Romans and Picts Around Strathblane

Illustrated Essays

By Dr Murray Cook

As every patriotic Scot knows, the Romans tried and failed to conquer Scotland…the only nation in Europe to resist the might of the Eagles. Unfortunately, this is not really true. The Romans didn’t really try. They just gave up: the cost of controlling our wee bit hill and glen was just not worth it. (We had no gold or silver, no large cities that could be easily taxed and it was very cold.)

Famously, the first map of Scotland, Ptolomey’s Map, drawn in the 2nd century AD shows Scotland bent in half with Aberdeenshire south of Dumfries and Galloway. This was because no one could believe that anyone lived that far north. It was surely impossible! So rather than change their theories, they tried to change Scotland and bent us in half.

Ptolomey’s Map with Scotland bent in half and Damnonii highlighted.

What really happened and who lived in the Blane Valley at the time? That first map shows that the people who lived here were called the Damnonii and their territory stretched from Ayrshire to Clackmannanshire. These tribes organised themselves into larger alliances and so the Romans really only payed attention to who was in charge. Fifty years before this map was produced, it is likely that the tribe in charge were the Caledonians from Perthshire whose names survives in Dunkeld and Schiehallion (the fort of Caledonians and the fairy hill of the Caledonians). Then by around 180AD, it was the Maeatae whose names survives in Dumyat (the fort of the Maeatae).

But let’s take a step back. The Romans first invaded Britain around 49 AD and it took them 30 years of bloody fighting to reach Scotland. General Agricola was in charge of the invasion and he built roads and forts, marched to Elgin and sailed to Orkney. His aim was total conquest, to march to the very ends of the earth and if given enough time he also would have invaded Ireland. What would become Strathblane was now part of Rome and its fertile valley subject to Roman taxation…anyone who had resisted was either dead or in chains in a slave market. However, he paused to secure what had been won with a system of roads and forts that stretched from Doune to the Gask Ridge beyond the Tay.  Then in the blink of an eye the politics in Rome changed and he was ordered to return. According to his son-in-law, the historian Tactitus, his victories were thrown away.

After this the Romans began to reimagine Scotland (or Caledonia as they called it) as a wild inhospitable place. Surely only the most impenetrable of forests could have stopped the legions? They had forgotten conveniently that accountants were always in charge but there is no romance in spreadsheets.

In time, the newly crowned Emperor Antoninus Pius needed a victory and where else to get it than the wild north-western frontier? So he ordered the Eagles to march north again and build the eponymous wall a few miles south of theBlane Valley around 140 AD. However, the wall was not the frontier, rather just a point of control on it. The Romans rebuilt some of Agricola’s Gask Ridge forts. The Blane Valley was again Roman but not for long as the politics again changed and the Antonine Wall was probably abandoned within 20 years.

By this time Scotland’s reputation had grown again and the third and final invasion of conquest was launched around 210AD by Emperor Septimius Severus who took along his two sons to toughen them up. The area round Stirling was described by Roman historian Cassius Dio as inhabiting

“wild and waterless mountains and desolate and swampy plains, and possess neither walls, cities, nor tilled fields, …. They dwell in tents, naked and unshod, possess their women in common, and in common rear all the offspring. Their form of rule is democratic for the most part, and they are very fond of plundering: consequently, they choose their boldest men as rulers. ….. They can endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water, and in the forests they support themselves upon bark and roots, and for all emergencies they prepare a certain kind of food, the eating of a small portion of which, the size of a bean, prevents them from feeling either hunger or thirst.”

The Tulloch Stone showing a naked warrior carrying a spear with its “bronze apple”

Cassius Dio further describes their weapons as “a shield and a short spear, with a bronze apple attached to the end of the spear-shaft, so that when it is shaken it may clash and terrify the enemy”. Like the rest of his lurid description, this may sound like good propaganda but in fact there are depictions of naked warriors with spears with ‘bronze apples’ at the base, like this example from Perth.

The name of this central region (that probably included the Blane Valley) was Manau, which survives in the names Clackmannan and Slamannan. There are also Manau names in Balfron and West Lothian and to the north it may have reached as far as the River Earn.  Manau was associated with the river crossing at what would become Stirling and the major fort at Dumyat. It is first mentioned in Roman sources.

Septimius Severus

Septimius Severus won the battle in 210AD and agreed a peace with local chief Argentocoxos. But after the treaty was signed, the Maeatae rebelled and Cassius Dio tells us that Severus summoned the soldiers and ordered them to invade the rebels’ country, killing everybody they met; and he quoted these words from the Illiad:

“Let no one escape sheer destruction,

And the might of our hands, not even the babe in the womb of the mother,

If it be male; let not even him escape.”

