In the first century, implementing brutal new-world order, Roman forces had easily conquered indigenous fighting forces in Greece (Achaea), the Middle East (Judea) and the North African coastal region. They swept across Spain (Hispania), France (Gaul or Gallia) and administered England and Wales as the Roman province of Britannia, but they never fully occupied what is now Scotland.
At this last unoccupied corner of the known world, a hero had developed a deadly new style of combat - guerrilla warfare - and in AD 83 his Celtic warriors formed a line of defence on a remote Scottish hill and fought for their lives and lands the at The Battle of Mons Graupius. Albeit the location of this battle is disputed, the moral of this story is one that is still echoed in modern wars such as Vietnam 'never, ever underestimate farmers fighting for their ancestral land.'
fIGHTING New World Order
In the first century, groups of indigenous people, in what is now Scotland, formed a highly-organised society that Greek and Roman historians called the "Caledonii" (Caledonians) or Caledonian Confederacy. Since the Iron Age these highly-successful agriculturalists maintained an almost impregnable system of defensive hillforts to protect their wheat fields and resource rich mines. Inspired by the Roman threat, the tribes dropped their ancestral differences and united to defend the last corner of free land in the known world.
In the summer of 77 AD Rome appointed Gnaeus Julius Agricola as the new governor of Britannia and soon after his arrival he crushed the Ordovices tribe of north Wales. Further marking his dominance in Britain, within three months of arriving he led an army to Mona (Anglesey) and 'almost extinguished' the last centre of druidism bringing thousands of years of sacred heritage to a hyper-violent end.
Tacitus gave a vivid account of the Battle of Anglesey describing; “wild-haired women and barbarian druids who created a formidable line on the shore opposite the mainland.” Although druids are best remembered as mystical religious leaders, it must be remembered that they were also legal authorities, adjudicators, lorekeepers, medical professionals and political advisors. Thus, the attack on the Druids of Mona was not only a direct strike at the spiritual heart of the Britons but it was a virtual upper-cut to the entire administrative establishment.
Chasing fleeing Druids leaders to their remote north Highland hillforts and sacred islands, Agricola began invading the lands of the Caledonians and by 82 CE his forces had established fortifications between the rivers Clyde and Forth and the following year he encircled the northern tribes beyond the River Forth with a fleet of warships.
Accordingly he [Agricola] 'sent forward the fleet to make descents on various places, and to spread a general and vague panic; and then, with his army in light marching order, and strengthened by the best of the British soldiers... he advanced to Mons Graupius, of which the enemy was already in occupation.(Cornelius Tacitus Agricola XXIX.ii)'.
The Caledonian farmers would never have seen anything like a Roman war fleet and these types of voyages up and down the Scottish coasts may have rekindled the extensive broch building project that fortified the north east coast of Scotland as far north as Shetland.
Sending his war fleet north was a domineering military manoeuvre and Agricola's strategy was sound, based that is, on the data he had been given about the Caledonians. On countless occasions his fleet had struck fear into the hearts of indigenous tribes persuading them into negotiation and ultimately into submission. But as anyone who has been brought up in the Highlands will understand, it was never, ever going to be that easy for the Romans. We highlanders are nothing without our land and throughout history our tiny nation has applied innovate and extreme gorilla tactics to defend our fields and families from invaders. And even when invaders did get to our people - bogs, marshes, quagmires, woods and of course midges - soon got to them.
Agricola grossly underestimated the Caledonian's emotional connection with their land and heritage, and rather than fleeing in terror the Caledonians orchestrated a cunning night raid on the Roman camp of the Legio IX Hispana (9th legion) - 'Bursting in upon them (the Romans) they were terrified in their sleep[...] causing many fatalities.' The Caledonians celebrated a massacre, but they had broken rule number one i keeping safe - don't poke the bear!
The Empire Strikes Back
Agricola constructed a massive wooden fort at Trimontium (Melrose) and pushed his armies north to the estuary of the River Taus (River Tay) where he established forts, including a legionary fortress at Inchtuthil. The Romans reached the north east coast of Scotland in the summer of AD 83 seeking war with the last of Brittania's indigenous tribes who had successfully avoided fighting on open battlefields. To flush out the Caledonians from their hillforts the Romans marched on their wheat granaries leaving them with no choice but to fight or starve the following winter.
The only surviving information about the Caledonians is in Roman sources, so the lines between fact and fiction have not so much been blurred as totally disintegrated and reformed into a biased tract of Roman propaganda. Roman historian Tacitus recorded:
The Caledonians formed a highly effective line of resistance deploying exceptionally effective guerrilla tactics, which proved to be stronger, more creative and deadlier than anything the Romans had ever experienced [...] entirely changing the Roman Commanders military paradigm.
