The Roman army landed in southern England in 43 AD at the beginning of the reign of the Emperor Claudius, but it was some 30 years before they advanced as far as Scotland. In the late 70s the Roman governor of Britain, Julius Agricola, pushed northwards in an attempt to subdue the hostile tribes. Possession of the central valley was crucial to such an undertaking and number of small fortlets were built across the country as well as roads both north and south of the line. At Camelon a heavily garrisoned fort guarded the vital crossing point of the River Carron. Agricola conducted a number of punitive campaigns against the northern tribes culminating in the great Roman victory of Mons Graupius in the north east. At this time Scotland was inhabited by numerous independent tribes who found it difficult to present a unified opposition to the enemy advance and in just seven years he conquered most of Scotland and his fleet took the surrender of various islands. However, in the mid 80s troops were urgently required elsewhere in the Empire and so men and equipment were transferred out of Britain. Shortage of manpower led to the slow withdrawal from Scotland and consolidation in northern England. This situation was given the appearance of permanence in 122 AD when the emperor, Hadrian, decided to build a linear barrier across the Tyne-Solway isthmus.
At Hadrian’s death in 138 AD his succession was uncertain and it may have been in order to achieve military glory to consolidate his position that his nominee, Antoninus Pius, invaded Scotland again. Preparations were begun immediately and once the men and stores were in place the army advanced rapidly using two major routes, one by way of Redesdale, the Tweed Valley and Lauderdale to the Forth, and the other up Annandale and into Clydesdale. These were punctuated by a series of forts to secure the supply convoys, and the lowlands were crossed by further roads with fortlets located to police the local population.
The frontier barrier was advanced some seventy miles, with a new line drawn across the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Agricola’s abandoned posts were replaced by the great 39 mile wall from Forth to Clyde dedicated to the Emperor and known to us as the Antonine Wall. Fifteen miles of this incredible work of engineering lie in Falkirk district, from the starting point on the Forth near Carriden through the very centre of Falkirk town itself and on past Bonnybridge and Castlecary to the west. The work involved the combined efforts of detachments from at least four legions along with auxiliary troops like the Tungrians, Nervii and Thracians and included, as well as the rampart itself, defensive ditching to the north, a military road to the south and a series of forts and fortlets. Over the years twenty distance slabs have been discovered, along the length of the wall, which identify the builders and their particular contributions. One of them unearthed in 1868 at Bridgeness near Bo’ness shows sculpted Roman figures on horseback with defeated tribesmen falling beneath flying hooves on one side, and on the other a ceremonial sacrifice. The legend says ‘For the Emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Pius, Father of his country, the Second Augustan Legion completed the work for 4652 paces.’
The two forts on the wall nearest Falkirk offer a very interesting contrast of both size and function. At the east end of Laurieston village, two miles from the town stood Mumrills, the biggest fort on the entire length of the wall, covering some six and a half acres. Tungrian cavalrymen from the Rhine and Thracian infantry from Bulgaria, perhaps 1000 in all, occupied substantial buildings protected on all sides by ramparts and ditches on the same scale as the wall itself. The fort at Rough Castle two miles west of Falkirk was by contrast the second smallest on the wall and, unlike Mumrills, is one of the best preserved and presented.
Callendar Riggs Coin Hoard Geoff Bailey at the Falkirk Fort
In Falkirk town centre in 1991 Geoff Bailey was able to confirm the location of the Falkirk fort in the Pleasance area, uncovering the fort’s defensive ditching along with Roman pottery of the Antonine period. In 1933 a hoard of 2000 Roman coins covering several Imperial reigns were discovered during the excavation of the Callendar Riggs area. Such a collection, placed as it was some distance in front of the wall and fort on the hostile northern side, suggests hidden treasure probably accumulated from Roman bribes by some tribal chief in return for securing local support. Inside the urn which held the coins was a small piece of brown and yellow checked crosswoven cloth. Often called the ‘Falkirk tartan’ it is claimed by some to be the earliest known example of the national weave to survive!
While the new wall presented an obvious political boundary it was not the limit of Roman control. Forts extended as far north as Perth, and undoubtedly military patrols penetrated yet further. However, shortly after the death of Antoninus Pius the Wall was abandoned and the troops re-occupied the Hadrianic frontier in about 165 AD. Fifty years later the aggressive campaigning of Septimus Severus brought the Romans back to Falkirk but it was a short lived occupation and by 210 AD Scotland was finally abandoned.
For further information see:
Geoff B. Bailey,” The Antonine Wall, Rome’s Northern Frontier” Falkirk Council Cultural Services 2000
Films on YouTube: