Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Caledonia

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CALEDONIA, used in general somewhat loosely to denote the northern portion of Britain during the period of the Roman occupation of the island, had originally a more restricted application. It is proposed in this article to give, from a geographical as well as an historical point of view, a brief account of what seems to have been known regarding it in ancient times.

The word Caledonia is first met with in the fourth book of Pliny's Historia Naturalis (circa 77 A.D.), where, in the very meagre notice of Britain, the Caledonian forest (Caledonia sylva) is given as the northern boundary of the Roman part of the island. Its next appearance is in the Agricola of Tacitus (96 A.D.) Here, both in the brief geographical description of Britain, chaps. x. and xi., and in the account of Agricola's campaigns, chaps. xxv.xxxviii., Caledonia is unquestionably Britain north of the Firth of Forth. On turning to the geographer Ptolemy (circa 120 A.D.), we fail to meet with the term except as the name of one of the many tribes among which he has parcelled out the “Bretannic Island, Albion.” To explain this it is not necessary to assume that Ptolemy was ignorant of the wider acceptation in which Caledonia had recently come to be employed among the Romans. It is more reasonable to suppose that, as he avowedly drew the materials for his tables from earlier, chiefly from Tyrian sources, he judged it prudent to follow in the main long-recognized authorities. Yet even in Ptolemy we have an indication either of the importance of the Caledonians among their neighbours or of the occasional use of the word as a general name for all the northern tribes. Twice he gives the Deucaledonian Ocean as bounding Britain on the north, that is, after the necessary correction for his mistake in making the whole of the northern part of the island trend to the east instead of to the north, as washing the shores of modern Scotland on the west. Confused and inaccurate in some respects as the Alexandrian geographer's tables are, they, notwithstanding, contain a surprising amount of information regarding the leading features of the coast-line of Britain, the correctness of much of which can be verified by existing names. His account of the tribes and their towns, especially towards the north, is, as might have been expected, much less definite and trustworthy. In order to be able to give here some notice of the Ptolemaic geography of North Britain, Caledonia may for the moment be regarded as a synonymous term.

Ptolemy's error in turning the northern part of the island to the east has already been noticed. How he was led into it there are no means of determining. One effect of it is to exaggerate greatly the length of the Solway Firth and displace the Hebrides from their true position, as may be seen by referring to certain maps appended to several MSS. of the Geography and given with some editions of it. The error can easily be rectified; and when this is done the outline of the coast will be found to be wonderfully correct.[1] Commencing with the promontory of the Noouantai (Mull of Galloway) in the south-west and proceeding northwards along the shores of the Deucaledonian Ocean, we have in succession the Bay of Rerigonios (Loch Ryan), the Bay of Ouindogara (Ayr), the estuary of the Klota (Clyde), the Bay of Lelaamnonios (Loch Fyne), Cape Epidion (Mull of Kintyre), the outlets of the River Longus (Loch Linnhe ?), outlets of the River Ituos, Bay of Ouolsas (Lochalsh?), outlets of the River Nabaios, and Cape Tarouedoum or Orkas (Dunnet Head). Coming down the east coast, said to be washed by the German Ocean, we find Cape Ouirouedroum (Duncansbay Head), Cape Oueroubium (Noss Head ?), the outlets of the River Ila, the High Bank, outlets of the River Loxa, estuary of the Ouarar (Moray Firth), estuary of the Touaisis (Spey ?), outlets of the River Kelnios (Deveron ?), the promontory of the Taizalai (Kinnaird's Head), outlets of the River Deoua (Dee), estuary of the Taoua (Tay), outlets of the River Tina, estuary of the Boderia (Firth of Forth), outlets of the River Alaunos, outlets of the River Ouedra (Tyne?). On the south, bounded by the Hibernian Ocean, we have the peninsula of the Noouantai (the Rhinns of Galloway), outlets of the River Abraouannos (Luce ?), estuary of the lena (Cree ?), estuary of the Deoua (Dee), outlets of the River Noouios (Nith), outlets of the Itouna (Eden).

