Siol nan Gaidheal
The countryside around Stirling is rich with martial associations. Celebrated episodes from all periods of Scotland's history have been enacted in these environs. However we have yet to adequately memorialise the achievements our ancestors made long before the events recalled by the monuments erected to the memory of the heroes of Bannockburn and Stirling Bridge, achievements that form the bedrock upon which our nation is founded from a time when our land was just beginning to make its mark on the page of history.
If one ascends the hills behind the Abbey Craig to an elevation from which one might look down even upon the monument that commemorates mighty Wallace one might find oneself among the ruins of an ancient hill fort. The prospect from Dumyat Hill is spectacular, including on a clear day all the land from Arthur's Seat to Arrochar in its vast scope. It is easy to understand why this site was chosen as the citadel of the people known to the Romans as the Maeatae, and to St. Adamnan, in his biography of St. Columba, as the Miathi, five centuries later. As one walks in what remains of the halls of the Miathi one casts one's mind back eighteen centuries to a time when deliberations at this site were surely pivotal in guiding defiance to resolve to ultimate and decisive victory when the people of our land uniquely in the ancient world successfully resisted Roman attempts to add it to its servile dominions.
The failure of Rome to impose its authority on that part of the island of Britain that lies to the north of Hadrian's Wall injects a subtle dissonance into the historical imagination which has traditionally been resolved by dismissing that region as irrelevant to Roman ambition, and asserting that it was not sufficiently attractive to excite Roman cupidity. The failure of Roman arms when borne against the people of the north would otherwise stand as a reproach to those of the south whose forebears' undoubted courage, tenacity and resourcefulness nevertheless proved inadequate to the task of repelling the invader. Furthermore, if the Romans deemed the north to be negligible, then future generations might take that verdict as confirmation of their own prejudices. The written testimony of the Romans themselves seems to bear this out, in which initial overwhelming military success can be compared to a subsequent lack of interest. The conclusion is inevitably drawn that they could have subdued the north, but decided not to because it wasn't worth it. This even allows some to present the capitulation in the south as a positive endorsement of its comparative worth. The people of the south are deemed worthy of inclusion in the Roman club, while the uncivilised barbarians to the north are denied admission.
However even a cursory glance at the archaeological evidence serves to excite that dissonance once more. One finds that the north boasts the highest density of Roman military marching camps anywhere, that the Romans invaded the north on at least four separate occasions in a series of concerted but ultimately futile efforts to subjugate it, and that construction of what was to be the largest legionary fortress in the Roman world at the time was commenced to consolidate their initial military success, a project they were forced to abandon within three years when construction was still only 40% complete. Slowly one begins to understand that taking the Roman written record at face value would be equivalent to accepting a Nazi history of Operation Barbarossa which had been truncated just before Zhukov's defence of Moscow. When one uncritically accepts partisan accounts of a period in history because those accounts conveniently agree with one's prejudices, in the way that some have done, one reveals nothing of history. However we are well accustomed to the presentation of prejudice as fact from Anglo-Saxon revisionists.
The Agricolan campaign in Scotland is well known. As described by his nephew Tacitus, Agricola's force composed mainly of auxiliaries routed a Caledonian host at Mons Graupius in 84 C.E. Tacitus attributes a rousing speech to the Caledonian leader Calgacus (a title rather than a personal name) which, although probably a coded criticism of the emperor Domitian on the part of Tacitus, nevertheless associates the first spoken words attributed to a native of Scotland with ideals of freedom and resisting oppression. The narrative is curtailed at this high water mark of Roman success, and indeed as a consequence of this victory work started on a fortress at Inchtuthill in Perthshire which was intended to be the home of the twentieth legion and at the time would have been the largest legionary fortress in the empire. This was only one part of a complex set of fortifications intended to complete the subjugation of the entire island of Britain.
Charred remains, and materiel put beyond use rather than removed presumably due to the haste of retreat and withdrawal, have been unearthed by archaeologists, revealing that although the Romans won the battle, they did not win the war. Before the end of that decade the Romans had pulled back, or rather, had been driven out. The raising of Hadrian's Wall followed, starting in 122 C.E. Around this time the Ninth Legion famously disappeared from history after having been transferred to the region, although recent scholarship suggests no sinister reason for this. The Forth-Clyde isthmus had been identified as the narrowest stretch of land to erect a barrier denoting the limit of Roman power and so it was decided by the emperor Antoninus that one would be raised in his name by his lieutenant Lollius Urbicus. In 143 C.E. in Rome he celebrated one of the many triumphs that Roman emperors celebrated for victories they claimed but had not won in Scotland - indeed he himself never set foot here. Once again within 20 years the fortification was abandoned.
And then, at the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd centuries C.E. events occurred which would precipitate the most catastrophic vernichtungskrieg against the people of Scotland ever, subsequent to which it cannot be said the Romans displayed no interest in annexing Scotland to their empire. The resources of the entire empire were focussed on crushing all resistance in Scotland in an attempt to confer upon the emperor Septimius Severus a final crowning achievement in his dizzyingly successful military career and to complete once and for all the "unfinished business" of Scotland, and the privations inflicted on the people of Scotland were dire.
