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History Of The Scottish Nation
Vol 1, Chapter 16 - Roman period of Britain; England invaded by Caesar, and Scotland by Agricola

Such as we have described it had Scotland been from immemorial time. How impossible at that hour to have formed a true augury of its future! To a visitor from the polished and storied East, what a dismal picture would both the men and the country have presented! A land savage and untamable beyond all the lands of earth! Its air thick with tempest: its surface a bleak expanse of bog and heath and dark forest: a wild sea rolling in upon its harbourless shore: and its inhabitants of aspect even more repulsive than their country: their bodies tattooed all over: their loins begirt with the hide of wolf: their matted locks darkening their faces: brandishing the javelin with dexterity, but disdaining all knowledge of the plough or spade, and scorning acquaintance with an useful art. Here, would the visitor have exclaimed, is a land doomed to irretrievable barbarism! Here is a race whose lot it is to be hewers of wood and drawers of water to the rest of the nations! How astonished would such visitor have been if told that a day would come when his barbarous land would be one of the lights of the world—a fountain of purer knowledge than ever emanated from Greece, and a seat of wider power than Rome wielded, even when she called herself, and was called by others, the mistress of the world. But not as summer cloud settles on a mountain top does glory descend on a nation. It must agonize before it is crowned. A severe discipline, prolonged through centuries, must Scotland undergo, before it can be worthy of so great a destiny.

Not for some time did its preparation for its great future begin. Defended by a stormy strait, and not less by the vague rumours that invested the lonely isle with something of mystery and horror, the first settlers in Britain were long left in undisturbed possession of their country. No one thought it worth his while to invade their quiet, or rob them of their wild independence. The warriors who were overrunning the world, intent on higher conquests, disdained to turn aside to a little country where there were no wealthy cities to spoil, no richly cultivated fields to rob, and where there was just a little fame as wealth to reward the arms of the conqueror. The Mede, the Persian, the Macedonian had successively passed it over. Not so the fourth great conquering power that arose in the earth. Impelled by that insatiable thirst of dominion which was implanted by Providence for its own high ends, the Roman eagle saw and alighted upon our shores. Henceforward our country belongs to history.

Julius Caesar had frequent occasion to be in Gaul. When residing in Paris, he had heard tell, doubtless, of a wild country in the North Sea that lay only some two hours’ sail from the coast of France. It was visited by few, save the adventurous merchants of Gaul, and traders from the Levant, who exchanged with the natives the products of the East for the tin of the Cornish mines. It is even possible, when war or negotiation called him to the coast, that Julius may have seen, in a favourable state of the atmosphere, the chalk cliffs of that island gleaming white across the narrow channel that parted it from the Continent. For Roman to see a spot of earth of which Rome was not mistress, was to have the tormenting thirst of conquest and occupation straightway awakened in him. This island, which rose before him in the blue sea, Caesar resolved to add to the list of countries which had already received the yoke of Rome. Fitting out a fleet of eighty vessels, he crossed the Channel, and arrived before Dover. This was in the year 55 B.C.

Rumours of impending invasion had preceded the fleet across the strait. And now the rumours had become a reality. There were the dreaded galleys of invincible Rome lining their coast. Straightway a forest of barbarian spears bristled along the cliffs that overhung the shore, and thousands of dark faces scowled defiance down upon the invaders. Did they know that the Power to which they offered battle was the same which had conquered the earth? We can fancy a little disdain kindling in the eye of Caesar when he saw the poor barbarians rushing headlong upon the bosses of Rome’s buckler. Be this as it may, the great warrior showed unusual hesitation in launching his legions upon the barbarous shore to which he had led them. Though little accustomed to pause in the face of danger, Caesar judged it prudent, in sight of the cliffs and the spears that topped them, to seek a more approachable part of the coast as a point of disembarkation. He gave orders to his fleet to move up channel.

