An early morning rendezvous near the train station seems very clandestine. At the appointed hour, I nervously approach a small group of strangers and ask them if they too are “waiting for the Romans to arrive.”
Thankfully they know what I’m on about, as we are all signed up for the day-long Real Roman tour.
You can’t fail to spot our guide, Douglas Eckhart, aka Quintus Valerius Maximus, when he arrives. He is dressed from head to toe in full Roman uniform, and accompanying him is his trusted sidekick, a fellow foot soldier named Sextus Varius Rufus (David Severin). Eckhart is obsessed by all things Roman. With an MA in ancient history from Edinburgh University, he is also an active member of the living history group, the Antonine Guard and has recently set up Real Roman Tours to promote the history of the Romans in Scotland, and bring to life the story of the UNESCO-recognised Antonine Wall.
After a quick “salve” or hello in Latin, we pile aboard our chariot – a minibus – and head for our first stop. En route Eckhart tells us about how the Roman Army chose its soldiers. A height requirement of around 165cm (5ft 10 inches) meant that only fine physical specimens were picked, although any short comings could easily be overlooked for the right price. All of our questions are answered, no matter how silly and soon we arrive at Callendar House near Falkirk, as willing recruits to the glorious Sixth Legion.
After a short march uphill we examine the earthwork remains of the Antonine Wall, which runs through the Callendar Estate. It’s a pleasure to spend time with people who have a clear love and knowledge of their subject. We get to try on helmets, hold weapons and learn a little bit more about this period in history.
Within Callendar House itself is a small exhibition featuring a collection of Roman archaeological objects, but it also has rather a nice tearoom. So after a short interlude, we regroup to head to our next site.
The Roman Fort at Roughcastle near Falkirk is a short march from the drop off point. So it’s best to wear sturdy boots and waterproofs and be prepared for uneven ground. Roughcastle has the best preserved fort remains on the Antonine Wall, although there would have been 17 in total along the length of the wall, which stretched from Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde to Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth. In the company of our costumed guides, it is easy to transport ourselves back in time to AD140s. Eckhart explained how the buildings would have been constructed and what life would have been like for the ordinary soldier.
As all armies march on their stomach, ours included, we proceed downhill to the Falkirk Wheel and our lunch stop, hailing bemused ramblers with a Roman greeting or two and a friendly salute.
After lunch we head to Kinneil Estate to visit a museum located in a 17th century stable block, and see some mini-sized models of Roman ballista and catapults, before walking to a fortlet within the grounds of the estate.
One last stop on the way back to Edinburgh is to see the Bridgeness Slab, Bo’ness.
The original was found in 1868, on a rocky promontory close to the shore at Harbour Road but ended up in the National Museum of Scotland collection. However a reproduction of the centre panel has been put up. It is inscribed in Latin, “To the Emperor Caesar Titus Aelius Hadriannus Antonoius Pius, Father of his Country, the Second Augustan Legion dedicates this, having completed 4652 paces of the Wall.”
As I touch the reproduction stone, I feel I understand more about the Romans in Scotland, having walked a little in their footsteps.
• The next all day Antonine Wall Bus Tour is on 28 September. Tickets cost £25 for adults, £12.50 for children (10-15 years) and £68 for a family (two adults plus two children) and must be booked in advance, www.realromantours.co.uk