Roman Period

Comrie holiday in Rome

Due to great difficulties they were encountering in Scotland the Romans under Hadrian built a great Roman wall from the Solway Firth to just north of modern day Newcastle about AD 120. Like all walls its raison d’être was for both offensive and defensive purposes; on the one hand to build up legions in a relatively safe haven and train them to raid the north, and on the other to retreat and regroup and nurse their wounded after forays into North Britain.

Its other purpose was to contain and control the subjugated tribes of South Britain and to act, to a lesser degree, as a brake to forays undertaken by the (now) border hill tribes and communities. They too enjoyed a bit of pillage in the area now known as Northumberland and Cumberland. This became a much more sophisticated and fun thing centuries later, but that story is for other authors!

Not content with this state of affairs the Romans, during the later reign of Antoninus Pius, established a lesser known, and shorter wall, running between the River Clyde and the River Forth called the Antonine Wall. It has now received recognition as a World Heritage Centre.

Antoninus Pius

Under the command of the Governor of Roman Britain, Lollius Urbicus, the stone and turf wall was built in AD 139 and stretched for 37 miles from Old Kilpatrick in the east, across the central belt to Carriden in the west. Three Roman legions spent two years building it which is a considerable building achievement.

Map of the Antonine Wall

The Romans were superbly equipped with the latest in fighting equipment, but even with all that firepower they found they were making little headway. Over time this caused considerable embarrassment. Their reports to those in the sunny and the subjugated south made for unhappy reading. They in turn sent the reports onward to Rome stating that they were up against a formidable foe, one that they could not beat!

This caused great consternation especially within the Senate, and particularly with the Emperor. He considered that the Roman soldier was the finest soldier in the world. He therefore issued instructions that the local troops on the ground were to capture one or two of the tribesmen to assess their mettle. They were to be sent in chains to Rome so that all could see what they were up against.

After a period of time two prisoners were taken and dispatched to Rome under close guard. One, Hamish Comrie, son of Jock, came from the Comrie area and the other from Newcastle where, like today, periodic unrest occurs with some frequency! It was not an easy journey for the guards as Hamish continuously attempted to bite the fingers off the escort as well as kick them and swore at them whereas the “Geordie” became closed mouthed and morose.

At the great Coliseum in Rome the Emperor, Domitian, sat with the Imperial family on a large elevated dais surrounded by retainers, flunkies and fawners who were there to do his bidding. He waited with growing impatience for the arrival of his two “invited” guests.

In true Roman tradition the prisoners were brought before him dressed in finery which was the custom of the time. The Englishman was compliant, servile and dejected, whereas Hamish was spitting invective and kicking out at his guards. The conversation was brief with the Emperor who hoped for a good show. He ordered them over to other people to prepare them for their performance in the arena so that all could assess their fighting skills and qualities. Due to the resistance put up by Hamish his clothes were taken from him, and he was thrown naked and unarmed into the ring, whereas the Englishman was allowed to wear a loin cloth, and given a wooden pole called a stave. We always got the cold egg, you see!

At a signal a door to the arena opened, and into the ring came the largest lion anyone had ever seen! It had been specially prepared for the event having been starved for several days. Naturally it was in no mood to be trifled with! Hamish, on seeing its approach, decided that a sensible way of doing would be to lie down close to the arena wall, and do absolutely nothing. The Englishman, on the other hand, came out of his stupor to defend himself with the stave. Now, in all fairness, the “Geordie” was pretty good with a stave, and whacked the lion all over its body, thrusting and weaving, moving forward and backwards, and generally putting up quite a good show.

However, the lion also was doing quite well, and as the “Geordie” tired, the lion was able to back him towards the wall where Hamish was lying. The Roman crowd was delighted with this event and rose from their seats encouraging the lion onwards towards its victims. Gradually the Englishman was forced to the wall itself and darted over and about the prostrate Scot, but the lion came on, ignoring Hamish in his efforts to get at the Englishman.

Eventually the lion had the Englishman cornered, and by accident rather than by design, began to paw Hamish with his claws at the same time. “Enough was enough,” thought he, after being scratched a few times on the legs and arms. Deciding to take positive action, he reached up with his hand grabbing whatever was there and bit off the lion’s private parts with his teeth. This caused the lion much distress and, no doubt, some pain! Immediately the crowd rose as one and started shouting in Latin “Look at the man from Comrie – he’s cheating!”