But the fleet limbs of the Britons carried them along the shore faster than the ships could sail eastward. When the galley halted off the flats at Deal, Caesar saw, to his dismay, that the cloud which had lowered over the cliffs of Dover had shifted, and now hung ominously over that part of the coast where his fleet was moored. A vast and variously armed host, consisting of war chariots, cavalry and foot soldiers, stood prepared to resist the landing of the invaders. To seize this barbarous shore, Caesar saw, would prove a harder task than he had reckoned upon. His soldiers, clad in heavy armour, would have to struggle with the fierce and fearless natives in the sea, and would fight at great disadvantage. While he delayed to give the word to land, the standard-bearer of the tenth legion, by a bold action, decided the fortune of the day. Leaping into the water, he called on the men to follow their eagle. Instantly a torrent of warriors twelve thousand in number, poured down the sides of their vessels, their armour gleaming in the westering sun of an early September day. The Britons, burning with fury, rushed into the tide to oppose their advance. A desperate grapple ensued betwixt the two. The waves were dyed with blood. Many a Briton and Roman went down together in the sea, locked in deadly embrace. But the heavy mass and stubborn valour of the Roman legionaries bore back the undisciplined hordes of the British, and before the sun had gone down, the invaders had made good their footing on shore. Britain was now linked to Rome.

Slowly the Roman eagle made its way into the interior of the country. That power which had trodden down the nations like the mire in the streets, encountered a fiercer resistance in our island than it had experienced in some countries, the inhabitants of which, more perfectly trained to arms, might have been expected to have met the aggressor with a stouter opposition. Caesar had invaded Britain, but it could not be said that he had conquered it, much less that he occupied it. It mattered little to win victories in a country where the conqueror was master of the ground only on which the battle had been fought, and which he might, the next day, have to recover by force of arms. Only to the Thames were the Romans able to hew their way into the land. The corn which was not ripe in the fields, and the bullocks that fed in the meadows, supplied the legions with food. They cut broad pathways through the forests to facilitate their advance. To guard against surprise, they cleared out the wood-built villages and towns that nestled in the forest glades or on the open plain. The palisades of timber that enclosed them went down at the stroke of the Roman axe. The brand and the sword did the rest. It was a horrible business. An hour or so, and a smoking heap of ashes, soaked with blood, alone remained to show where the Briton had dwelt, and where his young barbarians had played. In the words of Tacitus, "they made a solitude and called it peace." After a year of this inglorious warfare, Caesar grew tired of it, and turned his face towards his own land. Great changes were impending at Rome. The republic was about to pass into the empire; the arms of the legions were needed at home, and the Romans were to taste something of the slavery which they had inflicted on others. On a day in September, before the equinoctial storms had set in, Caesar embarked his soldiers, and set sail across the Channel. It was ten o’clock at night, and the darkness soon hid from his eye that shore to which he had made his first approach just a year before, and which he was now leaving never more to return. "The deified Julius," says Tacitus, "though he scared the natives by a successful engagement, and took possession of the shore, can be considered merely to have discovered, but not appropriated, the island for posterity."1

After this, Britain had rest from Roman invasion for the space of ninety-eight years. But if the mailed legionary was not seen in the land all that while, the Italian merchant found his way hither and settled in its cities, Caesar having shown the country to him. Now began to be seen on our soil the early blossoms of commerce, and the first buddings of art. This was a little compensation for the year’s calamities which the country had endured from the Roman sword. The reigns of Augustus, of Tiberius, and of Caligula followed, and passed in peace. But our country’s discipline was not yet at an end—it was only at its commencement. In the time of the emperor Claudius an effort was made on a greater scale than before to subjugate the country. In A.D. 43, Aulus Plutius was sent to Britain at the head of an army of 50,000 men. He entered the country unopposed. He fought numerous battles, and in the end carried the Roman arms and the Roman yoke from the Straits of Dover to the Tweed. The campaign, which had for its issue the subjugation of England, threw, at the same time, a gleam of glory upon the nation.

