What is the Haar?
The haar in Aberdeenshire, north-east Scotland, can refer to a light coastal fog or a downright pea-souper. Either way, if you’re out in haar there’s an eerie, almost unworldly quality about it. If driving, fog lights are pretty useless since haar has a tendency to drift in and out like the tidal surges you’d find on the shoreline. If walking, take a deep breath. Haar isn’t like Los Angeles smog where you can actually taste the pollution: haar can actually be quite an uplifting face bath, albeit one where you are in a sauna-steam situation without any heat. Regardless, in any haar, seeing the way forward is a cautious process.
Writing Historical Fiction is Like being in the Haar
Researching and writing historical fiction can also be a series of hesitant steps. It’s only by doggedly seeking and sifting a way through the murk that clarity can be revealed and, hopefully, reliable authenticity. You have to have a weird fascination for researching the almost unattainable if you choose a difficult era.My current fiction writing is set in AD 84 during the Ancient Roman invasion campaigns of northern Britannia (Aberdeenshire) by General Gnaeus Julius Agricola. Digging out details isn’t easy but I’ve a few strategies which help me and which are probably transferrable for other eras.
Doesn’t Prehistory Mean before Anything was Recorded?
The definition of prehistory is “the period of time before written records”. However, prehistory in one part of the world wasn’t necessarily at the same time prehistoric in another, so don’t give up on details being a lost cause. The Late Iron Age tribes of Aberdeenshire around AD 84 left no writing at all, but in other parts of the world there were civilisations which had moved into the ‘historic’ period of written records. Essentially, the researcher has to work with the personal views of those ‘writing’ nations regarding the non-writing peoples.
Ferret out Primary Sources
Surely Agricola’s campaigns must have been written about if he was an Ancient Roman General? There’s a great legacy of information about Roman military campaigns around the Mediterranean and mainland Europe around AD 84. Sadly, the Roman invasion of northern Britannia didn’t merit such coverage. Sources are almost non-existent, the main one being ‘De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae’ (On The Life and Character of Julius Agricola) by a Roman writer named Cornelius Tacitus.
Aha! That’s fantastic. It’s about Agricola.
Yes—but Tacitus was also Agricola’s son-in-law. The writing about Agricola’s escapades in northern Britannia is often held in suspicion and regarded as personally biased and politically motivated. Written in AD 98, a few years after Agricola’s death, The Agricola is thought by many modern scholars to seriously hype up the actual achievements of Agricola in his northern Britannia campaigns. Tacitus’ writing is regarded as typical of the over-inflated, wordy spin that was fairly common for writers of the time who were dissatisfied with the political climate—as in dress up something worth grousing about in poetic flowery language to gain maximum impact. Actually, that ploy hasn’t changed all that much! In fact, the dramatic speeches that Tacitus quotes as having come from the mouths of Agricola and the leader of the native Caledonian tribes of northern Britannia, when inspiring their troops before battle, are quite stirring. Sadly, not much of those speeches seem to have sound foundation. Equally sad is the fact that there’s no full original of Tacitus’ writing—what we have to study are parts from copies written much later, from approx. the 15th Century.
Therefore…Also be Very Wary of Translator Bias
Every translation comes with a certain amount of bias and maybe some conjecture since (Latin) words and phrases can have many different meanings. So what Agricola actually did in northern Britannia is very hazy. Tacitus’ geographical references are limited and as vague as the mist I mention above, especially about the site of a major battle that he claims to have taken place ‘somewhere in northern Scotland’ and was Agricola’s ultimate achievement. That battle is translated from ‘The Agricola’ as ‘The Battle of Mons Graupius’. It was a confrontation which Tacitus says took place between the troops of Agricola and the 30,000 strong forces of a ‘Caledon’ Iron Age tribal leader named Calgacus (translation: ‘The Swordsman’).
The above photo of the hill range called Bennachie, the foothills of which are regarded as the most likely site of the battle. It’s probable that Agricola had more than 20,000 Roman troops in the Durno Roman Marching Camp which lies opposite the peak.
