craftsmen kept an entire professional
Roman army occupied for the greater part of a year, employing
guerilla tactics and avoiding the superiority of the Romans
in a massed battle.
The Romans spent this inconclusive time continuing to build
forts and defensive works to consolidate their position, once
again. Agricola's emphasis may have been on the possibility
of conquering Ireland. He may well have made a crossing from
South West Scotland via the Solway Firth. He believed the
whole of Ireland could be taken with just one legion and a
few auxiliaries, but the Picts had other ideas.
In the summer of 82 or 83 AD, there was an uprising in the
Forth - Clyde region. To suppress this revolt, Agricola launched
an assault by land and sea. He divided his forces into three,
playing into the strengths of the Picts. Taking Agricola completely
by surprise, Calgacus and his Pictish army struck. There is
detailed mention of this night attack on a legionary base
near Lochore, in Fife. Tacitus describes a barbarous native
assault on the weakened ninth legion's camp, which almost
Tacitus writes, "they cut down the sentries, who were
asleep or panic-stricken, and broke into the camp."
The Roman army was saved by the fast and timely arrival of
reinforcements, and the tide began to turn. But when Calgacus
realized that he now faced two forces, he ordered a retreat.
His Picts then disengaged and melted away to fight again another
The Battle of Mons Graupius
In 83 AD, under pressure from Domitian to end the war, Agricola
advanced north, supported by a Roman fleet, to a place which
Tacitus named "Mons Graupius". The troop laden boats
made a shore landing and spread inland to instill fear into
the natives. Agricola engaged Calgacus, who this time, was
there to fight it out. According to Tacitus, Agricola had
8,000 auxiliary infantry, 3,000 auxiliary cavalry, and two
full legions. The total size of his forces is uncertain, but
based on Tacitus estimates it must have been approximately
20,000 men. Calgacus was well aware of Roman tactics of taking
the higher ground, so the Picts positioned themselves above
the Romans first, placing their chariots in front of the main
body of troops.
lengthy pre-battle speeches by both generals to inspire their
men and added further glory to Agricola. Dismounted from his
horse, Agricola led the charge from the front. The Romans
believed it was good to boost the morale of their troops by
leading from the front.
The first part
of the battle consisted of the exchange of missiles, followed
by hand to hand combat. At the same time, the cavalry appeared
and went among the tribal forces scattering them as they went.
Calgacus attempted a last-ditch effort to win the day. He
ordered chariot forces down the slope to flank and encircle
the Roman rear. Unfortunately for the Picts, Agricola held
cavalry in reserve, and at a signal, four squadrons of cavalry
came forward. They burst through the Pictish lines, circling
round behind them and sending Calgacus and his army into disarray
Tacitus says that
some 10,000 tribal forces fell for the loss of 360 Romans.
By night, two thirds of them had fled back to the highlands
from where they had come. While a brilliant victory described
by the slanted Tacitus, perhaps as many as 20,000 Picts were
able to escape and live to resist Roman occupation. After
the battle, Agricola withdrew to the Gask line forts. The
battle reconfirmed that the tribal forces were no match for
the Romans in an organized traditional Roman style fight.
The survival of the Picts and northern Celts would in the
future rely on continuing guerrilla efforts. Roman victory
in a pitched battle over these tribes was not difficult for
the might of the Roman army, but the wild mountainous terrain
of Caledonia made the total subjugation of this remote Highland
people a formidable and rather unprofitable task.
Perhaps the best and only real chance for the complete Roman
conquest of Britain rested with Agricola. But back in Rome,
Domitian was jealous and worried by Agricola's popularity,
and recalled his successful general. He was sent off as governor
of Syria and later retired to private life, and despite later
efforts, the Romans would never advance farther north than
The Romans held the Gask ridge for no more than a year or
two, and then withdrew southward to pre-Agricola positions.
Little is known of the next 30 years. As the Picts and Celts
didn't yet keep written record, it was a quiet period
historically, in the absence of Roman occupation. Assuredly,
there were skirmishes between Romans and Picts; the tribes
moved south into the lowlands, re-establishing their forts
and farms, and the Romans sent sorties north from their bases
at Carlisle and Newcastle.
In 121AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, the fighting
between the two nations had become such a problem to the Romans
that they felt northern properties were in danger to Pictish
raids. Hadrian ordered the construction of a stone wall, 72
miles long from Carlisle on the west coast to Newcastle on
the east coast. They constructed watchtowers every mile and
large forts along its length were the only means to cross.
