The Last Of The Free

The Highlands
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.’

* * * * * * *

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.

* * * *


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.

* * * * * * *

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.


* * * * * * *

20 comments on “The Last Of The Free

  1. tsmorangles says:

    Whatever Scotland decides (though a resident of Great Britain, I am not a British citizen), let it be remembered that as far as one knows (In 2011, British historian Dr Siobhan Talbott published the result of her research on this matter and concluded accordingly) the Auld Alliance is actually unrevoked after all.
    France and Scotland : raising my glass of Meursault!

  2. I would suggest that the Pictish Caledonian Scotland that Tacitus is referring to was in fact a group of client kingdoms of Rome that had rebelled against their roman overlords along with Boudica and her Iceni..These client kingdoms would have been established with roman finance and technology to grow corn to alleviate the problems of unrest and uprisings in other parts of the empire caused by shortages.. Roman finance would have paid for slaves and engineering expertise to build, roads, bridges, water systems, water mills, farm buildings with ox sheds and threshing barns, and of course, harbours.. The slow process of transforming an untamed landscape into an agricultural cereal growing one would have taken many years: this process would most likely have started at the time of Caesar, with the Pictone’s of France playing a large roll by transporting the defeated of roman wars to Scotland as slaves; they would have been transported to some of the camps which I believe have been misinterpreted as roman marching camps; many other camps would have simply been fields for keeping draught animals.. The Agricolain invasion would then have been an attempt to bring the client kingdoms of Scotland back under roman control, and so collect taxes on the profits being made from selling corn to roman merchants. There is also strong evidence (buried roman buildings) that people who lost their lands in the Vesuvius disaster were taking over farms in central Scotland for a time before the roman withdrawal.

    • Tim says:

      Thanks for visiting, George. It’s always useful to hear an alternative view of Pictish origins. My own view is pretty conventional, but I do recall the name of the Pictones of Poitou being compared to that of the Picts in Rivet & Smith’s Place-names of Roman Britain.

  3. Most interesting! Thanks Tim

  4. ritaroberts says:

    Love this post Tim it relates to all I am interested in. So Mons Graupius still hasn’t been found. With all this new technology we have today maybe this site will be discovered (Hope so anyway).

    • Rita — Having done a fair bit of research in my own unconventional way, I cannot find a place for the battle of Mons Graupius described by Tacitus in the roman history of Scotland.. I would suggest that Tacitus wrote up his account of the battle to preserve Agricola’s name as a general equal to Suetonius Paulinus: a former governor of Britain whom Agricola served under as a junior officer.. The description given by Tacitus shares to much with the description of the Boudica Paulinus battle in which the Britons were heavily defeated.

  5. ritaroberts says:

    George- thanks for your answer to my comment. I think I will swat up on my history because as I see it if Tacitus wrote his account of the battle to preserve Agricola’s name and so much is known of Boudica and Paulinus. there must be some clue’s there I would have thought.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you Rita for your comments.

      What George suggests for Tacitus’ account of Mons Graupius sounds plausible to me. However, one question would then be: if the account was so spurious, would it not be challenged by Agricola’s surviving subordinates (or their heirs) immediately after publication?

      If it’s largely a made-up battle, people could stop searching for it at Bennachie, Duncrub and other places, and re-direct their energies elsewhere.

  6. Penny Traition says:

    Your books, well for me, “Men Of The North” especially, (along with some Alistair Moffat), are such a treasury of Northern truth-not Southern theft…rare and a source of much needed pride. I have to live in England due to illness and being near hospitals; you make me feel connected. I hope what is now called Scotland does not break away…for selfish reasons, but also, oh I’d better write again and try to explain. I feel a bit unwell, so just to say “Thank you”.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you Penny for your generous remarks on my books. I’ll happily take the comparison with Alistair, who knows how to write about Scottish history. I have a couple of his books, including one he handed over in the car park below Dumbarton Castle. I’m particularly grateful for your positive feedback on Men Of The North which is a kind of ‘flagship’ for my historical interests. But very sorry to hear of your ill-health.