Tacitus describes the battle in some detail (which can be used by authors like me should we choose to, and I have) but what happened in the days following that conflict are again—shrouded in deep haar.
Tacitus doesn’t date things accurately so although the battle was claimed to be ‘late in the campaign season’ that could have meant anything from September (probably AD 84) onwards. The statement might even be misleading because Agricola was known to have continued to campaign during the winters of the previous years while roaming southern Scotland.
There’s no mention of what Agricola did in the aftermath of the Battle of Mons Graupius but we know that he was recalled to Rome by AD 85, a fact corroborated elsewhere in Roman writings.
Weigh up the Evidence
Sometimes thorough research means looking at all available sources to get a broader overall opinion to make aspects of the era ‘match up’ better. Agricola was governor during the reigns of three different Emperors —Vespasian (died. AD 79), Titus (d. AD 81) and the Emperor Domitian. Agricola may have been in Vespasian’s favour, possibly also Titus, but that appears less likely with Domitian who concurrently was waging unsuccessful wars on the European mainland. Many modern historians and scholars are reluctant to take Tacitus’ version of ‘The Agricola’ as truth claiming he was biased against Domitian and highly favoured Agricola yet, Tacitus’ accounts of earlier generals of the Republic, and earlier battles, seem to be regarded as reliable when compared to other accounts written by revered writers. So who does the researcher rely on?
One of the huge problems about The Battle of Mons Graupius is that there’s no actual evidence ‘on the ground’ that any battle ever took place. But is lack of archaeological evidence categorical enough to mean there never was a large battle?
Use Back-up Where Possible
That haar is rolling in again. Lack of evidence for some historical situation may just be because proper field archaeology has never been done. There are possible sites of battle in Aberdeenshire, identified by 20th Century archaeologists, but it will take truck-loads money and expertise to uncover new evidence at those places. The researcher needs to keep abreast of new archaeological developments though if you’re writing a novel to a deadline, then patience isn’t your best friend!
Use Comparable Evidence
Some author licence and imagination is reasonable, even desirable, but that doesn’t have to mean segueing into the realms of fantasy. In striving for authenticity, it’s necessary to use all archaeological evidence that fits. Local Iron Age tribes of Aberdeenshire left traces that are comparable to those who lived further south in Britannia. There are some evidence finds that provide parallels with Iron Age Celts of Europe. There’s documented evidence of what the Roman army did when they invaded Celtic tribes in central, and eastern, Europe around the same era. So, again, parallels might be made as to what it was like to find your Aberdeenshire roundhouse village flattened by five thousand tramping Roman soldiers.
Tread Warily but Strive for the Most Realistic
It isn’t only the uncovering of ancient buildings and artefacts that allows archaeologists to recreate a scene from 2000 years ago. The whole environmental situation can be gleaned from other research disciplines. Soil samples and examination of bone deposits can provide information on the diet and lifestyle of the people living in an area. The natural landscape and the possible climate conditions of 2000 years ago can be gleaned from seed deposits; from natural organic traces; and from soil disturbances found during excavations using both invasive and non-invasive technology. Through an amalgam of evidence, a description of home life and surroundings can be reasonably interpreted.
Even though I’m writing fiction—I’m striving to create realistic people in realistic surroundings. Above all, my task is finding the interpretations that best fit what I want to write!
Maybe some of my strategies will work for you, too?
Written by Nancy Jardine
Bio: Nancy Jardine’s Celtic Fervour Series of historical romantic adventures are set in 1st century northern Britannia whereas her teen time-travel historical adventure is set in 3rd century Roman Scotland. She finds regular book signing & selling sessions at craft fairs great fun and loves giving presentations on Roman Scotland, and on her novels, to local groups around Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Her week vanishes in a blur of grandchild-minding, gardening, reading, writing, social media marketing and blogging—not necessarily in that order. Watching TV Drama and the news is a luxury – as are social events with friends and family but she does a creative job to squeeze them in. She’s a member of the Romantic Novelists Association and the Scottish Association of Writers.