Locations of Roman Establishments in Pictland
Roman “establishments” in modern day Angus, Aberdeen and Moray were of variable size from Durno at 141 acres to Strageath at 5 acres. They are difficult to label – hence referring to them as “establishments”. They were, from the dictionary definition, places of “residence”. At each location, use by the Roman Army could have been of variable duration. Their design, construction, size and location would have been determined by their purpose.
There were 4 types of Roman military establishment:-
· Marching Camp – single narrow ditch, interior rampart, generally rectangular, entrenchment of a single army unit for an overnight stop in field conditions, size of the unit on the march would dictate the size of the camp.
· Auxiliary or Campaign Fort – several ditches, substantial rampart, rectangular or square, mainly timber but later stone, built to last at least one campaign season, housed troops of allied and Romanised nations.
· Legionary Fortress – permanent strategic encampment, occupied for tens of years or centuries, generally stone, around 50 acres.
· Vexellation Fortress – large encampment for either single summer campaign or a number of seasons.
In addition there were signal towers or watch towers e.g. between Strageath and Bertha and so-called fortlets on the Antonine Wall.
Several texts refer to Roman Marching Camps as “temporary” overnight camps not intended for re-use but unless literally set up for one over-night use must have had longer duration occupancy whilst acting as hosts / stopping off points for troops on the move. Descriptions of duration of usage and later re-use are given in some texts but the label of "temporary" persists. Accurate categorisation is difficult with the concept of some locations being to serve troops on the move and others more static. However, "temporary" can surely only refer to those locations that served temporarily to accommodate troops on the move rather than the overnight accommodation which would have required construction and maintenance and provided an operational service - food, drink and overnight stay for troops and horses. Logically these locations typically "one day march apart" must have been stop off points for troops etc. going from one static place to another; they were not just marching between marching camps. Therefore, that logic suggests bigger bases somewhere along the route or at each end – indeed this is the case in a broad arc from Perth to Inverness.
The Roman presence in Pictland was in two geographies separated by “the Mounth” – a range of hills forming an outlying ridge of the Grampians stretching from Ballater in the west to the North Sea coast immediately north of Stonehaven. Their presence was elsewhere in Caledonia but N E Scotland has the concentration of Establishments and Symbol Stones. There are no Stones in the vicinity of Hadrian’s Wall and few near the Antonine Wall.
The southern of the two geographies had establishments that made up the Gask Ridge and Glen Blockers – shown as yellow squares below.
The term "Gask Ridge" can be open to misinterpretation with a notion that it is a natural ridge, is of some considerable length and follows a geographical / geological route (typically referred to as the Highland Line). In fact it is specifically a 10 mile ridge north of the River Earn in Perthshire. A series of watch / signal-towers was discovered along this ridge terminating at Strageath and Bertha "forts" (see map above). In trying to set a chronology and grouping for the different Roman establishments in and by Pictland it will be useful to take together the so-called Gask Ridge, the so-called Glen Blocker locations plus those establishments so far identified north of the Aberdeen area. It will also be useful to consider that some of these establishments were for the purpose of creating some form of presence so the often-used term "frontier" – a boundary - seems inapplicable. General Agricola is the common point but his term of office spread over three Emperors who together formed the Flavian Dynasty. Preserving the format of naming after Emperors, perhaps these establishments could be called the Flavian Invasion Camps.
The size, initial purpose and later re-use of the establishments above is variable.
Here are a few examples:-
· First established between 80 and 83 during Agricola’s campaigns, Camelon, just north of the Antonine wall, is known to have been garrisoned around 86, abandoned around 90 and reoccupied around 139 when the Antonine wall was being built.
· Drumquhassle, Doune and Bochastle are Glen Blockers (or Glen Forts) variously from Flavian, Agricolan and Sallustius Lucullus periods – 80 to 86.
· Ardoch comprises 6 camps collectively a large fort with separate sites, annexes and later re-use. Possibly established around 85 by Agricola or his successor, Sallustius Lucullus, and reused at the time of the Antonine Wall construction.
· A fort and marching camp at Strageath was built around 80, abandoned around 85 then rebuilt and occupied after the Glen Blockers were abandoned in 86/87.
· Agricola’s advance HQ for invading Caledonia was built in 82/83 at Inchtuthil but abandoned in 86/87. It was also noted as a Glen Blocker.
· Inverquharity is a Flavian period Glen Blocker.
In 79 Agricola invaded southern Scotland advancing to the River Tay. He had the Forth and Clyde forts built, initiated the building of a road network, campaigned in Galloway and Ayrshire in 81, campaigned north of the River Tay in 82 and built Inchtutil for the XX Legion prior to the battle of Mons Graupius of 83/84. His successor built Glen Blockers up to, maybe beyond, Stracathro and, in turn, his successor (Metilius Nepos) gave up establishments north of the Tay. The combination of Gask Ridge and Glen Blocker camps and forts lasted around ten years until about 90 CE.
Here is North East Scotland, beyond the Mounth, to complete the picture of the Roman presence in Pictland.
These establishments continued beyond Stracathro (the northernmost of the forts shown on the Gask Ridge map) and with similar time periods.
· A large establishment (around 100 acres – sufficient to accommodate 16,000 troops) at Raedykes was probably built in the Agricolan period, maybe being reused in Severan times. Less than a day’s march north, Normandykes is of similar size.
· Two camps at Deer’s Den, Kintore date most notably to Septimius Severus and perhaps, also, Agricola. Large scale at over100 acres the area has revealed Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Age discoveries.
· Another large site (of 141 acres) at Durno has Agricolan origins. Immediately to the west is a clear view of Bennachie – a well-known and much supported prime contender for the battle of Mons Graupius.
· The larger of the YthanWells, Glenmailen camps is considered to be Agricolan.
· Burnfield on the south bank of the River Deveron near Rothiemay dates to 83 with the Roman expedition crossing the river on the way to Auchinhove.
· Muiryfold, on the South East facing slope of Gallow Hill with a view over the valleys of the Rivers Deveron and Isla was of 109 acres and created by Septimius Severus around 210.
· Auchinhove (created in 84 by Argicola and a similar size – about 30 acres - to Ythan Wells Camp 2) is 1½ miles from Muiryfold.
· Bellie camp has been eroded by the River Spey.
· A site at Easter Galcantray, Cawdor seemingly used only in 84 and 85 is a contender for another Roman fort.
This area does not have the feature of Glen Blocker forts of further south but has significant geographical aspects such as the Mounth on the southern edge of Strathdee and its crossings, Bennachie near Inverurie and narrower rivers which may have determined a different strategy for fort locations.
Much of the Roman Army activity in these locations was before “the walls” were built. Hadrian’s Wall was constructed and actively used between 122 and 138, being placed in a support role then abandoned to 164 when it was re-occupied to 401. The Antonine wall and associated forts were built between 142 and 154 with the outlying forts using the general arrangement of the Gask Ridge installations of the 80s. It was partially “mothballed” between 162 and 165. In 208 Septimius Severus visited Britannia and initiated repairs to Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine wall.
Septimius Severus campaigned north of the Forth between 208 and 210 building the camp at Carpow. From 211 onwards distractions elsewhere took the Roman spotlight off Scotland. Caracalla succeeded Septimius Severus, settled for peace in 212, suspended the campaign in Caledonia and withdrew to Hadrian’s Wall.