Julia and the Caledonian women

Julia Domna

Sculptured portrait of a Roman lady, believed to be Julia Domna.

Anyone who seeks to discover Scotland’s early history through textual sources written more than a thousand years ago soon realises that ‘fake news’ isn’t a modern phenomenon. It has always served a useful purpose for its creators, as much in the first millennium AD as in our own era of digital communication and social media. Recognising false information for what it is, rather than taking it at face value, is likewise as much of a challenge when we’re reading an ancient chronicle as when we encounter an attention-grabbing headline on the internet. In some instances, even after having dismissed something written in the remote past as fake information – such as a legend masquerading as real history – we find it so fascinating that we want it to be true. This is what happened to me many years ago when I came across what seemed, at first glance, to be a curious fact – namely that the oldest known words attributed to a woman from Scotland were spoken to a woman from Syria.

The conversation in question supposedly took place sometime in the early third century AD, around the years 209/210. Our source is the Historia Romana (‘Roman History’), a multi-volume work penned by the contemporary historian Cassius Dio. At that time, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus was on active service in northern Britain, leading a military campaign beyond the Antonine Wall – the great turf barrier stretching between the firths of Forth and Clyde. His foes were unconquered native peoples in what are now Stirlingshire and Perthshire, specifically two large groupings or ‘tribal confederations’ – the Maeatae who lived adjacent to the Wall and the Caledonians to the north of them. These two had been causing a great deal of trouble, raiding southward into lands under Roman rule and returning home laden with loot. A recent wave of attacks had been serious enough to persuade the governor of Roman Britain to appeal directly to Septimius Severus for aid. The emperor had duly taken personal charge of a major effort to bring the marauders to heel. Arriving in Britain in 208, accompanied by his wife and their two adult sons, he led his huge army northward. His troops suffered considerable losses from guerilla warfare but eventually both the Caledonians and Maeatae negotiated peace treaties with him. Dio identifies one of the key figures on the Caledonian side as Argentocoxos, presumably a senior chieftain, whose Celtic name means something like ‘Silver Leg’. However, the ensuing truce turned out to be short-lived and a new round of hostilities soon began.

Severan campaign in Scotland

Severus in Scotland, AD 208 to 210, showing three of the many forts involved in his campaign.

According to Cassius Dio, it was during the brief period of peace that a conversation took place between the wives of Argentocoxos and Septimius Severus. The name of the Caledonian lady is unrecorded – perhaps Dio himself had no record of it. He certainly had no doubt about the identity of the other woman. She was Julia Domna, the Syrian wife of Severus and one of the most famous of all Roman empresses. Julia’s image was so well-known around the Mediterranean lands in her own lifetime that it can still be seen today on various coins, paintings and sculptures. Born c. 160 in the city of Emesa (now Homs) in Syria, she sprang from a high-status Arab family who seem to have had royal ancestry. Her father was a senior priest at Emesa’s Temple of the Sun, the main cult-centre of the Middle Eastern god Elagabalus. Charismatic and well-educated, Julia was a suitable bride for Severus when, as a childless widower in his early forties, he decided that he should be married again.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from AD 193 to 211.

Dio had a particular fascination with Julia and has left us a fair amount of information about her. As a career politician who served as senator and consul he was well-placed to obtain interesting snippets of information about members of the imperial family. He had rather less interest in barbarians like Argentocoxos, even when he could be bothered to name them. Like most Romans he no doubt regarded the inhabitants of ancient Scotland as a mob of wild, uncouth savages prowling beyond the Empire’s borders. As an author he nevertheless found them useful as caricatures of the stereotypical barbarian – simple, uncorrupted folk whose primitive ways of living could be amusingly contrasted with the immorality and hypocrisy of sophisticated Roman society. Drawing on such stereotypes, he informed his readers that the Caledonians and Maeatae ‘possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring’. It hardly needs saying that such a strange custom probably never existed among the contemporary inhabitants of Perthshire and Stirlingshire, nor are they likely to have viewed adultery and marital fidelity much differently from the citizens of Rome. The idea that they practised a kind of ‘free love’ may have originated as a joke or rumour among Roman soldiers stationed near the northern frontier – or perhaps Dio simply made it up. It appears in his narrative shortly before the meeting between Julia Domna and the wife of Argentocoxos and provides the essential moral backdrop to their conversation.

