Yesterday afternoon I took a walk to my drummer’s house just off the Leith Links in Edinburgh. My purpose was to get a container for the bramble wine I am about to start brewing (its been a bumper crop this year), but I also came away with a few books. He is moving out soon & on hearing he was going to take a load of them to a charity shop, the poet in me reveled at the chance to gain a few additions to my own library. Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass was welcomed warmly, but I also gained a copy of Tacitus’s Agricola & Germania. Now, I knew that the Agricola was the only source on the Battle of Mons Graupius, & I also knew that no-one had been able to identify the battle-site. Yet, this same state of affairs had existed before, from Brunanburh to King Arthur’s grave, & I thought it wouldn’t hurt if I made a pot of tea & had a look at the battle. It occurred c.83AD, somewhere in the north of Scotland, & was said to be a great victory over the allied Caledonian tribes by the great Roman general Agricola. Within about an hour or so I’d worked out where it took place.
We have two main pieces of evidence for Agricola’s campaign in Scotland – the account by his son-in-law, Cornelius Tacitus, & the remains of a chain of a dozen ‘marching forts’ that the Romans erected as they pressed further north. David Breeze, in his ‘The logistics of Agricola’s final campaign,’ tells us; The known Roman marching camps north of the Forth point to all roman armies following roughly the same route, skirting the south eastern flanks of the highlands to pass around the mounth at stonehaven & continue north-westerly along the edge of the mountains. This same route, incidentally, was used in 1746 by the British army on their way to face another Caledonian army at Culloden.
Many of the camps are sited near the sea, so Agricola could maintain contact between his fleet & his soldiers, confirm’d by a passage in Tacitus;
In the summer in which he entered on the sixth year of his office, his operations embraced the states beyond the Forth, and, as he dreaded a general movement among the remoter tribes, as well as the perils which would beset an invading army, he explored the harbours with a fleet, which, at first employed by him as an integral part of his force, continued to accompany him. The spectacle of war thus pushed on at once by sea and land was imposing; while often infantry, cavalry, and marines, mingled in the same encampment and joyously sharing the same meals,
Knowing that Agricola withdrew to winter quarters after the battle, which was the high-water mark of the invasion, common sense tells us that the battle took place at a fort near the end of the chain. Indeed, it is upon the area around the penultimate fort at Balnagieth, just to the west of Forres, that all the topographical clues found in the account of Tacitus coalesce. These can help us paint a mental picture of the battlefield, which would have contained, in the following order;
SEA – CAMP – PLAIN – HILL – WILDERNESS
Few in number, dismayed by their ignorance, looking around upon a sky, a sea, and forests which are all unfamiliar to them; hemmed in, as it were, and enmeshed, the Gods have delivered them into our hands (Calgacus speaking about the Romans)
And so you and I have passed beyond the limits reached by former armies or by former governors, and we now occupy the last confines of Britain, not merely in rumour and report, but with an actual encampment and armed force.
He arrayed his eager and impetuous troops in such a manner that the auxiliary infantry, 8,000 in number, strengthened his centre, while 3,000 cavalry were posted on his wings. The legions were drawn up in front of the intrenched camp;
The plain between resounded with the noise and with the rapid movements of chariots and cavalry. Agricola, fearing that from the enemy’s superiority of force he would be simultaneously attacked in front and on the flanks, widened his ranks
The enemy, to make a formidable display, had posted himself on high ground; his van was on the plain, while the rest of his army rose in tiers up the slope of a hill.
