Roman Period

Times, they are a' changing

No doubt, before clan life became the norm, life was tense for ancient man as they tried to survive in rather brutal conditions. There would be hunting and gathering as food and fish were plentiful, house building and securing, crop planting, fence making and mending and other activities. Sometimes there was the odd killing which went on between neighbours, and no doubt was a talking point.

Sporadic murder and mayhem was always a fact of life for the first six thousand years or so – sadly it still goes on! No doubt it was always prudent to keep one’s head down at various times. It became par for the course! However before the “real” clan system was introduced after Bannockburn for the ancients in our story, life was hard and austere; however much worse was to come. Over the horizon of our hills came the blast of a trumpet and the dazzle of metal from the shields and armour plate of Roman soldiers. It was one of those rare sunny days you see!

There they are!

There is a common bond between our ancestors of Highland Strathearn and the Imperial court in Rome. At Dalginross can be seen the remains of a Roman marching camp. But first to refresh memories, and to allow for perspective, a short preview is necessary to provide the progress made by the expansion of the Roman Empire in Britain during the first eighty years or thereabouts of its existence so as to situate the reader. We know that Julius Caesar visited south Britain in 55 and 54 BC. His trips were short, not sweet, and were not organised by Thomas Cook and Son! (The weather, strange to say, turned nasty!). The local people in the south were a bit xenophobic and even hurled pointed sticks at his soldiers!

Gaius Julius Caesar

Caesar, no doubt a bit unhappy at the reception he had received, returned to Rome where later on three occasions the local people offered him a crown for his efforts – this he declined. Immediately thereafter his health rapidly deteriorated thanks to the activities of a few close friends who were a bit peeved at his decision. Led by the “noble” Brutus, they rather unkindly, but in an expeditious fashion, ventilated his system with numerous dagger thrusts! This resulted in a vacancy as “head cook and bottle washer” on the Imperial “throne.” It seems, as we shall see, to have been a high paying job, although somewhat temporary in nature! Caesar’s friend, Mark Anthony, along with his great and good friends, Pompey, and Octavian, Caesar’s grand-nephew, sought retribution for his untimely death and vanquished the foe, led by the “noble” Brutus and his pal Cassius (he of the mean and hungry look), at the battle on the Plains of Philippi in 42CE.

The victors of this battle in turn soon fell out with each other over trivialities, like supreme power, control and authority! Pompey didn’t stay the course too long being accidentally assassinated! This left the field to the remaining contenders, of which initially the far more attractive Mark Anthony seemed a surer bet than Octavian. Mark Anthony was given supreme command of the Eastern Empire whilst Octavian was allotted the western half...a situation which invited conflict. But things change as we all know and Anthony soon fell under the bewitching spell of Cleopatra who must have been quite a girl. Prior she had been the mistress of Julius Caesar. In time she offered the same privileges to the dashing Mark Anthony. At some time prior she had even been married to her own half-brother, but bumped him off. When all this was going on, she was having a good time living the life of “Reilly” in Alexandria in the lower delta of Egypt!

Octavian, in the meantime, developed a great relationship with his friend Marcus Vipsianus Agrippa. Marcus had numerous gifts which included both deceit and ambition. He was also a brilliant military strategist and general. Given command of the army and the navy he outflanked and defeated the combined forces of Anthony and Cleopatra at the Greek port of Patras near the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth. He and his legions stormed and took Methone, and forced a decisive victory at Actium in 31 BC.

These activities and efforts saw the demise through suicide of Anthony, by self-inflicted sword wound, he really got the point! Cleopatra, in the meantime, did her thing with an asp! Once these events occurred there was only a little tidying up to be done thereafter. In order to ensure that there would be no challenge to his authority, Octavian ordered the murder of Anthony and Cleopatra’s children! This left the field wide open to Octavian who became Emperor of Rome, and who, on his ascendancy, changed his name to Augustus Caesar.

Whilst victorious on the battlefield Augustus was less than fortunate in choosing as a wife, the beautiful, but deadly, Livia. Augustus ruled the Empire from 27 BC to AD 14 for all intents and purposes; however, as is often the case, it was the woman behind the throne that ruled him. By various means, and most of them foul, she eliminated prospective contenders for the position of Emperor and when Augustus died prematurely from taking too many figs she had poisoned, her natural son Tiberius took over the responsibility.

