The fort at Newstead, situated on a bluff on the South bank of the river Tweed, commands the Tweed valley.
Eildon North Hill and Trimontium Stone It was a key defensive site throughout the Roman period and was the hub of Roman roads in Scotland. Of these 500 miles of Roman roads only one, so far, has produced a milestone, found at Ingliston near Edinburgh, and giving the distance in Roman miles from the roads HQ – TRIMONTIUM, (perhaps originally ‘castra trium montium’ – the camp of the three hills or place of the three peaks or Triple Mountain). See the Newstead information shed.
Trimontium is the name given to it in Ptolemy of Alexandria’s second century map and in the list of ancient place names, the seventh century Ravenna Cosmography. It is taken to refer to the three Eildon (pronounced ‘Eeldon’ ) Hills – Eildon Hill North; the Mid Hill; and the Little or Bowden Eildon – all Bronze Age sites and landmarks visible from all directions. (There is also the Little Hill beside them, the vent of the volcano of long ago.)
It was no accident that the Romans placed their South of Scotland HQ beside such a landmark. The 1986 excavations on Eildon Hill North indicate that there is a 1,000 year gap in the occupation of the hill between the end of the Bronze Age and the Roman Iron Age ie that the Romans found the hill unoccupied, placed their signal station (still visible with ditch and bank) on the Western tip of the hill and encouraged some reoccupation of it.
General Roy, surveying Scotland after the 1745 rebellion, placed the Roman fort at the village of Eildon, to the South East of Newstead. It was not till the Waverley Railway Line was being laid in the 1840s and Roman artefacts began to be found by the navvies in cutting through the South Annexe that its location became clearer. It was another sixty years later, towards the end of a busy two decades of Roman fort-finding and excavation in Britain (eg Birrens 1896), that James Curle of Melrose, a solicitor by profession, was given permission by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland to excavate. This took from 1905 to 1910, proved a sensation at the time because of the quality of the artefacts found, and was recorded by him in a magisterial work published in 1911 and entitled ‘A Roman Frontier Post and its People’.
In 1947 Sir Ian Richmond undertook a corroborative excavation with the aid of German prisoners of war. For forty years fieldwalkers from Selkirk – the Mason brothers, J Walter Elliot, Jack Cruickshank and Caroline Cruickshank – gathered evidence from the field surfaces, including many intaglios (soldiers’ rings with semi-precious stones). Aerial photography by Professor J K S St Joseph of Cambridge and the Royal Commission in Scotland (G S Maxwell et al) also took place on an annual basis. Bradford University (Drs RFJ Jones and Simon Clarke) were involved in summer excavations from 1987 to 1998, (full report expected in 2006/2007) including the Newstead Project, which attempted to study Romano-Celtic interaction in a 50 sq km area around the fort with parallel excavations at native sites, and in the rescue excavation along the route of the third phase of the Melrose Bypass, which the local authority succeeded, after two public inquiries, in putting through the old railway cutting in the South Annexe, which had been returning to nature since the closure of the railway in 1968, and where, far from there being little to find because of the work of the navvies, forty major archaeological features were recorded, including four wells to add to the 107 wells which Curle had found and which have been the glory and the enigma of Trimontium since his time. Some of the artefacts in these easily dug, stone-lined wells or pits in a high water table area may be rubbish discarded when the fort was abandoned. Some certainly represent votive offerings to appease the gods of the underworld and they range from priceless chased sports helmets, to carpenters’ tools, offcuts of tents, and animal heads, given by people obsessed by the spirits of the natural world around them who carefully sealed off these entrances to the underworld when they were filled – and dug more.
There are no upstanding stone remains at Trimontium today but guides on the Trimontium Walk point out the features that can still be seen in the fields, including the swell of the ploughed-out rampart, and the amphitheatre. It is an almost tangible story.
The ‘Newstead’ artefacts form the greater part of the national collection which is on view in the Early Peoples section of the Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh. Apart from the Trimontium Museuem in Melrose Square there is a small collection of finds in a room of the Commendator’s House in Cloisters Road, entry to which is gained by visitors to Melrose Abbey.