Search just our sites by using our customised search engine

Unique Cottages | Electric Scotland's Classified Directory

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

A History of the Border Counties
Chapter I


The ‘Life of Agricola’ by Tacitus may be described as the false dawn of Border history. In that beautiful little monograph—a model of classical dignity and condensation of style, some of whose phrases have passed into stock quotations— the light of literature falls for the first time upon our Borderland. But it falls there only to be withdrawn again, plunging the country which for the twinkling of an eye it had illuminated back into darkness for a thousand years.

It was in the year of our Lord 78 that that accomplished military commander and exemplary Roman, Cnaeus Julius Agricola, was sent as consular legate into Britain, — that island, as will be remembered, having been first invaded by his great countryman, Julius Csesar, one hundred and thirty-three years earlier; and in the interim, after a period of neglect, having been by successive governors brought partially into the condition of a Roman province. The first two years of his residence in Britain were devoted by Agricola to the punishment of insubordination on the part of the tribe of Ordovices in North Wales, to subduing the island of Mona, and to pushing his conquests north of the Humber, which is thought to have formed [the boundary of the Roman sway at the time of his arrival,1 in all of which undertakings he met with brilliant success. These, however, were merely, the first steps in his achievements. Still, comparatively speaking, young, and though just and moderate in victory, of a lofty and aspiring temperament, Agricola had no intention of resting here upon his laurels. His second winter in Britain, thinks the author of ‘Caledonia Romana,’ he spent on nearly the same ground where afterwards stood Hadrian’s Wall; and this writer—whose statements must, however, be accepted as probabilities or surmises rather than as facts—adds that his officers may at this time have been engaged in acquiring what knowledge they could of the country which lay immediately in front of them, with this view enticing natives into their camps, in order that information as to the best routes through forests and morasses, and the most accessible passes of the mountains, might be elicited. At any rate, and however this may have been, in the summer of his third year in Britain, flushed by the splendour of his recent victories, and spurred by the desire to explore and overrun the country to its farthest limits, Agricola advanced in a northerly direction. The precise point at which he passed what we now call the Border is unknown. Hill Burton, an eminent though too digressive authority, speaks of the evidence from vestiges of the Roman progress in Scotland as seeming to point to his having marched along the east coast to the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. Stuart, on the other hand, supposes that he may have crossed the present shire of Roxburgh, and proceeded by the vale of Leader to the same destination. His field forces are estimated by the latter writer at from 25,000 to 30,000 men, who may either have been divided into an eastern and western invading column, or into two divisions following each other at the interval of a day’s march. Speaking of the advance of the Roman forces, Tacitus gives a striking description of the parallel progress of the army and fleet into unknown lands and seas—“ whilst often infantry, cavalry, and marines, meeting together in one encampment to carouse, would recount, with characteristic embellishments, each their own experiences and exploits, comparing now the intricacies of mountains and forests with the hardships of the waves, and again battles against the enemy with victories over the deep. Strictly speaking, it must be acknowledged that this passage belongs to a somewhat later date, and, indeed, the co-operation of the fleet at the present juncture has not been established. Yet for its vivid picture of the frame of mind of the invaders, if for nothing else, the quotation deserves a place here.

In the first year of his campaign in Scotland, Agricola carried his ravages as far as the estuary of the Taus, or Tanaus,—his advance spreading such consternation among the large-limbed, red-haired Caledonians who constituted the native population, that, though by assailing the invading army with violent storms heaven itself seemed to war upon their side, they appear to have struck not a blow in self-defence. As to the identity of the limit named above, uncertainty prevails—its identification with either the Firth of Forth or the Tyne Water in East Lothian being plausible, whilst of the two the balance of opinion inclines to the latter supposition. After overrunning the country to the south of the Firths of Clyde and Forth, Agricola devoted the next summer to the consolidation of his new conquests; and at this point our personal interest in his movements may be said to cease. Merely premising, therefore, that his triumphant advance northward was continued till it culminated three years later in the great victory over the Caledonian tribes under Galgacus, gained probably in the neighbourhood of Forfar or Brechin, and shortly followed by his own recall by the jealous Domitian, we may here leave following his movements and turn to a brief examination of such relics of Roman occupation, dating from this or a later time, as are still extant in the Border country. These remains consist of roads and camps, or military stations; but, as will soon appear, there is much still to be done in establishing their authenticity. The roads are those known as Watling Street and the Wheel Causey.

