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.
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.
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’).
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.
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.