The effect of tiers indicates the hill quite steep. We can also infer from the text that Mons Graupius was not a smooth, single-peaked feature, & instead possessed several peaks, as in;
Those of the Britons who, having as yet taken no part in the engagement, occupied the hill-tops
When, however, the enemy saw that we again pursued them in firm and compact array, they fled no longer in masses as before, each looking for his comrade; but dispersing and avoiding one another, they sought the shelter of distant and pathless wilds
In addition to the above, we must note that the battlefield was close to several settlements & hills;
Meanwhile the Britons, wandering amidst the mingled wailings of men and women, were dragging off their wounded, calling to the unhurt, deserting their homes, and in their rage actually firing them
The silence of desolation reigned everywhere: the hills were forsaken, houses were smoking in the distance
There is only one place in Scotland that combines the correct topographical features given above with an appropriate Roman fort, & that is Forres, twenty-five miles east of Inverness beside the Moray Firth. This means that the steep multi-peaked’ hill known as Cluny Hill was once named Mons Graupius. The Cluny Hills today house the eco-living lovers that are the Findhorn Foundation, & a impressive monument to Nelson, yet 2000 years ago it was home to a massed confederacy of Caledonian tribes, all ready to face the alien invaders. Interestingly, a nineteenth century O/S map shows that there was once a ‘British Camp’ on Cluny.
Forres lies close to the sea, & to its east there is a plain which leads to a Roman Marching Camp at Balnagieth, while to the south of Forres spreads a hilly wilderness. Tacitus tells us Agricola’s army were lightly equipped, indicating he was acting on information that the Caledonians had gathered en masse, & were preparing to give him the set-piece battle the Romans excelled at. It seems they had gathered at a Caledonian ‘power base‘ for just to the east of Forres lies the oldest Pictish hill-fort at Burghead – where a recent dig at Clarckly hill uncovered Iron Age circular stone houses & building foundations. Also found at the fort were carved slabs depicting bulls & a very ancient chambered well, while the fort itself is three times bigger than any other Pictish hillfort, suggesting its great importance.
We now come to the evidence for Forres that has really been staring the world in the face. The Pictish monument known as Sueno’s stone is the largest (6.5m), most impressive piece of Pictish stoneworking we know. It is dated to c.900 AD, while its name comes from an 11th century Dane. On one side there is a great cross, & on the other we have images from a great battle. Scholars have scratched their heads over which battle it was, but surely now the most magnificent piece of Pictish artwork can be associated with the greatest military moment of the Caledonians. One can imagine the King of the Picts commissioning the monument – which originally had another obelisk standing beside it (Timothy Pont’s Mapp of Murray c 1590) – to honour the great ancestors.
The stone is packed full of battle-scenes, all of which can be connected with passages in Tacitus.
Two cavalry forces - Agricola… opposed their advance with four squadrons of cavalry held in reserve by him for any sudden emergencies of battle
Meantime the enemy’s cavalry had fled
Archers - The action began with distant fighting. The Britons with equal steadiness and skill used their huge swords and small shields to avoid or to parry the missiles of our soldiers, while they themselves poured on us a dense shower of darts
Corpses and decapitated heads – The open plain presented an awful and hideous spectacle… Everywhere there lay scattered arms, corpses, and mangled limbs
An infantry battle - Agricola encouraged three Batavian and two Tungrian cohorts to bring matters to the decision of close fighting with swords
Soldiers with small shields & large swords - An enemy armed with small bucklers and unwieldy weapons
Other features on the stone also reflect the battle;
>A tent - This would have been the Roman camp
Three musicians blowing trumpets - Three Roman trumpet brooches were found at Culbin sands just to the north of Forres, which lie beside a perfect natural harbour for Agricola’s fleet
A broch – This would have been the Caledonian hillfort at Burghead, known as ‘The broch’ by locals
A kilted war-leader – This would be either Calgacus, or King Galdus given in the medieval account of the battle by Hector Boece
Archeologically, Agricola’s presence this far north is suggested by a number of Roman finds in coins in the area minted in the name of pre-83AD Roman emperors, such as a Vespasian at Garnout & a Nero at Fortrose. In the streets of Forres Forres, GDB Jones (2) records that in November 1797 several Roman coins and a Roman medallion were dug up, while a coin dating to Domitian (r.81-96AD) was found in the same streets in 1844. Most importantly, a coin dated to the narrow reign of Titus (79-81AD) was found at Forres near Sueno’s Stone. In addition, the temporary camp at Balnagieth has all the hall marks of Agricola’s hand, of whom, ‘It was noted by experienced officers that no general had ever shown more judgment in choosing suitable positions,‘ for n one side it is protected by the River Findhorn just a couple of miles upstream from a beautiful sea-harbour. The fort is 234 metres long, & at least 70 meters wide & surrounded by a 3 metre wide ditch, while , ‘it is possible that the camp was possessed of six-post corner-towers and that the front of the rampart was revetted in timber, which would suggest a more permanent encampment. (Britannia xxii (1991) p.226 & fig.4.)
