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Moray UK relief location map.jpg
Red pog.svg
Alternative name(s)The Foths
TypeQuingenary fort (possible)
Coordinates 57°35′59″N3°19′21″W / 57.5996°N 3.3224°W / 57.5996; -3.3224
Site notes
Condition Cropmarks
Excavation dates1982–1990

Thomshill, located 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) south of Elgin in Moray, Scotland, [1] is the site of an excavated rectilinear enclosure that has been interpreted as a possible Roman military camp or fort. [2] The enclosure covers an area of approximately 3.25 hectares (8.0 acres) and is situated at a height of 72 metres (236 ft) above ordnance datum. [3]

Elgin, Moray former cathedral city and Royal Burgh in Moray, Scotland

Elgin is a town and Royal Burgh in Moray, Scotland. It is the administrative and commercial centre for Moray. The town originated to the south of the River Lossie on the higher ground above the floodplain. Elgin is first documented in the Cartulary of Moray in 1190 AD. It was created a royal burgh in the 12th century by King David I of Scotland, and by that time had a castle on top of the present day Lady Hill to the west of the town.

Moray Council area of Scotland

Moray is one of the 32 Local Government council areas of Scotland. It lies in the north-east of the country, with coastline on the Moray Firth, and borders the council areas of Aberdeenshire and Highland.

Scotland Country in Europe, part of the United Kingdom

Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Sharing a border with England to the southeast, Scotland is otherwise surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, the North Sea to the northeast, the Irish Sea to the south, and the North Channel to the southwest. In addition to the mainland, situated on the northern third of the island of Great Britain, Scotland has over 790 islands, including the Northern Isles and the Hebrides.


Alongside similar sites at Boyndie, Balnageith, Easter Galcantray and Tarradale, the possibility that Thomshill represents a Roman fort has been seen as evidence that the Roman Army under Agricola occupied Moray after the Battle of Mons Graupius in AD84. [4]

Boyndie village in United Kingdom

Boyndie is a village in Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Balnageith, located on the western edge of the suburbs of Forres in Moray, Scotland, is the site of an excavated linear cropmark with a rounded corner that has been interpreted as a possible Roman military camp or fort. The enclosure may originally have been of up to 2.4 hectares in size.

Gnaeus Julius Agricola was a Gallo-Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain. Written by his son-in-law Tacitus, the De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae is the primary source for most of what is known about him, along with detailed archaeological evidence from northern Britain.

Discovery and excavation

In 1834 the New Statistical Account of Scotland described "rectangular trenches, or, as some may say, a Roman castra at The Foths" within the parish of Birnie. [5] In 1871 the Ordnance Survey recorded "the remains of rectangular trenches, said to be a Roman camp, but almost erased by cultivation" in the district. [3] By 1971 no visible trace remained. [3]

Ordnance Survey National mapping agency of the UK for Great Britain

Ordnance Survey (OS) is the national mapping agency for Great Britain. Since 1 April 2015 Ordnance Survey has operated as Ordnance Survey Ltd, a government-owned company, 100% in public ownership. The Ordnance Survey Board remains accountable to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It is also a member of the Public Data Group.

Ground observation and aerial photography during the 1980s revealed cropmarks suggesting three sides of a rectilinear ditched enclosure, situated on an eroded spur overlooking a dry river valley dominated by two nearby distilleries. [6] Trial excavations took place in September 1982; and over subsequent excavations between 1985 and 1990 a total of 44 trenches were cut across the lines of the ditch, the interior of the enclosure and notable surrounding features. [7]

Aerial photography Taking images of the ground from the air

Aerial photography is the taking of photographs from an aircraft or other flying object. Platforms for aerial photography include fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, balloons, blimps and dirigibles, rockets, pigeons, kites, parachutes, stand-alone telescoping and vehicle-mounted poles. Mounted cameras may be triggered remotely or automatically; hand-held photographs may be taken by a photographer.

Trench excavated channel in ground

A trench is a type of excavation or depression in the ground that is generally deeper than it is wide, and narrow compared with its length.

Excavation showed the site's enclosing ditch to be V-shaped, with a well-defined sump or cleaning slot along the base. [7] Clear evidence of a turf revetment was found on the inner edge of the ditch. [8] which was up to 5 metres (16 ft) wide. [3] The corners of the enclosure were rounded [7] and a series of post-holes were found close to the inner edge of the southern side of the enclosure. [9] Two small ditches that predated the main enclosure were also found on the site, and were taken to represent an unknown earlier phase of occupation. [8]

A sump is a low space that collects often undesirable liquids such as water or chemicals. A sump can also be an infiltration basin used to manage surface runoff water and recharge underground aquifers. Sump can also refer to an area in a cave where an underground flow of water exits the cave into the earth.


