With next year’s referendum fast approaching, the question of whether Scotland should regain her independence is being hotly debated. It’s a serious issue for everyone involved and emotions are running high on both sides. The entire process is something I’ll be observing from a distance, as I’m not a resident of Scotland (nor, indeed, am I of Scottish descent). We who dwell south of the Tweed, and especially those of us with no ancestral connections north of it, are mere bystanders. This is how it should be. Whatever the outcome, the referendum is a matter for the people of Scotland to decide among themselves.
I am, however, interested in Scottish history, both the old and the new. Recently, I was reminded that the fundamental issue at the heart of the independence debate has a very long history indeed. The notion that the far northern parts of Britain should be free to govern their own affairs goes back much further than the arguments around the Act of Union in 1707, back even further than the Declaration of Arbroath and the wars of Wallace and Bruce. It finds echoes deep in the ancient past, in a time when the term Scotland had yet to come into being. It even pre-dates the Pictish period of c.300-900 AD.
The reminder came as I was leafing through my own historical study of the Picts in advance of its re-issue this month in a slightly smaller format. In the book’s second chapter (‘Caledonia and Rome’) I deal with campaigns waged by the Roman governor Agricola against the Caledonian tribes of the Highlands in the late first century AD. The Caledonians were one of the ancestral groups of the Picts, whose own descendants are a major component in today’s multi-faceted Scottish nation.
Agricola’s campaigns were well-documented by Tacitus, his son-in-law, who has given us a unique contemporary record of ancient Scottish history. Tacitus was a great admirer of Agricola and portrayed him in a glowing light – as a talented general respected by junior officers and held in high regard by ordinary soldiers. Looking past the dutiful tribute of a writer whose wife was Agricola’s daughter, we have no reason to doubt that Tacitus paints a fairly accurate portrait of the most dangerous individual ever unleashed by Rome upon the peoples of Northern Britain.
In this blogpost I want to focus on Agricola’s final campaign, which probably commenced in AD 83. Leading an army of 25,000 men, he marched north from what is now England to launch a massive assault on the untamed tribes of Caledonia – a wild region of hills and glens beyond the reach of Roman civilisation. In earlier campaigning seasons he had conquered all the lands up to the River Forth, crushing the native tribes and stamping out any pockets of resistance, but the people whom he encountered across the Firth of Tay were not so easily cowed. He soon learned that these highlanders were masters of guerilla warfare, adept at using hit-and-run tactics to disrupt his advance. At night, they pounced on the Roman camps while the soldiers slept, wreaking havoc among the tents before vanishing into dark forests. By day, they shadowed the marching columns and – to Agricola’s profound annoyance – refused to be drawn into a pitched battle. Tacitus noted that the Caledonians had a close relationship with their landscape, which became their ally against the invaders. Agricola expressed his own frustration with the constant guerilla attacks by describing the Caledonians as ‘just so many spiritless cowards’. In reality, he knew that these lightly-armed warriors were as brave as any adversary he had ever met. He also knew that what they were doing, in military terms, was exploiting the tactical advantages of their homeland’s rugged terrain. Their strategy was so successful that Agricola’s own officers urged him to abandon the campaign, but he was determined to continue the long northward march.
Eventually, as summer faded towards autumn, the Caledonians decided to make a stand by meeting the enemy in a head-on clash. Gathering their scattered forces together in one place, they massed on the slopes of a prominent hill known to the Romans as Mons Graupius. With their families hidden away in places of safety, the native warriors waited for Agricola to arrive. According to Tacitus, they were commanded by a great chieftain called Calgacus, whose name means ‘The Swordsman’. They knew what was at stake: their land, their independence, their right to govern their own affairs. But they also knew what was coming to meet them: a large Roman army, spearheaded by three war-hardened legions and commanded by a seemingly invincible general.
What the Caledonian warriors needed in that crucial moment was something to rouse their hopes, something to put iron in their veins and fire in their hearts. They needed encouragement, and leadership, and strong words spoken from the soul. And so they turned to Calgacus, who responded by urging them to put aside their fear. He pointed out that no invader had ever conquered them, and that even their isolation on the edge of the world was a protection.
