Roman Stornoway- Part One of Many

26 06 2009

(Aye Aye Claudius)

According to present day historians, most of Scotland (or Caledonia as was) escaped the might of the Roman Empire. This was achieved through impressive military skill, great cunning, but mostly through the Roman’s great dislike for midges. The great walls of Hadrian and Antoinine mapped out the northern boundary of the Roman Empire and it was only very rarely that the Roman Legions ventured beyond this frontier into the mists of the Highlands. As a consequence, there are very few traces remaining of Roman presence in the Highlands and Islands.

However, the Outer Hebrides proved the exception to this rule and this article intends to examine the long forgotten Roman outpost that once dominated Stornoway and its surrounding area for many decades. Although the mountains of the Highlands made communications difficult, the seaways of the Hebrides lent themselves to an extremely efficient communication network, and so the Romans and other traders soon took full advantage of this.

The Roman sailors and traders bravely ventured north and westwards exploring the inner isles as they went and soon encountered the far Outer Hebrides (or Hebudes as Pliny the Elder* named them) with all the natural treasures they contained.

One of the first things these traders noticed was that Lewisian peat, when burnt, gave off a rich and fragrant odour .The traders realised that  this fragrance would be keenly sought after by patrons of Roman baths, as a form of early aromatherapy, and so began to ship creels of peat back to the Mediterranean.  Soon, demand for peat was so great that the Emperor Hadrian ordered that an expedition should make haste to Lewis and establish an permanent outpost, from which to exploit the supplies of peat.

Other delicacies such as guga, black pudding and ceann cropaig soon became popular at Roman orgies and before long Roman galleys and triremes became a regular sight in the Minch, carrying the exotic Hebridean wares to the households of the rich and famous.

The Romans started to develop the town as a trading post in 120 AD. They named it Stordinium and set about transforming the small fishing village into a sizeable Roman settlement with all the modern features of Roman life.

The first Roman Governor of Stornoway was called Calumigula, and he was tasked with ensuring that Roman law was upheld in this far province and ensuring that regular supplies of  peat and guga made their way to Rome, without interference from the natives.

Calumigula oversaw the construction of a Roman fortress on the foreshore across from the town, with a Governor’s Mansion built beside it. This was more or less where the present day Lews Castle stands. From here Calumigula watched the town grow from a humble hotch pot of fishing shacks to a resplendent Roman town full of all the right kinds of civic buildings.

An impressive Roman Bathhouse was built in the town, more or less on the site of the present day Sports Centre Pool. The Forum was laid out near present day Cromwell Street, virtually where the Town Hall stands today, and it was here that the influential citizens of Stordinium debated laws and policies.

An Arena was laid out close to the present day Smith Avenue sports track and chariot races were held here on midge free nights. Boy charioteers could also be seen driving through the paved streets of the town on a nightly basis, picking up Temple Maidens and listening to the latest hits  played on lutes. The most famous charioteer came from just outside Stordinium and was know as ‘Bennadrove’ Hur.

Calumigula was keen to make a quick sestertius or two and so very soon had set his sights on the lucrative convoys of goods sailing back to Rome.   He got in tow with a local ‘business man’, called Macinstronius who specialised in black market dealings (and worse), and together the two of them established a Business Plan for their shipping company. The ‘Business Plan’ consisted largely of knifing the other merchants in the back, thus ensuring that no-one else was willing to undertake the work.

This shipping company took the names of its two founders and became known far and wide as Cal-Mac.

* we’re not quite sure what church he was an Elder in but we think it was the Temple of Mars (Continuing)



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