Bearsden’s bathhouse

Bearsden Bathhouse, hypocaust

You may not expect to hear much about Roman hygiene in Scotland, but you’d be wrong.  In Bearsden, a leafy suburb to the north of Glasgow, are the remains of a bathhouse and latrine that were in use more than 1800 years ago.  Moreover, the site is presented such that you can get a very good idea of how the whole thing worked.  If you don’t want to know any more, look away now.  Bearsden’s Roman Bath House was built adjacent to a fort, as was the custom, partly in stone, partly in timber.  The fort was one of 16 that the Romans sited along the Antonine Wall, which was constructed in 140 AD to form the north-west frontier of the vast Roman Empire.  The wall was abandoned after 20 years, but despite this brief period, the bathhouse at Bearsden is reckoned to be the best example of preserved, visible, Roman stone structures along its entire length.

Bearsden Roman Bath House

Part of the fascination with the Roman remains at Bearsden is that they are smack, bang, in the middle of a residential area.  History beneath your feet.  There is no trace of the fort now – it is all buried under modern roads and housing.  But the good folk of Bearsden have not been allowed to forget their brief occupation by a foreign army of long ago.  The remains of the bathhouse are accessible through a small gate off Roman Road, which is apparently on the route of the via principalis, the main road that traversed the fort east-west.  Across the road from the remains at No 16 (XVI) is a care home, Antonine House.  The remains are also enveloped by a modern residential development called Roman Court, where, according to the property website Right Move, average property prices have been £407,250 over the last year, 38% up on 2021.  I imagine it is possible to glance out of your window and, when the light is right, watch ghostly Romans using the bathroom, as it were. Surely, that would explain the price increase.

Bearsden Bathhouse
How it worked – from the information board on site

Key to the pleasure of visiting Bearsden’s bathhouse is the clarity of the information boards – as well as the delightful, unexpected, touches of humour.  This is more than appreciated, partly because the Antonine Wall is managed by a partnership of local authorities and, in my experience, public servants are not necessarily renowned for either clarity of expression, or wit.  On the railings enclosing the site is a sign that contains the following instructions:

Cura ut canis excrementum purges
(translated as ‘please clean up after your dog’);

Nolite currere, urinary, desilire
(translated as ‘no running, no diving, no bombing’, but I think this is a little coy and actually says, ‘don’t run, urinate, jump’).

  • Bearsden Roman baths, the coldroom
  • Bearsden Bathhouse, drying room
  • Bearsden Bathhouse, coldbath
  • Roman bathhouse at Bearsden, the furnace

A beautifully illustrated information board shows the entire bathing process, which you can then walk through, from the outline of the timber changing room (apodyterium), part-timber cold room (frigidarium) with a stone paved floor, the fully stone cold plunge bath, warm rooms (tepidaria), hot room (caldarium) with a hot immersion bath and a hot dry room or sauna (laconicum or sudatorium).  The spot where the furnace was, sending heated air through the hypocaust is indicated and it is easy to understand how this worked.  As well as the Roman desire to cleanse themselves, the baths also served a social function.  I’m not sure whether this extended to the lavatory, though the communal arrangement hardly seems the place for quiet contemplation, or catching up with the news on your smart phone.

As per the baths, the illustration of the latrine block enables the layman to translate the stones, including the drain from the bathhouse that flushed out the sewage into ditches.  The soldiers used water-soaked moss to clean themselves.  The archaeologists excavating the ditches in the 1970s could apparently still smell the sewage – which must have been oddly fascinating for them.  Analysis of the biological remains has enabled scientists to understand something of the soldiers’ diet, which was varied and mainly, though not exclusively, vegetarian.  It included barley, types of wheat, lentils, beans, figs, dill, coriander, opium poppy, olive oil, wine and fish paste.  They would have obtained fresh produce locally, such as celery, turnip, radish, bilberry, strawberry, blackberry, raspberry and hazel nuts.

