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The aftermath of Mons Graupius was definately not a peaceful time in the highlands of Scotland. 20,000 picts still survived.
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Calach and his Picts would have painted his face with blue woad.  The herbal mixture not only looked good, but acted as a congealing agent for minor wounds.

Back in Scotland in 85AD, however, following Agricola's re-call to Rome, the new Governor of Britain found it difficult to hold the Gask line. Although Tacitus records that from a Pictish army of 30,000, a third were slaughtered at Mons Graupius, that still left an organised band of some 20,000 still actively campaigning in Scotland. It is implausable to consider that they simply gave up the fight.

The new Governor of Britain was no Agricola, Tacitus records no mention even of his name. He held the Gask ridge for no more than a year or two, then withdrew his troops southward. (There are archeaological finds of coins dated no later than 86AD, which substantiate the date of the withdrawl.) They may have tried to re-establish the ridge built from Forth to Clyde, (it makes tactical sense) but this is not documented. Instead, the Governor retreated back to the positions held before Agricola's invasion of Scotland. Cavalry were only a small proportion of the legion.  For every 6000-8000 infantry, there would be around 500 mounted men.

Little is known of the next 30 years. If we discount the stories of the "missing ninth Legion", it is a quiet time, as far as historical reports go. Undoubtedly there were skirmishes between Roman and Pict; the tribes moved south into the lowlands, re-establishing their forts and farms, and the Romans would sent sorties north from their bases at Carlisle and Newcastle.

In 121AD, during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, the fighting between the two nations had become such a problem to the Romans that they built a stone wall, 72 miles long from Carlisle on the west coast to Newcastle on the east coast. They constructed watchtowers every mile and large forts along it's length were the only means to cross.

So again, we ask the question. Why did the Romans retreat from Scotland?

A Roman Auxilliary commander, from the Ermine Street Guard.

If the casualty figures given by Tacitus are to be believed, the Roman army inflicted a massive defeat against the Pictish nations at Mons Graupius. If this is so, then why did they subsequently retreat south?

They desert a defensible position at Gask, which is supplied by road from the south and by the river Tay from the east. They pass by a more suitable natural barrier, the Forth-Clyde line. Then they retreat to the north of England, which is a much less defensible position.

The question is... Why?

After nearly 2000 years, let's see if there are any clues from the physical evidence in Scotland.

The Physical Evidence.

A computer reconstruction of a Roman signal tower.

There is no doubt that Roman forces invaded Scotland in 80AD. Apart from Tacitus' writings there is archeological evidence all over the lowlands to testify to this.

There are remains of permanent camps, roads, ramps, ditches, ridges and buildings from Galloway to Perthshire.

The Gask ridge is still being excavated by a team from Manchester University, who are hailing the ridge as the earliest permanent defended frontier in the Roman Empire. The Roman Fort at Ardoch supplied the Gask Ridge with both men and resources. The line of forts was initially planned to close the entry to every northern glen.

There is still evidence on the ground of marching routes as far north as Aberdeen, Fraserburgh and Inverness, but the Romans hugged the sea as they marched. Their navy was never far from the legions.

That two separate legions campaigned under the command of Agricola is not disputed, the proud soldiers marked their buildings with their Legion's number.

But questions remain regarding the depth of their advance, the permanancy of their involvement, and the battle of Mons Graupius itself.

A modern Pict at a Roman Pict day at Archaeolink, near Insch, Aberdeenshire. (The authors glasses can be seen, in the top left-hand corner.)(Photo IH/KD)


The Roman army reached Inverness, and their navy sailed right round the coast, establishing Britain as an Island for the first time. They built roads whose routes still are used today. The A68 across Soutra Hill, the M74 north from Carlisle and M90 north through Fife are all Roman roads.


They came and they conquered, but they did not stay. The Gask ridge was patrolled for a few years, but the adjoining forts at inchtuthhill and Ardoch are not permanent affairs. Although the fort at Ardoch is still an impressive sight today, two thousand years later, the walls are folded turf. At the centre of the fort is a raised area, but there is no evidence of stone buildings. Wooden gates and walls would have surrounded the fort, but there are no baths, wash-houses or temples which are in evidence farther south.

The Romans left large quantities of nails buried at the Legionary fort at Inchtuthhill, north of Perth. Why? Nails can be melted down to be made into swords and arrowpoints. Why not just take them away when they leave? Perhaps they just forgot. Perhaps they left in a bit of a hurry and couldn't carry everything.

MONS GRAUPIUS? The Roman shield wall was impressive.  Short forward stabbing thrusts between the shields kept the foe at bay as they wall advanced.

At a lonesome hill, where 10,000 of our kinsmen died, you would expect to see some kind of permanent monument, Pictish stones still stand in lonely spots all over the north; perhaps one of them is the monument. If there ever was one, there is nothing left; if the Romans had erected a monument, the picts would have torn it down.

But consider this.... After the "battle", the bodies of ten thousand armoured, belted, shielded, sword-bearing, charioted "savages" would be difficult to hide. At other ancient battlegrounds there are still new discoveries, new artifacts found, swords and shields caught in farmers ploughs. But despite the searchings of hundreds of historians and archeologists, we are no nearer to finding the battlefield as we are to finding the Holy Grail itself.

