Places to Visit in Scotland
- Antonine Wall

Romans in Scotland

"Therefore, as we cannot hope for mercy, we must take up arms for what we cherish most.. We will be fighting for our freedom... So when the two armies meet, let's show the invader what calibre of men Caledonia has kept up her sleeve.."
Sounds very like William Wallace (or Mel Gibson) at The Battle of Stirling Bridge. But the words are attributed instead to Calgacus, the leader of the Caledonians, before the battle of Mons Graupius 1,200 years earlier than Wallace. Calgacus is thus the first Scot to be mentioned in history (and, like Wallace, is to be the subject of a Hollywood film).

Gnaeus Julius Agricola Although the Romans under Julius Caesar had invaded the south of England in 54 and 55BC, they did not maintain a military occupation, though there was still some Roman influence in southern Britain. The Romans arrived again in Britain from Gaul (France) in 43AD and within 25 years had conquered most of present-day England, though initially the mountainous area of Wales remained unsubjugated. However, in 78AD Gnaeus Julius Agricola (see his portrait from stonework found on the Antonine Wall) was appointed governor of the Roman Province of Britain. He immediately subdued those parts of Wales not under Roman rule and then moved north to what the Romans called Alba, advancing in a pincer movement up the west and east coast, as far as the river Tay, supported by a Roman fleet. With the local Selgovae and Novantae tribes in southern and lowland Scotland defeated, Agricola decided he had to subdue the northernmost tribe, the Caledonians (Caledonii was their Latin name). Over the following few years the Romans advanced north, harassed all the way, but constructing forts as they went. Eventually, Calgacus, the leader of the Caledonians, was provoked by the Roman advance inland towards the Moray Firth to confront them in a pitched battle, probably near Huntly in Aberdeenshire in AD 83 or 84 (the date is uncertain). The only account we have of the "Battle of Mons Graupius" is by the Roman writer Tacitus, the son-in-law of Agricola, who, of course, reported the event slanted in favour of the Romans. Tacitus highlighted the slaughter of thousands of the Caledonians and the minor casualties of the Romans. And it was Tacitus who provided the words supposedly from Calgacus quoted at the start of this article. We don't even have the real name of the Caledonian leader, just the one known to the Romans.

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall Despite the claims of success by Tacitus, this campaign marked the peak if the Roman incursion north of the river Tay. Agricola himself returned to Rome in 85AD and over the next few years the Romans began a gradual withdrawal southwards, leaving the Caledonians unconquered. The northern tribes took advantage of the weakening Roman numbers, harassing their forts and taking them over as the Romans fell back. Eventually, the Roman emperor Hadrian, who had visited Britain on a number of occasions, decided that the best way of resisting the attacks of these northern warriors was to build a huge stone wall, right across the north of England, from the Solway Firth to the river Tyne on the North Sea, with forts and watch towers strung along its length. It was built between AD 122 and AD 128 and was a stupendous piece of civil engineering, running up and down the hills in the intervening countryside. There was a fortified garrison placed at every mile along its length and there was a fortification along the southern bank of the Solway Firth to prevent it being out-flanked.

It was not until AD 138 before the Romans decided to launch another invasion into southern Scotland, roughly along the lines of the present M74 and A68 roads. Within seven years all the area south of the rivers Forth and Clyde had been re-occupied. The presence of Selgovae and Novantae conscripts from southern Scotland in the Roman army in Germany after this conquest testifies to the subjugation of that part of Scotland.

The Antonine Wall
Antonine Wall at Rough CastleThe Romans then decided that a defence against the repeated attacks by the tribes further north, similar to Hadrian's Wall, would be the best solution, with a new wall right across the country between the rivers Clyde and Forth.

So construction began in AD 142 on the orders of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, and took about twelve years to complete. Today, the remains are known as the Antonine Wall. Unlike the stone-built fortification further south, the new wall was constructed from a stone base but with turf instead of stones on top. It was protected by sixteen stone built forts with a number of small fortlets between them; troop movement was facilitated by a road linking all the sites known as the Military Way. The soldiers who built the wall commemorated the construction and their struggles with the barbarians in a number of decorative slabs, twenty of which still survive. But the wall was abandoned after only twenty years, and the garrisons relocated back to Hadrian's Wall. In 208 Emperor Septimius Severus re-established legions at the wall and ordered repairs. However, the occupation ended only a few years later, and the wall was never fortified again. Most of the wall and its associated fortifications have been destroyed over time, but some remains are still visible. Many of these have come under the care of Historic Scotland and the UNESCO World Heritage Committee.

The Antonine Wall ran approximately 39 miles (63 km) from Old Kilpatrick in West Dunbartonshire on the Firth of Clyde to Carriden near Bo'ness on the Firth of Forth. Originally, it was about ten feet (3 metres) high and fifteen feet (5 metres) wide. A number of forts further north were brought back into service in the Gask Ridge area, including Ardoch, Strageath and Bertha. A major feature of the defences was a 40 feet wide V-shaped ditch to the north of the wall, with the excavated material being added to the northern line of the ditch.

Although much of the turf wall has disappeared over the centuries, some of the earthworks and ditch can be clearly seen at various points along its length and the outline of the stone forts can be visited, particularly at Bearsden, north of Glasgow, where a Roman bath house (accessed from "Roman Road" - appropriately named in modern times) is overlooked by a modern residential development which has covered over the rest of the fort at that point. With the aid of historic Scotland signage, the layout of the bath house can be easily understood, with its furnace providing underfloor and wall heating, a semi-circular plunge bath and latrines. Archaeologists have established that the diet of the Roman soldiers was mainly vegetarian, with raspberries, strawberries and figs together with poppy and coriander seeds for flavouring bread.

Also in Bearsden, in a local cemetery, part of the base of the wall has been uncovered and is looked after by Historic Scotland. A few miles east of Bearsden, at Bar Hill, not far from the village of Twechar, is another well defined fort and bath house, with commanding views over the valley of the river Kelvin to the Campsie Hills -see artist's impression on the right of what one of the buildings there would have looked like. A number of the artefacts, including five altars which were dug up here are on show in the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

The Roman fort at Rough Castle is another Historic Scotland preservation area where a headquarters building, a granary, a commanding officer's house and the obligatory bath house have all been uncovered. The wall at Rough Castle also has ten rows of about 20 pits to the north which would have contained upright sharpened stakes which would have been covered in brushwood to help in the defences. Unfortunately, the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line was constructed through the site in 1841, destroying much of what had survived to that date.

In the grounds of Callendar Estate in Falkirk is a well defined stretch of the ditch and near the eastern end of the Antonine Wall at Bo'ness, a museum at Kinneil House has a collection of Roman finds discovered at a nearby Roman fortlet or watch tower and drawings of what it would have looked like.

If you want to see more illustrations of the Romans in Scotland, there is a slide show of a selection of my photos on YouTube.

World Heritage Status

The UK government nominated the Antonine Wall for World Heritage status to the international conservation body UNESCO in 2003. This was then backed by the Scottish Government in 2005. It became the UK's official nomination in January 2007 and the Antonine Wall was later listed as an extension to the World Heritage Site "Frontiers of the Roman Empire" in July 2008.

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