The Road to Dere Street

Dere Street, MidlothianJust off the A68 on the outskirts of the Scottish Borders, a small sign points towards the remnants of an ancient highway. Known as Dere Street, the road was once a bustling hive of Roman (and later Medieval) activity that connected York with the Firth of Forth. You have to use a fair amount of imagination to picture the bustle – today the road is covered in quaint farmland, with wind turbines dotting the surrounding lowland countryside. On Saturday evening some friends and I undertook a trek to the street, following a glorious day complete with soaring temperatures in sunny Midlothian.

Dere Street was one of the main routes taken by the Romans on their quest to conquer present-day Scotland. Historians point towards the Flavian era of AD 77-86/90 as the road’s conception timeframe, roughly 25 years after the Romans conquered England in AD43. The extensive network of Roman roads throughout Britain at this time connected forts and garrisons across the country, with roads such as Dere venturing out into the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Quarry pits alongside the remains of the road indicate that the Romans dug for gravel to use on the surface of the road.

Not long after the completion of the road the Romans abandoned the north of their new empire, building Hadrian’s Wall in AD 122. In her 2012 book Roman Camps in Scotland, historian Dr Rebecca Jones stated that Scotland hosted the largest number of Roman army camps in Europe, with many found recently by use of archaeological survey flights which hunt for distinctive marks in fields from structures buried beneath crops.

Dr Jones said: 

‘For the first time we have a picture of the true extent of the Roman war machine in Scotland. The repeated campaigns to conquer Scotland were bloody, brutal and ultimately unsuccessful for the Roman Empire. They had to deal with tribes unwilling to be conquered, and strained resources, as soldiers were always needed to fight wars elsewhere throughout their vast Empire.’

Throughout Medieval times, the section of Dere Street between Jedburgh and Edinburgh became known as the Via Regia (royal way). The road connected the majority of Scotland with abbeys and other places of religious significance in the Borders. The section of Dere Street we visited was about 200 metres down the road from Soutra Aisle which hosts the remains of the House of the Holy Trinity church, hospital and Augustinian friary. Established in 1164 by Malcolm IV, the complex provided welcome respite for weary pilgrims traveling to and fro religious sites. The remains must measure no more than a double garage, however it’s believed that in it’s time it was the largest medieval hospital in Scotland occupying a walled area of 700m squared. Archeological work in the grounds surrounding the hospital have revealed evidence of rare medicinal seeds including Henbane, Hemlock, East-African cloves and Opium Poppy.

Soutra Aisle on a visit earlier in 2013.

Soutra Aisle on a visit earlier in 2013.

Precariously positioned on the main route from Scotland to the English border, the church and road would have seen their fair share of desolation pass by during the Scottish Wars of Independence. The road became desolate and disused following The War of Rough Wooing and the Scottish Reformation, when many Borders abbeys were destroyed. It became primarily used for driving livestock, and as a passageway for the occasional traveler daring enough to venture into the lawless Border region. Soutra Aisle went on to become the burial vault of Clan Pringle of Soutra, which ultimately saved it from being completely destroyed.

Almost 2000 years after it was built, Dere Street provides the outline for many major roads in Scotland including the A68 and A1. Today the Soutra section of Dere lies buried behind the A68 in grazing land – the pilgrims, soldiers, royals and travelers who once used the road now a mere shadow of a time long gone.


About Nadine Lee

Originally from New Zealand, Nadine is a documentary researcher now based in the north east of Scotland.

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One thought on “The Road to Dere Street

  1. Glen Leslie

    I highly recommend a visit to Soutra Aisle this August 24,25, or 26 at 2pm for fascinating insights into the medieval hospital and local history with Dr Brian Moffat archaeologist on site since 1986. He did a talk in the snow last march, only 2 folk attended and he had us rivetted for 3 hours!


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