According to Tacitus in his work Agricola, Calgacus was a chieftain of the Caledonian Confederacy who united the Pictish tribes and was described as 'the most distinguished for birth and valour among the chieftains'. He also recorded a speech that Calgacus alledgedly gave his people in advance of the Battle of Mons Graupius in which he describes the exploitation of Britain by Rome. If this speech was ever delivered Calgacus must have raised a nationalistic fire-breathing war dragon in the spirits of the Caledonians. However, it must be considered that most historians question how the speech might have got into the hands of Tacitus and many regard it as a complete fabrication.
Whenever I consider the origin of this war and the necessities of our position, I have a sure confidence that this day, and this union of yours, will be the beginning of freedom to the whole of Britain...But there are no tribes beyond us, nothing indeed but waves and rocks, and the yet more terrible Romans, from whose oppression escape is vainly sought by obedience and submission. Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude (desert) and call it peace.
The only surviving record of the Battle of Mons Graupius is found in Agricola, written by Tacitus, Agricola’s son-in-law, in which '10,000 Caledonian lives' were said to have been lost, at a cost of only 360 auxiliary Roman troops. It was common place in Roman accounts of wars for the numbers in Roman armies to be diminished and for those of their enemies to be exaggerated, but Tacitus' account in this instance was a blatant exaggeration.
As his fleet sailed north Agricola commanded ground forces consisting of 8000 light infantry and British auxiliaries who held the centre of the Roman line, while 3000 cavalry held the flanks. The Roman legionaries were positioned in front of the camp as a reserve force and estimates for the total size of the Roman army range from 17,000 to 30,000. The Caledonian army was said to be over 30,000 strong. Its front ranks were on ground level and 'rose in tiers up the slope of a hill in a horseshoe formation” and the Caledonian chariots 'charged between the front-lines of the two armies'.
The battle began with 'an exchange of missiles' and the Britons 'displayed both valour and skill in parrying our soldiers javelins with their enormous swords or deflecting them with their little shields, while they themselves poured volleys on us.' Agricola then commanded 'four cohorts of Batavians and two of Tungrians' to attack at close quarters with their traditional swords. This blindsided the Caledonians who were armed with small shields and large cumbersome swords, lacking thrusting points, therefore unsuited to swordplay at close quarters. The Batavians:
'rained blow after blow, shoved with the bosses of their shields and stabbed at the faces of their enemies'. Having butchered the Caledonian soldiers on the lower-plains the Romans advanced up the hill and 'this provoked the rest of our units to smash in to their nearest opponents and massacre them'.
The Caledonian troops at the top of the hill attempted to outflank the Roman charge, but were themselves outflanked, by Roman cavalry. 20,000 Caledonians retreated to nearby woodlands for shelter and were 'relentlessly pursued' by well-organised Roman man-hunting units. The following morning Roman scouts were unable to locate 'a single Caledonian soldier, it was as if they had vanished into the fog'. Having seen for himself how cumbersome two Roman legions actually were, and possibly having assessed they required about 15 tonnes of wheat grain, every day to survive, Calgacus may have realised the best way to defeat them was to retreat to the deeply wooded northern wilderness.
The Caledonians navigated their rugged, dangerous and wild territory using animal paths and hill-roads and the Highlands of Scotland would have ravaged a pursuing Roman army. Even if they did penetrate the Caledonian territory their supply lines would have been wide open to ambush. It can be argued that although the Romans won The Battle of Mons Graupius on the day, the Caledonians won the war, because soon after, rather than advancing north the Romans retreated south with their tails between their legs.
Search for the lost battlefield
Tacitus left only a handful of clues to help us determine the precise location of this battle, stating only that it was 'in north-east Scotland, on high-ground, in sight the North Sea'. Many writers have proposed locations in Aberdeenshire including; Kempstone Hill, Megray Hill and other knolls near the Raedykes Roman marching camp located just over 3 miles (5 km) north west of Stonehaven. Counter claims include the Gask Ridge not far from Perth, Dunning in Perthshire, Duncrub Hill also in Perthshire and Knock Hill at the Pass of Grange, where the Grampians are close to the sea (Burn 1953), and the broad valley of the Earn in Perthshire were also proposed (Maxwell 1990).
For several centuries opportunistic locals and historical researchers have scoured Scottish mountains and hills with metal detectors searching for Roman archaeology to support their hunches. It was on 26th July 1975 that Professor J.K. St. Joseph presented a set of provocative aerial photographs taken 6 miles (9.7 km) north west of Inverurie, Aberdeenshire and about 3 miles 5 km from 'Mither Tap' of Bennachie Hill. The images revealed a massive Roman marching camp measuring 57.2 hectares (141 acres) by 58.4 hectares (144 acres). Known as Logie Durno, the camp is situated on ploughed, uneven ground, to the north easy of the River Urie. Enclosed by a ditch measuring 3.35 metres (11.0 ft) wide and 3.35 metres (11.0 ft) deep, this is the largest known Roman camp north of the Antonine Wall.
