To the Romans we are indebted for the first historical account of any part of what is now Great Britain. There is mention of what we now know as the British Isles by early writers other than Romans. In Aristotle’s work, a Greek product, attempting to describe the then known world, is a reference to Britain under the name of Albion; and another to Ireland as Ierne. More than five hundred years before the birth of Christ, Hamil Car, of Carthage, touched Britain in a voyage described by Testus Avienus, who calls the inhabitants Albiones; and apparently the gens Hibernorum were the inhabitants of Ireland. These are regarded generally as the oldest mention of the British Isles. But to the Roman writers just before and a few years after the birth of Christ we must go for the earliest reliable information of any part of Britain.
In 55 B. C. Julius Caesar, known today to every school boy and girl, fresh from brilliant victories in Gaul, throwing his legions across the channel from the shores of what is now France, began the invasion of South Britain. The Romans were entering an unknown country. The strange tribes which the invaders encountered fought valiantly. Then, too, the newly over-run Gaul lay between the wild and fierce tribes of Britain and the splendors of Rome and the culture of Italy. It was necessary that the conquered peoples along the green banks of the Rhone, those dwelling in the valley of the sluggish Seine, and those along the poetic Loire, should become dependable under the Roman yoke before the conquest of Britain could be pushed to best advantage. So before the Roman standards had penetrated very far north in Britain, Caesar returned to Rome and in a short time went down to his death at the hands of his assassins. New men came into power, and one leader after another came to command in Britain. Hence, Caesar’s attack and for many years subsequent ones under his successors were followed by retreats, leaving no permanent foothold; and so no very substantial progress was made before 43 A. D. Caesar’s account of his campaigns afford us the first reliable historical light upon the country and people. It was 78 A. D. when Julius Agricola assumed command in the new province, known as Valencia. About 80 [A.D.], “having subdued the Welsh Ordovices and Northumbrian Brigantes, Novas gentes aperuit,” he began to make war upon the tribes in what is now Scotland.
From Tacitus, the distinguished Roman historian, we get an account of the movements and battles led by Agricola, the earliest authentic chronicle relating to Scotland. But Tacitus was the son-in-law of old Agricola, and so we cannot credit all the brilliant feats ascribed to this Roman leader; but archaeology has recovered from the ruins of the Roman occupation evidences of schools and other institutions founded by Agricola, who was governor as well as military leader; and fragments and sites of his baths and other business indicating that under his leadership the Romans in Britain, though constantly under arms and liable without warning to attack, enjoyed civilized life. We know, however, that the information in this Vita Agricolae by Tacitus, as Maxwell, a recent Scotch writer, says, is “invaluable, for Tacitus was a most accomplished writer, compiling his narratives from his father-in-law’s own description.” Maxwell’s caution regarding the forgery entitled De Situ Britoniae perpetrated by Chas. J. Bertram, should not be overlooked by those going into the original sources covering the Roman period. The specious document is published in Bohn’s Antiquarian Library without warning and is credited to Richard of Cirencester.
As the north was approached, the Romans found the tribes greatly unlike those of the south. The northern tribes were fiercer and more implacable. In the section now known as the Lowlands of Scotland, the natives were patriotic regardless of cost; and the mountains and marshes of what we now know as the Highlands enabled their brave inhabitants to take the Roman phalanxes at a disadvantage. So Agricola found it necessary to halt in the valley of the Clyde. Then he and his successors built forts; and, in 120 the Emperor Hadrian visited Britain and built the famous seventy-three mile wall, Wellsend, on the Tyne to Bowness on the Solway River. In 138 Lallius Urbicus, another Roman leader, built the wall of Antonine between the estuaries of the Firth of Forth and of the Clyde. Parts of the Roman walls yet interest tourists; but the rapidly passing fragments do little more than “remind us of the all devouring scythe of time.”
From the time of Agricola practically up to the withdrawal of the invaders, the Romans were engaged in a futile attempt to conquer the tribes north of Antonine’s Wall. (For an extended account of the Roman works see such books as A. H. Allcroft’s Earthworks of England). But the fighting quality of the natives is not all the information furnished us by Roman historians. Society was entirely in the tribal state, having little idea of confederation either for offence or defense. None of the tribes had any historical account of themselves. The chief tribes occupying the country up to Loch Lomond in the border Highlands, were called Brythons, from whom the country probably took its name. In the northern section of the country, particularly in the region we now know as the Highlands of Scotland, the tribes apparently had little in common with the Brythons. Tacitus calls the country north of Clota and Bodotra (the two Firths) Caledonia and its people he calls Caledonians – the first historic name of what is now any part of Scotland, except whatever, if any, Caesar included in his Britain. Caledonia is the name yet sometimes used to indicate the present Scotland. The Romans used the name to indicate a rather indefinite northern section of what is now Scotland. Tacitus appears to have regarded most of the country north of the Clyde and the Forth as an island; and so did Gildas, who was born on the Forth and who died in 570. Tacitus says the Caledonians were red-haired and powerfully built; and he believed them to be related to the Teutons of Europe whom he calls Germans; and says they were clearly distinguishable from the people of what we call the Lowlands and from those of South Britain, whom both he and Caesar noted as closely resembling the people of Gaul, now in general France and Spain.
