Monday, January 21, 2008

"Lands hitherto unknown": the Novantae

Or, "Do I have a touch of Asperger's?"

Warning: boring rubbish; trying to sort out some thoughts; probably incomprehensible.

Agricola started his fifth campaign by crossing the first water and in a series of successful actions subdued lands hitherto unknown. The side of Britain that faces Ireland was lined with his forces. (Tacitus, Agricola, ch. 24)

Anyone who's read the Agricola knows that one of the problems with that little book is Tacitus' vagueness on certain points. Like, for instance, what this "first water" is. Historians argue over it - some think it's the River Annan, others the Clyde, and so forth (pun unintended). Similarly, whereabouts was he when he was facing Ireland?

I'm working towards this part in my NiP right now, so Agricola-muse and I have been poring over maps of Roman Scotland, trying to work out a route for Marcus and co. to take this year.

In southern Scotland, there are two places close to Ireland. The Mull of Kintyre (Epidium Promontorium) is something like twelve miles from its north-east coast, hence Dál Riata in Antrim and Argyll. The problem with Kintyre is, so far there's no evidence for a Roman presence, and I have a problem imagine Agricola's army squashed together at the tip of that promontory.

The Rhinns of Galloway (Novantarum Peninsula) are the other possibility, and the one I've decided to favour. They lay within lands of the Novantae tribe, who seem to have inhabited roughly the Dumfries and Galloway area. In my own take on the original narrative I have Agricola, having already built his Forth-Clyde frontier, now embarking on a mission of consolidation, which brings him to the Novantae. He's already thinking about invading Ireland one day, so the handy Novantarum Pensinsula is an added incentive. ;)

The good news, there's traces of Roman activity in Dumfries and Galloway. Not a lot of it, but some intriguing bits and pieces. So I'm trying to map out a possible route for the invading Roman army, and a seat of power for the Novantae themselves. Hey, they need to defend something.

So, with my handy Ordnance Survey Roman Britain and Ancient Britain maps to hand, I start looking. This is where anyone without a map of Galloway to hand is liable to get lost, so I'll describe it as carefull as possible.

A known Roman road makes its way northwest/southeast through Nithsdale, but in the Dumfries area there are a couple of marching camps to the southwest of this road at Fourmerkland. Continuing further SW from Fourmerkland, there are another pair (the map has two) at Shawhead. It definitely seems there was some sort of incursion this way.

Even further SW, at Glenlochar in the Castle Douglas area, is an interesting little collection of fortifications: a good-sized (8.3 acre) Flavian-dated fort, along with six marching camps (the largest measured is around 33 acres, so it's a good size). The fort was also occupied in the Antonine period, so maybe a couple of camps are contemporary with that, but I'm willing to bet there are some Flavian camps in that collection, continuing this apparent march SW. (It's so difficult to date these things precisely, especially the Flavian installations in Scotland). The placement of a fort here, I think, deserves some attention.

Going even further SW, we reach a trace of Roman road and the fortlet of Gatehouse on Fleet, which has good views up the valley of the Water of Fleet. Whether by accident or design, this fortlet isn't far from the rather interesting hillfort of Trusty's Hill. The hillfort shows signs of vitrification, and is also one of the few sites in southern Scotland to show Pictish-style carvings (probably later than this period, but interesting nevertheless).

It's this little bit of road that's interesting, as there are few traces of Roman road this far west, and roads were pretty much built by the army for the army. Was it built as my hypothetical expedition made their way SW, and the rest of the traces lost? Well, we'll see. What traces there are seem to be pointing west...

Now, the next point on the OS map is the marching camp at Glenluce, almost directly west of Gatehouse of Fleet. Glenluce is practically on the point of Luce Bay, which opens onto the Solway firth. And from Glenluce, there are more traces of a Roman road - arcing its way NW, seemingly from Glenluce towards the modern town of Strangaer, at the head of Loch Ryan.

And that's it. That's the points of Roman presence in Galloway. What's interesting is the Roman road - a definitive indication of a Roman presence if ever there was one. So the next question I asked myself was, why does it head where it does?

Well, the Rerigonius Sinus of Ptolemy's map of Britain is generally equated with Loch Ryan, a sea-loch. Ptolemy also mentions a place called Rerigonium as one of the "towns" of the Novantae, and the name seems to mean something along the lines of "royal place". Take that together, and it suggests a "royal place" situated around Loch Ryan. Incidentally, the name "Ryan" does actually come from the Gaelic or righ for "king".