The country is represented as inhabited by the following tribes, sixteen in number:—the Noouantai, dwelling under (i.e., east) of the peninsula of the same name (Wigtonshire), their towns Loukopibia and Retigonion; east of them the Selgoouai (along the Solway Firth, and inland), their towns Karbantorigon, Ouxellon (Dumfries ?), Korda, Trimontion; still further east, the Otadinoi, probably along the south-east coast, their towns Kouria and Bremenion; and the Damnonioi, occupying apparently the basins of the Clyde, Forth, and Tay (in part), their towns Kolania, Ouandouara (Ayr ?), Koria, Alauna (Stirling ?), Lindon, Ouiktoria (near Perth); the Kaledonioi, in the district from Loch Fyne to the Moray Firth, with the Caledonian forest to the west of them; eastward the Ouakomagoi (Banff and parts of Moray and Aberdeen), their towns Banatia, Tameia, the Winged Camp, Touaisis; east of these the Taizaloi (part of Aberdeenshire), their town Deouana (Aberdeen), and the Ouenicones (Forfarshire), their town Orrea (Forfar ?); while occupying the west of Argyll and Inverness, part of Ross-shire, and the whole of Sutherland and Caithness, were in succession the Epidioi (in Kintyre), Kerones, Kreones, Karnonakai, Karinoi, Kornauioi (Caithness), Decantai, Longoi, and Smertai. Near the promontory of Orkas were the islands of Okitis and Doumna; north of which lay the Orkades (Orkneys), about thirty in number, and still farther north Thoule (Shetland ?).

Ptolemy's description is the only detailed one we have till we come down to the 16th century. It is matter for regret that the Antonine Itinerary, so useful an aid to the identification of the Ptolemaic towns in the southern part of the island, does not extend to the north, and that the lists of the anonymous geographer of Ravenna are so corrupt as to be almost useless. About the middle of the last century a new element of confusion was introduced into what was tangled enough previously, by the publication of Bertram's well-known forgery De Situ Britanniæ, falsely ascribed to Richard of Cirencester, which being accepted as genuine by Roy, Chalmers, Stuart, and others, has been the means of giving currency to many unfounded notions regarding the nature and extent of the Roman conquests in North Britain.

The written history of Caledonia as well as of the rest of what is now Scotland commences with the warlike operations in Britain of Agricola, the lieutenant of the Emperor Domitian. (See Britannia, p. 353.) In the third year of his command this famous general, who was fortunate enough to have his son-in-law Tacitus as his biographer, determined to attempt the annexation of the northern portion of the island. Accordingly, in 80 A.D., he advanced as far as the estuary of the Taus, or as Wex reads, the Tanaus. Whatever the true reading may be, the supposition that on this occasion Agricola reached the Tay is untenable; though, whether the river referred to be the English Tyne, the Tweed, or the Scotch Tyne, it is impossible to say. The succeeding summer found him as far north as the isthmus formed by the firths of Clota and Bodotria (Clyde and Forth). On it he erected a line of forts, with the intention apparently of making it the northern boundary of the empire in those parts. In the following year he crossed the Clota, and overran additional territory “in that part of Britain which looks towards Ireland.” Information having now reached him that the remoter and still unconquered tribes were forming a combination against the Romans, he resolved to anticipate them, and (83 A.D.) carried the war beyond the Bodotria into the country of the Caledonians. That summer an engagement was fought, which, though it resulted in favour of the invaders, taught the Romans that they had no ordinary foe to cope with. On the approach of winter both sides retired to their quarters to make preparations for renewing the struggle. Next season (84) Agricola, on resuming the offensive, found himself confronted by a grand union of all the tribes of Caledonia, under a leader whom Tacitus names Galgacus. The Roman general had previously despatched a fleet to ravage the coast, and on continuing his march northwards, encountered the enemy, upwards of 30,000 strong, near Mount Graupius; for there can be little doubt that this, the reading of Wex and Kritz, ought to be adopted instead of the Grampius of the common editions. The exact locality of the conflict that ensued has been the theme of much profitless controversy; but we shall probably not greatly err in placing it somewhere on the borders of Kincardineshire. General Roy, whose conjecture is usually followed, fixed on Ardoch in Perthshire. A careful study, however, of the whole narrative leads one to look for the field of battle farther north, and nearer the coast. Tacitus, writing on the model of Thucydides and Livy, has put into the mouth of each leader, on the eve of the engagement, a speech of his own composition, in which he describes the feelings that may be supposed to have actuated the hostile armies. That ascribed to Galgacus is a splendid specimen of polished sarcasm, mixed with impassioned appeals to the patriotism of his hearers. Might, however, prevailed over right, and the Caledonians were defeated with a loss of 10,000 men. Agricola, now thinking he had pushed his conquests far enough, made no attempt to pursue his beaten foe, but at once led his army back to the territory of the Boresti (al. Horesti), whose name is probably preserved in the modern Forfar. Here he gave orders to the commander of his fleet to sail round the island, a feat which the latter accomplished. Soon after he himself was recalled to Rome by his jealous master.

