Britain has long been recognised as the northernmost reach of the Roman Empire, with Hadrian's Wall across the north of England considered the final frontier of their global occupation. But the Romans also came into Scotland briefly, and evidence remains of their occupation of the area around Edinburgh, especially at Cramond. The area is a sleepy coastal suburb today but in the second century AD the fort here was the Romans' largest military settlement in Scotland.
At this time, around 140AD, the site of Edinburgh Castle today was occupied by a tribe called the Goddodin, known to the Romans as the Votadini. The Goddodin were known to be a fearsome and war-hungry group, with records suggesting they spent a full year feasting on the castle rock before heading south to fight the Angles - it's also considered that the Romans actively feared the Goddodin and so avoided engaging them directly in the territory of Edinburgh itself, instead establishing a settlement on the coast to the north.
Some historians suggest that Edinburgh's Dalkeith Road is a remaining section of Dere Street, the road built by the Romans to connect their settlements north of the border with York (Jorvik). Running through the south side of the city, the road then branched westwards along the edge of an ancient lake (where the Meadows are today) along the line of modern-day Melville Drive. It then ran out to the fort at Cramond, built on the edge of a natural harbour on the shores of the Firth of Forth.
Few, if any, physical structures of the Roman fort at Cramond survive today, but the foundations of a huge network of buildings are marked out in the area adjacent to the medieval Cramond Kirk, a later church built on the site of the Roman encampment. Concealed beneath thick foliage lie the remnants of an immense Roman bathhouse, a major feature of Roman settlements.
The fort at Cramond was active during the period of construction of the Antonine Wall, the defence built between Scotland's east and west coasts as a defence against the Picts (another tribe of which the Romans seemed to live in fear!). The infamous story of the 'Eagle of Ninth', a mythical, ill-fated mission by a legion of 5,000 soldiers who ventured into the misty Highlands of Scotland, never to be seen or heard of ever again, provides some context for their fear of the tribes occupying the highlands of mainland Britain, and the Antonine Wall was constructed to keep the Roman forts safe from attacks from the north.
The size of the encampment here, and the importance of the site as a militarily strategic river port, is reflected in some of the finds and archaeology which has been uncovered here. Beyond the traces of the buildings themselves, in 1997 the ferryman who ran a passenger service across the River Almond had to steer around what he thought was merely a rock jutting above the surface of the water. At low tide, however, the stone was examined and found be the tip of an immense carving of a lioness, a huge creative feature that archaeologists think may have been created as a grave marker or decorative tombstone for a significant general or military figure stationed at Cramond.
The Cramond Lioness, as she is now known, has since taken pride of place in Edinburgh's National Museum of Scotland on Chambers Street. Carvings like the lioness indicate that Cramond was established as a major, and permanent, settlement for the Romans. But records suggest that Cramond was only actively occupied for about thirty years, between 140 and 170AD, and then briefly again from 205 to 214AD
Ultimately the Romans retreated south from Cramond, taking up residence around the English boundary defence of Hadrian's Wall which was a more effective (and better established) site. Some have suggested that Scotland's unforgiving (and unpredictable) climate may have proven too much for the Romans, for whom the warm and sunny shores of the Mediterranean could hardly have seemed further away!
Whether they were defeated by the Scottish weather or the fearsome people, the Romans left their mark on Scotland, and Cramond offers just one accessible site for historians to explore.
Perhaps the most intriguing feature of Roman Cramond is located not in the village itself, but about a half mile further along the coastline (accessible only via a longer path which runs inland to cross the River Almond over the old Cramond Brig) on the Dalmeny Estate. Walking along the beach here brings you to a small outcrop of rock, in which is carved the outline of an eagle, a symbol beloved of the Romans whose legions each had their own eagle emblem behind which they marched.
The Cramond Eagle - if that's what it is, the carving is too weathered to say for sure - is a firm marker of the occupation of this area by the Romans, and it's quite remarkable to think about the young men who may have carved this design in between their patrols of the Antonine Wall, standing on this rocky shore and looking out over a landscape that can only have changed rudimentally in the nearly two-thousand years since.
Perhaps the carving was only a form of graffiti, the way modern cities are 'tagged' with spray paint, but nonetheless it gives a truly human shape to the Roman presence here.
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