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Chapter 1 – Prehistoric Edinburgh., pp.9-14.

The Site before the Houses – Traces of Early Inhabitants – The Caledonian Tribes – Agricola’s Invasion – Subjection of the Scottish Lowlands – The Roman Way – Edinburgh never occupied permanently – Various Roman Remains: Urns Coins, Busts; Swords, Spears, and other Weapons – Ancient Coffins – The Camus, or Cath-stone – Origin of the name “Edinburgh” – Dinas Eiddyn – The Battle of Catraeth.

ON the arrival of Agricola’s Roman army in the Lothians, about the year A.D. 80, the Ottadeni appear, according to Chalmers, to have occupied the whole extent of coast from the Tyne to the Firth of Forth, including, that is, a part of Northumberland and Roxburghshire, the whole of the Merse, and Haddingtonshire. The Gadeni, whose territory lay in the interior country, parallel and contigious to that of the Ottadeni, had all the land from the Tyne to the south of the Forth; they held, namely, the western parts of Northumberland, Roxburghshire, the whole of Falkirk, Tweeddale, and much of the Lothians.

These were two of the twenty-one Caledonian tribes who were connected by such slight ties as scarcely to enjoy a social state, and who then occupied the whole of Northern Britain.

That these Ottadeni and Gadeni were well armed, and resisted bravely, the number of camps and battle-stones scattered throughout the country amply attests; and it is not improbable that the site of Dalkeith (Dalcath, or the field of battle) may have seen some struggle with Agricola’s Roman, Batavian, and Tungrian cohorts.

It was not until the year 83 that Agricola resolved to penetrate into districts beyond the Forth, as he dreaded a more united resistance from the Caledonian tribes, who had hitherto been hostile to each other. Guided by the information of naval officers who had surveyed the coast, his army crossed the Forth at Inchgarvie, and landed at the north ferry, from whence he proceeded to fight his way towards the Grampians; but it was not until the year 140 that the Scottish Lowlands were entirely subjected to Roman sway, by Lollius Urbicus, whose legions have left so many rough-hewn votive altars and graven memorials of the VALENS VICTRIX, with devotional dedications, IMPERATORI CÆSARI. TITO. CELIO. HADRIANO. ANTONINO. AUG. PIO. PATRI. PATRIÆ.

Although the Roman military causeway – of which some fragments still remain – from Brittanodunum to Alterva (i.e. from Dunbar to Cramond) passed close to it, the Castle rock never appears to have become a Roman station; and it is sufficiently curious that the military engineers of the invaders should have neglected such a strong and natural fortification as that steep and insulated mass, situated as it was in Valentia, one of their six provinces in Britain.

Many relics of the Romans have been turned up from time to time upon the site of Edinburgh, but not the slightest trace has been found to indicate that it was ever occupied by them as a dwelling-place or city. Yet, Ptolemy, in his “Geography,” speaks of the place as the Castrum alatum, “a winged camp, or a height, flanked on each side by successive heights, girded with intermediate valleys.” Hence, the site may have been a native fort or hill camp of the Ottadeni.

When cutting a new road over the Calton Hill, in 1817, a Roman urn was found entire; another (supposed to be Roman), eleven and half inches in height, was found when digging the foundation of the north pier of the Dean Bridge, that spans a deep ravine, through which the Water of Leith finds its way to the neighbouring port. In 1782 a coin of the Emperor Vespasian was found in a garden of the Pleasance, and is now in the Museum of Antiquities; and when excavating in St. Ninian’s Row, on the western side of the Calton, in 1815, there was found a quantity of fine red Samian ware, of the usual embossed character. In 1822, when enlarging the drain by which the old bed of the North Loch was kept dry, almost at the base of the Castle rock, portions of an ancient Roman causeway were discovered, four feet below the modern road. Another portion of a Roman way, composed of irregular rounded stones, closely rammed together on a bed of forced soil, coloured with fragments of brick, was discovered beneath the foundations of the Trinity College Church, when it was demolished in 1845. The portions of it discovered in 1822 included a branch extending a considerable way eastward along the north back of the Canongate, towards the well-known Roman road at Portobello, popularly known as “The Fishwives’ Causeway.” “Here,” says Dr. Wilson, “we recover the traces of the Roman way in its course from Eildon to Cramond and Kinneil, with a diverging road to the important town and harbour at Inveresk, showing beyond doubt that Edinburgh had formed a link between these several Roman sites.”