Dr. St. Joseph argued that the Durno encampment was large enough to have housed two legions and a number of auxiliary regiments. He noted the camps topographical setting, especially in relation to Bennachie Hill, strongly suggests that it may be the camp was established by the Roman army who marched into the Scottish hills on a bid to capture and occupy the last free corner of Europe, and met the rebel Pictish forces at the battle of Mons Graupius in 83 AD. Supporting this claim, Dr. Andrew Breeze of the University of Navarre in Pamplona believes the words 'Mons Graupius' relate to the Welsh word 'crib' (ridge), and he claimed the actual shape of Bennachie Hill 'provides confirmation of this etymology'.
Bennachie is very prominent owing to its isolation and the relative flatness of the surrounding terrain. It dominates the skyline from several viewpoints and Mither Tap is a 518 meter (1699 feet) high peak, shaped like a female breast, has a hillfort at its summit from which distant views can be had to the north and east. Peaks like Bennachie held deep religious significance to the Bronze Age people who inhabited this area and a large number of standing stones surround the hill. The profile of the hill, which is shaped like a female breast, reflected in the name Mither Tap (Mother Top) and 'Bennachie' (Beinn na Ciche: 'hill of the breast'). However, an alternative Gaelic etymology from 'Beinn a' Chath', i.e. 'hill of the battle', has been suggested.
Mither Tap’s sacred nature is further enhanced in that it has a significant astronomical alignment with the nearby Pictish Fortalice of Caskieben (currently located within Keith Hall). Referring to this alignment Dr. Arthur Johnston said 'the hill of Benochie, a conical elevation about eight miles distant, casts its shadow over Caskieben at the periods of the equinox'.
Return of the Caldonii
There is no doubt that Agricola won the Battle of Mons Graupius and Tacitus tells us that the 20'000 surviving Caledonians scattered into the surrounds woods. What he failed to record was what happened after the battle. The Picts knew it was late in the year and the battle season had ended so they simply retreated deeper into their northern territories offering Agricola two options; to advance into worsening weather, rough terrain, mountains, bogs, and river fords, or to withdraw south for the winter. Agricola was called back to Rome and never returned to defeat the Caledonians. Tacitus's statement (in latin) Perdomita Britannia et statim missa ("Britain was completely conquered and immediately let go") denoted unification of the whole island under Roman rule, after Agricola's successful campaign in the north. The historical fact hidden behind all the Roman pseudo-history is that the territory known today as Scotland was never entirely conquered by the Romans.
The construction of Hadrian's Wall began in 122 CE as a border between the 'civilised' Roman world and the wilderness of the northern Picts. What Roman records don’t make much mention of were the 20’000 Caledonian soldiers who survived Mons Graupius and their continued resistance, applying guerrilla tactics, necessitating the building of another nationwide stone barrier - The Antonine Wall in 142 CE.
Archaeology has shown that following Agricola's march into battle at Mons Graupius, an attempt had been made to set up a new frontier deep into what we now know as Scotland. This comprised the Gask Ridge, a series of forts, or signal stations, located along the ridge of land running from the river Teith at Doune, near Stirling, to what is now the city of Perth on the Tay. These were linked to a series of larger fortifications at what are known as the Glen Forts of Fendoch, Dalginross, Bochastle, Malling and Drumquassle. This border seems to have been abandoned by 86 CE and this is as far north as the Romans asserted any kind of power over indigenous people. It must have truly pained Agricola's ego to have returned to Rome knowing that a group of "uncivilised" indigenous warrior-farmers had thwarted his plans for nationwide control of Britain.
When I sit back and reflect on the battle of Mons Graupius, I think not so much about the bloody warfare and social impact of the event, but more of a scene set on a warm Autumn afternoon around 83 AD. I see a gently-rounded green hillock in the Scottish Highlands. On the southern horizon a fragmented legion of battle-exhausted Roman troops, with their heads slung low, perform a downtrodden retreat. Behind them, on the crest of the hillock sits Calgacus, the Caledonian hero, cleaning his nails, slowly shaking his head, thinking;
You honestly thought you could just take our ancestral lands. Away tae f*** back to Rome and tell that Pope of yours that not only is 'our' land still 'ours', but thank him for solidifying our North Highland Druidic Empire.
Oxford Companion to Scottish History. p.459 - 460. Edited by Michael Lynch, Oxford University Press.
Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
Edwards, Kevin J; Ian Ralston Scotland After the Ice Age Polygon 24 Jan 2003.
Now refuted by Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
William Roy, The Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain, 1793.
Duncan B. Campbell, Mons Graupius AD 83, Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2010.
Wolfson, Stan (2002) "The Boresti: The Creation of a Myth" Tacitus, Thule and Caledonia. Tiscali.co.uk. Retrieved 21 August 2010.
A.J. Woodman (with C. Kraus), Tacitus: Agricola, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.