When we look back we can discern, through the obscurity of the many centuries which have since elapsed, the colossal figure of the British leader and patriot, Caractacus. This hero, barbarian though he was, nobly stood up against the master or the world for the independence of his native land. He was worsted in the patriotic struggle, but he manifested in defeat, as in the conflict that preceded it, a magnanimity of soul which contrasted grandly with the essential littleness of the man who had vanquished him. By the strength of the legions, Caractacus was finally driven into the mountains of Wales. Being captured, he was carried in chains to Rome, and exhibited to the servile mob of the capital, along with his wife and daughters, in a triumphal procession. He strode onward along the Via Sacra, wearing his chains as Caesar might have worn his purple. When the procession was over, the captive prince was conducted to the palace on the Palatine, and presented to the emperor. Caractacus is said to have given vent to his wonder, as well he might, that one who was so sumptuously housed, and whom so many fair and mighty realms called master, should have envied him his hut in his far-off native wilds. The dignity with which he bore himself in the imperial presence won the respect of Claudius, and he ordered his chains to be struck off. Did the emperor know, when he gazed on the British chief, that he stood face to face with the representative of that empire which in future days was to succeed his own, and by the beneficence, not less than the vastness of its sway, far eclipse it?

As yet, not a legionary had crossed the Tweed: not an acre of soil did Rome possess in Scotland. Another half century was to pass away before the march of the Roman arms should reach the northern country. The year A.D. 80 was to open a new era to Caledonia. That remote and mountainous land was now to make acquaintance with a power, which, ere it touched our soil, had carried invasion and conquest into almost all quarters of the habitable globe. Scotland was among the last of the countries which was destined to submit her neck to the yoke of that haughty mistress whose own arm, palsied by political and moral corruption, was about to let fall the sceptre of the world.

The general who carried the Roman sword into Scotland, Julius Agricola, was one of the ablest and also one of the most clement which Rome had sent forth on the conquest of Britain. He combined the qualities of the statesman with those of the soldier, and retained by wisdom what he won by valour. Tacitus paints him as a model of military virtue. He was trained to the knowledge of affairs by service in various grades and on many fields. He never shirked hardship or danger. He welcomed labour as joyfully as other men do rest. He displayed great intrepidity in performing the services assigned him, and equal modesty in speaking of them. Thus he escaped jealousy and attained renown. He shunned pageantry and scorned pleasures, and used his high post, not for his own aggrandisement, but the greater profit of the state. Vigilant, he knew all that went on, and while he rewarded merit, he punished only the graver faults. If at any time he dealt the enemy a heavy blow, he followed it up with offers of peace: thus he was at once severe and conciliatory.2 Such was the man who now came to subjugate Scotland to the Roman obedience. When we reflect that this portrait was drawn by the pen of his son-in-law, we may be disposed perhaps to make allowance for a little unconscious exaggeration on the part of the historian. But after all deductions, Agricola stood far above the average Roman of his day.

By this time England was included within the pale of Rome. But this did not satisfy the imperial government. The southern province was not secure so long as the more warlike north remained unconquered: the tempest would ever be gathering on the great mountains and rushing down with the destructive fury on the lowlands. Every successive Roman governor who entered Britain had it as his special task and his highest ambition, to conduct the legions to the extreme northern verge of Caledonia, wherever that might be, and affix to his name the much coveted designation of Britannicus. Agricola, of course, came cherishing the same hope which had inspired all his predecessors. Unless he accomplished this conquest he accomplished nothing. He was at the head of a powerful and well-disciplined host; he was versed in the command of armies; he was to meet half armed barbarians, whose jealousies and rivalships made them even more open to attack than their wretched military equipments. It was no unreasonable expectation, therefore, that when he went back to Rome it would be to tell that now at last the limit of the empire on the north was the polar wave. His quarrel lacked but one element of success: it had no foundation in justice.

Before turning his face towards Scotland, he took every precaution least revolt should spring up behind him. He conciliated the southern Britons by equalising and lightening the heavy taxes which his predecessors had imposed upon them. He strove to draw their activities away from arms, and divert them into channels of industry. He embellished their country with temples and towns. He educated the sons of the chieftains in the accomplishments and arts of Italy, and the British youth now began to use the Roman tongue, and to wear the Roman toga. In these soft indulgences they forgot the hardy exercises of the field. There is a strong undertone of contempt in the words of Tacitus when he describes these changes. "Baths, piazzas, and sumptuous feasts," he says, "Were called by the ignorant people ‘civilisation.’ They were in reality the elements of slavery."3

