Review – Classical Caledonia: Roman history and myth in 18th-century Scotland

3 mins read
Alan Montgomery
Edinburgh University Press, £75
ISBN 978-1474445641
Review Andrew Tibbs

Classical Caledonia explores the antiquarian rediscovery of Scotland’s Roman remains, and how these have influenced and continue to influence Scottish identity, impacting on our interpretation of Roman Scotland today. Various populist and misleading tropes, such as Hadrian’s Wall forming the border between England and Scotland, or the belief that Scots were the only people in the ancient world to successfully resist the Roman army, are, as Montgomery explores, rooted in a need to create a national identity of a land and people who remain unconquerable, something that originates in the narrative established by the antiquarians.

Classical Caledonia begins with an exploration of the lives of the earliest antiquarians and the experiences that influenced their interpretation of the Roman army in north Britain, before contrasting this with the motivation and influence of the English antiquarians on the Roman occupation of north Britain, particularly focusing on the impact of tomes such as Britannia Romana, and how these continue to influence modern views and interpretations. Montgomery goes on to chart the golden age of antiquarianism, exploring how they sought out new Roman sites, plundering (and damaging) them in a bid to collect physical remnants of the past, inadvertently preserving the artefacts and creating collections which form the basis of today’s museums. Montgomery also charts the Roman influence on the Hanoverians, discussing the legacy of the Jacobite uprisings which led to the survey of many Roman sites during the formal mapping of Scotland in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Classical Caledonia is much more than a social history of antiquarian Scotland and the search for national identity: it is an exploration of the impact and influence of Rome on Scotland, examining the origins and influences on antiquarian thought and how these continue unduly to influence modern interpretations of Roman archaeology in north Britain. Classical Caledonia is a much-needed and thorough examination of the power and imagery of the Roman incursions into Scotland which continue to form part of Scottish national identity for Unionists and Nationalists alike.


This review appeared in CA 372To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.