Where is the best place to build a fort?

In modern society, especially in urban areas, it is fairly uncommon to have the responsibility of placing a building or a structure. Many people live in apartments or houses that were built by someone else, and the “when”and “why” of the construction is something that, at most, gets brought up briefly during tours with prospective tenants and is immediately forgotten about. For many people, including myself, the most complicated structures we have placed by ourselves are the forts we make as children in our backyards or the woodlot across the street.

But how would one go about placing an actual marching camp or fort? How does one protect an army on the march effectively when it has to rest somewhere every night? Is being near drinking water or on high ground more important, or are either of them important at all? These are all questions that we would in all likelihood balk at if we were forced to answer them today — especially if a bad decision put the lives of real soldiers on the line.

The purpose of this project is to do learn something more about how this was done during a time period when it was actually necessary and important knowledge — the Roman occupation of Scotland. Rome’s relatively brief advances into Scotland have been the subject of much study — in the words of historian Gordon S. Maxwell, “[…] the Romans occupy a disproportionately prominent position on the stage of [Scotland’s] national history” despite the fact that “their presence in this northern kingdom did not extend beyond three episodes, which together span no more than fifty years.” Maxwell posits that this might be due to our perception of Roman society as not unlike our own, and the sympathetic tale of the inhabitants of Scotland taking on a more powerful neighbor from the south that has seemed to repeat itself throughout history1.

From the perspective of studying Roman fortifications, however,¬† Scotland also provides a great and somewhat unique opportunity. Unlike many areas that were conquered by the Roman army, Scotland has an abundance of visible remains from Roman fortifications2. Even the remains of many temporary camps — camps usually created for temporary protection while on the march or while constructing a larger, more permanent fortification — have been¬† found throughout Scotland.

In this project, I have studied the placement of these temporary camps in relation to various features of Scotland — including elevation, water sources, and roads built by the Romans themselves. Many of these features are mentioned in Roman military literature as important, and this project will show that whether the Roman army was informed by these writings or vice versa, there is a significant correlation between the placement of Roman temporary camps and access to water, certain elevation patterns, and road access.


  1. Maxwell, Gordon S., The Romans in Scotland (Edinburgh: J. Thin, 1989, Print): ix-x.
  2. Jones, Rebecca H., Roman Camps In Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2011, Print): 29.