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The Antonine Way

Updated on March 28, 2017
Emperor Antoninus Pius
Emperor Antoninus Pius | Source

The Antonine Wall

Most people have heard of Hadrian’s Wall which was built on the orders of Emperor Hadrian across northern England and completed around the year AD 128. The Emperor had decided that there was a limit as to how far north the Empire could be extended, and this was it. Although he was happy for trade to continue with the people living north of the Wall, he saw no point in imposing Roman rule on them and undertaking the expense of so doing.

However, his successor as Emperor had other ideas. This was Antoninus Pius, who ruled from 138 to 161. He believed that the Empire could include the whole of what is now Northumberland and southern Scotland, and so he ordered the building of a new wall to link the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. This marks the ‘waist’ of Scotland and is therefore a distance of only 37 miles as opposed to the 73 miles of Hadrian’s Wall.

Despite the much shorter distance and inferior structure – turf-faced earth ramparts as opposed to solid stone – the new wall took longer to complete, namely twelve years from 142 to 154. Antoninus was, however, confident that he had gone one better than his predecessor and Hadrian’s Wall was allowed to fall into disrepair as the border moved to its new location.

The Emperor’s confidence was not shared by his own successor, namely Marcus Aurelius. This was mainly because the reign of Antoninus was remarkably peaceful and he faced no serious threats from north of his wall, or anywhere else for that matter. Marcus Aurelius was not so lucky and decided that Hadrian’s Wall was preferable to Antoninus’s as a defensible position. The Antonine Wall was therefore abandoned.

Locations of the two walls
Locations of the two walls | Source

Finding the Antonine Wall

This is not at all easy, for the reasons mentioned above. Without constant maintenance an earth rampart is always going to be subject to erosion, especially in a country that is subject to as much wind and rain as Scotland!

Another problem is that whereas Hadrian’s Wall strode for the most part across barren open countryside and made use of dramatic natural features such as the Great Whin Sill, the territory crossed by the Antonine Wall has been used for many other purposes in the years since its abandonment, such as the construction of towns and the links between them. The western part of the route is today covered by the urban sprawl of Glasgow and its surrounding communities.

The Wall might never have been re-discovered, and partly preserved, had it not been for the work of William Roy, a surveyor and antiquarian who located and mapped as much of it as he could find in 1764.

Roman forts on the Antonine Wall - most of which have left no trace
Roman forts on the Antonine Wall - most of which have left no trace | Source

Walking the Way

The fact is that you cannot ‘walk the Wall’ in the same way that you can at Hadrian’s Wall. However, there are a number of short walks you can undertake from which you can view what remains of the Wall at various points along its length. Here are some suggestions, from east to west:

Kinneil Estate

The grounds of Kinneil House - to the west of Bo'ness - are open to the public and include a short section of the Antonine Wall. Of particular interest is the outline (marked with stones and wooden posts) of a small Roman fort in which soldiers would have been stationed to guard the Wall.

Site of Roman fortlet at Kinneil
Site of Roman fortlet at Kinneil | Source

Falkirk

There is a well-defined section of Wall in the grounds of Callendar House, on the southern edge of Falkirk.

Further west is a section at Tamfourhill, to the south of Camelon (a suburb of Falkirk). A walk here can take you along the Forth and Clyde Canal and you should not forego the opportunity to visit the amazing Falkirk Wheel that lifts boats between the Forth and Clyde and Union Canals.

Section of Wall in Callendar Park
Section of Wall in Callendar Park | Source

Rough Castle

This is the best preserved fortification to be seen on the Antonine Wall, with its ramparts and ditches clearly visible. The fort had an internal area of 0.4 hectares, surrounded by a double ditch. The fort would have contained barracks, a granary, the commander's house and a headquarters building. There was an annexe to the east that contained a bath-house.

Also of interest here is an area of small pits, known as 'lilia', that were dug for defensive purposes

There is a half-mile length of the wall that you can walk along here in open countryside, with views to both north and south.

Rough Castle
Rough Castle | Source
Wall section west of Rough Castle
Wall section west of Rough Castle | Source
Lilia (defensive pits) at Rough Castle
Lilia (defensive pits) at Rough Castle | Source

Other sections

Short sections of the Wall can also be seen at Polmont Wood (near Grangemouth at the eastern end) and Seabegs Wood (parallel to the Forth and Clyde Canal, west of Bonnybridge)

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