Having circumnavigated the British Isles by ship, earlier to their land-borne invasion, the Romans had probably already achieved the submission of tribes along the east coast of Scotland in the 1st century CE. Later, the empire builders from Italy would conquer modern-day England and Wales, before making inroads into Scotland under Agricola in 78CE. Try as they might, however, it seems unlikely that the Romans ever controlled more than half of Scotland, and in fact permanent Roman presence seems to have lasted no longer than eighty years.
For a time, it did seem that the Romans might annex Scotland, thus executing the imperial ambitions of Caesar, who had first invaded Britain in 55BCE. The Battle of Mons Graupius (from which the Grampians take their name) in 84CE, for example, was a crucial Roman victory over the last unconquered British tribe, the Caledonii. However, thanks to political rivalries in Rome, and the difficulty of establishing a secure and defensible centre of power in the rugged uplands of Scotland – at the extremes of an already over-stretched empire – before long Roman presence diminished. In 122AD, construction began on the famous Hadrian’s Wall, stretching from the Solway Firth across to the banks of the River Tyne, by modern-day Newcastle. Twenty years later, a more northerly wall was built, known as the Antonine Wall, and running across Scotland’s central belt from the Firth of Forth to the Firth of Clyde. Effectively, the Romans would struggle to retain the land between the walls, establishing forts, signal stations, and settlements for some forty years, after which Hadrian Wall became the de facto northern frontier of their empire.
Sandwiched between the two ‘great walls’, the valleys of the Borders were home to much Roman influence and settlement during their occupation of Scotland. As part of Gnaeus Julius Agricola’s initial campaign into Scotland, the general had forts built at Raeburnfoot (near Eskdalemuir) and at Newstead (better known by its Roman title, Trimontium). The fort at Trimontium sat on the banks of the River Tweed, with the Eildon Hills and the Iron Age hillfort atop Eildon North a visible reminder of both the local population and imposing landscape of the Scottish Borders. With the rivers Tweed and the Leader both providing routes for the movement of goods and people, and with the Roman road that became Dere Street passing alongside the fort, the location was ideal. And whilst its fortunes fluctuated with those of the empire – as it expanded and contracted above and below Hadrian’s Wall – from its first construction phase in c.80CE through to the last occupation and retreat shortly after 180CE the fort would have been a focal point and centre of activity for both Romans and locals alike.
Although there was no major Roman settlement in the immediate neighbourhood of Hawick (though in the 1960s ariel photography unearthed evidence of two temporary Roman camps at Cavers Main and Eastcote farms), there are many signs of nearby Roman habitation, including at Craik Cross, Aikwood, and Ruberslaw. A signal station was built from the ruins of an Iron Age fort on the summit of Ruberslaw, and in 1863 a 2nd century bronze horde of Roman origin was unearthed on the mountain’s flanks, now in Hawick museum. A ‘first brass’ of Vespasian was also discovered nearby, alongside two bronze coins uncovered on Hallrule farm, and a couple of dressed stones from Ruberslaw’s summit.
There is a Roman road running from Raeburnfoot to the Borthwick valley via Craik Cross, although it is unclear where it continued on the near side of Craik. There is another possible Roman road connecting Eskdale with Teviotdale, running via Ewes Doors to Caerlenrig. Further evidence of Romano-Borders history exists in the countless archaeological finds recovered over the years. Several Roman altar stones were reused in the building of Jedburgh Abbey, for example. At Teviothead, a Roman coin (of Vespasian) was found in 1856, and more recently a denarius of Augustus was found near Fulton Tower. A bronze swastika brooch from the late 2nd century was found at Denholmhill around 1930. More recently, a Roman coin was found in a garden at Maclagan Drive, and a Romano-British carved stone at Appletreehall. In 2011, a horde of two-hundred-and-twenty-eight coins from the time of Vespasian to Commodus were found on Synton Hill.
For the century or so of the most-constant Roman presence, the late-Iron Age peoples of the Scottish Borders – living in family farmsteads across the region, and gathering at times within the network of hillforts across the landscape – would have had to develop a range of strategies to exist within or alongside the Roman presence. These could vary from alliance and trade to dispute and warfare. In 367CE, the ‘Great Conspiracy’ finally forced the Romans to leave Britain. (In the winter of 367CE, the Roman garrison on Hadrian’s Wall rebelled, allowing Picts from Caledonia to enter Britannia, whilst various other tribes across the country, including the Attacotti, Scotti, and Saxons from Germania simultaneously rebelled, expelling the Romans from Britain and leading to a period of lawless banditry – not the last time the Borders would play host to such turmoil.) In their wake, the Romans left a Scotland unified under, or conquered by a people known as the Picts, whilst the Christianity they had brought would soon make its way from Ireland, via Columba’s Abbey on Iona, to the farthest reaches of the country. They may not have been in Scotland for long, but like any great upset, in the aftermath of the Romans Scotland, and the Borders, was drastically changed.