Dio tells us that the empress teased her companion by saying that Caledonian women indulge in a sexual free-for-all, sharing their beds with different men while making no attempt to conceal their adultery. To a respectable aristocratic lady like Julia, such brazen promiscuity would indeed have seemed worthy of comment. We then see the wife of Argentocoxos swiftly responding with what Dio calls ‘a witty remark’ of her own:

“We fulfil the demands of nature in a much better way than do you Roman women; for we consort openly with the best men, whereas you let yourselves be debauched in secret by the vilest.”

As with all ancient and medieval authors, we should be wary of taking Dio at face value. Although Julia Domna was very much a real person – and indeed one of his contemporaries – this did not deter him from portraying her in a way that suited his literary purposes. Modern scholars who analyse his writings believe that the Julia he presented to his readers was, to some extent, moulded to fit his narrative. There is no doubt that she plays a special role in the Historia Romana, particularly in those sections where Dio seeks to pass judgement on the moral and political issues of his time. In this instance, his target was not the allegedly shameless promiscuity of Caledonian women but the clandestine adultery of fine Roman ladies. The consensus view among present-day historians is that he simply invented the speech quoted above. Like a modern peddler of fake news, he took a piece of made-up information about a group of foreigners and ‘spun’ it to make a specific point. His readers – the wealthy, educated elite of the Roman world – would have got the message very clearly. Some of them probably raised a wry smile; others may have felt stung by the barbed jibe attributed to an anonymous northern barbarian.

I think it would be good if we could accept the story as true. Some parts of it possibly _are_ true, even if the conversation reported by Dio never happened – or at least not in the way he describes. It is not unrealistic, for example, to imagine Julia Domna visiting the imperial frontierlands in what is now Scotland. She was certainly no stranger to dangerous war-zones. One of her honorific titles was Mater Castrorum, ‘Mother of the Army Camps’, bestowed in recognition of her willingness to accompany her husband on military campaigns. Whether she met the wives of any barbarian leaders on such occasions is debatable, although not implausible. I’m inclined to think we can consider the possibility that she not only visited Scotland 1,800 years ago but had a face-to-face encounter with the wife of a local chieftain. Musing even further, we can perhaps imagine these two high-status women – one a Syrian, the other a Caledonian – exchanging a few words, not directly but through an interpreter. Whatever they said to one another, it is more likely to have consisted of polite greetings rather than the mockery and ‘witty remarks’ placed into their mouths by Cassius Dio.

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Epilogue

Julia Domna outlived not only her husband but also their sons, Caracalla and Geta. The brothers became joint emperors following the death of their father in 211 but their relationship was mutually hostile. Within months, Geta was murdered by Caracalla’s soldiers, dying in his mother’s arms. Julia detested Caracalla but relished the power and influence she acquired during his reign and chose to maintain a public image of maternal loyalty. The complicated relationship between mother and son even prompted rumours of incest, but Cassius Dio makes no mention of this and modern historians dismiss it as malicious gossip emanating from the imperial court. Caracalla turned out to be an unpopular emperor and his assassination in 217 came as no surprise, but his death deprived his mother of political status. Julia, by then in her fifties, suddenly found herself at risk of being exiled from Rome and ending her days in obscurity. This bleak prospect filled her with dread, especially as she had begun to nurture ambitions of ruling the Empire herself. She died soon afterwards, allegedly starving herself to death but – according to Dio – finally succumbing to the breast cancer that had afflicted her for many years.

Julia Domna

The emperor Caracalla with his mother Julia Domna.

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Notes & references

Julia’s second name or ‘cognomen’ Domna derives from an ancient Arabic word meaning Black. It distinguished her from her elder sister Julia Maesa, a woman of ruthless ambition whose own story is no less remarkable.