Of the great Roman road which bears the former name, the reader may be reminded that its course has been traced as far as the intrenchments of Chew Green on the Coquet.1 Leaving this place, it is supposed to bend to the east round Brownhart Law, and cross the Border line, whence it proceeds in a north-westerly direction along the back of the range of hills which “ send down their streams into the Kale near the Hindhopes, and crosses that river at Towford. It then passes the camp of Towford, or Street House, and, after skirting Cunzierton and passing to the south of Shibden Hill, continues its course in the same direction, and now in a perfectly straight line, past Cappuck, where it crosses Oxnam Water, to Bonjedward, where, according to Jeffrey, traces of a station which have since disappeared were in the middle of the eighteenth century still visible. From Bonjedward it runs on through the grounds of Monteviot House and over Lilliardsedge, forming for three and a half miles the boundary between the pashes of Ancrum and Maxton. It then stretches away in the direction of Newtown, running straight for Eildon, believed by Jeffrey, on the authority of Roy and other antiquarians of the last century, to be the Trimontium of the Romans—a supposition to which the striking outline of the three hills gives plausibility, but which is otherwise unsupported by a shadow of evidence. From Eildon the road runs on to Newstead, the site of a Roman station, at which point, as record of an ancient bridge is found, Jeffrey assumes it to have crossed the Tweed.1 Since Jeffrey’s day, however, a more carefully trained antiquarian2 has been over the same ground, and his conclusions are arrived at with more caution. He admits that, owing to the position of their military capital at York, the Romans probably entered North Britain from the east; but, proceeding to divide the road into two parts, he dwells upon the fact that no antiquities have been found along the first half of its course, and, indeed, that there is nothing in its structure so far to differentiate it from any other old drove-road in the country. Even the name of Watling Street, whatever its exact significance may be, is not in common use, but has chiefly been applied to it in books. With the second half of the road—extending from Shibden Hill to a point near St Boswells Green, beyond which no traces of it are now visible in Roxburghshire—the case is different. Here its undeviatingly straight course, its imposing breadth—extending to 24 feet or more, with the addition of banks and ditches—and, above all, the fact of its communicating directly between the stations of Cappuck and Newstead, seem to point unmistakably to the conclusion of its having been used, and probably laid down, by the Romans.

The second road mentioned by Jeffrey is the Wheel Causey — a supposed continuation of a great Roman military road, described by archaeologists as running from Overburgh in Lancashire to Newcastle in Cumberland, and known as the Maiden Way. Jeffrey asserts that it crosses the Border line at Deadwater, proceeding almost due north by Bagrawford and past the ruins of a chapel known as the Wheel Church, and so on over the summit of Neideslaw to the eastern slope of Wolfhopelee, beyond which point its course becomes mere matter of conjecture. Jeffrey’s critic, however, confines himself to saying that in medieval and later days, when the Maiden Way was in use as a drove-road, a continuation of it into Scotland would be necessary, and in this sense the Wheel Causey may be spoken of as its continuation. But that the latter was ever a Roman road the evidence before us does not justify us in concluding.