Having made all safe in his rear, Agricola began his march towards the North. His route lay along the eastern side of the island. We gather from his historian that he signalised the beginning of his march with a stroke of arms. A border tribe, the Ordovices, who had been troublesome to his legions, he punished with extermination. The terror of the blow would travel faster than his standards, and help to open their way. Even before crossing the Tweed he had a presage of the unfamiliar land to which he was advancing in the mountain ridges and deep narrow gullies of what is now known as Northumberland. And even after he had crossed the Tweed, he did not all at once come in contact with the true Caledonian fierceness. He had to fight with the country rather than with the natives. And no better ally could the natives have had. Their country, while is offered shelter to themselves, threw manifold difficulties in the way of the invader. The hills, the rocky glens, the woods, and the morasses were so many ambushes were the Caledonian might lurk, and at any hour of the day or night, spring upon the Romans, entangled in the bog, or caught in the defile. And having delivered their assault, they could evade pursuit and defy attack, by a speedy retreat to the fastnesses known only to themselves. The Roman general saw that the task he had undertaken was one that would test to the uttermost the endurance and bravery of his troops, and exercise all his own wariness and skill. But he dared not turn back before barbarians. He must keep his face turned toward that unknown north, where the Roman eagle had never yet been seen, and to which, therefore, Agricola the more longed to point its flight. Those who submitted experienced a ready clemency: those who opposed had to endure a terrible chastisement. The red prints which the conqueror left behind him, and the terrible rumour that travelled in front of him, opened his way into the land, and without fighting a single battle he reached the summit of the Lammermoors, whence he looked down on the plains of the Lothians and the waters of the Firth of Forth.

Here was convenient halting place. Nature herself, by drawing a strongly marked line across the country, appeared to say that here Agricola should stop. Two great arms of the sea, the one issuing from the eastern and the other from the western ocean, ran far into the land, cutting the island well nigh in two, and forming, as it were, a southern and a northern Scotland. By joining the two seas by a line of fortresses, Agricola would be able to protect the country behind him, now subject to his arms, and guard against surprise or irruption from the yet unconquered territory in front. Accordingly he constructed, as we have already said, a chain of forts, running from east to west, beginning at Borrowstouness on the Forth, and ending at Bowling Bay, near Dumbarton, on the Clyde. Agricola put garrisons in these forts. They were the first tracing out of that rampart which was erected subsequently on the same tract, and which came to be known as the Wall of Antonine.

The great hills which from this point might be seen towering up in the northern sky, warned Agricola that should he attempt to extend the limits of the empire in that direction, he would encounter far more tremendous obstacles than those over which he had to fight his way to reach the point where he now stood. And the Caledonians, when they reflected on the strength of the power whose soldiers scowled defiance upon them from their forts, might have remained content with the freedom of their mountains, and their exemption from a yoke now borne by their southern neighbours. But considerations of prudence did not weight with either side. The Caledonians grew impatient to recover what of their soil they had lost, and the Romans began to covet what of the country they did not yet possess. Prowling hordes stole down from the highlands of Stirlingshire and Perthshire to espy the weak points in the Roman entrenchment, and take advantage of them. The soldiers in the forts were kept continually upon the alert. Their eye must never be off those hills in the distance, which any moment might send forth from their glens a torrent of warriors to force their line with sudden and headlong rush, and carry slaughter and devastation into the country beyond it. The three years that followed the construction of the rampart were full of surprises, of skirmishes, and battles, which often left the ground on which they were fought, as thickly covered with the bodies of Roman dead as with the corpses of the slaughtered Caledonians.

The third year of his stay enabled Agricola to enlarge his acquaintance with the country and its tribes. Transporting his army across the Forth he traversed Fife to the banks of the Tay. The expedition left its inglorious traces in huts burned, harvests ravaged to feed the legions, and spots red with the marks of recent skirmish. Tacitus says that "the tribes were devastated." He does not say that they were conquered. In truth, Agricola himself confessed that the expedition was abortive, when next summer—the fourth—he proceeded to construct his famous line of forts, between the Forth and the Clyde, by which, as the historian remarks he "removed the enemy, as it were, into another island."

