The World of Warriors of Epona – Part IV – Battle Line: The Gask Ridge Frontier

When most think of the Romans in Britannia or Caledonia, almost always the first thing that comes to mind is Hadrian’s Wall.

But there is another frontier that many people may not know of. You may have heard of some of the forts or camps that make up a part of this frontier, such as the legionary base at Inchtuthil.

Roman re-enactor watching the frontier

I’m talking about a line of forts and camps known as the ‘Gask Ridge’.

Research on this particular frontier has been less in depth than either the Antonine or Hadrianic walls. However, over the past ten years or so, the Gask Ridge has received its due attention thanks to the efforts of Birgitta Hoffmann and David Woolliscroft who have spearheaded the Roman Gask Project.

The importance of this frontier cannot be over-emphasized.

Gask Ridge Forts (Wikimedia Commons)

The Gask Ridge frontier has seen action in every one of Rome’s Caledonian campaigns and some of the research even shows that it was the first chain of forts in northern Britain, predating the other walls.

Some believe it is the first such frontier in the Empire!

It consists of a long line of forts, watchtowers, and temporary marching camps that run from the area of Stirling, on the Antonine Wall, past Doune, along the edge of Fife and up into Angus, all the way to Stracathro.

This is a very impressive line of defence built by Rome with the intent of holding the Caledonii at bay, and separating the highlands from the flatter plains leading to the North Sea.

Artist Impression of Caledonian Warriors

In writing Warriors of Epona, the trick was finding out which forts may have been in use during the campaigns of Septimius Severus in the early 3rd century A.D.

The forts of the Gask Ridge were used mostly during Agricola’s campaign in the late first century, and then by Antoninus in the mid-second century.

Roman road along Gask Ridge in Perth and Kinross

The Romans definitely knew how to pick a strategic location along the perfect line of march, so it’s likely marching camps would have been reused in later campaigns. But some of that is supposition.

One site that we know was built as part of the Severan campaign was the legionary fort at Carpow, on the banks of the Tay. With a large part of a legion stationed there, the supply chain could be maintained by sea with Roman galleys coming up the Tay. It was also at this time that some believe the first Tay Bridge was built when Severus ordered the creation of a boat or pontoon bridge to the Angus side of the river.

Aerial view of Horea Classis site (Carpow)

Carpow was a large base of operations intended to make a statement – Rome was going to stay this time! Severus was a military emperor who liked to prove his point. He was in Caledonia to finish what other Roman emperors had started, just as he did in Parthia.

The Gask Ridge plays a key role in Warriors of Epona, especially the forts that may have seen re-use during the third century, among them the forts at Camelon, Ardoch, Fendoch, and Bertha, the latter being where Lucius Metellus Anguis establishes his forward base.

Ardoch Roman camp remains

Of course, one of the exciting things about writing historical fiction, after the research, is filling in the gaps and exploring possibilities.

Because research on the Gask Ridge is relatively new, we can certainly look forward to learning more from Hoffmann, Woolliscroft, and everyone else on the Roman Gask Project team who are leading the charge to further our knowledge of this ancient frontier.

One thing that I have discovered over the years is that even though the history and research are very important, at the end of the day, in fiction, the story must come first.

With Warriors of Epona, history and story have come together nicely, and that has been pure magic!

Cheers, and stay tuned for the fifth and final part of The World of Warriors of Epona.

Aerial view of Fendoch and the Sma’ Glen from the south with the fort on the low plateau in the right foreground.

If you are interested in reading more about the Roman Gask Frontier, or about the Romans in Scotland, do have a look at the following resources:

The Roman Gask Project: http://www.theromangaskproject.org/

Rome’s First Frontier: The Flavian Occupation of Northern Scotland. By D. J. Woolliscroft and B. Hoffman. Pp. 254. ISBN: 0 7524 3044 0. Stroud: Tempus. 2006.

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The World of Warriors of Epona – Part II – Trimontium: The Place of Three Peaks

The Legions are on the move once more in this second part of The World of Warriors of Epona.

In this post, we’re going to take a brief look at the site of Trimontium, which is located at Newstead.

Trimontium is the site of a Roman fort in what are today the Scottish Borders, north of Hadrian’s Wall. This was not a full legionary base, but rather a fort that housed about 1500 troops at its peak usage, cavalry in particular!

Trimontium fort site, below Eildon Hill

However, it was a major stopping point on the route north, located as it was along Dere Street, the major Roman road in the region.

I first became aware of Trimontium as part of my master’s degree thesis research while at St. Andrew’s University. In researching a theory about the activities of an historical ‘Arthur’ in the region, I came across this remarkable Roman fort set in a beautiful and dramatic setting.

A site visit was definitely in order!

If you have ever been to the Borders, you will know that the region’s pastoral beauty belies its warlike past.

Scott’s View

As I drove south from Edinburgh on the A68 (which follows the line of Roman Dere Street, bulbous green and treeless landscapes gave way to fertile fields lined with hedges and accented with summer wildflowers. It was a bright, sunny day, which was often not the case in Scotland, and so I could see for some distance.

As we approached the River Tweed, the three peaks of the Eildon Hills came into view with the river sparkling in the summer sun. I was finally there, having followed in the footsteps of the legions.