Notwithstanding Agricola's success, the Romans seem to have been quickly obliged to abandon part of their conquests, for in less than forty years (129 A.D.) Hadrian's wall, which ran from the Tyne to the Solway, became the northern limits of their empire in Britain. About twenty years later a second Agricola appeared in the person of Lollius Urbicus, the lieutenant of Antoninus Pius. Almost nothing is known of his actions, but he seems to have once more carried the arms of Rome to the Clyde and Forth, if not beyond them, and to have erected on the line of Agricola's forts the more substantial work now known by the name of the emperor he served (see Antoninus, Wall of). The natives must soon have recovered the lost ground; but scarcely anything is known henceforth of the state of affairs in the north till 208, when, if we may trust the historian Dion Cassius, as abridged by Xiphiline, the Emperor Severus determined to attempt the subjugation of the whole island. At that time the two most powerful tribes of North Britain were the Mæatæ, close to Hadrian's Wall, and the Caledonians beyond them. Protected by their native fastnesses, the latter offered him such a resistance that, without being able to bring them to a decisive engagement, he lost through disease, fatigue, and the sword, no fewer, it is said, than 50,000 men. Having reached what is termed the northern extremity of the island, but which was in all likelihood merely the northern coast of Aberdeenshire, Severus retreated southwards in a very feeble state of health, partly induced by the fatigues he had undergone. A league formed the next year between the Caledonians and the Mæatæ, both of whom had already cast off his authority, led him to make preparations for a new campaign, with the avowed determination of extirpating the whole race. In the midst of these, however, he died at York in 210.

For a whole century afterwards the ancient writers are almost silent regarding Caledonia. In the year 310 we hear for the first time of the Picts; and in 310 Theodosius, an able Roman general, was sent into Britain by Valentinian I. to defend the Britons of the south against the attacks of the men of the north, represented by Ammianus Marcellinus as being the Picts divided into two tribes (the Dicaledones and the Vecturiones), the Saxons, the Attacotti, and the Scots. He was so far successful that the countries between the walls of Hadrian and Antoninus became yet again a subjected province, named Valentian by Theodosius, in honour of the emperor,—a conquest, however, which can have lasted but a brief period. Henceforth, if we except the effusions of the poet Claudian, the scanty notices of Britain to be met with during several succeeding centuries present the same sad tale of sufferings inflicted on the now effeminate Britons of the south by their warlike neighbours, till at length the settlement of large bodies of Saxons in England changed the aspect of affairs.

The etymology of the word Caledonia has been variously given. Celydd (in Welsh, a woody shelter) is the popular derivation; but Isaac Taylor (Words and Places, p. 44) thinks the word may possibly contain the root gael, and if so, the Caledonians would be the Gaels of the duns or hills. Equally obscure are the ethnological relations of the people, the most probable opinion being that which regards them as belonging to the British branch of the great Celtic family. A casual inference, hazarded by Tacitus (Agricola, chap. xi.), that the red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia point clearly to a German origin, must not be pressed too far. There were probably even in his day Teutonic settlements along our eastern and northern shores, but it seems too much to assume that that race was the dominant one north of the Forth. It is a still more doubtful question to what race the Picts belonged. But the discussion of these and other points belongs to the history of Scotland (q.v.) (See Claudii Ptolemæi Geographia, ed. Wilberg, Essendiæ, 1838; Roy's Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain, London, 1793; Burton's History of Scotland, vol. i., Edin. 1867.)

(j. m‘d.)

  1. The orthography of the names that follow is that of the text of Ptolemy (Wilberg's), and not of the Latin translation. With a few exceptions they are evidently intended to express native terms by means of Greek (perhaps originally Tyrian) characters, and it seems undesirable to obscure them further by presenting them in those of another language.