In the fifth summer, Agricola turned his arms against the tribes of the Argyleshire hills, or scattered along the Ayrshire coast. What provocation they had given, or what advantage he could reap from slaughtering them it is hard to say. It enabled him, however, to report at Rome that he was master of the lonely rocks and gloomy mountains of the western sea-board. The real motive of his western raid, Tactitus hints, was the hope of crossing the sea to Ireland. That island was large. Its soil and climate were excellent. It had numerous harbours, the resort of merchants. It would be an easy conquest; a single legion, Agricola reckoned, would suffice to subdue it. It lay between Britain and Spain, for the geography of the age was not exact, and its occupation would help to consolidate the empire; and, adds, Tacitus, with sarcastic bitterness, "remove the spectacle of liberty from the sight of the Britons.4

Meanwhile the eye of the Briton did not need to look so far as across the Irish Channel for the odious spectacle of liberty. That hateful sight was close at hand. The imperial Eagle, having ventured on a short flight to the banks of the Tay, had again retired within the lines of the Forth, leaving the great hills of northern Caledonia, with the free and fierce tribes that inhabited them, untouched by the Roman yoke. Ireland must stand over till the legions had finished with Britain. Agricola again took up the thread of his Caledonian expedition, interrupted for a season by his western episode. He advanced warily, step by step, like one who gropes his way in a difficult country and amid foes of unknown numbers and force. The roads were enfiladed; every wood was suspected as a possible luring place; an army of half-naked warriors might any moment start up on the hill-side, or be vomited forth from the ravine. There came rumours of uprisings from the Grampians. A conquest which appeared so easy when viewed from the distance of Rome, was seen to be full of hazards and difficulties when looked at on the spot.

Agricola called the fleet to his aid, issuing orders that it should operate along with his land forces, and be ready at any moment to render assistance to the legions. He made his galleys sail up the firths, in the hope that a sight so unusual might strike terror into the barbarians, and fill their imaginations with the idea that his ships could sail over mountains—to use Cromwell’s phrase, borrowed from Cornelius Nepos—as well as over seas. He explored the harbours on the coast, but was careful to enjoin the fleet never to move so far off as to lose sight of the land army. The ships faithfully obeyed the orders of their general, keeping so close in the marines, as Tacitus informs us, often came ashore to visit their comrades in the camp, and while all three, infantry, cavalry, and marines caroused together, they would entertain one another with tails of the valiant deeds they had done and the wonderful adventures which had befallen them in this strange land "now the ‘wilds of the mountain and forest,’ now the ‘hardships of the storm and the billows’ here the ‘land and the enemy,’ there the ‘subject ocean,’ were compared with the exaggeration natural to soldiers." 5 So passed the sixth summer of the Roman stay in Caledonia.

Season followed season, and the conquest of northern Britain was not yet accomplished. It is evident that the Roman commander feared to strike a decisive blow. His historian does not admit this in so many words, but the real statement of matters is plain from his statement, that "the native tribes assailed the forts: and spread terror by acting on the offensive; and the timid, with the appearance of being prudent persons, advised a retreat behind the Bodotria (Forth), and to evacuate the country rather than be expelled." The outlook at the moment was decidedly gloomy for the invaders. Nor did an incident which occurred just then help to brighten it. A cohort of Usipii, levied in Germany, was brought over to assist the legions. Not liking the country or the service, it would seem, they broke into mutiny, massacred the centurion and Roman soldiers which had been incorporated with them in order to their being drilled, and again embarked in their galleys and put to sea. A tragic fate was in store for them on the ocean. Without pilot or chart, they were driven hither and thither at the mercy of the waves. When their provisions failed, they assuaged the pangs of hunger by feeding on the flesh of those of their comrades whom the inexorable lot adjudged to that revolting use. The survivors, after passing through these horrors, were captured by the Frisians and sold as slaves.

