The Roman occupation of Britain lasted from AD43 and until AD410. During this period the land now known as East Lothian was firmly within the buffer zone between the Antonine Wall to the north and Hadrian’s Wall to the south. The earthworks and timber pallisades of the Antonine Wall joined the narrow Forth – Clyde isthmus while the more substantial Hadrian’s Wall stretched from the Solway Firth in the west to Wallsend on the River Tyne in the east. East Lothian and south towards present day Northumbria was the home of the Votadini Britons.
This was frontier territory for the Empire and its troops. The extensive buffer zone separated the comparatively prosperous Romano Brittania in the south and middle of present day England from the painted Celtic Picts to the north – described by their leader Galgacus as ‘The Last of the Free’ meaning the remaining Celts holding onto freedom, or outwith Pax Romana.
The area between the walls was closely monitored for activity within it and for signs of hostile movements within Pictland. Forts and patrolled Roman roads criss-crossed the area and served to separate the various British tribes occupying it. Likewise, south of Hadrian’s Wall, look-out posts were strategically placed in the patrolled highlands of the native Brigantes to ensure stability there. The battle for supremacy over the Picts and the rich fertile lands of Fife and Angus was never won by the Roman forces.
There is no evidence to suggest enduring hostilities between the Votadini and the Roman forces, but the extent to which the Votadini were a wholly compliant kingdom is unclear. Whatever the case may have been, the substantial Roman fort at Trimontium, providing barracks and substantial grazing ground for the Sarmation cavalry, was within the midst of the Votadini, whose capital hill fort was a atop Traprain Law.
By AD399, attacks on Rome by the Visigoths from eastern Europe meant that reinforcements were desperately needed elsewhere and the Romans could no longer hold on to Britain as a military province. In the North of Britain, the depletion of the Roman army left the northern frontier of Hadrian’s Wall severely exposed and revolts against the small scattering of Romans who remained soon gained momentum.
The north was particularly vulnerable to attack, not just from Picts and the Irish Scotti but from pagan Anglo-Saxon raiders from across the North Sea.