The Roman toilet at Bearsden
Reconstruction drawing of the latrine from the site information board
Bearsden Bathhouse, latrine
The latrine

It is all delightfully human – as is the quotation on the information board attributed to the 1st century writer, Petronius:

“If you want to relieve yourself, there’s no need to be ashamed about it.  I don’t know any torment as bad as holding it in.  It’s the one thing Jupiter himself cannot stop.”

The Romans destroyed their fort before leaving, taking anything of value south with them.  They did not intend to come back.  Who were they, these people who came so far, so long ago, and spent some highly personal moments at home in Bearsden?  Detachments of the XXth Legion helped construct the Antonine Wall and a building fragment at Bearsden refers to them.  The XXth Legion arrived from Germany with the invasion force in 43 AD, took part in key military campaigns and remained in Britain for the duration.  However, it is not known which units of the Roman Army were actually stationed at Bearsden.  Analysis of pottery suggests African cooking practices so the conclusion is that some of the soldiers may have originated from North Africa, or had been stationed there.  You can’t help wondering what became of them.

It tickles me that the bathhouse and latrine, well-designed and relatively hygienic facilities that would have been alien to many people in Britain until relatively recently (and perhaps still are to some), simply disappeared from public consciousness.  Bearsden’s bathhouse, along with the fort, returned to nature.  Apparently, people knew about the fort’s existence through discoveries of defences and rubbish pits as Glasgow began its northern expansion in the 18th and 19th centuries, but that didn’t stop anyone building over it.  It was the redevelopment of Victorian housing in 1973 that enabled the fort to be explored by archaeologists and allowed the bathhouse and latrine to be exposed and put on display.  I think that’s wonderful, don’t you?

Discover more about Bearsden from the Dig It! website.

Roman Road, Bearsden

66 thoughts on “Bearsden’s bathhouse

  1. Janet Strickland

    A really informative post, I do wonder though where did the Roman women, wives and servants, bathe? Hopefully they had their own separate latrines!

  2. hilarymb

    Hi Mike – what an amazing place and you’ve given us a wonderful overview … history is just incredible by how, where and what the people achieved … and yes … what happened to them – did they escape our land and arrive elsewhere … and did their influence, culturally change other areas over time. Fascinating post to read – thank you – cheers Hilary

  3. bob

    A good account Mike. Most folk south of Scotland and indeed even many Scots think that Hadrian’s Wall is the only one built across the UK to keep out the northern tribes and have never heard of the lesser known Antonine Wall. Weirdly, on a recent walk along it I realized it’s still very much the edge of civilization today as there’s little evidence of habitation beyond it, except a few scattered villages, especially in the west and middle sections. It’s still a wilderness almost 2000 years later to the north of that line, a mostly invisible line now yet apparently mentally still a barrier to any serious intrusion beyond it. Over three million people clustered tight up against it to the south ( Glasgow, Edinburgh, dozens of other towns etc, many touching the actual line itself with outlying suburban districts like Bearsden) yet nothing but empty vistas and bare slopes standing on it looking north. Fairly shocking when it hit me how abrupt it is considering how long ago it disappeared.

    1. Anabel @ The Glasgow Gallivanter

      Very familiar with this! Quite a lot of money seems to have gone into developing Antonine Wall sites over the last few years, and making them more appealing to visitors. I approve. I hadn’t thought of the chance to watch ghostly Romans going about their business in the latrine as being the reason for Bearsden’s high property prices though!

      1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

        Thanks, Anabel. Well – there must be SOME reason for the high property prices. As for the Antonine Wall, certainly what has been developed onsite is impressive – loads of very useful, and well prepared, material.

  4. Helen Devries

    So Bearsden had upmarket facilities even then….a cousin moved there in the sixties which raised eyebrows in the family and queries as to how he could afford it…
    I really enjoyed your description of the site told with your usual quiet humour.

  5. Peter's pondering

    Thanks, once again Mike, for a very interesting and informative account of our heritage. It reminded me of the marvellous bath units provided by the army when we were on extended exercises in Germany. The best showers I’ve ever had in my life!