Within a few yards of the point where this road crossed the brow of the city ridge were built into the wall of a house, nearly opposite to that of John Knox, two beautifully sculptured heads of the Emperor Septimius Severus and his wife Julia. These busts, which Maitland, in his time (1750), says were brought from an adjacent building, Wilson the antiquary conjectures were more probably found when excavating a foundation; but under the causeway of High Street, in 1850, two silver denarii of the same emperor were found in excellent preservation.

These busts were doubtless some relic of the visit paid to the colony by Septimius Severus, for Alexander Gordon, in his “Itinerarium Septentrionale, ” published in 1726, says:- “About this time it would appear that Julia, the wife of Severus, and the greatest part of the imperial family, were in the country of Caledonia; for Xephilin, from Dio, mentions a very remarkable occurrence which there happened to the Empress Julia and the wife of Argentocoxus, a Caledonian.”

Passing, however, from the Roman period, many distant traces have been found of people who dwelt on, or near, the site of Edinburgh, in what may be called, if the term be allowable, the pre-historic period.

In constructing the new road to Leith, leading from the centre of Bellevue Crescent, in 1823, several stone cists, of circumscribed form, wherein the bodies had been bent double, were found; were assumed, but without evidence, to have been the remains of Christians. In 1822 another was found in the Royal Circus, buried north and south; the skeleton crumbled into dust on being exposed, all save the teeth.

During the following year, 1823, several rude stone coffins were discovered when digging the foundations of a house in Saxe Coburg Place, near St. Bernard’s Chapel. One of them contained two urns of baked clay, from which circumstance it was supposed that this was a place of interment, at the period when the Romans had penetrated thus far north, and the Ottadeni, in imitation of their practice, had adopted the cremation of their dead, while adhering to their ancient form of sepulchre. Similar evidences of the occupation of the locality by an ancient people have been found all round Edinburgh.

The skeleton of a woman buried in the same fashion, with head and feet together, was found on the eastern slope of Arthur’s Seat in 1858, and within the cist which was found on the coast of the Firth, when the Edinburgh and Granton Railway was made, the skeleton in which had on it ornaments formed of the common cockle-shell.

Some graves of a later and more civilised period were found in 1850, when the immense reservoir was excavated on the Castle Hill, on the highest ground, and in the very heart of the ancient city. On the removal of some buildings of the seventeenth century, and after uprooting some portions of the massive wall of 1450, lower down, at a depth of twenty-five feet, and entirely below the foundation of the latter, “the excavators came upon a bed of clay, and beneath this was a thick layer of moss, or decayed animal and vegetable matter, in which was found a coin of the Emperor Constantine, thus suggesting a date approximating to the beginning of the fourth century. Immediately under this were two coffins, each formed of a solid trunk of oak, measuring about six feet in length. They were rough, and unshapen externally, as when hewn down in their native forest, and appeared to have been split open; but within they were hollowed out with considerable care, a circular space being formed for the head, and, indeed, the interior of both had considerable resemblance to what is usually seen in the stone coffins of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. They lay nearly due east and west, with their heads to the west. One of them contained a male and the other a female skeleton, unaccompanied by any weapons or other relics; but between the two coffins the skull and antlers of a gigantic deer were found, and alongside of them a portion of another horn, artificially cut, forming, most probably, the head of the spear with which the old hunter armed himself for the chase. The discovery of such primitive relics in the very heart of a busy population, and the theatre of not a few memorable historical events, is even more calculated to awaken out interest, by the striking contrast which it presents, than when found beneath the low, sepulchral mound, or exposed by the operations of the agriculturist. An unsuccessful attempt was made to remove one of the coffins. Even the skulls were so much decayed that they went to pieces on being lifted; but the skull and horns of the deer found alongside of them are now deposited in the Scottish Museum.”1

Many relics and weapons of the bronze period have been discovered in and around the site of Edinburgh. Some of the most perfect and polished of these weapons are now in the Museum at Abbotsford; and about fifty pieces of swords, spear-heads, and other fragments of weapons, all more of less affected by fire, are in the collection of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The swords are of the leaf-shaped form, with perforated handles, to which bone or wood has been attached, and many of the large spear-heads are pierced with a variety of ornamental designs.

