Why didn't the Romans invade Scotland?

Written by Chris Thornton | 6th of December 2023
Why didn't the Romans invade Scotland?

The legacy of the Roman Empire has left its mark across most of Europe, amphitheatres, villas, temples and forts pepper the landscape from England to North Africa and as far east as Armenia.

So why did the Romans stop at Scotland? Were we really that tough? Read on to find out more about this interesting time in Scottish history!

Amfiteatre de Tarragona, Roman history in Scotland.
Amfiteatre de Tarragona in Catalonia.

The Roman Empire

At the height of the Roman Empire, there was no country named Scotland; it was known as Caledonia; the people of the fierce tribes that lived there were called Caledonians.

The Romans occupied Britain between 43 and 410 A.D.  Although Julius Caesar had visited Britain, the first Emperor to invade was Claudius in 43 A.D. during the Gallic Wars. By the year 100 A.D. Rome had control of the lower half of Brittannia, which includes present-day Wales and England, Caledonia to the north was a rich target to win for "The glory of Rome".

After a long campaign in Southern Britain, the Romans had set their sights on the abundant natural resources of Caledonia, mainly lead, gold and silver. A Roman Scotland would also provide a fresh supply of slaves for the empire! Although some tribes were happy to try and live peacefully with the Romans, many banded together and fought back against the invaders.

Roman shield wall. Romans in Scotland, Roman camps.
The testudo or tortoise shield wall formation.

The first major clash with the Roman Army - The Battle of Mons Graupius

By the year 84 A.D., the Caledonian tribes settled their differences and joined in repelling the invading Roman army. The first battle occurred at Mons Graupius (Better known as the Grampian mountains); some argue that the area of Knock Hill is the site of this famous battle.

Chief Calgacus was the leader of the Caledonian forces; General Julius Agricola led the Romans. The Roman plan was to attack the main granary stores of the Caledonians, forcing them into open battle rather than the guerrilla tactics that had served Caledonians well so far.

The Caledonians had to fight, face starvation or accept Roman rule. Calagacus is said to have made a famous speech prior to the battle:

"To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire. They make a wilderness and call it peace."

Although the Caledonians had amassed 30,000 warriors outnumbering the Romans by two to one, empire expansion was Rome's speciality, and they had become incredibly good at it. Superior military tactics won the day, and Chief Calgacus was forced to flee after losing at least 10,000 men.

It was a decisive victory, but the Caledonian tribes were never entirely subdued and continued to be a thorn in the side of the Roman occupation for the next 40 years. Caledonians knew their land well and used it to their full advantage.

The building of Hadrian's Wall

By 122 A.D., attacks by the Caledonian tribes were frequent along the Roman frontier. Emperor Hadrian issued an order to build a wall the width of Britain - from coast to coast - 73 miles long, on the border of Caledonia / Southern Scotland.

Hadrian's Wall exists outside the border of modern Scotland, southeast of the Scottish borders.

This wasn't just a wall but roads, forts, turrets and mile castles. This was still considered the northwest border of the Roman Empire despite general Julius Agricola's claim that all of Caledonia had been won at The Battle of Mons Graupius.

Hadrian's Wall. Roman influence in Scotland.
Hadrian's Wall.

Antonine Wall

The success of Hadrian's Wall led to another wall being built further to the north between the River Clyde and the river forth. It was named the Antonine Wall after the current Emperor - Antoninus.

The Romans could not replicate the same success with the Antonine Wall and were forced to retreat back to Hadrian's Wall due to the high frequency of attacks by the Caledonians. It was decided that Hadrian's Wall should remain as the border in 160 A.D.

Milecastle 37, Hadrian's Wall
Milecastle 37 on Hadrian's Wall.

Successive campaigns

In 210 A.D., the next massive push came from Rome led by the warrior Emperor Septimius Severus. Would he be the one to conquer Scotland finally?

A British governor named Senecio had warned the Emperor that the island province was on the cusp of being overrun by the northern tribes.

Emperor Severus arrived with 50,000 men and 7000 sailors manning his fleet. To this day it is the largest fighting force ever in the British Isles. Off the back of successful campaigns in North and East Africa, he was confident in his military prowess in taking Caledonia for the Roman Empire.

With York in England as his main base, Severus led two campaigns past Hadrian's Wall in 209 and 210 A.D.

Milecastle 37, Hadrian's Wall
Location of Hadrian's Wall and the Antonine Wall.

