The Caledonians

The people who inhabited what is now Scotland had their names recorded by the Romans in Ptolemy’s map of 150 AD but many other Roman writings record the Caledonians. The Caledonians were tall with red hair and ruddy complexions and were thought to be of German origin. In later documents, they were described as Picts because of the blue tattoos over their bodies.

The Romans found that the Britons, and presumably the Caledonians displayed more ferocity than their European neighbours probably because of the constant war between tribes. Tacitus writes ” The earth yields gold and silver and other metals, the ocean produces pearls. The Roman fleet, at this period first sailing around the Caledonian coast, gave certain proof that Britain was an island and at the same time discovered and subdued the Orkney islands till then unknown. The ocean and the sea tides and its ebbings and flowings penetrate into the heart of the country and work its way among hills and mountains.” The last sentence describes the various firths and stretches of water in Scotland.

In this following passage, Tacitus refers to tribes in Germany. As the Caledonians appear to be of German origin it may be their customs are closely related. “In the election of kings, they have regard to birth; in that of generals, to valour. The German kings do not have not absolute or unlimited power and their generals commanded less through the force of authority than by example. If they are daring, adventurous, and conspicuous in action, they procure obedience from the admiration they inspire. None, however, but the priests are permitted to judge offenders, to inflict bonds or stripes; so that chastisement appears not as an act of military discipline, but as the instigation of the god whom they suppose present with warriors.”

Clan Chiefs, Parliament and the Law

For smaller decisions, the chiefs consult; on those of greater importance, the whole community is consulted in what is referred to as the decision of the people who meet at regular intervals decided by phases of the moon. It is first maturely discussed by the chiefs. The king, or clan chief, and such others as are conspicuous for age, birth, military renown, or eloquence, are heard; and gain attention rather from their ability to persuade, than their authority to command. If a proposal displeases, the assembly reject it with an inarticulate murmur; if it proves agreeable, they clash their arms.

Before this council, it is likewise allowed to present accusations and to prosecute capital offences. Punishments are varied according to the nature of the crime. Traitors and deserters are hung upon trees: cowards, wicked people, and those guilty of unnatural practices are suffocated in the mud under a frame. ( see Europe’s Famed Bog Bodies Are Starting to Reveal Their Secrets)

Birth, Marriage and Death

“In every house, the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder. Every mother suckles her own children and does not deliver them into the hands of servants and nurses. No indulgence distinguishes the young master from the slave. They lie together amidst the same cattle, upon the same ground, till age separates, and valour marks out, the free-born.

The matrimonial bond is strict. The wife receives a dowry from her husband. The parents and relations assemble, and praise the presents—presents not adapted to please a female taste, or decorate the bride; but oxen, a shield, a spear, and a sword. The wife is married and she in her turn makes a present of some arms to her husband. This they consider as the firmest bond of union. That the woman may not think herself excused from exertions of fortitude, or exempt from the casualties of war, she comes to her husband as a partner in toils and dangers; to suffer and to dare equally with him, in peace and in war: this is indicated by the yoked oxen, the offered arms. Thus she is to live; thus to die. She receives what she is to return and this practice is communicated to her children; her daughters-in-law are to receive, and her grandchildren.

Their funerals are without ceremony. The only circumstance to which they attend is to burn the bodies of eminent persons with some particular kinds of wood. 2 The tomb is a mound of turf. They soon dismiss tears and lamentations; slowly, sorrow and regret. They think it is the women’s part to bewail their friends, the men’s to remember them.”

Skara Brae Dice 2400 BC
© National Museums Scotland

Leisure – Whisky, Dance and Dice

The alcoholic drink is a liquor prepared from barley or wheat brought by fermentation, an early whisky perhaps. Their food is simple; wild fruits, fresh venison, or coagulated milk. What is extraordinary, they play at dice, when sober, as a serious business: and that with such a desperate venture of gain or loss, that, when everything else is gone, they set their liberties and persons on the last throw. The loser goes into voluntary servitude; and, though the youngest and strongest, patiently suffers himself to be bound and sold. Such is their obstinacy in a bad practice—they themselves call it an honour. The slaves thus acquired are exchanged away in commerce, so that the winner may get rid of the scandal of his victory.

Carnyx that Caledonians carried into battle and played
© National Museums Scotland


Tacitus writes “Their military strength consists of infantry although some chariots are present. They have no kings and are divided into factions among their chiefs and It is seldom that two or three communities concur in repelling the common danger and while they engage singly, they are all subdued. They also carry with them to battle certain images and standards taken from sacred places.

It is a principal incentive for their courage, that their squadrons and battalions are not formed by men fortuitously collected, but by the assemblage of families and clans. Their families also are also near battle; they have within hearing the yells of their women, and the cries of their children. These, too, are the most revered witnesses of each man’s conduct, these are his most liberal applauders. To their mothers and their wives, they bring their wounds for relief, nor do these dread to count or to search out the gashes. The women also administer food and encouragement to those who are fighting.”

Tradition says, that clans beginning to give way have been rallied by the females, by fear of impending slavery, a calamity which these people bear with more impatience for their women than themselves. Those clans who have been obliged to give among their hostages the daughters of noble families are the most obedient.”

A peculiar kind of verse is also current among them, by the recital of which, termed “barding,” they stimulate their courage; while the sound itself serves as an augury of the event of the impending combat. For, according to the nature of the cry proceeding from the line, terror is inspired or felt: nor does it seem so much an articulate song, as the wild chorus of valour. A harsh, piercing note, and a broken roar, are the favourite tones; which they render more full and sonorous by applying their mouths to their shields. The Carnyx was used to instil terror in enemies.

Hear a sound 2000 years old from this replica Carnyx

The clans of the Caledonians were gathered together under a leader who united Scotland to battle with the invader. 30,000 Caledonians gathered and were defeated in 83 AD by Agricola in the battle of Mons Graupius.

Battle of Mons Graupius
copyright Erebus-art

Pressures elsewhere in the Empire made the Romans withdraw from Scotland as legions were needed to fight in Dacia in 88 AD.

In the years 222 to 235 a Caledonian descendant made the following dedication in Colchester

“To the god Mars Medocius of the Campeses and to the Victory of our Emperor Alexander Pius Felix, Lossio Veda, grandson of Vepogenus, a Caledonian, set up this gift from his own resources”

Inscription content in Latin: “Deo Marti Medocio Camp/esium et Victorie Alexan/dri Pii Felicis Augusti nos(tr)i/ donum Lossio Veda de suo / posuit nepos Vepogeni Caledo” with “caledo” meaning caledonian

Lossio Veda, grandson of Vepogenus a Caledonian. Copyright The British Museum (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

There are also two building dedications to “caledo secundi” from Hadrian’s Wall. “This”Caledo” is translated as a name but in the translation above “caledo” is Caledonian. See RIB 1854. Centurial stone of Caledonius Secundus and RIB 1679. Centurial stone of Caledonius Secundus

In Austria on the Danube near the Hungarian and Slovakian borders, there is a Roman fort at Petronell-Carnuntum where a funeral stone has the inscription “caledo” see Epigraphik-Datenbank  Clauss / Slaby  EDCS-25600840

Note that a military diploma attested to CALEDONIS SAMMONIS F PRINC BOIOR I consider not to be Caledonian as diploma says he comes from Boior See and ROMAN MILITARY DIPLOMAS IV page 397 (Jstor login required)


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