7.4.3 Roman Activity in the Highlands

Unlike the National ScARF and many regional research frameworks, the Highland Archaeological Regional Framework has no separate chapter for the Roman period. This is because the Romans probably did not directly reach the Highlands, or, if so they were only fleeting visitors. The main evidence cited is generally Tacitus’ discussion of Agricola’s campaigns. However, the decisive battle of Mons Graupius, after which the Roman army retreated, remains unlocated, though current opinion tends to suggest it took place in Aberdeenshire. Although there have been concentrated efforts to find evidence of Roman marching camps, particularly by Barri Jones and Ian Keillar (2005), none of the postulated sites thus far has produced convincing evidence and the issue remains unproven (Gregory 2001). Tacitus mentions the fleet circumnavigating Scotland, which might have resulted in stops along the way, but such contact would have left little trace, and arguably little impact.

What archaeologists do find are Roman objects in high status sites (see Datasheet 7.6 and Map 7.6). Many were probably the result of diplomacy or trade, though whether direct or indirect is not clear (see 7.7). The lack of direct Roman influence in the Highlands, as compared to areas in southern Scotland, may well have influenced different settlement areas, choices of ways to show status or other aspects of identity. The withdrawal of Rome, and access to Roman exotics, may also have been felt in the Highlands (Hunter 2007).

Most Roman finds up to 2005 were helpfully listed with dating in Hunter (2007, Appendices 1–3). To this should be added some more recent finds, including those from Culduthel (Hatherley and Murray 2021; Hunter 2021), the Belladrum coin hoard (MHG56866), a massive Iron Age torc and Romano-British brooch from near Auldearn (MHG60606) and some other metal detector finds. Finds include coins, pottery (mainly Samian), personal ornaments (mainly brooches), feasting items (including a set of serving bowls and strainers from Helmsdale), glass vessels and unusual items, such as a terracotta model of a bale of wool found at Dun Fiadhairt/Dun an Iardhard (MHG4827). Over the years a number of single finds of Roman coins have been reported, but these must be treated with caution, as they may be more recent losses, especially as they include coins unlikely to have been circulating in Roman Britain in any numbers, such as Greek-issue coins or coinage from Roman Egypt. The Belladrum coin hoard is significant in containing silver coins as it reflects a wider pattern of silver coin hoards along the southern Moray Firth (Hunter 2014a; 2021).

Massive Iron Age copper alloy torc and brooch from Auldearn. ©National Museums Scotland
A bronze strainer with the handle missing; from a hoard of Roman bowls and strainers found at Helmsdale in Sutherland (200–400 AD). ©National Museums Scotland

Findspots tend to be substantial houses such as brochs or large roundhouses like those at Culduthel, but also the multi-period beach sites, such as Culbin Sands and Fendom Sands (Hunter 2007; Ingemark 2014). Some sites seem particularly rich in Roman finds, such as Keiss Harbour broch (MHG1659; Heald and Jackson 2001, 139) and Culduthel where two, possibly three, copper alloy coins, a brooch and raw materials from recycled Roman objects were found (Hunter 2021).

Most Roman material in the Scotland dates to after the Flavian invasions of the 1st century AD. One of the few exceptions is an Aucissa brooch found at Dores near Inverness which is dated to the first half of the 1st century AD, perhaps indicating diplomatic relations direct or indirect even before Scottish invasions (Hunter 2007, 22).

Once in the Highlands, Roman objects are argued to have been used to show status, reflecting the ability to obtain and display scarce elite objects (Hunter 2007). Many objects were clearly valued, and they lived extended lives. For example, a piece of Samian ware (terra sigillata) found at a ring-ditch roundhouse at Brackla, Nairnshire had been reused as a pot lid (MHG7309). There is a need to compare the Highland pattern of finds and dates with other areas of the country as well (Hunter 2007).

Some objects are likely to be of local production, but clearly influenced by Roman artefacts, for example massive-styled finger-rings (Hunter 2014b; 2021).

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