Now, looking at the map, Loch Ryan faces north, a natural harbour with easy access to the Firth of Clyde, Kintyre, and Ireland, and I believe there is a ferry service between Stranraer and Ireland. Stranraer is a harbour town, naturally enough, and I imagine there would be good trading opportunities for the Novantae via Loch Ryan. And if you controlled that lucrative little trading node... well, I imagine you'd be an authority within the tribe. There is a further hint to this in that, on the Ancient Britain map, the most significant hillforts of the Novantae are to be found directly on the coast.

So, if Rerigonium can be equated roughly with a settlement at Stranraer, or thereabouts, supervising a nice little trading point, then there's no wonder there's a Roman road heading straight for it. Loch Ryan and Luce Bay also serve to form the Rhinns of Galloway, so if Agricola managed to take over "Rerigonium", then his access to the Novantarum Peninsula would be unhindered, leaving him free to line up his armies facing Ireland. From there I can bring in the Irish prince (Tuathal Teachtmar for the purposes of this book), and give him an easy route to Argyll from Loch Ryan.

(There are also a couple of stray marching camps further north, near the coast at Girvan. Hmm... a "special detachment", maybe? The plotbunnies, they multiply...)

Well, that's how I spent my Sunday! Sad, innit? On the other hand, I've got a decent idea where I, and my characters, are going now!

You can all wake up now. XD


Crystal said...

All I can say is when I come to visit the UK in a couple of years YOU are going to be the tour guide. OR, the driver, LOL! How fast can you drive sweet!!!;)Glad to see your making some headway. Have a good evening:)

Gabriele C. said...

You don't get very fast on Scottish single track roads. :)

Oh boy, I so have to find a suitable route as well, or can I just copy yours? Looks like saving up for another trip to Scotland will prove necessary.

Btw, Tacitus' German geography is more than a bit shaky as well. We're still trying to find the battlefield of Idistaviso and the route the Romans took from the - unidentified - summer camp to Kalkriese where the Varus battle took place. Though I do have an idea for the latter since I'm making Hedemünden the summer camp. There's no proof it was, but there's no proof against it, either, and it's at my backdoor, so there we go. :)

Celedë Anthaas said...

Sounds like a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon to me :)

I still have to map out a route for Frontinus' campaign against the Silures. I did try to make one before NaNoWriMo - by sticking a map of Wales onto a dartboard. But, you know, HQ ended up in the Bristol Channel...

Kirsten Campbell said...

Crystal - Lol, I can't drive. I don't have any sense of direction, either.

Gabriele - I don't know, many's the time we've almost been tipped into one sea-loch or other by a speeding car on some winding, single-track road in the Highlands! The buses are the worst. (shudders)

Hm, and that's only the fifth campaign. I still need to map out the sixth and seventh. And that's just from looking at some maps and reading some archaeology notes. I don't think I've ever even been to Galloway.

And don't remind me about Tacitus' geography (or lack thereof). I've got my Mons Graupius, but I still need some forts for my Caledonians to attack in the sixth season, and a right-sized camp for the night attack on the Ninth Legion.

I suppose the good thing is that we have plenty of ambiguities to play with. Thank you, Tacitus, and your rubbish geography! :)

Celedë - It was fun. Just the idea of, "And what did you do at the weekend, Kirsten?"

"Oh, nothing much, planned a large military incursion into Galloway, trying to secure the coast facing Ireland so I could use it as a jumping-off point for the troops." Heheheh...

Crystal said...

Hope your writing and reading up a storm!! Just stopped by to say have a good weekend;o)

Crystal said...

I'm having some Kirsten withdrawls....;)

George said...

This is soooo interesting. We have spent many happy weeks driving all over the Dumfries area looking at possible Roman movements in the area - for example, supply ports for Birrens and Burnswark. I am particularly fascinated by the network of roads in the Torthorwald area, and the existence of an Iron Age fort in the village itself. That Iron age fort, subsequently presumably occupied by Romans and Norse settlers, is now dominated by the peel tower of Torthorwald castle. The main road from the village heads directly towards Dumfries...was there a Roman supply network hereabouts?
Any further info would be greatly appreciated.