Following in the footsteps of a Roman Legionary

Legionaries of the Antonine Guard, a living history enactment group who model themselves on the 6th Legion, the Roman Legion which worked on construction of the Antonine Wall. Picture: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
Legionaries of the Antonine Guard, a living history enactment group who model themselves on the 6th Legion, the Roman Legion which worked on construction of the Antonine Wall. Picture: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert
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Imagine for a moment that the year is 142 AD and you are a professional soldier employed by the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius.

Chances are you would have born somewhere in southern Europe and you will already have seen active service across what is now France and England.

Now you have marched north to the edge of the known world where the land is mountainous, the weather unpredictable and the natives are known for being hostile to those they see as military oppressors.

It is a strange, alien environment for someone used to much sunnier climates and straight Roman roads easily cut through the flat plains of Roman Europe.

You are tasked with constructing a fortified wall that will run for almost 40 miles. Its purpose is to secure the frontier of the Empire against the unruly tribes that live to the north, people you collectively call the Caledonians.

It’s a dangerous and back-breaking job that will take hundreds of men 12 years to complete.

When finished, the wall stretches from the Clyde to the Forth - but it will be occupied for barely two decades.

Now imagine that you’re that same Roman legionary but you have been transported to the present day. What would you make of the Antonine Wall and its surroundings now?

That’s the question that award-winning photojournalist Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert tried to answer when he began a personal pilgrimage by documenting the condition of the ancient monument.

Titled ‘Edge of Empire’, the on-going project captures in pictures what is left of the once-great frontier and the people who are tasked with its upkeep and promotion as a visitor destination.

More than just an exercise in documentation, it provided a chance for Jeremy to reacquaint himself with his home country - and he’s keen to share just what he’s discovered.

The 43-year-old presented a selection of his pictures at a well-attended event in Bo’ness Library last week as part of Falkirk Council’s Big Roman Week.

Jeremy, who has worked as a photographer for a variety of international newspapers and magazines, told The Falkirk Herald he was inspired to document the wall after returning to Scotland after a long spell living abroad.

“Being Glasgow born and bred I have always had an interest in Scottish history,” he said.

“For the past 10 years I was living and working in Tokyo, and returned to Scotland last year. When I was living in Japan I thought it would be fascinating to take document a part of Scottish history that’s not particularly well-known.

“I thought, ‘I’m 43 and I’ve not been to so many places in my home country’.

“One thing I really missed in Japan was the Scottish landscape, the rawness of it. This was an opportunity to get back out there.”

Having settled himself back home in Glasgow, Jeremy set out to walk the Antonine Wall, focusing on specific stretches at a time.

“These past few months I’ve been going out, walking and exploring. I know ‘wall’ is a misleading term, as there is very little of it is still on show. Much of it is overgrown, which is a great shame.”

The Antonine Wall is hardly known compared to its famous equivalent Hadrian’s Wall, and it is far less well-preserved as it was built from turf on a stone foundation.

The foundations and wing walls of the original forts demonstrate that the Romans had planned to build a stone wall similar to Hadrian’s Wall, but this idea was quickly dropped.

The finished wall formed banking around 13 feet in height, with a wide ditch on the north side, and a military way on the south.

The Romans initially planned to build forts every six miles, but this was soon revised to every two miles, resulting in a total of nineteen forts - several of which were in the Falkirk district.

This level of manned outposts is a clear indication of how fearful the Romans were of attacks from native tribes living on the north side.

Jeremy has spent much time at the best preserved fort at Rough Castle, near Bonnybridge, and at Kinniel Estate, Bo’ness, where some of the best preserved remains lie.

It was there he got to know members of the Friends of Kinniel society and the Antonine Guard, a Roman enactment group. A picture of the latter is reproduced on these pages.

“I’d like to thank the Friends of Kinniel and Falkirk Community Trust for all their help, they have been very supportive,” he added.

“The project still isn’t finished. I plan to go out and visit other sites and continue to take pictures.

“The wall and its history is still something I’m discovering more about as time goes on.”

Those with an interest in following the progress of the ‘Edge of Empire’ project can do so by visiting Jeremy’s own website or that of Document Scotland, a collective of which he is part.

Set up last year, Document Scotland showcases the work of four photographers who are “each exponents of documentary photography in our own individual ways.”

For more information on Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert and the ‘Edge of Empire’ project, visit www.documentscotland.com or www.jeremysuttonhibbert.com.

Document Scotland will release a free-to-download digital magazine, including a feature on the Antonine Wall, in October.