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The conversation between Julia Domna and the Caledonian lady is reported in Book 77, section 16, of Cassius Dio’s Historia Romana.

For this blogpost I used the Loeb Classical Library edition, available online at Lacus Curtius.

Substantial portions of the original text of the Historia Romana have not survived, the lost material being known from an abridged version written by the Byzantine scholar John Xiphilinus in the eleventh century.

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Some journal articles I have found useful:

Riccardo Bertolazzi, ‘The depictions of Livia and Julia Domna by Cassius Dio: some observations’ Acta Antiqua Academiae Scientiarum Hungaricae vol. 55 (2015), 413-32

Andrew Scott, ‘Cassius Dio’s Julia Domna: character development and narrative function’ Transactions of the American Philological Association vol. 147 (2017), 413-33

Christopher T. Mallan, ‘Cassius Dio on Julia Domna’ Mnemosyne vol. 66 (2013), 734-60

Caillan Davenport, ‘Sexual habits of Caracalla: rumour, gossip and historiography’ Histos vol. 11 (2017), 75-100

Julia Domna

Julia Domna and Septimius Severus with their sons Geta and Caracalla (Geta’s face has been deliberately erased).

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A Roman reference to Pictish tattoos

Stilicho

Flavius Stilicho, with his wife and son, portrayed on an ivory carving of c.395 AD, now in Monza Cathedral, Italy. (photograph from L’art Byzantin, 1932)


At the end of the fourth century AD, the western half of the Roman Empire was in serious decline. Barbarian invasions by Vandals, Goths and other Germanic peoples were a constant drain on imperial resources. Internal revolts likewise removed any hope of stability or recovery. The emperor Honorius, whose reign spanned the years 384 to 423, was barely able to cling onto power. He relied heavily on the support of his father-in-law and former guardian, Flavius Stilicho, a highly respected general who was himself of Vandal ancestry.

A prominent figure at the imperial court was the poet Claudian (Claudius Claudianus) who was close to both Honorius and Stilicho. He composed panegyric poetry in praise of both men, boosting their reputations while denigrating those of their political opponents. In modern parlance we would probably call him a spin doctor. In one poem, composed in May or June of 402, Claudian refers to a great gathering of Roman troops by Stilicho, who was preparing for a battle against Gothic invaders in Italy. Among the assembled forces was a unit that had seen service in Britain:

‘there came the legion, shield of the frontier Britons,
check of the grim Scot,
whose men had watched the life leave the tattoos on the dying Pict.’

Contemporary sources imply that there were many clashes between Romans and Picts, from the late third century to the beginning of the fifth. Several legions were part of the permanent garrison of Britain during this period and would have seen action on the northern frontier. Also, other legions came and went, usually to bolster the garrison in times of crisis or to participate in one-off campaigns. The identity of the legion mentioned by Claudian is therefore unknown.

But what makes these lines of verse especially fascinating is the reference to Pictish tattoos.

The precise meaning of the name ‘Picts’ (Latin: Picti) is uncertain. It seems to be connected with pictures of some kind and is usually translated by modern historians as ‘The Painted Ones’. The likeliest explanation is that it refers to a particular custom practiced by certain groups of people in northern Britain. Tattooing is probably the custom in question.

Pricking an inked design on the skin, as opposed to daubing or painting, had evidently been common practice in pre-Roman Britain, before the stamp of Mediterranean culture made it unfashionable. It may have been maintained thereafter among native communities living outside the Empire, in the untamed northern lands beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Further south, in the Romanised part of Britain, tattoos probably came to be regarded as old-fashioned and uncouth, a form of body ornamentation favoured by hairy savages who lurked beyond the reach of civilisation.

Pictish warrior

A Pictish warrior, from Cassell’s Illustrated History of England.