Octavian (Caesar Augustus)


Tiberius, like many of the Roman Emperors, ruled from AD 14 TO AD 37. He was a strange sort of creature who today would be locked away from society as being a positive danger. However, as part of the job, he wanted to broaden the scope of Empire by widening the land mass and issued the appropriate orders. These instructions led to the invasion of the country now called Britain. However, he did not live to see the outcome. After years of debauchery he died as a result of asphyxiation brought on by being smothered with a pillow administered by a close and trusted subordinate!

His place as Emperor was taken by his nephew, the attractive, but psychopathic, Gaius Caligula (little boots). He continued the work of expansion of the Empire and even visited South Britain, returning to Rome with war chests filled with sea shells after his great “victories” over Neptune, God of the Sea. One of Caligula’s crowning achievements was to appoint his favourite horse, Incatatus, (complete with marble stall), to a position in the Senate, and even considered the horse for a Consulship! This may be an appropriate act to undertake today when one considers our current crop of politicians - (horses, as everyone knows, are better loved, and probably more intelligent, than most politicians!). However, Caligula’s reign was short, brutish and nasty, and he met an untimely, but well deserved, passage to Valhalla at the point of a spear!

Gaius Caligula – “Little Boots” (A Handsome lad, but psychopathic)

By this time things were well under way relative to the subjugation of South Britain which we now call England, and the area to its west now called Wales. More focus was being paid, by the supreme power, to the Roman advancement occurring in South Britain and under Caligula’s successor, Claudius, appointments were made which would have an impact on South Britain, and a minor one, on Comrie and area.


He appointed in succession two Provincial Governors of South Britain giving them the mandate to further extend the frontier over the horizon to the north. Even then it was called the north although they did not include Crianlarich on the signpost...and this was where the difficulty lay. The further away from their bases in the south the more they came in contact with sterner stuff. There was much hard fighting with its attendant casualties and morale was affected. The Roman troops became more homesick and hungry so that by the time Nero (of the fiddle) had ascended the chair in Rome the matter was taking a serious turn for the worse.

Can you imagine in South Britain, (England of all places!), a revolt breaking out? This happened about AD 60 under the command of that red-haired beauty, Boudicca or Boadicea! Now she had good reason to be in a “revolting” mood and she led the Romans a merry, but short dance. This included and featured the sacking of the south, including London, and laying waste its industry; (this may sound familiar only today it’s in reverse with London sacking everything north of Bedford!). Many consider Margaret Thatcher as a direct descendant of Boudicca, however most Scots know that she was descended from Oliver Cromwell!

Anyway the upshot of all of this was that more legions were sent to the Roman Colony. New Governors were appointed in quick and rapid succession, C. Suetonius Paullinus for three years, P. Petronius Turpilianus for two, M. Trebellius Maximus for six, M. Vettius Bolanus for two, Q. Petillius Cerialis for three, Sex Julius Frontinus for five, (Hanson, 1991) - the names sound like the recent World Cup soccer champions! What a state of affairs! Things were getting out of hand and were just as chaotic in Rome and the World saw during this ten year period five new Emperors in quick succession, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian and Titus. I told you that these were high paying, but temporary jobs!

Throughout the previous twenty or so years a “meteor” of a Roman was in training by way of the grandiose name of Gnaeus Julius Luci filius Aniensis Agricola Foro Julii. Agricola’s family name came from the Latin meaning “farmer” and his father, Julius Graecinus, had risen to the rank of Praetor. Unhappily he had fallen victim to the whims of Gaius Caligula who had him put to death for not prosecuting a fellow senator. This did not upset the family apple cart to any great extent. Things like that were fairly common place! Agricola was very young at the time of his father’s execution and his mother became responsible for his upbringing.