      • Penny Traition says:

        Dumbarton Castle-and Alt Clud! How perfect! I keep reading “Men Of The North”; You and Alistair Moffat have different writing styles but both are essential. The book by Philip Coppens, “Land Of The Gods” which I was just given, plus a couple of others, too-one about “the Woods of Celyddon” LOOK interesting; and a strange wee book, “Artur, Gwenwhyvawr and Myrddin:Ancient Brittons of the North” by the McCall brothers (including some interesting spellings!) suggest mouth-watering , well, possibilities. One is that the Brigantes and their close allies the Selgovae (whether true or not, I don’t know-but read elsewhere that another function of Hadrian’s Wall was to keep these two tribes away from each other) formed the nucleus of The Maetae (“Midlanders”?), first tribe north of the Antonine Wall were of these tribes- plus a few Votadini/Gododdin-which keeps seeming to move from Din Eidyn/Edinburgh further east and towards the Borders! Who knows, but how wonderful it would be to have a ‘Time Team’ Special about the area and the (certainly Merlin/Myrddin/Llailoken, for whom there is, I believe, much evidence as to the existence of-perhaps without some of the magic attributed-legends; Gwenddoleu, Rhydderch ‘Hael’ and the Battle of Ar[f]derydd, 573 C.E. etc thoroughly, studiously researched…). That, of course, is but one of the myriad enigmas of this most beautiful, mystical-and heart-breakingly turbulent places, the land of the Gwyr Y Gogledd and those who love it, live it and wish to learn more. I worked in the Archaeology department at a University, and feel blessed that I did. I am thankful to you and some (also genuine) others who provide us with such books. Cheers!

        • Tim says:

          Thanks again, Penny. I was unaware of the Coppens/McCall books but they do sound interesting. As far as the Maeatae are concerned, I’m still holding the view I expressed in Men Of The North, i.e. seeing them as the Britons of Manau (Stirlingshire).

          I used to hope for a Time Team dig at Netherby Roman fort or the nearby motte of Liddel Strength, either of which might be connected with Gwenddoleu. Even if nothing was found, it would have been good to see the battle of Arfderydd getting a bit of TV exposure .

          • Penny Traition says:

            Well, the more you read…I still can’t stop with “Men Of The North”. A much more studious, deeper and well thought out book…well, I’m so tired, but strange you should mention “Time Team”. I wanted to to belatedly congratulate Tony Robinson on his Knighthood, and only today learned of the death of Mick Aston. I dearly wish to say to “Time Team”, of them : TO SEE THE PAST IN ITS PLACE-DIFFERENT FROM THE PRESENT, YET WITH THE PRESENCE OF THE PRESENT-FOR HISTORY IS A PATTERN OF TIMELESS MOMENTS…”As at my back I always hear Time’s winged chariots hurrying near; And yonder all before us lie Deserts of vast Eternity”…What a tragedy.

            • Penny Traition says:

              Tim, I have to say I agree with you…on looking a litle more deeply at that particular book that I mentioned, it does say some quite ,er, unusual things (although does at least hold the tribe as North Brittons, P Celtic speaking.) It is your book, anyway, “Men Of The North”, which I find myself returning to again and again. Returning once more to “Time Team”, I too held high hopes of an excavation of Arfderydd/Caer Gwenddoleu…the Roxburgh episode, with so many possibilities, was a bit disappointing. Birdoswald, however, was a superb episode. Keep up you enthralling work! And thank you for it.

              • Tim says:

                Yes, the passing of Mick Aston is indeed a sad loss. One of the great characters of TV archaeology – and a scholar of considerable renown.

                It’s good to hear you’re finding Men Of The North useful for return visits. I guess I half-planned it as a kind of textbook to which readers could go back for obscure references etc. I sometimes use my own dog-eared copy for this very purpose 🙂

  7. I’m watching, too. Your historical information adds dimension and perspective.

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