At some point, probably in the third century, soldiers in the frontier forts along Hadrian’s Wall coined the term Picti. This may have originated as a derogatory term for any group of suspicious-looking natives prowling on the far side of the Wall, whether they had tattoos or not. The name caught on, finding its way from army slang into highbrow literature. It eventually narrowed to describe the inhabitants of what are now northern and eastern Scotland. By c.600 AD, and for reasons unknown, these people were using Picti as a collective name for themselves. Despite its origins in the vocabulary of their ancient enemies, they presumably regarded it as a convenient label in their quest to establish a new ‘national’ identity. Whether any seventh-century Picts still tattooed their bodies is, however, a matter of debate. I’m inclined to think some of them probably did.

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Notes and references

Here is the original Latin text from Claudian’s poem:

venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis,
quae Scotto dat frena truci ferroque notatas
perlegit exanimes Picto moriente figuras

*ferroque notatas….figuras —> literally ‘iron-marked figures’

In another poem, Claudian seems to credit Stilicho with a victory over the Picts. There is no mention of such a campaign in other sources, so it might be an example of political ‘spin’. It is unlikely that Stilicho ever visited Britain. He was mainly concerned with Italy and the eastern Mediterranean.

I discussed Stilicho’s alleged Pictish campaign in an article published 20 years ago:
Tim Clarkson, ‘Stilicho, Claudian and the Picts’ Pictish Arts Society Journal, 6 (Autumn 1994), 27-30

My views were largely based on an earlier study:
Molly Miller, ‘Stilicho’s Pictish War’ Britannia, 6 (1975), 141-5
(Miller is probably better known to readers of this blog for her articles on the North British kingdoms of the sixth century)

The Scots mentioned by Claudian were as likely to have hailed from Ireland as from the ancestral Scottish homelands in Argyll. The Latin word Scotti seems to have been another ethnic term from the repertoire of Roman army slang. It was probably applied to any group of raiders who spoke Gaelic. I touched on this topic in an older blogpost on Scottish origins.

For a detailed analysis of Claudian’s poetry, see Alan Cameron’s Claudian: Poetry and Propaganda at the Court of Honorius (Oxford, 1970).

Chapter 3 of my book The Picts: a History includes a short discussion of Pictish tattooing. There I note that the seventh-century writer Isidore of Seville specifically states that the Picts were so named because they used needles to imprint designs on their skin.

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Bits & pieces

Hadrian's Wall

Hadrian’s Wall (see fourth item below). Photo © B Keeling.


Just a random selection of interesting items….

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‘Cult and Kingship – Understanding the Early Pictish Royal Centre at Rhynie’ was the title of a paper presented by Dr Gordon Noble of Aberdeen University to the Royal Scone Conference. A video of this and other presentations can now be viewed at the blog of archaeologist Doug Rocks-Macqueen.

Scone with its ‘Stone of Destiny’ is famous as the place where medieval Scottish kings were crowned. The conference Royal Scone: A Scottish Medieval Royal Centre in Europe, held in Perth in November 2014, sought to better understand this important site by placing it in a wider North European context. Scholars from Scotland and beyond came together to discuss themes such as royal inauguration, state-formation and the archaeology of assembly places.

This is the kind of event I’m always sorry to miss 😦

Link Papers from the Royal Scone Conference, 2014.

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Here’s something else I’d like to see, if I can get to it between now and May…

Roman Empire: Power And People, McManus Art Gallery and Museum, Dundee. 24 January to 10 May, 2015. Mon-Sat: 10am-5pm; Sunday: 12.30-4.30pm.

This exhibition of sculpture, jewellery and other items from the British Museum is a showcase of the wealth of the Roman Empire. Material from outlying territories such as Scotland is also included.

Below are links to two media reports on the exhibition, followed by a link to the McManus itself.

Report from Herald Scotland website

Report from BBC News: Tayside & Central Scotland

McManus Art Gallery & Museum

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James Drummond was a renowned Scottish artist and antiquarian of the Victorian era. His illustrations of historic sites and old monuments include a number of images relating to the time-period covered at this blog.