He had been born on the 13th June, in AD 40 and received a typical Roman education “in the old Greek colony of Massilia, modern Marseilles” (Hanson, 1991), where the adage “spare the rod and spoil the child”, was very much in vogue. Like so many others of his stamp he joined the army, moving fairly quickly through the ranks from junior officer to senior military tribune by age nineteen in a legion in Britain under the command of Suetonius Paullinus, thence to marriage to a woman with a very interesting name, Domitia Decidiana! He was elected to the rank of quaestor, followed by praetor, then tribune and thereafter, to the command of “legio XX Valeria Victrix” in South Britain and subsequently Governor.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola

Following his orders to expand the Roman Empire Agricola began to look to the north because the soft south had already been tamed and romanised. In crossing into what is now called Scotland he found that the reception was quite different, especially when approaching the Highland fastness. He built a camp to accommodate about 15,000 troops at Ardoch in AD 79-80 outside modern day Braco, some ten miles from Comrie. Visiting it today one can easily pick out in the principal camp its vallums and walls noting that it was a base for offensive operations with substantial defences. There were about seven camps located at this site at different times.

Principal Roman Fort at Ardoch, Braco

Outline of the Roman Forts at Ardoch, Braco (W. S. Hansen)

Roman Camp at Ardoch, Braco

Agricola, visited our region in his campaign to encourage the subjugation of the tribes and, although his son-in-law, Tacitus, does not refer to it in his annals, the reception he was given was far from friendly. He designed and constructed a line of signal stations which stretched over the Gask ridge from Braco to Perth and beyond. His soldiers would have contained Roman officers with the main bulk of the army consisting of various conquered peoples who were obligated to supply levies of troops; Thracians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Greeks, Iberians, Italians, Sicilians, Gauls, Germans, Anglo-Saxons and maybe the odd London stock broker! It would be interesting to ask, especially those from the Mediterranean and Ancient Near East, what they thought of the weather!

According to the Alexandrian geographer and historian, Ptolemy, writing in the Second century, and I would not argue with him, the suggestion is made that the local people of Comrie and District were members of the great tribe called Verturiones, supported by their kith and kin from the north, the Damnonii and the Vacomagi. They are collectively known as the Caledonians. The Romans had also become aware that the further north they went the fiercer were the military engagements with the resulting casualties soaring well beyond expectation. From Ardoch camp forays of legionnaires were sent out into the surrounding countryside and into the hills in search of a bit of plunder and conquest. These legionnaires came in contact with the tribesmen in the hills and found that not only were they outfought but also that they were outclassed by the superior guerilla hit and run tactics used by local tribes in Strathearn. It soon became apparent that he was having little luck especially when his troops came to what is now the village of Comrie where it was evident that the local people would not just lie down and pay tribute to Rome.

To overcome this problem he decided to build a camp at Dalginross (AD 80) which modern archaeologists refer to as a “Stracathro” camp. Stracathro, in Forfarshire, was at the end of the Roman line. Camps of this design were so named as they had unique entrances. At Dalginross there were four. Sadly, the last known one was obliterated in the building of new houses. The camp was called “Victoria.”

Constructed on a twenty-five acre site it was prepared under his direction, and strange to say, unlike most Roman camps, it lay on a flat, open land mass. There on the southern edge of Dalginross two enclosures lie, one contained by the other. The north-western side has been eroded over time but enough has survived to show that the inner, and earlier, enclosure was close to 400 feet square. The river Ruchill protects this side of the camp. This inner enclosure appears to have had as its land defences a parallel row of deep trenches. Of the outer and later enclosure, evidence suggests that it was over 500 feet long with its other two sides being about 600 feet long, whereas the outer enclosure appears to have a rampart with a single ditch. Who said that trench warfare was new?! It is also apparent that its Roman occupants were somewhat short of money! To date all that has been found at the site have been three coins, an aureus of Titus found in 1786, a denarius of Severus in the late eighteen hundreds and an as of Domitian, (AD 86), found “by a farmer singling turnips” in 1905. Lean pickings!

Aureus of Titus

An As of Domitian Denarius of Severus

Aerial View of the Great Roman Marching camp “Victoria” The lines seen are invisible at ground level.

Drawing of the Roman Camp, Victoria, 1786

On occasion, no doubt, Agricola would visit the camp to check on progress. A legend known to several Comrie people describes one of his visits. Agricola and a party of high ranking officers and their bodyguards were coming over the track now called the Lang Syde Road. They were accompanied by their musicians complete with their horns blasting and their eagle standards held high and a general air of confidence emanating around them. They were singing their favourite marching song in Latin. It has now become immortalized by a Scot of Irish extraction, “We are the Romans, and we hate the Cale..don...ians!”

