The Romans first reached the territories of present-day Scotland in the Flavian period (AD 69–96). Our primary source in this period is the biography of the Roman general and governor Gnaeus Julius Agricola, written by his son-in-law Publius Cornelius Tacitus. While it is commonly accepted that Agricola (governor of Britain from AD77/8–AD83/4) was responsible for Rome’s first conquest of territories in what is now Scotland, there is some (debatable) evidence that this may have actually taken place during the earlier governorships of Marcus Vettius Bolanus (governor from AD68/9–AD71), Quintus Petillius Cerialis (governor from AD71–AD73/4), or Sextus Julius Frontinus (governor from AD73/4–AD77/8). Tacitus’s Agricola, however, along with the bulk of archaeological dating evidence, suggests that even if the Romans were present in Scotland before Agricola’s governorship, his campaigns have left a more indelible mark on the landscape, and certainly on historical accounts.
While arguments have been made for pre-Agricolan forts in the north, the northernmost certain identification is at Carlisle, where dendrochonological (tree-ring) dates of AD 72/3 have been given. Of Agricola’s own campaigns, Tacitus tells us about seven individual seasons, each occurring in a separate year. The first season, with Agricola arriving in mid-summer AD 77/8, was focused on crushing a revolt of the Ordovices in modern Wales. The following year, Agricola’s attentions turned north, conquering several unnamed previously independent states and establishing forts and garrisons. The third season was one of rapid expansion northward, with Agricola reaching the River Tay and building more forts. In Agricola’s fourth season, he focused on securing the territories already gained, building a line of forts along the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Almost certainly, these forts were also linked via newly constructed Roman roads and, if, as seems likely, the previous year’s advance had been primarily limited to the east, supplied from the Roman fort at Corbridge (Northumberland), this fourth season also saw some additional campaigning in the west of southern Scotland.
Of the Forth-Clyde fort line established at this time, only those at Camelon (Falkirk) and Mollins (North Lanarkshire) have been firmly identified, while it is possible that Agricolan forts were also at Mumrills, Castlecary, and Cadder (later to be the sites of Antonine Wall forts); these may have been further supported by known Agricolan forts at Elginhaugh (Midlothian) and Barochan Hill (Renfrewshire). Agricola’s fifth season is unclear: Tacitus tells us that he made a sea passage, conquering previously independent peoples and lining his troops in the part of Britain that faces Ireland, possibly intending invasion of that island. As Ireland was never invaded, and the context of this passage begins and ends with mention of Ireland, it is likely that this season was focused in the north-west of Britain, and that the sea passage was probably movement across the Solway or Clyde estuaries; the peoples conquered in this year may have been remnants in the far west of southern Scotland (Galloway), that had not been reached in the previous four years, or less probably, some of those located north of the Clyde in the western Highlands.
For the sixth season, Agricola turned his sights to the lands north of the Forth, using land and naval forces to secure control over the territories. The fighting was intense and, in one night-time attack, the enemy came devastatingly close to defeating the Ninth Legion at their camp, before Agricola arrived with reinforcements and chased the enemy into the forests and marshes. The seventh season, AD 83/4, saw the culmination of Agricola’s northern campaign and the end of his governorship. Again, using a combination of land and naval units, including both Romans and reinforcements of loyal Britons, he advanced and met a united enemy at Mons Graupius (this site location remains uncertain) where, while the enemy had been spurred on by a valiant (and most probably invented by Tacitus!) speech from one of their leaders Calgacus, the Romans were victorious. The outcome of this battle was the defeat and dispersal of those who had stood against Agricola’s forces, and the chance for the Romans to continue work on securing their place in northern Britain. Although the entire island had not been brought under Roman rule, for a time the threat of impending attack had been put down. Agricola himself was not able to enjoy the victory for long, though, as he was quickly recalled to Rome. Along with all the forts constructed during this seven-year campaign, Agricola’s army also left behind dozens of temporary marching camps, now identifiable through earthwork remains or as crop-marks.
Following Agricola’s recall, the Romans appear to have begun withdrawing from Scotland, though this was not immediate. In fact, there is substantial evidence to indicate that the Romans intended to stay on a permanent basis: a line of forts had been built along the Gask Ridge (Perthshire), probably by Agricola to protect the line of supplies for his campaign, and these were not abandoned with Agricola’s recall. Near these, was the legionary fortress at Inchtuthil (Perthshire), probably constructed by Agricola’s successor over two years, AD 85–86. As Tacitus does not mention fort building during Agricola’s sixth and seventh seasons, and as construction of forts was usually delayed until victory was secured in a particular area, it seems likely that no forts were built to the north of the Tay until after the victory of Mons Graupius: as a result, the forts of Cargill (Perthshire), Cardean (Angus), and Stracathro (Angus) are likely post-Agricolan or were began just before his recall to Rome.
The late Flavian occupation of northern Scotland was short-lived. The fortress at Inchtuthil was never completed and, while northern forts have produced a fair number of coins dated AD 86, no coins from 87 have been found, despite their relative abundance elsewhere. It is, thus, reasonable to conclude that the Flavian withdrawal began in AD 86/7, before the coins of AD 87 had the opportunity to arrive. Based on dating of ceramic and numismatic evidence, all Flavian forts north of Newstead appear to have been abandoned by AD 90. By AD 105, Rome’s tenuous control of the Scottish lowlands had disintegrated and the Romans appear to have fallen back to the Tyne-Solway line, where the next major development would begin.