During the construction, in 1846, of that part of the Queen’s Drive which lies directly above the loch, on the southern slope of Arthur’s Seat, two of the most beautiful and perfectly leaf-shaped swords ever found in Scotland were discovered in a bed of charcoal, and are now in the Scottish Antiquarian Museum. The blade of the largest measures 26 1/4 inches in length, and 1 3/4 inches at the broadest part. Not far from the same place a cup or lamp of clay and celts of bronze were also discovered, and, at “Samson’s Ribs,” a cinerary urn.

On the green slopes of the same hill may be seen still the traces of ancient civilisation, in some now-forgotten mode of cultivating the soil – forgotten unless we recall the terraces of the Rhine, or the ancient parallels of the Peruvians in the Cordilleras of the Andes. “on the summer evenings, while the long shadows still linger on the eastern slope of Arthur’s Seat, it is seen to rise from the margin of Duddingston Loch to the higher valley in a succession of terrace-steps, in some cases with indications of retaining walls still discoverable. It is on the slope thus furrowed with the traces of a long extinct system of agriculture that the bronze swords and celts, and the ancient pottery already described, have been dug up; while wrought deer’s horns, weapons, and masses of melted bronze, were dredged from the neighbouring loch in such quantities as to suggest that at some remote age weapons of the Scottish bronze period had been extensively manufactured on the margin. Following up the connection between such evidences of ancient art and agriculture, Mr. Chambers suggests the probability that the daisses of Arthur’s Seat and the bronze weapons dug up there or dredged from the loch are all works of the same ingenious handicraftsmen. Thus we see in the terraced slopes illustrations of a mode of agriculture pertaining to times before all written history, when iron had not yet been forged to wound the virgin soil.”2

Other relics of the unwritten ages exist near Edinburgh in the shape of battle-stones; but many have been removed. In the immediate neighbourhood of the city, close to the huge monolith named the Camus Stone, were two very large conical cairns, named Cat (or Cath) Stones, until demolished by irreverent utilitarians, who had found covetable materials in the rude memorial stones.

Underneath these cairns were cists containing human skeletons and various weapons of bronze and iron. Two of the latter material, spear-heads, are still preserved at Morton Hall. Within the grounds of that mansion, about half a mile distant from where the cairns stood, there still stands an ancient monolith, and two larger masses that are in its vicinity are not improbably the relics of a ruined cromlech. “Here, perchance, has been the battleground of ancient chiefs, contending, it may be, with some fierce invader, whose intruded arts startle us with evidences of an antiquity which seems primeval. The locality is peculiarly suited for the purpose. It is within a few miles of the sea, and enclosed in an amphitheatre of hills; it is the highest ground in the immediate neighbourhood, and the very spot on which the warriors of a retreating host might be expected to make a stand ere they finally betook themselves to the adjacent fastnesses of the Pentland Hills.”

In those days the Leith must have been a broader and a deeper river than now, otherwise the term “Inverleith,” as its mouth, had never been given to the land in the immediate vicinity of Stockbridge.

The origin of the name of “Edinburgh” has proved the subject of much discussion. The prenomen is a very common one in Scotland, and is always descriptive of the same kind of site – a slope. Near Lochearnhead is the shoulder of a hill called Edin-a-chip, “the slope of the repulse,” having reference to some encounter with the Romans; and Edin-ample is said to mean “the slope of the retreat.” There are upwards of twenty places having the same descriptive prefix; and besides the instances just noted, the following examples may also be cited:- Edincoillie, a “slope in the wood,” in Morayshire; Edinmore and Edinbeg, in Bute; Edindonach, in Argyllshire; and Edinglassie, in Aberdeenshire. Nearly every historian of Edinburgh has had a theory on the subject. Arnot suggests that the name is derived from Dunedin, “the face of a hill;” but this would rather signify the fort of Edin; and that name it bears in the register of the Priory of St. Andrews, in 1107. Others are fond of asserting that the name was given to the town or castle by Edwin, a Saxon prince of the seventh century, who “repaired it;” consequently it must have had some name before his time, and the present form may be a species of corruption of it, like that of Dryburgh, from Darrach-bruach, “the bank of the grove of oaks.”