In later years ethnologists, archaeologists and other scientists, through many sources and after much labor, have learned that the Brythons and the Caledonians and all their connected tribes belonged to that great branch of the human family now known as Celtic. We also now know that the Celts were not the aborigines of Britain, nor were any of them of German or Teutonic descent. They represented one of those mighty waves of emigration, of which a people before them was first, which successively had rolled out of the cradle of the human race after the human family had evolved into now well known divisions. We also know that this original home of the human family is located most likely in Asia, between the Indus and the Euphrates, the Arabian Sea and the Juxartes. So far apart had been the migrations, and so crude the forms of knowledge and so inadequate the means of preserving information, that each successive movement had no story of its predecessor. Each, too, soon forgot its original home.
The earliest Briton and Saxon Chronicles, such as the writings of Bede, for instance, who closed his Ecclesiastical History in 731 A.D., mention only Picts and Scots as inhabiting the Highlands; and there has been much discussion as to whether the Picts were the descendants of the tribes found by the Romans. But that the Picts were the descendants of the tribes of northern Scotland found by the Romans, is the view of some later writers. I believe this view rests upon the weight of the evidence. I further concur with those who hold that the Picts, who were Gaelic, were the ancestors of the modern Highlanders who are of Gaelic strain.
Notwithstanding all these tribes were descendants of the Celtic branch of the human family, there had developed at the time of the Roman occupation marked local characteristics, particularly distinguishing those of the south from those of the north. The Caledonians “were tall men with red hair, and the bravest fighters of all the Britons.” Prolixo crine rutilantia, say Eumenius, another Roman, writing of the Caledonians whom he called “Picts,” about A. D. 296. Other passages in Roman writings refer to them as “Caledonians and other Picts.” However, not all the Caledonians were of this racial type. There was an element among them whose hair and complexion were dark. Among the mountains of modern Wales and Cornwall and in the western hills of Ireland, there are people who are by some believed to be descendants of the predecessors of the Celts. These people were probably remnants of the predecessors of the Caledonians. This dark race had long skulls, known as dolicho-cephalic. The red-haired and later race were marked by round skulls, bracho-cephalic. Woodburn, in his The Ulster Scot, says that the Gaels “were tall, with brown hair, gray eyes, and broad heads, and were alert, passionate, and full of fire.”
Throughout Britain at the time of the Roman invasion the tribes were governed by kings or chief rulers. Metal was used as a money, a given weight being the standard; warriors, their bodies painted blue, often went to battle in chariots. Among the Caledonians these chariots, drawn by small active horses, were armed with scythes so arranged as to mow down the enemy; but even these, formidable as they appear when seen in imagination, were no match for the iron shields and heavy spears and battle axes of Roman cohorts. But to us now the strangest custom of those early Britons was the practice of polyandry, “ten or twelve men having one wife in common,” so Jean Lang explains in The Land of Romance. However, Maxwell says that statement that those early men “had wives in common is to be accepted with reserve.”
Such is the possibly briefest view of the earliest historical peoples found in the land before the historical foundation of the clan from which we are descended. With events during the period of the Roman occupation we are not particularly here concerned, since they throw no direct light upon our history. Except in south Britain, the Romans left no lasting impression upon the peoples they met, and least of all upon those in the north of what is now Scotland; and they left no permanent factor in the social stocks which finally become dominant in both sections of Britain. At length, the Roman grasp relaxed. Enemies both from within and from without threatened the imperial city herself, and it became necessary to abandon Britain. Gradually the Latin power waned until by 418 A.D. it had disappeared.
Whatever modern scholars may think of the origin of the Britons, Scots, and Picts, it is at least interesting to notice what the earliest writers who followed the Roman period thought upon this subject. Bede, born in what is now Scotland, for instance, completed his Ecclesiastical History of the English nation in 731 A.D. He begins by telling us that Britain is “an island in the ocean, formerly called Albion;” and then of the origin of the people, with all apparent sincerity, he says:
At first this island had no other inhabitants but the Britons, from whom it derived its name, and who coming over into Britain, as is reported, from Amorica, possessed themselves of the southern ports thereof. When they, beginning at the south, had made themselves masters of the greatest part of the island, it happened that the nation of the Picts, coming into the ocean from Scythia, as is reported, in a few tall ships, were driven by the winds beyond shores of Britain, and arrived off Ireland on the northern coasts, where finding the nation of the Scots, they requested to be allowed to settle among them, but could not succeed in obtaining their request.
Then Bede says the Scots advised the Picts to repair to Britain, and that if settlement was then opposed, that the Picts might use the Scots as “auxilionis.” Thereupon the Picts sailed over into Britain “and began to inhabit the northern parts thereof, for the Britons were possessed of the southern.”
By Amorica Bede evidently refers to some point on the European coast. Bede was followed by the Winchester Chronicle, commonly known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which takes up the events after Bede, beginning about 900, as given in a lost Northumbrian manuscript, and ending in 1154. For the earlier events it is believed the author followed Bede; and since the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has Armorica where Bede gives Amorica, it is generally believed that he refers to some part of what is now France.
The historical production, very ancient, known as the Welch Triades, states that the first colonists to Britain were Cymry, who came from Defrobani Gwlad Yr Har, Taurie Cheronesus, thro which runs the Cimmerian Bosphorus. The Brythons were descended from the original Cymry, and reached Britain from Lydon, Brittany.
Nennius says that the “island of Britain derives its name from Brutus, a Roman consul; and that the Roman annals deduce the origin of the Britains both from the Greeks and the Romans. On the mother’s side they spring from Saturn, king of the Greeks, who built the city of Troy. On the father’s side from Romulus and Remus, the Sons of Aéneas, the founders of Rome; and thence through the family of the Roman Brutus.[”]
Page last updated 13 October 2008.