  6. willedare

    I echo all of the comments above. Your posts are terrific blend of information and humor, Mike. Thank you for educating and entertaining all of us! I also appreciate the careful work of archeologists who are able to find traces of foods eaten back then and also cooking methods used at the site. The Roman Empire mixed together so many different people and cultures and cuisines! Finally, I marvel at the stone work and wonder who quarried everything, who hauled it to the site, and who did the actual construction — some of which has survived for a very long time!

  7. Fun60

    Fascinating. I am so ignorant that I didn’t realise the Romans had fortifications that far north. Most Roman remains of this size have been made into much larger tourist attractions rather than surrounding them with residential blocks.

  8. SueW

    Absolutely fascinating. I remember reading much about the baths when I was in York. But this one is fabulous.
    Our Roman ancestors were just wonderful! I take it for granted that I have a Roman grandpa way back on my family tree!

  9. John

    This is so amazing, Mike! Thank you for this information, so fascinating. It would be cool to live near such history as these people do today. ❤️

  10. cat9984

    It’s incredible that so much has survived. I’m imagining what it would have been like to have been posted to Northern Africa and then sent to Scotland. It reminded me of my Scottish grandfather who was stationed in India, then sent directly to the trenches in Belguim during WWI. The change in climate must has been unsettling

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      It must have been very strange. From memory, Roman soldiers served for 25 years – I don’t know, but seriously doubt, whether they would have seen their homes in that time. I can imagine the contrast between India and the Western Front; but the whole experience of trench warfare was, we know, ghastly!

  11. Easymalc

    Another great post about a part of Britain that many people wouldn’t realise existed – me included. What I really enjoy though is your subtle, and not so subtle, comic quips. Great stuff Mike.

  12. Toonsarah

    How fascinating to see a Roman archaeological site surrounded by those blocks of flats! I’m glad it’s been preserved and presented so well to visitors. The signs look both informative, attractive and fun. Although as a former public servant I would challenge your generalisation about a lack of clarity of expression and wit!

  13. artandarchitecturemainly

    It is essential for people to wash their bodies each day, more urgently in hot climates than in cold. So good on the Romans for finding out how build the fully stone cold plunge bath AND warm rooms, a hot room with a hot immersion bath and a sauna. Bloody brilliant! With all those facilities, I am not surprised that the baths also served a social function.

    1. artandarchitecturemainly

      It tickles me that the bathhouse and latrine, well-designed and relatively hygienic facilities that would have been alien to many people in Britain until relatively recently (and perhaps still are to some), You said it 🙂

  14. pennyhampson

    Thank you for this interesting article. It brought back memories of my time living near Bearsden many years ago and I remember visiting the Roman baths. I don’t think it had such amusing and informative signs for visitors back then. It must have been a miserable time for those Roman soldiers of African descent to be stationed in one of the dampest areas of Britain, unless of course the climate was different then.

    1. Mike@bitaboutbritain Post author

      Thanks, Penny. We assume that the climate was as wet and cold as today, but I don’t know; I’m sure I read somewhere that it was warmer and that grapes were growing as far north as Yorkshire. But I may have got that wrong!

  15. thehungrytravellers.blog

    Sometimes when one studies history and/or walks ancient sites, one is struck by how many good practices have been lost in the modern world and how it would be better to go back to the old ways. The communal latrine is not one of them.

  16. Michael

    Thanks for this very interesting information, Mike! I really never would have thoughts about a Roman bathhouse in Scotland. This proofs, they loved the region and wanted to stay for a longer time. Indeed a honour. Best wishes, Michael

  17. Eunice

    An interesting post Mike, though the quote from Petronius made me laugh – it sounds so up-to-date I can’t really believe it was said so long ago 🙂

  18. derrickjknight

    Wonderful is the word that I muttered to myself until I came to yours. 🙂 It all reminds me of the very long trough provided for men waiting to start the London marathon.

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