Rome's final frontier is fighting back

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IT IS the howl of an Edinburgh-bound train rather than the rattle of chariots that disturbs the rural peace at Rough Castle, outside Bonnybridge.

Eighteen centuries on, a grassy rampart and ditch and the pits and mounds of a one-time frontier fortress constitute the best-preserved remaining stretch of the Antonine Wall.

It is a pleasant spot, but it takes some imagination to visualise it as it was during the reign of Antoninus Pius, when it was the northernmost frontier of the mighty Roman empire.

However, historians and tourism leaders now anticipate a new lease of life for Scotland’s Roman wall. Earlier this year, it was announced the edifice was to be nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in about 140AD, the 37 mile Antonine Wall - the remains of which still intermittently shape the landscape from Carriden on the Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the Clyde - is Scotland’s largest historic monument, but it has a lower profile in the public imagination than the north of England’s much more visible - and visited - Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s, which is already a World Heritage Site, is consolidating its status as a major attraction with the opening of the 84 mile Hadrian’s Wall Path.

Dr Elaine Murray, a deputy minister for culture, tourism and sport, announced in February moves to nominate the Antonine Wall for recognition as a World Heritage Site, which would endorse it as one of the world’s most significant historical places, on a par with the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and, in Scotland, New Lanark, St Kilda and Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns.

Germany, Austria and Slovakia are also nominating their remnants of Roman frontier, as UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for cultural protection, considers a proposal to collectively label the nominations as "European frontiers of the Roman Empire".

But can the Antonine Wall, its remains in the care of Historic Scotland, compete with its southerly counterpart? Last week saw the final section of a 25,000 bridge at Gilsland, near Haltwhistle, lowered into place, allowing walkers unimpeded progress along the entire Hadrian’s Wall Path, from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway to the west.

Completing the path, part of a 6 million investment by the Countryside Agency to develop the area for tourism, has been no easy task. As well as negotiating new rights of way, the agency has had to compensate irate landowners and concerned archaeologists.

It is 20 years since the path was first mooted - the Romans built the wall in half that time. Expectations for spin-off into the local economy are high, however, with 20,000 walkers expected to use the path each year.

The winding stone rampart of Hadrian’s Wall, dipping and rising over the crags of Northumberland and Cumbria, is a far more imposing landmark than the Antonine Wall, largely because it was built of stone. The Antonine Wall, made of turf and timber on a stone base, has merged with the landscape,and is visible for only two thirds of its original length.

At Rough Castle, where the sixth Cohort of Nervians, auxiliaries from the north of France, once gazed out on the Caledonian tribes to the north and doubtless wished themselves elsewhere, there is little to suggest the massive building operation involved in imposing this barrier and symbol of Roman imperial might.

One of the wall’s most clearly visible structures is the Roman bathhouse at Bearsden, the foundations of its hot and cold rooms now overlooked rudely by a block of flats.

A spokesman for VisitScotland said: "There are lessons to be learned from the promotion of Hadrian’s Wall and we should be able to build on that success.

"The Antonine Wall played a big part in Scottish history and it’s all about using location to tell that story. Whether interpretative centres or tour guides, there are plenty of ways in which this could be done within the guidelines set out for World Heritage Sites."

He added that the Culloden battlefield was popular with visitors even though "you don’t really see very much apart from the odd headstone where the clansmen lie. It’s the atmosphere people want to experience, and the story behind it."

Bill Hanson, a professor of Roman archaeology at the University of Glasgow, said it was unfair to compare the two walls because of their different construction and states of preservation. He added: "Also, the Antonine was occupied only for about 25 years, whereas Hadrian’s was occupied, abandoned and re-occupied and remained the frontier for hundreds of years."

But, he said, the Scottish wall was still important. "Given that there are very few surviving Roman linear frontiers in the world, it seems to me that it is worth it in its own right."

As an archaeologist, would he object to the encroachment of the heritage industry on these fragmented but significant remains? "On the contrary, if it does anything to improve public understanding of our past, I’m all for it.

"A lot of people don’t even understand that the Romans got this far."

More than a decade ago, Prof Hanson was involved in a bid to establish a visitor centre at the remains of one of the wall forts at Balmuildy, just north of Glasgow, but the scheme fell through for financial reasons. "I’m not an academic who says this should be kept for academics rather than the general public," he said. "I believe people should be made aware of their heritage, but it is more difficult to do that for things like the Antonine Wall."

He added that the Romans’ short tenure at the wall had nothing to do with the strength of the locals.

"There are various theories, but the most likely is that political circumstances within the empire changed," he said.

"There was a reconsideration of military expenditure and requirements, perhaps linked to problems elsewhere in the empire, but it was as much to do with political change as anything else."