Mons Graupius, where the Romans defeated the Caledonii

THE Roman occupation of Scotland was never as comprehensive as the occupation of England. Although they built forts and walls, indigenous tribes, especially in the north, were never very troubled by the might of Rome.


The Archaeodome, in the Archaeolink Prehistory Park, describes Mons Graupius as part of an audio-visual presentation, and outside, the Roman marching camp shows what the invading army’s camp was like.

Speech by Calgacus before the Battle of Mons Graupius

The Battle of Mons Graupius - the view of Roman historian TacitusThe closest Rome came to total domination occurred in around AD83, when the Roman governor, Julius Agricola, was ordered by Emperor Titus to crush the Caledonii tribes.

Agricola, governor from AD77 – 83 or 84, was accompanied on his campaign by his son-in-law, the Roman writer Tacitus. His written record constitutes the first record of a Scottish battle – albeit from a particularly Roman perspective.

Agricola marched north from his Perthshire base at Inchtuthil whilst his fleet sailed before him to raid and harass the coast. In what was probably the autumn of AD83 Agricola came face-to-face with Calgacus – the leader of the Caledonii – at the Graupian Mountain. While the precise location is up for conjecture (more on that later), the scene was set for the battle of Mons Graupius.

Agricola led his army of 8,000 English and Dutch auxiliaries and 3,000 cavalry. He kept his Roman legions away from the front line to keep them in reserve but also, as Tacitus wrote,

”the victory being more glorious if there was no cost in Roman blood.”

Facing the Roman army, outnumbering them, and possessing the advantage of the high ground, were the combined might of 30,000 Caledonians. But Calgacus’s men lacked the organisation and military tactics of a Roman legion, and the tightly disciplined Roman army with their short-stabbing swords soon took the lead. Time and again the Caledonian army pushed forward, only to be bested by the superior hand-to-hand combat of the Romans. Tacitus’s eyewitness report gives an indication of the scale of the rout:

The spectacle that followed was awe-inspiring and grim. Arms, bodies, severed limbs lay all around and the air reeked of blood.’

The tribesmen fled to the wood where for a time their local knowledge allowed them to ambush their pursuers. But as night fell, exhausted and defeated they retreated, burning their homes, killing their wives and children as they fled, terrified, to the hills.

As for the exact location of the battle, a book to be released this summer will suggest that it took place on the Gask Ridge near Perth. The camps leading up to the Gask Ridge used a style of gate that has been linked to the Roman army led by Agricola. The camp at Bennachie - one commonly accepted location of the battle at Graupian Mountain - does not use this style of gate and is also much bigger, according to author James Fraser, an expert on Scottish history.

According to Tacitus, the Romans lost 360 men, the Caledonii 10,000. After the battle ended he wrote that: “A grim silence reigned on every hand, the hills were deserted … and our scouts found no-one to encounter them.”

Whilst this rather exuberant description of total victory was sent to Rome, it should be remembered it may well have been an exaggeration. Such a decisive win would have served Agricola well back home, as his son-in-law would have known.

Whether exaggerated or factual, the Romans did win the day, but failed to make capital out of their victory. Agricola was recalled to Rome where a growing threat from the German barbarians necessitated the withdrawal of troops from northern Scotland.

By 211AD the Roman invasion of Scotland was all but over. After that the Romans stayed safely behind Hadrian’s Wall in England, and left the unruly natives to their own devices.