In stream restoration, river engineering or coastal engineering, revetments are sloping structures placed on banks or cliffs in such a way as to absorb the energy of incoming water. In military engineering they are structures, again sloped, formed to secure an area from artillery, bombing, or stored explosives. River or coastal revetments are usually built to preserve the existing uses of the shoreline and to protect the slope, as defense against erosion.


The absence of direct dating evidence makes assigning a date and function difficult, but the site was interpreted by its excavators as representing a Roman military work of Agricolan date, based on its location, its plan as a rectangular enclosure with rounded corners, and the apparently Roman V-shaped profile of the ditch itself. [2] The enclosed area of 1.75 hectares (4.3 acres) is far smaller than that of known Roman temporary marching camps in North East Scotland, such as Auchinhove (14 hectares (35 acres)), Muiryfold (44 hectares (110 acres)), Durno (58 hectares (140 acres)) or the two camps at Ythan Wells (14 hectares (35 acres) and 45 hectares (110 acres)). [2] Thomshill's excavators argued that its closest parallels were the single-ditched forts of the Flavian period found elsewhere in Scotland such as that at Fendoch, suggesting that Thomshill might have been an auxiliary fort built to house a quingenary unit. [2] The site lies less than 1 kilometre (0.62 mi) from the large native iron age and Roman period settlement at Birnie, a pattern demonstrated by many other Roman sites in the north of Scotland. [10]


Auchinhove, located to the east of Keith in Moray, Scotland, is the site of a Roman marching camp, first discovered by aerial photography in 1949.


Muiryfold was one of the Roman fortifications built by Septimius Severus in northern Caledonia. The site is located 6 kilometres (3.7 mi) east of Keith in Moray.

Durno site of a Roman marching camp in Aberdeenshire, Scotland

Durno or Logie Durno, located 6 miles (9.7 km) north west of Inverurie in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, is the site of a Roman marching camp, first discovered by aerial photography in July 1975 and excavated in 1976 and 1977.

Following these excavations, the site at Thomshill was interpreted as being comparable to those at Balnageith, Boyndie and Easter Galcantray, which were seen as semi-permanent Roman fortifications and explained as the hibernia or winter quarters taken in or close to the land of the Boresti by the forces of Agricola after their victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius, as described by Tacitus in his biography Agricola . [11]

This interpretation has proved controversial, with much of the evidence criticised as circumstantial. [12] Some reviewers have questioned whether the sites are Roman at all; [13] some have argued that the Roman status of the sites is possible but unproven, [14] on the basis that rectilinear enclosures of this scale are not otherwise found among native sites in the Moray area; [15] others have argued that they "would be accepted without cavil as Roman anywhere else". [16] Of the suggested sites Thomshill has been seen as particularly problematic due its lack of dating evidence or surviving internal features. [12]

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  1. Gregory 2001, p. 179.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Gregory 2001, p. 186.
  3. 1 2 3 4 RCAHMS.
  4. Jones & Keillar 2002, p. 19.
  5. Gregory 2001, p. 180.
  6. Gregory 2001, pp. 179–181.
  7. 1 2 3 Gregory 2001, p. 181.
  8. 1 2 Gregory 2001, p. 184.
  9. Gregory 2001, pp. 181–184.
  10. Gregory 2001, p. 216.
  11. Gregory 2001, pp. 216–217.
  12. 1 2 Gregory 2001, p. 217.
  13. Hunter, Fraser; Carruthers, Martin, eds. (June 2012). "Scotland: The Roman Presence" (PDF). Scottish Archaeological Research Framework. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. p. 13. Retrieved 11 October 2015. Despite some assertions to the contrary (e.g. Gregory 2001), there is no evidence of fort building north of the Mounth. The postulated sites at Thomshill and Easter Galcantray lack the distinctive morphological characteristics of Roman military works and have not provided any artefactual support for a Roman date.
  14. Gregory 2001, pp. 219–220.
  15. Gregory 2001, p. 218.
  16. Carver, M. O. H. (2008). Portmahomack: Monastery of the Picts. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. p. 176. ISBN   9780748624423 . Retrieved 11 October 2015.