Trimontium from the A68 with Tweed river and bridge

This area is loaded with wonderful places to see such as Scott’s view, a favourite place of reflection for Sir Walter Scott and a great spot from which to see the Eildon Hills, Dryburgh Abbey, Melrose Abbey (where the heart of Robert the Bruce’s heart is buried), and myriad country paths.

But it was the Roman presence that concerned me on this trip.

Eildon Hill from the ruins of Melrose Abbey

The fort at Trimontium was used as a marching camp by Agricola’s troops c. A.D. 80 and had eight subsequent phases of Roman occupation all the way to the time of Septimius Severus’ campaigns into Caledonia in the early 3rd century, the latter being the time in which Warriors of Epona takes place.

Trimontium is so-named because of the three peaks of the Eildon Hills that overshadow it. It was on the marching route to the north and provided a visible and central meeting place for the legions and auxiliaries. Some of the most important finds to come from the area are the horse harness and ornamental cavalry armour of the troops that were stationed there.

2nd century Roman cavalry auxiliaries (illustrated by Kawaleria Rzymska)

These finds are wonderful and some can be seen in the museum in Melrose, but mainly in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh. The cavalry masks discovered at Trimontium inspired some tweaks to Lucius Metellus Anguis’ own armour in the book.

The Newstead Cavalry Mask (wikimedia commons)

It was the obvious presence of Roman auxiliary cavalry that gripped my imagination then, and so it quickly became obvious that Lucius and his Sarmatian cavalry ala would be based at Trimontium during a portion of Severus’ Caledonian campaign, the final phase of use for Trimontium.

Crop marks showing outline of fort at Newstead

Though today almost nothing remains of the Roman fort (it’s mainly a great field), during the Antonine period, the fort at Trimontium had three defensive ditches and a rampart, a principia (headquarters building) that may also have served as an exercise hall just off of the via Decumana, barracks, stables, a commander’s house, and granaries.

There were also annexes on every side of the fort with a parade ground on the east side, and a mansio (a sort of hostel) and bath house on the west side.

Plan of the site and successive fort(s) at Trimontium (from Newstead 1996 – The Northern Vicus and the Amphitheatre Excavations and Survey; University of Bradford)

Trimontium did not only have a military presence. Wherever the Roman army went, there were others who followed – wives and children, merchants, prostitutes and others.

Outside the walls of the fort, as with many Roman forts, there was a vicus, a civilian settlement on the north side where the people mentioned above would have lived.

But one of the most interesting features of Trimontium’s fort is the presence of an amphitheatre beyond the north-east corner of the fortress, near the banks of the River Tweed. The outlines indicate that it was elliptical rather than round, and because of its location next to the military installation, it was likely used not only for games, but also for drills.

Artist impression of Newstead Amphitheatre

When you visit a site like the fort of Trimontium, there actually isn’t much to see when you are ‘on the ground’. It helps to do a bit of research beforehand so you know what you are looking at.

For someone like me, who is interested not only in the site, but the smell of the air, the sound of the wind and the view of the surroundings, it is magic for my creativity. But it also helps to get a bird’s eye view of the site.

If you don’t have a helicopter or bi-plane, the best way to do that is to climb Eildon Hill North, the biggest, broadest peak of the three and that which overlooks Melrose and the fort at Trimontium.

Eildon Hill North (Wikimedia Commons)

I drove the car as close as I could get to the base of the hill, having left the fort behind, parked, and began to climb.

From a distance, Eildon Hill North doesn’t seem so big, but when you get up close, you realized you have quite a workout ahead of you. I was glad of my hiking boots, let me tell you.

Once at the top, the world opens up before you. The view is magnificent.

But after the calm beauty of the farmlands down around the fort, the howling winds at the top of Eildon Hill North made for quite a contrast. It wasn’t a place to picnic when I finally got up there.

View from the top of Eildon Hill

This was a sacred hill to the Britons during the Bronze and Iron ages, and was the site of a hill fort that housed up to two-thousand people of the Selgovae, the tribe against which Lucius does battle at the beginning of the book.

When Rome came to the region and took the hill, they constructed a signal station at the top which had a round enclosure about it. However by the time of the Severan invasion of Caledonia, it seems that the signal station might have been out of use. That’s not to say I didn’t have plans for Eildon Hill North in Warriors of Epona!

After the long trek up and back down again, I made my way into Melrose for lunch, after which I visited the lovely little Trimontium Trust Museum.

If you have the time, you should definitely visit this little museum, if only to try on some Roman arms and armour, heft a scutum, unsheathe a gladius, and sit on a four-horned Roman cavalry saddle.

When I finally sat down to write Warriors of Epona, my memories of the fort at Triumontium, the setting, and the wind atop Eildon Hill North all rushed back into my mind as if it were only yesterday.

The site features at the beginning of the book, and though my time there is at an end, the memories of it will always be fresh and inspiring.

Be sure to join me for Part III of The World of Warriors of Epona when we will be looking at the various combatants in our story.

Thank you for reading.

Warriors of Epona (Eagles and Dragons – Book III) is out now in e-book! CLICK HERE to get your copy from Amazon, Kobo, or Apple.

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