A selection of Drummond’s work can now be seen at the Canmore database after being digitised by trainees on the RCAHMS Skills for the Future scheme. I spotted a couple of images with early medieval connections: the Cat Stane (although Drummond didn’t show the Early Christian inscription) and the Loth Stane (where the legendary King Loth of Lothian is supposedly buried). There are also some nice pictures of standing-stones from various parts of Scotland.

Link Highlights from the James Drummond Collection at RCAHMS

Link ‘Fine lines: Edinburgh-born James Drummond’s art digitised’ (BBC News)

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‘Wall of Eternity’ is the new name for Hadrian’s Wall in promotional literature to Chinese tourists.

The name emerged as the top choice during a poll in China which asked people to suggest suitable names in Mandarin for 101 tourist sites in Britain. A sign featuring the new name has already been produced for the Roman fort at Housesteads.

I quite like one of the alternative suggestions – ‘Great Wall of Britain’ – but I have to admit ‘Wall of Eternity’ does sound more evocative.

Link ‘Hadrian’s Wall given new Chinese name as part of tourism campaign’ (article in the Newcastle Chronicle)

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Last but not least, a new location for a popular blog…

Historical novelist Nicola Griffith has recently moved her excellent Gemaecca site to WordPress where it can now be found at gemaecce.com (note the different spelling). Fellow-bloggers will need to amend their links accordingly, to keep track of Nicola’s research on St Hild of Whitby and seventh-century Britain.

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A Pictish hoard from Aberdeenshire

Later this month, a new exhibition will be unveiled at the University of Aberdeen. Among the displays will be a number of items from one of Scotland’s most significant archaeological discoveries of recent times: a hoard of Roman and Pictish silver objects.

The hoard was found in March 2013 in a field at Ley Farm near Fordyce in Aberdeenshire. It was discovered by metal detectorist Alistair McPherson who was searching the area with a team of archaeologists from the National Museums of Scotland and Aberdeen University’s ‘Northern Picts’ project. Comprising more than 100 items – including coins, brooches and bracelets – the hoard is currently being examined by specialists at NMS. Many of the items are broken or folded, suggesting that the silver was earmarked for recycling into new objects or for distribution via trading networks. Moulds for metalworking have been found at the important Pictish settlement of Rhynie, about 20 miles to the south, and may give an indication of how the silver from the hoard would have been used if it had been melted down rather than buried.

Gaulcross Pictish hoard

The discovery was made near the site of two stone circles formerly known as North Gaulcross and South Gaulcross. Little trace of these monuments survives today but the northern circle yielded a hoard of Pictish silver nearly 200 years ago. This treasure, often described as the ‘Gaulcross Hoard’, was unearthed in the 1830s during agricultural improvement work. Unfortunately, only three objects – a pin, a chain and a bracelet – were preserved for future generations by being presented to the museum at Banff. The rest were lost or destroyed.

Gaulcross Pictish hoard

Silver chain and pin from the 19th century Gaulcross Hoard (illustration in John Stuart’s Sculptured Stones of Scotland)

A selection of items from the new Gaulcross hoard will be displayed in the King’s Museum at Aberdeen University as part of the exhibition Crafting Kingdoms: the Rise of the Northern Picts which runs from 20 January to 31 May 2015.

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Notes & links

Webpage for the exhibition Crafting Kingdoms: the Rise of the Northern Picts

The older hoard discovered in the nineteenth century was described by RBK Stevenson & J Emery, `The Gaulcross hoard of Pictish silver’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 97 (1966), 206-11. [full text available online, as are many other old articles from PSAS]

Site record for Gaulcross at the RCAHMS Canmore database.

Three reports on the new Gaulcross hoard from the University of Aberdeen, the Megalithic Portal and BBC News.

Hoards are quite a hot topic on this blog at the moment. Last autumn I wrote about the discovery of a hoard of Viking treasure in South West Scotland.

Rhynie also got mentioned here last year, in a couple of blogposts, one of which looked at a famous Pictish monument known as the Craw Stane.

