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The Headless Horseman of Stonehaven

On the ridge of a remote hilltop close to Stonehaven, there are two standing stones which are just over seventy metres apart. They are said to mark significant spots of a decisive battle in Scottish history, The Battle of Mons Graupius, which took place around AD 83, though some reports suggest it might have been a year later.

While details of the battle are relatively well documented, thanks to the writings of a Roman biographer who wrote about the campaign of General Julius Agricola in England, Wales, and Scotland, the exact location is heavily disputed, and so the Stonehaven location is only one of several potential sites.

The Advancing Romans

Agricola, having already taken control of lands south of the River Tay, wanted more and marched a massive army of around 20,000 legionnaires northwards. At that time, Scotland was divided into numerous small kingdoms, each with its own distinct tribe. With the Roman threat getting ever closer, Calgacus, the chief of one of the Caledonian tribes, sought assistance from the other kingdoms and amassed an army of over 30,000 to meet the Romans. It is recorded that the battle was fought at the ridge of a hill, yet the exact geography is vague, hence the location being so heavily argued amongst scholars and historians.

Calgacus gathered his soldiers on the hilltop, giving him not only the advantage of greater numbers but also holding the high ground, forcing the Romans to fight uphill. What he had not been able to account for, however, was the experience of the Romans as an organised and structured fighting force. Calgacus, to his peril, was to soon discover that he could not rely solely on numbers.

After bombarding the Caledonians with arrows and stones, the Roman foot soldiers advanced to engage in hand-to-hand combat. The Caledonian cavalry used war chariots, which proved to be useless in the rough terrain, whereas the Roman cavalry easily outflanked the opposing forces. The Romans achieved a decisive victory, with an estimated 10,000 Caledonians killed compared to around 360 Romans. The remaining 20,000 Caledonians fled back to their separate kingdoms, and although it is not certain what happened to Calgacus, most believe he too escaped.

The Tale of the Horseman

However, the tale of the stones tells a different story. It is said that Calgacus was beheaded as he rode his horse across the ridge, most likely by a Roman Cavalryman, yet bizarrely he managed to keep riding his horse for some distance before finally falling.

One of the standing stones is said to mark the spot where his head fell, and the other where his body fell. Legend claims that on dark nights, a headless horseman can be seen riding between the stones, believed to be the phantom of Calgacus, repeating his final journey as his life energy drained from him.

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