As in the case of the roads, so with the Roman camps of the Border counties there remains much scope for scientific investigation. Among the latter, that upon which the light of recent antiquarian research has been best brought to bear is the recently discovered station at Cappuck, near Jedburgh, which has been discussed by Dr Joseph Anderson in an article in the ‘ Scotsman.’ The remains were discovered at a depth of some 18 inches below the present surface, all but the three or four lowest courses of the mason-work having been removed for building operations in the neighbourhood, where it is on record that at least one farm-steading has been built from their materials. Of the remaining stones, many are “dressed to the rectangular form of nearly a cune and a half so common in Roman masonry, and have their faces dressed with the diamond broaching which is so characteristic of all the Roman stone-work.” The buildings occupy the •crown of a “bluff,” formed by the junction of a rivulet with the Oxnam Water; and, commanding as they do the latter stream at the point where it is crossed by the Watling Street, it is pointed out by the writer above-named that their position is evidently chosen with a view to the protection of the ford. So far as they have yet been excavated, they exhibit a ground-plan consisting of an oblong chamber or court of 60 feet in length, the walls being over 3 feet thick, in rear of which are several smaller buildings, less massive in construction; whilst adjoining the end next the Oxnam are a number of more irregularly shaped structures, one of which is semicircular, and at some distance from the opposite end of the larger building the foundations of another, nearly as large, have been laid bare. In rear these buildings appear to have been protected by some kind of circumvallation, which is now traceable only by a slight depression in the field.

The walls of the main building show buttress-like projections at about every 6 feet, with an opening of some 9 inches passing through the wall midway between every two of the projections ; whilst round the front of this part of the building, and converging towards the irregularly-shaped foundations of the one end, is a series of conduits, which may have been either drains or flues “for the passage of hot air from a heating-chamber outside to the interior of the main building by means of the openings between the buttress-like projections.” It may, then, be supposed that the buttress-like projections were not buttresses, but solid supports of an external platform or verandah running round the building at the height of the floor, which, in Roman remains of the kind in Britain, is always found placed at some height above the ground-level, the basement being used for cellarage and heating. The workmanship, so far as is seen, is rude; but this is accounted for by the circumstance of only the lower courses of the basement being left, whilst indications of a more finished superstructure are not wanting. Besides the dressing of the stones above mentioned, fragments of the large square Roman bricks and of a somewhat artificial kind of roofing-tile have been found, together with pieces of concrete of considerable thickness, having a smooth upper surface, upon which floor-tiles may have been laid. The military character of the settlement is argued, not only from its situation, but from the finding within it of fragments of weapons, such as iron spear heads and the bosses of shields, as well as the bronze ornaments of the trappings and harness of horses; and Dr Anderson has even speculated that the vexillation of the Rhaetian spearmen, under the command of Julius Severinus, the tribune, may have been quartered here when they carved and dedicated an altar to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, which is now built, face downwards, into the turret stair of Jedburgh Abbey. Besides vessels of various forms in the slate-coloured and dark bluish-grey ware manufactured in the Roman potteries of Britain, fragments of handsome dishes, formed of the highly prized red lustrous ware called Samian, together with broken wine-jars of large size, which have been found among the ruins, bear witness, as the same authority thinks, to the luxurious life led by the Roman officers stationed here. Of two coins which have been picked up, one is a silver denarius of the Emperor Domitian, struck a.d. 83, the other a brass coin of Trajan, struck a.d. 116.

From Cappuck, as has been said, the Watling Street runs on in a north-westerly direction towards the triple summits of the Eildons; and though we are not justified in claiming these as the Roman Trimontium, yet in this neighbourhood —namely, at Newstead on the Tweed—there have been discovered vestiges of a Roman settlement or Roman British village. Here were traditions of old buildings; here, as before, Roman pottery has been found, together with two stones bearing a rich carved moulding, including as its central member a rope or cable pattern, of frequent occurrence in Roman work.3 The chief interest of the site, however, consists in its possession of a cemetery, in which an excessively peculiar mode of burial, better known in Gaul than in Britain, has been carried on. This was discovered in 1846, when a cutting for the Hawick line of the North British Railway was being made. The graves consisted of deep circular pits, like draw-wells, lined with masonry, some of them being as much as 20 feet deep, and from 2 feet 6 inches to 4 feet in diameter; wrhilst the bodies buried in them are seen to have been unburnt, and accompanied by bones of oxen, horses, and other domestic animals, by coins, iron weapons, and pottery. In one pit in particular a human skeleton was found in an erect position, with an iron spear beside it. Of even greater interest than these, however, are two votive altars discovered beneath the surface of the neighbouring fields, the one in 1783, the other in 1830. Of these the former measures about 2 feet in length by a foot in breadth, and bears an inscription of which the following is a translation : “To the deities presiding over contests in the Campus, sacred. .AElius Marcus, a decurion of the wing of the Vocontian cavalry (styled) the August, dedicates this altar in discharge of a vow willingly and justly performed.” The second altar measures 43 inches by 18, and its inscription has been translated as follows: “To the god Silvanus, for his own and his soldiers’ safety, Carrius Domitianus, the centurion of the Twentieth Legion, (surnamed) the Valiant and Victorious, fulfils his vow justly and most willingly.”5 In addition to the above, a stone having carved upon it in bold relief a wild boar, which is known to have been the symbol of the Twentieth Legion, was also found in the neighbourhood.

