Elves, Saints and Distilleries

Of all the places in the Falkirk district surely it could only be Bonnybridge that in one very small area had a hill named after the elves, a magic hill that disappeared, was the scene of action for a mythical Scottish hero and a king, and a loch that doubled in size and was given at least four different names including one of a saint.  The fact that this grouping also included an early distillery with three names is purely incidental and not explanatory!

One of the more enduring legends concerning the Antonine Wall is the story of the Scottish hero called Graham breaking through the frontier near Bonnybridge in the early fifth century and taking the land as far south as Hadrian’s Wall.  It is, unfortunately, nonsense but is a reflection of early antiquarian knowledge, or rather the lack of it.

The early histories of southern Scotland were written by ecclesiastic scholars such as the Venerable Bede, Gildas, Nennius, and later national Scottish historians such as Boece, Fordun and Major.  They relied upon rather dubious sources for their information and once in the system it was repeated over and over again, embellished along the way.  Bede’s history was particularly influential and set the framework for the chronology of the two Roman walls for centuries to come (Bede I.12).  Unfortunately, it was wrong.

In the 14th century John of Fordun wrote Chronica Gentis Scotorum telling the story of the country from mythical beginnings to the death of David I in 1153.  In relating to the Roman walls he followed the chronological sequence established by Bede, introducing a new character called Graham:

Therefore, when they [the Scots and Picts] had been driven in flight out of the Roman province of Britain, the Britons, having the upper hand in war, built, as they had been instructed, the above-mentioned wall between the two oceans, completed at a very great cost.  It was strengthened with a large number of towers, close enough for a trumpet’s blast to be heard from one to the next.  On the east it begins on the south shore of the Mare Scoticum [Firth of Forth], close to the town of Karedin [Carriden], then, stretching for a distance of 22 miles across the island, it has its western terminus on the bank of the River Clyde near Kirkpatick [Kilpatrick], passing to the north of Glasgow.” 

The wall was ineffectual and was overthrown by Grym who,

gathering people to help him from all sides, came to the aforesaid wall in great strength, and having ordered up siege machines, completely overthrew it, with the defending garrisons either forced to flee or killed.  The remains of that ditch or wall are clearly visible, and genuine traces are seen until now; it takes its modern name from his, the local people calling it Grymisdike.”

Illus: Popular Victorian image of the Picts.

It is highly questionable if Graham was a true historical character and he may have been invented in order to explain the name by which the Antonine Wall was then known by the local populace – Grim’s or Graham’s Dyke.  Subsequent historians have put forward alternative explanations for the name.  The two leading ones are that Grim was the local appellation for the emperor Severus whose name was associated with both Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall.  Alternatively, it may have referred to the Devil who is often seen as the originator of large earthworks or standing stones.  Grim’s Dykes occur at several locations in England.  Fordun was writing shortly after the Wars of Independence at a time when the Scottish national identity was being reinforced and it was appropriate to claim a Scottish hero who had repelled the forces of invasion and occupation.

In 1527 Hector Boece, writing in Latin, published the Historia Gentis Scotorum (History of the Scottish People) to the accession of James III.  It was immensely popular and later that same century was translated into Scots by John Bellenden.  It is worth repeating just for the richness of its language:

In the mene time, Victorine, Capitane of Britane, commandit the Britonis, be general edict, to big the wal betwix Abircorne and Dunbritane, with staik and rise, in thair strangest maner, to saif thaim fra invasion of Scottis and Pichtis: and to big this dike war assemblit mony craftismen out of al partis, with sindiy weirmen, to saif thaim quhil the dike was biggit.