The same summer, the seventh if were rightly gather, would have brought with it another and even greater disaster to the Roman arms, if a timely discovery had not warded off the blow. The ninth legion lay encamped within two miles of Loch Leven, and the Caledonians, in whose eyes the prestige of the Romans was waning, resolved to test their invincibility by forcing upon the wager of battle. They planned a night attack on their entrenchment. When the evening fell, veiling the waters of the loch, and the summit of the neighbouring Lomond, there was neither sight nor sound of the enemy. But when the darkness had fully set in, the Caledonians mustered, and stole in silence upon the sleeping camp. Striking down the sentinel, they forced the gateway, poured in a torrent, and threw themselves with fearful suddenness and violence upon the soldiers. The darkness of night hid the fierce struggle betwixt Caledonian and Roman. In the consternation that reigned a terrible slaughter was being enacted in the camp. Not a Roman would have seen the dawn, had not Agricola, informed of what was going on by his scouts, sent his light troops at their utmost speed, to save his legion before it should be exterminated. He himself followed with the legionaries. The shouts of the troops, now arrived at the entrance of the entrenchments, and the gleam of the standards in the early light, made the Caledonians aware that succours had been sent the Romans, and that they were now being assailed in the rear. So far from feeling panic, they turned and confronted the newly arrived troops, and the gateway became the scene of a terrific struggle. The exit was beginning to be blocked up with the bodies of the slain. But the Caledonians, bravely continuing the fight, forced their way out with no great loss, through living and dead, and made their escape to their bogs and fastnesses.

The Romans, who had narrowly escaped what would have been a calamity and disgrace, claimed this affair as a victory. The Caledonians, on their part, gathered heart and hope from the incident. It showed them that the Roman was not the charmed invincible warrior their fears had painted him, and that it was possible even yet to cast the invader out of their country, or if he should refuse to quit it, to make it his burial-place, and preserve for their sons the freedom which their fathers had transmitted to themselves. The wisdom and method with which they proceeded to make arrangements for continuing their defence were not a little remarkable. They sent messengers through all their mountains with invitations to the clans to meet and confer touching the position of affairs. We gather from the historian of the campaign that the summons met a universal and willing response. The tribes assembled, probably by their delegates, though their place of meeting is not known. The question debated was, of course, submission or war? If they should resolve on submission the way was easy: easy at its beginning, the bitterness would come in the end. But if they should resolve to continue the struggle, they must wage is with united arms. If they should stand apart, tribe from tribe, their great enemy would devour them piece-meal. Their only chance of victory, and with victory escape from slavery, lay in their union. This policy, at once so obvious and so imperative, was adopted. The Caledonians agreed to merge the interest of chief and clan in the mightier interest of country. They buried their feuds, and clans that never met before save to shed each other’s blood, now met to embrace and march in united phalanx against the foe. They had learned that they must first conquer themselves would they hope to conquer the Romans. The outcome of all was the formation of a grand confederacy, to which the priests added the sanctions of religion by the offering of public sacrifices. With a not unsympathetic pen does Tacitus record briefly those touching arrangements on the part of this remnant of the nations to withstand a power which had overrun the world.

War being resolved upon, they vigorously set about the adoption of measures for its successful prosecution. We traced in these the superintendence of a mind not unacquainted with military tactics. Some of the Caledonians had gone south to assist the Britons when the Romans invaded them, fearing, as John Major has quaintly put it, that "if the Romans should dine with the Britons, they would sup with the Scots and Picts."6 In their English campaigns they had acquired a knowledge of strategy which stood them in good service now. They removed their wives and little ones, and doubtless also their old men, to places of security. They enrolled and armed the youth. They repaired their mountain barriers. They arranged the number of spears which each tribe should place on the field when the day of their great final stand should arrive.7

Their mountains were alive throughout with the din of preparations. Every glen rung with the stroke of the craftsman’s hammer. The iron war-chariots were being got ready, swords scoured and sharpened, arrows pointed, and flint heads chipped by the thousand. In short, and to express it in a familiar modern phase, "the heather was on fire," And if Agricola will not come to the "Grampians," the Grampians" will go to Agricola.


1. Tacitus, Vita Agricoloe, c. 13.

2. Tacitus, Vit. Agric., c. 4, 5, 8.

3. Tacitus, Vit. Agric., c. 20, 21.

4. Tacitus, Vit. Agric., c. 24.

5. Tacitus, Vit. Agric., c. 25.

6. Timebant enim omnes ne si Britonibus Romani pranderent, cum Scotis et Pictis caenarent.—Historia Majoris Britannioe, per Joannem Majorem, cap. 12, 3d ed., Edin., 1740.

7. Tacitus, Vit. Agric., c. 27-29.



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