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Just under two miles west of the centre of Falkirk, and just over half a mile west of the Falkirk Wheel (and connected to it by footpaths) is one of the best preserved stretches of the Antonine Wall, for a while the north-west frontier of a Roman Empire that stretched all the way to the Middle East. Here, too, are the impressive ramparts of Rough Castle Roman Fort.
Along with Bar Hill Roman Fort, Rough Castle is one of the two best locations along the Antonine Wall to gain a real impression of what the wall was like, and what life would have been like for the troops manning it.
The Antonine Wall was built from AD142 to 144 and ran for 37 miles (60km) from Bo'ness on the River Forth to Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde. Like the better known Hadrian's Wall to the south, it formed a solid barrier right across the country. A clear symbol of Roman power and authority, the wall probably served to control the movement of people and goods between the Roman-controlled area to the south and the lands to the north.
But the wall clearly also served a defensive purpose: just to the north of its line at Rough Castle are a series of pits, which would have contained sharpened stakes and been concealed by brushwood. Known to the Romans as lilia, their role was to break up any attack on the north gate of the fort before it reached the line of the wall itself: think of them as the Roman equivalent of barbed wire and landmines.
The Antonine Wall was in use for around 20 years. The relatively short period of occupation and the materials used in its construction mean that it has survived less well than Hadrian's Wall: but in its day it would have been just as formidable a barrier. The wall itself was built on stone foundations, 15ft (4.3m) broad, on top of which turf was laid to a height of 12 feet (3.6m). The top of the wall probably carried a wooden walkway protected by a wooden breastwork.
In front of the wall (i.e. on its northern side) a ditch was dug to a depth of 12ft (3.6m) and a breadth of up to 40ft (12m), with the spoil forming a mound along the north edge of the ditch. And in some places, as at Rough Castle, the wall was additionally protected by pits containing stakes. A little way to the south of the line of the wall ran a Roman Road, the Military Way, which was some 20ft (6m) wide. At intervals of around 2 miles a fort was built to house the troops manning the wall. There were probably 19 of these along the wall, though only 17 have been found on the ground.
At Rough Castle you find the ramparts outlining a fort and is annex, plus one of the best preserved stretches of the Antonine Wall itself. You can walk to it from the Falkirk Wheel, or you can approach via a minor (signposted) road from the south side of Bonnybridge. This becomes a track and leads you to a car park just behind the line of the wall itself.
Close to the car park you see the Antonine Wall at its best. The most obvious feature is the ditch, often with remains of the mound on the north side, and the wall itself represented by another mound on the south side. Walking east from the car park brings you to an information point on the west side of the ravine cut by the aptly-named Roman Tree Burn. From here you get an excellent view of the western ramparts of the fort itself, and an end-on view of the wall. From here you can also fully appreciate the depths of insensitivity that ran two lines of electricity pylons through the valley of the burn from north to south, plus two slightly less intrusive sets of power lines just to the west, thus significantly undermining the visitor enjoyment of one of Scotland's finest Roman sites.
Rough Castle Roman Fort has been excavated in the past, and contained a number of substantial stone buildings. Today these are indicated by nothing more than humps and bumps across its 1.5 acre site. The ramparts, however, are still very impressive, especially if you catch them with the sun low in the sky, adding depth to the visual impact of the surviving features. And if you visit alone, it is just about possible to believe that Rough Castle may have been the origin of the legend of King Arthur's Camelot because of its use in the late 500s as a base by Artuir mac Áedáin, eldest son of a king of Dalriada.