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  Orkney and the Romans

"Anno ab incarnatione Domini lxvi Claudius secundus Romanorum Brittanias adiens, plurimam insule partem in deditionem recipit. Orcadas quoque insulas Pictorum romano adiecit imperio, atque inde Romam rediit."
The Bern Chronicle

"In the 46th year from the incarnation of our Lord, Claudius was the second of the Romans to invade Britain, and a great part of the island surrendered to him. And he added the isles of Orkney, the isles of the Picts, to the Roman empire and from there he returned to Rome."

Despite several early historical accounts, the Roman Empire never made it as far north as Orkney in any great numbers - if they ventured this far at all.

There is no evidence of a Roman presence in Orkney, although there have been a few Roman artefacts unearthed at late Iron Age/Pictish sites.

These tend to be things like fragments of pottery and jewellery - items that do not necessarily mean that the people of Orkney had any contact with the Romans - only that they knew, or traded with, people that did.

But according to some classical scholars, Orkney and Rome were in contact.

According to Orosius, Orcadian emissaries made a formal submission to the Roman Emperor Claudius at the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in AD43.

Because these Orkney chieftains were familiar with a sophisticated diplomatic manoeuvre used by Gaulish tribes to avoid devastation by the advancing Romans, it has been suggested that the Orcadians had actually arrived from the south.

The Claudius episode, although it might well be true, has generally been taken to be an exaggerated Roman "boast".

It was symbolic of the power of Rome to state that they had "subdued" Orkney - being as it was one of the furthest extremities of the British Isles. In other words, the Roman "conquest" of Orkney was being used to emphasise the extent of their rule in Britain.

The same is probably the case when we read that Agricola also "subdued" the islands in AD84.

On saying that, however, there are some who think that Orkney did have tangible links to Rome.

Archaeologist Andrew Fitzpatrick concentrated on the shards of Roman amphora found at the Broch of Gurness - an amphora of a style that had become obsolete by AD60.

Roman goods of these dates were rare further south in Scotland, which would imply that, some time before Agricola invaded Scotland, the Orcadian inhabitants of Gurness had links and access to Roman goods.

Fitzpatrick suggested that kings/chieftains in Orkney had connections (either through marriage or military alliance) with tribes in the far south of Scotland.

This could explain the number of broch-like structures in the Lothian region. Fitzpatrick went so far as to suggest Orkney links with tribes in Essex who were known to have submitted to Claudius.

The Roman practice of establishing "puppet" kingdoms along its expanding frontier could be related to the Claudius and Agricola reference - did the Roman invaders form some kind of alliance with certain powerful families in Orkney that benefited them both? It is certainly possible.

The same may have been the case with Agricola's alleged conquest of Orkney in AD84, in which he is reported to have "discovered and subdued" the islands.

However, this must remain, for the time being at least, as mere speculation.