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Antonine Wall website

Antonine Wall Rough Castle

The Antonine Wall at Rough Castle near Bonnybridge (© B Keeling)


A new website for the Antonine Wall was launched last month, giving this famous Roman monument some well-deserved publicity by promoting it as a major heritage attraction. With fewer surviving traces than Hadrian’s Wall – most of which was constructed in stone – the turf-built Antonine frontier is a less visible feature of the landscape. In some places the remains of its ancient, grass-covered earthworks blend with the surrounding terrain. Nevertheless, it has much to offer the visitor, as the new website makes clear.

I recommend having a look around the website, which is nicely designed and easy to navigate. It’s worth bookmarking for content updates and for news of heritage events. In one section the site is described as ‘a host of resources and information for anyone planning a trip to the Antonine Wall or researching its history’. I’d say this is a pretty accurate description.

Highlights include ‘Top Ten Things To Do’ which is a good summary of the best-preserved locations, such as the still-impressive ramparts at Rough Castle and the bath-house at Bearsden. For anyone planning a visit there’s an interactive map with all the main locations marked. Another section lays out the historical background with pages on ‘The Romans in Scotland’, ‘Living on the Wall’ and other key topics.

Here’s the link…

The Antonine Wall: Frontiers of the Roman Empire

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The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall
One aspect of the current debate on Scottish independence is the depiction of Hadrian’s Wall as a symbolic boundary between England and Scotland. Newspaper journalists and other media folk, especially those based in London, seem to like the idea of an Anglo-Scottish border defined by a massive stone rampart. The fact that the Wall has never marked the actual Border is evidently less important than its value as a symbolic frontier between North and South, between ‘Us and Them’. This is nothing new, of course. Back in the sixth century, a writer called Gildas used the Wall for a similar rhetorical purpose. Gildas presented it as a barrier between the Romanised Britons and the barbarous Picts whom he regarded as pagan savages lurking in the untamed, unchristianised northern lands. As far as he was concerned, Hadrian’s Wall was designed to keep the Picts at a safe distance. Not strictly correct, but it made a good tale for his readers. In common with some present-day journalists, Gildas didn’t really know much about the history of the Wall, but its solid permanence helped him to make a point about the difference between Us and Them.

Hadrian's Wall
In a recent article at the Almost Archaeology blog, Adrián Maldonado looks at the various ways in which Hadrian’s Wall has been perceived since Roman times. He considers the monument’s use as a symbol – not only in modern political writing but also in fictional narratives such as movies. Along the way he examines how people living north of the Wall have often been portrayed according to a stereotype – the ‘blue-painted ginger maniac’ – which is still a familiar caricature. Variations on the theme turn up in movies such as Braveheart, King Arthur and Centurion (see image below).

Centurion movie

Adrián’s article is well worth reading – a fine blend of ancient history, modern politics and movie criticism. Take a look and share it around.

Adrián Maldonado: The Imaginary Hadrian’s Wall: Archaeology and the Matter of Britain

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Big Roman Week

Antoninus Pius

Antoninus Pius


Antoninus Pius, the Roman emperor who commissioned the Antonine Wall, was born on 19 September in AD 86. His birthday is marked in the Falkirk district by an annual event celebrating the local Roman heritage, which includes a section of the Wall. This year the ‘Big Roman Week’ takes place from 14-22 September. It offers a good mix of interesting activities and is well worth a visit.

In fact, the whole thing sounds great and I really wish I could turn up for a day or two. It’s such a brilliant way of enabling people to engage with their area’s ancient history. The event is co-ordinated by The Friends of Kinneil, a local heritage group involved with the Kinneil estate at Bo’ness on the southern shore of the Firth of Forth.

Here’s a link to the list of events in Big Roman Week

and a link to The Friends of Kinneil

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I’ve not blogged much about the Antonine Wall but I’ve written about it in my book on the Picts and visited its surviving remains in the Rough Castle area. A few years ago I discussed the origins of the name Kinneil, a place mentioned by the Venerable Bede in AD 731.

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