In the mene time, quhen thay war biggand it maist besaly, come the vailyeant Grahame, quhais dochter was maryit on King Fergus, and slew ane gret nowmer of thir weirmen at the bigging of this dike, and the remanent put to flicht; and incontinent, be fers incursion, he brocht ane huge pray of men and gudis fra the Britonis in the Scottis landis. This Grahame was discendit of ane anciant hous of Demnark, and gottin on ane nobill lady of that samin cuntre be ane of the Scottis that was banist with Ethodius out of Albion; and efter the proscription of Scottis, he maryit ane virgine of the blude rial of Denmark, on quhom he gat ane dochter of maist excellent bewte, quhilk was gevin to Fergus in mariage.  Fergus gat on hir III sonnis afore his cuming in Albion, quhais names war Eugenius, Dongarus, and Constancius; of quhome sal be our history following.  Uthir sayis, this Grahame was ane Briton, quhilk eschewing the Romane tyranny, fled amang the Scottis, and was efter banist with thaim in Denmark; for he was gret ennime to Romanis, seing thaim regne with sic tyranny and avarice above thair subdittis.  Always, of quhatsumevir hous or linnage he was discendit, treuth is, he was ane man of hie curage and spreit, baith in weir and peace, and strangest ennime to Romanis and Britonis. Of this Grahame, discendit the surname of Grahamis…

(Bellenden 1821, 260-1).

According to Boece the Romans came to the aid of the Britons and rebuilt the Antonine Wall before returning to the Continent for the last time.  Upon learning this news Eugenius II of the Scots:

“assemblit all his pepill afore him; and sumtime inflammit thaim with huge ire aganis thair ennimes, and suratimes provokit thaim, be esperance of pray and riches to be gottin on thair ennimes. And the King of Pichtis ceissit not to exhort his pepill on the same maner; and promittit, be publik edict, to geif the capitanry of Camelon to him that first past ouir this wal of Abircorn.

The Britonis, knawing weill the assemblance of Scottis and Pichtis, come arrayit, in thair best maner, to defend this wal afore rehersit ; and put ane gret nowmer of weirmen in the bastailyeis and touris thairof, to resist the invasioun of ennimes; aganis quhom was send the vailyeant Grahame, with ane cumpany of Scottis and Pichtis, armit with corsbowis, slonges, and handbowis. Als sone as this Grahame had doung the Britonis fra this wal, incontinent come masonnis, wrichtis, and mony otheris craftismen, with sindry instrumentis, and kest down the dike unto the ground.  Ane gret band of Britonis maid thame to withstand the eversion of this wal; bot thay, be obstinate fechting, war all slane.  Otheris, that knew the cruell furie of confiderat pepill, gaif bakkis, confiding in na thing mair than in thair flicht.

Quhill sic thingis war done at the wal of Abircorn, thair come ane othir cumpany of Pichtis out of Fiffe in Pentland, and did mair cruelteis to the Britonis, quhare thay come, than did thir Scottis and Pichtis that come afore thaim, Als sone as baith thir cumpanyis war assemblit togidder, nocht was but fire and slauchter quhare thay come.

The inhabitantis, affrayit be thir cruelteis, fled, with thair wiffis, barnis, and guddis, beyond the watter of Tyne. Incontinent, all gudis betwix Tweid and Tyne, be general proclamation of the two kingis, war denuncit frely eschetit and pray to thair army, Followit mony schamefull and abhominable dedis, be persuasion of ire, hatrent, and avarice. The skry and terrible i.oyis arrayis, be furie of weirmen ceissing fra na manor of cruelte, throw all the landis betwix the Ireland seis on the ta side, and the Almane seis on the tothir.

The Britonis, for feir of thir importable terrouris, reparit the wall of Adriane, with huge lauboure and expiensis.

(Bellenden 1821, 276-7).

Later Boece repeats Bede’s error of placing the Antonine Wall at Abercorn.  He also confirms Fordun’s reasoning for the name it later acquired:

come the vailyeant Grahame, with ane cumpany of chosin men, to the wall of Abircorne, and brak doun the same in all partis so halelie, that he left na thing thairof standing, more than remanis nowe, in thir dayis: and for that cause this wall wes callit, efter, Grahamis Dike.”

(ibid, 280).

That Fordun sought to explain what was a local name for “Grymisdike” suggests that its meaning had, in fact, already passed from memory.  Four centuries later the ministers at Slamannan and Camelon similarly made futile attempts to derive the origins of those two place name and came up with:

Slamannan – the land was so poor that it would “Slay man or mare.”

Camelon – after the Battle of Falkirk, General Hawley “Came ill on.”