It is much to be wished that the remaining so-called Roman camps of the district had been examined with as much care as those described above. Of these there is good ground for supposing that the camp at Lyne in Peeblesshire would prove to be one of the very few in Scotland, exclusive of the forts in rear of the Antonine Vallum, for which an authentic Roman origin might be established. The camp is a fine one, the cleared space within the successive mounds and ditches measuring 575 feet by 475 feet; and as its outline is gradually growing more and more indistinct—a fact to which Chambers drew attention many years ago—it is highly desirable that no time be lost in subjecting it to thorough examination.

This camp is figured in Roy’s ‘Military Antiquities,’ which work also furnishes a plan, dated 1774, of what is there called “Agricola’s Camp” at Towford, in Roxburghshire. The latter is said to be of the earlier, or Polybian, type of Roman temporary camp, and the author is of opinion that most of the camps which resemble it were actually occupied by Agricola during his campaigns in North Britain—a conclusion which he bases upon the ground that shortly after the era of Agricola a new system of castrametation, known as the Hyginian, was adopted by the Romans. Pending further investigation, however, it may be expedient to accept the conclusions of this authority only for what they may prove to be worth.

The absence of Roman remains throughout Selkirkshire, where no traces of the conquering race have been discovered, is surprising, and has inclined the historian of the county2 to believe that the conquerors may have been able to hold in check the inhabitants of the forest-covered valleys of Ettrick and Yarrow by means of a fort located at Kippilaw. But the authenticity of this fort must be acknowledged as doubtful.

Such, then, is a sketch—so far as up to the present one can be furnished—of the remains of the Roman occupation of our district. Did space admit, it might, no doubt, be amplified by detail but we must here content ourselves with main features as with well-ascertained facts. For in this summary all that is based upon mere unsupported hypothesis has been either deliberately rejected or stated for what it is worth. Of this the fancy which sees traces of a Roman method of cultivation in the peculiar terraces visible on some of our hillsides, as at Romanno in Peeblesshire and Oakwood Mill in Selkirk, may serve as an example. Of that, as of other ingenious theories, all that can with safety be said is that they may or may not be well grounded. And today the methods so admirably satirised in ‘The Antiquary,’ by which any intrenchment not otherwise accounted for became a Roman camp, and any old sword or spear discovered was spoken of as a gladius or a hasta — these methods, already beginning to be discredited in the days of Sir Walter Scott, are happily no more. The results of careful inductive reasoning, stated with due caution and accuracy, have supplanted them ; and if to some of us the first consequence of the exchange has been the loss of cherished illusions, we have at least gained in return the bracing knowledge that the ground on which we stand is firm. A rich mine of investigation, too, lies now before instead of behind us— for paradoxical though it may seem, it is perhaps scarcely too much to say that adequate knowledge of the Roman antiquities at our command in the country lies in the future rather than in the past. Perhaps it is impossible at present to form any just idea of the degree to which Roman influence permeated the Border country, and probably the general tendency is greatly to underrate this. And in order to be in a position to gauge it, it is at least necessary to remember not only that, though repeatedly traversed and interrupted, that influence was in action during a period of above three hundred years—viz., from a.d. 80 to 410—but also that it was the glory of Rome and the secret of her peculiar greatness that with her to conquer was to assimilate, and that wherever the power of her arms extended she made not so much subjects as Romans. Besides this, it must be remembered that York became the seat of the Roman government, and that the Roman military power in the country was concentrated upon the southern wall. The relics of Roman dominion now in our possession may be few and fragmentary, yet the appeal made through them to our common humanity is often irresistible; for surely it would be difficult to read without sympathy to-day the words in which, nearly two thousand years ago, an upright and simple-minded soldier records his vow discharged after perils past, or to contemplate without emotion such a find as that made at Cappuck, where a pretty bracelet has been brought to light which is seen to have been cut down and bent together so as to fit a tinier wrist than that for which :t had first been fashioned.

