If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.
According to the Roman historian Tacitus, these words are how the Pictish leader Calgacus described the Roman Empire to his men on the eve of the Battle of Mons Graupius, in AD 83. In the battle itself, the Picts were defeated, though the Romans didn’t gain much advantage and never really consolidated their gains in Pictish territory.
Apart from the fact that it was in northern Scotland, no-one is quite sure of the location of Mons Graupius. The Latin word mons implies a hill, or at the very least a huge rock formation. But graupius seems to be a foreign place-name cast into Latin form. There’s an argument that it comes from a Celtic word related to Welsh crib, which can mean “comb” or “mountain ridge”. An original Latinized cripius would then evolve through copying errors—cripius, crapius, craupius, graupius.
Kempstone Hill and Bennachie in Aberdeenshire have both been suggested as plausible sites for Mons Graupius, with both located near Roman camps and corresponding to some extent to Tacitus’ description of the battlefield. But other suggestions have ranged from Fife in the south to Sutherland in the north.
The next copying error to befall Mons Graupius was in 1476, when a printed edition of Tacitus’ history of the Roman campaign in Scotland, De Vita Et Moribus Lulii Agricolae, was set with an “m” replacing the “u”—Mons Grampius. In 1520 the Scottish historian Hector Boece (pronounce it “Boyce”) took this misprint and translated it into the Grampian Mountains—a name he applied to a region of hill country in roughly the most likely vicinity of the Battle of Mons Graupius—the southeast corner of the Scottish Highlands.
Boece’s motives are a little unclear—he was born in Dundee and spent his later life in Aberdeen, so must have known that no-one in the area ever called these hills “the Grampians”. The local name (which is still in use) was The Mounth, from Gaelic Am Monadh, “the mountains”. Maybe he just wanted something a little more specific.
Perhaps because it had no local anchor in common usage, the word Grampians soon came unstuck from the Mounth hills and started to spread around the country.
When I was at school, I learned Boece’s definition—a region of mountains south of the River Dee and west of Glen Shee. But the Grampians have also been interpreted as extending farther west—at least as far as the Drumochter pass and the line of the A9 road, and on occasion to include all the hills of the Loch Lomond & The Trossachs National Park. This last definition is one favoured by the Encyclopædia Britannica—“the wall-like southern edge” of the Highlands “that overlooks the Lowlands”.
The northern boundary of the Grampians is likewise expansile. From the Dee it has crept north to the Spey, annexing the Cairngorm Mountains, and even as far as the Great Glen, turning a huge area of Highland Scotland into “the Grampians”.
And that’s where the Grampian expansion seems to have stopped. In a check of the paper references available chez Oikofuge, the most common current usage is to designate the central of the three upland areas of Scotland, with the Northern Highlands north of the Great Glen, the Grampians between the Great Glen and the Central Lowlands, and the Southern Uplands south of the Central Lowlands.
I’ve summarized the various incarnations of the Grampians below, with Boece’s original conception in purple, the current common usage in red, and the various other usages I’ve encountered roughly sketched between:
Boece’s coinage has gone on to lend its name to other things: the Grampian Region, a political entity that occupied northeast Scotland between 1975 and 1996; Grampian Television, an independent television station that covers northern Scotland (now known as STV North); mountain ranges in Australia and New Zealand; the Grampian Hillwalking Club, originally formed by employees of the Grampian Regional Council; and a whole host of other organizations that have some claim to association with northeast Scotland.
That’s not bad going for a misspelled and misapplied version of a name of uncertain etymology attached to an unknown location.