Forres is looking more & more like it hosted the grand battle of Mons Graupius, & there is more evidence to come. Agricola is said to have; led his army into the territory of the Boresti. He received hostages from them, and then ordered the commander of the fleet to sail round Britain. The name ‘Boresti’ strongly suggests the Varar Aest placed by Ptolemy on the south shore of the Moray Firth in the very vicinity of Forres; ’From the Lemannonis Sin as far as the Varar Aest are the Caledoni, and above these is the Caledonian forest.’ In antiquity, B’s & V’s were often interchangeable – the 9th century Cyrillic script of the Slavs uses the letter b for the v sound for example – the earliest copies of tacitus we have are from he 10th opening it up to many corruptions. It must also be noted that the legion which fought at Mons Graupius was the Ninth, which was Spanish in origin – as is evident in later centuries Spanish dialetic pronunciation of the Latin language changed v’s to b’s. A perfect example of this change in action lies with the Etruscan town of Volsinii evolving ionto the Roman Bolsena.
The quest for Mons Graupius has been going on for centuries, but as with many things like this, no concensus has ever been reached. A spenner in the works was Ptolemy’s secod century naming of a fort in the Perthshire area as Victoria, or victory. This sent many scholars scampering to that part of Scotland & ignoring Tacitus when he said that the Romans were at the ‘furthest bounds’ of Scotland & that Agricola ordered his fleet to round the northern tip of Britain (with them being so close, I presume)
Several sites have been suggested for Camp Victoria, but the best candidate for is the Roman marching camp called Battledykes, near Fortrose. Jamieson, writing in 1786, states the fort possessed five gates, & was double ramparted, except for a portion of the western side which was a marsh. It is the mention of the marsh – & of course the ‘battle’ element in the name of the fort, that connects with this passage from Tacitus concerning a battle that took place the year before Mons Graupius.
This becoming known to the enemy, they suddenly changed their plan, and with their whole force attacked by night the ninth Legion, as being the weakest, and cutting down the sentries, who were asleep or panic-stricken, they broke into the camp. And now the battle was raging within the camp itself, when Agricola, who had learnt from his scouts the enemy’s line of march and had kept close on his track, ordered the most active soldiers of his cavalry and infantry to attack the rear of the assailants, while the entire army were shortly to raise a shout. Soon his standards glittered in the light of daybreak. A double peril thus alarmed the Britons, while the courage of the Romans revived; and feeling sure of safety, they now fought for glory. In their turn they rushed to the attack, and there was a furious conflict within the narrow passages of the gates till the enemy were routed. Both armies did their utmost, the one for the honour of having given aid, the other for that of not having needed support. Had not the flying enemy been sheltered by marshes and forests, this victory would have ended the war.
We can now see that Agricola pushed beyond the Forth & fought a battle near Fortrose. The next year he built a series of marching camps as far as Forres, where the Caledonians were waiting for him. History is written by the victor, & Tacitus tells us that, ‘About 10,000 of the enemy were slain; on our side there fell 360 men.‘ However, the scottish historian, hecto boece, tells a different story;
Our annals record that twelve thousand Romans died in that unhappy conflict, and about twenty thousand Scots, Picts, and auxiliaries. Among these was the Danish leader Gildo, who was surrounded by the enemy while fighting with great ferocity and ardor, together with a few chosen comrades.
What is true, is that after the battle of Mons Graupius the Romans hardly ever ventured this far north again & it is easy to see how the Caledonians would have slowly but surely looked upon Mons Graupius as the moment they dismissed tribal rivavlries, bonded as a fighting force & met the might of rome in open conflict. They may have lost many men, but their combined strength was enough to convinve the romans to build a wall across britain to keep them out of the empire, rather than attempt to subdue them. It is to celebrate this, then, that the Picts erected their fabulous memorial of the day the Romans came to town – Sueno’s Stone.