Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:23 am
Near the little town of Bonnybridge, west of Falkirk, you will find the largely buried remains of Rough Castle. This was no fairy-tale fortress, with stone battlements and banners fluttering from romantic-looking towers. The lumps and ditches in the ground mark the location of a business-like frontier fort, built almost 1900 years ago on the very edge of the civilised world. Once home to 500 battle-hardened Imperial Roman troops, Rough Castle is in fact the best preserved of at least 15 other forts constructed by the Romans along the Antonine Wall. This boundary, which was probably a trading border as well as a defensive barrier, stretched across the narrowest part of Scotland, between the Clyde in the west and the Forth in the east. At 37 miles (60km), it was little over 1% of the total length of the Empire’s enormous 3,100-mile (4,990km) frontier, but for a short while this was its north-west frontline.
The Romans and the tribes living in what is now Scotland knew of one another long before Agricola, Roman Governor of Britain, decided to attempt the conquest of the whole island in the latter part of the 1st century AD. Agricola overcame some of the tribes the Romans collectively referred to as Caledonians, leading in c83AD to the legendary battle of Mons Graupius – an unknown site possibly in present-day Aberdeenshire. Agricola was recalled to Rome by an allegedly jealous emperor before he could finish the job, but in fact pressure from elsewhere on the Empire’s frontiers necessitated the transfer of one of the Legions based in Britannia to the Danube and, with fewer troops available, the Romans undertook a tactical withdrawal south. Utilising natural features in what became northern England, the Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of his famous wall; work began in 122AD and it took six years to complete. But in 138AD Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, ordered Roman legions northward again and, in 140AD, commanded that his new frontier be constructed. Unlike the better-known Hadrian’s Wall, the Antonine Wall was not made of stone. It was built of turf, albeit on stone foundations, to a height of 12 feet (3.6m), probably with a wooden palisade or some sort of breastwork, on the top. To the north was a 12-foot deep defensive ditch up to 40 feet (12m) wide. In addition to its forts, there was a network of signalling stations along the wall, as well as other fortified outposts in the territory of the Caledonians to the north. Behind the wall, to the south, the Romans built a military road. The wall alone was a formidable project, on a construction scale unsurpassed in Scotland until the 18th century. Even today, what is left of this massive barrier is an awesome reminder of the power, organisation and determination of the Roman Empire. However, the Antonine Wall was abandoned in around 165, after Antoninus Pius’ death, and the north-west boundary of the Empire returned to Hadrian’s Wall. By all accounts, the Caledonian tribes made life uncomfortable for the Roman invaders, who concluded that the cost of being there far exceeded any perceived economic or political benefit. Unlike further south, the Roman presence north of Hadrian’s Wall was essentially military and, although their armies would return to defend their interests, they never conquered and colonised the land in the way they did elsewhere in Britain.
Down the years, the Antonine Wall was sometimes known as Grim’s Dyke – Grim possibly being the Devil, for creating such a fantastic construction surely required supernatural ability. There also seems to be some link to a legendary breach of the Wall by a Pictish force under the leadership of a Graham, or Grim, in the vicinity of Rough Castle. Further research needed on my part – along with the origin of the name ‘Rough’ Castle, which I haven’t been able to find so far.
Rough Castle is accessible by a footpath from the nearby Falkirk Wheel (another local wonder). However, we arrived by car through a residential area leading onto an industrial estate, at the end of which was a trackway over a bridge. Was this right? We asked some walkers and were assured it was. A short while later we spotted an information board and parked up. Canal, railway, motorway and urban developers have mostly destroyed the Wall, but this is one of several places where it can be really appreciated. It is an agreeable spot, too, clearly much loved by local dog-walkers because they were out in force. A little to the east, where the Rowantree Burn crosses the Wall, it is relatively easy to pick out the outline of the fort’s ramparts, ditches and gateways as well as the route of the military road. There are excellent information boards giving general information, and markers where the various buildings once were.
So we wandered up through where the west gate would have stood. Beyond that was the site of the Commander’s Residence, a two-storey building with glazed windows and central heating. His name was Flavius Betto and the information even has a picture of him – which, you must admit, is pretty impressive. Another information board contained a depiction of a tribal warrior, which I felt was handy; I wanted to be able to recognise one just in case a few of them came howling out of the woods. Near the site of the fort’s headquarters building, the principia, a carved stone has been found inscribed:
For the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country, the VI Cohort of Nervians built this principia.
The VI Cohort of Nervians formed the garrison at Rough Castle. The Nervii were a Gallic tribe from what is now southern Belgium. Julius Caesar referred to them as “A savage people of great bravery”, so I imagine they were a useful addition to the Roman Army. Other finds at the fort include parts of statues, an altar to victory dedicated to the Emperor, shoes, coins and pottery. The fort had a fortified annex to the east, which contained workshops and the soldiers’ bathhouse. One thing I particularly wanted to see, however, was the lilia.
Lilia were defensive pits and have been found just beyond the north gate, the direction a frontal attack would come from. The pits were about 7 feet long, 3 feet across, 2½ feet deep (approx. 2.1 x 0.9 x 0.7 metres), contained sharpened stakes and were camouflaged. A kind of ancient minefield. They got their name, apparently, because they reminded the Romans of lily pads. The excavated ditches and wall, the pits, the whole thing, brought to mind visits to trench systems on the Western Front. Not in detail, of course, but in purpose and general atmosphere of sad conflict. Gazing though the trees and scrub into what would have been Caledonia, it was easy to imagine a tribal attack gathering, silently and gradually, to drive out the alien invader. Back in the day, though, there would have been no trees. I can’t believe people as experienced as the Romans would build a fort where they couldn’t see a reasonable distance beyond its walls. Rough Castle is an interesting, and evocative, spot. Try to forget the electricity pylons, high-tension cables overhead and dog-walkers. Picture it almost two thousand years ago, buildings and people all about, a far busier place than it is now. Yet it is impossible to know what happened here. I imagine it is best visited when the sun is low, when the shadows accentuate the ditches and walls and the ghosts are more likely to emerge. Better for photographs, too.
If you can drag yourself away from A Bit About Britain for a minute, there’s an entire and excellent website devoted to the Antonine Wall.