Playing hide and seek with Scotland's newest, and most engimatic, World Heritage Site
I had come to Old Kilpatrick, on the banks of the Clyde, to find the site of the Roman fort that marked the western end of the Antonine Wall. What I found was a former bus depot functioning as self-storage units. Going around the back and crossing a canal I came to the river’s edge. Low trees screened the near bank; on the opposite side fields came down to the water. Rain roughened the water's surface in the grey morning light. In spite of the concrete arc of the Erskine Bridge to the east it was possible to imagine a time when, for the Roman legionaries garrisoned here, this was a posting at the very edge of the world.
When the Antonine Wall was given the status of World Heritage Site last year I had dumbly assumed that it was as if the Pyramids or Skara Brae had been moved into my backyard. Standing sheltered by the trees I reflected that my plan to cycle the course of the wall might prove to be as much an imaginative exercise as a physical one. As I set off, juggling guidebook and map, through Duntocher and into Drumchapel I realised that it was also going to need detective work – there was no trace of the wall to be seen.
Built nearly 2000 years ago, the Antonine Wall was the high water mark of Roman frontier defences in Britain. Stretching 60km across the pinched waist of Scotland from Clyde to Forth estuary it was part of the great frontier of the Empire, which pushed across Germany, down the Danube, and swept around the Near East and North Africa. Yet it would be only twenty years before the Romans abandoned the wall and pulled their frontier back to its previous line at Hadrian’s Wall. As I skirted a vacant grid of demolished houses at the edge of Drumchapel it was chastening to think that even this 1960s social housing – a byword for architectural impermanence in our time – was occupied for twice as long as the wall.
Trying to keep to the wall’s course through the labyrinthine streets of Bearsden I became so hopelessly lost I expected to stumble across the Ninth Legion puzzling over their A-to-Z. When I finally found the Roman baths on Roman Road (natch) this bare outline of stone was, to my untrained eye, the first evidence of Roman occupation. Attached to one of a series of forts along the wall, the bathhouse functioned, like a hot tub for suburbanites today, as a social hub for the legionaries. It must have been a welcome retreat from the dank climate.
A short climb from the baths was New Kilpatrick Cemetery and the first trace of the wall itself. Two trenches revealed the stone base on which it was built. The Antonine Wall was an earth structure, a turf rampart with a large ditch in front, and so has suffered the depredations of time more than its stone built cousin to the south. As I followed the wall beyond the city limits, crossing and re-crossing its course on grime spattered roads heavy with traffic, another difference became obvious. Where Hadrian’s Wall had spent the intervening millennia standing in relative isolation, the Antonine Wall – which was easily visible until the eighteenth century – found itself at the epicentre of the agricultural and industrial revolutions that transformed the landscape of Central Scotland. Pylons stalked across barley fields; derelict farmhouses and dilapidated warehouses lay between construction sites and garden centres. In this chaotic landscape, the discovery of a short, weed-filled section of the ditch just outside Bishopbriggs seemed miraculous.
Indeed, the wall remains stealthily absent for most of its course; much of my time was spent staring at anonymous stretches of ground, archaeological guide in hand, willing them to give up their secrets while passers-by asked if I was lost. It was at Bar Hill that it first showed itself unequivocally. A steep climb up a farm track past cows happy to share their burden of flies, the remains of a fort lay at the top of the hill. An even planting of sycamores and freshly mown grass gave the site the gracious feel of parkland, only disturbed by the buzz of marauding clegs. The stone foundations of the fort’s central building and courtyard were clearly visible and all around lay the half submerged forms of earthworks including a section of the wall running along the north side. Perched high above the humdrum world of the Central Belt, I could begin to imagine the life of a legionary sent to defend the very limits of the empire. To the north, the bulk of the Campsie Hills loomed, seeming to echo with the sound of barbarian scythes being sharpened, whilst the flatlands of the Clyde Valley spread to the south, ripe for plunder.
From Bar Hill, the wall cut across an Iron Age fort (suggesting that the hard headed Romans had no great respect for archaeological heritage) before, in a spectacular section, plunging down a hillside between stands of forestry. Slipping and sliding, pushing my bike I followed it down, across a road, and then up again as it clawed its way up the heights above the village of Croy.
By the time I reached Bonnybridge I was beginning to resent the Romans’ refusal to build their wall near anywhere to decent to eat. Munching a desultory sausage roll foraged from a corner shop, I turned into a road along which executive-style homes unselfconsciously mixed with coal-blackened warehouses. After a short distance it led into open birch heath land and the site of Rough Castle. Here an impressive stretch of the wall undulated up towards a fort whose outline - surprisingly small – could be clearly discerned in the soft, abraded shapes of ancient earthworks. Along the northern side of the fortifications a series of large divots had been left exposed by the archaeologists who excavated the site. These were lilia, defensive pits that contained sharpened stakes and were so named by the legionaries for their supposed resemblance to lilies. These grimly functional features were a reminder that the Antonine Wall, like its descendants in Berlin and Gaza, was never an object of beauty.
A short distance on was Watling Lodge, an imposing section of the ditch held firmly in the embrace of Falkirk’s suburbs, which showed just how forbidding an obstacle it must have been to those on the wrong side. Yet this section too had suffered from the insults of the passing years; it came to an abrupt halt where the redbrick backside of a house filled the ditch.
Running short of time, I decided meet up with the wall on the other side of the town. As I spun through busy streets I could sense the wall as it kept to the high ground, running unseen beneath buildings, roads, gardens and parks. Journeying along the wall had not been an immersive experience; its remains are worn so smooth that there is little for the imagination to gain a purchase on. But tracking its course as it doggedly yet sinuously followed the contours of the landscape had become a pleasure in itself. Topography rendered almost invisible by the dulling effects of familiarity, urban sprawl and motorway travel was thrown into sharp relief, its features taking on urgent significance as lines of defence, or sources of threat.
Fittingly for so enigmatic a structure, the precise location of the eastern end of the wall remains a mystery. Traditionally thought to lie at Bridgeness, gripped by the momentum of a long bike ride I instead headed to the site of Carriden Fort, a couple of kilometres further on and the most easterly possible terminus so far uncovered. Located a short way down a dirt road the site straddled a private garden and a silage field. It came as no surprise that there were no visible remains. Following a faint path down the side of the field and into a line of trees, a panorama of the Firth of Forth opened up before me. Hot patches of sun moved lazily across the water. The wall had delivered me safely, if at times reluctantly, from one coast to the other.
http://www.antonine-way.co.uk - good for maps and describes some short walks.
http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/430 - UNESCO World Heritage listing.
http://www.antoninewall.org - excellent map, updates of news and new research.
http://www.thefalkirkwheel.co.uk - Rough Castle site is next to the Falkirk Wheel
http://www.scotrail.co.uk - Bearsden, Croy, and Falkirk stations are all near good sections of the Wall.