This was clearly an attempted genocide, but did it really happen? The brothers managed to conclude another treaty, following their father’s death in 211, so there were clearly some Maeatae left alive. However, there is clear evidence for both a break in long lived settlements, an absence of cereal pollen and no more trouble from north of the Forth for nearly a century and so there was certainly some impact. 

When trouble returned around 297AD, it was far more serious: the Picts. The next hundred years marked raid after raid by the Picts, some of which must have reached the Blane Valley. All of these incursions on the rich southern Roman provinces destabilised them and the Roman state ultimately abandoned Britain around 410.

Over the following three centuries the Blane Valley certainly featured in the various power struggles as different groups struggled for ascendancy. Using language like “one can picture with little difficulty the great army of invading Saxons moving westward”, John Guthrie Smith and others have attempted to reconstruct these wars in minute detail, assigning different battles to specific places in the area. This includes the so-called Battle of Ardinning in 570AD between the Cumbrian King Gwallawg and a Saxon king called Hussa. Sadly, Guthrie Smith’s reconstruction of the Battle of Ardinning owes more to the Victorian romantic imagination and suggestive place names than sixth century history.

The same applies to attempts to link King Arthur to the Strathblane area. By around 600AD the name Arthur begins to appear in poetry and as a royal name across Britain. While the name derives from the word for bear, and so can simply means ferocious and fierce like a bear, it also likely helped inspire the later legends made popular by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The chronicler linked unnamed heroic warriors who resisted the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the post-Roman period and who were hitting southern Scotland by around 600AD to a legendary King Arthur. In turn this individual is linked to a number of battles including some in Scotland. Later medieval and Victorian antiquarians linked Strathblane to these legends without any foundation.

The term ‘Pict’ requires some unpicking (pun fully intended!). The Romans first use it as an ethnic slur. It might refer to the people of the fields or the tattooed people and it might also have some kind link to a native name. However, it is clear that it refers to people to the north of Hadrian’s Wall. Today we would call them Geordies!

 Centuries later years people round Inverness found references to “the Picts” in Roman texts and, assuming this referred to them, adopted the label. They then expanded north, south and west, clashing with everyone who was in their way.

By 700AD Scotland comprised four kingdoms: the Picts to the north of the Forth, Alt Clut (which becomes Strathclyde) around Glasgow but based on Dumbarton Rock, Dal Riada in Argyll and Northumberland to the South. The Northumbrians had once dominated Scotland but were pushed out by the Picts in 685 at the Battle of Dunnichen and the Battle of the Plain of Manau in 711, which established the River Forth as the frontier.

Dumbarton Rock, the stronghold of Alt Clut, the forerunner of Strathclyde

At this point the area around the Blane Valley was on the frontier between Dal Riada, Pictland and Alt Clut and a strategic route over which armies passed and crops were burnt. This sets the scene for the Battle of Mugdock in 750, a clash between the Picts and Alt Clut in which Talorcan, the Pictish leader was killed. This is all we know about this and while local traditions strongly link the battle to Strathblane and various standing stones, this is all conjecture. It is clear that this was an invasion. It was the first time the Picts had raided Alt Clut, as traditionally the royal families considered themselves kin and allies. See also https://senchus.wordpress.com/2015/02/11/the-battle-of-mugdock-ad-750/ an excellent blog by Dr Tim Clarkson.

Pictish Battle Scene depicted on a stone in Aberlemno Churchyard

There are several standing stones in the Strathblane area, including a group at Dumgoyach on the Duntreath Estate, one just west of Ballagan and one in Strathblane Church churchyard. Again, Guthrie Smith and others have attempted to link these with the centuries of turbulence follwing the departure of the Romans and claim they are the graves of “Cymric heroes”. Modern archaeology suggests these stones considerably pre-date these conflicts. For instance, carbon-dating on the Dumgoyach site puts them at around 2860BC.

Late Victorian oil painting of Dumgoyach Standing Stones

Six years after the Battle of Mugdock, another Pictish army, reinforced by Northumbrians, marched south and forced Alt Clut to sign a treaty. Presumably this made the Blane Valley part of a Pictish client kingdom. There was still life in the rock yet and Alt Clut recovered enough by 849 to raid north and burn down Dunblane. However, this was very much a last hoorah as by 870 Alt Clut was besieged and sacked by Vikings. At this point it seems likely that the Blane Valley turned Viking…. but that is another tale!

Dr Murray Cook, Stirling Council Archaeologist

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