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The Antonine Wall

The Antonine Wall

This was the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire in Scotland,
and today it is still possible to see its impressive contours and
imagine how it was nearly 2,000 years ago.

BY PAUL STAFFORD

Blue winter sun crashes through the bent spokes of a skeletal tree. Like a finger wiping away thick settlings of dust, its paltry warmth melts patches of frost to reveal natural colours beneath: the emerald of moss and the chestnut of last season's fallen leaves. Beyond the trees I glimpse the south face of the 19th-century Callendar House. Its cone-shaped towers and ornate dormers give it the aspect of a French Renaissance chateau. Spartan tower blocks rise behind it in stark contrast, both architecturally and atmospherically.

Outside Callendar House, in its pretty grounds, I am looking for remnants of a more distant past. Through the estate runs a little-known piece of history that is significant not just to Falkirk and this region of Scotland but also to the Roman Empire: The Antonine Wall.

Here, somewhere amid the lawns and woods, lies the great empire's northernmost official frontier, known as the Limes. The fortification, built for the most part out of turf and rubble, was started by Emperor Antoninus Pius in AD 142. The Romans struggled to hold onto it, and after 20 years it became more a folly of ambition than a defensible asset.

The wall stretches 37.8 miles between the south bank of the Firth of Forth in the east, and the north bank of the Clyde estuaries to the west. It overlooks a ditch for added protection. Today both ditch and wall look more like formations of nature than of man. This often makes recognizing the Antonine Wall, despite its length, a challenge. Yet the physical man-made barrier, this brief borderland, was once clearly marked. It was stripped of trees and guarded by centurions whose backgrounds were more likely Mediterranean than Celtic.

How would they have coped with the northern winters, I wonder. Would the limbs of oak trees, ancestors that gave seed to the ones that breathe now, have been lopped off and dried for firewood to warm Latin blood?

The full text of this article is available in the Summer 2019 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photo © Paul Stafford