Hamish was immediately freed for his audacity, initiative and daring, given the freedom of the city, and possibly may have been the founding father of the Scots College in Rome! It is from here that the MacIntosh slogan “Touch not the cat bot a glove” derives!

And who amongst us has not learned the poem associated with the great Caledonian leader, Galgacus. It was immortalized in the epic poem by the Reverend Samuel Carmichael in 1920 and epitomises the struggles between mighty Rome, and the wee men (and women) of Highland Strathearn? It describes a night attack by the Caledonians on the Roman camp called “Victoria” in Comrie. They came down form Highland Strathearn, crossing the Ruchill around Renecroi and the White City. At that time the whole area was carpeted with Caledonian forestry. They attacked, and the fight began. It became a running fight which lasted for days, and went down as far as Gilmerton, before coming to its sad conclusion. The Romans were saved by reinforcements sent out from the great Roman camp at Ardoch.

BARJARG FIELD - (Reverend Samuel Carmichael)

A sound of sorrow, like a wailing wind,

Low moans among the noises of the night;

The gale, at eventide sings in the harp-like trees,

I see, as shadows trooping to and fro,

The warriors of the north, from misty hills,

Come stealing from their mountain fastnesses;

Silent they muster in the forest’s gloom,

And crouch on banks, by stately alders screened.

The Roman campfires gleam on Barjarg plain,

The sentries have been set. The Legions, tired

Of fruitless sallies in the tangled woods,

Crowd round the gleaming flames, and list to tales

Of old wild times, and ditties of the old days

Set to quaint wine-drunk tunes that soldiers love.

The night sings high in thunder, and the black

Wild winds blow gusts of mists and belted clouds.

All round comes cry of grey and hungry wolves;

Anon they slumber by the fading fires.

With sudden spears and swift terrific shout,

Come bounding wildly from the river’s edge

The men Galgacus led.

Their fierce wild cry

Ran through the Roman camp. The trumpets sound;

The camp is ringed with quivering stars of steel

Helm and breastlet, and the oblong shield.

The javelins sing like wind through midnight air,

Picked archers from the Balearic Isles,

Send quivering arrows out into the night.

Britons spring upward, like a gust of fire,

Baring their breasts upon the alien spear.

Long, long the Britons strove, nor rested hand

Till yellow morning filled the level land:

The gallant hillsmen falling one by one.

Galgacus turned and faced the flooded west,

Weary with wounds he left the thick of war.

The remnant of the clansmen rallied round.

They vanished, as in chasms of the night,

In forests wild, the home of grey-winged mists.

Dalrannoch’s holms sent forth a wailing cry,

The plaintiff cry of sorrow for the dead.

Aye, there they lie and sleep from year to year,

They hear no singer in the tasseled corn;

But memory wails to them on lonely moors –

Calm be their rest in silence of the hills.

Unbroken tradition tells us that on the Plain of Dalginross. A fierce battle was fought between the IX Roman legion and the Caledonians under Galgacus in the sixth year of Agricola’s attempts to subjugate the North. On the farm at Ruchilside, and easier seen from the air, one can see the outlines of a substantial Roman camp. It was a Stracathro type marching camp and it was built in quite a different way than other Roman camps. It was situated on a large level plain with a considerable defensive ditch at its centre. There was in reality two camps located there, one several years older than the other. It is more or less accepted that the camp was called “Victoria”. This design was quite different than the camps at Ardoch and Strageath.

The level stretch between the camp and the river is named Blairjarg – “the field of weeping.” On the opposite side of the Ruchill is Dalrannoch – “the field of blood.” It was said that here the widows keened for their dead. The night attack by the Caledonians was probably made across the Ruchill from the woods of Craggish. At that time it was an immense forest. Blair Djarg farm is now called Tom na Gaske. As there is a Blairjarg below Glen Boltachan, some have suggested this as the place; however, the evidence is thin.

We will leave the Romans at this point in our story – they had other things to do! The Roman period lasted about 150 years in this part of Strathearn. Oddly enough when I was a little boy I used to ask my father what was buried under those standing stones and he used to say with much humour, and no doubt, some truth, “Underneath these stones are buried the remains of Roman generals!”