It now only remains, for the sake of continuity of narrative, to run rapidly over the outstanding events of the Roman occupation of Scotland. In marking off and securing his conquests by a line of forts, Agricola had been content to avail himself of the convenient isthmus between the Firths of Forth and Clyde • but even this moderate annexation appears to have been untenable. For when, some thirty years later, the wise Hadrian visited Britain, he judged It expedient to draw in his limit to a line extending from the Firth of Solway to the mouth of Tyne, on which he raised his famous wall, 73 miles long and 20 feet high, and garrisoned by 15,000 men. Whether the cause of this renunciation was of a military or an economical character, whether he had found the new country not worth holding or too difficult to hold, that country was not destined to be long abandoned. Early in the reign of Antoninus, a.d. 138-161, Lollius Urbicus, who had been appointed lieutenant of the Roman emperor in Britain, resumed possession of the south of Scotland, and maintaining his authority there, proceeded to connect the old forts of Agricola by a rampart. On the above events as they affected the Borders, coins found at Newstead throw some light. Among them are pieces of the Emperors Trajan, Hadrian, and Antoninus, as well as of Faustina the Elder, empress of the last named, which probably argue the occupation of the settlement during these reigns. And to the period now reached, from the regular succession of the coins, their number and condition, it is suggested that the principal occupation of the station may be ascribed, although from its situation on the great north road, as well as its nearness to the consolidated conquests of Albion, its origin may well belong to a much earlier, and even to the earliest, period.

To Antoninus succeeded Marcus Aurelius, who reigned till the year 180.

In the first year of his successor, Commodus, there was an irruption of the natives through the Roman Wall, and it so happens that no coins of the eighty or ninety years following have been found at Newstead. The cause of this may be that the station was then temporarily abandoned. In the year 208 the Emperor Severus made his great expedition into Scotland, forcing his way, in the face of unheard-of difficulties, and at a cost of 50,000 men, to the extreme north of the country, and it is in the narrative of this time that we first hear the name Maeatians applied, as it seems, to the inhabitants of the district lying between the two walls. The next coins catalogued at Newstead are of the reigns of Victorinus (265-267) and Diocletian, not forgetting one of Carausius, the Belgic Gaul, who at this time revolted from Rome, and sailing for Britain with the fleet intrusted to his charge, usurped the dominion there, and ruled for eight years. For by this time such regularity as had ever existed in the succession of the emperors was no more. They appeared almost as they pleased, two or more at a time, and Rome itself was deserted by them in favour of more convenient centres.

The upstart Carausius fell by the treachery of Allectus, his associate, from whom Britain was recaptured by Constantius the Pale, successor to Maximian, who had shared the Empire with Diocletian. Several coins of Constantius (a.d. 305) have been found in the neighbourhood of Newstead, but none of any later date. To Constantius, who had died at York whilst on an expedition against the turbulent natives north of the wall, succeeded his son Constantine, afterwards called the Great; whilst from Valentinian, who followed the latter emperor after an interval of twenty-seven years, the country between the two walls, becoming for a time a province of Roman Britain, received the name of Valentia.

Return to Book Index Page


This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus