Aerial View of Inchtuthil Fort (via Wikimedia Commons )

Places to Visit in Scotland
- Site of Roman Fort at Inchtuthil, Perthshire

Inchtuthil fort was one of the most significant forts in the chain of Roman forts that once ran across Britain. One of the last to be constructed, the fort stood at the strategically significant point where the River Tay passes through the Dunkeld Gorge. Constructed as a base for Agricola's campaign to subdue the "Fierce red haired long limbed Caledonians", led by a Pictish chieftain named by the Romans as "Calgacus", Inchtuthil was to be one of the largest forts ever built in Britain. Never entirely completed, the fort was abandoned in or about AD87, as changed political and strategic priorities meant that Agricola and his troops were recalled to mainland Europe to suppress rebellion in Germany. Agricola never returned. The graphic on the right shows Agricola, the Roman historian Tacitus and Calcgacus).

The Fort

Totally self sufficient, Inchtuthil could house, feed and train a complete Roman legion. ("SPQR" Senatus Populusque Romanus meaning "The Senate and the People of Rome"). It is thought that the XXth legion was based at Inchtuthil. They had their own 64 ward hospital, six granaries, all weather indoor and cavalry training schools, centurions houses and barrack blocks, baths, stabling for over 1,000 horses and mules and the all important fabrica. The fabrica was a huge building covering an area approximately half the size of a football pitch and was a Roman metalwork factory. As well as arms and armour, the blacksmiths produced everyday metalwork for the fort - door latches, horseshoes, and iron nails. See plan of the Fabrica below:

Agricola's plans were never realised. His recall to Rome meant the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire's influence in Britain. Being a thorough man, he was careful to instruct his troops not to leave anything behind that an enemy could make use of against his retreating army. Inchtuthil was dismantled, piece by piece, building by building, the useful goods packed up and sent home to Rome. What could not be salvaged was burnt or hidden from view.

Gradually over the years the site became hidden as the strong forces of nature reclaimed the land, but the memories lived on in the minds of men that there had been Romans at Inchtuthil. Over 1500 years later in 1503, Inchtuthil was described as a 'Pictish Town' by Hector Boece in his Scotorum Historiae.

Inchtuthil's modern history and the start of the long journey to discover the secrets of the fort began in 1755 when the great cartographer William Roy, mapped the site as part of the Ordnance Survey. He recognised that there were man-made ditches and embankments in the peaceful Perthshire countryside.

Preliminary excavations of the site started in 1757 when William Maitland found evidence of a 'town' by finding the bath house. Only Roman towns and forts of any significant size had a bath house so this was a clue to the size of the fort. His evidence was published in his 'History and Antiquities of Scotland'. Inchtuthil was" always an important site. It was, and still is, the only known large Roman military camp site that has not subsequently been built over or significantly ploughed, so had lain undisturbed until the archaeologists began to uncover its secrets.

20th Century Archaeology
The first twentieth century excavations were started in 1901, at the invitation of the then owner of the site, Sir Alexander Muir Mackenzie of Delvine and carried out under the auspices of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. They discovered and mapped the general layout of the site and re-found William Maitland's bath house (the bath house illustrated on the right is one on the Antonine Wall at Bearsden near Glasgow). No significant finds were made of artefacts - the Romans had done a good job of clearing out anything that might be of use to the locals.

In 1919, Sir George Macdonald, reconsidered the results from the 1901 dig, and accepted 'that Inchtuthil was almost certainly Agricola's base before the battle of Mons Graupius and... was also held by the Romans for a good many years afterwards.

Eighteen years later in 1937, a key player in the story of Inchtuthil, Ian Richmond, became more interested in the potential for excavation at the site. He planned to start digging in the summer of 1938, but increasing political tension in Europe meant that the dig had to be postponed for a good number of years. Finally, digging started at the site in September 1952, led by Ian Richmond. 'The main objective is the recovery of the history of the fortress, and a complete plan of its elaborate timber framed buildings', stated Richmond. Gradually, over the next 13 years more and more of the principal buildings of the site were mapped and excavated.

Hidden Hoard of Nails
In 1960 came the discovery that catapulted Inchtuthil into the public consciousness - The discovery of a huge hoard of Roman Nails in the remains of the Fabrica.

We will never know why these nails were left behind, perhaps they were too heavy to carry, perhaps transport had run short, perhaps the fortress was under attack. The secret of why the nails were left was lost when the last Roman quartermaster left the fort for Rome.

The nails were found in a pit specially dug for the purpose in the South East corner of the Fabrica. Dug to a depth of 12 feet, ten tons of iron nails had been thrown into the pit and covered with 6 feet of clean, beaten earth. The ancient Caledonians prized iron far above gold and silver and an iron mass of this magnitude could be converted by them into a veritable arsenal of weapons with which to attack the Romans.

That is why great care had been taken in concealing the nails. That care resulted in the nails staying hidden for nearly 1,900 years until their discovery in 1960. The top ton or so had rusted solid, forming a protective crust which had absorbed the small amounts of oxygen that had penetrated the close packed earth. That absorbency had helped to protect the rest of the hoard from rust. Some of the most perfectly preserved specimens came out nearly as shiny and bright as the day they were buried.

The excitement that this find caused was immense. Every major museum in the world clamoured to have its own set of Inchtuthil nails, scholars and metallurgists wanted sets for study and, most extraordinarily, the general public wanted to own a small piece of Roman history for themselves. Nails were sold from the site to finance further digging but no more finds of this magnitude were ever made.

Visiting Inchtuthil
Inchtuthil isn't far from the famous tourist attraction of the he Meikleour Beech hedge, which stands 36 metres (120 feet) high and a third of a mile long east of Dunkeld on the A93. But Inchtuthil is further west, south of the A984 at Spittalfield, along minor farm roads, south of Delvine - see Google Maps.

First of all to my friend, the late Hugh Fulton senior, who gave me a present of two of the Inchtuthil nails more than 15 years ago.

The above text is based on a booklet which accompanied the Roman nails entitled "A Unique Insight into Inchtuthil - A Brief History of the Archaeological Excavations" which does not quote the name of the author or who published it.

Return to Index of Places to Visit

Where else would you like to go in Scotland?