Roman in the gloamin

The Romans never conquered Scotland. But that doesn't mean they were strangers to the land north of Hadrian's Wall, as a visit to the site of the fort they built in the Scottish Borders reveals.

Trimontium Roman Fort and Eildon Hill North, near Melrose, Scottish Borders

I swear that we were taught at school that the Romans never reached Scotland.

Hadrian’s Wall was the limit of the empire and beyond that was a savage wasteland inhabited by blue-painted maniacs in kilts.

I don’t know whether this was because history teachers in the 1970s weren’t very good, whether historical knowledge has improved vastly in the intervening years or whether I just wasn’t listening properly. Probably the latter: the proximity of the netball court to the history classroom could be quite distracting.

But I very much doubt that I’m alone. I suspect that if you asked a random sample of people whether the Romans reached Scotland, a good proportion would be firmly in the No camp.

Mind you, given the growing refusal to accept historical facts, many people would probably struggle to say where the Romans were from, leave alone where they went.

Trimontium today: arguably the most important Roman site in Scotland

Still, I am now fully aware that the Romans didn’t just stop dead in Northumberland to concentrate on their masonry skills but instead headed on deep into the Highlands of Scotland, an advance that culminated in a resounding victory over a largely Pictish army at the Battle of Mons Graupius in 83 CE [that's AD to traditionalists]. The location of the battle is a matter of dispute among historians, though somewhere in the Grampians seems a reasonable assumption.

With winter approaching, however, the Romans chose not to drive home their advantage and the battle marked the beginning of a slow withdrawal from Scotland.

To consolidate their position and keep their uppity northern neighbours at bay, work started on Hadrian’s Wall around 122 CE, followed about 20 years later by the rather less well-known Antonine Wall across the Central Belt of Scotland.

Hadrian's Wall

But as the absence of any present-day Roman garrisons suggests, these defensive lines were eventually abandoned and in 411 CE the Romans decided to execute their own Brexit in a belated and ultimately futile attempt to take back control of their own backyard.

Before all this, however, the Romans had pitched up in the Scottish Borders and decided they liked the look of the place enough to set up a permanent base. That base was Trimontium - the place of the three hills - which lies just to the east of the village of Newstead near Melrose.

The Romans chose a flat piece of land standing just above a bend of the River Tweed and in the lee of the nearby Eildon Hills. Here in 79 CE they started work on a large fort - referred to either as Newstead Fort or Trimontium Fort.

Today the scale of the enterprise can only really be appreciated from the air during dry summers, when the outlines of the buildings become clear.

Still, the scale of the fort is evident from the viewing platforms set up around the edge of the site and the accompanying information boards help visitors get a sense of what was once there.

Eildon Hill North from Trimontium: the hill is the site of the largest hill fort in Scotland and later a Roman signalling station

The initial structure was constructed with turf and timber but in 86 CE that was augmented by stone. Trimontium became an important frontline fort with an infantry and cavalry garrison.

© Ordnance Survey

It features in a second century map by Ptolomy but the last mention of it as a functioning fort was around 209 CE, after which it appears to have been abandoned, becoming a useful source of dressed stone for local construction work.

A series of excavations in the 20th century produced a trove of artefacts.

Brass face mask

They included a brass face mask and a highly decorated cavalry helmet.

Brass cavalry helmet

Excavation has uncovered details of a bathhouse fed by a pipeline from the nearby Eildon Hill North, an amphitheatre and a mansio (administrative building).

Detail from information board at Trimontium

The Roman road know as Dere Street ran past the fort and is assumed to have crossed the Tweed on a bridge now lost.

Leaderfoot Viaduct near Melrose

More details of the fort and the Roman history of the area can be found at the Trimontium Museum in Melrose and at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

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