OUR Icon this week is unusual as we’re not sure he existed. We know nothing about the supposed Caledonian chief Calgacus, whether he was Hibs or Hearts, and preferred crinkle cut or straight cut oven turnips.

Described on yonder YouTube variously as a “Celtic badass” and “Scotland’s first Braveheart”, all our rubbish knowledge of him comes from one source, The Agricola, written in 98 AD by Jimmy Tacitus, a Roman geezer.

Even then, Calgacus is only mentioned in terms of the Battle of Mons Graupius of 83 AD, which was allegedly won by Julius Blenkinsopus Agricola (Tacitus’s, er, father-in-law), and which may never have taken place. If it did, it was in one of 29 suggested places, including Bennachie near Inverurie, the Paps of Fife, the Gask Ridge west of Perth, and inside Tacitus’s head. It was the only big Roman battle on Scottish soil and there’s not a button to prove it.

Tacitus is an entertaining writer, though, as he tended to adduce weird anthropology, somewhat in the tradition of the Greek historian Herodotus, who said Ethiopians lived in holes and squeaked like bats, Egyptians had hard heads through exposure to the sun, and India had ants bigger than foxes.

Tacitus wasn’t as bad as that, but he did talk a lot of tripe, and the Romans weren’t big on fact-checkers. He described the Caledonians as “red haired and large limbed”, proclaiming “a German origin”. What a nutter. Mind you, red haired might be right, with some reportedly resorting to dye for that much-loved ginger look. We’ve no description of Calgacus’s hair, and even Tacitus doesn’t suggest he used Head-Hunter and Shoulders.

He does, however, put words into Calgacus’s mouth, in a Blairite speech that includes the famous words ubi solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant. If you haven’t been educated properly, this is an epigram preceded by a traditional Roman expression: “Ubi-ubi-doo, they create a desert and call it peace.”

United nation

According to Tacitus, in one translation (I’ve looked at a few and chosen excerpts according to comedy value), Calgacus begins his speech by saying: “When I reflect on … the circumstances of our situation, I have a strong feeling that our united front today will prove the beginning of liberty for all Britain.”

Eh? Rather than sitting astride a charger like Braveheart, we envisage Calgacus here smoking a pipe and wearing a cardigan, with a glass of sherry on a doily by his side.

He goes on to describe his chaps as “the choicest flower of Britain’s manhood” – not exactly making them sound like kickboxers here – “stationed in her last recesses”. Lest this make him sound like a raving Unionist incidentally – and, let’s face it, they’d have been backing the Romans – we recall that the Caledonians were a Celtic confederacy who spoke a Brittonic language. One linguist says Caledonian itself means “possessing hard feet”. Indeed, it’s thought that half of Calgacus’s army was made up of chiropodists.

Calgacus goes on to say that his men had been left no choice but to get their weapons out of their garden sheds, as they were being invaded by “plunderers … stimulated by avarice”. He mentions an earlier attempt at opposing the Romans, by some southern Britons who, “even under a female leader” (yon Boudicca), had had a right good go. Calgacus also speaks knowledgeably of the Germans, presumably having read about them in the foreign section of his Pictish Herald.

He goes on (audience by now looking at their wrist-sundials) to say the Romans hadn’t a clue where they were and had come north from “colonies of old men” and unhappy slaves. “March then to battle,” he concluded after one shout of “Get on with it!”, “and think of your ancestors and your posterior.”

Not sure about that translation. Think it means “posterity”. You might think it odd that Tacitus should make the Caledonians such noble savages, comparing them favourably to the greedy empire-builders of Rome. But this is what Tacitus actually believed.

Capital punishment

Trouble was he couldn’t say this himself or he’d have been whisked away like an anti-monarchy protester in London.

So he put words into a possibly fictional barbarian leader’s mooth. Indeed, Tacitus’s own gift of the gab has led to suggestions that he himself was a Celt, his birthplace being unknown.

Tacitus also put words into the mouth of his father-in-law, Agricola, who begins his speech: “Right, you fellows, thank you so much for coming along today. I want a good, clean fight, and everyone home for tea by 4 o’clock.” That’s from my own loose translation.

Others suggest he urged his men to “question your own eyes” – should have gone to Specsavers in Inverness – here “in this most extreme edge of the Earth”. Not selling the place, mate.

He calls the Caledonians the last of the “spiritless cowards” of Britain, stuck in a field with nowhere to go and peeing their pants with fear. He urged his men to “win a great and brilliant victory”, causing them to “burst forth into cheerful acclamations”. Yay!

Got our number

Tacitus puts the numbers of Caledonians at 30,000 and, on the other side, seems to suggest around 20,000 fascists. He describes the Caledonians dancing aboot, whooping and shouting “Cumoan well!”, which does actually sound authentic.

They were blootered anyway, with 10,000 killed, compared to just 360 Romans. Is that right, aye? In addition, the defeated Caledonians were so upset they set fire to their ain hooses. Sounds like a plan.

Oddly enough, the Romans didn’t press on to conquer the whole of the country, on account of “the lateness of the season”. I see. As for Calgacus, we don’t know if he survived. He’s not mentioned as a prisoner, and you’d have thought his death would have been noticed in the battle, unless his body was buried under other folk on the battlefield where “mangled limbs were promiscuously strewn”.

Some suggest he camped out in the mountains, taking part in the constant attacks on the Romans, who built two defensive walls and doubtless thought of the Caledonians: “Ubi-ubi-doo, they make nice desserts but never gie us peace.”