Following their successful invasion of 43 AD and subsequent conquest of the south and east of Britain the Romans advanced north and west. In less than 40 years they had reached and subdued what we now know as northern England and Wales.
Before them lay the wilds of Caledonia and by 79 AD they were pushing northwards into southern Scotland. Advancing over the Cheviots, the distinctive outline of the three peaks of the Eildon stood out in the landscape and the Romans headed straight for them. Here, at the ‘place of the three hills’, or ‘Trimontium’ in Latin, they began to construct a fort to be used as a base for the conquest of the surrounding area.
This same site was to be used several times over the next hundred years or more, as the site was abandoned and reoccupied according to the ebb and flow of fortune, both military and political. Its last occupation may have been by the emperor Septimius Severus as he marched north in 208/9 in a final effort to subdue the natives.
The Romans did not arrive into an empty landscape. Native Iron Age tribes occupied Scotland and the Romans had to deal with them, either through warfare, peaceful trading or by forming alliances. It Is almost certain that many and varied arrangements existed over time, the details of which we will never know.
The local tribespeople were small scale farmers living in family units in farmsteads scattered throughout the landscape. They may have come together for protection or for social/religious gatherings and trading within the mighty hill forts dotted over countryside.
One such, Eildon Hill North, sits above the fort of Trimontium but it is difficult to date the occupation of the hill forts and thus explain their relationship to the Roman occupation.
Trimontium is the biggest Roman complex in Scotland and its importance in the history and archaeology of this period cannot be overstated. It is a truly remarkable site and still has a great deal to teach us.
The Location of the Fort and Settlement
The Romans made an excellent choice in constructing the fort in this place, sitting as it does on a natural well drained mound above the River Tweed. Here it could control movement of goods and people north to south along the Leader and east to west along the Tweed. The Roman road that became known as Dere Street runs past the fort.
A bridge, the location of which is as yet unknown, must have crossed the river somewhere below the fort. Trimontium was in a perfect location to act as a supply base and as housing for the garrison operating in the area. During the building and occupation of the Antonine Wall, manned for approximately 20 years from c.140 AD, Trimontium acted as a supply base for operations in that sector.
While it was by far the biggest Roman fort in the area, several outlying forts were also built and occupied at various times. These include Oakwood near Selkirk, Lyne west of Peebles and Cappuck south of Jedburgh. Signal stations aided communication between forts.
The Phases of the Fort and Residents
The first manifestation of the fort covered 10 acres and consisted of at least two ditches surrounding a clay rampart c. 45 feet wide. Two huge annexes of 35 acres in total adjoined the fort. Subsequent occupations saw the construction of a bathhouse and an amphitheatre – the most northerly in Britain – and further annexes, used for manufacturing, training and the temporary housing of troops.
All building was carried out by the soldiers themselves, as the Roman army had in its ranks soldiers capable of fulfilling all needs and requirements, from builders to masons and blacksmiths to carpenters. Rebuilding seems to have occurred at least four times to accommodate the changing needs of the occupying garrison.
Trimontium was an auxiliary cavalry fort from which mounted troops could be deployed rapidly into the surrounding countryside. Evidence for the presence of horses abounds in the form of horse harness remnants, horse skeletons and most dramatically of all the wonderful cavalry parade helmets.
The permanent garrison probably numbered around 1000 troops, but this number would be swollen by manufacturers, craftsmen and traders attracted to a lucrative market, as well as by troops stationed in temporary camps adjoining the main fort while on campaign. At any given time during occupation Trimontium’s population may have been anywhere between 2000 and 5000. As with any military installation, there grew up a civilian presence to make the most of trading opportunities offered by the soldiers.