Scotland in pre-Roman times

Before 70 AD Scotland was made up of groups of Celtic people clustered around hill-forts. (see Atlas of Hillforts in Britain and Ireland.) The people of Scotland spoke Brythonic (also known as Brittonic), a Gaelic language similar to Welsh, Cornish and Breton. We know this from place names such as “Aber” which means confluence, “Strath” which means wide valley and “caer” which means fort. They lived in roundhouses and their diet was predominately meat eaten as a stew. They lived in a land of cairns and stone circles built after 3000 BC. Pottery was used from 2000 BC with the “Beaker” culture imported to Scotland after mass migration from Europe. Read this article from the Orkney News – The Beaker People of North Scotland.

This video takes you through the history of Scotland from 4000 to 2500 BC

In Pembrokeshire, there is an Iron Age village at Castell Henllys which recreates life from 2000 years ago. Meet the tribe tells you a bit about life.

 Castell Henllys Iron Age Village Reconstruction (Copyright dave challender

The people of Northern Scotland were Caledonians. Tacitus describes them “Thus, the ruddy hair and large limbs of the Caledonians point out a German derivation.” ( see Life of Agricola chapter 11) They used chariots as shown by this Newbridge Chariot Reconstruction, made swords and worked iron.

Newbridge, Edinburgh Cairn and stone circle

They wore little body armour. They traded across Britain with flints from York found in the north of Scotland and internationally with links to southern France as shown by the Stirling treasure trove. See Iron age gold torcs. Women wore clothes made of wool, lamb skins and plant fibres. The clothes were dyed in various colours. See The Huldremose woman’s clothes for an example found in a bog in Denmark.

The Huldremose woman’s clothes = By Nationalmuseet, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Scotland was known to the Greeks and Romans before the invasion. Pliny the Elder writes in his book Natural History 1-11 in 77 AD;

” the island called Britannia is so celebrated in the records of Greece and our own country. It is situated to the northwest, and, with a large tract of intervening sea, lies opposite to Germany, Gaul, and Spain, by far the greater part of Europe. Its former name was Albion; but at a later period, all the islands, of which we shall just now briefly make mention, were included under the name of “Britanniae.” This island is distant from Gesoriacum (modern-day Boulogne), on the coast of the nation of the Morini, at the spot where the passage across is the shortest, fifty miles. Pytheas and Isidorus say that its circumference is 4875 miles. It is barely thirty years since any extensive knowledge of it was gained by the successes of the Roman arms, and even as yet, they have not penetrated beyond the vicinity of the Caledonian forest. Agrippa believes its length to be 800 miles, and its breadth 300; he also thinks that the breadth of Hibernia is the same, but its length is less by 200 miles. This last island is situated beyond Britannia, the passage across being the shortest from the territory of the Silures (Wales), a distance of thirty miles. Of the remaining islands none is said to have a greater circumference than 125 miles. Among these, there are the Orcades, forty in number, and situated within a short distance of each other, the seven islands called Acmodae, the Haebudes (Hebrides?), thirty in number, and, between Hibernia and Britannia, the islands of Mona, Monapia, Ricina, Vectis, Limnus, and Andros.”

Tacitus writing in 98 AD states of Britons ( see Life of Agricola chapter 12)

“Their military strength consists in infantry: some nations also make use of chariots in war; in the management of which, the most honourable person guides the reins, while his dependents fight from the chariot. The Britons were formerly governed by kings, but at present, they are divided into factions and parties among their chiefs; and this want of union for concerting some general plan is the most favourable circumstance to us, in our designs against so powerful a people. It is seldom that two or three communities concur in repelling the common danger; and thus, while they engage singly, they are all subdued. The sky in this country is deformed by clouds and frequent rains, but the cold is never extremely rigorous. The length of the days greatly exceeds that in our part of the world. The nights are bright, and, at the extremity of the island, so short, that the close and return of day is scarcely distinguished by a perceptible interval. It is even asserted that, when clouds do not intervene, the splendour of the sun is visible during the whole night, and that it does not appear to rise and set, but to move across. The cause of this is, that the extreme and flat parts of the earth, casting a low shadow, do not throw up the darkness, and so night falls beneath the sky and the stars. The soil, though improper for the olive, the vine, and other productions of warmer climates is fertile and suitable for corn. Growth is quick but maturation slow; both from the same cause, the great humidity of the ground and the atmosphere. The earth yields gold and silver, and other metals, the rewards of victory. The ocean produces pearls, but of a cloudy and livid hue; which some impute to unskillfulness in the gatherers; for in the Red Sea, the fish are plucked from the rocks alive and vigorous, but in Britain, they are collected as the sea throws them up.”

Tacitus mentions the following tribes. “the ruddy hair and large limbs of the Caledonians point out a German derivation. The swarthy complexion and curled hair of the Silures, together with their situation opposite to Spain, render it probable that a colony of the ancient Iberi possessed themselves of that territory. They who are nearest Gaul resemble the inhabitants of that country”

Tacitus’s believed origins of major tribes on Britain

The tribes of Scotland were documented by the map-maker Ptolemy in Alexandra, Egypt 150 AD with the Caledonii being the best known today.

(myself), CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Here is a link to an academic paper detailing Iron Age Scotland :SCARF Panel Report.

The Hunterian in Glasgow has a web page on Iron Age Scotland.

There is evidence that the Romans made some inroads into Scotland before the Agricola Campaign of 79 AD. The fort for Carlisle, for instance, has been dated to 72 AD. The academic evidence differs and consensus is not complete ( see 3.2 Questions of pre-Agricolan activity) and some marching camps are thought to be part of incursions into southern Scotland ( see “note (April 2017)” in this record https://canmore.org.uk/site/64687/glenlochar )


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