Below is a shortened version of his speech, with its main points retained. The ancient Caledonians spoke a Celtic language, the ancestral tongue of Pictish and Welsh, but theirs was a pre-literate culture that bequeathed no documents to posterity. Everything we know about this proud people comes from Roman texts written in Latin. But what follows is essentially what Calgacus is supposed to have said to his warriors, as Tacitus reported it:
‘When I consider the motives we have for fighting, and the critical position we are in, I have a strong feeling that the united front you are showing today will mean the dawn of liberty for the whole of Britain. You have mustered to a man, and all of you are free.
‘We, the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood, were hidden away in her most secret places. Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes free from the defilement of tyranny. We, the most distant dwellers upon the earth, the last of the free, have been shielded until today by our very remoteness and by the obscurity in which it has shrouded our name. Now, the furthest bounds of Britain lie open to our enemies. And what men know nothing about they always assume to be a valuable prize.
‘But there are no more nations beyond us: nothing is there except waves and rocks. And – more deadly than these – the Romans, for they have an arrogance which no submission or good behaviour can escape. Pillagers of the world, they have exhausted the land by indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea. To robbery, butchery and rapine they give the false name ‘government’. They create a desolation and call it Peace.
‘Our courage, too, and our warlike spirit are against us: masters do not like such qualities in their subjects. Even our remoteness and isolation, while they give us protection, are bound to make the Romans wonder what mischief we are up to. Therefore, since you cannot hope for mercy, take courage – before it is too late – to fight for what you hold most dear, whether it be life or honour. And let us then show, at the very first clash of arms, what manner of men Caledonia has kept in reserve!
‘All that can spur men on to victory is on our side. The enemy have no wives to fire their courage, no parents ready to taunt them if they run away. Look at them – a scanty band, scared and bewildered, staring blankly at the unfamiliar sky, sea and forests around them. And beyond this army that you see, there is nothing to be frightened of – only forts without garrisons, colonies of old men, and sick towns distracted between rebel subjects and tyrant masters.
‘Which will you choose – to follow your leader into battle, or to submit to taxation, forced labour in the mines, and all the other tribulations of slavery? Whether you are to endure these for ever, or take quick vengeance, this day must decide.
‘On, then, into action! And, as you go, think of those who have gone before you and of those who shall come after.’
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Whether or not these stirring words really were spoken by a Caledonian chieftain called Calgacus, or merely invented by Tacitus to give his readers a romanticised image of the ‘heroic barbarian’, is a question I don’t intend to go into in this blogpost. My distillation of the speech is presented here simply for what it says about the idea of ‘Scottish’ independence as perceived by people who lived nearly 2000 years ago. It has no particular relevance to modern political issues. Nonetheless, for me at least, it is one small piece in the jigsaw that forms a wider historical background to the current debate.
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Tacitus tells us that Agricola gave a similarly rousing speech to his own troops, telling them that the Caledonians were not so much massing for a pitched battle as milling around in desperation ‘because they are cornered’. With both armies fired up by their respective commanders, the ensuing battle was fiercely contested. It went on for many hours, raging back and forth on the open ground in the shadow of Mons Graupius. By nightfall, the last of the savage fighting was over, and victory went to the Romans. According to Tacitus, the Caledonians lost 10,000 men, a third of their army.
But the Romans were unable to consolidate their victory. Agricola recognised that the Highlands were too vast, too inhospitable, to be effectively controlled by forts and roads. And besides, autumn was fast approaching and the grim Caledonian winter would follow. So he turned around and led his army southward, back to the safety of areas already under Roman rule. Soon after, the emperor recalled him to Rome, and he was never seen in Britain again.
Despite its awesome military power, and despite a few more attempts, the Roman army never conquered Caledonia. Unlike their neighbours in the southern parts of Britain, the people of the Highlands steadfastly kept their independence, from Agricola’s time right through to the fall of the Western Empire in the fifth century. Largely untouched by Roman influences, they retained their ancient culture and continued to look after their own affairs. They were truly, as Calgacus had told them, the Last of the Free.
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My condensed version of Calgacus’ speech is from the Penguin Classics translation (by H. Mattingley) of the writings of Tacitus, published in 1948 and revised (by S. Handford) in 1970.
I discuss Agricola’s northern campaigns under the sub-heading ‘Agricola and the Highlands’ in Chapter Two of my book The Picts (published by Birlinn in 2010 and re-issued in 2013). There I note that the location of Mons Graupius – the site of one of the most famous battles in Scottish history – remains elusive.
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