Suddenly a great hairy man whose name was Jock Comrie appeared in front of them on the crest of a nearby hill. He was dressed in national costume which consisted then of a hessian loin cloth and his upper body painted blue! He shouted at them “Ah’m gawen tae get you” in fluent Caledonian. This apparition annoyed Agricola who delegated half a dozen men to take care of the ruffian.

The Roman soldiers were dressed in traditional fighting gear which consisted of a sturdy tunic over which was a brilliant gold-painted, decorated metal chest plate. They carried a spear, a rectangular shield and a short stabbing sword. They rushed up to the top of the hill, barely peching as they were very fit. However, as soon as they got to the summit, Jock disappeared over the crest and legionnaires followed. From the other side of the hill were heard the sounds of agony and clashing metal and screaming, and then silence.

After a few moments Jock reappeared and again continued to taunt the Romans. This time Agricola sent a party of twenty men up the hill whilst he held on tightly to the reins of his horse. Again Jock withdrew beyond the line of sight and was followed by the eager soldiers. Again he heard the sounds and screams of dying men followed by silence. A few minutes passed and again Jock appeared shouting epithets at the band huddling around Agricola and this time holding in his hand, by the hair, a soldier’s head.

This was really too much for Agricola who delegated the balance of his bodyguard to deal with the matter. Again the pattern repeated itself. However, this time, after a few moments of silence one of the soldiers with one arm sliced off and blood all over his body appeared over the hill running and slithering down the hillside as fast as he could. He dropped like a stone at the feet of Agricola’s white horse and gasped in Latin “Don’t go up there, it’s a trap, there are two of them!” Immediately afterwards Jock again appeared at the crest of the hill and shouted the only words he knew in Latin, “Hey Aggie, Nemo me immune lacessit”, (let no-one touch me with impunity, or wha’ dare meddle wi’ me) which from then on became Scotland’s motto!

The hillside is still called Blar Dearg meaning the field of blood and the river, Ruchaill, the Ruchill, meaning the river, red with blood! The camp at Dalginross lasted for about ten years and there the Roman legions looked at Crappich Hill, the Aberuchills and the Grampian mountains, and the hills and mountains looked back!

The Caledonians launched a night attack from the Craggish woods which severely damaged the camp and the defenders but they were beaten back. It is also probable that many other skirmishes and small battles were fought in and around Comrie as can be attested to by local place names like Blairnroar-the place of violent attack, Alt-ma-chask-the burn of action, Paul-na-Blar-the mud of the battle.

In all likelihood the Romans would send out parties on probing raids of one sort or another and come back not feeling very well and who knows maybe greetin’ fer their mammies (or is it their mammamias!) Until recently, many people thought that the Battle of Mons Graupius had been fought in and around Comrie however it appears more likely that it was fought to the north-east. Agricola’s lasting presence and fame centre on this battle with Calgacus at Mons Graupius (83 AD) which was noted by his son-in-law, Tacitus. The laurels for this victory were awarded to the ninth Roman Legion. Later this fine legion disappeared (like Varius’s in Germany) in the 2ndcentury. It is an outright lie and calumny to suggest that they were eaten by the local Comrie people, however; one could look at the people of Killin for askance!

Tacitus writes that after this battle it was all over in North Britain bar the shouting, and Agricola was recalled to Rome. He received small reward and little thanks for his activities. He quietly retired and, like his father before him, died in mysterious circumstances. No doubt in the intervening period he, like proud Edward of later years, wondered, and thought some more!

It is however probably true to say that local Comrie people arrested the westward expansion of the Roman Empire as they never ventured west of Comrie! One can easily imagine the headline in the local Roman daily stone tabloid, (for everything was “cast in stone”) and shouted out, in Latin, by the newsboys of the day, at the top of their lungs on the steps of the Senate, “Extra, Extra, Read all About it, Expansion of the Roman Empire stopped in its tracks at Dalginross,” or possibly “Agricola meets his Match at the Glebe,” or in more conservative and Anglicized society, and spoken nasally, “1Xth Roman Legion IV – Caledonians Combined XX...Not Out!” It is also not true that the well known Scottish ballad “Roman in the Gloaming” emanated from this period!

Roman Forts and Fortlets from Ardoch to Bertha over the Gask Ridge(The Gask Ridge Project)