The extraordinary story of Arthur’s O’on

Charlotte Higgins. Picture: Angus Bremner
Charlotte Higgins. Picture: Angus Bremner
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IN the wake of the ’45 uprising – when the Hanoverian forces found themselves hampered by the poor mapping of Scotland – a great Military Survey of Scotland, “undertaken by order of William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland”, was commissioned. William Roy, a factor’s son from Lanarkshire, 19 at the time of Charles Edward Stuart’s expedition, was put in charge of the small group of men who were to undertake the physically exhausting, technically demanding work of surveying Scotland, under the supervision of the Board of Ordnance.

While working on the Survey of Scotland Roy also took detailed plans of the Antonine Wall – the Roman barrier built between the Firths of Forth and Clyde in the AD 140s – and the surrounding Roman forts and camps. Forty years later, his maps and descriptions of the Military Antiquities of Britain were published posthumously.

In his preface, he wrote of his peculiar suitability for the task of researching the past. “Military men…in reasoning on the various revolutions they have already undergone, or on those which, in certain cases, they might possibly suffer hereafter, are naturally led to compare present things with the past; and being thus insensibly carried back to former ages, they place themselves among the ancients, and do, as it were, converse with the people of those remote times.”

I like to think of the young William Roy – later the eminent Major-General Roy – “conversing” with the Roman military engineers whose work he admired so much, and reflecting, via the rugged geography of central Scotland, on the abundant reversals of life and war.

On Roy’s map of the wall, north of Falkirk on the banks of the River Carron, is neatly inscribed the following words: “Here stood Arthur’s Oon”.

Arthur’s O’on, or Oven, was one of Scotland’s most impressive ancient monuments: a beehive-shaped stone building that had attracted a certain amount of Arthurian legend in the Middle Ages, not least because of its proximity to the village of Camelon, which some identified with Camelot.

By Roy’s lifetime, however, it was confidently ascribed to the Romans, and indeed had been so as long ago as the 14th century when John of Fordun had described it as a rotundam casulam, a round chamber, columbaris ad instar”, in the form of a dovecote. (Less convincingly, he argued that it had been built by Julius Caesar either to mark the northernmost boundary of his military endeavours; or else as a kind of mobile home that he had “built up again from day to day, wherever they halted, that he might rest therein more safely than in a tent; but that, when he was in a hurry to return to Gaul, he left it behind.”)

The English antiquary William Stukeley published a tract on Arthur’s O’on in 1720 without, let it be said, having made the journey to Scotland to study it in person.

Conjecturing that it was a temple “dedicated to Romulus the parent and primitive Deity of the Romans”, he compared it lavishly to Rome’s Pantheon, which he had also never seen. (He included just the faintest pre-emptive acknowledgement that “some may think we have done the Caledonian Temple too much Honour in drawing such a Parallel”.)

Alexander Gordon, the Scottish antiquary, also included a description of it in his 1726 Itinerarium Septentrionale; or A Journey over Part of Scotland, arguing that it was “not a Roman Temple for publick Worship” but, rather, “a Place for holding the Roman Insignia”, or legionary standards.

However, the two more or less agreed on what it looked like, describing an imposing dome of a building, constructed from large blocks of masonry, some six metres tall. For Stukeley, it was “the most genuine and curious Antiquity of the Romans in this Kind, now to be seen in our Island or elsewhere”.

It gave its name to the nearby village of Stonehouse, as it is marked on Roy’s map – now the town of Stenhousemuir. (Thus Arthur’s O’on has the distinction of being the only Romano-British monument to have a football team named after it.)

In 1743, however, came disaster. The landowner, Sir Michael Bruce of Stenhouse, decided to build a dam on the Carron, part of the creeping industrialisation of the river that would, a few years later, see the opening of the Carron Ironworks. (These are marked on Roy’s map; by 1814 they would be the biggest ironworks in Europe, producing cannon for the Napoleonic wars under contract to Roy’s employer, the Board of Ordnance.) To build his dam Bruce needed stone: so he simply demolished the Roman building on the riverbank and used its masonry.