In the period 1723-25 Alexander Gordon made a personal inspection of the remains of the Antonine Wall, gathering information from those living along its line regarding finds and the possible locations of forts.  He was particularly impressed by the upstanding earthworks in the vicinity of Rough Castle which he considered showed the Wall “in its greatest Beauty and Perfection.”  Partly as a result of this, and from its ease of access, this section of the Wall became one of the most visited parts for those seeking to view the Roman frontier. 

From the motte at Seabegs, Gordon continues:

A little more Easterly, the Vallum crosses a Rivulet called the Dam-Head-Burn; and here, before I proceed farther, I must apprize my Reader, That from this Place, for near three Miles Eastward, the Wall is to be seen in its greatest and highest Perfection, insomuch, that one may easily receive an Idea from hence, how it was originally built by the Romans…” 

He then mentions the expansion at Bonnyside and

About 67 Paces beyond this, I came to the Place where, as Tradition goes, The valiant Grime, Nephew to Eugenius King of the Scots, with his Army, broke down this Wall; to the North of which, upon a rising Ground called the Broom-hill, is the Place where, they say, King Eugenius pitched his Pavilion.  This Story, I leave the Reader to accept or refuse as he thinks best, only I thought such traditional Hints were worth remarking; but must add, that it is certain, the Wall was broke down after the first Legation of the provincial Britons; This, Gildas and Bede both confirm: And that Grime (who is said to give Name to this Wall) did, with his Countrymen, break through it, all our Scottish Historians, as well as this Tradition, do assert; and that the Place where the Wall was broke through, may as probably be here, as any where along its whole Track, I think none will deny

(Gordon 1726, 58).
Illus: Cowden Hill looking south with Bonnybridge Toll in the foreground.

Gordon was clearly dubious about the validity of the local tradition but found it interesting that it should exist and that it should reflect his historical sources. Broom Hill is now known as Cowden Hill

the accredited knoll of Graham’s encampment the night prior to his attack upon the Roman Wall – also rises from an adjacent field, and although richly covered with wood some thirty years ago, has now only a solitary tree of scraggy growth, which stands at its western extremity

(Gillespie 1868, 74).

Just two years after Gordon had published his description of the Antonine Wall, the scholar John Horsley made his own tour.   He too relates the story of Graham which he may have got form Gordon’s account and he closely observed the area in question:

From Dick’s House the wall begins its course nearer than before to the east point, and at almost a quarter of a mile’s distance crosses a brook called Bonny-mill-dam, which runs into the river Bonny.  For the space before-mentioned the ditch only is visible, and that in the second degree.  After this the ditch appears very great, and the vallum and military way become visible.  A little farther the wall crosses another brook, which is also a part of the same mill-dam.  There are two hills nigh this part of the wall, called Elf-hills, both on the south side of the wall.  There is also on the north side of it, a little more to the west, another hill, where Grime the nephew of Eugenius encamped when he broke through the wall.  Some suspect the two former hills to be artificial, but none think so of this…

(Horsley 1732). 

On the accompanying map Horsley mistakenly places Broom Hill  near Bonnyside House near to Graham’s breach in the Wall.

Click on the links to read more:


Bailey, G.B.2008Hard as Nails: the Home Guard in Falkirk District.
BedeA History of the English Church and People.
Bellenden, J.1821           
John of FordunChronica Gentis Scotorum
Gordon, A,1726Itinerarium Septentrionale:  or, a Journey thro’ most of the Counties of Scotland,
and those in the North of England.
HMC1899The manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Portland preserved at Welbeck Abbey.
Vol 5, Historical Manuscripts Commission.
Horsley, J. 1732Britannia Romana:  or the Roman Antiquities of Britain.
Keppie, L. J. F.  2012The Antiquarian Rediscovery of the Antonine Wall.
Love, J1908Local Antiquarian Notes and Queries. Volume 1.
Stuart, R.1852Caledonia Romana: Descriptive Account of the Roman Antiquities of Scotland
2nd ed.
Waldie, G. 1883Walks Along the Northern Roman Wall.
Waugh, J.1981The Vale of Bonny.

G.B. Bailey, 2022