Forest excuse 'pure Roman spin'
WHEN the all-conquering armies of ancient Rome failed to subdue the northern end of Britain, there had to be a good reason.
So the Romans decided it was not the primitive barbarians known as the Caledonii who had defeated them, but the vast impenetrable forest covering the country now known as Scotland.
However, a new book to be released next month on the history of Scotland’s woods claims this idea was invented by Roman writers to preserve the image of the empire’s "invincible" legions.
According to Professor Chris Smout, the Historiographer Royal, it was an early example of political spin used to explain failure, and a tactic used by the Romans to cope with defeat against the German tribes.
Prof Smout, of St Andrews University, said: "The great Caledonian forest? I don’t think it ever existed. I think it was a story the Romans put about to explain why they didn’t conquer Scotland.
"There had been a time when Scotland was covered with what might be called the Caledonian forest, but that was many hundreds of years before the Romans arrived.
"I don’t believe for a minute it was still there. It was a story got up by a bunch of Italians. They used the forest once before with the Germans."
He also reports another, less successful attempt to explain why the recalcitrant northern tribes remained undefeated.
"They [the Romans] say the Scots used to live underwater and breathe through reeds, then spring up and attack," Prof Smout said. "But nobody would repeat that because it is so absurd."
Prof Smout said that evidence from fossilised pollen showed Scotland had once been covered by a large forest.
But he added: "All the evidence shows this reached a maximum about 5,000 years ago, which was 3,000 years before the Romans arrived."
Lawrence Keppie, emeritus professor of Roman history and archaeology at Glasgow University, said it was clear that, north of the Forth-Clyde line, the Romans "had to fight".
He said: "There were parts of the world that the Romans thought were economically not worth it, and I’m pretty sure Scotland was one of those.
"Tacitus says after the battle of Mons Graupius [a Roman victory] they had trouble flushing the enemy out of the woods. I don’t think he meant anything more than that, but there are other authors who’d never been to Britain who talk about the ‘impenetrable forests’."
But Adam Powell, a field officer for the charity Trees for Life, which is dedicated to replanting the Caledonian forest said:
"There has been scientific work done which would indicate that forests were very much more extensive in the Scottish Highlands than they are currently."
And Mr Powell said that whatever the extent of the forest, there was at least a suggestion that the local tribes may have viewed woodland as a natural defensive stronghold.
"There are some differences of opinion over the name Caledonian. Some say it is Roman but others say it is from the Gaelic Coile Dun, meaning woodland fortress," he said.
"It could be the people who lived here considered it to be a big safe forest they could hide in."
Prof Smout has written A History of the Native Woodlands of Scotland with Dr Alan MacDonald, of Dundee University, and Dr Fiona Watson, of Stirling University.
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