The two tribes of Caledonians

Before Severus's arrival with, many tribes of Caledonia merged into two main factions:

  • The Maeatae - based on both sides of the Antonine Wall and in the Fife area.

  • The Caledonians - situated to the north.

The joint Caledonian forces had a great deal of experience fighting Roman legions, especially from their ancestors who fought at The Battle of Mons Graupius - they knew never to fight a pitched battle against the Roman invaders. Guerrilla warfare was the strategy of choice, hit and run, wear your enemy down.

The fury of Severus

Emperor Severus smashed past the Antonine Wall with his entire force of 50,000 troops. It's said the Emperor constructed a boat bridge across the Firth of Forth with around 500 boats; although there is no existing evidence today, the Romans had built bridges of this type elsewhere.

In the face of overwhelming odds, a peace treaty was negotiated but unfortunately did not hold, and Severus ordered a mass genocide of the natives of Caledonian low lands. It's said for the next 80 years, there was significant depopulation in the low lands near Stonehaven due to this mass slaughter.

A medieval map from 1250
A medieval map from 1250 showing boths Roman walls.

Why were the Romans unable to conquer Scotland?

So with the Caledonians all but defeated, why did Severus's campaign fail? It was down to pure luck - the Emperor became unwell in 211 A.D. with pneumonia like symptoms and died in York.

Without the political drive from the Emperor, the desire to conquer Scotland subsided, and the power vacuum left by the Emperor's death put Rome itself into focus. His two sons, Caracalla and Geta, jointly ruled the empire, but Caracalla murdered his brother to become the sole Emperor.

Hadrian's Wall was again the border of Caledonia even after such a savage military campaign.

Military campaigns pushed into Caledonia in the early fifth century but never again a mass invasion on the scale led by Emperor Severus.

Did the Romans conquer Scotland?

No - by 410 A.D., the survival of Rome itself was at stake, barbarian tribes from Germany were attacking, and Emperor Honorius recalled all Roman forces to Rome. The Roman Empire eventually fell and was never again in the position to invade Scotland.

The first Roman Fort

Gask Ridge in Perthshire is considered one of the earliest areas where the Romans set up a defensive line (70 A.D.). This ridge is about 20 miles long, and the Romans built forts and watchtowers along the entire length of it.

The Traprain Law silver hoard was discovered in 1919 at the site of an ancient hill fort in East Lothian. It's possible the silver would have been used to bribe tribes to fight with the Romans or as a peace offering.

Roman Forts

Most forts were located along Hadrian's Wall, but outposts existed much further to the north, with some on the Antonine Wall. There was a significant Roman presence in Scotland. In the northeast of Scotland, Roman camp remains have been found as far north as Auchinhove, Keith.

  • Castle Greg Roman Fortlet

  • Castlecary Roman Fort

  • Barochan Roman Fort

  • Lurg Moor Roman Fortlet

  • 9th Spanish Legion Roman Camp

  • Ardoch Roman Fort

  • Strageath Roman Fort

  • Inchtuthil Roman Fort

  • Knock Hill / Roman marching camps

Did the Romans ever beat the Scots?

Yes, many times, particularly at The Battle of Mons Graupius and then later during the campaign of Emperor Septimius Severus, where a mass genocide occurred in the lowlands of Scotland.

Did the Romans invade Ireland?

The Romans did not invade Ireland, even though they believed it could be done with a single legion. Controlling the Irish sea was considered too difficult and was a haven for marauding pirates and other enemies of Imperial Rome.

There are many records of Roman Britain trading with Ireland exchanging resources such as hides, dogs, slaves, wine, olive oil and metals. Hordes of Roman coins are often found in Ireland, featuring the heads of emperors Magnentius and Constantine.


So there we have it; the Caledonians fought well throughout hundreds of years of Roman invasions and occupation but were only really saved by the timely death of Emperor Severus and then the fall of the Roman Empire. Scotland would likely have been entirely conquered if the Severus campaign had continued.

It's incredible that the ancient Caledonians held out so long in the face of such military strength and prowess.

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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6th of July 2022 @ 06:41:42

A great read. Really informative. Thank you

18th of June 2022 @ 10:54:32

Well done! Fascinating history and talky appreciated the visuals! Thanks!

Michael Reisinger
17th of June 2022 @ 17:28:57

Great story, really enjoyed reading your article. Very informative. Id