My Place: Explore ancient north-east Britannia with Nancy Jardine

I'm delighted to welcome back bestselling author Nancy Jardine from her home in modern-day north-east Scotland to tell us about the area under Roman control, well, or at least their attempt to keep control over the vast, often wide-spread settlements of the ancient tribes.

I've been a keen reader of Nancy's novels, especially her Celtic Fervour series, and her latest instalment will be released soon. If you love ancient history, make sure to check them out!

Now, over to Nancy...
North-east Britannia A.D. 84

The Late Iron Age tribes of north-east ‘Scotland’ left no writing for study. There are no descriptions of the landscape they inhabited, the food they ate, their thoughts on the climate or about their neighbours. So how do I create a credible setting for my characters in Agricola’s Bane, Book 4 of my Celtic Fervour Series? (due Autumn 2018)

The main text I can refer to comes with an Ancient Roman perspective since Cornelius Tacitus wrote about the military campaigns of his father-in-law, General Gnaeus Iulius Agricola. In De vita et moribus Iulii Agricola (On the Life and Character of Julius Agricola), Tacitus refers to Caledonia as being ‘mountainous with morasses’ and he gives a few observations about the ‘geometrical’ shape of Britannia. The weather of Caledonia is described as ‘having a sky continually obscured by rain and cloud, though severe cold is unknown’. All of which rings a contemporary bell because Scotland currently has wind, cloud and rain a-plenty, with severe snow a rarity. 

So what else helps me to create authenticity? My research includes:
Ø  Plant identification
Ø  Etymological references
Ø  Archaeological records
Ø  Borough records, Farming Heritage and Forestry Commission sites

Rosebay Willowherb
When my tribal characters crawl along undergrowth, evading marauding Ancient Roman patrols, I want them in an indigenous landscape. Many current plants were planted by avid botanists in the late 16th or 17th century, when major landowners created new parklands around their estates. So, no colourful rhododendrons! Currently at summer’s end, the hedgerows of Aberdeenshire and Moray are flooded with the vibrant pink of Rosebay Willowherb. It’s tempting to brighten up a scene with it in Agricola’s Bane but Rosebay Willowherb is long faded by early November when my novel opens. Additionally, the Rosebay Willowherb that we see now is not likely to be a truly indigenous form though there may have been an earlier, potentially less vigorous and perhaps less noticeable, variety of the plant because by the 18th century it was considered extremely rare. Interestingly though, if I did choose to use it in my writing, there’s ‘folklore’ evidence that the roots of it, when boiled and ground, are good for healing horse injuries. That’s an appealing aspect since my Garrigill Iron Age Celts are very careful with their horse stock. Would I use Rosebay Willowherb in my novels? Maybe, but I’d likely add a sentence, or two, to my Author Notes section. 

What was the Birnie area of Moray like 2000 years ago? Etymological sources indicate that Birnie, in its original Gaelic form, means a moist, damp place. From forensic examination of soil samples in the area, it’s been deduced that the blanket bog that’s common to the lower slopes of the nearby Cairngorm peaks was probably prevalent all the way down to Birnie in the flatlands of Moray.

Blanket bog (c) Nancy Jardine
Etymological evidence shows that ‘Durno’ (Gaelic) can mean many fists. Finding that was a eureka moment because the largest Ancient Roman temporary camp north of the (Roman-built) Antonine Wall across central Scotland is the identified camp at Durno. The Durno camp, opposite the hill range of Bennachie in Aberdeenshire, is a site easily large enough to give harbour to Agricola’s 20,000 plus Roman soldiers, with associated mounted units – the ‘alae’ mounted forces needing more space in a camp for their horses. That would indeed be many fists! It’s opportune that Bennachie is one of the highly rated possible sites of Tacitus’ battle, Mons Graupius, one which he claimed as a victory for Agricola over the local Caledon tribes and their allies. Today, the Bennachie slopes are dotted with pine forests but these have only been planted since the Forestry Commission began in the early 1920s. In Agricola’s day, the area had probably been well-deforested of ancient Caledonian trees by the previous Bronze Age and Early Iron Age dwellers.  
Bennachie from Durno (c) Nancy Jardine

Studying archaeological sources is an essential part of my research. Roman silver coin hoards have been found at Birnie. It’s not clear if the hoards were deliberately buried by a local tribal chief who wanted them safe, having received them as a bribe or payment for allowing Roman presence on his territory, or perhaps they were stolen from Roman hands and buried in a pit to be later retrieved. Archaeological excavations point to little tribal use of silver or gold – though deposits aren’t completely unknown in northern Scotland. The Iron Age tribes of the north valued iron as a status symbol as well as it having practical uses. Silver and gold status items mainly seem to have appeared after the invasion of my Agricola in A.D. 84. 

2000 years ago, Moray terrain was relatively fertile compared to other farming areas of northern Caledonia, though only where Tacitus’ ‘morasses’ (moors and bogs) had been drained and cleared of other invasive damp-loving vegetation. In contrast, the boggy areas of Moray produced the necessary ‘bog iron’ that was the mainstay of local iron production, the Birnie area providing evidence of metal working. I use these facts in my novel since my character Agricola seeks information on the productive areas of the land he is attempting to absorb into the Roman Empire. 

Borough records, Farming Heritage, and Forestry Commission sites are useful for pinpointing where particular edible species were planted for centuries. Archaeological soil sampling from midden heaps near roundhouse settlements indicate what the inhabitants ate and digested. The main cereal crops in my ancient locations were oats and barley and in the more fertile areas of Moray, a type of naturally nutritious wheat named spelt was grown. Wheat was highly prized by the Ancient Roman Army, since it was an essential part of the soldier’s daily fare, but written evidence indicates that the type of hulled barley grown in Taexali territory (Aberdeenshire) was heartily disliked by the Roman legions since it wasn’t so easy to digest – simple pieces of knowledge I’ve used in Agricola’s Bane.  

Mither Tap (c) Nancy Jardine
Berries, nuts, herbs, were part of the staple diet of 2000 years ago. Midden sampling pinpoints which were commonly eaten in a particular area – sloes, brambles (blackberries), hazelnuts. Some brassica species were possibly eaten, the plant fat hen (Chenopodium album) being more likely. Roman invaders would have been gathering these to supplement their unleavened bread, or porridge, diet just as much as local tribespeople.  

The internet is a great resource though I also have a growing collection of multi-disciplined research books to dip into. Evidence gathering isn’t an easy or quick procedure, and I admit to being sidetracked very easily, but writing about locations almost 2000 years ago is a fascinating process! 

(c) Nancy Jardine

About Nancy:

Nancy Jardine writes contemporary mysteries; historical fiction and time-travel historical adventure. Her current historical focus is Roman Scotland, an engrossing pre-history era because her research depends highly on keeping abreast of recent archaeological findings. 

A member of the Romantic Novelists Association, the Scottish Association of Writers, the Federation of Writers Scotland and the Historical Novel Society, her work has achieved finalist status in UK competitions.

She lives in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, with her husband but life is never quiet or boring since her young grandchildren are her next-door neighbours. She regularly child minds them, those days being cherished and laughter filled. 

You can find her at these places: 


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Comments

  1. Thank you so much for inviting me today, Cathie. It's a pleasure to visit you and even more so today since it is a lovely warm and sunny early September morning - conditions that don't happen every year in north-east Scotland!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Nancy, thanks so much for this fascinating post. Always happy to host you.

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  2. I'm leaving another thank you, Cathie. (I left one last Sunday but it seems to have disappeared) It's a delight to visit your blog again.

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