Falkirk's greatest'¨Roman discovery

Two weeks ago I wrote about the new issue of the local history journal Calatria and used a photograph of the famous Roman coin hoard discovered in the 1930s.

Thursday, 29th December 2016, 5:00 pm
The hoard of Roman coins discovered in August 1933 and (below) Robert Wallace, the workman who unearthed them.
The hoard of Roman coins discovered in August 1933 and (below) Robert Wallace, the workman who unearthed them.

Several people have been in touch to ask for more information on this subject which I first wrote about in this column five years ago. It certainly bears repeating because the discovery was probably the greatest ever Roman find in the district.

Today we are familiar with the amazing discoveries made by archaeologists and their new friends the metal detectorists but back in August 1933 it was not careful excavation but the accidental swing of a workman’s spade that unearthed the biggest hoard of Roman coins ever found in Scotland.

Council workmen were digging foundations at the north end of Bells Meadow where the bingo hall is today. Robert Wallace who lived in Bank Street was one of the men involved and when his spade hit something solid he investigated and found the rim of an earthenware pot. As he tried to lift it up it shattered and out popped a mass of silver coins held together in a big lump by the verdigris of the centuries. Later on Robert told the Herald reporter: “Some of my workmates made a rush for the coins which broke away from the main cluster but I wrapped my jacket over them and carried them to the tool shed where I put them under lock and key.”

Robert Wallace, the finder of the coins

The news of the discovery spread fast and treasure-hunting children arrived from all corners to join in the general search for more of the same. Some folk thought was all a big hoax. The treasure was eventually passed to the Town Clerk for safe keeping and when the experts examined the find they discovered nearly 2000 silver denarii, the earliest from 83 BC when Rome was still a republic through to AD 230 and covering the reigns of every Roman emperor from Augustus to Alexander Severus.

It was an amazing collection gathered in by an unknown hoarder who presumably hid them in troubled times but for one reason or another never came back to recover his stash! The favourite explanation from the scholars is that this was part of a payment made to some influential tribesman by the Romans to help keep the peace – an early entrepreneurial Falkirk bairn with an eye for the main chance maybe! The coins were taken away to the national museum in Edinburgh where they remain today though rumours persist that before the experts arrived a few souvenirs found there way into ‘private collections’ in Falkirk.

Along with the coins the pot also contained an intriguing little piece of cloth which is often called the ‘Falkirk Tartan’ though when exactly it was given this name is not clear. Certainly it was not even mentioned at the time of the discovery or for many years afterwards. It is a cross-woven fabric of brown and white which some think was made from the undyed wool of the Soay sheep possibly the earliest surviving breed in Scotland. I once asked a man from the Scottish Tartans Society about the Falkirk Tartan but he turned red and steam came out of his ears. Seems he was not impressed by our claims to be the first in the field: “a dirty wee brown and white rag” was his dismissive comment.

Dirty rag or no, today it is in the National Museum in Edinburgh along with the coin collection. I think it’s about time both were returned to the town and put on display in our own museum in Callendar House.

Robert Wallace, the finder of the coins