Romans in Scotland

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  • A large stone carving with latin lettering and intricate depictions of men on horseback
    A replica of the Bridgeness Slab, Bo'ness ©The Friends of Kinneil/The PR Store
  • A bright gallery with ancient stone columns and an intoruction display board in the foreground
    The Antonine Wall: Rome's Final Frontier, a permanent exhibition at the Hunterian, Glasgow ©The Hunterian University of Glasgow 2012
  • The rubble remains of the fort, with posts marking out its size
    Kinneil Roman Fortlet ©Friends of Kinneil/PR Store

In spite of building an empire that stretched from the North Sea to the Persian Gulf, the Romans found Scotland hard to tame.

The Roman occupation of Caledonian territory is believed to have been intermittent over about 150 years of the first to third centuries, and to have totalled less than 40 years during this period.

First campaigns

Having conquered England, the high-ranking general Gnaeus Julius Agricola began to lead campaigns further north into Caledonia from AD 79, building temporary camps on the way.  Whilst the southern tribes were not hugely hostile, the Romans fought more with the northern Caledonian tribes, including the Picts.

These camps, alongside more strengthened forts have marked Scotland’s landscape to this day, not only in the Scottish Borders and to the Forth and Clyde valleys where the Romans dominated, but also in to Perthshire, Deeside and Moray.

Whilst many of the sites now look little more than a bump on the landscape, some are still very much visible, such as the remains of the Hill Fort at Bennachie in Aberdeenshire. Today Bennachie is a popular place for walks and has some great way-marked trails which give an insight into the area’s history.

Many of the excellent Roman finds in Scotland, including stonework such as The Cramond Lioness and the Bridgeness Slab are now available to see at the National Museum of Scotland, as well as coins and treasure which were used for bartering.

Hadrian's Wall & Southern Scotland

The well-fortified Hadrian’s Wall in northern England was built in the 120s to keep the northern tribes out after the Scottish campaigns came to a close. It was later abandoned when the Romans began to re-conquest lowland Scotland in 139.

The Roman capital in southern Scotland was known as Trimontium, a fort at Newstead near Melrose, and at The Three Hills Roman Heritage Centre in Melrose, you can find out all about life in Roman Scotland.

Mons Grapius

The campaigns against the tribes culminated with the battle of Mons Grapius in AD83, somewhere in the north east of modern day Scotland - the exact location is no longer clear but  it perhaps took place at Bennachie in Aberdeenshire or up in to Moray. Although the battle may have seen the Romans triumph over the native rule, the occupation only lasted seven or eight years before they retreated much further south. This may have been to reinforce troops elsewhere in the Empire.

Throughout the year that are great opportunities to watch Roman battle re-enactments from groups such as the Antonine Guard at special events in historic and outdoor locations and as part of wider festivals, such as Big Roman Week.

The Antonine Wall

Following the campaigns into southern Scotland, Emperor Antoninus Pius ordered for the Antonine wall to be built in the 140s to hold back Caledonian tribes from invading the subdued towns in southern Scotland. Running from modern-day Bo’ness in the east to Old Kirkpatrick, near to Clydebank on the River Clyde, it was Rome’s final frontier in the north west of Europe and had many forts and fortlets along its route.

Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, this one consisted of a rampart of soil, faced with turf, resting on a stone foundation. Today many parts of the Antonine Wall lie buried beneath the towns and villages, but there are still preserved sections of the wall’s ramparts and buildings.

Take a walk along the wall and see what you can discover, including the remains of a fortlet at Kinneil Estate, Bo’ness, a fort at Rough Castle near Bonnybridge and the Bathhouse at Bearsden. Museums along the route, including Auld Kirk Museum in Kirkintilloch, Callendar House in Falkirk and Kinneil Museum have personal artefacts, gravestones and mile markers on display.

If you are visiting the Falkirk Wheel, you may wish to follow one of the nearby walks to take in some of the wall. There is also a permanent exhibition on the Antonine Wall at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, which includes displays of stonework and archaeological finds from along the wall.

Final campaigns

Southern Scotland was occupied until the late 150s or 160s, and there were some further successful campaigns further north between 208 - 210 led by Emperor Septimus Severus. However any gains won during them were lost following the death of Severus in 211, and from then Roman Scotland effectively came to an end.

Archaeological digs at Iron Age locations, such as Birnie in the Highlands, have shown that there may have been a certain amount of bartering between the natives and the Romans at times. This settlement turned up some interesting finds including Roman coins and treasures. There was less and less contact between the Romans and Caledonian tribes until they finally withdrew from Britain in 410.