Hidden history of Roman Falkirk revealed at last!

Geoff Bailey examines the 1991 work at The Pleasance, Falkirk
Geoff Bailey examines the 1991 work at The Pleasance, Falkirk

When those clever Romans decided to build a mighty wall across Scotland in 142AD they reinforced it by constructing forts of various sizes to house the garrisons of soldiers and their auxiliaries.

These were placed at roughly two-mile intervals with a military road linking them together.

The forts were substantial structures with stone-built granaries, living accommodation, latrines and baths as well as fancy headquarters for the commander. The intention was to protect the more settled southern area from the marauding tribes north of the Forth – Fifers and the like – but in the end the wall was garrisoned for a remarkably short time – two or three decades at the most.

With the withdrawal of the Romans the wall and the forts melted away over the centuries under the pressures of weather, vandalism and robbery with only the lost foundations left for the curious scholars of more modern times.

The Victorians were particularly keen on digging up the past and slowly the remnants of the wall and its various elements were found and identified by the scholarly ministers, doctors and the like who laid the foundations for the archaeologists of today.

In our area the fort at Mumrills in Laurieston (on the slope opposite the Beancross restaurant) was excavated and shown to have been at 6.5 acres the biggest fort on the wall.

It had housed the cavalry regiment as confirmed by a couple of inscribed tablets found on the site.

Around five miles away to the west at Rough Castle another fort was located which turned out to be the second smallest of all the Antonine forts at just one acre.

Unlike Mumrills which returned to farm land after the excavation, Rough Castle was preserved in such a way as to show the layout of the fort with its buildings and protective ditching.

There was obviously another fort in between these two, but where was it?

Earlier evidence of the location of the wall itself pointed to the town centre of Falkirk but centuries of cultivation and urban growth meant that the chances of proving anything were slim.

But in the 19th century a number of small finds – scraps of pottery, coins and parts of a Roman causeway – pointed to the Pleasance area to the south of the High Street.

In 1991 archaeologist Geoff Bailey was given the chance to dig in what had been the grounds of Rosehall House, the planned location of a new Scout Hall. Over several weeks Geoff carefully excavated the ground until the eureka moment when he was able to confirm the location of the ditching which protected the fort’s south-east corner.

This placed the fort as straddling South Pleasance Avenue including parts of the Adrian bowling green which not surprisingly was “not for digging”.

There were few spectacular finds but enough material to suggest that the fort had an ‘‘industrial annexe’’ where iron was smelted in charcoal kilns which is a nice touch given Falkirk’s later history.

In the years since, Geoff and his team have probed in many places round the periphery of the fort confirming various elements of the protective ditching and learning more about how the fort was constructed and defended.

Today there is a blue information plaque explaining the fort’s significance and across the road the ‘‘new’’ Scout Hall which seems to me at least to have a Roman feel to its design.

The wall and all its forts, fortlets, ditches and roads is now part of the Roman Frontiers World Heritage site which gives a new enhanced status to this important part of our local history.