You may be familiar with Hadrian’s Wall, the 73-mile defensive structure that the Romans built across the north of England in AD 122. But did you know that they built a second line of defence – the Antonine Wall – across Scotland a few years later? I set out to find out a bit more about the Antonine Wall and to discover if anything could still be seen today.
The Frontiers of the Roman Empire
Running between the Forth and Clyde rivers, the Antonine Wall was the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. There were similar frontiers elsewhere in northern Europe, most notably the Limes in Germany. Today the Antonine Wall, Hadrian’s Wall and the Limes make up the UNESCO World Heritage Site known as the Frontiers of the Roman Empire.
Hadrian’s Wall was built as a sort of national border, allowing the Romans to control the movement of people and trade from one territory to another. The Antonine Wall seems to have been an attempt to push the border further north. It also provided housing for the troops who had the unenviable task of trying to impose order on the lawless tribes of the region. In practice, the Antonine Wall was only occupied for a few years, and the frontier reverted to Hadrian’s Wall.
The Remains of the Antonine Wall
The Antonine Wall was a much less impressive structure than Hadrian’s Wall. It was 39 miles long and was built from turf and wood, on a base of stones. A deep ditch and a military road ran alongside the fortification and the wall was protected by a series of forts.
Because it fell into disuse so quickly, the Romans did not maintain the wall. Combined with the impermanence of the building materials, this meant that much of the fortification disappeared over time. However, many of the earthworks remains, and it was these that I set out to discover.
Exploring the Antonine Wall
The first section I found was at Croy Hill, around 10 miles from Glasgow. We could see where the ditch had run and it looked as if there were some stones that had been used for banking. It was clear that the Romans made use of the contours of the land, putting forts and signal stations at the tops of tall hills. In many places the landscape – with its rugged hills and barren countryside – would itself have been a barrier.
One of the best preserved sections was at Rough Castle (a short walk from the Falkirk Wheel Visitor Centre). There is a massive ditch here and you can see the layout of the fort. Excavations at the site have unearthed various Roman artefacts, including an altar, and the site of some stone buildings.
Walks Along the Antonine Wall
Where the earthworks are still visible there are waymarked walks and information boards – have a look at the website for information. Although there is no formal route linking the separate sections, attempts have been made to create a trail. If you want to explore everything that remains have a look at the book An Antonine Trail (I haven’t read it myself, but it looks like a useful companion, taking in other items of interest along the way such as the Falkirk Wheel and Dumbarton Castle).
Overall, the Antonine Wall may not be as magnificent or well preserved as Hadrian’s Wall. However, there is plenty to see if you look closely enough. And it is a good excuse for a peaceful walk through the beautiful Scottish countryside.