Another theory, one greatly favoured by Sir Walter Scott, is that it was the Dinas Eiddyn (the slaughter of whose people in the sixth century is lamented by Aneurin, a bard of the Ottadeni); a place, however, which Chalmers supposes to be elsewhere. The subject is a curious one, and well worth consideration; but, interesting as it is, it need not detain us long here.

In the “Myrvyian, or Cambrian Archæology,” a work replete with ancient lore, mention is made of Caer-Eiddyn, or the fort of Edin, wherein dwelt a famous chief, Mynydoc, leader of the Celtic Britons in the fatal battle with the Saxons under Ida, the flame-bearer, at Catraeth, in Lothian, where the flower of the Ottadeni fell, in 510; and this is believed to be the burgh subsequently said to be named after Edwin.

In the list of those who went to the battle of Catraeth there is record of 300 warriors arrayed in fine armour, three loricated bands (I.e. plated for defence), with their commanders, wearing torques of gold, “three adventurous knights,” with 300 of equal quality, rushing forth from the summits of the mighty Caer-Eiddyn, to join their brother chiefs of the Ottadeni and Gadeni.

In the “British Triads” both Caer-Eiddyn (which some have supposed to be Carriden), and also Dinas-Eiddyn, the city of Eiddyn, are repeatedly named. But whether this be the city of Edinburgh it is exceedingly difficult to say; for, after all, the alleged Saxon denominative from Edwin is merely conjectural, and unauthenticated by remote facts.

From Sharon Turner’s “Vindication of Ancient British Poems,” we learn that Aneurin, whose work contains 920 lines, was taken prisoner at the battle of Catraeth,3 and was afterwards treacherously slain by one named Eiddyn; another account says he died an exile among the Silures in 570, and that the battle was lost because the Ottadeni “had drunk of their mead too profusely.”

The memory of Mynydoc Eiddyn is preserved in a beautiful Welsh poem entitled “The Drinking Horn,” by Owain, Prince of Powis. The poem is full of energy.

“When the mighty bards of yore
Awoke the tales of ancient lore,
What time resplendent to behold,
Flashed the bright mead in vase of gold!
The royal minstrel proudly sung
Of Cambria’s chiefs when time was young;
How, with the drink of heroes flushed,
Brave Catraeth’s lord to battle rushed,
The lion leader of the strong,
And marshall of Galwyiada’s throng;
The sun that rose o’er Itun’s bay
Ne’er closed on such disastrous day;
There fell Mynydoc, mighty lord,
Beneath stern Osway’s baneful sword;
Yet shall thy praise, thy deathless name,
Be woke on harps of bardic fame,
Sung by the Cymri’s tuneful train,
Aneurin of celestial strain.”

Daniel Wilson, one of the ablest writers on Scottish antiquities, says that he thinks it useless “to follow the fanciful disquisitions of zealous antiquarians respecting the origin and etymology of Edinburgh; it has successively been derived, both in origin and in name, from Saxon, Pict, and Gael, and in each case with sufficient ingenuity to leave the subject more involved than at first.” But while on this subject, it should be borne in mind that the unfortunate destruction of the national records by the invaders, Edward I. and Oliver Cromwell, leaves the Scottish historian dependent for much of his material on tradition, or information that can only be obtained with infinite labour; though it may no doubt be taken for granted that even if these archives had been preserved in their entirety they could scarcely have thrown much, if any, light upon the quæstio vexata of the origin of the name of Edinburgh.


1  “Pre-historic Annals of Scotland.”
2  On the eastern slope of the same hill there was found a singular relic of a later period, which merits special notice from its peculiar characteristics. It is a bronze matrix, bearing the device of a turbaned head, with the legend SOLOMON BAR ISAAC round it in Hebrew characters; and by some it has been supposed to be a talisman or magical signet. (“Prehist. Ann. Scot.”)
3  The famous Catrail, or Picts-work-ditch, is supposed to have had some connection with this battle of Catraeth. (Girald. Cambrensis, II.)
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