Hadrian's Wall is an enduring monument to the Roman
occupation of Caledonia and northern Britannia and the resistance
of its people.
succeeded Hadrian to the Roman throne in 138 AD and he may
have felt that he needed an immediate military triumph to
boost his prestige with the army. He ordered Quintus Lollius
Urbicus, governor of Britain, to advance the border further
north. A new wall was constructed in the early 140s, named
after the emperor, running the 37 miles/60 kilometers across
the narrow neck of land between the Forth (Bo'ness) and the
Clyde (Old Kilpatrick). Antonine's Wall was built from blocks
of turf, laid on a stone foundation.
154 AD, there was a southern revolt, possibly by the Brigantes,
and units of the Roman garrison were withdrawn to the south.
Now vulnerable, there were raids on the Wall, itself, and
the destruction of some of its forts. These raids were eventually
repressed and the wall was reoccupied by 158 AD. Its defense,
however, was still not tenable and, sometime after Antoninus'
death in 161 AD, it was abandoned altogether. By 164 AD, once
again, the northern frontier of Britain reverted to Hadrian's
During the subsequent reign of Marcus Aurelius, most of Roman
attention was focused on the Danube in Germania, but raids
and conflict prevailed along Hadrian's Wall as well.
Later Emporers (Septimius Severus, Caracalla) would again
attempt Caledonian conquest, but at the time of Commodus in
180 AD, the status quo for the Roman's was maintaining
the border along Hadrian's Wall.
Tribes of Caledonia
Despite their attempts at conquest Romans brought a certain
amount of order to Scotland. They identified and classified
17 tribes and loosely identified the territories they occupied.
In addition they also observed that tribal chiefs had a religious
as well as a royal function. The succession of leaders was
matrilineal: it mattered more who their mother was than who
their father was. This perpetuated the myth, that later romantics
enhanced, that Pictish society was democratic, but it was
in fact full of social different nations.
Under the tribal leader there was a class who maintained Chariots
and fought from them. These charioteers had the status of
Baron's, owned cattle and land in their own right and usually
they owned slaves who worked their land and sea are in their
homes. The slaves would normally be prisoners of war, although
their status was often hereditary. There may also have been
raids to obtain slaves from other tribes and vulnerable coastal
communities. Between the ranks of barons and slaves were the
freeholders, who owned shares in the common land of each tribal
The Pictish homeland was mainly in the low-lying coastal areas
of Eastern Scotland where they sustained themselves through
fishing and farming. The name Pict itself is believed to be
derived from the Latin word Pictii, "the painted men".
Celtic neighbors seem to have known them by the name Cruithni.
As mentioned earlier, the origin of the Picts is not known.
They developed a similar language to that of Celtic and seem
to have eventually blended in to Celtic culture. Whether they
were a separate race or a name given to a collaboration of
Celtic tribes fighting the Romans doesn't change the
fact that they were a fierce and formidable adversary. After
the withdrawal of Rome, the Picts would dominate the military
and political culture of Scotland until the 9th Century AD.
The Celts were never one kingdom or unified culture. They
inhabited and ruled most of Europe but never as a unified
nation. Families formed clans and clans formed tribes. They
were all loyal to their own kings and queens, and had their
own social and economic orders.
There were the Damonii, who lived in the west, an area that
covered from what is now known as Ayrshire, all the way to
Clyde. Then, further south were the Novantae, whose territory
spread over Galloway and Dumfries. On the east coast were
the Votadini, whose people lived as far north as the River
Forth. The Votadini had their capital on a hill in East Lothian
called Traprain Law. Twenty miles away from Traprain Law there
was another Votadinian center, which would later become Edinburgh.
The fourth of these southern tribes, the Selgovae, held the
area between the Votadini (in the east) and the two western
The other 12 tribes lived to the north of Scotland, above
the Forth and Clyde. They ranged from the Epidii in the Mull
of Kintyre to the Cornovii in Caithness, and from the Cerones
in northwestern highlands to the Taezali, whose territory
is now known as Aberdeenshire, and the Caledones from whence
"Caledonia" got its Latin name. The other remaining
tribes were the Venicones, Vacomagi, Decantae, Carnonocae,
Caereni, Lugi and Smertae.