So did the battle actually take place, or did the facts regarding the casualties just get a little distorted over the years?

Mons Graupius? Just a propaganda exercise?

Some legionaries from ther Ermine Street Guard relax before duties.

Well? It could have been, we know that Agricola was under pressure from an unfriendly Emperor to get results quickly. This may have persuaded him to lie. But here we must come down firmly against the idea. The battle must have happened somewhere. The thought that 20,000 Romans could tell the same lie and kept the truth from the rest of their world is not feasable. When a battle is fought, soldiers take great pride in victory. Soldiers also are transfered or rise through the ranks from one unit to another. Soldiers talk of battles and a secret of this description would have travelled the Empire like wildfire.


If Tacitus has written that Agricola fought for the glory of Rome and defeated a huge native force, then we must take one thing on board as fact. A Pict sentry keeps his eyes peeled for any trouble.(Photo IH/KD)

The battle did indeed take place.

But like a fisherman's tale of his catch gets longer with the telling, perhaps Agricola or Tacitus were scoring political points with the estimation of the respective casualties.

Remember that Agricola probably wrote his diaries at the time of the battle, in 83AD. But he died ten years later. It is only after his death, and the death of the Emperor, that Tacitus feels safe enough to take Agricola's diaries and publishes his first book; a biography of Agricola in 96AD. Thirteen years is a long time for the information to lie dormant, and that is assuming that Agricola actually kept a diary!

Perhaps Tacitus was just being the dutiful son in law, but there remains the possibility that he used the book as an avenue for his own political reasons.

Tacitus writes of "10,000 natives" dead. Not 10,300, or 9,400, but exactly 10,000. This exact figure reeks of an estimation. But when he mentions the Roman casualties, he comes to a nice figure of "360 Romans dead".

Why so accurate? Maybe because the Roman figures can be checked through the army lists, maybe 360 letters to 360 widows had to be signed. We'll simply never know, but 360 sounds like an accurate number, and 10,000 seems to be an estimation. Perhaps there were 8,000 auxilliaries dead on the Roman side, which would even out the fight somewhat, but as auxilliaries, they would be Gaulish or Batavians; not "Roman".

Perhaps the description of the battle by Agricola and Tacitus is more of an exercise in wordmanship than anything else.

The aftermath. Why did the Romans leave?

The Author, examining some hut or other, looking pensive, but still wearing his Scottish Claymores T shirt.(Photo KD)

One thing is sure.... We'll never know for sure.

Political upheaval at home, and uprisings in Germany forced one of the legions in Britain to be withdrawn. The tales of the "vanishing of the ninth legion" somewhere in the wilds of Caledonia have never been proven and the legion probably was moved to some other part of the empire. The depletion of one legion from the force which held Britain must have been a blow to the Roman Governor, but the question remains. Why did the Romans leave the defensible position of the Gask ridge, with its network of roads and forts? Why did they move south past the new turf wall which would be the foundation for the Antoinine Wall 50 years later? Why did they move so far south, relinquishing what they had fought so hard to win and move to a longer, less defensible frontier which did not have a wall?

Much has been said of Tacitus' bias as a political commentator, now its my turn. (So far I think I've been largely fair to our Roman friends) As far as my logic goes, there appears to be one answer, amoung the many, which makes sense....

Calach and his Picts were still fighting!

(Photo IH/KD)

It is the opinion of more than one historian, and I number myself within that group, that the Picts/Caledonians were not as defeated a nation as Agricola and Tacitus would have had the rest of the world beleive.

A group of Picts defend their home against a Roman charge.

When the Romans advanced north in 80AD, the Roman columns would have been harrassed by Pictish guerilla tactics. These would have been taught to the Picts by survivors of the Brigante tribe, who had fought Agricola earlier. After the crushing defeat of the Brigante tribe, they would have discouraged Calach from facing the Romans in a pitched battle, but perhaps after the success of the night attack in Fife, he ignored them. Perhaps this overconfidence led to Mons Graupius.

The history books will state that Calach made a grave tactical error in allowing his forces to meet the Romans head on, but that does not make him either a stupid man or a bad military tactician. After their defeat at the formal pitched battle of Mons Graupius perhaps the Picts returned to their more natural, successful tactics. If they avoided another pitched battle and carried on their guerilla war, perhaps the attrition on the Roman personel was too much for the depleted legions to withstand. Romans of the Ermine Street Guard demonstrate their combat skills.

Whatever the reason (and we will never know), within 3 years, the Romans had retreated southwards to the English border.

30 years later, the problem of the northern tribes had escalated to such a state that the Romans were forced to build a wall; Hadrian's Wall. It is both implausible and idiotic to consider that the Romans built the 72 mile wall with forts and milecastles only for show. The tide of Scottish/Pictish resistance to Roman rule had grown to such proportions that such a barrier was necessary to their survival.

Click below to go to the last part of the story; my rant on Calach's part in our country's story.

Click here to go to the next part of the story; Calach.