The destruction of what was surely – even without recourse to the hyperbole of Stukeley et al – one of Scotland’s most important ancient monuments, provoked a furious reaction from antiquaries.

Chief among them was Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, a Baron of the Exchequer in Edinburgh, whose eventful life had seen him, as a young man, taking violin lessons in Rome with Arcangelo Corelli before being appointed a commissioner for the Act of Union between England and Scotland.

He communicated news of the loss in a despairing letter to his friend and fellow antiquary Roger Gale, who had it transcribed into the minute-book of the Society of Antiquaries in London: “No other motive induced this Gothic knight to commit such a peice [sic] of barbarity but the procuring of as many stones as he could have raised out of his Quarrys there for five shillings… We all curse him here with Bell, Book and Candle.”

Gale wrote to Clerk: “I like well your project of exposing your stupid Goth by publishing a good print of Arthur’s Oven with a short account at the bottom of this curious fabrick when intire, and of its destruction… to be done without mentioning any name but the Brutes.”

Five years later, Clerk was still fulminating in a letter to Stukeley about the “barbarous demolition of the ancient Roman temple called Arthurs Oven” and gleefully communicating that “some weeks ago the mill and mill dam which had been raised from the stones of Arthur’s Oven, were destroyed by thunder and lightning”.

It is almost as if Arthur’s O’on were some kind of ritual sacrifice to the industrial revolution, though the great manufacturing plants its destruction ushered in are themselves now stilled.

The Carron works finally went into receivership in 1982. Now owned by a Swiss company, its successor, Carron Phoenix, makes sinks, and lacks its old, bold Latin motto: esto perpetuo – may it last for ever.

Arthur’s O’on had a curious afterlife. Sir John Clerk died in 1755, after composing a richly enjoyable set of memoirs, based on his journals, which peter out in 1754 after his taking ill of a flux “occasioned by eating too much cabage broth. NB – All Greens affect me in the same way, and for the future must be avoided”. (That said, both he and his wife were sufficiently doughty to produce a child when aged, respectively, 62 and 51.)

Riches were flowing into the family from their coal mines at nearby Loanhead, which enabled Sir John’s successor, Sir James, to build a fine new Palladian mansion on the site of the family’s old house at Penicuik.

Sir James also erected a handsome stable block. It was a suite of buildings surrounding a quadrangle; on one side, they were topped by a rather fanciful clock tower, giving them an ecclesiastical air; and on the other, by a dome.

The dome was a reconstruction, as accurate as possible according to the extant accounts and drawings, of Arthur’s O’on. It still stands. The new Arthur’s O’on was built to serve as doocote. That was appropriate, since the doomed, domed original had often been compared to one by observers from Fordun onwards: Stukeley once wrote in a letter to Sir John that after “my publication of Arthurs Oon people laughed at me for adoring a dovecoat as they called it”.

The current baronet, Sir Robert, showed the 18th-century Arthur’s O’on to me: we climbed up a dark, narrow stone staircase into the interior of the the dome, which was lined with little stone compartments – the pigeonholes.

He and his family live in quarters converted from the stables by his indomitable-sounding great-grandmother, after a fire damaged the main house so seriously in 1899 that the then baronet – harder up than his ancestors – could not afford to make it habitable.

Penicuik House, with its pedimented front and grand classicising features, is a now itself a picturesque ruin; it is Arthur’s O’on that lives on. It acts, if you like, as a metaphor for so many of the remnants, physical and intellectual, of Roman Britain: transformed, metamorphosed, serving a purpose utterly unlike that for which it was designed – but clinging on, an inextricable part of the landscape.

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• This is an edited extract from Under Another Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain, published by Jonathan Cape on 25 July. Charlotte Higgins appears at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 22 August.

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