Falkirk’s Roman bathhouse wasn’t up to scratch

A reconstruction of the Roman bathhouse showing the floor heating channels and the furnace on the right
A reconstruction of the Roman bathhouse showing the floor heating channels and the furnace on the right

The award of World Heritage status to the Antonine Wall a year or so ago has helped draw attention to Scotland’s most important Roman monument of which 15 miles out of 37 lie within our local authority area.

It stretches from Carriden in the east to Castlecary in the west, including such key locations as Kinneil, Callendar Park, Watling Lodge and Roughcastle. However, I have a particular fascination for one almost forgotten corner which sheds light on life in Falkirk under Roman occupation.

In 1980 plans for a new car park in Kemper Avenue were put on hold while the Falkirk Council archaeologist checked out the line of the Antonine Wall. In the course of this investigation an interesting discovery was made lying just south of the line of the wall. It was a Roman bathhouse probably dating to the second century AD which was presumably used by the soldiers occupying the Falkirk fort which lay in the Pleasance.

In a cold and inhospitable country with little by way of entertainment they would have welcomed the chance to relax in the waters of the East Burn in rooms heated by a hot air underfloor ‘hypocaust’ system which the archaeologists found during the excavation.

Over a period of weeks under the expert eyes of Frances Murray from Falkirk Museum and Professor Lawrence Keppie from Glasgow University the extent of the building was revealed. It was 48-feet long by 21-feet wide and had the usual three rooms: at the east end a large changing area, then a warm room they called the ‘tapidarium’ and finally the hot room or ‘caldarium’.

Under the flag stone floor of these rooms were a number of stone-lined channels which carried hot air under the floor and up through ducts in the walls. Two furnaces were identified, one on the outside of south wall and another to the west of the building.

It all seems to conform to the usual Roman pattern but there are a couple of puzzling features. Firstly, the bathhouse is a fair distance from the fort which is unusual especially since there is some evidence of another bathhouse in the fort itself. Secondly, the quality of construction is poor compared to the standards found in the usual work of Roman builders and the hot air channels are a bit more basic than we might expect to see.

There may be a simple explanation but Francis Murray suggested to me that it might have been built not by the Romans at all but by a group of local Falkirk entrepreneurs who spotted a gap in the market and decided to exploit it by copying the Roman style and attracting the soldier boys with their spare denarii! It’s a great idea which reinforces the notion that there were Falkirk Bairns living in a settlement and working in association with the occupying forces – business is business!

I know that my good friend Geoff Bailey who is the acknowledged expert in this field doesn’t agree with this local bathhouse theory but it’s too good a story for me to ignore. After the excavation was completed the site was filled in with sand and grassed over so that it was preserved for possible future investigation.

That was 35 years ago and I wonder if the time is near when the foundations might be exposed again and protected by perspex or something similar so that visitors can see this particular aspect of Roman life in Falkirk. It happens in many other countries so why not here?