In Scotland, in response to the latest Roman presumption, the Maeatae had risen and expelled the interlopers. The Maeatae occupied as their citadel the hill of Dumyat ("The fortress of the Maeatae") overlooking Stirling. They had gained influence and led a confederation of tribes united by their common enemy, Rome. Their sacred isle, where those of high status were taken to be interred, was the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, a prototypical Avalon. They worshipped principally the sea god Manannan mac Lir, a practise that persisted from this time until at least the 7th century when Stís Serf and Kentigern objected to it. Roman commentators noted that the social structure of the people of Scotland was simple and egalitarian; leaders were chosen on the basis of their ability and fighting prowess, and the women had the right to own property and represent themselves in decision making assemblies on an equal basis with men. This contrasted with the status of women in Roman society and scandalised Roman commentators reported how a condition effectively of "free love" existed whereby children were raised in common as their paternity could not be established with certainty. It is interesting to observe that under these circumstances matrilineal descent of the form some have deduced from later king lists will operate, since the issue of maternity is never in doubt, so perhaps there was more to Roman claims than mere slander. The people lived mainly by raising livestock. The rich land of Manau, around modern day Clackmannanshire, provided the Maeatae with plentiful crops but brought them into contact with the eastern extremity of the Antonine wall where the Romans were eager to re-establish their presence at Camelon.
Meanwhile the Roman world was riven by civil strife. Of the various claimants of ultimate authority to emerge from the aftermath of the murder of Commodus the most able general was selected by the grim attrition of war. Septimius Severus was an outstanding tactician and strategist, scornful of civilian institutions, and undefeated in battle. Once the throne was secure and his domestic rivals had been eliminated he humiliated Rome's competitors on the battlefield in the name of the empire. He sired two brothers, Caracalla and Geta, who he hoped to bear his posterity, but who were dissolute and decadent as a result of the privileges they enjoyed on account of their father. As Septimius Severus grew old he settled upon the idea of achieving a final glorious triumph to recommend his name to history and decided that the conquest of Scotland, something his predecessors had been unable achieve, would grant him the immortality he craved.
In 208 C.E. Septimius Severus, then 63 years of age, arrived to lead in person his invasion of Scotland. Although the garrison of the province of Britannia was the largest per capita of any in the Roman world, including three legions, more troops were brought. 9,000 elite imperial guards supported by cavalry were added to the invasion force, along with the newly formed Second Parthica legion. Naval support was provided by the British fleet, the Rhine fleet, and two fleets brought from the Danube. After concentrating his troops near Melrose he proceeded north, eventually reaching the Moray Firth, where he is said to have made astronomical observations of the midwinter solstice. The Maeatae and Caledonians avoided open battle and pursued guerilla tactics. At great financial expense the Romans purchased a truce before retreating back to Hadrian's wall in 209 C.E. to celebrate another "triumph". Roman estimates of their losses during their retreat amount to 50,000 men. Famously the emperor's son Caracalla tried to assassinate him during the truce negotiations. The endurance of the Maeatae and the Caledonians during their guerilla campaign became the stuff of legend to the Roman soldiers, who told tales that they could lie in wait up to their necks in the swamps that beset the region for days on end, and that they possessed an almost magical food, the size of a bean, which, if eaten, would prevent all feelings of hunger and thirst. Modern botanists have yet to identify which plant or combination of plant extracts could have provided this marvellous natural stimulant.
The earliest utterance that we can attribute with some degree of confidence to a native of Scotland was made at this time by a woman known only as the wife of Argentocoxus during truce negotiations. The Roman emperor's wife, Julia Domna, had made a disparaging remark concerning the morals of the people of Scotland along the lines of the commentators mentioned previously. The wife of Argentocoxus immediately retorted "We consort openly with the best of men, while you allow yourselves to be debauched in private by the worst" - certainly not the comment of a woman deferring to a conqueror! It is tempting to identify Argentocoxus ("Silver arm") with the individual named Artcois in the Pictish Chronicle. The contraction of the name is plausible and his floruit would be at roughly the right time. He is listed not as ruling but as the father of a man named Ciniod who ruled. This would suggest that Argentocoxus was the consort of a powerful and noble woman.
In 210 C.E. the emperor instructed Caracalla to lead his troops north again, and to kill every man, woman and child they encountered. Caracalla was less able than his father however and was driven out more rapidly. Around this time the central fort on Hadrian's wall, Vindolanda, was razed to the ground. Recently archaeologists have interpreted the circular huts that replaced it as evidence of a Roman concentration camp. Such interpretations are informed more by the southern historian's prejudices than by a rational approach to the evidence. Why would it be necessary to destroy a valuable fort to erect a concentration camp comprised of buildings in a native style? The repairs made to Hadrian's wall at this time as a result of it being breached generally were so extensive that most Roman authors thereafter concluded that the wall itself had been Severus' rather than Hadrian's initiative. Septimius Severus died at York in 211 C.E. while planning yet another invasion. His failure to subdue Scotland after mobilising the resources of his empire to do so proved definitive and subsequent Roman incursions were temporary reactions to raids across the wall or scouting parties known as exploratores. Never again would Romans delude themselves that they could conquer Scotland.
While some would portray the successful resistance of the people of Scotland as an anomaly to be explained away, if not simply dismissed or ignored outright, the unbiased must regard it as a unique achievement in the ancient world and one to be celebrated. The Germans have monuments to their victory over the Romans at Teutoberger Wald. The greater achievement of the people of Scotland deserves commemoration. It has a contemporary relevance because as Scotland emerges from the three centuries of union in which she has lost her way, she must recall that her glory derives not only from her rebuttal of English pretension, but from her repulse of the Dane and Roman too, so that she can once again take her place as a beacon of freedom and unpretentious egalitarianism, unconquered - once and forever Scotia Invicta.
Alba gu Brath!
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